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Beyond a boundary



I’m not ready for the start of the football season on Saturday. The sun’s out. Beer gardens are full. There’s cricket on. For me, it never truly feels as though the season has started until that cold, clear day usually in early October, when you wear your big coat to the match for the first time. I think it was the FA Trophy match at Stamford last season.

I like the space that the summer break provides to recharge the batteries and do some non-football related stuff. Being the pallid, unsociable sort that I am, I’ve been spending the warm summer days indoors reading books and listening to music that nobody’s heard of. The Pastels anyone? The jingly jangly indie pop of Slow Summits has been one of my favourite records of the summer.

As far as books go, the highlight has been CLR James’ seminal Beyond a Boundary. It’s a book about cricket that’s not simply a book about cricket and is widely acclaimed as one of the finest sports books ever written. James poses the question “what do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” and examines the role that sport plays, beyond the pitch or arena, in wider society. In addition, the Trinidadian provides some wonderful insights into West Indian culture, the struggle for independence and what it was like to arrive in England in the 1930s and be the only black face in a Lancashire mill town.

James recognises that a link between sport and politics stretches back to ancient Greece and the first Olympic Games. It was the Greeks who first recognised the role that organised sports and games could play in society. Not only as a means of keeping physically fit but as something that was also of cultural and educational value.

Philosophers, poets, sculptors and scientists gathered at the games to admire the athletes and try out their new work. The likes of Plato and Pythagoras, big coated against the autumnal chill, were regular spectators. The poet Pindar composed and performed odes celebrating athletic achievement and the historian Herodotus read to the crowd from his latest works. The barbarians, meanwhile, were puzzled as to why the political and intellectual elite concerned themselves with such childish pursuits.

James reckons that there was then a gap of a couple of thousand years before organised sport began to play an equally important role in society once again. Britain led the way in the mid-nineteenth century with the formation of the Football Association in 1863 and similar governing bodies were established in cricket, tennis and golf. An increasingly industrial, town-based population craved organised sport in their time outside work.

Many people scoff and say that politics should play no part in sport. It often feels like modern top flight sport exists in a bubble floating high above any awkward political issues. Witness the stern warning to athletes at last summer’s London Olympics that there was to be no form of political protest. Whether it’s the staging of a motor racing grand prix in a country that kills and tortures citizens who dare to protest or football clubs being sponsored by pay day loan sharks sportsmen and women are expected to tow an apolitical, opinion-free line.

Modern top flight sport, denuded of its political and societal context, has increasingly become something to consume, a form of entertainment no different from going to the cinema or a gig. Clubs are run as businesses and success measured in pounds. Last season the chairman of League Two football club Chesterfield, recently housed in a new stadium, asked the local council to write off a million pound loan provided at a time when the club was in serious financial trouble, because of the “unbelievable” benefit that the new stadium was bringing to the town. Tellingly the benefit was expressed purely in financial terms in the form of busy hotels and taxis for an Elton John concert at the stadium and a shiny new Tesco supermarket.

Thankfully there are some exceptions to this narrow view of the impact that sports clubs can make on their local community. Millwall FC have been active in the successful campaign to stop the closure of the Accident and Emergency unit at Lewisham Hospital, recognising that not only would their own players be inconvenienced by this potential closure but the entire local community. They even moved an FA Cup tie to a Friday night to allow supporters to attend a protest march and rally the following day. A rare instance of a football match being moved not for television but for openly political reasons.

Some on the left argue that sport merely distracts from the more pressing need to overthrow capitalist society. Like religion, a so-called “opium of the people”. But James emphatically disagrees and points out that in the Britain of the 1860s whilst people were expressing a desire for organised sport the working class were also fighting for the right to vote. The thirst for sport and popular democracy went hand in hand.

This Saturday, FC United of Manchester, a supporter owned football club founded on strong democratic principles, will embark on its ninth season and its sixth in the Northern Premier League. Even though I’m not ready for the football yet, I am looking forward to another season of the proudly irreverent pre-match “club night in the afternoon” Course You Can Malcolm. Home matches, for me, are as much about drinking Holt’s ale, munching on cheese and onion pies and enjoying an eclectic collection of music, poetry, theatre and comedy as the football itself. Last season’s highlight was probably the Eccentronic Research Council and Maxine Peake performing some of their brilliant 1612 Underture album about the Pendle witches trials. It’s a “sound poem” that draws comparisons between the mistreatment of the Pendle witches (“it’s a middle class vendetta on women who are better”) and the modern day Tory onslaught on some of the most vulnerable in our society. Later in the season Attila the Stockbroker sang about the “UK Gin Dependence Party”, a rap collective from Salford urged us to “Rip up The Sun” to show solidarity with the campaign for justice for the victims of the Hillsborough disaster and journalist David Conn read from his latest book about another Manchester football club.

It’s a contemporary ragged trousered version of those Olympian orations and poetry readings but this time in an upstairs bar in Bury. Here’s to more cultural nourishment this season. They probably wouldn’t care much for the rebel reggae sound of the Black Star Dub Collective but I think Herodotus and those other Greek lads and lasses would approve.


From → Culture, Sport

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