Category Archives: Blog posts

1985 And All That: Half Man Half Biscuit and Me

Subbuteo_HeavyWeightPlayers1

“So he sent his doting mother / Up the stairs with the stepladder, / To get the Subbuteo out of the loft”

It's Saturday tea time in a London suburb in the mid-1970s. I am 10 years old. I have spent the afternoon watching World of Sport on ITV, presented by Dickie Davies. The highlight of the show was the wrestling, with Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks putting on a choreographed display of Nelsons and Boston Crabs for the old ladies in the audience and the rest of us at home. The football scores have come in – Tranmere Rovers have lost. My mum has just made tea, crispy pancakes followed by and arctic roll. After tea, we watch Bruce Forsyth on The Generation Game urging other families through the humiliations of turning the potters' wheel. My brother, bored, doodles on the sole of his Woolworths slippers with a biro. 

It could never have crossed my mind that, ten years later, I would be listening to a post- punk band from Merseyside eulogizing this kind of scene, celebrating it with a 'contemptuous nostalgia. It turned out that Half Man Half Biscuit had sucked up what Taylor Parkes called the 'cultural detritus'[1] of the late 1960s and 1970s, and turned it into surreal and satirical songs. Categorised as 'comedy punk' by the Rough Guide to Punk,[2] and hailed by BBC DJ Andy Kershaw as 'the most complete and authentic British band since The Clash',[3] Half Man Half Biscuit created an original body of work out of the least promising ingredients.

Like most people who heard Half Man Half Biscuit at the time, I first came across them on John Peel's late night show on BBC Radio 1. Peel's show was where so many of us first heard music that would not figure elsewhere, and would never make it to Top of the Pops. He played the edgy, the risky, the original, and the downright strange. Half Man Half Biscuit fitted all of these bills, and in Peel they had a champion. Indeed, as one Peelite later put it when the DJ came 43rd in a poll of the most important people in British history, 'Can't believe they gave that Greatest Briton shit to Churchill when there's a man among us who still plays Half Man Half Biscuit records on the taxpayer's buck'.[4]

That was later. At the time, the band's daft name grabbed my attention. Then the songs took over, particularly 'The Trumpton Riots', a tale of the idyllic world of a 1970s children's TV show being torn apart by a revolutionary militia who assassinate the mayor . Other songs on the Peel sessions took an equally bizarre glance at popular culture, with advertisements, comedy stars, football teams, ordinary places, and processed food brands all finding themselves name checked in odd and sometimes disturbing combinations. There was 'Arthur's Farm', a nightmare vision of famous amputees Arthur Askey and Douglas Bader taking over Orwell's Animal Farm with the new motto 'Four Legs Good but No Legs Best'.[5] And, of course, there was a track that appealed to the football fan in me, their ode to Subbuteo, 'All I Want for Christmas is the Dukla Prague Away Kit'. When their first album came out, I made the long trip from my university at Lampeter to Swansea to buy it. Back at my student digs, a two-floor flat above a dentists' surgery that always smelled of mouthwash, I played it to friends. I didn't exactly acquire cult status by association, but I know that the other Peelites loved it, while most friends smiled in pity and went back to Madonna and A-Ha.

What was it about Back in the DHSS that so appealed to me then, and that has made it an album I frequently return to even when I should, at 48, be old enough to know better? In what ways is it as representative of its time as other indie albums from 1985, like The Smiths' Meat Is Murder, Psychocandy by The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Pogues' Rum, Sodomy and The Lash, or This Nation's Saving Grace by The Fall?

Half Man Half Biscuit have carried on since 1985, and have to date released 13 albums, their titles showing that the vision of surrealism, satire and trash that drove Back in the DHSS has not diminished. Some Call It Godcore (1995), Voyage to the Bottom of the Road (1997), Achtung Bono (2005) and CSI Ambleside (2008) suggest a weird view of the world and a willingness to act both a celebrants of the mundane and as iconoclasts to the famous. Some of these albums are better than Back in the DHSS: they have, unsurprisingly, higher production values, greater instrumental skills, and wider musical palettes than the drum/bass/guitar and wailing synth of their first outing. Taylor Parkes has gone so far as to call Back in the DHSS 'something of a millstone',[6] as it has left the band remembered as a comedy punk band when their later output has so much more to it. But the fact that Back in the DHSS came first gives it the edge as a historical document that needs celebration.

A persistent target in Half Man Half Biscuit's songs has been the 'bands who got a bit pompous'.[7] They warn us the groups who 'type out their set lists',[8] and they mock the people who, through collaborations with Brian Eno, 'put the con in concept'.[9] All of these barbs are accurate. However, Back in the DHSS has a feel of a manifesto about it. It was aggressively uncommercial, with a production style and level of musicianship that turned the clock back from post-punk to punk. The front cover was filled with an out of focus photograph of bass player Neil Crossley rendered in lurid pinks and blues. The album was deeply personal, with lyrics that embodied writer Nigel Blackwell's vision, and it was full of references and in-jokes that nobody was going to explain. If you didn't know who Fred Titmuss, Tony Bastable, or Nerys Hughes were, or what was funny about someone trying to kill himself with a Haliborange overdose, then the album wasn't really for you. The manifesto was that all of these bits of pop culture were worth laughing at and singing about, and that satire and surrealism could co-habit in a landscape that combined TV puppet shows, suburban kitchens, hospital waiting rooms, and football terraces, and where Lev Yashin and Marilyn Monroe could pop up with Jim Reeves, Jesus Christ, and Lech Walesa.

Of course, Half Man Half Biscuit drew from a number of traditions. Punk was the most obvious and

immediate, and was evident in their instrumental skills, their unpolished vocals, and the simplicity of most of their arrangements, right down to the singer standing too close to the studio microphone so that all of his Ps popped. Punk was also there in their attitude: not necessarily hostile, but certainly uncompromising and uninterested in some of the trappings of the pop scene.

800px-Tranmere_Rovers_1919_20

Tranmere Rovers, 1919

Then there was the Merseyside tradition, later name checked in an album title that poked fun at the more famous band from the other side of the river, Four Lads Who Shook The Wirral, and evident in this album's dole age play on The Beatles' 'Back in the USSR'. After the Mersey boom of the 1960s, the city had produced a number of punk bands but was, in the early 1980s, most famous for a diverse range of post-punk bands, including the art school spiky guitars of Echo and the Bunnymen, the cool synth pop of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, the organ-driven psychedelia of The Teardrop Explodes, and the hi-energy gloss of Frankie Goes To Hollywood. To an outsider, Half Man Half Biscuit didn't seem to part of a scene in the way that Echo and Teardrop did, but they name checked local and regional places, they sang in Liverpool accents, and they put Tranmere Rovers ahead of The Tube.

Gus_Elen_If_It_Wasnt_for_the_Ouses_In_Between

“The dustcart though it seldom comes, is just like 'arvest 'ome / And we mean to rig a dairy up some'ow”

Finally, Half Man Half Biscuit were tapping into a comedy tradition that went back to music hall, and had other proponents in the punk and post-punk scene. Like music hall singers, Half Man Half Biscuits were able to make comedy out of everyday and mundane places and situations. The queue of pensioners at the post office 'Sealclubbing', or the dismal relationship charted in 'Reflections in A Flat', create a mood close to the working class lives captured in classic music hall. Surely, if there hadn't already been songs from the halls called 'Our Lodger's Such a Nice Young Man', or 'The Spaniard that Blighted My Life', then Half Man Half Biscuit would have written them. Since music hall, plenty of major bands and singers had written intentionally funny songs or filled some songs with jokes. Think of Bob Dylan pulling down his pants when the bank manager asked him for some collateral in 'Bob Dylan's 115th Dream', or of the Wild West femme fatalle in The Beatles' 'Rocky Racoon' whose 'name was McGill, but she called herself Lill, and everyone knew her as Nancy'. Some bands made a career of comic songs, like Dave Dee Dozy Beaky Mick and Tich and, at the more art school end of the spectrum, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. By the 1970s, comedy hits tended to be either excruciating pastiches, like the Barron Knights' take on the Brotherhood of Man (a marriage made in pop music purgatory if ever there was one), or songs sung in local dialects, from the West Country yokelese of The Wurzels to the cockney knees-up of Chas and Dave.

Despite punk's reputation for street politics and earnestness, this movement brought with it many acts and songs that were essentially comedy. Jilted John's eponymous hit of 1978 had unrequited lovers everywhere chanting 'Gordon is a moron', Spizzenergi paid tribute to Star Trek in their 1979 single 'Where's Captain Kirk?', Splodgenessabounds summed up the frustration of trying to get served in a busy pub in 'Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps Please' in 1980, and Tenpole Tudor went mock medieval on us with 'Swords of a Thousand Men' in 1981. To listeners, Half Man Half Biscuit were certainly part of this tradition. They added to it, though, both through the surrealism of the juxtapositions, the ordinariness of the things they sung about, their highly literate writing style, and the frequently depressed and angry mood that underpinned the humour. And, where other bands name-checked to show off their credentials, like Duran Duran dropping Voltaire into 'Last Chance on a Stairway' and Lloyd Cole populating his first album Rattlesnakes with Eva Marie Saint and Norman Mailer, Half Man Half Biscuit went distinctly low culture on us with television magician Ali Bongo and snooker referee Len Ganley.

It was this combination that won me over as a fan in 1985. I lapped it all up, from the rough production to the smooth puns, and I celebrated in a band that could make punk poetry out of everyday life, and could make it both funny and moving.

Half Man Half Biscuit belong to many traditions in popular music. Perhaps the overarching one is of English eccentricity, a catch-all label that covers acts, both cult and mainstream, who have tapped into particular memories and tropes, and have created a music that is funny, provocative, nostaligic, ironic, and true. They belong here with Robyn Hitchcock, The Kinks, Ian Dury, and Madness. Back in the DHSS, the opening blast of their career, deserves to be explored and celebrated.



[1] Taylor Parkes, ‘On the Continuing Brilliance of Half Man Half Biscuit’, The Quietus, 26 September 2011. http://thequietus.com/articles/07060-half-man-half-biscuit-90-bisodol-crimond

[2] Al Spicer, The Rough Guide to Punk, London: Rough Guides 2006, pp.155-6,

[3] Quoted in Rob Hughes, ‘The Stars That Fame Forgot: Half Man Half Biscuit’, Uncut, June 2008, p.22.

[4] Quoted in John Peel, Margrave of the Marshes: his autobiography, London: Bantam Press, 2005, p.442.

[5] ‘Arthur’s Farm’, The Half Man Half Biscuit Lyrics Project. http://www.chrisrand.com/hmhb/back-again-in-the-dhss/arthurs-farm/.

[6] Taylor Parkes, ‘On the Continuing Brilliance of Half Man Half Biscuit’, The Quietus, 26 September 2011. http://thequietus.com/articles/07060-half-man-half-biscuit-90-bisodol-crimond.

zp8497586rq
Share This Post

Comments Off on 1985 And All That: Half Man Half Biscuit and Me

Filed under Blog posts

Queenie, Madge, and the Duchess: new book on the women of the 1908 Olympics

Edgar_Magde_Syers

Madge and Edgar Syers, Olympic ice skaters from 1908

I'm delighted to announce that I have just signed up to write a new book with Palgrave as part of their exciting new series,  Palgrave Pivot. The book, which I am starting work on now and which will be out in 2014,  is going to be a microhistory of the women of the 1908 Olympic Games. In the wake of London 2012, which the organisers claimed were the first 'gender equal' Olympics, I'm intrigued to see how the presence of women was managed at London's first Olympics, those of 1908.

In 1908, women had three medal sports formally open the them: archery, tennis, and, as part of the first Winter Olympic programme, ice skating. In the archery, which took place in the Great Stadium at Shepherd's Bush, they were given only one event, the Double National Round, where Queenie Newall won gold at the age of 53 – her record as the oldest female Olympic gold medallist is still unbeaten. In tennis, held at Wimbledon,  there were two events, singles on the lawn and singles in the covered court. The ice skating was held at Prince's Club in Knightsbridge, where the women's programme consisted of the Ladies' Individual and the Pairs. Madge Syers of Kensington took gold in the singles and, skating with her husband Edgar, took bronze in the pairs.

London_1908_Gymnastics_women

Gymnastics display, 1908 Olympics

As well as these events, two Olympic sports – yachting and motorboat racing – did not specify any gender restrictions in their competition, and three women took part. One, Sophia Gorham, raced with her husband in the mo

torboats on Southampton Water, while two others, Clytie Rivett-Carnac and the Duchess of Westminster, sailed on the Solent. Finally, the organisers staged demonstrations for women in diving and gymnastics.

Suffragettes,_England,_1908

WSPU meeting, Manchester, c1908

The number of women involved in the Olympics is disputed, and that is one of the questions I wish to settle in my book. The bigger themes will be about how these women's  Olympic appearances fitted in with their wider  sporting and social lives. I am going to explore census and birth/marriage/death evidence to help me situate them in the social and economic fabric of Edwardian society. Where were they from? To which social classes did they belong? Did they marry? I also want to look  at the legacy of their presence in the Olympics, and how 1908 was a watershed for women's involvement, and I want to compare and contrast the sporting women of 1908 with the women who carried out ceremonial roles at the Games, like Queen Alexandra and Lady Desborough. Underpinning the whole study will be the wider context of women's history. The Olympic year was a key moment in the campaign for women's suffrage,  as witness Women's Sunday in Hyde Park on 21 June, a demonstration of c250,000 people just a month before the Olympic began, as well as the Women's Social and Political Union's increasingly confrontational tactic of 'deeds not words'. The growth of women's competitions at the Olympic at this exact moment has got to be explored.

I'll be blogging and tweeting (#1908women) about my research as it takes off. I'll also be doing some talks and conferences on the research, which I'll advertise here. For now, I'm off to the census reports to uncover the lives of these pioneering sports women.

zp8497586rq
Share This Post

Comments Off on Queenie, Madge, and the Duchess: new book on the women of the 1908 Olympics

Filed under Blog posts

Two Handbooks in One Day

I've spent most of today making the final changes to my chapters for two forthcoming Routledge Handbooks.

The first is for the Volume 2 of the Handbook of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, which Professor Vassil Girginov of Brunel University is editing. Volume 1, subtitled Making the Games, came out in 2012, and Volume 2 will follow later this year, with an emphasis on Celebrating the Games across 25 chapters. My chapter, called 'Inspire a Publication', is on the books and journal articles that London 2012 generated, and I've covered everything from academic texts and peer-reviewed articles through to children's books and official Olympic merchandise. The Handbook will be out in September 2013.

The second book is coming out in Novem

ber 2013. This one is the Handbook of Sport, Gender and Sexuality, and it is being edited by Jennifer Hargreaves, formerly of Brunel University, and Professor Eric Anderson of the University of Winchester. This book will contain 53 chapters, drawing on a range of international perspectives on the politics and representation of gender and sexuality in sport, and on identity and class issues. My chapter will be in the historical section, designed to help set the scene for what comes next. It's on 'Sport, Gender and Sexuality at the 1908 London Olympics'. It was researching this chapter that inspired me to start my new book on the women of London's first Olympics, which I'll blog about next week.

These are great projects to be involved with. The books are monumental tasks for the editors, but they are worth the effort as they bring together so many authors and so many themes.

zp8497586rq
Share This Post

Comments Off on Two Handbooks in One Day

Filed under Blog posts

Running through the Past

Untitled picture

Yesterday, I ran the Winchester 10k. This was a bit of a milestone for me, as it was my first race since a big knee operation last year, so I approached it with some trepidation. It was all fine – I got round in 51 minutes, way below the times I used to run but a good 5 minutes better than I had done the route in training, and my knee held up. It was great to get back to the atmosphere of a road race, and to the supportive atmosphere that I have always found in the running community.

For an average runner like me, who is not trying to win anything except a personal race against the clock, 51 minutes provides plenty of time for thinking and looking, and for me yesterday I spent a lot of that time remembering other races, and thinking about the landscapes and townscapes that the races have taken me through.

Looking back, my favourite race was the Sarn Helen, a 16.5 mile hilly mixed terrain race in Lampeter, west Wales, where I went to university. It was organised by the wonderful Sarn Helen Running Club. This was the ultimate event for all of us involved with the university’s running club, and completing it was a rite of passage to take one from being just a club runner to being a runner. I tried it unsuccessfully once, breaking down with nothing left in my tank after only 13 miles, but made sure that I was properly prepared the next time. I completed it twice in all, and look back on it fondly. The route covered some ancient sites, including the Iron Age hillfort of Castell Allt-Goch, and it took its name from the Roman road that ran the length of Wales. My memories here are all about the pride of the achievement, the camaraderie of my team mates and the club runners, and the beauty of an ancient terrain.

I ran a different kind of historic route in Rhayader, where the 20 mile race goes around the flooded valleys

of the Elan Valley and the epic dams of Craig Coch and Caban Coch. Here was a story of engineering , an exhausting run through a landscape that blended untamed wilderness with Edwardian engineering. I came closer to sports history when I ran the Windsor Park half-marathon, a distance that owes its existence to the 1908 Olympic Marathon which started on the lawns of Windsor Castle. With that castle as our backdrop for the race around the park, it was impossible not to feel a sense of history.

Every race that I've run has some kind of historic resonance, from those in Victorian city parks to those at 1970s urban athletics stadiums. Running in a race provides a unique perspective, especially when roads are closed and we runners take over from the motorists. We can see things that are not always visible, and we can think about the links between town and country, nature and culture, and past and present.

Yesterday's race around the roads just north of Winchester, for example, took us under a brick-built Victorian railway bridge and a concrete 1970s A-road bridge, and past car showrooms, watercress farms, and a Norman church. We started near the modern River Park Leisure Centre, and ran past the site of a 1930s lido, now a car park. It was a race through a landscape of continuity and change in worship, work, leisure, transport, and industry.

I'll keep working on my running, and, my knee willing, I aim to do some more races. With the luxury of being a mediocre runner, and my inability to stop looking for historical resonances wherever I go, I look forward to tracing more routes through the past.

zp8497586rq
Share This Post

Comments Off on Running through the Past

Filed under Blog posts

Winter Landscape with Sledgers and Tea Trays

Two weeks ago, southern England was hit by heavy snowfalls. People from other parts of the world where deep snow is a permanent feature in winter must laugh at our inability to cope, as schools, shops, and businesses closed in the face of a few inches of the white stuff. The children loved it, of course, and we made our annual sledging trip to St Catherine’s Hill. The hill, just outside Winchester, has a place in the history of football, as it was here that Winchester College’s unique version of the game claims its origins. When the snow comes, though, no-one cares about that, as the slopes are taken over by hundreds of people sledging. With the schools closed, children and their parents were out in force, augmented by students from the University and the Art School who were happy to take the afternoon off. It had a genuine community feeling of a town at play. The sledges on display ranged from proper purpose-built ones, many of them bought in a hurry from the city’s only sport shop that managed to stay open on the snowy day, through to homemade efforts and improvised craft: fertiliser sacks, laundry baskets, and even tea trays that looked as though they may have been borrowed from the Art School’s canteen all did service.

The afternoon struck me as deeply torn in time. On the one hand, this kind of play depended on all sorts of features of modern life, from the mass produced sledges in dura

ble plastics through to the comfortable clothes that kept us all warm. In other ways, it was almost pre-industrial. The time discipline of the normal school and office day was overturned, and we were out as a community, playing in natural spaces rather than the cultural spaces of stadiums or playgrounds, and the play was made possible only by the weather. The fact that many people improvised their sledges – the tea trays and fertiliser sacks – only added to the sense that this was an old way of playing.

Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_Winter_Landscape_with_Skaters_and_Bird_Trap_-_WGA03333

It reminded me strongly of a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder that I use in my sports history classes. Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap, painted in 1565 and now in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, shows a snowy scene in which the townspeople have taken to the frozen river to play. Some skate, others play on sledges, some play a game that looks a lot like curling, while the group in the bottom left-hand corner are playing a golf-like game on the ice. Leaving aside any allegorical meanings the painting has, it is a wonderful representation of spontaneous play using improvised equipment, found spaces, and the weather. It’s too easy to think of our ways of playing as purely modern, and it’s useful every now and then to sit back and recognise some ways of playing that transcend time and culture.

zp8497586rq
Share This Post

Comments Off on Winter Landscape with Sledgers and Tea Trays

Filed under Blog posts

Named At Last – the Mysterious Mrs Gorham, 1908 Olympian

I've just made a small but, I think, useful discovery about one of the British Olympic competitors from 1908: her name.

Motorboat Racing on Southampton Water at the 1908 Olympic Games

Motorboat Racing on Southampton Water at the 1908 Olympic Games

The 1908 Games included, for the only time in Olympic history, a motorboat racing competition  It took place in late August, a month after the stadium events, with races for three classes of boats taking place on Southampton Water. It was a small event, attracting only 14 competitors from two countries, Great Britain and France, and the atrocious weather meant that the organisers had to change the planned route on to more protected water.

It was an exclusive competition, as the costs of owning and maintaining a boat were high. We can get a flavour of its social tone by looking at some of the British competitors. They included the Duke of Westminster, Thomas Thorneycroft (of the Thorneycroft shipbuilding family), and Winchester St George Clowes, a captain in the Hussars. In this mix, racing Quicksilver in the B-Class race for boats under 60 feet in length, was a married couple, Mrs and Mrs John Marshall Gorham.

Motorboat racing was not specifically open to women in 1908: only lawn tennis, archery, and ice skating had that status, along with demonstration events in gymnastics and diving. However, like the sailing event, there was nothing explicit in the rules prohibiting women from taking part. And, just as the Duchess of Westminster and Frances Clytie Rivett-Carnac raced in the sailing, so did Mrs John Marshall Gorham in the motorboats.

In most sources, this sole female competitor in the motorboat racing is hidden behind the convention of a married woman using not just her husband's surname, but also his forename. Mrs Gorham appears by this name in contemporary press reports, with The Times drawing attention to her as 'an exa

mple of feminine endurance', and it is by this name that she has entered the record books and Olympic databases. Even Bill Mallon and Ian Buchanan, in their monumental and authoritative book on 1908, repeated the married name.

Now, thanks to the incredible research tool that is Ancestry, we can access census and birth, death, and marriage records, and put some real names to women like Mrs Gorham who were hidden by convention. The resources have always been there, of course, but the search and comparison facility of the online version makes it immeasurably easier for us to access them.

What we find for the mysterious Mrs Gorham is that her name was Sophia. She was born Sophia Hope Hallowes in Edinburgh in November 1881, the daughter of George Skene Hallowes, a Major General in the army. Tracing her through the Census and her marriage records, we can then develop a picture of her social background. In 1891, she was living in Kensington with her parents, her six siblings, and four domestic servants. In 1906, when she was 25, she married 53 year-old John Marshall Gorham, an electrical engineer and the son of a surgeon, at St Jude's Church in Kensington, and it was this married couple who raced Quicksilver in the 1908 Olympic Games. Sadly, they did not finish the race, the gold going to Thorneycroft in Gyrinus. We can also trace John and Sophia beyond the Olympics: to the 1911 Census, when they were living in Singleton in West Sussex, without children and with six domestic servants; to John's death in 1929 and Sophia's remarriage three years later; and to her death in Chichester in 1969.

I'm planning on carrying out some biographical research on British competitors at the 1908 Olympics. This tiny case study, which started purely with a desire to find out a name, gives us an inkling of how official records can help us shed light on the everyday lives of early Olympians.

zp8497586rq
Share This Post

Comments Off on Named At Last – the Mysterious Mrs Gorham, 1908 Olympian

Filed under Blog posts

What if…? The Hillsborough disaster and counter-factual history

Like most people, I welcomed the new report on the 1989 Hillsborough disaster in which 96 Liverpool fans dies. There have always been so many questions around the circumstances of the crush, and around the reliability of the official evidence. In the context of the late 1980s, a time of moral panic about football fans in which all of us were too often stereotyped as trouble-makers, blaming everything on the fans was too easy. The new report, with its findings of doctored evidence, health and safety failings at the stadium, and poor leadership amongst the emergency services, takes the blame away from the dead. The fact that this report came on the same day as fire killed 289 people in a Karachi factory that had no fire escapes reminds us that health and safety is not about stopping fun, it’s about saving lives.

The Hillsborough Memorial, Sheffield

For me, the Hillsborough disaster always has a personal resonance. The match was an FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. Liverpool had qualified by beating Brentford, the team I support, 4-0 in the quarter-final. Brentford were then a Third Division team (which translates into League 1 in the post-Premiership rebranding of the Football League), and getting into the last eight of the FA Cup was a triumph in itself. We had beaten Manchester City and Blackburn Rovers in the two previous rounds, and the away tie at Anfield was one of the biggest games in the club’s history. All of us who travelled up to Liverpool knew that we would lose, and that giant-killing dreams rarely come true. How would our solid but, let’s face it, lumbering right back Andy Feeley keep John Barnes at bay? How would our Division Three strike force of Richard Cadette and Gary Blissett penetrate a Liverpool defence that let in only 28 goals that season? After Cadette missed an early chance, we were trailing a respectable 1-0 at half-time, but the second-half deluge came – on the pitch and from heavy clouds – and Liverpool ended with a comfortable 4-0 win. The whole crowd gave the plucky Bees an ovation, and then all of the Liverpool fans burst into a chant of ‘We’re going to Wembley’. None of us there could have known that 96 of them wouldn’t make that trip, dying instead on the terraces in Sheffield. Remembering that chant, and tying it up with the pictures of the devastation at Hillsborough, still makes me shiver.

As a historian, I’ve never spent too much time worrying about counterfactual approaches to the past, the ‘what if…’ school of history. Hillsborough, though, always takes me there. Rarely can one football match have had such massive implications. If Brentford had beaten Liverpool, there would have been no Hillsborough – it’s that simple. The semi-final would have been between Brentford and Nottingham Forest, and would have been played at a different neutral ground somewhere south of Nottingham – Villa Park, White Hart Lane, Highbury, and Stamford Bridge had all been used for such matches. While no ground was perfect at that time, the specific safety failures at Hillsborough would have been avoided. Without the disaster, there would have been no Taylor Report, and no move to all-seater stadiums. While the radical redrawing of the game’s economics could well have happened anyway, the financial climate that surrounded Taylor was certainly a key factor in the 1992 Premier League splinter group and the dominance of Sky. Most importantly, though, 96 lives would not have been needlessly lost. It’s the human cost of the tragedy, carried by survivors and families, that matters. My desire to re-write these horrors by imagining an alternative world in which Brentford beat Liverpool is irrelevant in the face of this.

However, as we have seen, creating a counterfactual version of history is exactly what happened as part of the official response to Hillsborough. Some politicians lied; police officers were told to re-write their reports to shift blame on to the fans; and The Sun carried its infamous story ‘The Truth’, for which it has now finally apologised. The new report has shown how a fake narrative held sway for 23 years. As historians, we need to understand the context out of which that fabrication grew, and support the bereaved in their quest for justice and closure.

 

 

Share This Post

Leave a Comment

Filed under Blog posts

Remembering

I went to watch Brentford v Basingstoke Town in the FA Cup yesterday. We won 1-0 in tense match that could easily have seen the non-league team take us to a replay. The game made the news, not because of the score, but because of the referee. Masaaki Toma from Japan was visiting on an exchange scheme between the English and Japanese football authorities, and he became the first non-British referee to run an FA Cup match. As the BBC put it, Toma’s appointment made history.  His presence certainly gave my brother David, who used to live in Japan, the chance to try out some of his Japanese in a series of unorthodox terrace shouts. He promised me that they translated as nothing more than ‘Do us a favour, ref’ and ‘Be on our side’, and he stopped short of working out a translation that involved opticians.

Toma may have made history on administrative grounds, but there was a deeper poignancy about his appointment this weekend. As the match was played the day before Remembrance Sunday, the players and crowd observed a minute’s silence before kick-off to respect the war dead. The referee has the job of blowing the whistle to start and finish this silence, and having a Japanese referee to do this was, to me, wonderfully symbolic. When we also remember that Brentford ‘s manager is Uwe Rösler from Germany, the symbolism is complete.

I am not so naive is to believe that football, or any sport, can heal the wounds of wars, and I know very well that football can as readily inflame hatred as it can offer the chance for reconciliation. I know George Orwell’s classic 1945 essay on the subject, ‘The Sporting Spirit’, with his observation that sport ‘is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.’ But, as I stood in silence at Griffin Park yesterday, I couldn’t help feeling that I was involved in something special. Having a Japanese official in charge of this public act of remembrance was a moving example of sport’s occasional power to help us transcend differences.

Share This Post

Leave a Comment

Filed under Blog posts

8,000 runners, 1,000 towns, and a lot of history

John Mark lights the flame in the Empire Stadium at the end of the 1948 Olympic torch relay

The big Olympic story in the UK this week has been the unveiling of the torch relay route for 2012. The organisers have promised that it will pass within 10 miles of 95% of the country’s population, and that more than 1,000 towns and cities will witness the spectacle on their streets. The announcement has led to a flurry of tweets and press releases as individuals, community groups, and local authorities have expressed their delight at being included or their regret at being passed over. I’m in the former group, as my home city of Winchester is on the route. ‘Excited to hear that Winchester is on the 2012 Olympic torch relay!’, local sports activists @WinchesterFit have tweeted: ‘But what will the city’s Olympic legacy be?’

Legacy is one thing: history is another. 2012 will be the third Olympic torch relay to go through the UK, and each one has its own story and context.

A German postage stamp from 1936

The first was not in 1908, when London held its first Olympic Games, but in 1948. The torch relay was created by the organisers of the Berlin Olympics in 1936 as a way of stressing Nazi Germany’s love of classical antiquity. A flame was lit in Olympia from the rays of the sun, and then a relay team of runners carried it from Greece to Berlin. Leni Riefenstahl included spectacular footage of it in her film Olympia, and the idea caught on. So when London hosted the first post-Berlin Olympic Games in 1948, the planners had to deal with this interesting legacy. They decided to keep the torch relay, and to hold it as a celebration of peace.

Easier said than done: the original route had to be changed because of the Greek Civil War. The final route went through Italy, Switzerland, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, and France again, and then from Dover to Wembley via Canterbury, Guildford, and Windsor. A second relay then took the flame from Wembley to Torquay for the sailing events. This, then, was a relay of reconciliation after the war – seen most obviously in the inclusion of Italy. It was a symbolic act which served to reclaim the Olympic Games from any lingering vestiges of what the Nazis had done to them. It also served to promote the Games, with huge crowds turning out to watch the relay go by.

Britain’s second Olympic torch relay was less comfortable. For 2008, the organisers of the Beijing Olympic Games decided to send the torch around the world, and not just on a direct line from Greece to China. This presented opponents of China’s government – human rights campaigners, pro-Tibet activists and others – with the chance to protest in ways that would not have been possible if the relay had been a purely Chinese affair. In Britain, the torch made a brief but notorious appearance in a 30 mile relay from Wembley Stadium (home of the 1948 Olympic Games) to the O2 Arena in east London, close to the 2012 Olympic Park. For most of us, the abiding memories are not of hope and reconciliation, but of a series of often uncomfortable runners surrounded by blue track-suited Chinese security men running past protesters. Here was a torch relay that was supposed to be a propaganda coup for a dictatorship, but ended up creating far more publicity for the dissidents and opponents of that regime. Beijing’s official website, incidentally, still refers to the relay as a ‘four-month-long Journey of Harmony’. I’m not sure if many Londoners remember it that way.

And so to 2012. This will be the most inclusive torch relay yet, involving 8,000 runners, many of whom are being nominated for their inspirational stories and community roles. It will take in Northern Ireland even though no Olympic sports will happen there, as well as England, Scotland, and Wales. This is the torch relay of the era of devolution and equal opportunities.

Each of these torch relays tells a story. Just as the torches are designed anew for every Olympic Games, so the meanings that the planners attach to the relay itself change over time. The stories are not always heart-warming, as witness the propaganda aims of two dictatorships in this history, but they are certainly worth studying.

Share This Post

Leave a Comment

Filed under Blog posts

Memorials and Minute Books

The RFU's commemorative plaque on the wall of the Texas Embassy, Cockspur Street

It was fitting that last week, in the run up to the Rugby Union World Cup final in New Zealand, I found myself thinking about the sport’s early days.

On Wednesday, I was at the University of Westminster’s fantastic archive for some biographical research I’m doing on members of the Polytechnic Harriers – I’ll blog about that in the future. On my way back to Waterloo, I walked past a plaque on the wall of the Texas Embassy, a restaurant near Trafalgar Square. The plaque – easily missed on this busy road – commemorates the founding meeting of the Rugby Football Union, which took place at the Pall Mall Restaurant in January 1871.

The restaurant is long gone, demolished in the 1920s, but the site is still important. It was here that representatives of 21 football clubs who wanted to play their football in the Rugby School style met to form their own association. These clubs, including Guy’s Hospital, Blackheath, Civil Service, Mohicans, and the Wimbledon Hornets, had fallen out with the Football Association, formed in 1863, over their preference for the Rugby game. At the Pall Mall Restaurant, they established a new collective body, which they called the Rugby Football Union, and they started work on a set of laws for all clubs wishing to play the Rugby way. The plaque thus commemorates the birth of a governing body, one which helped to make the Rugby code popular throughout Britain and the Empire. It is far more meaningful as a marker of origins than the fairy tale statue of William Webb Ellis at Rugby School itself.

The next day, I used a document from the early days of the RFU in my sports history class at the University of Southampton. Trojans, Southampton’s foremost Rugby Union club, have preserved the minute book from their foundation in 1874, and have put extracts from it their website. My students and I explored this evocative manuscript for the light it could shed on the sport. For a start, the word ‘Rugby’ was not used anywhere in the  minutes from their first meeting at the Antelope Hotel. The founding members knew what they meant by ‘football’, and didn’t need to write it down. Next, the text captures the Victorian middle class concern for rules and protocols, with their clear instructions on subscriptions, election methods (complete with the black balling of undesirables), committee structures and quorums. Most intriguing, though, was the new club’s Bye Law 7: “That no Bye Law or Law of the game shall be altered, rescinded or adding to [sic], without the consent of at least two-thirds of those present at a General Meeting.” Here is a club reserving the right to change the laws of the game, albeit through proper constitutional channels.

The Pall Mall plaque tells the story of a bureaucratic birth. The Trojans’ minute book adds to the story by giving us a feel for how clubs emerged from the grassroots in towns and cities across the country, and how the game was still fluid in its early years. Taken together, these two artefacts remind us that no sport is ever born fully-formed. Evolution and experimentation carry on, even after the creation of a governing body.

 

 

Share This Post

Leave a Comment

Filed under Blog posts