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A New Job

Starting next week, I’m joining the teaching staff at the University of Winchester as a part-time tutor in two departments – Sports Studies and History. I’ll be leading a module on the history of sport on the Sports Studies department’s undergraduate course, team teaching on modules on sport sociology and sports development, and supervising some undergraduate dissertations. In History, I’ll be supervising some undergraduate dissertations, teaching an MA module on Victorian sport and leisure, and contributing to another MA module on historiography. I’m excited about returning to Winchester, where I taught in the 1990s when it was King Alfred’s College, and I’m looking forward to meeting the students and working with a range of colleagues across the disciplines.

To coincide with this new post, I’ve relaunched my profile on Academia.edu, where you can find some of my published papers. I’ll be adding more soon.

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Plough Lane Remembered

As I write, my football team, Brentford FC, are halfway through their Football League Trophy match against AFC Wimbledon. It’s 1-0 to Brentford at half-time. I couldn’t make the game tonight, but my thoughts, as ever, are there, especially as this is the only knock-out competition in which we have a chance of making it to Wembley. However, tonight I’m thinking less about that and more about a match I went to against the old Wimbledon FC, the original club from before the Milton Keynes Franchise arrived and the grassroots AFC Wimbledon emerged.

It was a League match in the old Fourth Division back in January 1978. Wimbledon were enjoying their first season in the League, and we were hoping to escape from the basement. We had already beaten them 4-1 at Griffin Park back in August, and my brother David and I made the bus trip across south-west London to see the return fixture. I remember the ground as pretty run-down and unloved, although the club had done brilliantly in getting into the League: indeed, our grandfather, who had played for Dulwich Hamlet against Wimbledon back in the 1920s, found it hilarious that this could ever be a league ground.

Womble_Till_I_Die!_Plough_Lane_gatesI don’t remember much of the match – I was 11, and I have to be honest and admit that I’ve had to look up the score at the wonderful stats site 11v11 (it was a 1-1 draw, for the record). My main memories are of the Brentford fans all arriving early and strolling into the home end. These were the bad old days of football hooliganism, remember, and fans bragged about their ability to take an end, but we certainly weren’t hooligans and I didn’t see any hint of fighting, so the impression I got was that the home fans can’t have been that bothered. I remember loud singing, and a good atmosphere, and I remember that David had a home-made banner – some partisan message painted on an old sheet. I remember the obligatory pitch invasion at the end – totally normal for lower league matches at that time. The only scary note came as David and I walked the length of the pitch to leave at the far end, when a Wimbledon fan who had obviously clocked our banner came up behind and relieved us of it. Again, no violence or intimidation, just a bit of casual pickpocketing.

Brentford left Division 4 at the end of that season, and so much of that promotion season still remains fresh for me – it was a formative experience, the first time that my team had really achieved anything. Wimbledon took a bit longer, but went on to their meteoric rise to the First Division and FA Cup triumph before their equally spectacular fall into debt and destruction. Now that AFC Wimbledon are back in the League alongside the interlopers from Milton Keynes, the circle is feeling complete. But Plough Lane, that stadium that my grandfather laughed at and where we had our banner nicked, is long gone. Wimbledon left it in 1998 for their nomadic last few years, and the ground was demolished in 2002. There is now a housing estate on the site, with a memory of the club resonating through the estate’s name, Reynolds Gate, named for Wimbledon legend Eddie Reynolds.

In the time it’s taken me to write this, the score in tonight’s game has gone from 1-0 to 5-1. Brentford are on the verge of their best victory for some time. For me, though, sitting here and following it on-line, the abiding memory that will come whenever I hear the names of Brentford and Wimbledon together, will be of a cold January in the late 1970s and a stolen banner.

 

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Pride and Prejudice at the Winter Olympics

The Free Word Centre invited me to write a piece for their website giving some historical perspective to the International Olympic Committee’s attitude towards the Sochi boycott calls. It looks at LGBT issues, and at some of the other times that the IOC has had to make a stand or ignore a political issue. You can read the post here.

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Wenlock here we come

Brookes_1876

William Penny Brookes, founder of the Wenlock Olympian Society

This year’s Wenlock Olympian Games will take place through July, starting on Saturday 6th with the equestrian event and ending on Sunday 21st with the 50 mile walk. I’m hoping to compete in the 7 mile road race, and complete a heritage double for 2013 of running in both the Wenlock Olympian Games and the Cotswold Olimpicks. I’ll be blogging on Wenlock properly soon. Meanwhile, it’s great to see that my friend Chris Cannon, the indefatigable archivist of the Wenlock Olympian Society, is giving a lecture on the history of the Wenlock Olympian Games in Qatar on 29 June. Chris is a great ambassador for the Games, and his work helps the modern Olympic movement to understand its pre-Coubertin roots.

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The 17th Century Olimpicks, 21st Century Style

CotswoldGames01Last weekend, I made what has now become an annual trip to Chipping Campden to watch and take part in Robert Dover’s Cotswold Olimpick Games. I’ve been intrigued by these games for many years, and have been going regularly with my family since 2009. My first trip was mainly for research purposes while I was working on The British Olympics, for which the Cotswold Olimpicks formed the starting point. Since then, it has been the event itself that has drawn us back.

The Games claim a history back to the early seventeenth century, when Robert Dover, a lawyer with Catholic leanings, reinvigorated a local Whitsuntide wake. He brought in games, dances, and associated revelry, and his games soon earned the epithet ‘Olimpick’ from his well-educated friends who wanted to show off their classical knowledge like good Renaissance gents. Dover presided over the games, wearing, as a symbol of his high status, a suit of clothes passed down from King James, and the hill on which they took place soon became known as Dover’s Hill. Although the Games were suppressed for their old religious trappings and their riotous natures during the Civil War and under Cromwell’s Commonwealth, they were revived under Charles II and carried on until the 1850s. Unsurprisingly, they were a bit too much for respectable Victorian tastes, and they were suppressed again, eventually resurfacing in the 1950s. Now, in 2013, the Games are still going strong, supported by the dedicated work of the Robert Dover’s Games Society.

The Opening Ceremony , with Robert Dover and Endymion Porter at Dover's Castle

The Opening Ceremony , with Robert Dover and Endymion Porter at Dover’s Castle

It would be easy for the Society to simply stage the Games as a re-enactment, a kind of sporty version of the Sealed Knot. But it is doubtful if this would attract the thousands of people who come each year. Instead, the Games maintain a healthy anti-puritanical spirit, with their funfair, dancing, fireworks, and torch-lit procession, along with some entertaining and invigorating sports. There are races for children, held in the main street of Chipping Campden and on Dover’s Hill itself – indeed, my son made his Olimpick debut in the junior circuit this year. For adult runners, there is a 4.5 mile cross country race through the beautiful grounds of Campden House – I’ve written about this for the British Library. I took part again this year, for the second time, and came in, in a signally unspectacular manner, in fourteenth place out of a field of fifteen. The camaraderie between the runners is great, no-one takes it too seriously, and there are none of the trappings of regular races like vest numbers, mile markers, or microchip timing devices on our ankles.

Shin-kicking by James Polley

Shin-kicking by James Polley

For all-rounders, there is the team-based Championship of the Hill, involving wheelbarrows, water, sacks, bales of hay, and grass skis, and resembling nothing that you would see in the Johnny-come-lately Olympic Games – rather, you should take It’s a Knockout as the template. Individuals compete for the title of Champion of the Hill, a four-part event involving throwing the hammer (a real hammer, not the ball and chain of modern athletics), putting the shot, the standing long jump, and spurring the barre (which resembles the Highland sport of caber tossing). There is a tug-of-war competition, the final of which this year involved a team of young farmers against a group of lads on a stag weekend, which has to be the perfect symbol of the Cotswold Olimpick spirit. And, of course, there is the world championship in shin-kicking, a fine old game that involves exactly what it says on the tin. No ambulances were needed this year, but a couple of the players who retired hurt looked like they would not be walking properly of a good few weeks.

 

The Bonfire and Robert Dover by James Polley

The Bonfire and Robert Dover by James Polley

Of course, the organisers know their history, and there are some wonderful references to the Games’ origins. The centrepiece of the arena is Dover’s Castle, a modern imitation of the structure that dominates the famous seventeenth century illustration, and cannons are still fired to ‘awake the Spirit of the Games’. The local Roman Catholic priest, Father John Brennan, dresses up as Robert Dover, and Paul Dare dresses as his friend Endymion Porter, and they start the Games by riding into the arena. The spectating arrangements remain pretty historical, too. You have to take your chance with a spot on the steep hillside above the arena, contending with sheep-droppings, mole hills, nettles, and thistles, and hope that you don’t slide down into the range of the shin kickers.

 

Campden Morris

Campden Morris

The Cotswold Olimpicks remain a vibrant and entertaining event in the calendar of their community. With the Merrie England of the Scuttlebrook Wake the next day, involving a fancy dress parade, the crowning of the Scuttlebrook Queen, maypole dancing by local school children, and  more ribald dancing by the Campden Morris, you could easily lose yourself in history. It remains one of my favourite weekends of the year, and a wonderful reminder of the deep roots of modern sport in what Richard Holt called ‘old ways of playing’.

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Historical Association talk in Cardiff

On Thursday 25 October, I’m giving a talk to the Cardiff branch of the Historical Association. My paper, ‘Olympic, Olimpick, and Olympian: Britain’s alternative Olympic histories’, will explore Britian’s Olympic and Olympian Games in the centuries before Coubertin formed the IOC. The talk will start at 5.45pm in Room 4.44 of the Humanities Building, Cardiff University. For further information and confirmation of details of these lectures, please contact Peter Edbury: E-mail:Edbury@cardiff.ac.uk Tel: 029 20874313 or 029 20875651.

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Olympex 2012 at the British Library

I’ve just got back from the opening of Olympex 2012, the British Library’s exhibition dedicated to Olympic collecting. The unique collection of postage stamps, postcards, posters, and ephemera covers the Games since 1896, the Paralympics, and some of the back story through materials from the Wenlock Olympian Games. It’s great to see all of this material – most of which is in private hands – together in one place. My favourite item is the piece of worsted that was the finishing tape for the 1908 Olympic Marathon – I had seen pictures of it before, but to see the wool itself, next to the famous photographs of Dorando Pietri breaking it in his doomed race, was strangely moving.

The exhibition, which is staged in the British Library’s entrance hall, is free, and runs until the end of the Paralympics on 9 September.

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Olympic Lives

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has published its latest update, which includes two contributions by me. I’ve written on sprinter William Applegarth, double medallist at the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games, and Jack London, double medallist at Amsterdam in 1928 and the first black athlete to represent Great Britain at the Olympic Games. Both men were members of the Polytechnic Harriers, and I did most of my research for these essays in the Polytechnic’s archive at the University of Westminster. These new essays join my previous three entries in the DNB, on Christopher Brasher, Andy Norman, and Don Thompson.

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London’s military Olympics

The Olympic Games start in July, and Olympic stories are beginning to dominate the news. The new venues are holding their test events, selectors in all Olympic sports are starting to name their final squads, and another wave of ticket sales has meant that more people have now secured their seats at the show. It would be hyperbole to say that the nation is gripped with Olympic fever, as there are plenty of people who are not interested or who are vociferously oppositional to it all, but it is safe to say that the summer’s stories are being mapped out now.

William Grut of Sweden in the 1948 Modern Pentathlon, organised by the Army at Aldershot and Sandhurst

The story that has drawn the most debate has not been a sporting one, however. It has been the practice security operation, codenamed Exercise Olympic Guardian, that has divided opinion and brought some basic truths about the Games to the fore. Since 9/11, and with the horrendous examples of Olympic terrorism at Munich in 1972 and Atlanta in 1996 as precedents, the British government is understandably flexing its muscles. The exercise is, hopefully, serving as a deterrent to terrorists and reassuring people that the Games will be safe. However, critics have drawn attention to the increasing militarisation of London’s streets, and the inevitable alienation that this will bring, and are asking if the Olympics are really worth bothering with if they bring so much hardware and paranoia in their wake.

It’s instructive, as ever, to look to history here for a sense of perspective, and the obvious place to look is London’s last Olympics, those of 1948. The military presence then was huge: but it was nothing to do with counter-terrorism, and everything to do with getting the job done.

Coming just three years after the war, the Olympics were held in a Britain that still had many trappings of wartime in place, like rationing, conscription, and a heavy state role in the economy.

This meant that the Games were characterised by a high military presence at every level. The Olympic torch, an intriguing British revival of a Nazi invention, was carried across the Adriatic and the Channel on Royal Navy ships. The Army and the RAF accommodated thousands of competitors, at West Drayton, Uxbridge, Richmond Park, Sandhurst, and in the barracks at Aldershot. The War Office, the Admiralty, and the Air Ministry had representatives on all the committees that planned the Games, while some of the sports, like the Modern Pentathlon, the equestrian events, and the shooting, took place at venues owned by the military.

It was a very different kind of military presence to the one we will see this summer. Nevertheless, 1948 is still an important part of the history of the close links that exist between the state, the armed forces, and the Olympic Games, in democracies as well as dictatorships.

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Beijing Taxi: film premiere and panel discussion

 

On Wednesday 23 May, Miao Wang’s documentary film Beijing Taxi will receive its UK premiere at the Curzon Soho as part of the DocDays series. The film charts the transformation of Beijing around the 2008 Olympic Games as seen through the eyes of three taxi drivers. The screening will be followed by a panel discussion, featuring Miao Wang (by Skype), Professor Richard Burdett of the LSE, and me. We will be exploring the film in the context of  how hosting the Olympic Games impacts on cityscapes.

Curzon Soho is on Shaftesbury Avenue. The screening begins at 6.30pm on Wednesday 23 May.

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