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Running in the New Year

I’m up and writing at a pretty silly time on New Year’s Day. Why? Because this year I’ve set myself a big running target and I want to start as I mean to go on. My local parkrun has its New Year’s Day run at 9 o’clock, and I can think of no better way to get me into the good habits I need than of joining the other people on the start line and plodding my way round the 5km in the mud.

The target is, in many ways, just as much about my history as about my future. It’s about revisiting a classic run that I completed twice (having failed once) when I was a student in Lampeter. The Sarn Helen is a 16.5 mile mixed terrain race, with plenty of hills, which happens in mid-May. The race takes its name from the Roman road, and the historical course includes not just part of that road but also an Iron Age hillfort For my fellow student runners back in the mid-1980s, it was seen as the big one, the race that would give us some real credibility. I tried it in the first year of my PhD, and crashed out after only 12 miles. I cracked it the following year, and repeated it once more before left the area. This year, my friend Stephen, who also did it once and who I used to train with, has suggested that we go back. I’ll be 50 by then, he’ll have just turned 47, and, from this point on New Year’s Day, it seems like a great idea. Watch this space.

I always think a lot when I run, and this seems like a great time to reflect on the more recent past of the year that has just ended. Professionally, it’s been a good one for me. The highlight was taking up my new post as Director of the International Centre for Sports History and Culture at De Montfort in September. It’s great to be working in such a dynamic environment alongside other sports historians, and now that I’ve got to grips with the job I’m looking forward to being involved in various projects that help to promote research into the history of sport. The taught courses that I’m involved with, from undergraduate to taught masters and the CIES International Masters, and the PhD projects that I’m working on, are also giving me plenty of opportunities to reflect on the relevance of the history of sport, and on how we approach it.

SONY DSCAnother highlight was my trip to Japan in March, where I gave the keynote paper at the Comparative Sport History Seminar between the UK and Japan, at Ryukoju University (Omiya Campus) in Kyoto. I also gave a talk at Yamaguchi University, where my host, Dr Keiko Ikeda, was teaching. It was an unforgettable experience, full of new sights and new foods, and a range of experiences. As well as meeting some wonderful Japanese colleagues with a passion for sports history, I made my karaoke debut with I Fought the Law, woke up at 2am in my 8th floor hotel room to realise I was in an earthquake, and treated myself to a 7 mile aimless wander around Kyoto. I also visited one of the key sites in twentieth century history when Keiko took me to Hiroshima. I found the overarching narrative of victim-hood without context in the Peace Memorial Museum to be problematic, but some of the artefacts, the memorials, and the overall atmosphere were beyond moving.

And then, of course, there has been Brentford FC, who made their own history in 2014. I’ve been supporting them since 1977, and this year saw them gain promotion to English football’s second tier (currently called the Championship) for only the second time in my life. Last time, in 1992-93, they went straight back down, and the hope amongst all fans this time was that we could do enough to avoid that. As I write on New Year’s Day, they are 6th in the league, and serious play-off contenders. This is their highest position not just in my 35 years of following them, but in my 50 year life. So, as I re-engage with my own history on the hills of West Wales, I’m hoping for the club to re-write their own history and make it back to the top tier which they last played in in the first season after the Second World War.

So, as I pull on my trainers and head to the park, here’s a happy new year to you all, and all good wishes for 2015. I’m looking forward to developing as a historian, to writing and teaching,and to running into the future as a way of thinking about the past.

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From Hamilton to Glasgow

Medal from the 1950 British Empire Games, held in Auckland

Medal from the 1950 British Empire Games, held in Auckland

The summer of 1930 saw the inaugural versions of two international sporting events. The first was dedicated to a single sport, football, and was given the ambitious name of the World Cup by its promoters, FIFA. Held in Uruguay with just 13 teams, all from the Americas and Europe, it has proved to be an immensely popular event that has evolved over the 84 years since its birth. The other new event in 1930 was a little more modest, but it too has evolved and lasted. Held in the Canadian city of Hamilton, the multi-sport event was called the British Empire Games. Eleven teams took part (only two fewer than in that year’s World Cup), with a more geographically diverse spread that took in Australasia, the British Isles, Africa, South America, Bermuda, and Canada. Today, the latest version of this series is starting in Glasgow. Held every four years since 1930 apart from in 1942 and 1946, they went from being called the British Empire Games to the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in 1954, changing to the British Commonwealth Games in 1970, and then the Commonwealth Games in 1978. They now attract 71 teams from across the world, made up of countries, territories, and dependencies from the South Atlantic to the Pacific via the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia, as well as separate teams from England, Guernsey, the Isle of Man, Jersey, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.

For those of us born into post-colonial Britain, for whom the history of empire is a controversial subject, the Empire/Commonwealth Games offer a fascinating way into the UK’s overseas history. The list of teams at the Games tell a story about the spread of British influence across the globe, but also of the ways in which the retreat from empire that has characterised the post-1945 period has been managed. It tells a story of language and culture, and of how efforts have been made to maintain a relationship once the direct reins of control had gone. But if we look closer, certain absences tell us more difficult stories about imperial history. The United States of America (or at least part of it) and the Republic of Ireland are both former imperial possessions, but neither sends a team to the Games, and while post-apartheid South Africa is now back in the fold, its neighbour Zimbabwe remains isolated. These absences are not part of the comfortable and naive narrative of how the Commonwealth Games are a celebration of how well the British managed their empire. While the Games are a triumph of cultural bonding, and are not matched by anything remotely on this scale by the other former European empires, it is always important to look for who is not involved as well as who is.

Wembley Arena, originally called the Empire Pool, and built for the 1934 Empire Games

Wembley Arena, originally called the Empire Pool, built for the 1934 British Empire Games

The other critical issue that arises from a glance at the history of these Games is the political economy of hosting. The Games have always welcomed as many teams as possible  from throughout the Empire/Commonwealth: they were never the ‘Anglo-Saxon Olympiad’ that J. Astley Cooper, a Victorian advocate of using sport to maintain imperial power, wished to see. However, while teams from around the world have taken part, the hosting of the Games has been dominated by Great Britain and the old dominions of Canada and Australasia, a pattern that is continuing today and in 2018. If we include Glasgow 2014 and the next Games for which a host has been allocated, Gold Cost 2018, then we can see that of the first 21 events, only three have been/will be held outside Australia, Canada, Great Britain, or New Zealand. Jamaica (Kingston 1966), Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur 1998), and India (Delhi 2010) are the exceptions to the hegemony of the imperial mother country and the former dominions. Of those four countries, and including 2014 and 2018, Great Britain tops the hosting list with six Games (London 1934, Cardiff 1958, Edinburgh 1970 and 1986, Manchester 2002, and Glasgow 2014), followed by Australia with five (Sydney 1938, Perth 1962, Brisbane 1982, Melbourne 2006, and Gold Coast 2018), Canada with four (Hamilton 1930, Vancouver 1954, Edmonton 1978, and Victoria 1994), and New Zealand with three (Auckland 1950 and 1990, and Christchurch 1974). Despite the presence of 18 African members of the Commonwealth, the Games have never been to that continent, nor, despite the fact that England, Scotland, and Wales have all hosted them, have Northern Ireland. This is an intriguing area that needs further research, but it tells us a great deal about power relations in the Commonwealth.

Despite the cynicism that I am, as a historian, contractually obliged to bring to these events, I’m looking forward to the Games. They provide a great opportunity for smaller nations and territories to get noticed: seeing #Tuvalu and #NorfolkIsland trending on Twitter during the opening ceremony last night was great. Similarly, the fact that the Commonwealth Games have incorporated some para-sports into the full programme rather than run a separate event is all to the good. We just need to make sure that, alongside the celebration, we don’t choose to forget the more complicated historical narratives behind this sporting event.

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The Worst Performance Since 1958?

2910006036_99351a93a1_mIn the week that the England women’s football team made further steps towards qualifying for the 2015 World Cup, the men’s team made their fastest ever departure from the World Cup finals. Following defeats by Italy and Uruguay, England crashed out from Brazil after just two matches. Cue the press clamour for historical comparisons: this was, we were quickly told, the worst England World Cup performance since 1958, which was the last time that England failed to get through the group stage. These kind of comparisons are helpful to a degree, as they give us some kind of perspective and put down some historical markers: but just as when the British Olympic medal haul of 2012 was billed as ‘the best since 1908’, it is easy to overlook the contexts of those earlier events. So, what was England’s 1958 World Cup campaign in Sweden all about? Was it as bad as 2014?

England topped their three-team qualifying group  for the 1958 World Cup with relative ease, beating Denmark 5-2 at Molineux and 4-1 in Copenhagen, and beating Eire 5-1 at Wembley before a 1-1 draw at Dalymount Park. However, between the last qualifier in Dublin in May 1957 and the first match in Sweden in June 1958, the heart was ripped out of the England team on a snowy runway in Munich. Amongst the eight Manchester United players killed on 6 February 1958 were four members of the England team: Roger Byrne, Duncan Edwards, David Pegg, and Tommy Taylor. Pegg had played in the last qualifier, while the other three had played in all of them, with Taylor scoring 8 of England’s 15 goals. The loss was immeasurable, and better pens than mine have explored the ‘what ifs..’ of Duncan Edwards’ potential impact on England’s long-term development. At the time, it meant that England went to Sweden with a partially improvised and inexperienced squad. Only four of the 20 man squad had more than 10 caps before they left for Sweden  (including the long-serving Billy Wright with 93 and Tom Finney with 73), twelve of them had been capped seven times or fewer, while three – Tottenham’s Maurice Norman, Chelsea’s Peter Brabrook, and Peter Broadbent of Wolverhampton Wanderers – joined the squad without a cap to their name.


Organising the order of play for the 1958 World Cup

However, despite this inauspicious background, and despite the fact that we all know that the team failed to get through the group stage, the England team did far better at Sweden 1958 than their counterparts in Brazil this year. England faced a tough group, involving eventual winners Brazil, Austria, who had finished in third place at the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland, and World Cup newcomers the USSR. The Soviet squad included seven members of the team that had won the Olympic football tournament in Melbourne in 1956, and Sweden was a staging post for the USSR between the victories of the 1956 Olympics and the 1960 European Championship.

However, despite this tough opposition, England got through the group games undefeated. They drew 2-2 with the USSR in Gothenburg, 0-0 with Brazil at the same stadium, and then 2-2 against Austria in Boras. One crucial and hugely impressive fact hidden away in that list of draws was that Brazil had appeared in every World Cup since the competition started in 1930, and the 0-0 against England was the first match in which they had failed to score: Burnley’s Colin McDonald evidently played a blinder between the sticks in the face of the Brazilian attack. England finished the group with the same points and the same goal record as the USSR (3 points, scored 4, conceded 4), so a play-off at Gothenburg had to decide who would join Brazil in the quarter finals. The Soviets won 1-0, a 69th minute goal by Anatoli Ilyin sealing England’s fate.

So yes: 2014 has been the worst World Cup for England since Sweden 1958, but a closer reading of that tournament shows an England team still reeling from the Munich air disaster getting through their group unbeaten, being the first team to stop Brazil from scoring in a World Cup, and exiting after the odd goal in a play-off. Dates alone can tell only a tiny part of the story.


Pele in the 1958 World Cup Final. His first World Cup goal came against Wales in the quarter final.

The other fascinating thing about 1958, of course, is that taking such an Anglocentic view of it disguises the fact that England were not the only team from the UK who made it to Sweden. The 16-team contest saw Scotland make their second appearance, and Northern Ireland and Wales make their World Cup debuts. It remains the only time that all four of the UK nations have appeared in the World Cup finals together, and the only Welsh appearance at the finals to date. Like England, Scotland failed to get through the group stages, with a 1-1 draw against Yugoslavia being followed by narrow defeats against Paraguay (3-2) and France
(2-1). Northern Ireland and Wales both fared better, though. Northern Ireland beat Czechoslovakia 1-0, lost 3-1 to Argentina, and held reigning champions West Germany to a 2-2 draw before going through the play-off process with another win – this time 2-1 – over Czechoslovakia. Their 4-0 defeat at the hands of France in the quarter final was far from humiliating. Wales also got through to the last eight after a similar group stage to England with three draws (1-1 v Hungary, 1-1 v Mexico, and 0-0 v hosts Sweden). They then upset all the odds by beating Hungary, runners-up in 1954, 2-1 in the play-off before finally bowing out to a 1-0 defeat by Brazil in the quarter final. The single goal that beat them was scored by a talented 17 year-old known as Pele. It was his first goal at a World Cup finals.

Sweden 1958 thus serves as a yardstick, and is presumably being used to show that it is over 55 years since England did this badly. A closer look at the tournament shows that the group stage exit that happened at Gothenburg was the end of a much better showing than the defeats at Manaus and Sao Paulo in 2014.  Moreover, 1958 should be seen as an important point in British international footballing history: it has never been only about England. Role on Canada 2015, with England’s women poised to qualify, and Wales and Scotland looking good for the play-offs.




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London’s Olympic Pools: Lanes and Legacies


Before my swim at the Aquatics Centre

During the recent school holiday, I went swimming with my 13 year old son. Not such a big deal  – except this time we went to the Olympic pool at the London Aquatics Centre. It was only my second time in a 50 metre pool – and as the first one was a splash around in the 1970 Commonwealth Games pool in Edinburgh when I was in the city on a family holiday in the early 1970s, before I has learnt to swim, it doesn’t really count. For my son, it was a first. We were both impressed by the whole experience – the size, the scale, the way the light fills the space now that the temporary seats have gone, the stunning curves of the Zaha Hadid‘s design, as well as the sense of distance that comes with a 50 metre pool for people like us who are used to only 25 metres. As well as the swim, I was most impressed with the way in which the Centre is being managed for its community. With prices that match those at other pools in the area, and with public access to the competition pool and the training pool, this is a great example of Olympic legacy at work. I remain to be convinced about the plan to turn the Olympic Stadium into a football ground, but my feeling is that they have got it spot on with the pool. They even serve hot Bovril in the cafe.

Swimming at the London 2012 site has led me to reflect on the aquatics sites for London’s previous Olympic and Olympian Games, and how far these sites added to the capital’s swimscape.

The River Thames at Teddington Lock

The River Thames at Teddington Lock

If we go back to the pre-Coubertin period, the planners of the National Olympian Festival of 1866 held their swimming events in the River Thames. They chose Teddington, where the lock, built in 1811, marks the end of the river’s tidal reach. Here, on a rainy and windy July evening, swimmers competed for the first medals of these first games to be staged by the National Olympian Association. With a moored barge marking the start, swimmers from London and beyond took part in three races – the quarter mile, the half mile, and the mile. Nothing was purpose built for this Olympian festival – the athletics took place the next day in the park at Crystal Palace, and the gymnastics and ‘antagonistic sports’ were at the German Gymnasium in Kings Cross. London’s first Olympian swimming event was thus a fairly modest affair, making use of a natural space where plenty of people regularly swam, and it is impossible to see any kind of impact on London’s swimming spaces.


The opening ceremony of the 1908 Olympic Games, with the swimming pool in the background

In 1908, when London first hosted the International Olympic Committee’s Olympic Games, the British Olympic Association commissioned the world’s first purpose-built Olympic Stadium in the west London suburb of Shepherd’s Bush as part of the Franco-British Exhibition. The planners wanted to fit as many sports into the Stadium as possible, and the aquatic sports of swimming, diving, and water polo were part of this vision. Accordingly, engineer Paul Webster built an open air pool into the infield of the Great Stadium. Despite the running tracks and the cycling track being built to imperial distances, the pool was metric, a whopping 100 metres long, and a 10 metre diving tower that could be lowered under the water when the pool was being used for swimming and water polo. The pool – sometimes referred to as the swimming tank – was well placed for the crowds, but was clearly far from ideal for the swimmers. There was no heating and no filtration system, and the water was made filthy by some athletes jumping in to cool off, muddy legs and all, after their races. After the Olympics, the pool was used for various things, including an angling competition, and it served as an unintentional water obstacle for the Olympic rugby union, hockey, football, and lacrosse  competitions that took place on the in-field in October. However, with public baths al over London by this time, many with the all-weather advantage of being indoors and the water quality advantage of filtering, there was no significant demand for the pool. It was soon drained and filled in: and while the re-named White City Stadium had a long sporting afterlife when the Olympics had finished, featuring athletics, speedway, greyhound racing, football, and more, there was no to be no aquatic legacy of the 1908 Olympics.


Empire Pool, Wembley

When the Olympics returned to London in 1948, there was no budget for significant new building, and the Games had to fit into the capital’s existing venues. With Wembley chosen as the hub of the Games, the planners were working around the presence of an excellent aquatics site. The Empire Pool had been built by Owen Williams for the 1934 British Empire Games, the second iteration of the series that has since evolved into the Commonwealth Games. It was already set up for up to 7,000 spectators, and positioned just yards from the Empire Stadium, it was the perfect fit. At the 1948 Olympics, not only did it host the swimming and diving, and the final stages of the water polo, it also did service as a boxing venue, with a ring erected on scaffold over the water – the perfect example of make do and mend that characterised these Olympics. However, just as the 1908 pool so very little post-Olympic swimming action. As Ian Gordon and Simon Inglis show in their Great Lengths, the pool had been a massive hit after the 1934 Empire Games, attracting huge crowds. It had also doubled up as a venue for ice skating and ice hockey in winter, with a rink being created on boarding placed over the pool. But it had closed during the War and it was only re-opened for the Olympics. The building, re-branded Wembley Arena, is still going strong, but its days as a swimming pool are long gone.

And so to 2012. These earlier Olympics took place in the years PL (pre-Legacy), when Olympics did not have to have plans for the city’s future built into them. They made no long-term impact on where Londoners swam. Now that we are in the legacy phase of 2012, it is useful to compare the Aquatics Centre with the earlier sites of Teddington Lock, White City, and the Empire Pool, and to see how making a community pool with the capacity for international competition was a great part of the project.

See you in the medium-paced lane sometime soon.

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London 1908: the First Winter Olympic Programme

This weekend, winter sports fans will have their eyes glued on Sochi in Russia, where the 22nd Winter Olympics are due to begin. The Winter version of the Olympic franchise do not have the same global appeal as their Summer counterparts, as the twin constraints of geography and costs keep  many nations out: compared to the 204 teams that competed at London 2012, the most recent Summer Olympics, the last Winter Olympics in Vancouver attracted 82 nations. Still, the Winter Olympics have grown in appeal and scope over the eighty years of their official history, and they provide spectacle and drama in equal measure on the ice and on the slopes. The fact that this year’s Olympics have already attracted so much controversy, due to Russia’s human rights record, the Games’ environmental impact, and the country’s draconian treatment of homosexuals, is a sign of how big the Winter Games getting – they are now (rightly) as political contested as the Summer Olympics.

I’ve written about the Sochi LGBT debate for the Free Word Centre, although I am fascinated to see how it pans out now that the Games are on us and many people have made their sentiments clear: Barrack Obama’s decision to send Billie Jean King as one of his representatives is my favourite piece of provocation so far. What I want to do here is to think more historically about the prehistory of the Winter Olympics, particularly the series of sports that were held as part of the 1908 London Olympics under the name of the Olympic Winter Games of the Olympic Winter Programme.


Poster for the 1924 Winter Sports at Chamonix

The official version has Chamonix 1924 as the first Winter Olympics, although it is well to remember, as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) themselves point out,  that this appellation was granted only retrospectively: at the time, these sports that attracted competitors from 16 nations to the French Alps were simply held in conjunction with that year’s Paris Olympics. The 1928 Games at St Moritz were really the first to be organised under IOC auspices – and, of course, it is only from this period that we should refer to the other Olympics as the Summer Olympics: it’s anachronistic to apply this term to any Olympics before 1924. But Chamonix was not the first time that Olympic organisers had experimented with winter sports. Ice hockey featured in the 1920 Olympics at Antwerp (Canada won, of course), as did figure skating, in which five nations competed across singles events for men and women and a mixed pairs event. But it is to London in 1908 that we really need to look for the start of this prehistory.


The 1908 Olympics started on 27 April, with the opening matches in the racquets tournament at Queen’s Club. Events were then spread across May and June, with the main two weeks of stadium-based events running at the Great Stadium in the Franco-British Exhibition grounds from 13-25 July. Sailing and motorboating took place in July and August, and then there was a break until 19 October. It was on this day that the Winter programme was launched. The idea had developed during the British Olympic Council’s planning for the Games. Their minutes of 20 December 1906, for example, record the discussion of ‘the possibility of holding Olympic Skating Competitions in the winter of 1907-08’, and the planning for what they soon referred to as the ‘Winter Sports’ and the ‘Winter Games’ carried on as the Games approached, with the dates being set at the Council’s meeting on 15 November 1907: ‘The Winter Games were definitely appointed to commence on Monday, October 19, 1908’, and a Winter Games Committee was subsequently set up to plan the events. Figure and sped skating were both discussed, with the former kept and the latter dropped, and the Committee decided to hold the team sports played in Britain in winter as part of this experimental programme. Football, hockey, lacrosse, and rugby thus found themselves as part of the first Winter Games.


Great Britain’s football team at the 1908 Olympic Games

The Winter Programme started at the Stadium on 19 October, as planned, with Denmark beating France B 9-0 in the football. Over the next two weeks, the team sports all took place. Great Britain won the football, beating Denmark 2-0 in the final watched by just 8,000 people. The hockey was also won by Great Britain, though this was a tournament in which England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales entered separate teams, all under the name of Great Britain, with France and Germany making up the numbers. The final saw England beat Ireland 8-1 in front of 5,000 people. The lacrosse tournament had an even lower profile: with only two teams involved, Canada and Great Britain, there was only one match, with Canada taking gold medal after a 14-10 victory. The rugby was similarly low-key, a two-team tournament between the touring Australian side and the British county champions, Cornwall, although the record books have to show this as Great Britain. Australia won 32-3. As well as these team sports, the Winter Programme involved boxing, a one-day tournament for five weight classes at the Northampton Institute in Clerkenwell.


Madge and Edgar Syers

It is what happened at Prince’s Skating Club, Knightsbridge, however, that makes this Winter Programme of the 1908 Olympics so significant. For here, on 28 and 29 October, the figure skating took place, the first time in Olympic history that an ice-based sport had featured. Prince’s Club was a private members establishment which had been running since 1896. For the Olympics, it hosted four competitions: Individual events for Gentlemen and Ladies; a Special Figures event for Gentlemen; and Pairs Skating. The last of these was pioneering, not just for it being an ice-based sport, but as the first time that the Olympics had included a mixed-sex aesthetic sport. Inevitably, the competition was rather small: this was an expensive niche sport at the time, and only 21 competitors from 6 nations took part. However, this included leading figures in the sport, such as the Swede Ulrich Salchow (whose name we will hear a lot from Sochi as skaters attempt their double and triple Salchows), world champion every year  bar one between 1901 and 1911, and Madge Syers of Britain, whose entry in the 1902 men’s world championships had forced the International Skating Union to create a separate event for women. Over the two days of competition, the four gold medals went to Sweden, Russia, Germany, and Great Britain, Syers winning the Ladies’ event and also winning bronze with her husband Edgar in the Pairs. The skating events attracted a great deal of press attention, with pictorial features in many of the dailies and large technical coverage in The Field, and the Olympics certainly helped to popularise skating in Britain.


Ulrich Salchow

It is impossible to claim that what happened in London in October 1908 was the first Winter Olympics. That phrase has no currency until the 1920s, when separate events, under the IOC’s auspices and featuring only alpine and ice-based sports, were first held. However, this Winter Programme was a crucial moment in Olympic history, not least for bringing ice into the equation. As historians, we should look back at this moment in the prehistory of Sochi 2014 for a reminder that the Olympics have always been experimental, and that the programme has never fossilised.


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Here Comes the Story of the Hurricane

(With apologies to Bob Dylan for the title)

Each year, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) is updated to bring in famous and significant people who have recently died. This year’s intake to this essential reference work has recently been publicised in the press for its emphasis on what Vanessa Thorpe in The Observer called “rebels and mavericks”, including comedian Norman Wisdom, designer Alexander McQueen, and novelist Beryl Bainbridge. I’m delighted to have been involved in this process, as I’ve written the entry on the biggest sporting maverick amongst the new entrants, snooker player Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins (1949-2010).

Alex Higgins in 1968, at the start of his career

Alex Higgins in 1968, at the start of his career

Higgins was a fascinating person to write on, and a big change from most of my previous contributions to DNB, like athletes Jack London, William Applegarth, Donald Thompson, and Christopher Brasher. Only athletics promoter Andy Norman, a deeply controversial figure both inside and outside the sport, has provided such a challenge: how to represent a miniature biography in a balanced way without denigrating the achievements or glossing over the more difficult aspects of the subject’s personal life. As DNB editor Lawrence Goldman put it in his interview with Thorpe, “nobody would be kept out because they were disreputable”, and there were many aspects of Higgins’ life that fell into this category. His widely publicised drinking (before, during, and after  matches) and acknowledged cocaine use, his extra-marital affairs, his frequent rows with officials, journalists, and fellow players, and his violent outbursts that got him banned from the game all spring to mind. And he is a classic example of the importance of the controversial aspects of family lives that Goldman noted when he said  “Our job is to represent their marriages, their children and even their bastards”, especially as Higgins denied his paternity of one child. I’ve had to balance this with his achievements in winning the world title twice, and the immense popularity and goodwill that his inspired in his brief spell as the people’s champion. The pathos of his later years, when Higgins, in declining health, lived out his life in relative obscurity and died alone, adds another twist to the difficult life.

Alex Higgins in 2008, two years before his death

Alex Higgins in 2008, two years before his death

Like many academics, researchers, and readers, I value the DNB for the way in which it provides short lives and a way into the fuller biographies of thousands of famous and notable individuals. Its grouped lives, such as those of the 1930s Foreign Office Glamour Boys or the key figures in the Suffragette movement, are also models in collective biography. As a sports historian, I applaud the way in which the editors have broadened the Dictionary’s remit to ensure that key figures from all areas of popular culture are now included alongside the project’s more traditional concerns. Higgins, a figure who could attract television audiences of millions to watch his dynamic snooker, and who could command more column inches on the front pages of the papers than on the sports pages, deserves to be in there, along with the other “rebels and mavericks”.


Access: A brief extract from my piece on Higgins appears in The Guardian. The DNB is a subscription service, available here. Most university and public libraries in the UK subscribe to it – check with your institution.

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ApolloTheatreStageDoorEvery year, my brother takes my children, my wife, and me to the theatre as a Christmas treat. It’s a lovely tradition that gives us all an annual highlight, as we experience the best of the West End as a family. This year, we all chose The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Simon Stephens’ adaptation of Mark Haddon’s famous novel about a boy with learning difficulties making sense of his world. We had all read the book, and were keen to see the acclaimed stage version. After meeting for dinner, we made our way through China Town in heavy rain, and got to the Apollo Theatre shortly before the curtain. Our seats in the dress circle gave us a good view of the stage, and gave us a great sense of the ornate Edwardian styling that still defines this beautiful theatre. Seeing such a modern play, with its set based on graph paper, its discordant sound effects, and its contemporary story of autism, in this heritage surrounding was a great reminder of the continuities and changes that characterise so much leisure and popular culture: the settings remain the same while the stories and the people change.

You probably know what happened next. Forty minutes into the play, I heard screaming and shouting from the upper circle, and saw the actors run to the back of the stage. It felt like part of the play, with its deliberately confusing and discordant effects. That feeling went within a second, as large chunks of debris fell past our seats in the dress circle and on to the people in the stalls, and as we were all enveloped in a cloud of black dust, a century’s worth of particles from the roof void released onto an unsuspecting crowd. The fabric of the theatre coated us, and we had no option but to inhale it.

The news channels have been full of the story, and I don’t need to narrate it here. Key personal details will stay with me forever, though. The calm but precise way in which my family got together and got out of the auditorium, along with the rest of the crowd, with no traces of panic anywhere. The sheer confusion over what we had just witnessed, and the fear that there would be many serious casualties in the stalls, where the debris fell. Helping a girl, clearly in shock and with a small but messy cut on her head, to get down the stairs. With my youngest son in shock, being among the first into the foyer of the Geilgud Theatre, where the front of house staff immediately took charge with water, tea, and blankets, turning the room into a refuge and triage centre for dozens of the Apollo audience. Distributing water and tea to the walking wounded from the stalls as they filed in with their faces and clothes black with dust, and blood already drying on their faces. The calm and patient elderly Japanese man who sat quietly waiting for triage with his right hand at completely There was something surreal about these moments, as the elegant surroundings of a West End foyer was quickly transformed into a makeshift centre for the injured, the shocked, and the confused. There was plenty of humour, too – the now clichéd joke about the show being so good that it brought the house down was doing the rounds in minutes, while others reached for the old chestnut of ‘But what did you think of the play, Mrs Lincoln?’ My top award for Blitz spirit goes to the man with the head wound who asked if I could pop some Scotch into the glass of water I was offering him. And over it all, the amazing work being done by the emergency services – there is nothing like a major incident to make you appreciate how staggeringly brilliant and selfless these people are.

I’m not the person to write the history of this event in which, miraculously, no-one was killed. All I can do is think about the shock of seeing an Edwardian theatre in the heart of London’s West End being turned into a disaster zone in seconds, and how the people of that historic entertainment community come together to deal with disaster.


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Emily Wilding Davison and the Political Disruption of Sport


Davison’s martyrdom reported in The Suffragette, 1913

Over the last month, many people have been marking the centenary of Suffragette Emily Wilding Davison’s death. Davison died in June 1913 after falling under Anmer, King George VI’s horse, at the Epsom Derby. She walked on to the racecourse as the horses thundered past, apparently with the intention of pinning a scarf to his bridle so that the Votes for Women message would be seen by the thousands of racegoers (including the royal family) and, through press and newsreel coverage, by millions beyond Epsom. Davison tragically misjudged the speed of the horses, and she died as a result of the injuries she received when Anmer hit her at full speed. While her death was an accident rather than suicide, she has become famous as the  martyr of the campaign for women’s votes.


Emily Davison’s grave, St Mary the Virgin, Morpeth

To mark the anniversary, Davison’s story was told by Clare Balding in Secrets of a Suffragettean excellent Channel 4 documentary, which used forensic techniques on newsreel footage to chart Davison’s final steps and the fatal impact from Anmer. In Morpeth, where Davison is buried, the Emily Inspires group organised a range of memorial and celebratory activities, including workshops, music, and a 100-strong bicycle ride. Her story also inspired various dramatic reinterpretations, including Tim Benjamin’s opera Emily, which premieres in Todmorden this week, and Kate Willoughby’s touring play To Freedom’s Cause, which I was lucky enough to see at the Tristan Bates Theatre in London. Here, Davison was presented as a fun-loving, vivacious woman who was dedicated to improving the lot of her gender. Willoughby’s portrayal emphasised her humanity in a way that is often lost in the official hagiography, with the rest of the cast playing off her to show the connections of family, friendship, and the WSPU that informed her decision to walk on to the racecourse. Tim Bennett’s portrayal of Anmer’s jockey, Herbert Jones, was similarly compassionate, as we watched a man who was catapulted, against his will, into history trying to deal with this tragedy. This was an intense, moving, and insightful play which deserves a wide audience. 


Dutch campaign against the 1936 Berlin Olympics

As a sports historian, I’ve found the process of reinterpreting Davison’s death to be fascinating: and when we put these reinterpretations alongside some other events that have gone on recently, we can see some possibly jarring juxtapositions. Davison chose a sporting event for her protest. The WSPU had done this before, from sailing a boat along the course of the University boat race in 1908 to their arson attacks on gold club houses, cricket pavilions, and racecourses. Like many other political organisations since – including the Anti-Apartheid Movement, Black September in 1972, and trade union and Jewish groups opposed to the 1936 Olympics – the WSPU targeted sport because their attacks were bound to be noticed. Sporting events, then as now, have large audiences and press coverage, and any disruption to the event gets attention. Most such disruptions then generate a scripted knee-jerk reaction from people who think that sport should be apolitical, and this has been what has been so fascinating over the last month. Just as many people were retrospectively praising Davison for her bravery and risk-taking in a political cause, so we saw 2012 boat race protester Trenton Oldfield facing deportation, and the instant ‘snuffing out’ on anti-gay marriage protests on the tennis court at Roland Garros in the French Open final. Then, over the last week, we have witnessed the protests in Brazil that have focussed on the expense of hosting the Confederations Cup, the 2014 World Cup, and the 2016 Olympic Games.

How we react to these different protests depends, of course, on our own politics. From my liberal perspective, I share more ground with Trenton Oldfield (anti-elitism) and Emily Davison (pro-democracy and sexual equality) than I do with the anti-gay marriage protesters in France, who I was happy to see ‘snuffed out’. However, that’s too obvious to be worthy of note. Instead, we need to recognise that there is a long history to political disruptions of sporting events, and that what one generation sees as a loathsome expression of trying to politicise sport, a later generation can see as the turning point in a struggle.



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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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1985 And All That: Half Man Half Biscuit and Me


“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.


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.


“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.

[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.

[6] Taylor Parkes, ‘On the Continuing Brilliance of Half Man Half Biscuit’, The Quietus, 26 September 2011.


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