Mark Perryman reviews the perfect reading companions to the sporting summer
Summer 2013. The British and Irish Lions win their test series against the Aussies down under. Andy Murray wins Wimbledon. Chris Froome makes it a second Tour de France British Yellow Jersey in a row. Mo Farah does the double in the 5000m and 10,000m at the World Athletics Championships. Sporting Brits are forced for once to come to terms with what it feels like to be winners.
Of course the glorious appeal of sport is its unpredictability. A year ago Man Utd won the League by 11 points with Sir Alex in his retirement pomp. A year later Utd finish in 7th place. The best sports writing engages with the causes and effects of unpredictability to capture not only the glories of victory but the far more common experience, the miseries of defeat. 2013’s summer of British victories only meant so much because most of us were better accustomed to the experience of British plucky losers. Amongst the finest sportswriters to cover this emotional scope was Frank Keating. The Highlights is a posthumous collection of his superb writing spanning more than fifty years of sport. But sport’s appeal is about more than just emotions. Sport’s potential to mobilise for social change across issues stretching from peace and environmentalism to women’s liberation and anti-racism is expertly chronicled in the collection Sport and Social Movements. It is a potential rarely acknowledged by the Left, in what should be regarded as a classic work on this subject, Marxism, Cultural Studies and Sport Editors Ben Carrington and Ian McDonald definitively rebuffed this underestimation.
Or by way of practical example, the extraordinary story retold in Nicholas Griffin’s Ping-Pong Diplomacy. Mao’s China, a long-standing British communist, the Cold War and table-tennis is an unlikely mix yet proves to be a true-life story of how sport can matter enough to change history, sometimes.
Sport is not only socially constructed but is heavily circumscribed by a binary divide, competition vs. recreation. One that is largely meaningless however to the vast majority of us who participate because for most of our time watching, or doing, we are inevitably on the losing side. The pleasure rather is being there, or doing it. As a doer and a writer Richard Askwith is the supreme champion of the appeal of the most basic sporting activity of all, running, and in his new book Running Free, sub-titled ‘ a runner’s journey back to nature’ he explores with some wonderful writing what running ‘free’ means as opposed to Olympian ambition on the track or big city marathons on the road.
For those still to be convinced of the potential connect between sport and politics James Montague’s When Friday Comes could prove the most enjoyable dose of re-education. A travelogue combining war, revolution and religion with football, all in the Middle East, a quite remarkable read. Or with the summer World Cup fast-approaching try Alan Tomlinson’s handy counter-history of Blatter and company, FIFA: The Men, The Myths and the Money. Written by the pre-eminent expert on what FIFA has done to football, a vital accompaniment to understanding the divorce in Brazil between the tournament and the passion of the people.
Cult football in the shape of Danish Dynamite, reveals what that passion can come to represent. in this case Denmark’s thrillingly talented 1986 World Cup Squad. A similar approach, uncovering what teams at particular times represent to those they captivated with their skill and personality is covered by the collection Falling for Football this is fan-oriented writing at its best. Refs of course are one of the main causes of any joylessness following football.
Paul Trevillion and Keith Hackett’s latest volume of their cartoon-strip series You are the Ref enables us all to be the arbiter of the disallowed goal, offside controversy, did he dive or was he tripped? Ideal reading as England go out of the World Cup thanks to a goal that never was. Originally titled Why England Lose authors Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski came up ahead of World Cup 2010 with an original set of arguments to explain away the nations four decades and more of hurt. A 4-1 thrashing at the hands of a young and hugely talented German team helped make the book a well-deserved best seller. But four years on precious few now expect England to do anything but lose at World Cup 2014 so the book has been revised, updated and given the new title of Soccernomics. A book rich in arguments and statistics, debunking the mythologies of football from penalty shootouts can’t be trained for to big cities producing the best clubs. More sense than you’ll ever get out of a Match of the Day Sofa.
Elizabeth Wilson is a committed Marxist, a feminist, and a tennis fan. Her new book Love Game combines this perhaps curious mix to produce not only the definitive social history of tennis but also provides a template of range, argument and wonderfully engaging writing style for a similar progressive account of each and every other sport too. An incredibly important book whether tennis is or your sport or not.
Wimbledon fortnight for as long as most of us can remember has been a mainstay of the British sporting summer. English culture is notoriously insular, the Tour de France scarcely got a look-in, something those fancy-dan continentals got up to. All that has changed now, with first Olympic success on the velodrome track closely followed by Wiggomania and Chris Froome’s victory last year too. Yorkshire hosting the start of Le Tour’s 2014 edition is symbolic of the soft internationalism sport at its best has an almost unique capacity to foster in opposition to this broader cultural isolationism. Tim Moore’sGironimo is a tribute to Italy’s Grand Tour Race, 'The Giro’ which this year started in Belfast. Tracing the route of the 1914 race on an ancient bike, this exploration of what cycling means to Italians is an effective, mix of the historic and the comic.
Alasdair Fotheringham’s Reckless covers a more recent period of cycling history. The life and cycling times (sic) of Luis Ocana, the great Eddy Merckx’s most serious rival in the 1970s. A vivid portrayal of the sport before the scourge of performance-enhancing drugs threatened to destroy it. Rider pitted against rider in what is surely the single longest battle for physical supremacy in any sport, the four weeks of Le Tour. Fotheringham captures the mental and muscular intensity such endurance demands brilliantly.
Cycling appears to the layperson as a sport simply of individuals, but dig deeper and rather this is a sport contested by teams of individuals. Pro cyclist Charly Wegelius records this in his autobiography Domestique. Every team has a leader, pushing for the Yellow Jersey or equivalent, but sprint finishers, mountain climbers, a rouleur to help keep the pace going, sometimes to make a breakaway, often to close the breakaway down.
And in Charly’s case a domestique too, with a wide variety of roles to keep the team united behind the interests of their leader. A book that helps us to understand the varying parts of what make up cycling’s peloton, which produces such a thrilling sport. Le Tour will this summer surely establish itself as one of the highlights of the British sporting summer. But the rest of the continental great cycling races remain so low profile over here in terms of coverage and understanding it as if they do not exist. Cycling in that sense has a long way to go before breaking into the British sporting mainstream.
To understand the appeal of the one-day classics read the brilliant new book The Monuments. A bit like football writing in the early 1990s, publishers have woken up to the fact that there is a great literature to be written about cycling and a growing readership too. Crucial tools towards the popular breakthrough the sport deserves.
There’s not much doubt part of the appeal of cycling is the pursuit of speed. From commuting and the recreational to touring and racing, the bike offers us the potential for unheard of speed by almost any other vehicles fuelled by our own body. Few of us are going to reach elite levels of performance, but the dreaming and wondering is pervasive. Desires satisfied by Michael Hutchinson’s imaginative book on the science of cycling speed, Faster.
And the book of the quarter? One to restore faith in the capacity of sport to inspire, to form a collective, to spark social change. The remarkable story of Germany’s FC St Pauli, told with energy and insight in the brand new book (the title says it all), Pirates, Punks & Politics by Nick Davidson. This is a tale, and writing, to take us back to spiky music and DIY politics that framed a long-forgotten moment of football with attitude. A book to remind us that across sport those sparks still exist, vividly illustrated by all that St Pauli fans have achieved. A book to lift spirits, and horizons, just what sport needs.
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Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’. aka, Philosophy Football.
Mark Perryman is a member of both the Labour Party and Momentum. Co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football, he has also edited numerous books on the politics of the Left. The latest is The Corbyn Effect and is published by Lawrence & Wishart, available to order from here.