Monday, 11 July 2011

The battles lost and won

Following a discussion with Eli about UCU members crossing picket lines during their recent strike, I was struck by how nonsensical is the restriction on trade unions disciplining their members for strikebreaking. A sports team, a book club, even a political party or faction, pretty much any voluntary membership organisation can expel or discipline members in accordance with its democratic procedures, but a trade union is prohibited from doing so. And for thirty years, since the outlawing of the closed shop, there is no longer even the justification that to expel somebody would remove their ability to work.

The wider question on trade unions' collective power in the workplace was in the news again last week following the News of the World closure announcement. Donnacha Delong is largely right that, while not a complete solution, the NUJ code is a good starting point for a newspaper and the absence of NUJ recognition leads to a culture of journalists being unable to stand up to managers demanding unethical behaviour.

Along with being allowed to enforce our own rules, here is another example of something our movement lost after Wapping*: the right to impose a pre-entry closed shop if a majority of workers desire it. The closed shop challenges basic capitalist assumptions about power: who decides staffing levels, who recruits for vacancies?

Of course, the usual arguments will always be wheeled out about corruption and nepotism, but all we have instead is corruption and nepotism upstairs instead: executives' slush funds and Murdoch Jr getting groomed for his dad's job instead of a printer's son getting his. Every horror story about wasteful spending in the print rooms pre-1986? You can guarantee ten times greater waste takes place in the boardrooms these days.

Corruption is inevitable under capitalism (arguably under any system): the pertinent question is who benefits from it? And whether there is a better chance of combatting it through the democratic channels of trade unions or relying on the bravery of individuals standing up to senior editors?

 Pic: BBC

And who has benefited in the long run from the smashing of the newspaper unions? Do readers have better quality journalism to enjoy these days than thirty years ago? Are journalists better paid? Printers? The population as a whole? Are we better informed? Has our political system improved?

Can anyone - this week of all weeks - claim with a straight face that the Murdoch Revolution has proved to be good for anyone but him, the shareholders and a handful of other senior figures?

(Apart from Toby Young, of course. The loon.)

* Not a dispute, as the rewriters of history would have it, about whether to use new technology; but about who operates it and who decides.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Pace, race and resistance

Guest post: Ben Lewis reviews Stevan Riley’s (director) ‘Fire in Babylon’, 2011, DVD.

Those who labour under the illusion that cricket is the dull and dreary preserve of the British establishment; that the gentle thwack of willow on leather should hold no interest for the workers’ movement and should be confined to the fields of Britain’s public schools, would do well to watch at least the opening scenes of Fire in Babylon.
Intimidatingly built young men from different Caribbean islands replicate the run-up of a fast bowler, with the film then cutting back to archive footage of some of the great fast bowling of the late 1970s and 80s, the belle époque of West Indian cricket. This footage depicts the fastest ‘bouncers’ - short-pitched, fast-paced deliveries which rise up at the batsman’s ribs/throat/face - in an frenzy of broken jaws, cracked ribs, bruised torsos and dislodged helmets. The game can be brutal and captivating in equal measure - a world away from the soporific shelter of the exclusive MCC box at Lord’s. As any trip to the slums of Mumbai or the shanty towns of Bangladesh will show, cricket is a sport that can capture the heart and minds of millions.

Fire in Babylon is the story of how, under the shrewd captaincy of Clive Lloyd, a great West Indian cricket team stood up against the best in the world to do precisely this: to captivate and inspire millions across the globe from Guyana to Melbourne via Soweto.

Clive Lloyd (pic: BBC)

The team’s legacy lies not merely in the fact that it rose to become the best in the world within a matter of years, nor that its development of breakneck speed bowling revolutionised the game. The team also became an outlet, a mouthpiece of black self-assertion, confidence and identity for a people who had been stripped of this identity by the chain and lash of colonialism. The team sought to create a ‘level playing field’ in a world still marred by the basest racial prejudices and inequality. And then it proceeded to bombard that playing field with unplayable, lighting bolt deliveries, with which few could cope.

In the words of Bunny Wailer (of Bob Marley and the Wailers fame), cricket in the West Indies belongs to “daily life” and is deeply rooted in the “spirit” of the islands. The film portrays the roots of the game by filming local musicians - young and old - rapping, singing and telling stories about the great cricketing names which every young person growing up on the islands would have known: Garfield Sobers, Frank Worrell and so on. Cricket and social life are almost inseparable.    

It is no accident, then, that one of the greatest works on cricket was written by the Trinidadian Marxist, CLR James (‘Beyond a boundary’). As James harrowingly depicts, the game blossomed within the struggle against colonial oppression. He writes of black slaves working on plantations who, in a desperate attempt to escape their bondage through cricket, would wait for the ball to be hit out of the cricket ground and throw it back as hard as possible, hoping to be accepted on to the team of their masters. To the colonial masters living out their lives in the sun, cricket was seen as a way of imparting British values and decency. Indeed, it was not until the 1960s that the West Indies team had a black captain, thanks in part to the outraged CLR James.

For Clive Lloyd’s team, young and keen to prove themselves on the world stage, cricket became a way of turning these attitudes on their head, standing up in solidarity and resistance against continued racial oppression and injustice.

CLR James (pic: cricketweb)

In order to do this, the team had to stick together in the fight against ‘Babylon’, an enemy which took on multifarious forms and guises both at home and abroad. ‘Babylon’, as Bunny Wailer explains, is not a ‘place’ but a ‘process’, and it includes the West Indies Cricket Board that paid them a pittance and then banned them for playing in well-paid World Series Cricket; the racial oppression of a South African government that tried to lure them into touring as ‘honorary whites’(!); the British gutter press which decried the West Indian ‘terrorists’ and spoke of ‘bouncers and bongos’. Although relatively short, this film portrays a long and arduous struggle; from the lows of humiliation at the hands of Australian fast bowlers Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson in 1975, to the highs of international success.

It was this drubbing in Australia in 1975 which sparked a rethink of the West Indian approach formerly dubbed ‘calypso cricket’. While ‘calypso’ has connotations of fun, entertainment and beauty, the term epitomised a colonial attitude towards the benighted team. It portrayed them as cricketing also-rans who were keen to please the crowd, knew their place and lost with a smile on their faces.

Seeing the devastation caused by Lillee and Thomson’s ability to bowl over 90 miles per hour, Clive Lloyd travelled around the West Indies searching for bowlers who could do the same. Michael Holding, whose dulcet tones will be familiar to any cricket fan from his television commentary, was one of the four 90mph bowlers dubbed ‘the four horses of the apocalypse’ who terrified batsmen into submission with deliveries that whizzed past their ears. When the West Indies returned to Australia, the number one side in the world, in 1979, they gave back what ‘Lillee and Thommo’ had dished out ... with interest. Here were the beginnings of a new era in which West Indian cricket became a beacon of hope against racism throughout the world - whether in the stands of an aggressive Melbourne crowd (“Lillee, Lillee, Lillee - kill, kill, kill!”) or on tour in England, where many West Indians had settled to work and would flock to the grounds to watch their heroes. Cricket was equality, competition was respect. Winning was dignity. 

Not that this unprecedented success was welcomed by the British cricketing establishment without jealousy or ill-feeling. Several calls were made to ban ‘bouncers’, to make the pitches slower or to limit bowlers’ run-ups to slow them down. The objectors had short memories - not so long ago the English team had invented ‘bodyline’ bowling tactics as a way of overcoming the Australian team.

Against the backdrop of the tours to England, the film nicely pieces together clips of several people decrying the number of “immigrants” in the country and moaning about how there were not enough houses to go around. Not much change there. But the cricketing team became a rallying point for West Indian migrants in Britain, who flocked to games to celebrate their team’s success, particularly what will forever be remembered as the ‘Blackwash’: hammering their former colonial masters 5-0 on English soil in 1984.

The interviews with some of the cricketing greats are occasionally heart-rending, at times heart-warming and often simply hilarious. For example, Joel Garner, whose 6’8” frame alone would turn most batsmen’s legs to jelly, recalls how he once asked his fellow bowler Colin Croft what he would do if he had to bowl against his own mother. “Then my mother is the target,” quipped Croft, to much laughter from the cinema audience.

Vivi: the star of the show (pic: BBC)

The character that dominates the film is Vivian Richards, the “master blaster”. As a remarkably aggressive batsman and Clive Lloyd’s successor as captain, Richards was one of the figures most influenced by the philosophy of black power. When, unlike Croft and others, he refused to tour South Africa and thus turned down a ‘blank cheque’, his stance inspired many across the world. He recalls how the then incarcerated Nelson Mandela sent thanks to him via bishop Desmond Tutu, and how he became a hero back home, whereas many who went on the rebel tour were cast out from Caribbean society.    

Protected only by his cap and his wristband with the African colours of green, yellow and red (he never wore a helmet), Richards would swagger out to the middle as though he was strolling to his own kitchen to put the kettle on, not facing bowling that could literally knock his head off. “But inside”, he said, “inside you were focussed”. He felt the pain of oppressed black people world-wide, and had a point to prove.

Viv has always been a bit of a hero for me, and this sentiment was only reinforced by this film. While the film did not explore just what Viv now thought of those like Mandela, today’s poster boys of imperialism (“the struggle goes on” he declares), it would be misplaced to criticise the film on this score. It is a film about how remarkable sporting performances can challenge seemingly immutable views and beliefs.

 A childhood memory I will never lose is of a close member of my family, one who may even have made the odd racist quip, running into the room elated, a copy of The Sun in his hand. “Viv Richards is coming to Glamorgan [our local team]! Viv fucking Richards is coming to Glamorgan!” If that is not an indication of the universality of sport, of the fact that the achievements of such a figure can inspire so many, then I do not know what is. Viv’s plundering of county bowlers in a Glamorgan shirt did much to challenge certain forms of racial narrow-mindedness in South Wales.

Cricket enthusiasts and sports fans will probably get the most out of this film, especially those a little older than me who remember summer days spent watching these inspiring men. Yet the pervading spirit of freedom, equality and dignity which leaps out from every frame extends well beyond the boundaries of the cricket pitch. Stevan Riley’s film allows even a newcomer to cricket to understand both the game and the politics. As such, even those who cannot tell their googlies from their flippers or their leg slips from their deep gullies will draw much inspiration from a film destined to be enjoyed by people far beyond cricketing circles. Just don’t forget to pack your helmet: ‘Dem balls be like bullets’.

Solidarity cricket
The third annual solidarity cricket match between Hands Off the People of Iran XI and the Labour Representation Committee XI will take place on Sunday September 11 in East London. Money raised will go to Workers’ Fund Iran. For more information, email

This article may also soon appear in the Weekly Worker.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Cricketing received wisdom #1

"The people of the West Indies are no longer interested in cricket, now preferring basketball, athletics and/or football (delete as appropriate)."
Is this true? To an extent, maybe. Minority sports have increased in popularity in many countries in the recent past. But there are plenty of more concrete reasons for the extreme decline of the West Indies cricket team and the small crowds for many of their recent home matches. Off the top of my head:
-          inter-island rivalry;
-          supreme incompetence from the WICB, almost unparalleled in world cricket;
-          widespread poverty and institutional complacency, both leading to a lack of investment in cricket facilities compared with other test-playing countries;
-          high ticket prices;
-          ridiculous scheduling like the recent match starting at 9am to fit with optimum broadcasting times in India.
There is also the unfortunate fact that the decline is being measured from a remarkable high. Considering the relative size and wealth of the West Indies cricketing area, they vastly overachieved during their heyday, and while the sudden decline since then is more than just a reversion to the mean, there may be no intrinsic reason why the West Indies should be nearly as good again any time soon.
Unfortunately there is, of course, a feedback loop between a lack of public interest and a poor national team. It is a widely-held belief that grassroots participation and interest in cricket has been boosted in this country since 2005. If the West Indies team continues its downward trajectory, it will hardly be surprising if the prophets of doom turn out to be correct.
PS delighted to see Devendra Bishoo picking up Dravid, Dhoni and Laxman yesterday. Potentially very exciting.

Monday, 13 June 2011

The first-class game

What with the nation consumed by Chavs fever and Owen doing his best across all media to initiate a public debate on the issue of class, I thought I'd better write something on the subject relating to cricket.

Actually that's not true: I was reading The Cricketer magazine's feature on Strauss, Cook and Broad, and happened to notice that - almost sixty years after Len Hutton first captained England* - all three current captains are ex-public schoolboys.


They are also all exceptional players and, for all I can tell, perfectly nice young men and good role models. Remarkably so, in the case of Stuart Broad, given his stumps-kicking, rebel-touring father. This article certainly isn't about attacking them, or anyone else, for their background.

The problem seems to be that our national team(s) is, if anything, less representative of the nation's class make-up than at any time in the recent past. Much has been written about the failure of second-generation Asian players to establish themselves as England regulars, and the dearth of second-generation West Indian players in recent years, but it's worth also noting that, despite all the efforts to break down professional/amateur distinctions and rid cricket of its Victorian-era enmeshment with the structures of the English ruling class, our national team seems to be regressing in that regard.

Since Paul Collingwood's retirement, not one single member of the England top eight is a product of the British state school system which educates 93% of the population**. (The picture regarding bowlers is less dramatically unbalanced, reviving another Victorian class distinction.)

Collingwood (picture credit: Killiondude)

Question one: does it matter? Given that England are as good as they have been in many a year, perhaps not. If you don't think so, feel free to close your browser now. Personally, I think it is a glaring anomaly that, of the millions of young men in England and Wales who play our former national sport, not one is deemed good enough to be a first-choice Test match batsman. Thank goodness for the qualification rules allowing Trott, KP and Morgan to play for us, eh?

But how well does this situation bode for the future: if future teams will always have to be selected from a handful of privately-educated boys and those educated overseas who can be persuaded to represent England? How much better could the England team be if that wasn't the case?

Question two: why this tendency? 'Cultural factors' (eg. posh people are historically and statistically more likely to be into cricket) might play a part, in which case we should be concentrating all our efforts on trying to get Test cricket on free-to-air TV so it reaches and attracts the widest possible audience.

But surely the main difference is in resources and coaching. No doubt the famous school playing field sell-offs have had their effect, as fewer and fewer young people come into contact with the game at its most basic level. And what of those from modest backgrounds who do, and who go on to sign up for a local team and rise through the ranks - what happens to them? Where are today's Hobbs, Gooch, Flintoff, Botham, Boycott, Compton or Barrington? If you have the answer, please do let me know.

Hobbs (pic: BBC)

Am I bashing public schools? Not really. There are plenty of reasons to disagree with private education; 'producing good cricketers' would seem to be a strange reason to get on their collective back. The real question is why our state schools can't do the same and why we choose to handicap ourselves as a Test nation in this way.

* Don't be pedantic and talk to me about Arthur Shrewsbury
** v Sri Lanka last week: Strauss (Radlett), Cook (Bedford), Trott (educated abroad), Pietersen (abroad), Ian Bell (Princethorpe College), Eoin Morgan (abroad), Matt Prior (Brighton College) and Stuart Broad (Oakham).

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Tom Craddock: Essex triallist

Essex CCC need an alternative to Tim Phillips, another leg-spinner on the circuit, young talent coming through from the Unicorns to a major county...

I really hope things work out for all the reasons above, which probably means he'll be quietly released with after a couple of appearances with figures of 1-204 from 54 overs.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Handbags at dawn

A brief comment on the CAMRA vs 'Bloggerati' war of words (see here, here and here for starters).

Obviously Colin Valentine's paranoid rantings about the evils of bloggers, kegs etc are over the top. However, he is not fighting an imaginary enemy. There are people out there who would like to see keg replace cask, not just as an optional alternative.

These dangerous fools need to be opposed. Bracketing all beer bloggers with them is just stupid, though.

Casking for trouble

Since the foundation of CAMRA forty years ago, the world of real ale has never been in better health, yet at the same time faces a serious threat of marginalisation.
How so? Having been rescued from the threat of extinction, Britain’s former national drink risks becoming a niche pursuit. A potentially lucrative one, perhaps even a still-growing one, but one which is partitioned off from the rest of the nation’s drinking habits.
First, the good news. Every year brings several newspaper articles reporting surprisedly on how cask beer is outperforming (again) the rest of the licensed trade and is shedding its image of blah blah blah. All of which is testament to the excellent PR work done by CAMRA but also the genuine resurgence of real ale across the country. Pubs which used not to have a handpump now have one, pubs which had one now frequently have two or three, and new microbreweries seem to appear overnight.
So why the worry? It’s partly occasioned by price. It seems second nature that ale should be cheaper than kegged beer. It always has been, I don't know why, but in my fifteen-odd years in pubs it has always been 10p or 20p cheaper than a pint of ordinary lager. Until now.
See this quote from a few years ago emanating from a spokesman for today’s Wells and Youngs brewery, and note the phrase ‘ultra-premium product’. In branding terms, it means aiming it at the ‘Waitrose market’ rather than the Aldi, or even Tesco, shopper. In real terms, that means ‘more expensive’, and sure enough even a London Pride is now often at least as dear as a Stella.
Ale is now also, and it's not unrelated, fashionable. It's mentioned in one of those articles linked above but the 'real ale demographic' is increasingly young, trendy, urban and comfortably-off. In London, at least, there is a very real danger that beer pubs become distinct from other pubs.

In my area there are a couple of reasonable pubs with a wide selection of cask ales, which are frequented largely by pretty young things in designer glasses with iPads. These places generally have minimalist décor, bare wooden floors, eyecatching wallpaper and second-hand furniture. The beer choice is great, and it's kept well, but there's something missing.

A few yards away are normal pubs (varying in quality from awful to pretty good) with little or no ale, full of the rest of the social demographic of the area: the older, the poorer, the unfashionable, the large local Irish and Afro-Caribbean communities.

Why this distinction? How did our national drink begin to be perceived as the preserve of a minority? What happens if it continues? Will real ale become like opera: once popular, now widely perceived as 'not for the likes of us'?

The blame can't entirely be laid at the pubs' doors: one may claim it's not his fault that other demographic groups don't drink in his pub, while his neighbour might blame the high cost of wholesale ale from her pubco for the lack of it on her bar. While they may bear some responsibility, they are also at the mercy of other factors, such as the beer tie, and wider gentrification trends.
I suppose what it comes down to is the purpose of ale. If it's the drink alone, we might as well stay home with a few bottles, or just hang out at beer festivals in draughty church halls. Surely it's about enjoying one's free time: yes, enjoying the beer but also enjoying hanging around with friends, chances are some of whom will have different tastes in alcohol.

To deal briefly in stereotypes, few people's idea of a perfect pub would be either the Pembury Tavern E8 (with its dozen-or-more handpumps, ideal for tickers) or the Euston Tap NW1 (great for keg craft beer enthusiasts) but...well, you can insert your own favourite.

Not for nothing is the Harp (a wide range of beers, decent but cheap food, great service, comfortable and well decorated surroundings, diverse customer base etc) deservedly CAMRA's national pub of the year 2010/11.
A good pub should make everyone welcome, not just those who drink what we think they ought to drink. If my Fosters- or Guinness-drinking friends don't feel welcome somewhere then I'll spend less time and money there myself, however good the beer is. And who wins then?