Tag Archives: review

What would Hal say?

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swp excuses

Not HAL but Hal Draper, whose journal New Politics continues with vigour. Kent Worcester reviews my book Socialism from Below in the current issue, pointing out some of the absurdities of the position that the leaders of my former party now find themselves in as they deal with a scandal all of their own making.

Scan attached (with thanks to RM and AW). You can click on the image to enlarge it.

model

When ignorance is bliss

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sfb

“Sometimes the classical tidiness of the book form is less important than its relevance to current political debate on the left. This is certainly the case with Dave Renton’s book which is essentially a collection of articles posted on his blog during 2013. What unifies the varied collection of reflections is a passionate effort to re-examine the IS (International Socialist – forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party, SWP) tradition and to detach the best of it from current SWP practice. He rescues the legacy of some of the original thinkers from this tradition such as Cliff, Harman, Hallas, Sedgewick, Widgery and others. Renton himself has recently resigned from the SWP along with the several hundred other ‘Decembrists’ and is part of the newly founded Revolutionary Socialism for the 21st Century group. The launch statement of the latter shows that those who have left, in what is the third major split from the SWP in as many years, intend to remain committed to building a revolutionary socialist current engaged in practical political intervention and open to discussions of revolutionary regroupment…”

Many thanks to Dave Kellaway and all the good folks at Socialist Resistance for publishing his kind review of my recent book Socialism from Below, which as he rightly says is a collection of pieces published on this blog in the second stage of the recent SWP faction fight (ie between last year’s March special conference and June).

To Dave Kellaway’s credit, when he engages with what I’ve written about the International Socialist tradition, he doesn’t try to restage the battle between 1968-era IS and 1968-era IMG, but judges the IS group by what it did: “Whether because of, or in spite of, such theories [as state capitalism or the permanent arms economy] the fact is that the IS/SWP related to the working class more effectively that the old International Marxist Group.  It was less intellectual and developed a press with a real impact – the brochures on Incomes Policy in the 1970s sold tens of thousands and helped the SWP build a base among the shop stewards movement. Similarly such theories did not stop it doing good work in building the Anti-Nazi League or the Stop the War coalitions…”

Those who are interested in the history of either group may enjoy an event which SR has organised this Saturday (1 February): a day school on the The New Left and the 1960s, with speakers including Penelope Duggan, Ernie Tate, Jane Shallice, Ian Birchall, Alan Thornett and me.

“Lives running” reviewed

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Race aware
Lives Running by David Renton
Zero books ISBN 978-1-78099-235-8
reviewed by John Hobson

After a year in which sport had been hugely prominent, most obviously through the London Olympics, Lives Running is an unusual book which provides a deeply personal narrative of the author’s experience sof running both competitively and recreationally.

The descriptions of early expectations of – and indeed realised – success in middle distance running at school bring the reader into a private world where the joys of acheivement and pain of injury impact heavily in a context where great emphasis is placed on sporting prowess, through peer and family culture.

The author however interjects interesting facts and analysis of a sport for which he remains clearly passionate, most significantly of the oft-forgotten rivalry in middle-distance running between Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe that developed in the late 1970s and which reached its peak at the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

Fascinating detail is provided about these two individuals’ backgrounds and experiences and which in particular furthers a degree of insight into Coe’s trajectory from ungracious loser to Ovett in the 800m Olympic final, to Tory MP and then ultimately to crowned glory as the Chair of the London Organising Committee of the Olympics and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) and beyond.

As the currently shallow discussions about the “legacy” of the London Olympics proceed, it is refreshing to read an account of sport by someone who was active in the important critique and attendant activism surrounding the Games.

The contributions of such individuals, as people passionate about sport but also about real accessibility and participation will be essential as the memories of London 2012 fade, the corporate Olympic juggernaut moves on and cuts in public funding for leisure services translate.

In essence however Lives; Running is a memoir of one individual’s relationship to sport and the power of the same to ultimately provide straight forward entertainment, far from the madding crowd or otherwise.

This article was first published in the June 2013 edition of Socialist Lawyer magazine. The magazine is sent to all members of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers. Details of how to subscribe can be found here.

Reflecting on the burn

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Running: “from trouble”, “to assist”, “in fear”, “for fun”, “in a crowd”, “alone”, “to win”, “for the hell of it!”. Running is a time-honoured, universal activity. In the global marketplace, running is also a valuable commodity. The large number of “running activities” or “uses” of running have provided the incentive for companies to create a growing industry of apparel: shoes, tracksuits, sweatbands, pedometers. A burgeoning advertising industry has helped generate and extend the exchange values of such products. Usain Bolt runs fast, wears Puma shoes and requires massive appearance fees to showcase his speed and footwear. Bolt is a fast-moving human commodity.

Lives; Running offers an insider’s view of the multi-layered world of running. This compact 124-page compilation is clearly designed for an audience located somewhere between the highly formalised and conventionally controlled world of academia and the “pulped up” “just in time” world of infotainment. Lives; Running’s style of writing is pitched to readers looking for thoughtful, well-informed prose about changes in globally extended common culture.

Seventeen short chapters are built on three major themes: a long-term personal narrative about the experiences of running, the role of sport in the patrilineal side of Renton’s family and a mini-case study of the class-based politics of two elite runners from very different backgrounds. These three themes, involving very different forms of description and analysis, are crisscrossed throughout the text, providing multiple angles of scrutiny of running as a socio-cultural practice. While it is not a linear narrative in the conventional sense, the book tracks sequentially across the decades of Renton’s life of running and thus provides a solid position from which to explore the other themes.

Renton declares at the very start of his narrative: “[R]unning was part of my life, I ran whenever I could”. His engagement moves from the private to the social and recreational, to the competitive and combative and finally into the zone of the health-focused and the therapeutic. Looking outwards from this personal sphere, Renton fills his account with stories about his grandfather and father. In the detail of his father’s story is embedded a meta-analysis about the changing role of sport in identity development and the wider world of politics and social change.

Renton’s father was an average runner but quickly discovered he was a talented rower. Rowing was, and remains, an iconic team activity. To be successful, the team must be one in mind and body. During his father’s formative years, Great Britain was being shaped by Keynesian-inspired politics. The cooperative, team-based nature of rowing was in tune with those influences. On the other hand, Lives; Running also offers a parallel and emergent storyline about running as a personal and individualised physical pursuit. This narrative is set in the time of neoliberal transformation.

Renton was born in 1972. That was the year of the Munich Olympic Games, in which the US runner Frank Shorter won the marathon and reputedly sparked a national, then international, running boom. If we take this as fact, it means Renton’s entire life has occurred within the time of the global growth and transformation of running that has occurred in tandem with the rise and rise of neoliberal politics.

It is here that the book offers valuable insights into the fusion of his physical enjoyment of running with the growth in marketing, televising sport and the valorisation of the hyper-individualised pursuit of “winning”. As a seven-year-old, he watched the British athletes Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett competing in the Moscow Olympics. Through the eyes of a child he viewed two epic contests: the final of 800 metres with Ovett first and Coe second, and then the 1500 metres with Coe first and Ovett third. With the mind of a socially critical adult, he analyses the role the media played in affirming dominant class politics, with Coe as a middle class hero and Ovett as an aloof outsider. Looking back on these events, Renton is able to see clearly what he had been seduced to normalise and accept in his youth.

In a highly ambiguous section, Renton recalls an image of Coe crossing the line as the winner of the 1500 metres in a pose akin to a crucifixion: “… his head pulled backwards … face pulled up … mouth widens in a grimace … I saw no pleasure in it then and find none today.” This account is a pivotal part of the text. Here we are offered a probing insight into one of the major contradictions built into sport in neoliberal times. Elite athletes are sometimes pushed and push themselves into the dark zone of extreme pain and deep distress. Many forces combine to produce this outcome, where even a gold medal winner becomes a puppet of extremism, in training, performance, advertising, marketing, sports administration and politics.

After one final probe into the trials and tribulations of both Coe and Ovett, the book switches register. The final chapters attempt to rescue the idea of running as a mysterious, magnetic, physical activity that has the capacity to draw Renton back, as an adult entering middle age, into a life of small-scale competition, training in all types of weather, struggling through the pain of physical discomfort and injury and living in hope that his sons will be runners. Beyond the dramas, traumas and controversies of high level athletics, “running” endures as a stripped down “free” activity.

While Renton’s story begins with the arrival of mass participation following the 1972 Olympics, it is silent about the fact that this early stage of the global running boom was basically about and for males. The growth of female mass participation occurred later. There are obvious landmarks of the entry of women’s events into the Olympic program. The sprints appeared in 1928, but it was not until the ’60s and ’70s that middle distance events began. The first time women ran the marathon at the Olympics was in 1984. However, it was Oprah Winfrey’s completion of the Marine Corps Marathon in 1994 that possibly provided the greatest stimulus to far greater participation rates in the type of road running that Renton describes towards the end of the book. His silence about this sudden growth in interest and involvement in running by women, from across the social and cultural spectrum, is a significant oversight.

As a former marathon “addict” myself ,I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The prose drew me into the seductions, trials, tribulations and triumphs of competition. I feel the book successfully fuses personal biography with longer term, generational change and with the forces of larger politics.

Lindsay Fitzclarence, Socialist Alternative

All You Need Is a Pair of Running Shoes

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David Renton, Lives; Running

Zero Books, 124pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781780992358

reviewed by Steve Platt

One of the defining images of the 2012 Olympics is of Mo Farah crossing the finishing line in the 10,000 metres final for his second gold medal. Arms spread wide, head pushed high and eyes popping in a mix of effort, excitement and sheer astonishment at the nature of his achievement, his face is stretched with a grin broad enough to swallow the whole stadium.

It calls to mind an earlier iconic moment for British athletics at the Moscow Olympics in 1980. Sebastian, now Lord Coe and chairman of Locog, the London Games organising committee, struck a similar pose then in taking gold in the 1500 metres. Except that where Farah seems to radiate pure joy in his success, Coe’s face in the old clippings is contorted in a grimace that appears to communicate only pain. Where Farah goes on consciously to prostrate himself momentarily in gratitude on the track, Coe’s legs buckle beneath him as if he’s been cut down from a crucifixion.

David Renton doesn’t have a lot of time for Seb Coe. Within minutes of Farah’s victory, he has written on his blog and Facebook page: ‘If we are going to have a greatest British runner ever – wouldn’t you want it to be a Muslim who came here as a refugee, who was educated at a comprehensive and then an FE college, who lived with his partner for years before marrying her, and who worked in pizza restaurants before he was a professional athlete – rather than lifelong Tory Seb Coe?’

He puts Coe’s ‘death mask’ grimace at Moscow down to fear. Fear of failure; and fear, deep down, of somehow forfeiting the love of his father, ‘who made a point of chastising him publicly on his defeat’ by his great middle distance rival Steve Ovett in the 800 metres a few days earlier. ‘“You ran like an idiot,” Peter Coe told him. Peter then kept up a commentary of insults which continued until the press conference afterwards.’ Where Steve Ovett ‘saw sport as a pleasure, as a second priority in his life’, according to Renton, Coe ran as if his life was solely determined by it.

Recalling the Coe-Ovett showdown in the run up to the London Games, the BBC broadcaster Barry Davies wrote that while ‘the British media had painted Coe as the good guy and Ovett as, shall we say, the not-so-good guy … the characters that were painted were not absolutely right. Coe was the more driven, in my view; Ovett did his own thing to a great extent.’ Davies put the media bias in favour of Coe down to Ovett’s reluctance to give interviews. David Renton ascribes it to the fact that Coe was the establishment figure, Ovett the rebel. It was the rebel who attracted Renton’s sympathies when, aged just seven, his early interest in athletics was fired by and focused upon the contest between the two British runners.

Renton went on to be a good schoolboy middle distance runner himself. He broke the two-minute barrier for 800 metres, setting a new school record, at the age of 15, and beat almost everyone he raced against at distances between 400 and 1500 metres until a combination of injuries, inadequate coaching and, although he doesn’t admit it explicitly, a lack of the necessary single-mindedness led him out of the sport for eight years. By the time he returned to running in his late twenties, he was no quicker than your average fun runner; today he describes himself as running ‘slowly and without style, just like a dad dancing’.

Lives; Running intertwines an account of Renton’s running and personal history with one of the great Coe-Ovett rivalry and another drawing upon his father’s school papers and diary, written during his time at Oxford. Public school educated, like his son, Renton senior was an Oxford rowing blue. In the single sculls he beat the future Olympian Tony Fox, whose fourth-place performance at Helsinki in 1952 was the best by a British sculler from 1924 until 2012, when Northern Ireland’s Alan Campbell won bronze.

After Oxford’s defeat in consecutive boat races, though, he gave up the sport. He tells the teenage David later, ‘You do know that you are better at schoolwork than you are at running?’ and declares that he was happy to have quit rowing when he did. ‘If I hadn’t, I would never have passed my degree.’ It’s not what David wanted to hear, given that he ran in part ‘to maintain a bond with my father. I knew that he had wanted a son who would follow him [in business and in conducting the family affairs] … He complained to his friends that I wanted to level down people … By running, and at a high standard, I hoped to gain at least a temporary forgiveness from my father for my many other failings.’

Those ‘failings’ included an ever-increasing disenchantment with the separation and privilege of public school: ‘Endlessly expressing the narrowness of our existence and our isolation from what 99 per cent of people considered life, I bored my contemporaries by pointing out their isolation until they had no more desire to speak to me than I had to them. My hero was another boy, Gobber, who took to a tall building and spat on his fellow pupils repeatedly.’

Where David Renton’s father converted to Catholicism as a student to provide meaning to his life, David turns to radical politics, particularly anti-racism. He sees a continuity between the two, writing that: ‘My father in his youth raged against the “bowler hat”, by which he meant a life predictable from day to day, a life structured always around the same few relationships, a life overwhelmed by the routine of work. He saw that possibility and he rebelled equivocally against it. I share with him that restlessness.’

Renton regards his running as both an expression of that restlessness and a remedy for it. ‘I run because life is short,’ he writes, ‘and there are no moral imperatives save only these: to the weak you owe solidarity, to yourself you owe change.’ Although he wanted – desperately, defiantly – to win in his youth, ultimately he had no time for what he sees as the neoliberal vision of permanent competition. So you win one race, what then? Are you expected to go on to win the next, and the next, and the next, until eventually even the best, like Mo Farah or Steve Ovett or Sebastian Coe, must finally face up to the inevitability of defeat?

There is no doubt in Renton’s mind who got the most from their athletic achievements out of Coe and Ovett and who dealt best with their failures. He even suggests that Ovett was content with defeat in the 1500 metres in 1980, having already won the 800. At any rate, Ovett was the more magnanimous, both in victory and defeat. His response to getting a bronze medal in the 1500 metres behind Coe and the second-placed Jürgen Straub of East Germany was that he ‘ran the best race I could but was beaten by two better guys’, while Coe subsequently wrote of Ovett’s success in the 800 metres that his physical manner had ‘contributed to the tattiness of the race. It lowered the standing of athletics.’

Renton saw in Ovett – and now in Mo Farah – a ‘capacity for warmth, sympathy and human solidarity’ that he has never seen in Coe. It’s an instinctive judgement that others have shared but one that we should be wary of nonetheless. Coe’s relationship with his father, like David Renton’s with his, was complex but not cold. Of Peter Coe’s remarks after his 800 metres defeat, Seb said that he was less annoyed with his father than with press criticism of their relationship: ‘I found that insulting. People were entitled to criticise my running or Peter’s coaching, but not our relationship.’

In an obituary of Peter Coe, following his death in 2008 (when Seb was at the Olympics in Beijing), Seb Coe’s biographer David Miller recalls leaving the Moscow stadium after the 800 metres debacle in the same taxi as the Coes: ‘In the Russian driver’s misadjusted mirror, I could see Peter in the back seat with his arm around Sebastian, the same way you comfort your infant child when it comes to your bed in the middle of the night, troubled by a bad dream. There was only shared grief and love.’

David Renton concludes with some reflections on his own experiences as a father – of two young children – and why he has taken up running again after a further enforced layoff due to injury. ‘When I run I escape the commodification of life,’ he writes. ‘I dislike the way our social existence is organised, so that merely to live requires you to constantly purchase and consume … I am fed up with sports that I watch as a spectator but in which I am not allowed to participate.’

This will be one of the real tests of the London 2012 Olympic ‘legacy’: the extent to which the huge increase in interest in all kinds of athletics and sport is turned into active participation. Here, running is already off to a flying start with hundreds of thousands taking to the streets and parks, towpaths and trails, every weekend. As David Renton rightly notes, ‘To run all you need is a pair of running shoes … The activity itself comes satisfyingly free.’

This review was first published on the Review 31 website.

A Games of two halves

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Guest post: With his book offering a blueprint for a better Olympics published this week author Mark Perryman explains his Five New Rings.

Seb Coe and the London Olympics Organising Committee, Cameron and his hapless Minister of Culture, Jeremy Hunt, their predecessors, Brown, Blair and Tessa Jowell. All of them cling to a bipartisan consensus that everything to do with the Olympics is fine, nothing the International Committee and their sponsors demand needs to be questioned. It was a consensus which in London managed to unite those otherwise polar opposites, Boris and Ken, too, in solid agreement that the Olympics would be without doubt a good thing for the city.

Add the sports media, led by the BBC, which appears to have had all critical faculties surgically removed in the cause of Olympic cheerleading, to amplifies this all-embracing mood of agreement. Yet the discontent outside the parliamentary and media bubble is very obvious. Not an organised campaign of resistance but on issues ranging from the lack of tickets to the privileges enjoyed by the IOC and sponsors there is a mood of discontent.. Whilst more broadly there exists a deep-seated popular cynicism that the Games won’t be the benefit that they they are claimed to be. It is a discontent that is barely reported upon yet it basis is well-founded. There is scarcely a scrap of evidence from any previous Games of economic regeneration or a sustainable boost in employment. Not one recent Olympic host nation can point to an increase in sport participation levels as a result of the Olympics. And as for tourism, the Olympics leads to a decrease in visitors not an increase as the Travel Industry , which has no reason at all not to be one of the Games’ biggest supporters, has repeatedly pointed out.

Despite all this not one politician, nor a single sports administrator, none of the well-resourced think-tanks, and no journalist or broadcaster has come up with a plan for a better Olympics for all. This is what my book Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, And How They Can Be, uniquely sets out to do. If a popular Left politics is to mean anything surely it is not just about pointing out the inadequacies of what we are against but constructing in our imaginations what an alternative might look like. A Games of Two halves, critique and vision.

I love sport, my book is not in any sense anti-Olympics, and I joyfully admit I will be amongst the first o be consumed by the excitement of the Games once they begin. But I also firmly believe that they could have been so much better and the discontent with how they have been organised to the effective exclusion of the many who could so easily have have been part of them is far too important to ignore as the Gold Medals are hung around Team GB athlete’s necks.

My ‘New Five Rings’ are really quite simple, they re founded on the core democratic principle that to make a ‘home’ games worthwhile they must be organised with the objective that the maximum number of people must be able to take part. If not then its the remote control and the sofa for most of us, and thus the Games might as well be anywhere else but here, minus both the expense and the inconvenience.

Ring One, a decentralised Games, taking place all over the country, a local Games for the large parts of the population, if such a structure is good enough for the World Cup, why not for the Olympics? This one change would at least make major parts of the Olympic programme geographically accessible.

Ring Two, a games with the objective of maximum participation. Across the country we have huge stadiums, mainly football grounds, yet capable of being used for a vast range of Olympic sports. But virtually none are being utilised, centralising all events in London venues with much smaller capacities that would otherwise be available slashes the size of audience who can attend and increases the ticket price for the few, instead of lowering those prices for the many.

Ring Three, shift the bulk of the programme outside of stadiums entirely for large scale free-to-watch events. A cycling Tour of Britain, A Round Britain Yachting race, a canoe marathon, open water swimming events in our Lakes and Lochs. The true measure of London’s chronic lack of ambition is the scrapping of the Marathon route, one of the few current free-to-watch Olympic events. The 26.2 London Marathon route which is lined each year with hundreds of thousands of spectators has been replaced by 4 six mile laps, reducing the potential audience by a 75% , yet this has scarcely been commented upon by media commentators too busy with their LOCOG cheerleading.

Ring Four, Olympics sports that are universally accessible. The same countries always win the Equestrian, Yachting and Rowing events while entire continents have never won a single medal in these events . The same goes for cycling, fencing, modern pentathlon and large parts of the whole programme. These are sports that require vast investment, specialist facilities and except cycling have next to no mass appeal. Compare the breadth of countries which have won boxing, football, middle and long distance running distance medals. These are sports requiring no expensive kit or facilities, use simple rules, and have massive appeal,. Sports should be chosen because of their accessibility and then given targets to prove it. If they fail to do so, drop them and replace them with others. My favourite candidate for reintroduction is the tug-of-war, which last featured at the 1920 Games. It is one of the most basic sports imaginable, all that is required is a length of sturdy rope, the teams could be mixed which is another plus, and in a packed stadium a tug of war competition is a potential crowd pleaser too, at least as much if not more than some of the privileged sports currently enjoying Olympic status.

Ring Five. A symbol of sport not a logo for the sponsors. Reverse the priorities, the only use permitted for the precious Olympics Five Rings sport should be by voluntary and community groups on a not-for-profit basis to promote sport, The sponsors banned from any use of the Five Rings. They need sport just as much as sport needs their millions yet sport over and over again sells itself short bending over backwards to accommodate the sponsors ever-escalating demands. The biggest sponsor of London 2012? You and me, the taxpayer.

In his excellent review of the book for this website Gareth Edwards raises two important issues.

First, are the Olympics capable of being reformed, short of a revolution? The answer to that one is likely to be found in debates a tad broader than the chances of getting a ticket to the 100m final. But my broad response is that the fittest task of critics is to highlight the contradictions in a system of the sort the IOC has put in place in order to preserve its own, and associated corporate, interests. All the claims made for the Games benefits are funded on the flimsiest of evidence. The way London 2012 has been organised for the few, not the many, makes the idea of a ‘home’ games a nonsense for most fans. Push at the boundaries of these contradictions, and if a revolutionary moment is required to effect the kind of changes I describe, then I won’t lose any sleep over that eventuality.

Second, how about constructing an alternative outside of the structures of the official Games. Gareth points to the excellent example of the Workers’ Olympics of the 1930s, there wee both socialist and communist versions, which on occasion were bigger than the official version. Again it’s not a position I reject, not at all. BUt I would say that the global movements which framed these Games in the 1930s, whatever their undoubted flaws, simply don’t exist today to provide the kind of all-embracing narrative for such a project. I would begin closer to home, if the Trade Unions and broader progressive movement was to start to create sports festivals of an alternative, pre-figurative, type centred on the virtue of play that Gareth has also eloquently described then the building blocks towards something bigger may at least become evident. The signs so far, sadly, of efforts in this direction are not good.

As the Olympics has grown the the Games have come to represent far more than just sport. For some critics that means they with to demolish everything they now stand for. Not me, I want to build a new Olympics, to take the best of the Games I first fell in love with and have the sticker albums to prove it and reimagine with the help of principles founded on equality, diversity and access I hold dear. This should surely be the substance of politics, why then we should be asking has no such alternative, to date, been offered? Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, looks to redress that balance. Let the debate begin.

Published this week, Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, And How They Can Be costs £8 (£6 kindle edition) and is exclusively available from www.orbooks.com