Posts Tagged ‘history’

Imperial Wanderers: Cricket Tours in the High Noon of Empire

June 1, 2017

In my capacity as a convenor of the Sport and Leisure History seminar series at the IHR it’s a great pleasure to flag up the forthcoming paper by Dr Prashant Kidambi on early Indian cricket tours to the UK. I’ve written about his work on a previous occasion so if you want to get a flavour of what to expect should you come along to the IHR do read that post. For those interested in cricket history, the history of the British empire or Indian history it promises to be a rewarding evening with the chance to discuss the subject with Prashant in a relaxed but intellectually focused atmosphere. Click here for details.

S&L

#cricket #India #history

Cricket as Revolution

February 23, 2017

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to attend an excellent panel discussion on Cricket as Revolution organised by the LSE as part of its literary festival. The two speakers were Dr Prashant Kidambi of The University of Leicester and the journalist and cricket historian Peter Oborne. 


It was an excellent evening. Prashant kicked off with an unscripted 15 minute talk outlining the theoretical approach that he’s taking to a social history of Indian cricket that he’s researching now. His argument that the development of cricket is closed tied to the modernisation of Indian society in the twentieth century is one with which I agree wholeheartedly and whose grid of analysis (the rhetoric of equality on the field v quotidian bias on class/ethnic/caste lines, the role of mass media, the varying role of nationalism, and the role of class formation) could be applied across a range of sports in a range of territories. 

Against Prashant’s coolly analytical voice we then had Peter Oborne give a less coherent but more impassioned account of the role of cricket in the formation of Pakistani identity. His shoot from the lip style in the discussion afterwards was entertaining and entailed an unexpectedly enthusiastic digression on the development of women’s cricket in Pakistan. But I reckon his fondeness for straight talking (for example the comment, ‘Dubai is the most corrupt city on earth … with the possible exception of Bueno Aires’) may give something of a headache to whoever has to edit the discussion for podcast. But if it does go up on the LSE site I do recommend a listen.

The open discussion ranged widely but focused more on present-day issues than historical events. Of course I’m interested in both but as a researcher I would have been interested more in the latter. The former I’d rather discuss in the pub or at the match. But it was good to see such enthusiasm for the game among the audience, and especially the stout defence of the Test game against the rise of T20.

Prashant I’d first met when he examined me for my PhD and during that meeting he’d mentioned that he was working on a piece about the first all-Indian cricket tour of the UK in 1911. My thesis was largely concerned with the growth of international sport in the imperial context in the 1900s and I was aware that my own section on Indian cricket was weaker compared to some of my other material but Prashant was nice enough not to take me too much for task about it.

So it’s now a pleasure to see that he has brought his work on the tour to fruition and his book should appear in the summer. Before then he will also give a paper at the Sport and Leisure history seminar series at the IHR on the subject which I’m very much looking forward to now that I’ve heard him speak, if only briefly, about it last night.


By an odd coincidence I’d given a lecture on Indian cricket the day before in which, to put it simply, I outlined that contrary to traditional (i.e. white, Anglo, middle class) it wasn’t MCC that gave the game to the world, the world took the game from the English and developed it as best they could under colonial rule. Prashant can tell the story of the tour much better than I can so I urge you to either buy his book or come along to the seminar, which will be on 5th June 2017, if you’d like to hear more about it.

#cricket #India #LSELitFest

Briggs

September 4, 2016

I am not a big fan of getting my hair cut and since my son left school I’ve been scratching around for somewhere to go since I no longer have the occasion to go to J. Moriyama‘s neck of the woods on a regular basis.

Briggs, in a little alley between Jermyn Street and St. James’s Square, is a place I have been going past on a regular basis for several years now as it’s on my favourite route to the library from Piccadilly Circus. It’s a little booth of a place tucked away and I’d often see its barber chopping hair or watching the world go by if he was between customers.

With friends I would speculate as to whether it really was a barbers given its unpromising, indeed improbable, location or whether it was rather some kind of front. A front for a shadowy department of M15 perhaps where those in the service would tap their nose before being ushered through to a shabby beige Le Carré interior that had somehow survived spending reviews, smoking bans and digitisation.

Well, this week I decided to take the plunge and find out for myself. The truth turned out to be no less romantic and a whole lot more interesting. Briggs in fact is run by Fylaktis Philippou, a Cypriot of advanced years (92 of them) who came to London in 1949 as one of the first 3,000 or so Cypriots whose community has now expanded to over 300,000. Mr Philippou (or Phil to his regulars I’m informed, I don’t think I yet qualify) hasn’t done a bad job of helping out on that score as he told me that he has four great-grandchildren (as well as the intervening descendants of course), all growing up in London.

Briggs was the owner of the shop when Mr Philippou came to London and the shop has been on its present site since 1959. To the inexpert eye (i.e. mine) it looks that it has largely been untouched since then, other than the addition of various dignitaries and family that adorn the walls. It really is a historic interior in the right sense of the word in that it is both a record of a certain era but also an organic space that remains useful for the purpose for which it was created. People often describe such a space as being like a film set but of course it’s not. It’s lived in, inhabited by real people.

The technology is historic too. Rather than electric clippers there’s some hand powered shears for your short back and sides, and a bit of scissor work to straighten up your thatch. Mr Philippou doesn’t keep you hanging around so if you choose to visit (and I urge you to) make the most of the ten minutes or so of conversation that you’ll have in return for your twenty quid. There are few people of my acquaintance who have such a long experience of the changing shape of London in the twentieth century at first hand.

It was a good lesson in the art of guiding in that if you want to find out about somewhere you can do all the research in the world but nothing beats walking into a place and asking somebody about it. I’ll be back for more.

Øve Arup at the V&A

August 6, 2016

With an hour to spare before meeting for a pre-Proms dinner I thought I’d have a look at what was on at the V&A. I wasn’t tempted by the knickers show but Øve Arup was definitely my bag and delivered an hour-sized piece of intellectual entertainment.

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The show only opened in June, as part of the V&A’s engineering season, but I don’t recall any publicity about it on my usual cultural channels. Which seems a shame as it’s a gem. Arup, despite being Danish, was a man whose history was inextricably bound up with London. Indeed the firm that he founded, which is now the leading engineering practice of its kind in the world, continues to be so after his death.

You can find out about the modern practice and its cutting edge development of the fields of crowd flow studies and acoustic engineering in a hi-tech, interactive section that works via a wifi linked app on your phone and touchscreens. Or at least you could if they all worked! The irony of the first touchscreen I tried to use not working wasn’t lost on the gallery assistant.*

But that was just a glitch – the show gives a good overview of Arup’s career from his arrival in London in the 1920s, through working in London during the Blitz to making his international reputation with high profile projects such as the Sydney Opera House and the Centre Pompidou. What is more it brings across the personality of the man with humorous sketches from his personal notebook and memorabilia from office parties and awards dos.**

I hope you’ve already decided to go and visit so I won’t describe the exhibits in detail but will pick out two titbits of particular interest to Londoners. Arup, together with Lubetkin, was the man behind the pioneering modernist masterpiece of the London Zoo penguin pool and it was a real treat to see the plans outlining the geometric and technical conception of one of the greatest sculptures in London.***

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Secondly, there is a fascinating section devoted to Arup’s work on air-raid shelter during World War 2. I’ve been guiding and teaching on the Blitz for a few years now and it was quite exciting to see the correspondence between Arup and various committees about the necessity for deep level shelters, as well as various publications that he produced for the public sphere. Perfect for someone with an interest of life during wartime in London.

It was also a delight to find a display on one of my favourite pieces of architecture – the King’s Walk Bridge in Durham. This elegant sliver of brutalism spanning the deep gorge of the River Wear has been a favourite since childhood and remains my top piece of concrete. The video of the two halves being swung into place and Arup himself the first stroller across is mesmerising and brought a sharp tinge of nostalgia for the most beautiful city in England.

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*Perhaps this was a sly reference to one high profile Arup project that is curiously neglected – the Millennium Bridge between St Paul’s and Tate Modern.

**This contrasts significantly to a similar show at the RA a year or two ago about Richard Rogers which was a long on on pompous hagiography and short on charm.

***I say sculpture because it was notoriously unpenguinny.

 

 

Easter Rising 1916

February 4, 2016

  

Fresh from two hours of document analysis with the students of the University of Westminster I was absolutely in the mood for the kind of exhibition that ‘Easter Rising 1916’ at the Photographers’ Gallery purports to be, especially as I’ve got an upcoming seminar to teach on British stereotypes of Irishmen in the nineteenth century. Looking on the website I found some good introductory blurb which promised an exploration of the complex events of the Irish revolution through documentary photographs, propaganda images and personal memorabilia. The promise wasn’t kept.

Sure enough the documents presented are complex enough. A standout object was a complex collage of images juxtaposing a photograph of John Wilkes Booth (the assassin of Abraham Lincoln) with pictures of Irish nationalists and a derogatory cartoon depiction of simian Fenians. You could write a decent essay on such a document. That is if you were told (among other things) who had assembled it, where the pictures and images that made it came from and to whom it was distributed, if it was distributed at all. There was no contextual information at all. 

Some explanations were given of the political and social context for the Easter Rising (and its political aftermath) but not enough. Even for a historian who has written (marginally) about the politics of the period there was not enough information on the images to really let me know exactly what was going on in a particular shot. There were a lot of pictures of Men in Uniforms but too often no information as to whose uniforms they were wearing. And the occasional laconically expressed moral judgement reminded me of the Empire exhibition at Tate Britain in that it showed the modern taste for self-righteous condemnation of a group of people of whose lives and motivations the commentator has a limited historical grasp.

Worse, it made no effort to make life easy for the non-specialist, for someone who may be interested in the events of the time but who hasn’t made a life’s work of knowing about Collins, French, Parnell or Markiewicz. To take one example, a picture is shown of Michael Redmond reviewing troops in 1915. A student of history would know who Redmond was and why his reviewing of troops heading to the Western Front (if that’s where they were going – we’re not actually told) would be a controversial action for a significant section of the nationalist public. 

Unfortunately for non-historians none of that is explained. Redmond doesn’t even feature in the historical account of the period that appears on the PG website or in the information panels on the walls and in the picture he is one of five or so men on a platform above the troops. So if you weren’t familiar with who he was before you got to the exhibition (physically or politically) you still would be none the wiser once you get there even though you were staring at a photograph with him in it.

So this is an exhibition that if it were in Dublin would be forgivably light on context. But for a London audience it needed a lot more work. And ideally an Irish historian on board, I can’t imagine that Diarmaid Ferriter or someone of his ilk would have turned down the opportunity.

Two Parisian modernist landmarks

October 28, 2015
Front elevation of the Maison de Verre

Front elevation of the Maison de Verre

I was very lucky recently to be taken on a guided tour of a hidden away modernist gem in the back streets of Paris. The Maison de Verre was designed by Pierre Chareau and his collaborators for the gynaecologist Dr. John Dalsace to act as both family residence and practice centre. The house is privately owned but opened up to a limited number of architecture enthusiasts for guided tours of the public spaces and garden.

The house owes its name to the fact that its walls, front and rear, are constructed almost entirely of glass bricks. Such a design is the supreme expression of a hygienic architecture that had its origins in nineteenth century theories about the importance of light and air circulation to counter the threat of disease in the home or clinic. If you’re wondering how anyone could maintain any privacy in such conditions Chareau, who had experience in  theatre design, installed projectors that flood the front and rear of the house with light so that the movements of the residents are indistinguishable to an external observer.

Pierre Chareau and his collaborators stake their claim

Pierre Chareau and his collaborators stake their claim

Family areas (understandably) are off limits on the tour, which is a shame as one of the wonders of the building is its ingenious use of sliding panels, curtains and interlinking architectural features to allow the interior of the house to be adapted for use as consulting rooms, salon or domestic residence as the occasion demands. I’m still curious as to how such imaginative use of space could be applied in a 1920s kitchen or bathroom on a miniature scale.

Maison de Verre from the garden

Maison de Verre from the garden. There’s an interesting story behind the absence of glass brick on  the top floor.

Our guide emphasised that while the house may look like a draft for of a 1920s house of the future it was in fact very much grounded in existing practice; especially in using techniques and materials appropriated from railway carriages, cruise liners, aircraft and theatres. The Maison de Verre has many similar features to the houses of Le Corbusier but rather than being a cerebral, theory-led project along Corbusian lines its emergence was rather more of a bricolage of trial and error that I think gives it a more homespun feel than the (very few) Le Corbusier projects that I’ve seen.

The house is beautiful and if you have a chance to visit, take it.

While in Paris I also took the time to visit another modernist, or quasi-modernist, project in which I’m interested as an academic. The Monument Frantz Reichel, which stands beside the Stade Jean Bouin in the west of Paris, was erected to commemorate a sportsman-journalist who died at his desk at Le Figaro in 1932. It was sculpted by Alexandre Maspoli (who was also a wrestling champion in his youth!) and designed by the modernist architect Tony Garnier, a contemporary of Chareau.

Monument Frantz Reichel in its pomp

Monument Frantz Reichel in its pomp

Reichel is something of a forgotten man in French sport – the closest figure I can compare him to in England is CB Fry, the great cricketer of the early twentieth century. Reichel, like Fry, was not just an all round sportsman. He was also an intellectual who made his living from journalism who saw sport as being central to the development of society.

Reichel competed at rugby, the 400m and the 110m hurdles at the Olympic Games in 1896 and 1900 and was also Boxing Heavyweight Champion of France in 1904. All the while he produced enormous amounts of journalism, as well as being a central figure in French and world sports administration right up to his sudden death of a heart attack. His Monument bears the simple legend, ‘Le Sport Français’. It is as if at his death he somehow embodied sport in France.

Of course the idea that someone like Reichel (or Fry for that matter), an upper-class, white man could embody something as diverse in participation as sport is something that has been broken down over the course of the twentieth and twenty first centuries as people of different genders, ethnicities and physical and mental abilities have seen their participation and excellence at sport celebrated.

However, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t celebrate the career of someone like Reichel, especially in the week that the final of the Rugby Union World Cup is to be played. Reichel really was the driving force behind French rugby as both participant and organiser for some twenty years before the First World War. And he was forward looking for his time. My thesis touches on how Reichel encouraged multi-racial rugby in the 1900s, with the French team that played South Africa in January 1907 being captained by Georges Jérome, a grandson of slaves.

The history of Reichel’s memorial is a chequered one – melted down during the Occupation it was shifted to make way for the Périphérique in the 60s and now stands forlornly in a shabby corner of a barren traffic intersection. The weather staining to the stone is natural, the graffiti is not.

Shabby Monument Frantz Reichel

Shabby Monument Frantz Reichel

With the Parc des Prince just a stone’s throw away I wonder who is responsible for the neglect of this formidable statue. I’m currently finishing a paper on the history of the statue for a conference next month and hope to complete an article on Reichel by the end of the year, if anyone out there knows more information about him or his statue please get in touch.

On a rugby conference

September 13, 2015
Falmer Campus, University of Brighton

Falmer Campus, University of Brighton

Frankly, conferences can be something of a bore. But they’re necessary to the academic. I’ve often thought I might write a blog about how they could be improved but still being in post-conference mode I don’t want to to rake over the negatives of the weekend just yet. And the conference at the University of Brighton on rugby union was of unusually good quality in the world of sports history. So it would be unfair to subject conferences as a whole to a thrashing this particular week.

Going to a conference, while it can sometimes induce dread, is actually nearly always a positive experience. It’s where you get to try out your ideas in front of your peers, and where you get to meet people informally whose writing you admire; you can chat through your ideas and talk about how you’ve been influenced by their work.* It’s always worth suffering a few longeurs in the pursuit of fresh ways of thinking. And as you can see from the picture of the Falmer Campus the Sussex Downs isn’t a bad place to spend a few days, even if you spend much of that time indoors discussing the history of sport.

Oh well, the peril of being called Levett is the variety of ways it can be misspelled.

My own talk was a canter through the 1905 tour by the All Blacks to Europe and America, a paper based on parts of my PhD thesis that I hadn’t intended to develop much further. Now, thanks to talking to Tony Collins among others, I find that I have a few more ideas that may enable me to write an article based on my research that might even be original!**

As is the way with conferences though the most interesting ideas occurred to me while attending something that wasn’t of immediate relevance to my own work. On Friday evening we had a showing of Invictus, the Clint Eastwood film about the triumph of the Springboks at the 1995 World Cup. I had no real desire to see the film (I had a massive headache from being stuck indoors all day!) but was interested in the panel discussion beforehand which featured historians of South Africa (Philani Nongogo, Albert Grundlingh, John Nauright and Derek Catsam) and three time World Cup winner Farah Palmer.

Much of the discussion centred on the distance between the Hollywood version of the tournament and the real events. For reasons of concision, political convenience or the demands of narrative cinema the film necessarily tells a skewed version that leaves out a lot of things and foregrounds certain individuals at the expense of significant others.

One of the players the panel felt was neglected in the film (and I won’t try to sum up why as I’m not familiar with the story enough myself to retell it) was James Small, a South African of English heritage who one panellist described as being an ‘insider-outsider’ within the team in that he was South African yet not felt to be as South African in a rugby union context as as an Afrikaner.

The way in which Afrikaners captured rugby as a symbol of Afrikanerdom in the years after their first tour to Europe in 1906 is a fascinating historical process.*** Small’s perceived position as insider-outsider has resonances with my own recent work on another South African sporting figure, Percy Sherwell, who captained the cricket team that came to England in 1907.**** Following the work of John Lambert (among others) I’ve analysed him as a forgotten man of South African sport, forgotten because he was a British South African, whose ability to be either English in England or South African in South Africa was ambiguous. He is condemned to live in the shadow of the über-South African Paul Roos, the Afrikaner captain of the 1906 Springboks.

And then I noticed that the liminality of the British South African identity, which I think continues to exist to the present day, was laid out there in the panel in front of me. Two South Africans (one Afrikaner, one Xhosa), two Americans and one Kiwi – where was the British South African?

It really encouraged to think that I might be on to something with my line on Sherwell …

* On this occasion I was fortunate to meet Greg Ryan, who challenges myths about the history of New Zealand rugby eloquently and perceptively.

** Tony’s book, The Oval World is published shortly. If you want to hear more about the book direct from the man himself he’ll be speaking at the IHR seminar at Senate House on October 5th.

The Oval World

The Oval World

*** I hope that some of the popular coverage of the game during the 2015 World Cup will at least give some attention to the political-historical aspects of rugby.

**** Yeah, I know, I bored on about him already didn’t I?


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