It’s time to step up: Mike Marqusee, and continuing contending for the living

The anthropologist Michael Agar once described his research practice – classic participant observation – as living the life of a professional stranger, living within a community but never quite part of it, or more specifically being a serial resident of other communities without ever quite being at home. There is a sense that ex-pats are a form of professional stranger, settling into a new world but in having learned the rules of that world as adults never quite knowing them ‘properly’, never quite having the right childhood reference points, never quite simply taking for granted that ‘that’ is the way it is.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that ex-pats are some of the most astute observers of the places they have chosen to live; no matter how good they become at being a participant, there is always a bit of the observer about them, there is always something about how they look at the mundanity of much of the social order that sees its artificial aspects. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the two finest books written about cricket – that weird, perversely English game – should be written by professional strangers in England and/or to the sport: these are, of course, C L R James’ Beyond a Boundary (in print all over the place, and written by a Trinidadian Marxist) and Mike Marqusee’s Anyone But England: Cricket and the National Malaise (sadly, now out of print despite running to three editions, and written by a Jewish-American born and raised in New York City).

Anyone But England explores cricket in declining imperial England, sketching, before many others came to it, the shift in cultural power and authority in the game from England and the blazers and ties of the Marylebone Cricket Club down a path that now sees the dominant forces in the game being South Asian, and the institutional headquarters no longer (metaphorically) a small office in the main stand at a North London cricket field but in a chrome and glass simulacrum of style in Dubai, where a recent advertising campaign suggested a plan to air condition the city. The book gave us a sharp, insightful exploration of a sport rooted in the landed gentry, adopted by the jewel of the empire and run increasingly by a bunch of colonials and subaltern. It traced the despair of a post-colonial élite with a pith-helmet-in-Puna view of the world whose cultural critique was that those colonials and subaltern knew not how the game should be played – yet by the middle of the 1990 only Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe had worse test-playing records than England (a test, in cricket, being a five day international match: the apotheosis of the sport). Twenty years later, it remains one of the sharpest critiques and analyses of English cricket, and was, deploying a sporting metaphor, a game changer; discussions of English cricket shifted in tone about the same time the book came out – although I’ll leave it to closer followers of the game than me to suggest causality rather than coincidence.

It wasn’t just Marqusee’s ‘professional stranger’ status that seemed to give him insight to the game, a status that allowed him to question the ordinary aspects of the game. He also brought to his work a viewpoint that granted authority to the dispossessed, recognising and highlighting the effects of the mundane practices of Power in the game and its institutions. In doing so, he popped the bubbles of pretension and distraction through which cricket’s power was diffracted; to suggest that Indian cricket was thoroughly corrupt, Pakistanis cheat and Sri Lankan bowler Muttiah Muralitharan a ‘thrower’ helped maintain the old élite’s cultural power. It turns out, not for long – discursive distraction has limited power against commercial demands and expectations in a rapidly globalising, neo-liberal world – the game followed the money. Marqusee popped the English bubble in two vital ways – revealing their claims to authority as little more than the emperor’s new clothes and exposing the ways that English cricket-as-played was losing its mystique in a shrinking world (he never uses the phrase, but this is an insightful exploration of what David Harvey calls time-space compression). Cricket looks very different from NYC relocated-to-North-London than it does from pretty much anywhere else in the Home Counties. It is a sign of the significance and power of the book that it is one of the few non-academic titles to have won the British Society of Sport History’s Lord Aberdare Literary prize, in this case for the best book in British sport history in published 1994.

Being a professional stranger is quite easy for an ex-pat (despite my 15 years living in the UK, I remain perplexed by nearly everything), but more difficult when we turn our eyes to home. Yet, a few years after Anyone but England Marqusee turned to a sporting question ‘at home’ in his marvellous Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties (like the 1st edition of Anyone also published by Verso). This traces Ali’s change in the 1960s from a fine boxer to icon of the resistance movement, from ‘Louisville slugger’ to draft resister. In doing so it finds the strange in the familiar to unsettle and disrupt much of the dominant narrative of Ali, it explores his complex – strained yet close – relationships with both Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, figures of hate for the US establishment, while unpacking Ali’s turmoil when he had to choose between them. This is the book of the athlete as political hero and fighter and of the social and political responsibilities of athletes; there have been athletes before and since with political impact, but few with the resonance of Ali, and there is little in the extensive Ali literature that makes as much sense of the man and his times.

I’m writing this on 14 January 2015, the day after Mike Marqusee died; he was 61. When he was diagnosed in 2007 with multiple myeloma, a form of cancer of the white blood (plasma) cells, he vowed not to write a cancer confessional. He didn’t but in 2014 he did publish a book of essays and columns about living with cancer, about the politics of health care and treatment, about the necessary complexity of the health system that was treating him and the luck of what the British call the ‘post-code lottery’ that meant he lived in the catchment area of one the world’s finest cancer treatment centres, a centre that was being gutted by government health policy: The Price of Experience: Writings on Living with Cancer is a vigorously political defence of a public health system that should demand our attention.

Why raise this? It is about a legacy and our responsibility: in 2009 Marqusee began a column entitled ‘Contending for the Living’ for the British magazine Red Pepper, a key and vital magazine of the British Left. The title is from Tom Paine, who wrote in The Rights of Man “I am contending for the rights of the living, and against their being willed away, and controlled and contracted for, by the manuscript-assumed authority of the dead.” Marqusee seemed to find in Paine a figure of inspiration and guidance for a democratic socialist politics. We’ve had tributes from many sources since his death was announced, including from Dave Zirin, the US-based left-wing sports journalist and columnist, who writes of Marqusee as a teacher, inspiration and model.

We’d do well to note Zirin’s words: Mike Marqusee’s sport-related writing is a model of what good, critically engaged, politically aware sports writing and scholarship should (there is more, the excellent War Minus the Shooting: A Journey Through South Asia During Cricket’s World Cup and the novel Slow Turn as well as many, many magazine and newspaper columns, all at his website). This writing is his legacy; we’ll be doing him a disservice if it becomes an archive we plunder rather than the base for a growing body of work that continues to contend for (the rights of) the living against manuscript-assumed (archive held) authority.

About author
Malcolm MacLean is Reader in the Culture & History of Sport in the School of Sport and Exercise, and is Research Degrees Lead for the Schools of Health & Social Care, Natural & Social Sciences and Sport & Exercise at the University of Gloucestershire in England. He is also University Lead for Research Ethics and Integrity. He is an historian by training with a first degree in anthropology and has worked in the public service and universities in New Zealand and Australia. Malcolm has research and teaching interests in popular culture, popular movements and colonial and imperial history. He is a former Chair of the British Society of Sports History and currently Council member of the International Society for the History of Physical Education and Sport.
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