Monday, 23 November 2015

Smashed in the USSR by Caroline Walton and Ivan Petrov (2013)

I know that many people's lives have been ruined by alcohol so when I say that this is a wonderful book it's not a glorification of drinking. It's just that the book's so very interesting. It jumped out at me when I first saw the cover. It doesn't disappoint.  

Ivan Petrov was a homeless person in the Soviet Union when homelessness was a crime. And he carried on an itinerant lifestyle for years and years. It was only when he claimed asylum in the UK that the writer Caroline Walton found him and got him to tell his story. 

In the Soviet Union, you often didn't have many choices in life. And the 'choice' of becoming what Ivan calls a 'vagabond' was a particularly bold one. But it was also two fingers up to the state, in a manner of speaking. Because the lifestyle meant not playing by the rules; not being the model Soviet family man. OK, it also meant getting beaten up by police and spending much of your life in various camps, prisons and other institutions where drunk people ended up. 

But Ivan and friends get to be rude to guards and police in a way that the hard-working population would never have got away with. That's because the homeless people really had nothing to lose. For those that drank anything that could possibly have alcohol in it, from perfumes to furniture polish, there's not far to fall. If you urinated up against a statue of Lenin, there was one of two consequences. If you were drunk, it meant a night in the cells. If it was politically inspired, you faced an altogether more sinister future.

The book gives you an insight into a world that has rarely been reported. It's about the underbelly of Soviet history, with Ivan meandering all over the USSR for decades from the 1960s. Yet Ivan suggests that it was in the government's interest to keep people on the cusp of committing minor crimes. "If someone then turns round and complains about the system, who's going to listen to him if his hands are already dirty?"

But it's the remarkable characters, who Ivan meets throughout the book, that are so memorable. How about this from someone Ivan meets in a market with the fantastic name of Sedoy the Poet of All Russia. He shouts this ditty to passing shoppers:

"Through Stavropol, unrecognised,
I wander as a shadow.
And I practise onanism
On International Women's Day."

Sunday, 4 January 2015

The Three Degrees by Paul Rees (2014)

I've just watched Swansea's fifth goal in the FA Cup against Tranmere yesterday. It was 'four on four' as the Welsh side swept forward. The four players for Swansea were all black and no one noticed apart from me. Because I've just finished a book about a time when, if a black player took to the pitch, they were made to feel like the whole world hated them. 

Time for some honesty. How aware was I personally of racism in the 1970s? I remember refusing to make monkey noises when black players were on the pitch, and hating it when a sizeable minority around me did. But I also feel ashamed that I didn't challenge a friend when he referred to 'Rilla Regis'. See below for more on Cyrille Regis. I hated Vince Hilaire; not because he was black but because he played for Crystal Palace. I hated all Crystal Palace players. (Yes - I used to support Brighton - here's the evidence if you really want to know). 

But my main thought on reading The Three Degrees is that, as a white kid growing up with no black friends in rural Sussex, I wasn't really aware about the racism. However, at the time, black players were becoming more and more commonplace on football pitches all around the country. There was a revolution going on under my nose in about 1978 and 1979 and I didn't even notice. But, looking back, it was an important time.

All of which makes the book such an interesting read. So: there was an emerging group of black players on the scene, but Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunnigham and Brendan Batson were part of a unit; they all played for West Bromwich Albion. And became famous for it. They even met the motown singers with the name they adopted. (Brendan Batson apparently hated this photo-call. He's gone on to be one of the game's top administrators. He thought this was flippant, but I certainly remember it fondly.)

But for me, it's all summed up in the goal that Regis scored on 30 December 1978 at Old Trafford (See here at 1'35" in). Cunningham started the move and it's one of the two goals that, for me sum up the excitement of football in the 70s. (The other was Liam Brady's swirler against Spurs). 

The challenge to racists was that Cunningham and Regis especially weren't just black players in the same team; they fed off each other. Cunningham was the play-maker; Regis the ruthless scorer. They were brilliant together; not because they were black, but because they were simply brilliant.

The book is nicely set against the Winter of Discontent in 1978-1979, the growth of bands like UB40 and the Beat in the West Midlands, and the general levels of racism in the UK at the time. So I heard the chants but I also saw black players acting as pioneers, holding their tongues against all that provocation - and doing their thing on the pitch. I'm sure I had a grudging respect for Vince Hilaire. I hated Palace but I hated Hilaire being taunted for being black. 

The fascinating part about the book for me is the idea that all three West Brom players felt that they didn't go far enough. At a time when racism was rife - Regis got a silver bullet in the post warning him not to play for England - you may have thought that just playing and securing their status as the Three Degrees would be enough. But Cunningham wowed them at Real Madrid before succumbing to injury. And he went into a downward spiral afterwards. Regis now says he should have left West Brom earlier than he did. 

The three had massively high expectations. And what expectations. Towards the end of their careers, both Regis and Cunningham picked up FA Cup final winners' medals. Yet you feel that wasn't enough for them.

I think it's been healthy for me to take a good hard look at how I reacted to the hideous racism that was all around me 35 and 36 years ago. The Brighton side had no black players. But black players were represented more and more in opposition sides that I saw and I feel lucky that I witnessed such changes to football and to society, even though I didn't realise it at the time.

Reading this wasn't just nostalgia. It was nostalgia with attitude.
It's as that trio - the Three Degrees - that Regis, Cunningham and Batston will be remembered, paving the way for those four Swansea players that did such damage yesterday. And the site of Cyrille Regis reeling away after smashing that ball above United's Gary Bailey in December 1978 is something that I'll cherish for ever.