Friday, February 17, 2012

Obituary: Jim Riordan, 1936-2012

 It was with great sadness that I learned of the death of Jim Riordan. Born in Portsmouth in 1936, he was, by the early 1960s, a member of the Communist Party and a student at the Moscow Communist Higher Party School. He was a contemporary of Donald Maclean, Kim Philby and Guy Burgess (Riordan was a pallbearer at Burgess’ funeral) and it was during his five-year stint in Russia that Riordan would twice play for Spartak Moscow – marking him out as the only Briton to play for a Soviet football team.

On his return to Britain, he enjoyed hugely successful careers as an academic and as the author of more than a hundred works of fiction for children. Eventually retiring and coming home to Portsmouth, Jim wrote a column for the local paper, The News. His eloquent weekly rants against privatisation, war or poverty were the only thing worth reading in the rag.

It was through his work as a sports historian that I came to know of Jim Riordan. His works on the history of physical culture in Soviet Russia – most notably Sport in Soviet Society – remain the starting point for any serious investigation into the subject. His small book Sports, Politics and Communism is eminently readable and The Story of Worker Sport (edited with Arnd Kruger) is simply fascinating. Anyone who has an interest in left wing politics and sport simply must get a look at this incredible book.

Yet Riordan’s impact was, for me, not simply reducible to his academic output. I had grown up a huge sports fan. How could I reconcile this with being a Marxist? Whenever I got a copy of Socialist Worker I’d always start reading from the back page – finding a lifetime of turning straight to the sports section of a paper impossible to stop, even when there was no sports section! To stumble across Riordan’s work meant feeling I could do a paper sale on Saturday lunchtime and still go to the football in the afternoon.

More than this, sport became a legitimate field of enquiry for a Marxist. As Riordan wrote in his PhD, “My general premise is that sports and recreations are among the most revealing mirrors of many societies, offering a distinctive insight into social patterns, cultural values and even economic conditions.” If sports were important to working class people, then socialists should have something to say on the matter. As such he proved, to me at least, that attempting a career as a Marxist sports historian and writer might not be as crazy as it sounded at first.

It would be remiss not to raise a comradely disagreement or two on the question of Riordan’s work, if only in a bid to encourage others to read or re-read his writings. For all the talk of sports mirroring society I always felt that his work failed to deal adequately with the relationship between the early days of Stalinism and the development of sports in Russia. During the twenties Hygienists and Proletkultists offered new visions for physical recreation, often deliberately veering away from the competitive, ‘bourgeois’ sports of the West. By the late twenties such thinking had largely disappeared. Why?

Riordan argues that this was essentially a kind of sporting real politik, with Stalin and his bureaucracy using sports to further their own ends. There is much truth to this and it is certainly an advance on the kind of nonsense one reads suggesting that football, for instance, was just too beautiful a game for the Russian people to let go. However it always seemed to me that the re-establishment of sports such as football and hockey mirrored, both ideologically and chronologically, the development of Russia as a state capitalist society. It is a political conclusion that Riordan would have rejected.

Like many Marxists who write on the subject of sport, Riordan never offered an explanation of the relationship between play, games and sport. While writers such as Richard Gruneau or Allen Guttmann have looked to combine a theory of play and sports with historical analysis, Riordan rarely ventured outside of the historical. His attempt at a philosophical discussion on the subject can be found in his essay Marx, Lenin and Physical Culture, although I would take issue with his reading of Marx and the assumed “fusion of work-like activities with play” in a socialist society. But these criticisms pale into insignificance against the enormous inspiration I found in his books and articles.

I saw Jim for the first - and last - time when he gave an impassioned speech on the steps of Portsmouth Guildhall during a PACT demonstration in January 2011. Despite being in his early seventies he was as imposing as a public speaker as one suspects he must have been as a centre half some fifty years previous. When someone asked whether his appearance at a political rally might upset his bosses at The News he replied, “Fuck ‘em! They only pay me £50 a column anyway.”

Once or twice I emailed Jim asking if he fancied a beer, just so I could pick his brains on sports history. Once I sent him my work hoping he might comment.  All to no avail, by that time he was already quite ill. It is always sad when someone from our side of the struggle passes, it is especially so when that person, albeit without knowing, has had such an impact on one’s own life. Farewell, Comrade Jim.