Saturday, March 7, 2015

Mike Marqusee

Mike Marqusee died earlier this year at the age of 61. It was a terribly sad loss for those close to him. Mike was only an acquaintance, yet those of us who knew him only briefly or through his writing feel something of that loss as well.

Others will have written about Mike's politics, his activism, his fierce intelligence, his poetry, his love of India, his interest in Blake, his passion for Dylan, his writings on the NHS and his fight against cancer. Other have written of his deep humanity and compassion - not least Talha Ahsan in this beautiful, moving obituary.

I want to say something about Mike's sports books. But before I do I will offer one memory of Mike's political activism. I saw him speak at an anti-war rally shortly after 9/11. Already a narrative was being constructed in the media and by politicians that we were entering a new clash of civilisations. On one side stood America and its allies in the West, on the other the Arab world. Mike destroyed the binary rhetoric in seconds. "I am an American Jew, born in New York," he told the crowd. "And I oppose the drive to war." Principled internationalism and solidarity - it was a powerful message.

I first met Mike when he spoke at a meeting in about 2000, maybe 2001. He talked about the link between politics and sport, about the Vietnam War, about racism in the United States and about Muhammad Ali. As a young man who had grown up a sports fan and then became a socialist this was dynamite. The two passions of my life were intertwined after all. And I was captivated by Mike. He spoke convincingly, with passion and conviction, and an assuredness that I hadn't thought possible.

After the meeting, I lingered, hoping to ask Mike a question. I don't for the life of me remember what I asked although I do remember that he answered at length and with great precision. As I was about to wander off he looked down at my sweatshirt, the front of which was emblazoned with the word 'ADIDAS'. "How much are they paying you to wear that," he enquired.  Er... My mum had bought it for me, I mumbled in explanation, I had nothing else clean. Despite the gentle ribbing my hero-worship remained intact.

In the weeks that followed I sought out a copy of Anyone But England, Mike's history of English cricket. It was the first 'proper' sports book I had read, and my first impression when I had finished reading it was simply to wonder how on earth it was possible for anyone to know so much about the game. But this was no mere list of facts, names and events. Anyone But England ties together the story of this supposedly quintessential English pastime with a history of the British Empire and the vicissitudes of the nation's place in the world. It is, in turn, a biting polemic, a compelling historical investigation and an indictment of racism, commercialism and the bastardisation of play.

Some years later I listened to a lecture given by a historian who was in the process of writing his own history of English cricket. Veering somewhat off-topic he lamented the fact that Marxism had seemingly gained a certain ground in the field of sports history. For five minutes he rambled on about the left in academia before providing two pieces of evidence that proved - conclusively! - that Marxism had nothing to offer the discipline. Firstly, the fact that some football players cross themselves before coming on to the field demonstrated that Marxist talk of secularization was nonsense. Secondly, he said he had just finished reading Anyone But England and had found that it contained one or two mistakes. Is it possible that the book incorrectly records a date or attributes the wrong initials to a cricketer who plied his trade in the nineteenth century? It is possible, I presume. What I am certain of is that Mike would have taken great delight in being included as Exhibit B in this ridiculous case for the prosecution.

If Anyone But England impressed me, it had nothing on Mike's biography of the greatest sportsperson of all time, Muhammad Ali. Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties is, in my opinion, the single greatest sports biography ever written. One might argue that Ali is a gimme for a sports writer, a figure so entertaining, so interesting, that any work that included him as its subject matter was bound to prove a success. And there are certainly many great works that tell Ali's story - Thomas Hauser's encyclopaedic Muhammad Ali and the wonderful film When We Were Kings being two obvious examples. Yet Redemption Song is something else again.

Not only did Mike possess a prose style the likes of which would be envied by any writer, let alone a sports writer, he also had an immense talent for weaving together the personal, the political, wider cultural interests and the sporting. So it is that he finds time in the book to discuss Sam Cooke and Bob Dylan, Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, George Foreman and Joe Frazier. Mike's own life brought invaluable insight to the work. When he assesses the anti-Vietnam War movement, he does so with an activist's eye; his political analysis of X, Martin Luther King and the Nation of Islam is razor sharp. In Redemption Song, Ali is rescued from posterity, cast as an unlikely synthesis of opposition to racism and war, yet not once does Mike lose sight of the reluctance, bullishness and contradictions that process entailed. It is a majestic piece of writing.

I last saw Mike Marqusee speak at the Ralph Miliband Memorial Lecture in February 2014 on "Nationalism, Internationalism and Global Sport". He was frail and croaky and told me he didn't think he'd be able to speak for more than half an hour. He spoke for nearly ninety minutes, warming to his task all the way. By the end - as was so often the way with Mike's words, either spoken or written - I knew a hell of a lot more and understood the world that little bit better.

Mike's death leaves an enormous void for those of us on the left. As Dave Zirin has said he is "irreplaceable". In particular those socialists among us who think that we should have something to say about sport in all its many and varied forms have lost an important voice. He leaves behind a legacy of powerful, beautiful writing. We should treasure it, learn from it, and, most of all, build on it.