Sport on TV: Barnes finds family tree has several suprising branches
Sunday 21 October 2012
It has been a big week for racism, sadly, and for those who do nothing about it. This weekend sees an awareness drive by Kick It Out!, the body set up to combat racism in football. So it was appropriate that John Barnes should appear on Who Do You Think You Are? (BBC1, Wednesday). The Jamaican-born footballer was targeted by English crowds, and the photograph of him backheeling a banana off the pitch became iconic. Barnes was to find anti-colonialist activists among his ancestors, but he also found a man who incurred the wrath of a black figurehead. His family history proved almost as labyrinthine as that legendary mazy dribble through the Brazilian defence.
Barnes's father, Ken, came to England in 1976 as a military attaché, having himself played for Jamaica. Soldier, footballer – that means some pretty uncomplicated politics. Barnes himself was never greatly interested in his mother's side of the family, such as grandfather Frank: "I thought of him as a feeble old man by a typewriter." And yet if an inspirational figure was needed for a young man in a strange land, it was Frank Hill.
A founder of the People's National Party, the first political force to challenge colonial rule in Jamaica, Frank was one of the "four Hs" – along with his brother Ken – imprisoned for their dissent. They even became a cause célèbre for the wartime British government, who ordered their release.
Hill, Hill, Henry, Hart: it sounds like a decent back-four for any resistance movement, and it was no surprise that the point of their existence should be brought home to Barnes in terms of the beautiful game: the military prison where the four Hs were detained became a playing field where Barnes often played football in his youth.
But if that got him politicised, he was in for another surprise. Like Frank, great-grandfather Stephen was a journalist, but far from being a revolutionary, he was a pillar of the colonial establishment who incurred the wrath of the activist Marcus Garvey. Garvey organised 3,000 protestors outside his offices at the Gleaner, and published a pamphlet denouncing his editorial about politically motivated violence in the run-up to elections.
Perhaps Barnes was better off concentrating on the simple things in life, such as kicking a ball around and enjoying the raucous atmosphere of his father's family. But the diverging fortunes of Stephen and Frank Hill show what can be achieved if you don't just sit on your hands and hope that injustice will simply disappear.
* Test Match Special it wasn't. The rain that stopped play in Warsaw (Poland v England, ITV1, Tuesday) was the best excuse for water-based bon mots since the wally with the brolly, but it went on so long that the studio seemed like a hostage situation. Adrian Chiles kept telling Roy Keane to "go down and sort them out", and no doubt he would be a good man to have around in a tight spot. But when Chiles slipped him the question: "When does heavy rain become an actual downpour?" Keane was at a loss. It's not often that you see the man rattled. Then right at the end they showed the awful dénouement of the Under-21s match in Serbia and suddenly it was possible to feel glad that you hadn't watched any football that night.
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