Jackie Kay readies for an experiment – being a poet on Sheffield United's pitch and helping to kick racism out of football
On Monday I'm going to be pitching my anti-racist poem to fans of the Blades and Pompey at Sheffield United's Bramall Lane stadium, the oldest major football stadium in the world still hosting matches.
I'm an experiment – a poet on the pitch, but not a pitch-perfect poet. I might even be a botched experiment. As far as I know, I'm the first poet to read to a whole stadium just before kick-off – but certainly the first woman poet. The two women behind this initiative are Sue Beeley, head of community at Sheffield United, and Su Walker from Off the Shelf Literature Festival. They came up with the idea of commissioning a poet to write an anti-racist poem, read it at a match, and paint the poem on the stadium walls. They picked me because they'd read I was sporty! Beeley said: ''If it works, it will go down a storm, if it doesn't we'll let you know." Off the Shelf has commissioned poets for years; slowly, deftly, they've been creating a poetic map of the city of steel. In Sheffield, Andrew Motion has a poem on the side of one student building, Jarvis Cocker is on another, Benjamin Zephaniah on the railings of another, and Roger McGough can be found in the Winter Garden.
But the poem on the pitch is a whole different ball game. As it turns out, the idea was ahead of the recent news, and not a kneejerk reaction to it. They came up with it before John Terry's puny four-match ban, before Rio Ferdinand's reprimand for not wearing a T-shirt, before the insulting of Danny Rose in Serbia. Sheffield United are passionate supporters of the Kick It Out campaign, which started back in 1993, and each year they try to do something different to support it. They don't want just to wear the T-shirt. When you combine football with poetry or physics or philosophy, you get interesting new results. When you combine football and racism, you get the same old, same old. The powers that be in the football world, the ones with all the letters – Uefa, FA, PFA – should be doing much more to repudiate racism. Sport can be used either to reinforce or to challenge popular ideologies. We don't want a culture that says nothing more than if the shirt fits, wear it. We need a thinking football culture, a philosophical game of two halves; no more two-footed tackles. Racism shouldn't be given changing room.
When I was researching my poem, I came across Arthur Wharton, the first professional black footballer to play in the Football League. He was born in Ghana; his father was half-Scottish and half-Grenadian. He came to England in 1882 and by 1894 was playing for Sheffield United. He died in 1930. Wharton was my talisman. I imagined him coming back from the dead and hearing the news. I imagined his reaction to the monkey chanting. Just thinking about him made me think about the extra time on racism's clock; how racism is society's own goal. Shaming.
I agreed to write the poem because the world of football is so often depressed with stories of racial abuse, inflated egos, drunken vandals, sexism – and we rarely get to hear about anything positive.
Similarly, Off the Shelf is keen to get poets out of their comfort zones. Off the shelf and on to the pitch – I'll have to think carefully what shirt to wear on Monday. I do understand Ferdinand, Jason Roberts and others' beef with the FA, Uefa and the Premier League that a campaign against racism must comprise more than just wearing a T-shirt.
So, if not donning the Kick It Out T-shirts means the powers that be will take racism seriously, then they will have achieved something important. It is no longer enough, surely, after all this time, when every major institution in the country from the BBC down should be cleaning up their act and scrutinising their practice, to offer lip service. It's time to smarten up and play right. Nobody should ever say about fighting racism: done that, got the T-Shirt. I'm sure Wharton would be shocked to see the ghouls of racism still haunting the game.
Perhaps every football team in the country should follow Sheffield United's lead. Perhaps a thought-provoking poem at the start of every match – a kind of literary nutmeg – isn't a bad idea. It would be even better to offer the poet a footballer's salary for one week. Joke! But think of me on Monday when the whistle blows. That's no joke.
Here's My Pitch
Let Arthur Wharton come back from the dead
To see the man in black blow the final whistle.
Let the game of two halves be beautiful,
Not years ahead. Let every kissing of the badge,
Every cultured pass, every lad and lass,
Every uttered thought, every chant and rant,
Every strip and stripe – be free of it.
Then football would have truly played a blinder,
And Arthur returned to something kinder.
Let the man in black call time on racism.
And Arthur will sing out on the wings,
Our presiding spirit – the first black blade.
Imagine having everything to play for.
This is our pitch. Now hear us roar.