‘We Want Falmer’: a case study of self-organised learning in a community

I published my first book, Information Obesity, in 2009. I wanted to write it in an accessible way, hoping that it might reach a more general audience than just other academics (and maybe it is a comment on the way the UK judges the ‘output’ of its researchers that this means it is unlikely to be considered worthy of entry in the 2014 exercise, being ‘not academic enough’ – but that is another story for another time). As a consequence, where I needed to illustrate theoretical or abstract points, I tried to draw on examples that meant something to me personally. This also brought into the book the subjective element, which I argue is one of three essential aspects to how we value information and thus create meaning, along with intersubjective and objective values: but, again, that is something to explore later.

One recurring reference, coming up three or four times in the book, was to my being a fan of Brighton & Hove Albion FC. I accept that it probably seems rather trivial, even facetious to include such an example, and at least one reviewer picked me up on this at the time. I’ve subsequently been told off for mentioning it elsewhere, for instance, in a recent funding bid. But I stand by its inclusion in the book, and its relevance to the subject of community-based, self-organised learning; and the creation of informational resources. This blog post briefly explains why.

Goal celebrations at the Amex

The community of Brighton fans – celebrating a goal at their Amex stadium

In the first place, football fandom is an excellent illustration of the nature of ‘community’. People don’t form any kind community, or feel themselves to be members of a community, simply because they are in proximity to one another, whether in a settlement, a workplace, or anywhere else. Certainly there are times when you might be told you belong to a particular community – if you are a man who prefers men in bed you might be assumed to be a member of the ‘gay community’ and if your name is Liebowitz you might be told you are a member of the ‘Jewish community’ whether you go to a synagogue or not. But this glosses over the essential issue here, which is that community is based on the idea of sharing. (See pp. 17-18 of Information Obesity and also page 24 of P. B. Clarke’s book, Deep Citizenship (1996)).

The word ‘community’ comes from the Latin root word communis meaning to share, to hold in common – as in other words such as commune, communal, Communism – and, significantly, communication. Community members share symbols, they share memories, significant issues, events, and so on. Ultimately there is a shared identity which does not preclude any individual being a part of multiple communities, but which does, at least in some way, give them common ground with others who are members of the same community. Fans of a particular football team – say, Brighton – may well not live in the city (I never have), or even the county of Sussex, which is another identity the club also appeal to, not least through its club song Sussex by the Sea (a shared symbol). But wherever they are, all around the world, a series of shared events (each match, most obviously), symbols like the club’s blue-and-white striped kit, the seagull motif and nickname, star players, rival clubs, and so on, all serve as centres of gravitation around which a common identity can coalesce. I may never have met someone before but if we’re both Brighton fans it won’t be hard to strike up a conversation (to communicate with them, in other words): and the same is true, in different ways, for any fan of English football all over the world. (If you ever want to strike up a conversation with a Norwegian man, just wear a scarf or shirt from any English football team, however obscure.)

Among the things that community members share are shared threats. You may never have particularly associated with your neighbours but if you all find out that there are plans to drive a motorway through the woodland at the bottom of your gardens, you will almost certainly find common cause in objecting to it – it may therefore bring you closer together as a community.

In 1995 news broke that the then-owner of BHAFC, Bill Archer, planned to sell off the club’s stadium, without there being plans for any replacement. Archer had bought the club for the grand total of £56, and then changed the company’s Articles of Association, which forbade any investor from taking out more money than he had put in. In essence, he was asset-stripping. In 1997 the club were forced to leave the Goldstone Ground which was, eventually, turned into a retail park at considerable profit to Archer (figures of £24 million have been mentioned – see the references below). The fans of the club launched a long battle to save the club in the face of this shared threat, which progressed through two main stages: first, ousting Archer from his position of control of the club; second, bringing the club back to Brighton, surmounting enormous bureaucratic obstacles in the shape of planning laws. The first phase took two years; the second was only concluded in 2011 when the club moved to its new stadium on the edge of the city, the American Express Community Stadium (pictured).

The American Express Community Stadium

A corner of The American Express Community Stadium

Plenty more detail on these events is available in North & Hodson’s two books, one for each phase of the struggle (and these are themselves good examples of how to write in a ‘multi-voiced’ way: the authors’ voice is not present in the books at all, they are made up entirely of quotations from fans, players, officials and other participants in the campaign); so I won’t keep on about them. What I want to do here is show why I think this campaign epitomises the sort of thing I want this blog to focus on – that is, how to build and sustain spaces in which self-organised learning can take place, which is, in the end, what I mean by ‘anarchic education’.

The BHAFC campaign did not have ‘leaders’ in the way a political party does. Although there were clearly certain people who played a more prominent role in it than others – and the list of contributors to both the North & Hodson books may as well serve as a register – they did not get elected, or appointed. They simply emerged, spontaneously, at times when their particular skills were most in demand. At first, what was required was publicity and mobilisation. The story about the sale of the Goldstone and the change in the Articles of Association was first broken by the Brighton & Hove daily newspaper, the Argus (and was therefore an example of the value of investigative journalism). But that did not automatically result in the formation of an organised campaign of protest, still less an effective campaign. What then had to emerge was an effective network of communication – spaces within which activity could happen and learning take place.

That all this happened in the mid-1990s is, I believe, significant, because though there had been similar protests before – Charlton Athletic, a south London club, in the 1980s, springs to mind – the Brighton campaign was the first to take place after the massification and popularisation of the Internet around this time. Email lists and web sites served as the necessary conduits of communication – not the only ones by any means, but they were significant, particularly for geographically distant members of the community such as myself (I last lived in Sussex in 1991 and at the time of the campaign was a student at the University of Leeds). One significant web site which emerged from the protest was www.clubsincrisis.com – which I return to below. It is impossible to really judge the impact that these media had on the campaign – Charlton’s proves that one does not actually need the Internet per se – but without some form of space in which the community can share information, ideas, debate and so on, no political activity can succeed; that is surely self-evident.

Another reason that this is a good case study of self-organised learning is that in advance of the Argus’s breaking of the news, no one could have predicted what learning needs the community was going to have. We were football fans, we cared about results, meeting up before games for a drink, who the club was going to sign to play up front, these kinds of thing. In 1994, at least without a huge amount of (pessimistic) foresight, who could have predicted that this community would need to become experts on – at least – the following:
company law (this being necessary to show that Archer’s changing of the Articles of Association was an act of aggression against the club and its fans);

  • planning law (the inquiry into the new Amex stadium was incredibly long and drawn-out, and many fans – including myself – made some kind of contribution to the club’s case for a new stadium);
  • peaceful political protest (fans engaged in this many times, including a march through London, delivering a giant Valentines’ card to John Prescott’s constituency office in Hull [Prescott was the man who ultimately had the final decision on the Amex, and to be fair to him, as North & Hodson’s book shows, was broadly supportive throughout]);
  • standing as candidates in local elections as the Seagull Party;
  • media work;
  • and more.

In several cases the campaign benefited from the input of professionals who were experts in these fields (e.g. Paul Hayward, chief sports writer of the Daily Telegraph); in many cases, though not all, they were also members of the Albion fan community. But the campaign certainly required others to learn their way into these professionalised skill sets.

You see – this is the way of learning. Most of the time, you don’t know in advance what it is you need to learn. And when you find out, you don’t then look around to see which nearby university is, say, offering a course in ‘How to Stop Your Club Being Asset-Stripped’ and register in a series of formal classes, undertake an assessment, get a certificate of some kind and then get down to the task at hand. That’s not how it usually works. You just have to get on with it, and the validation of your learning is found not in some abstract certification but in the reality of your work and your activity – and ultimately, the success (or otherwise) of that activity. Brighton fans’ learning was ultimately successful; as evinced by the existence of the Amex, and indeed, the continued existence of the club. But no one, except possibly indirectly, got any qualifications out of it.

Showing solidarity with Portsmouth FC

Showing solidarity with fans of another threatened club – Portsmouth FC – during a match between the teams in March 2012

There are other legacies too, which are the final thing I will draw attention to here. I mentioned earlier the web site, www.clubsincrisis.com . This is no longer being updated, unfortunately, but for many years after the Brighton campaign, served as a valuable resource for the fans of other clubs – other communities, in other words – who faced similar threats. North and Hodson’s two books do the same. For example, not long after 1996-7, Doncaster Rovers FC were also threatened with extinction thanks to the actions of their chairman, and close ties were formed between the two communities as Brighton fans tried to apply the results of their learning to the Doncaster case, not necessarily directly (though we did join DRFC fans on marches and protests, including at a match between the two clubs in 1998), but by showing the relevance of the earlier case to the new learning need. This is, to me, the most tangible, positive result of the learning which BHAFC fans undertook in the mid-1990s – the creation of resources, which comprise not just practical guidance, but also inculcate certain values: e.g. the belief that football fans should have a voice in what happens to their club, that we are not all ‘hooligans’ or at least, uneducated (I’m a football fan, and do have a PhD you know); and so on.

This is anarchic education in practice: and it can work. If you think that using a football club as an example in any academic discussion is trivial, well, perhaps this post may change your mind. Certainly I believe it is an example which has application in other fields, but I’ve typed enough for now.

I highly recommend reading the two books on the campaign which, as I’ve said above, are orchestrated by their authors, rather than written by them. They are:

North, S. and Hodson, P. (1997): Build a Bonfire: How Football Fans United to Save Brighton & Hove Albion (Stripe Publishing) – see http://www.buildabonfire.com/

Hodson, P. and North, S. (2012): We Want Falmer! How Brighton & Hove Albion Football Club and its fans united to build a stadium (Stripe Publishing)

My review of the second book, ‘We Want Falmer’, is also available online.