Stephen Wynn
ARRSE Rating
3.5 Mushroom Heads
"Against All Odds" is notionally about Walter Tull, a black (well, half-black) footballer who was killed in action on the Western Front in March 1918. I say "notionally" because Tull's biography only takes up a small proportion of the book - in fact, he's dead by page 47 out of 123, and much of those 47 pages are digressions and unrelated historical titbits. However, that doesn't mean this isn't a relaxed and enjoyable read if you're interested in the period.

It's unlikely anybody would ever have heard of Walter Tull if it weren't for the recent intensive search for diversity pioneers. He's variously described as the first black professional footballer (no), the first black British Army officer (no), the first black officer to command white troops (no), or as the current author finally narrows it down, the first black infantry officer to lead white troops in combat (quite possibly, even if today he might be described as "mixed race").

Stephen Wynn has taken thin details of Tull's life story and embedded them in a mass of tangential detail. As well as whole chapters devoted to the war histories of other players from Tull's teams (Spurs and Northampton Town, since you asked) and to "Other Black Soldiers and Regiments of the First World War", he has left no historical byway unexplored. For instance, in 1909 Spurs travelled to South America, so Wynn includes the entire (and completely unrelated) subsequent history of the ship they travelled on until its scrapping in 1933. However, if you're mentally prepared for these diversions and are happy to embrace them, the book's rambling chatty style is engaging and undemanding. It looks like an amateur effort - but at least it isn't subject to the typos and obvious errors that usually plague them.

The book's major deficiency is in its treatment of what arguably might be the single most interesting feature of Tull's career - the extent to which he encountered racial prejudice, and if so how it expressed itself and what obstacles it presented. Wynn sends consistently mixed messages on this. On the one hand he paints a general picture of intense racist attitudes prevalent in society at the time. But on the other, every piece of evidence he provides points instead to the individuals Tull encountered being entirely colour-blind, right from the children's home he was assigned to when orphaned and onward through his footballing and military career. With the exception of a report of racial abuse at one of his matches (hardly unknown today a century later) there is simply no suggestion in this biography that racism played any significant role in Tull's life.

This contrast recurs repeatedly through the book. To take just one example, on page 34 Wynn notes that "the colour of his skin didn't matter", but opposite on page 35 that "in 1914 England, black people were not treated as equals by the majority of white people". In addition, Wynn refers repeatedly to the provision in the Manual of Military Law that officers must be of "pure European descent" (which in the 1914 Manual is true, even if it specifically and only refers to officers in the Special Reserve), but then has to search for reasons why this provision was repeatedly ignored by sponsors successfully recommending non-white soldiers for commissions.

Wynn never quite reconciles the two very different messages. Looking at the sources he refers to, and especially considering the experiences of much larger numbers of black servicemen in the UK during the Second World War, it seems possible that the presumption of widespread and automatic racism is unsupported by any evidence in Tull's biography because it was imposed by race campaigners at a much later date.

Despite this major gap in the context for Tull's life, this remains an engaging read. But it will be of far more interest to ARRSE readers than to the general public (the dismal reviews on Amazon show some people were much more frustrated than me at the thinness of the material and the relentless padding). For us, three and a half mushroom heads.


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