Chris EtchinghamComment


Chris EtchinghamComment

The career of most footballers are the nomadic wanderings from one club to another earning a very good living but not always leaving a legacy at whatever club they plied their trade with. A few can make their way to the hallowed status of cult hero for their club, either through making an positive impact or by their hapless but well meaning ineptitude. Luther Blissett managed this not only at two clubs but also left a lasting legacy of political anarchy and subversion that would make most graffiti spray painting students envious. In three spells at Watford, Blissett accumulated a total of 503 appearances and 186 goals. Both are club records which stand to this day despite playing his last game for the Hornets in 1993.

Culturally his impact was significant too. Despite being born in Jamaica, he was one of the first black players to play for England scoring a hat trick on his debut in a 9-0 win over Luxembourg in 1982. His goal scoring record helped secure a move from Watford to AC Milan in 1983, however his career suffered and he was sold back to Watford for £550,000 a year later having scored a paltry five goals in thirty appearances. 

Here he could have been forgotten in Milan and written off as an unfortunate purchase, yet Blissett’s name was to be enshrined in political folklore forever. Before this though, he was embroiled in footballing urban myth as it was rumoured that Milan bought him by mistake thinking that he was actually John Barnes. Casual racism was nothing new to Blissett though, from an early age has said that “I was abused at every stadium I went to, not just by fans but by opposition players as well. At 17-18 it had an affect on me”; he has also said that he was racially abused whilst playing for Milan too. Not all are convinced that Milan’s purchase was a case of confusing the black men though, Italian journalist Gabriele Marcotti believes that at the time Milan were looking for an outright striker and even “the most provincial and ignorant person could see that Blissett and Barnes looked nothing alike”. Blissett’s troubled time in Milan was signified by his nickname Luther Missett and his inability to buy Rice Krispies “no matter how much money you have”.

In 1994 however (by which time Blissett himself was playing for Bury), his name was reignited in Italy in a way in which few could have imagined. A group calling itself the Luther Blissett Project (LBP) began popping up across Italy, first of all in Bologna before spreading to other parts of the peninsula and then abroad, making its way as far as the United States, Canada and Brazil. In 1999 the group disbanded and fragmented into various different guises but not before it left its own cultural impact.

Some of the group’s founding members tried explaining the origins of the name in an interview with the British press; “he was a nice Afro-Caribbean guy…his unlucky season even turned him into the target of racist jokes. The LBP is kind of his revenge on stupidity”. Their manifesto entitled the Declaration of Rights of Luther Blissett states that as capitalism dictates that any social activity can instigate value, industries within the cultural and media sectors should guarantee income to those who do not benefit from individual productivity. Furthermore the LBP felt that they were owed financial recompense for all the times that they had worn branded clothing without being paid as well as “all the words or expressions of high communicative impact I have coined…without seeing a dime”. Whilst the manifesto acknowledged that there could be no individual financial compensation it was irrelevant as “I am Luther Blissett, the multiple and the multiplex and what the industry of the integrated spectacle owes me, it is owed to the many that I am and is owed to me because I am many”.

They began a series of subversive pranks, that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in an episode of Chris Morris’ Brasseye. One rather clever and impish episode took place in Venice. Similar to when confused people woke up to the phrase The Stone Roses spray painted at various buildings throughout Manchester in the early 1980’s, a series of stickers were placed at the foot of signposts throughout Venice encouraging the reader to lean down for a closer look, at which point they would have seen the phrase “bow down to Luther Blissett” written on the stickers.

In late 1994 a radio station in Bologna commenced its broadcasting of Radio Blissett, featuring a number of Luther Blissetts who walked the city streets at night and contacting the studio from various public pay booths. The inspiration for such seemingly meaningless meanderings was taken from the Letterist-Situationist movement based in Paris in the mid 1950s. People connected themselves despite never actually meeting through journeying either the same streets or those close by to each other. Listeners to Radio Blissett could also contact the station and direct those who were walking the streets to various locations, or even create spontaneous crowd events such as street theatre or football matches. The phenomenon spread to Rome and led to one of the LBP’s most infamous moments.

In June 1995 participants in Rome’s Radio Blissett Radio got on board a tram in the city at consecutive stops and began a party in the carriages. Police were called and the situation developed into a near riot with police firing shots. Several protagonists were arrested by the now very het up and angry police who’s mood was not improved when everyone they had detained gave their name as Luther Blissett. The whole event was recorded by the radio station and consequently made its way into Italian cultural folklore.

Such flash mob enthusiasm was surpassed though by a series of hoaxes which were implemented by the LBP. Firstly there was the case of Harry Kipper, who was a conceptual artist from Britain who had travelled to Europe with the aim of tracing the word “art” across the continent. Kipper, who travelled under the pseudonym of Luther Blissett, went missing on the Yugoslav/Italian border whilst tracing out the letter “a” on his mountain bike across the landscape. An Italian TV programme, with supposed right wing affiliations, entitled Who Has Seen Them took up Kipper’s cause. With a track record of locating those who didn’t want to be found such as runaway children or even those who had gone AWOL from the army, the programme was perfectly placed to find the missing artist. It interviewed those who said they were among the last to see Kipper before he vanished and even went to England to visit his house. However all the searching proved fruitless, Kipper was nowhere to be found and with good reason. As the programme was due to be aired it was revealed that not only was Kipper still missing but that he had never existed in the first place. The prank had succeeded with its two aims, firstly to wind up a mainstream media outlet and show how easy it was to do so and secondly to expose the LBP to a wider audience.

Next was the case of Loota the female chimpanzee. She was described as the victim of brutal laboratory experiments who was saved by animal rights activists. Once free Loota began a successful career as an artist, she even managed to have her work exhibited at the Venice Biennale of Contemporary Arts and was reported on in the local media. Loota of course was a fictional character, no matter according to the LBP “disappointed people of the Biennale may turn their attention to a lot of garbage created by humans”.

The LBP pranks began to take a darker turn. There was Darko Maver a radical Serb performance artist who would dissect very realistic dummies of people in various locations across Yugoslavia in what was supposed to be a protest against the media representation of how the Yugoslav wars were being portrayed. A website entitled the Free Art Campaign announced that Maver had been arrested by Serb authorities for what called “anti-social conduct”. Maver’s work is then published in art magazines across Italy as a means of solidarity and some critics even announce that they personally know him. Maver then died in prison during a NATO bombardment and photographs of his body appear on the internet. Eventually it is revealed of course that Maver never existed and that the photographs of his corpse leaked online were actually that of an LBP member from Sicily. The photos of the victims that Maver had supposedly taken were in fact real corpses and the images had been lifted from the gore website

In 1999 the LBP disbanded after five years and its various members split off into various other projects, but not before releasing a CD entitled Luther Blissett: The Open Pop Star. One group entitled moved to New York and carried on as artists and another formed the Wu Ming Foundation who focus more on writing literature. The Wu Ming Foundation has written a book entitled Q set during the Italian and German reformation and is meant to display, according to an interview in The Guardian “the birth of all that is rotten in modern life”, showing the origins of intelligence surveillance and financial capital. The book was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award in 2003 and has sold more than 200,000 copies in Italy and has been translated into ten other languages.

What of Luther Blissett himself, what does he make of the phenomenon? “Its something that I’ve steered clear of” he once went on record as saying, “it’s got nothing to do with me. Nobody asked my permission to use my name or anything like that. But what can I do about it? They get on with it and I observe from a distance”. However following an appearance on ITV’s Euro 2004 Fantasy Football League it appears his tone may have softened. After Frank Skinner had read a passage from Q, Blissett produced a copy of the LBP book Toto and began to read from that. The sketch ended with Skinner, Blissett and other host David Baddiel declaring that “I am Luther Blissett”. For a player who graced the San Siro for only one season before disappearing back to England, Blissett has unwittingly left a legacy that has outlasted that of many of Italian footballs more talented imports.

Chris is @CArmband.

All images are of the Cimitero Monumentale in Milan and have been kindly provided under licence by Marco Pochestorie.