The Heterotopia of an Off-shore Island: Popular Culture, Hegemony, Tourism, Identity and the Question of Death at the Isle of Man TT

David Walton


This article is based on a pilot study I carried out entitled ‘Place, Space and the Isle of Man TT: Probing the Boundaries of Hegemony through Popular Culture’ which was published in the ebook The Playing Field: Making Sense of Spaces and Places in Sporting Cultures (eds Colin Howley and Susan Dun, Oxford: Inter-disciplinary Press, 2016). This is the full version of this research.

Photograph taken from The Raven (Pub/Inn), Ballaugh Bridge at Isle of Man Classic TT, 2016. [Fig.1]

1. Politics and the Opening up of TT Space

Since 1907 the Isle of Man has been the home of the Isle of Man TT races and with over a hundred years of history, the TT has etched its way not only into the landscape, hearts and minds of the Manx people but created an internationally recognized sports event. Taking place on 37.73 miles of (temporarily) closed public roads, where riders reach speeds of around 200 mph (even though more than 250 riders have died racing at the TT, since its modern incarnation in 1911) it attracts up to 60,000 people to the island and, in recent years, draws more than six million television viewers worldwide during the race’s two weeks.[1] This level of popularity signifies that it is a mega-event worthy of continued analysis as a key space for the construction of multiple identities, forms of belonging and distinct communities, as well as being a place for diverse forms of meaning-making. The multiple TTs of my titles reflect the passionate interest the TT races inspire.

According to Vaukins,[2] the origins of racing on the Isle of Man (first cars in 1904 and then motorcycles in 1907) resulted from legislation imposed on the island by the Lieutenant Governor, Lord Raglan (the representative of British political power on the island from 1902 to 1918) and those members of the Manx legislature favourable to Raglan and the outside interests of the motor racing community. In simple terms, the races were established because British participants in the Gordon Bennett Cup in the early part of the twentieth century were seeking somewhere to test their vehicles prior to the competition (and, eventually, a venue for the races). This was impossible in Britain (even though Ireland had been used under special legislation in 1903) because racing was illegal. For this reason, Raglan rushed through the legislation to allow the races on the island, permitting little debate.

This legislative change also paved the way for the later motorcycle races. In this the geographical location of the Isle of Man TT can be seen as part of a socio-political production of space which exemplifies Lefebvre’s notion of space as the product of hegemonic sites of struggle.[3] However, in subsequent years the motorcycle TT events continued with little or no protest from the Manx government or people and, by 1929, the races were actually being deemed ‘worthy of political support by Manx taxpayers’.[4] This large-scale support has continued ever since, especially as the Manx people perceive the event as of great economic value and one of the chief ways of advertising the island and attracting tourists and, thereby, stimulating the economy.[5]

2. Economics and branding the island: aTTracting Tourism and Travel

The economic role of the TT can be summed up by the above title; however, as Vaukins notes, because of the lack of any profound political debate about the introduction of motor racing on the island, it is difficult to speculate on whether the TT was initially conceived in terms of its possible contribution to tourism and economic growth.[6] Certainly, its role as a showcase for new products (whether motorcycles, oil, tyres and fuel, etc.) was noted early on, but by 1912 members of the island’s legislative body, the Tynwald, were prepared to offer financial support for the TT for economic reasons (and, as seen above, taxpayers were eventually willing to contribute). Furthermore, to revive tourism after both World Wars, the TT received significant official backing from the Manx government, so what started out as an imposition on the island (but one not necessarily perceived as such) eventually came to be seen as integral to the island’s tourism, economy and identity. Thus, the profitability of the TT races has been one of the keys to the TT’s success in terms of its widespread acceptance by the Manx people and the TT has been considered ‘an early model of capitalist investment in spectacle and stars.’[7]

According to a BBC report (as indicated above) in 2007, the TT’s iconic centenary year, an estimated 60,000 people travelled to the island[8] and while this record number of attendees has dropped in subsequent years the numbers are still substantial. For example, a representative of the Department of Economic Development on the island has claimed that in 2011 some 37,000 visitors spent over 23 million pounds on events which cost 3.5 million pounds to organize. The representative emphasized that the profits were essential to supporting the hospitality industry, sea and air transport, as well as the local economy. Stress was also put on how television programmes broadcasting the TT were transmitted to over 80 countries and how, world-wide, ‘the estimated advertising value, that is what it would cost to achieve the same level of exposure through commercial advertising […], was approximately £2.4 million’.[9] Significantly, the representative explained that the Isle of Man TT is ‘the most recognisable brand belonging to the island, world-wide’ and it is for many people ‘the first thing they think of when the island is mentioned’, something which supports the assertion (mentioned above) that the TT is intimately related to the island’s identity (in terms of how the islanders see themselves and are seen by others), having become, in Faragher’s terms ‘a salient part of Manx consciousness’.[10] This is because the Manx people have embraced the TT such that it has become a key way in which identities have been constructed with relation to the island. Interestingly, there are no significant groups trying to ban the TT. Sporadic articles appear in the press and there was a Facebook page entitled ‘Ban North West 200 and Isle Of Man TT racing’ which, set up in 2014, only received 4 likes before being removed. Thus, any sense of identity, belonging or community has been built on legislative imposition from outside the island, but this has not stopped the island from embracing the TT as its own and becoming an active agent in its perpetuation. Furthermore, there is also the common perception that the TT was actually the product of native enthusiasm for racing on the island; something reflected in DVDs dedicated to the history of the races.[11]

3. IdenTiTy: the Social-Economic-Ideological Production of Space

In this section I want to explore a sense of belonging not only in terms of Manx identity, but also identity formation in terms of road racing itself. The Isle of Man TT races are not just a temporary incursion into the life of the island but a sport that has become an enduring and fundamental part of its landscape. Note that the two weeks that the TT takes place (in May and June) are complemented by a further two weeks of racing events at the end of August (the Classic TT and Manx Grand Prix), and the latter helps to consolidate the island as an enduring and (the) major site for road racing.

When considering the identity of the island, Vaukins argues that the Isle of Man resulted from dual ‘place myths’. His argument hinges on the idea that prior to the First World War the TT was not considered, either by the Manx people or outsiders, a fundamental part of the island’s identity. However, he indicates that during the interwar years a number of changes transformed the TT races from ‘a small domestic event’ to ‘an internationally renowned competition’. This was owing to constitutional changes, where members of the Manx legislature had a greater say on the future of the races, a ‘reorientation of the Manx economy’ away from fishing, mining, farming and manufacturing (which put greater emphasis on the tourist trade), active campaigns by the Isle of Man Government’s Board of Advertising to advertise the races, as well as greater economic support for the races from motorcycle manufacturers. All this helped to give the races a more international profile.[12]

It is important to contrast these changes with the more traditional representations of the island emphasizing its Celtic history, such as the island’s Highland games and the annual Tynwald ceremony, its language, its seaside towns and the island’s natural beauty.[13] This has led Vaukins and other historians of the races to write of competing ‘myths’, Vaukins writing that during the interwar period ‘a new contrasting place-myth based on speed, danger and technology’ that would merge with the more traditional ways of seeing the island.[14] In similar terms, Geoff Crowther asserts that since the  TT races began at the start of the twentieth century, ‘new symbolic meanings and place myths have emerged out of the embodied practices of motorcycle racers and enthusiasts’. He goes on to argue that:

The TT races reveal conflicts over the role of leisure and tourism in the Isle of Man, pitting those who view the Manx countryside as a place of peace and natural beauty, against those who see it as a place of freedom and escape to engage in sporting contest involving motorcycling encounters with the Mountain Course.  Simultaneously, the heritage of the motorcycle races is one of many tourism products to be encountered on an Island where new tourist destinations have developed as ‘attractions’ that have been constructed for commodified visual consumption.[15]

Crowther sees the marketing of the TT races (as part of the island’s attempts to attract international capital) as creating conflicts between ‘competing ideologies’ which reflect the opposing interests of the dominant groups involved: ‘the racers, the TT tourists, and the indigenous Manx’. While this reflects the varying ways the island can be represented, drawing on Vaukins work, I do not think these are necessarily competing ideologies: they can be seen as part of an integrated effort to make the island into a diverse but attractive and saleable space. However, I want to take up the question of the use of the word ‘myth’ since both Crowther and Vaukins use the word. I am not arguing that Vaukins’ assertion that ‘new contrasting place-myth based on speed, danger and technology’ and Crowther’s claim that ‘new symbolic meanings and place myths have emerged out of the embodied practices of motorcycle racers and enthusiasts’ have nothing of worth to say about the identity of the island (quite the opposite) but I want to suggest that the use of the word ‘myth’ may be misleading (or ‘mythleading’).

Both writers cite John Urry’s work Consuming Places[16] in which Urry uses the term, which is, in turn, influenced by Rob Shields’ idea of the ‘place myth’.[17] However, they do not define how they are using it. There seems to be tacit agreement on what it signifies; it tends to suggest that the competing images of places misrepresent the truth, a false belief, or even a fiction. Yet I would argue that the strength of Crowther’s and Vaukins’ studies are to be found in how they demonstrate how representations, rather than falsify the contemporary ‘reality’ of the island, give insights into how these representations link to the economic and cultural interests of various groups. One of the reasons the word ‘myth’ is used in the context of the island reflects Urry’s point that, with relation to consuming places, locations are visualized and represented in contrasting ways which can overlap, be transformed and contested.[18] As seen above, in terms of the Isle of Man this is clearly the case.

Drawing on Shields, through Urry, spaces are conceived as having their existence as much in the imagination as in actual physical reality. Yet the imagination (whether personal or manufactured within the culture industries), as the producer of images, is not necessarily a falsifier, as the word ‘myth’ tends to suggest (it might be noted that Shields and Urry are concerned with representational distortions, although their use of the word ‘myth’ seems, at times, rather too overarching). While I am not arguing that Crowther and Vaukins are dealing with incontrovertible facts, I am unconvinced that representing the island in varying terms is sufficient to regard these representations as ‘myths’. This is because both Vaukins and Crowther do not, ultimately, suggest that the alternative representations are distortions or fictions but simply alternative marketing strategies which emphasize various pre-existent facets of the island. In my view, just because something is marketed doesn’t necessarily constitute it as a myth (unless a Barthesian approach is mobilized where ‘myth’ signifies any value that can be traced back to a broadly bourgeois origin – something I am not convinced these writers do).[19]

This means that different communities of visitors are targeted as consumers in terms of whether they choose the more traditional attractions associated with the seaside resorts, towns, Celtic history, the Highland (and other) games, the Tynwald ceremony and the rural aspects of the island, or the various forms of road racing that have become mainstays of the island’s identity. Of course, these things are not necessarily mutually exclusive: visitors can and do consume the island in varying ways (coming to the island for the TT doesn’t exclude other forms of tourist consumption and many documentaries dedicated to the TT actually feature both sides of the island). It could be argued that the Isle of Man, during the weeks of the TT, becomes a huge theme park which caters for all-comers, providing multiple entertainment experiences and a host of services. However, I do not accept that just because varying forms of imagery are always socially constructed that this warrants the use of the term ‘myth’. A word like the ‘imaginary’ (as used in the work of Althusser)[20] may better describe these discourses of representation because while it may suggest levels of distortion (and that all representation is discursive) it is connected to the idea that these discourses represent ideological relations to pre-existing conditions which are not necessarily under question.

Yet, as can be seen here, these possibilities for identity are not only a product of ads and propaganda (ideology) but practices emerging out of material culture. For example, Rob Shields has argued that locations are ‘for someone and of something’ and this requires an analysis of ‘the different emotional geographies of people,’ whether they be city dwellers or tourists.[21] These emotional geographies are broad with relation to the island but I shall limit myself to those connected to the TT races themselves. In this context Vaukins,[22] drawing on Michael Billig’s work, suggests that national identity is not simply a ‘political principle’ but that a sense of nation is also conveyed through what Billig terms ‘banal nationalism’.[23] This implies that symbols of nationhood (and routines of life) are all-pervading and the familiarity of mundane features (added to legal, social and emotional factors) all help to create a sense of national identity.

This practice is referred to by Billig as ‘flagging’, a process which indirectly reminds citizens of their sense of homeland and belonging. The symbols and practices operate ‘mindlessly’ rather than ‘mindfully’ because they are so numerous and familiar.[24] Thus, for Vaukins, added to the marketing trends outlined above, the Manx people are enveloped in signs of the TT races: they live among the memorials to past riders, drive on the roads which make up the course, see the names of the corners displayed on road signs, pass the grandstand permanently installed at the start line in Douglas, invite visitors into their homes, and provide all kinds of services.[25] Of course, a significant number of racers have been born and/or live on the island and have competed (or have fantasies of competing) in the event. These features are augmented by socially generated collective memories stimulated by memorials (including corner signs dedicated to past riders), publications, films, documentaries, the TT museum and the sale of memorabilia, and the fact that many Manx people are involved in helping the events to take place as volunteers. As Manx historian Martin Faragher has stated:

Generations have emulated TT riders in their childhood play, absorbed TT facts and folklore and have later become course marshals with the power of special constables, and some have even become successful competitors. In 1994 one TT competitor in ten was Manx.[26]

Using Althusser’s terminology,[27] it might be said that to be born on the Isle of Man (at least since the interwar period) is to be interpellated into a vision of it as the key location for TT races. Through the appropriated and reiterated use of space, the continuity of the races through time and the sense of history (as memory), the Manx consciousness is continually forged in a geography which can be seen, in part, as an intermittent stadium architecture for the TT.

4. Identity and the Popular: Freedom, Risk and ConTainmenT

Yet these images (the ‘imaginary’) which make up the island’s banal nationalism (in terms of what it means to a large number of Manx people as the TT Mecca of the world, together with other more traditional features), also function to shape how the island is seen by those who consume it as visitors. Here I want to explore some further possibilities for the construction of identities within the multiple communities that coalesce on the island during the TT races. I shall do this by drawing on theories of popular culture, particularly with relation to the work of John Fiske, although I will question some aspects of the Fiske model. This theoretical basis will enable a number of arguments to be developed about identity and belonging and will be linked to how fans identify with road racing and how meanings of self and social relations are constructed and mobilized.

Drawing on Stuart Hall’s ideas, Fiske argues that popular culture is structured within ‘the opposition between the power-bloc and the people’; the power-bloc understood as a relatively unified and stable alliance of economic, legal, moral, and aesthetic forces. This is contrasted with ‘the people,’ who are subordinate and make up ‘a diverse and dispersed set of social allegiances’ and who are subjected to the power-bloc’s ‘attempts to control, structure, and minimize social differences so that they serve its interests’.[28] Yet the people resist and the relationship between hegemonic power and those subject to it ‘is always one of conflict or confrontation; the hegemonic forces of homogeneity are always met by the resistances of heterogeneity’.[29] While this is largely true in terms of the examples Fiske offers, in the case of the Isle of Man TT, it is (as shown above) the power-bloc that has been fundamental to the maintenance and perpetuation of its existence.

Fiske also argues that if the pleasures that ‘are offered and taken by the public’ are ‘organized around the interests of the power-bloc’ they are ‘safe, controlled pleasures that power tries to substitute for the dangerous, unpredictable ones of the people’.[30] However, I suggest that one way the subordinate classes, ‘the people’ as fans, habitually construct a sense of community and belonging is bound up with certain notions of freedom related to the right to put oneself in serious danger, something which is actually facilitated by those who are part of the power-bloc, seen by Fiske as being in conflict with them.

A common way of justifying island road racing is to insist on the personal liberties that enable its perpetuation, even while lamenting the tragedies that accompany it. Whenever someone suggests the TT should be banned, as former 500cc world champion Wayne Gardner discovered, this often provokes angry outbursts (and insults) from other riders and fans.[31] Typically, fans insist that people put their lives at risk in other activities like mountain climbing, diving and caving etc. and insist on the importance of the skill, determination and bravery required to compete in the races. They also argue that the riders are fully aware of the risks involved and feel they have a right to exercise this liberty.[32] This is a powerful form of identification that unites riders and fans alike.

The importance of danger and taking risks is fundamental to how many riders understand their relationship to the TT,where the extreme flirtation with death brings the most intense life-affirming highs. For example, in the Metzeler documentary of 2013, The Road to Legend: A Story About Road Racing, riders emphasize the ‘buzz’ of living so close to death or, as James Hiller puts it, the point of racing is ‘to push and live on the edge’.[33] This is something also articulated by Michael Dunlop in the documentary, Road, where he talks about living on the knife-edge between life and its fatal loss.[34]

The sociologist, Stephen Lyng (following Hunter Thompson) coined the word ‘edgework’ to describe those who habitually risk their lives (or livelihoods) by practising high risk professions or sports. Living on the edge (we notice that the title of Aragues’s documentary reflects this notion) does not necessarily entail loss of control, chaos and a death wish but customarily involves strict training disciplines to develop the skills which minimize risk and provide very high levels of control. This is reflected by a comment by a member of the Gravity Girls who explained why she repeated BASE-jumping. The feelings provoked by just being snatched away from the jaws of death were life affirming and not owing to a desire to die. The point is that she knows she is alive when she jumps: ‘every sense is working. … You want to live so you can do it again’.[35] The idea of living on the adrenaline-fueled knife edge between life and death, but surviving to tell the tale, sums up what many competitors feel about road racing; the title of Rick Broadbent’s book on the Isle of Man TT, That Near-Death Thing reflects this.[36] ‘That near death thing’ is a phrase used by the British racer and TV presenter, Guy Martin, who emphasized (in a very suggestive oxymoron) that if the TT was ‘dead safe’ he wouldn’t do it.[37]

5. Live and Let Die

So, added to the importance of living on the edge is the desire of having the liberty to be able to take extreme risks. For example, in the short documentary mentioned above, The Road to Legend, the Australian racer, Josh Brookes, emphasizes the sense of freedom at the TT in a world where everything in life seems to be controlled, from paying taxes to observing speed limits. In the book by Rick Broadbent (mentioned above), Guy Martin articulates similar feelings when he says: ‘Everything’s been so sanitised with bloody PC nonsense and health and safety that there’s nothing else, is there?’.[38]

Fans also echo these libertarian messages.[39] An eloquent example of this is stated by an American aficionado of the Isle of Man TT in Richard de Aragues’s documentary of 2011, TT Closer to the Edge, who states that there’s no question that the Isle of Man TT ‘represents a kind of a last bastion of freedom of choice’ and that to have something so ‘truly potentially dangerous’ is ‘refreshing’. ‘charming’ and ‘all of the things that should be allowed to go on in other places’. He concludes that, ‘we’re human beings. Life isn’t a dress rehearsal. You only get one lap. Why not make it a good one?’[40] The libertarian ideals of the racers and fans coincide with those of the organizers. The (few) individuals (largely outside the island) who are against the TT on the grounds of it being dangerous are fighting against the popular will of the fan community and the organizers (which includes the Tynwald government, the Isle of Man Board of Tourism and Department of Economic Development).

Losing a rider generates intensified feelings of community. The documentary, Road (mentioned above), illustrates well how losing a rider (in this case Joey Dunlop) can generate great feelings of community, something which affects everyone from fans, riders, sponsors and team owners. When David Jefferies, one of the TT’s star riders (having won nine times on the island), died after hitting a telegraph pole at the TT in 2003, his demise created a great commotion (including some calls to ban the races).[41] The recent death of William Dunlop is another case in point.

Yet, as is common in all sporting circles, despite intense and sometimes acrimonious rivalry, the death of a competitor helps to unite the community as one and, in a TT where more than two hundred and fifty have lost their lives, the many opportunities for a sense of tragic loss have joined the TT community together. As Rick Broadbent has written, there is a ‘deep sense of community’ and those who love and are dedicated to the TT are subject to the twin emotions that dominate it: ‘elation and devastation’.[42] I would hazard a guess that these emotions dominate the fans and practitioners of all extreme sports, and in a sport that has claimed so many lives it is hardly surprising that Philip Neill, one of the owners of the TAS team (for which David Jefferies raced) has spoken of a ‘gladiatorial aspect’ to the races. Neill laments this and has insisted on improving safety[43] but the phrase helps to evoke something of the excitement, adrenaline and the dark threat of death or serious injury that galvanizes the community and is never far away (the start line lies opposite a large grave yard). Yet, as ex-TT commentator, Charlie Lambert, has written, while the age of the Roman Coliseum is long past, fans do not go to see people die but ‘on the mountain course it is inevitable’.[44]

Yet, the high mortality rate does not necessarily put fans and racers off road racing but often draws them together. This is akin to the Aristotelian notion of tragedy that unites the audience through the catharsis of pity and fear, but here the public sharing of grief is not at the symbolic level but all too real and sustained by notions of personal freedom. This is clearly illustrated in moving scenes from two of the documentaries mentioned above. Road shows the great outpouring of communal grief and solidarity for road racing when Joey Dunlop died after his crash in Tallinn (Estonia). TT Closer to the Edge features Bridget Dobbs (the widow of Paul Dobbs) who discusses her husband’s death at the Isle of Man TT in 2010. While tragedy looms large for the loss of a husband and father of two girls, the dominant emotion she conveys is a sense of commitment and belonging to the tradition of island racing and where affirmative emotions of living life to the full and the joys this brings come to the fore. Bridget Dobbs, like other widowed ex-partners, is seen to return to the races and the community that is part of the danger but which also gives a sense of identity and belonging to those who are a part of the TT (even though the island has been cast as the ‘Isle of Manslaughter’).[45]

6. Escape from/into the Iron Cage: Semiotic Resistance

When riders see themselves as escaping the oppressiveness of everyday life by claiming the liberty to defy death at the TT they are positioned between two opposing forces in terms of Fiske’s notion of the popular. On the one hand, for Fiske, a cultural analysis will, ideally, reveal not only how dominant ideology is structured into a text (in this case into the Isle of Man TT phenomenon) and into ‘the reading subject’ but, on the other hand, ‘those textual features that enable negotiated, resisting, or oppositional readings to be made’.[46] This is what Fiske designates as ‘the ‘semiotic,’ where dominant capitalist forces can be challenged by oppositional forces as a ‘power of evasion’, the ‘ability to think differently, to construct one’s own meanings of self and of social relations’. This is something that occurs within ‘a realm of fantasy, constructed outside and against the forces of ideological subjection’. The politics of popular culture, then, is found in semiotic resistance, where individuals feel a sense of empowerment and self-esteem rather than something manifested at the level of organized politics. This contradictory dialectical relation can help one understand how the evasive and even ‘offensive’ semiotic resistances of the TT take place within the larger framework of island politics and the imperatives of capitalism.[47]

Adapting this idea, one could see those who race and follow the TT races as mere dupes, victims, or willing accomplices thoroughly interpellated by anything from the advertising campaigns of the Isle of Man Board of Tourism and motorcycle manufacturers to the ideological charms of Big Oil, as filtered through the fetishization of vehicles and the sports and other activities structured around them. Alternatively, the same people can be seen as active agents adapting things to their own ends by using them in ways not contemplated by those who produce them or creating their own meanings in relation to them.

However, the agents that make TT events into a reality cross the divide between the official organs that organize the races and those who, according to Fiske, would be carving out their own meanings against the grain of the dominant ideology (represented by institutions such as Tynwald and the Department of Economic Development etc.). As mentioned earlier, many of those who make the TT possible are organizers, riders and fans (including course marshals and other non-paid helpers) something which challenges the binary opposition found in the work of Fiske. There is a contradictory dialectical relation that can be explored here with relation to the way identities are fashioned, linked to what Fiske calls arguments structured around the idea that any ‘evasive or carnivalesque pleasures are merely safety valves that finally serve to maintain the current structure of power by providing licensed, contained, controlled means of expressing resentment’.[48]

In semiotic terms, TT racers and fans inscribe their own meanings on the TT as a place where they can feel freedom and release from the oppressive Weberian iron cage of modern life,[49] yet the racing on the island (as oasis of freedom) can be seen as a product of the system that fans and riders reject (which includes further rituals of production and consumption). I want to be free of an over-regimented life so I turn to an island that permits people to compete in the most dangerous race in the world. I affirm myself in this, yet recognize the production of motorcycles and all the other paraphernalia are part of the industrial capitalist system which has led to the highly bureaucratized world that I disavow.

The feelings of escape from the iron cage, while deeply felt, can be linked to how the existential pleasures of speed have been commodified as thrill and desire. Speed as thrill, from the outset of Western modernity, has been sold to subjects through everything from downhill skiing and fairground attractions to the myriad forms of motor racing (and even driving vehicles themselves). As Enda Duffy has suggested, the subjects of modernity were ‘incited to desire’ by what he, following Aldous Huxley, sees as the only ‘new pleasure’ invented in modernity, filtered through the ‘familiar mechanisms’ of consumer culture to provide the novel ‘sensory experience’ which was, in turn, promoted, nurtured, ‘celebrated’ and ‘thrilled to’.[50] By the early years of the twentieth century, through infrastructural, technological and engineering developments, ‘the era of speed could at last be unleashed for the benefit and pleasure of the masses’ through popular entertainment (which would include its representation in the burgeoning film industry).[51] Significantly, speed as gratification comes with ‘an undertow of fear’ and the fear of loss of control only ‘deepens the pleasure’.[52] The adrenaline fuelled thrills of these forms of commodification include, of course, not only positive exhilarating buzzes but the suffering felt by the consequences of the accidents, injuries, maiming and death so important to the catharsis felt by the follower of racing events like the TT. In this sense, the Isle of Man serves as a key space where fantasies of speed can be exercised and satisfied by both participants and spectators.

It could be argued that Weber’s disenchanted subject of modernity is, in George Ritzer’s terms, re-enchanted by contemporary consumer culture.[53] This does not entirely contradict Fiske’s notion of the popular but it points out how, at the experiential level, one can feel a privileged sense of freedom yet in a way that depends on the system that causes the need for a sense of escape and liberty. In this sense riders and fans alike can be seen as escaping from, but falling back into, the Weberian iron cage that envelops the human subject within advanced capitalism. Yet the experience of the TT at the Isle of Man goes beyond what I have been discussing here. To conclude I want to discuss forms of more open rebellion and delinquency on the Isle of Man and further ambiguities structured around freedom and practices of containment.

7. The Relativity of Rebellion and Delinquency. The Heterotopia of an Off-shore Island

Returning to Fiske’s ideas, if popular culture is ‘the culture of the subordinate who resent their subordination,’[54] then the TT would not resemble popular culture. However, some of what happens on the island during the two weeks of the races is akin to what, in other places and circumstances, would very much be in keeping with notions of the popular as something subversive (for the more directly subversive see below). For example, on the Isle of Man (as in parts of the autobahn network in Germany) there is no national speed limit (although there are speed restrictions in given areas). While this does not give drivers carte-blanche to drive recklessly (and there are penalties for those who do) it offers a level of freedom to those accustomed to much more restrictive laws elsewhere. Also, the tradition of ‘Mad Sunday’ (that takes place during the TT fortnight) allows drivers and riders to do laps of the course (but with some speed limits in place). So, bikers can feel they are living on the edge and do what would feel like something rebellious or delinquent in other parts of Britain (or other countries) but with relative impunity on the Isle of Man (and suffer the possible consequences). It is tempting to say that Mad Sunday and the no speed limit zones are a displaced symbol of delinquency, but it is not a displacement because it is actually legal. Yet it may have all the feel of a reckless and illegal act because street riders carry around the internalized norms of other geographical locations which are temporarily suspended.[55] In this it is possible to see a certain relativity of rebellion and/or delinquency. What is delinquent in one geographical space is sanctioned in another.

In this sense, and to a limited degree, Foucault’s notion of ‘heterotopia’ can be recycled to account for the geographical space in which the TT has its home. One of the many definitions of ‘heterotopia’ concerns those spaces in which a sense of difference can be affirmed and which offer an escape from forms of repression. They are not perfect non-spaces (utopias) but ‘places that are designed into the very institution of society, which are sorts of actually realized utopias in which the real emplacements [sites], all the other real emplacements that can be found within the culture are, at the same time, represented, contested, and reversed’.[56] Within these possibilities are ‘heterotopias of deviation: those in which individuals are put whose behaviour is deviant with respect to the mean or the required norm’.[57] Yet the phrase ‘are put’ would be misleading in the context of the TT because those who identify themselves as different or deviant with relation to the races envisage themselves in that space (they are the agents of their own choices and actions).

Foucault also relates the fairground and the vacation village to ‘heterotopias’, those ‘marvellous empty emplacements on the outskirts of cities that fill up once or twice a year’ with all manner of entertainments and with settlements and colonies which (once again, and however briefly) function as perfect (actual) places.[58] While the Isle of Man is not a British colony, it’s role as an off-shore island sets up the possibilities for ‘heterotopian’ cultures of idyllic countryside, beeches, gothic remains, Tynwald etc., and ‘relative’ rebellion, freedom and/or deviancy: where speed limits are lax and riders are free to race and explore (and flirt) with their own mortality – and, it might be noted, where the mainland rules governing the payment of taxes are relaxed so the super rich may enjoy the benefits of a tax haven.

However, this does not mean that offshore fans enjoying a slackening of the laws they are used to do not infringe the laws of the island. In Fiske’s terms, ‘social control’ is still ‘met’ by some acts of ‘indiscipline’.[59] There are those who break the speed limit in restricted areas, do burn outs, stoppies, endies (braking so hard that the rear wheel is lifted into the air) and there is some drunkenness and brawling (in the film TT Closer to the Edge, there are images of riders performing illegal stunts on the road, including the rider Ian Hutchinson when he was younger). Then there are the fans who fit off-road exhaust systems which contravene noise levels and emissions laws and alter their bikes in other illegal ways (removing rear-view mirrors, indicators, altering number plates etc.). Since the days of the ton-up boys,[60] the TTs, like many forms of motorcycle racing, have often inspired bikers to engage in delinquent acts. For example, in 1962 a radio journalist said of the races that they would continue ‘as the finest motorcycle spree of the year and serve, regrettably, as an inspiration for the ton-up boys and other idiots to knock down their handlebars and knock out the baffles and go and kill themselves’.[61] These acts are not reducible to the ‘evasive carnivalesque pleasures’ or the semiotic resistance that occurs ‘within the realm of fantasy’ mentioned above (although they will be invested with meaning) but delinquent performances, often tolerated, up to a certain point, when bikers come together for racing and other events (where money is to be made by the local community).[62]

In this context it is possible to adapt the old Birmingham School notion of ‘double articulation’ to describe the relations between the official politics and structures of authority of the Isle of Man and the fans.[63] The original idea described how members of subcultures both identified with working-class culture but, at the same time, kicked against authority figures from their own class. Fans and riders of the Manx TT can be seen to rebel against a sense of oppression in a world where risk is eliminated, as far as possible, and may feel opposed to the domination of authority yet, at the same time, identify with the official policies which support the TT’s existence, acceptance of injury and death (even Mad Sunday) and its perpetuation into the future. A fan may complain and feel resentment about receiving a speeding ticket etc. and yet fully identify with the politics and economic strategies which make the TT a reality because it both stimulates (and coincides with) their own interests, desires and pleasures.

8. Conclusion. The TT and the Isle of (wo)MEN: Gendered Space

In this article I have, through Fiske’s notions of the popular, explored the space of the TT in such a way that makes highly ambiguous any notion of it as either purely a product of dominant hegemonic forces or of oppositional counter-hegemonic cultures of resistance. These forces have been seen to cross over, interact to be locked into processes which are dialectical, shifting and ambiguous. Here I come to the question of gender, and it may strike many readers that this article is largely about men, and when women appear they do so in secondary roles as suffering widows or invisible fans or inhabitants. This is because those who race at the TT are racing in what is largely an Isle of MEN – even though women have competed, and continue to race, and many women attend the TT. Also, it certainly would not function without them in terms of their important roles as organizers, marshals, and members of pit crews etc.[64]

This is why these comments come at the end in the marginalized space of the concluding remarks. This marginalization, of course, has its own history. The first woman solo rider at the TT was Beryl Swain who competed in 1962 (although women were sidecar passengers before that). The following year her licence was revoked. Were women conceived as the weaker sex? From the confused vocabulary of the following reporter’s comments it would seem a difficult question to answer: ‘Women, the weaker sex, are muscling in on man’s domain, practically no sport is sacred’.[65] After this ‘weak’ ‘muscling in’ women were eventually permitted to race with Hilary Musson being allowed to compete in 1978 but the numbers of women racers over the years has been very low (although there have been a number of distinguished riders like Sandra Barnett, Maria Costello, Jenny Tinmouth, Debbie Baron and Estelle Leblond, amongst others).

It may be noted here that the ‘Gravity Girl’ quoted above emphasized the importance of heightened awareness and, while recognizing the element of risk, did not highlight it as a reason for doing BASE jumping, whereas Guy Martin has cited risk as part of the point of racing and he, like many others, have talked about a fast dangerous corner like Ballagarey (‘Balla-scary’) as a ‘man’s corner’.[66] Martin might be accused of a certain macho posturing here, but from the perspective of the TT racer, the sense of belonging to the TT as a competitor (rather than in another capacity) is associated with a ‘brotherhood’.

Of course, not all men are equal and there is considerable difference between them in how they externalize what the TT means to them. Michael Dunlop once said, ‘I’m a real hard rider to ride with. If you want to beat me you’ve got to be prepared to wrap around a post… That’s the way I race motorbikes. And I’ll push, I’ll push any man to the bitter end. If they want to play ball they can play with me.’[67] Michael Dunlop’s uncle, Joey Dunlop, the TT competitor with most wins of any rider (see above), represents a less aggressive and rather more modest approach. On being asked on how he rode the TT he was once quoted as stating: ‘There is a grey blur, and green blur. I try to stay on the grey one’.[68] However, the grey and green blurs, as seen from behind the bars of a racing machine, tend to be experienced by men, and while the TT Supporters Club now awards the best female competitor with the Susan Jenness Trophy, women tend to see blurs not as converging green and grey lines but as bikes that scream by them at speeds of over 206 miles an hour.[69] If more women continue to take up the challenge of the TT it may be possible in the future to write of a less gender-biased space. Right now, it’s not so much a case of ‘me too’ but ‘me neither’.


Althusser, Louis. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971.

Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. New York: Noonday Press, 1972.

Billig, Michael. Banal Nationalism. London: Sage, 1995.

Costa, Claudio Marcello. Grand Prix College. Everyone on Their Bikes: The Best School in the World. Milan: Fucina, 2009.

Crowther, Geoff. ‘Embodied Experiences of Motorcycling at the Isle of Man TT Races’. International Journal of Motorcycle Studies, 2007. Viewed 4 October 2015:

Duffy, Enda. The Speed Handbook: Velocity, Pleasure, Modernism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009.

Faragher, Martin. ‘Cultural History: Motorcycle Road Racing’. A New History of the Isle of Man Volume V: The Modern Period 1830-1999, edited by John Belchem, 364-375. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2000.

Fiske, John. Reading the Popular. London: Routledge, 1989.

Fiske, John. Understanding Popular Culture. London: Routledge, 1989.

Foran, Kelly. ‘Isle of Man TT: Meet the Thrill Seeking Women Who Dare’. BBC News, 2014. Viewed 2 April 2016:

Foucault, Michel. Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology. The Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984, Vol. 2. New York: The New Press, 1998.

Gibson, Helen. ‘The Ladies in Racing’, TT Viewed 2 April 2016:

Hall, Stuart and Tony Jefferson, eds. Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain. London: Routledge, 2006.

‘Huge Growth in Global Audience for TT’. Isle of Man TT, 2013. Viewed 4 October 21 2015:

‘In Junior Tynwald’. Tynwald, The Parliament of the Isle of Man, 2011. Viewed 4 October 2015:

Isle of Man Tourist Trophy Races: The History of the TT 1907-2013. Produced by David Wood. Isle of Man: Duke Video, 2013. DVD.

‘Isle of Man TT is Crazy and Should Be Banned’, Isle of Man Today, 2010. Viewed 28 March 2016:

Lambert, Charlie. TT Talking: The TT’s Most Exciting Era. Dorchester: Voloce, 2014.

Lefevre, Henri. The Social Production of Space. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1991.

Lloyd, Alex. ‘Surviving “Mad Sunday” and the Deadliest Race in the World’, 2014. Viewed 31 March 2016:–mad-sunday—the-isle-of-man-tt-s-most-dangerous-day-174208040.html

Lyng, Stephen, Edgework: The Sociology of Risk-Taking. New York: Routledge, 2005.

‘Metzeler: The Road to Legend: A Story about Road Racing,’ YouTube Video 13:06, December 3, 2013, posted by ‘Metzelermoto,  [December 2013]. Viewed 4 October 2015:

‘New Isle of Man Top Speed Record: 206 mph’, Motorcycle, 2006. Viewed 2 April 2006:

Ritzer, George. Enchanting a Disenchanted World: Revolutionizing the Means of Consumption. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 1999.

Road. Directed by Michael Hewitt and Dermot Lavery. Belfast: Double-Band Films, 2014. DVD.

Shields, Rob. Places on the Margin. London: Routledge, 1991.

TT Closer to the Edge. Directed by Richard de Aragues. London: Entertainment One, 2012. DVD.

Urry, John. Consuming Places. London: Routledge, 1995.

Vaukins, Simon. ‘The Isle of Man TT Races: Politics, Economics and National Identity’. International Journal of Motorcycle Studies, 2007. Viewed 4 October 2015:

Vaukins, Simon. ‘The Emergence of Dual “Place Myths” on the Isle of Man: The Isle of Man Tourist Trophy (TT) Races 1919-1939’. Recording Leisure Lives: Sports, Games and Pastimes in 20th Century Britain, edited by Robert Snape and Helen Pussard, 155-170. LSA Publication No. 107, Eastbourne: University of Brighton, 2010.

Vaukins, Simon. The Isle of Man TT Races: Motorcycling, Society and Identity. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014.

Walker, Jimmy. Just Joey: The Joey Dunlop Story. Bury St Edmunds: HarperCollins, 2002.

Walton, David, ‘Closer to the (H)edge. Documentaries and the Isle of Man TT: From Chronotopes and Masturbation to Celebrity Culture’, European Journal of Cultural Studies, 2016, vol. 19(2) 188-203.

Walton, David, ‘Close Encounters of a Deadly Kind… Freedom, Riders, Road Racing and Risk’, International Journal of Motorcycle Studies, 2016:

Walton, David, ‘Place, Space and the Isle of Man TT: Probing the Boundaries of Hegemony through Popular Culture’, in The Playing Field: Making Sense of Spaces and Places in Sporting Cultures, edited by Colin Howley and Susan Dun, 167-176. Oxford: Inter-disciplinary Press, 2016.

Willis, Paul. Profane Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.

Wooldridge, Ian. ‘How Many More Will Have to Die?’ Mail Online, 31 May 2003. Viewed 30 March 2016:


[1] ‘Huge Growth in Global Audience for TT’, Isle of Man TT, 2013. Viewed 4 October 2015:

[2] Simon Vaukins, The Isle of Man TT Races: Motorcycling, Society and Identity(Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014), 8f.

[3] Henri Lefevre, The Production of Space (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1991). Lefevre’s notion of space as the product of sites of hegemonic sites of struggle involves the idea that change comes about through ‘an appropriation of space’ (59) and that this appropriation is a question of political confrontations (which involves class struggle). I deemphasize the class relations here to explore how the TT was the product of political imposition related to the ruling elites.

[4] Vaukins, The Isle of Man TT Races, 76.

[5] Ibid., 4f.

[6] Ibid., 37f.

[7] Simon Vaukins, ‘The Isle of Man TT Races: Politics, Economics and National Identity’, International Journal of Motorcycle Studies, 2007. Viewed 4 October 2015:

[8] See ‘Record TT Revenue Boosts Economy’, BBC News, 2007. Viewed 25 March 2016:

[9] See ‘In Junior Tynwald’, Tynwald, The Parliament of the Isle of Man, 2011. Viewed 4 October 2015:

[10] Martin Faragher, ‘Cultural History: Motorcycle Road Racing’, A New History of the Isle of Man Volume V: The Modern Period 1830-1999, ed. John Belchem. (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2000), 410.

[11] For example, see the DVD Isle of Man Tourist Trophy Races: The History of the TT 1907-2013 (Isle of Man: Duke Video, 2013).

[12] Vaukins, The Isle of Man TT Races, 6-7.

[13] I put the emphasis on the more traditional pursuits here but other sports events are also held on the island.

[14] Vaukins, The Isle of Man TT Races, 8.

[15] Geoff Crowther, ‘Embodied Experiences of Motorcycling at the Isle of Man TT Races’. International Journal of Motorcycle Studies, 2007. Viewed 4 October 2015:

[16] John Urry, Consuming Places (London: Routledge, 1995).

[17] Rob Shields, Places on the Margin (London: Routledge, 1991).

[18] Urry, Consuming Places, 26.

[19] Roland Barthes, Mythologies (New York: Noonday Press, 1972, 109f.).

[20] Loius Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971, 162f.).

[21] Shields, Places on the Margin, 6.

[22] Simon Vaukins, ‘The Emergence of Dual “Place Myths” on the Isle of Man: The Isle of Man Tourist Trophy (TT) Races 1919-1939’, Recording Leisure Lives: Sports, Games and Pastimes in 20thCentury Britain, eds. Robert Snape and Helen Pussard (LSA Publication No. 107, Leisure Studies Association, University of Brighton, 2010), 2.

[23] Michael Billig, Banal Nationalism (London: Sage, 1995).

[24] Ibid., 38.

[25] Vaukins, ‘The Emergence of Dual “Place Myths” on the Isle of Man’, 2f.

[26] Faragher, ‘Cultural History: Motorcycle Road Racing’, 410.

[27] Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), 162f.

[28] John Fiske, Reading the Popular (London: Routledge, 1989), 8.

[29] Ibid., 8.

[30] John Fiske, Understanding Popular Culture (London: Routledge, 1989), 169.

[31] For the angry (and sometimes insulting comments) see the comments section to ‘Isle of Man TT is Crazy and Should be Banned’, Isle of Man Today, 2010. Viewed 28 March 2016:

[32] Even medical professionals have justified racing motorcycles in similar terms; see David Walton, ‘Closer to the (H)edge. Documentaries and the Isle of Man TT: From Chronotopes and Masturbation to Celebrity Culture’, European Journal of Cultural Studies, 2016, vol. 19(2) 188f.

[33] ‘Metzeler: The Road to Legend: A Story about Road Racing’, YouTube video, 13:06, posted by ‘Metzelermoto,’ December 3, 2013:

[34] Road, dir. Michael Hewitt and Dermot Lavery, Belfast: Double-Band Films, 2014. DVD.

[35] See Stephen Lyng, Edgework: The Sociology of Risk-Taking (New York: Routledge, 2005), 79.

[36] Rick Broadbent, That Near-Death Thing. Inside the TT: The World’s Most Dangerous Race (London: Orion, 2012).

[37] Ibid., 5.

[38] Ibid., 5.

[39] I use the term ‘libertarian’ here to describe those who insist on personal freedom over forms of state control.

[40] TT Closer to the Edge, dir. Richard de Aragues, London: Entertainment One, 2012. DVD.

[41] Ian Wooldridge, ‘How Many More Will Have to Die?’ Mail Online, 31 May 2003. Viewed 30 March 2016:

[42] Broadbent, That Near-Death Thing, 197-8.

[43] Ibid., 198-9. The theme of the ‘gladiatorial’ aspect of motorcycle racing has been explored in depth by the doctor who set up the ‘Clinica Mobile’ in Moto GP. See Claudio Costa, Grand Prix College. Everyone on Their Bikes: The Best School in the World (Milan: Fucina, 2009). I offered a detailed critique of this in ‘Close Encounters of a Deadly Kind… Freedom, Riders, Road Racing and Risk’, International Journal of Motorcycle Studies, 2016:

[44] Charlie Lambert, TT Talking: The TT’s Most Exciting Era (Dorchester: Voloce, 2014), 30.

[45] See Vaukins, The Isle of Man TT Races, 52.

[46] Fiske, Reading the Popular, 98.

[47] Ibid., 9-11.

[48] Ibid., 9.

[49] I am not using the term ‘iron cage’ in a strictly Weberian way where capitalist production determines life but drawing on his idea that bureaucratic control hinders a sense of freedom.

[50] Enda Duffy, The Speed Handbook: Velocity, Pleasure, Modernism (Durham, Duke University Press, 2009), 10-11. Interestingly, Duffy doesn’t mention motorcycles.

[51] Ibid., 100.

[52] Ibid., 106.

[53] George Ritzer, Enchanting a Disenchanted World: Revolutionizing the Means of Consumption (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 1999), 1f.

[54] Fiske, Reading the Popular, 7.

[55] There have been quite a few deaths over the years on Mad Sunday but measures have been taken to make the course safer by having one-way and single file sections and the imposition of strict speed limits in particularly dangerous places.

[56] Michel Foucault, Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology. The Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984, Vol. 2 (New York: The New Press, 1998), 178.

[57] Ibid., 180.

[58] Ibid., 182-3.

[59] Fiske, Understanding Popular Culture, 177.

[60] The ton-up boys describe members of the British rocker subculture in the 1950s and 60s. Doing the ‘ton’ meant reaching a 100 miles an hour, which was often the upper speed limit of the motorcycles of the time and considered a mark of prestige. For rocker subculture see Paul Willis Profane Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).

[61] This forms part of the commentary on disc 1 of the DVD mentioned above, Isle of Man Trophy Races. The History of the TT 1907-2006 & 2007-2013, 2013.

[62] For an example of toleration see Alex Lloyd, ‘Surviving “Mad Sunday”, and the Deadliest Race in the World’, 3 June 2014. Viewed 2 April, 2016:–mad-sunday—the-isle-of-man-tt-s-most-dangerous-day-174208040.html

[63] For the original term see Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson, eds, Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain (London: Routledge), 15f.

[64] See Helen Gibson, ‘The Ladies in Racing’, TT Viewed 2 April 2016:

[65] Kelly Foran, ‘Isle of Man TT: Meet the Thrill Seeking Women Who Dare’, BBC News, 4 June 2014. Viewed 2 April 2016:

[66] TT Closer to the Edge.

[67] Ibid.

[68] I have no reliable source for this quotation but it is typical of Joey Dunlop’s very understated style. To get an idea of Dunlop’s personality see Jimmy Walker, Just Joey: The Joey Dunlop Story (Bury St Edmunds: HarperCollins, 2002).

[69] The New Zealander, Bruce Anstey, is credited with reaching the highest speed ever in 2006: ‘New Isle of Man Top Speed Record: 206 mph’, Motorcycle, 2006. Viewed 2 April 2006:

Image Attributions
[Fig.1] Original photograph © 2016 David Walton. Image cropping and colour correction by Tim Fransen.

David Walton is Senior Lecturer of cultural studies at the University of Murcia and President of the Iberian Association of Cultural Studies. Recent publications include books, chapters and articles on new sexualities, the satire of Chris Morris, graffiti, the interfaces between philosophy and the social sciences, motorcycle cultures, and culture, power and space. He is also the guitarist, singer and songwriter of the Davoid Walton Trio, that is, when he not riding his motorcycle. He is probably one of the few bionic men writing for IJMS, for (after two motorcycle accidents) he now dons 29 titanium screws and four plates holding various parts of his body together (and, no, these implants do not set off metal detectors at airports).

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