The Emperor’s New Strip

I once went to a football match. Motherwell versus Hearts at Fir Park, in the spring of 1958. One-all. I enjoyed it, but I’ve never gone to another. The same feeling recurred years later, reading the first hundred pages of Harry Potter: not bad, but did I want to read another two thousand pages when there were other, more interesting things to be done? Trains, which some might judge as nerdish (but turned out a much better bet than cars, and you can work on them) music, films, books, food and drink, and girls to share these, and a lot more, with. One said, accurately I thought, that, heard at night, the Whoo-Whooooo of an American train at a grade crossing was almost as sexy as the act itself.

My sporting indifference is actually shared by most Scots, Jill Tamson’s Bairns, who think the male-bonding issue is as boring as the game itself – thank you, Ruth Wishart! – and don’t want to get involved. But as Jean Brodie said about Girl Guiding, ‘For those that like that sort of thing, it’s the sort of thing such people like.’So why bother to stir the antheap up? I suppose because, unstirred-up, it exhales stuff like Gerry Hassan’s in a recent Hootsmon, in which he did in a fair imitation of Private Eye’s Glenda Slagg: ‘Rangers and Celtic’ our wonderful Saturdays! / The Old Firm, aintcha sick of them!’ or something of the sort. Hassan can file good copy, but some of his recent stuff has got an accolade from Brian Naeteeth, which suggests a period of self-communing. Caitlin O’Hara, in Bella on the feisty Mesdames Riddoch, McMillan, McAlpine and Blythman, points out how constructively critical of the state of the nation they’ve been, unlike the political men. But the football element seems even more to imprison old Macho Mac. The two collided when some commentator was found doing sexism when miked-up. He was on a million-and-a-half a year, which would probably bankroll every Scottish blogsite forever.

My brother Steve recollects that when he was an apprentice, in the late 1960s, your florin bought you a pint, a fish supper or a place on the terraces at wherever. Now the pint will cost three quid, the fish supper a bit more, but the football clocks in at £ 25 plus, unless you relativise the lot by slumping at home, pay Rupert, eye the plasma, neck a Tescopint and down a Chinese. We spend at least half-a-billion on football and precious little good does it do us, even in the recycling of the crazy salaries paid to the boys via the other bits – tits and fists – of Rupert’s press.

I’m all in favour of playing and supporting football – or any other non-destructive game of skill – as an aid to health and local patriotism, but what we have in Scotland is far from that. Our last great triumph was in 1998 when we proved it was possible to celebrate without success. In the cities of France a most unpleasant World Cup was looming up, with racist thuggery dragging its knuckles along any available gutter, encouraged by the far right. Enter the Tartan Army, which had seen enough of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart to realise that here was the stuff of glorious parody. Out of the woad rage of Mad Mac and his hirsutes – Michael Forsyth’s favourite film, mark that! – the Jimmy Hat was born, and inaugurated the Cup as Carnival, to whose huge street-screens you could take the wife and kids: a fest of wimpish, childish pleasure on which the venom of the yobs broke, almost harmlessly. The Scots were back before their passports, but the French won with an immigrant-propelled team under Zidane. Le Pen returned to his crypt.

That said, Scotland didn’t qualify again, and the rot went on. Grand stadia rose above struggling town centres, like the new cathedrals of some weird cult: Newcastle’s St James’s bankrolled by Northern Wreck after its original bosses (who rose with the out-of-town MetroCentre responsible for the rot) were on-miked trashing their supporters. Some tabloid found a Chinese city utterly devoted to David Beckham. Was this an intriguing delusion, like Norman Wisdom, Saviour of Albania? Not quite. The industrious Chinese were churning out football strip, which was then flogged to the fans at incredible mark-ups by the billionaire-owned clubs. And of course the plasma screen TVs, the instruments of Sky Sports, saviours of our remaining pubs, consumed almost four times as much electricity as old fashioned cathode ray tubes – perhaps 400 Kgs of CO2 a year – add this to your 2500 Kgs for the car! Reckon this toxic stuff up and Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Flannelled fools at the wicket, and muddied oafs at the goal’ seemed quite innocuous.

It is a fact universally acknowleged that small European countries do better than big ones. Might an aspect of this be that their sports systems will inevitably tend to be small and amateur, while a big country will have the overhead capital to keep up a league and its mass-market? This furnishes a whole lot of lucrative distractions from the business of living together modestly, democratically and securely, and will appeal to those – generally the rich and right-wing – who want to keep folk distracted. Here in Scotland we ought to be co-operative, but we have two rich stroppy teenagers in our kindergarten, and we get the worst of both worlds. Might our ‘Emperor’s new strip’ moment almost be upon us – at last?

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  1. bellacaledonia says:

    Chris, there’s part of me – not my heart – which instinctively knows much of this to be true. Football matches – espcially at the highest level – are a fertile breeding ground for all kinds of macho-ism, tribalism, festering sectarianism, homophobia, and even racism. Sexism? And then some. Its pretty much entrenched. In this respect football both reflects and reinforces many prejudices.

    But over the last three decades I’ve also watched the drive to extinction in almost every area of Scottish life – industrial or leisure – anywhere that large vocal gatherings of working class people come together. In this cowardly new world of corporate control, police surveillance, docile reality TV, and a near silent engagement with the arts, to paraphrase William Carlos Williams, it is the anarchy of the football terracing that delights me. I love it. I started taking my daughter to Hibs matches when she was ten. She loved it. The songs, the rowdiness of the old East Stand, the sheer exuberance and the whole “up yours” anti-authoritarian carry-on. There is a freedom of expression, warts and all, which legislators try, unsuccessfully, to extinguish. When they’re both old enough the only form of mental punishment I’ll inflict on my sons will be regular trips to Easter Road.

    Football is a very pure art form, one of the most intricate and subtle. Pele correctly described it as “the beautiful game”. People who wouldnt know a sonnet from habbie – and may not care much about either – have spent a lifetime learning to appreciate the different moves, manouevres, positional play, and every intricate variation of form, tactic, balance and control. Fans assimilate, record and subconciously analyse the performance of every player in their team over a period of ninety minutes. This is an amazing computational feat often involving singing, fetchng pies, shouting abuse at a referee, and cracking jokes with your mates. Football fans know their stuff to the nth degree.

    But I can also appreciate the sentiments of MacDiarmid’s poem “Glasgow, 1960”. Even if I think it is elitist in essence. Although, in saying that, crowds marching through Govan to a see an abstruse Turkish poet at Ibrox*, to me, is more science fiction than anything Ken MacLeod ever wrote, and more unlikely than Nick Clegg winning Man of the Year at a librarians convention.

    Kevin W.

    (*At Ibrox he’d more likely be called a Muslim terrorist. Or worse. A Catholic Muslim terrorist.).

  2. Kevin’s comments were thoughtful and eloquent, and you’ll find ‘James Hamilton Muir’ (James and Muirhead Bone) making almost the same legitimate defence 110 years ago in GLASGOW IN 1901. The remarkable photo of the 1950s terrace – individuated and collective – on the back flyleaf of James Robertson’s AND THE LAND LAY STILL almost makes Kevin’s case for him. I’ve tried to analyse sport politics in the chapter ‘Muscular Celticism’ of my FLOATING COMMONWEALTH. They were the possession of an artisan class who felt themselves the equal of their bosses at work – Muir on the Glasgow worker: ‘of servility he has not a trace’ – and participated in an amateur game ranging from mealbreak kickabouts to elaborate leagues.

    For someone congenitally incapable of eye-foot co-ordination (I ought to have come clean about that) I got the same kick out of trains. Raphael Samuel, no less, reckoned there were at least 250,000 of us in the UK, practical anarchists running our own lines with psychodramas galore. Graham Coster’s novel TRAIN, TRAIN (1985) is a subtle study of this edgy but resilient resistance movement at the high point of Thatcherism. The difference I suppose was that the Big Private Railway Scene has remained as contested and unglamourised as the ‘Old Firm’ must have been in the shipyards and pubs in 1911; the daft sums spent on players and PR and pocketed by directors relativised into what was needed for new track, or boiler inspections or lathes. Both pretty far from the target consumer with the plasma screen.

  3. Donald Adamson says:

    Thoughtful and thought-provoking piece, as ever Chris, but I think I’m with Kevin on this one. Some may smart at his use of “pure art form” but I can remember standing in ‘the cave’ at Easter Road in the 1970s – I won’t sully anyone’s ears or other senses with the songs we used to sing – watching the best Hibs team I’ve ever seen not only entertain us but stimulate us, intellectually and emotionally. I still marvel at the memory of Alec Edwards running at full pelt with the ball at his feet (total control), whilst pointing to the space on the pitch where he wanted a team-mate to run into to receive his pass. I won’t suggest you try it yourself but when I played regularly I used to, and it’s well-nigh impossible. The only player in the modern game that can do it with the same composure and consummate control, that I’ve seen anyway, is Tottenham’s Modric.

    Interesting that you almost mention Raph Samuel and hand-eye co-ordination in the same sentence. Raph himself had astonishing hand-eye co-ordination. I know this because there were a few of us students at Ruskin College in the late 1980s who fancied ourselves as table tennis players almost as much as we fancied ourselves as football players – the snooty Oxford colleges wouldn’t let us play in their cricket league because we couldn’t afford whites, so those skills were lost . But time after time, Raph beat the lot of us. He wasn’t just an inspiring tutor and historian and his premature death robbed the left of one of its most humane voices.

    Kevin’s point about the near “extinction” of spaces (in every sense of the word) for working class gatherings is connected, I think, to something that’s implicit in your piece, i.e. the middle class colonisation of football. This, it seems to me, is a much more important issue than the far right’s involvement in football. Not sure if this colonisation is as deeply embedded in Scotland as it is in England, but there was a graphic illustration of it a few years ago at Eastlands, the first time that Man City played Chelsea after the Abu Dhabi takeover. A young boy, a Man City fan, he couldn’t have been more than eight or nine years old, stood next to his proud father, and held up a home-made banner to the Chelsea fans with the words, “We’re richer than you” written on it.

    The middle class construction of working class culture as a ‘problem’ is nothing new of course. Whether it’s the Boulevardization of the streets of Paris or the clearing of the parachute settlements in Mexico City, or the few working class monumental spaces that exist in our cities – statues of Donald Dewar and John Smith just won’t do – are testimony to that.

    It’s fashionable nowadays for the middle class to argue that the ‘traditional’ working class is dead, or, at best, is in terminal decline and to conclude from this that, therefore, the working class is dead. Given that ‘traditional’ work is in decline in advanced capitalism the decline of the ‘traditional’ working class should hardly surprise us, but it makes no more sense to conclude from this that the working class is dead than it would to conclude that capitalism is dead.

    As you know, it was E.P. Thompson who made the point, in the preface to his The Making of the English Working Class, that the working class was “present at its own making”. In other words, it didn’t need historians, sociologists or class theorists to ‘discover’ it. Given that it was present at its own making, it’s not unreasonable to argue that it will also be present at its own re-making and re-constitution. The fact that sociologists and class theorists haven’t ‘discovered’ this yet is hardly evidence that it is ‘dead’.

    But Kevin’s right, working class spaces – physical, cultural and ideological – are being crowded out in our cities and in our societies. Like the “cathedrals of labour”, as John Gorman called them, that are depicted on many trade union banners, football stadiums too, used to be not only cathedrals of but cathedrals for labour. As more money has entered the game, and as the middle class colonisation of the game continues, those cathedrals have gone the same way as the English monasteries, to be replaced by something that unashamedly advertises that loss.

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