The Premier League football programme starts again today. Part of me is very excited about this. Yesterday, I received my programme for the Brighton v Chelsea match on Monday. Today, there are four live matches followed by two tomorrow and two on Monday, climaxing in the Brighton match at 8:00 on Monday night. The Guardian today has a forty page season preview which, if you can get past all the glorification of Leeds United, will be a fascinating read. This will only be my fifth season supporting Brighton and I understand the disdain with which long term supporters of other clubs regard my new found fanaticism. Nevertheless, I can’t read enough about “my” team, the transfers in and out, the possible starting lineup for Monday and even the fortunes of ex players.
It’s very exciting but it’s also very depressing. John helpfully sent me a poster with all the fixtures on it and that was very kind of him but when I look at the Brighton fixture list, all I see is a list of things that I’d like to do but can’t. On one hand, I am aware how spoilt my life is and when I listen to calls from people who are in desperate straits I tell myself to stop wallowing in self pity. On the other hand, it’s still very strange to be forbidden to go and watch live sport.
I’m not sure how I would have got through the last few months without sport. Actually, I’m not sure how I would have got through the last sixty years without sport. My first interest in sport was with cricket when I was seven years old. My memories of how my cricket infatuation started are a bit hazy but I’m pretty sure that in 1961 I was ill and had time off school. I can remember laying on the sofa in Winchmore Hill watching England v Australia on the television. As I recall, only the second half of each session was shown live but it was all on the radio. I think this is when my love of cricket started. My Dad took me to Lord’s later in August 1961 when we saw The Gentleman Of England play Australia. Gentleman as opposed to the yobs who were not gentlemen and demanded payment for playing. Different times.
In 1577, Étienne de La Boétie, in his essay “Discourse on Voluntary Servitude”, wrote about all the “poor fools” who were fooled into “servitude” by “the slightest tickling of their fancy” He gave examples such as “plays, farces, spectacles, gladiators, strange beasts, medals and pictures” and claimed that these were the “bait toward slavery, the price of their liberty, the instruments of tyranny. By these practices and enticements the ancient dictators so successfully lulled their subjects under the yoke, that the stupefied peoples, fascinated by the pastimes and vain pleasures flashed before their eyes, learned subservience as naïvely, but not so creditably, as little children learn to read by looking at bright picture books.” For most of my life I have been fooled into deriving pleasure from watching and playing sport rather than working hard to make society more fair and equal. Now I understand. Oh well, next time maybe.
On the other hand a report by UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) called “Strengthening The Rule Of Law Through Education” puts a slightly different spin on the same issue. “Research suggests that sports have the capacity to connect youth to positive adult role models and provide positive development opportunities, as well as promote the learning and application of life skills.” In my case it meant that, in 1971, the wonderful members of Edenbridge Cricket Club (Pete, Geoff, Brian, Gordon etc) taught me how to drink beer and drove me home after watching me bat very slowly for a painstaking 23 not out. UNODC make the same point as Étienne de La Boétie but in a much more positive way.
In today’s Guardian, Barney Ronay writes about the same thing. “The games must go on. Not just so the wheels of industry can turn. But because our own basic rhythms demand it, the need for distraction and consolation, for some form of shared collective experience. Death and anxiety have stalked the land for the past few months. Right now, sport in its gaudiest, liveliest form, feels like the opposite of these, an act of resistance”. Exactly.
I fully understand any of my friends who are long term supporters of teams outside The Premier League who are wary and suspicious of the huge amount of money that is pumped into it. Professional football existed before Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB invested £304 million in return for the broadcast rights for the 1992-93 season. The rights for 2019-2022 are worth £4,464 million. Stupefied people, fascinated by pastimes.
Peter Knowles was a footballer who played for Wolves between 1962 and 1969. In the Summer of 1969, he played for a “promotional” league in the USA. When he returned, he announced that he had become a Jehovah’s Witness. He said “I shall continue playing football for the time being but I have lost my ambition. Though I still do my best on the field I need more time to learn about the Bible and may give up football.” He played a few matches at the start of the 1969-70 season but soon retired. Billy Bragg wrote a song about him on “Don’t Try This At Home” called “God’s Footballer” and some of the lyrics are “While the crowd sing “Rock of Ages”, the goals bring weekly wages. Yet the glory of the sports pages is but the words of false idols and tempts him not“. He has subsequently lived a quiet life in Wolverhampton. Possibly he is not stupefied by false idols or dictators.
One of my favourite Billy Bragg songs is “The Few” which addresses the issue of jingoistic football supporters. Most of his ire is aimed at English football fans who wreck havoc when England are playing abroad. When Paul, Rob and I saw him perform this song in Cambridge, it was clear that the line “What do they know of England who only England know?” applies as much to BREXIT supporters as much as England football fans.
“Sexuality” was released as a single and reached Number 27 in the UK Charts. It was co-written with Johnny Marr. It’s a very positive song, anti-homophobic and catchy. I don’t suppose that Billy Bragg had an uncle who once played for Red Star Belgrade but otherwise, it’s very sincere.
By contrast is “Tank Park Salute” which is a tribute to Billy Bragg’s father. I like to imagine that Billy Bragg and his father used to go to Tank Park and play football.
This is a very good album. Billy Bragg has been described as an urban poet and I think it is fair to say that the words of his songs are thought provoking, clever, good humoured and emotional in equal amounts. Despite acknowledging my subservience to the dictators who provide me with the entertainment on the TV this weekend, I hope that I will find sport over the next few months to be equally thought provoking, clever, good humoured and emotional. Up The Albion.