Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Middle-class hero?

At the Guardian, Richard Williams has some interesting things to say about violence in Italian football, a topic that has become newsworthy again recently due to the death of police officer Filippo Raciti last Friday in a football riot in Sicily.

Williams, for instance, makes an interesting comparison with Britain, which has had some success in reducing (and also, as he notes, displacing) football-related violence over the past decade. Intriguingly, he points to the positive effects of something that most English fans have endlessly complained about: football’s increasing commercialisation, its growing number of middle-class spectators and the addition of relatively intrusive policing measures.

In England the game's second chance was partly paid for in Italian blood when the combination of Heysel, Bradford and Hillsborough achieved a kind of critical mass. The subsequent bourgeoisification of English football, accelerated by the invention of the Premiership, created the conditions in which ticket prices could be raised so high that, combined with effective security precautions, they eventually deterred hooligans, whose violent activities have largely been displaced, in a diluted form, to the lower divisions.

In Italy, by contrast, you can still turn up at a Serie A match and buy a ticket for less than a tenner. A cursory search at the turnstile is unlikely to reveal the flare taped to your inner thigh. Inside the stadium the facilities are rudimentary and your activities will be neither observed by the kind of closed-circuit cameras that scan every inch of an English stadium nor supervised by any kind of rigorous stewarding.

This is a topic I return to below, but it’s worth first taking a look at another suggestion that violence seems is not only have become sideshow in Italian football but has rather become part of the main event.

Police also located a stash of arms yesterday hidden inside Catania's Massimino football stadium, the scene of the rioting. Baseball bats and iron balls, described by police as offensive weapons, were found in a room used by the stadium's caretaker, who was arrested after he tried to stop the raid by setting dogs on police officers.

There is, of course, nothing new about the connection between football and violence, a relationship going well back before the sport was professionalised in the late 19th century. It so happens that I’m currently reading a fascinating book by sociologists Norbert Elias and Eric Dunning, Quest for Excitement: Sport and Leisure in the Civilizing Process (London: Basil Blackwell, 1986).

I haven’t gotten to the articles (mainly by Dunning, who has specialised on the sociology of sport) which give detailed attention to the association between violence and football, but I’ve run across some interesting things in Elias’s introduction. As in his other work, he emphasises the growing necessity, over centuries of development, for the self-control of emotions and urges in what he refers to as ‘civilising processes’. The growing ‘pacification’ of society is on the one hand, positive; it can, however, also be frustrating, as opportunities for relatively free emotional expression are lessened. In Quest for Excitement, sport is seen as an important arena for the ‘controlled de-controlling of emotions’ and its ‘mimetic’ conflicts stand in for those which in earlier ages were – relatively speaking – far more a part of real life. However, it’s not that simple and benign.

And yet, if tensions arise in the wider society, if restraints on strong feelings become weakened there and the level of hostility and hatred between different groups rises in good earnest, the dividing line separating play and non-play, mimetic and real battles may become blurred. In such cases a defeat on the playing field may evoke the bitter feeling of a defeat in real life and a call for vengeance. A mimetic victory may call for a continuation of the triumph in a battle outside the playing field. (p. 43)

I think that there is a clear connection and long-term connection between sporting aggression and other kinds of social tensions. This is not to condemn sport, but I think it’s naïve to act as if there was nothing ambiguous or possibly dangerous about the tribal emotionalism which accompanies at least some varieties of it.

Hence, I found Rod Liddle’s recent comments about football, class, violence and literature to be a bit odd. (I discovered them thanks to a post at Ballardian. I'm having difficulty finding the original article at the Sunday Times, but a copy of it is available here. UPDATE: here's the original essay. Thanks to Simon for the updated link.)

Liddle’s main target seems to be the banning of smoking on football grounds as from July 1 under what he (very cleverly) labels the ‘Vindictive Curtailment of Working Class Pleasures Act’. Bashing the ‘yuppies’ and the middle-classes is a long-standing tactic in England for those who want to stake out their claim for a bit of earthy prole authenticity. In such visions, the ever-downtrodden working-classes might be rough, but they’re honest and fun-loving. The middle classes, however, are by definition a lot of shallow, backstabbing poseurs committed to taking all the fun out of life.

Back in the ‘50s, Colin MacInnes commented:

In England, the war between Cavaliers and Roundheads is eternal. All English institutions reflect the compromise between the saints and sinners, between the Salvation Army and the Music Hall views of life.

There’s more than a hint of truth in that statement, but I think the class-boundaries of those ‘views of life’ have always been rather fluid. (Moreover, it seems strange to me to idealise the traditional industrial working classes at a time when they’re increasingly disappearing. On the other hand, perhaps that’s not at all contradictory. It’s much easier to get all warm-hearted and nostalgic about something that no longer exists.)

But, strangely for someone who apparently sees himself defending working-class culture, Liddle seems to argue that being working class essentially means eating crap food, getting drunk and giving yourself lung cancer.

That might well be, of course: but why anyone would want to celebrate such a truth is beyond me.

But beyond this misguided romanticism, what really struck me was Liddle’s (mis)reading of J. G. Ballard’s latest novel, Kingdom Come. As he puts it:

But what truly annoys me is the attitude behind the decision [to ban smoking], the way in which this government — and previous governments — view football supporters. If you’re unsure what this attitude is, read JG Ballard’s new novel, Kingdom Come.

This is, as usual, a dystopian fantasy set in a fictitious chavtown, just off the M25, called Brooklands. The local population — save for a few concerned members of the professional classes — are a brutal and brutalised morass of plebs, dressed in identical St George’s shirts and interested only in consumerism and sport. Sport is what happens to a society mired in boredom and existing in a moral vacuum; it necessarily leads to a kind of fascism, or is a symptom of it, Ballard avers. After football matches, the workers go on rampages, attacking Asians and chanting nasty things. They are viewed as dumb animals, to be led, manipulated and exploited.

Kingdom Come is a deeply silly and patronising novel, but it does at least encapsulate the contempt and lack of understanding with which working-class pastimes are viewed by our political leaders and, in Ballard’s case, our intelligentsia. And, as a corollary, why successive administrations have sought to make football more middle-class by stripping it of all those things that once made it vital and compelling.

This is already becoming a much longer commentary than I’d intended, but suffice to say that this is an incredible mixture of bad reading and strange logic.

First off, J. G. Ballard is indeed interested in critiquing modern life, but if Liddle thinks that the main target of the book (or of Ballard’s writing more generally) is ‘the working class’ then it's obvious not only that he wasn’t paying attention while he was reading it but also that he knows nothing about the rest of Ballard’s work.

Anyone who thinks Ballard’s fiction fits comfortably with a New Labour mindset has either absolutely no idea about literature or has to provide proof that Blairism is a far more kinky and interesting ideology than is generally acknowledged.

More to the point though, in Kingdom Come, many of the ‘plebs’ who run riot in the book are of the ‘professional classes’ themselves, and the dividing lines between good and bad are hardly drawn by income alone. Moreover, in books such as High-Rise, Super-Cannes and Millennium People (and others) Ballard has long made clear that the darker aspects of humanity (i.e., those upon which he tends to dwell) are something to which the cappuccino swilling middle-classes have at least as much access to as anyone else.

Indeed, if I had to name any single class which comes off badly in Ballard’s books, it would be the pretentious middle classes. The silly, Guardian-reading, Habitat-shopping revolutionists of the ‘upholstered apocalypse’ depicted in Millennium People are a prime example.

But, for Liddle, while the middle classes are fair game, anything even vaguely ‘working-class’ – no matter how pointless, self-destructive or reactionary – appears as valuable cultural heritage worthy of UNESCO protection.

However, a closer reading of the novel might have pointed out to him that what binds the members of the riotous mob in Kingdom Come more than anything else is not that they are working class but rather that they are largely a consuming class to whom few of the traditional social ties which used to bind people together are available.

But, there’s another point here beyond Liddle’s poor reading of Kingdom Come. He seems to endorse as authentically ‘working-class’ a form of leisure which itself has neither been timelessly traditional nor unambiguously positive. Is Liddle suggesting that football only recently became a business or that there have been no connections between football, hooliganism and racist mayhem? (And I’m not speaking only of England here: a few of the most disturbing links between neo-fascism and football have recently been visible in Italy.) Is he denying that the very bourgeoisification of which Williams speaks has not had at least some impact in helping to diminish those connections?

While defending English football (and, it seems, to me, in trivialising hooliganism) from the middle-class barbarians in an ill-tempered review in the New Statesman some years ago, John King adopted a similar attitude to Liddle’s in condemning a book on hooligan violence. In critiquing what he saw as an ‘obsessive’ focus in the book on fascism, King argues:

If there was a period when racism was prevalent, it was the first part of the Eighties, when a wave of black players entered the game for the first time. Thatcher was running riot, backed up by a rabid right-wing press, and the middle-class left had disappeared up its own arse. Even then, there were black faces and black mobs, and there are many more today. There were well-known black hooligans around in the Seventies as well. The race thing passed. It wasn't nice, but people sorted it out for themselves. In some ways, football firms represent some of the most integrated areas of our society. If you are hard enough, you are good enough.
Well, excellent: there was enough violence to go around for all races, and – as long as you are brutal enough – we can all get along fine. That’s OK then: equal-opportunity mayhem is just fine. (And note: it’s still, somehow, all the fault of the middle-classes. I would suggest, though, that he’s being a bit dismissive about the ‘race thing’ and how it’s been ‘sorted out.’)

But King's real aim here, again, is the same tiresome moaning about how the great old game has been ruined:

Now the great home ends such as Liverpool's Kop, Manchester United's Stretford End and Chelsea's Shed have been demolished and replaced with designer stands filled with new seats and new fans. The passion has gone; and if you stand up or swear, you'll be chucked out and banned.

Yes, because you know that's what really makes football great, alongside the drinking, bad food, and camaraderie of aggression: the swearing. He is, though, honest enough to point out that restoring the old version of sporting ‘passion’ might mean accepting the uglier side of that type of fandom as well.

I would of course likely agree with Liddle that some aspects of the more intrusive parts of the drive to sanitise life and sport are ridiculous. As ever, part of this is simply a quite different British tradition: a peculiarly half-assed approach to solving problems. Unable to improve health by actually reforming and adequately funding the NHS, the government grasps for cheaper and more media-friendly steps. (On the other hand, though, I think that smoking bans are likely to be more effective measure than Liddle gives them credit.)

But I also think that there is something deeply ambiguous about the emotional tribalism inherent in sports like football: it may well be a part of the game, but it has a darker side that is not necessarily something to simply be shrugged off (let alone celebrated).

As I have more first-hand experience with American sports than with British (or, so far, German) ones, though, I can report that while American fans have no shortage of ‘passion’ about their sports teams, they manage this without significant amounts of post-game gang warfare.

Commentators such as Liddle and King seem to think that ‘passion’ must be accompanied by a particular ‘working-class’ mix of beer, fags and aggression. It is certainly true that they’re far closer to that life than I am. I'm an outsider to the world they describe, so they might just want to respond by telling me to fuck right off while stomping me unconscious in a cheerful celebration of the finest traditions of working-class leisure.

On the other hand, comments such as theirs seem reveal more than a hint of something else: a distinctly middle-class male desire to cling to some aspect of ‘authentic’ (if coarse and/or brutal) and thus ‘working-class’ youth. Their hysterical contempt for a middle-class intelligentsia (to which, ahem, they - to all appearances - both seem to belong) and their efforts to promote a clichéd brand of working-class identity, suggest to me that if anyone is being ‘silly’ and ‘patronising’ toward the working class, it's not not J. G. Ballard.


Rob Jubb said...

There's a quite interesting, if rather too exculpatory, discussion of Italian football hooliganism by Tim Parks in his 'A Season With Verona' which displays, in a slightly more sophisticated and perhaps somewhat displaced manner, the kind of attitude I think Liddle exemplifies. Parks is quite open about the communitarian attractions of being a football fan, and the extent to which he is prepared to see that as justifying defining himself against the opposition as Other (the capital 'O' indicating fullblown Orientalist tendencies) is revealing. Basically, like you say, Liddle et al are worryingly close to proto-fascists: violence as a way of life is fine, as long as it binds you to a community structured around norms of honour.

J. Carter Wood said...

Thanks Rob, for the reference to Parks's book, which I've heard about but not read. The last sentence of your comment sums up exactly what I - in a lot more words - was trying to express. Violence as a way of life may, in reality, play such a role: but that would seem to be something to be resisted rather than embraced.