DJ Taylor: Blame it on the culture

If boorish football fans reflect the state of our nation, we may be in trouble. So, what would Orwell make of blogs and how would Dickens fare in Albert Square?

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Fresh testimony in the ongoing "Does art imitate life or is it the other way around?" debate was provided by an incident at 21 February's Middlesbrough vs Wigan Athletic game.

Here the home club's safety officer, Sue Watson, decided to hand out leaflets berating supporters for "the persistent standing and the constant banging and noise coming from the back of the stand". Not everyone was impressed. "A fan" surfaced in the press to remark that the letter was "an utter disgrace. The anger and resentment it caused show what a PR disaster it is", while the club's chief operating officer, Nick Basour, felt compelled to issue an apology, accepting the "strength of feeling" on the issue and acknowledging that the letter "could easily have been misunderstood". All of which begs the questions: misunderstood in exactly what way? And what are seats there for, if not to be sat on?

Naturally, news of this dispute spread like wildfire among what is rather grandly known as the "footballing community". Yahoo's Eurosport website, in particular, buzzed with all manner of cheery and well-informed comment. All extracts are exact transcriptions. "Another woman been allowed out the kitchen," wrote one bright aphorist. "Football was a working mans sport," began another, "now you go to a games women young kids everywhere you just feel better not say anything cos women and kids around lol not at Leeds tho they are nuts anywhere bring back standin and men only stands that sort it out". "True blue Everton", meanwhile, struck an ideological note: "Get real Watson Middlesbrough fans tell her were to get off its a woman look were Mrs Thatcher got our country into a bloody mess ..."

The significant thing about these interventions is not their routine illiteracies, meanness of spirit or defective grammar, but their marked resemblance to Private Eye's "From the Message Boards" column, in which "Emily" bewails the insensitivity of supermarkets in selling "Baby Ps" and "Family Man" vows to "do time" if any gay penguin dares to mess with his kids. Online debate is a wonderful thing, of course, but why does Yahoo feel that it has to clog up the electronic highway with this garbage?



***



As to the specific point that was being made about Middlesbrough's vocal and increasingly desperate home support (the team are in free fall and haven't registered a league win in weeks), this particular fan is with Ms Watson. Like many a season ticket-holder, I suspect, faced with last month's renewal form, I am in my usual quandary: relish of the game contending with a lurking awareness that soccer grounds are deeply unpleasant places. One wouldn't perhaps go as far as the friend of mine who, observing the rows of contorted faces at the last Chelsea-Man United match, remarked that you could solve most of the country's social problems at a stroke by locking up everyone present, but even my thrice-monthly stake-out at Norwich City's Carrow Road ground is less of a pleasure than once it was.

Norwich, it should straight away be said, has one of the friendliest stadiums in the Championship. There is rarely any crowd trouble, and the locale positively seethes with Football in the Community initiatives and groups of embarrassed eight-year-olds being brought on to the pitch to wave to the crowd. On the other hand, you do get slightly tired of the sound of high, treble voices yelling "You're shit ... aargh!" whenever the opposing goalkeeper steps up to kick the ball, the assumption that any opponent who falls over is simply shamming, the male voice choir of the Barclay End chanting "Who are the fucking hell are you?" at the visiting fans, and those choleric middle-aged butterballs for whom a poor refereeing decision is evidence of a kind of cosmic conspiracy. None of this, the game's apologists always explain, is soccer's fault: it is, that ever-reliable culprit, "the culture's". Thirty years ago, while the soccer grounds of my youth could be extraordinarily violent places, the violence was usually confined to certain parts of the terraces. These days sporadic hooliganism seems to have been replaced by a uniform, low-level boorishness. In the meantime, hats off to Ms Watson, in what is likely to be a long and remorseless struggle.



***



Last week brought the long-list of the annual Orwell prizes for political writing, with results to be announced on 22 April. As this year's awards for books and journalism have expanded to include a prize for political blogs, I wasn't in the least surprised to be rung up by a researcher from the Today programme asking: did I think George Orwell would have approved of blogging? In the end some remarks about Orwell certainly being interested in the potentialities of "new media" – he is known to have had a meeting with MGM in 1945 to discuss an animated version of Animal Farm – did the trick. The question of why editors and producers are so keen on this kind of historical fast-forwarding is less easy to subdue. One of the great contemporary clichés pronounced over Victorian literature, for example, is that "'if Dickens (left) were alive today he'd be writing scripts for EastEnders". To which the only plausible response is that Dickens was a 19th-century novelist: all speculation over what his reincarnated form might have put his hand to is pointless.

Quite as irritating is the TV scriptwriter's habit of making statements on behalf of dead authors which their beneficiaries are not around to corroborate. Whenever Andrew Davies, or one of his younger imitators, cranks up the bonk count in some period adaptation it is nearly always done on the basis that it was what the author would have put in himself, had he not been constrained by censorship. In fact, most Victorian novelists were prudes. Thackeray once returned a set of racy French etchings to a print-seller on the grounds that he "couldn't have such things in the house". The idea that he secretly burned to reproduce samples of Becky Sharp's pillow talk is as far-fetched as the thought of Dickens at large in Albert Square.



***



According to a survey whose results appeared in Wednesday's papers, three-quarters of Britons consider themselves to be optimists. Of the 2,000 adults questioned by the Social Issues Research Centre for the National Lottery, 58 per cent said that a positive outlook is contagious, and a further 52 per cent found optimists more attractive than pessimists, a category in which only 6 per cent believed themselves to reside. Somehow you always feel that these investigations into "happiness" and "looking on the bright side" miss the essential point about the average human existence, which is that it tends to be predicated not on satisfaction or achievement but on the maintenance of a personal myth. What really happens to us, it might be argued, is not important: it is what we think, or prefer to think, has happened that counts. All this would seem to be confirmed by the tendency of public figures every so often to drop a chance remark that crystallises their view of themselves for all time. F R Leavis's wife, the redoubtable Queenie, once observed, in a kind of reverse take on the "Would Dickens have written for EastEnders?" puzzle, that if her husband had been around in the 1640s he would have been one of Cromwell's generals. "No, my dear," the great critic corrected her, "I would have been Cromwell." All Leavis's dizzying self-esteem, his lofty Puritanism and his combativeness are gathered up in this casual moment of revelation. Happiness never came into it.



***



David "Fathead" Newman (second left) who, among other accomplishments, was Ray Charles's saxophone player, died at the end of January, but it has taken several weeks for his obituaries to start appearing on this side of the Atlantic. For some reason it is nearly always jazz and R&B musicians who get their nicknames inserted between forename and surname: I remember watching The Blues Brothers for the first time and noting that every member of John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd's backing band had one: Donald "Duck" Dunn, Steve "The Colonel" Cropper, Tom "Bones" Malone and even a performer known as "Mr Fabulous".

Rock soubriquets, if less oblique, are quite as fascinating. Why, I used to wonder, was Dr Feelgood's guitarist John Mayo known as "Gypie"? It turned out to derive from that quaint Canvey Island slang expression "on the gyp", meaning "mildly unwell". As for punk restylings, we all know that the original "Sid Vicious" was Johnny Rotten's hamster, but my own favourite was The Damned's "Rat Scabies" (aka "Chris Miller")(left). The band were in rehearsal when Miller, who was suffering from scabies, looked up to hear a scuffling noise near the wainscoting ... You can guess the rest.

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