Cards on the table, face up, I have to confess that it’s not a phrase that I’ve ever really liked. It’s pungent with the odour of inverted snobbery and, conversely, almost an up to down social engineering at the same time. Relating cultural pursuits to social standing can be both akin to teetering on the abyss of self-indulgence, and a patronising pat on the head. I know that we all want to have something that is ‘ours.’ If we’re a little inelegant with our pace however, it takes but a small step to tip over into a group closure of the worst kind. “Take up the ladder, I’m really happy down here.” You see, I don’t think it’s a case of the proletariat – and I’m one of them – to borrow Marx’s hackneyed phrase, claiming the game as their own. That’s not how it works.
I’ve both uttered and heard the phrase many times, but until undertaking research for this piece, I’ve never really been sure where it came from. To the best of my efforts, the prime claim that I could unearth pointed me in the direction of a particular West Ham United fan. Although a fictional character, the figment of comedy scriptwriter Johnny Speight’s creative mind, unreconsructed icon and aficionado of all things known and unknown, East End philosopher Alf Garnett first uttered the phrase. As if to confirm this honour, those worthy people at the Philosophy Football company have even produced one of their famed – of which I own a few – T shirts, proclaiming the quotation. Apparently Shostokovich did say that football was the ballet of the masses, but that’s not quite the same thing.
Since Alf first gave the world the gift of his wisdom on football, the phrase has been used, and amended in a few ways. Chelsea’s elegant midfielder of the Osgood and Cooke glamour era, Alan Hudson named his autobiography, “Working Man’s Ballet,” but it’s little known if this was a nod to the sage of Upton Park. I suspect not. As recently as 2009, Roberts Vinovskis produced a supposed inspection of football, focusing on drunkenness and hooliganism analysed by various appointed experts. Hmm. Called “Working Class Ballet” I doubt it will be on my viewing menu any time soon. There are other examples, but I’m not going to bore you with them, as we’re wasting valuable time here. So, that’s enough of this semi-semantics seminar, let’s get back to the real issue.
I guess there’re three elements to my distaste for labelling football as Working Class Ballet. They’re all equally worthy in my eyes, and have been the subject of no little refining and tweaking over time, but I think now, in my sixth decade, I’ve pretty well got them nailed. I know that I can be a bit of a cussed curmudgeon, but on balance, I think they all carry at least a semblance of logic.
The first issue I have is one of implied deference, in that being working class, we can’t understand or appreciate ‘real’ ballet, we therefore have to have our own version. Is calling football ‘Working Class Ballet’ therefore society’s way of ensuring that we aren’t the cultural vacuums that we would otherwise be? Now, I’m happy to confirm that I’m no fan of ballet. That doesn’t mean I treat it with disdain, or ridicule; it just isn’t part of my life. If I did like ballet however, I’m pretty certain that such an appreciation wouldn’t mean edging out football as a natural corollary. I’m fairly confident that you could like both of those things at one and the same time. The point is that if you are working class, liking or disliking football, is not the defining criterion of your cultural worth. Personally, I quite enjoy some opera, but that doesn’t mean that my penchant for the Stone Roses or Bob Dylan is any less sincere.
My second problem is that the reverse of the phrase doesn’t really work. Ballet is the upper class football? No, sorry. It doesn’t really compute. There is a certain grace and elegance in football I suppose that could be said to be similar to aspects of ballet, but are there elements of football in ballet. Oh, if only it were so. Imagine the scene of an evening at the Royal Ballet or the Bolshoi. All is still as the performance progresses, until the chanting starts. “One Nureyev, There’s only one Nureyev. One Nureeeeyyyeeeeev! There’s only one Nureyev.” Or something like “We’ll support you – so long as we keep getting our Arts Grant subsidy – evermore.” A line would be drawn however if a scoundrel called out “Get your tutu out for the lads.” I say you bounder! Did you note a small frisson of bigotry creeping in there? Sorry about that, just got carried away by the moment. Hopefully it didn’t detract from the point however.
The final thing that gets to me on this subject is that it’s just so irritating and demeaning. It’s as if by applying this sobriquet, society is saying to the working class, “I know you work long hours for not much pay to keep others wealthy. Have the rough end of almost everything going, but you have got your nice little football haven’t you, and isn’t just like our ballet!” It’s akin to saying here’s a bag of sweets now go and sit in the corner and be quiet whilst the grown-ups run the world.
The nitty gritty I guess is this. No, football is not like ballet. No, football is not working class anything, any more than ballet is upper class anything. They are both fully independent and free-standing branches of culture. Neither exist in relation to the other, nor should they. Enjoy one of them if you want to. I’ll tell you what, you can either enjoy them both, or neither, as well. It doesn’t matter, and it does not define you.
(This All Blue Daze article was originally produced for the ‘offsiderulepodcast’ website).