Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Class, culture, sport and Melvyn Bragg

The Duke of Wellington never actually said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, but he could have done, for if you want a real insight into any culture you only have to look at its sport.

Whether it’s academics claiming sport plays a key part in identity formation, John Major invoking images of long shadows on cricket grounds to define Britain or the tabloids using the England football team as a metaphor for a lost golden age, sport is a central part of our culture.

Not so for Melvyn Bragg, however.  Earlier this year he broadcast a series called Class and Culture, and sport was conspicuous by its almost total absence.  Now, I have no axe to grind with the man himself, so it’s only fair to point out that he opened by saying his was a personal account, implicitly suggesting it’s not definitive.  However, he never adequately articulated his definition of culture, although he went part of the way in the second programme by acknowledging he was “sticking broadly to the arts” (implicitly suggesting there are other things which might be considered part of our culture, but which he was choosing to overlook).

Preparing for battle.
Another problem was that Lord Bragg's argument was very loose extending basically to the idea that due to increased access to free education and 'the arts' the middle class has grown and become culturally emancipated. Lord Bragg himself is evidence of this.  A working class lad who benefited from access to a high-quality education courtesy of the state before going on to become an establishment figure making programmes telling the rest of what class and culture are.

But hang on! Sport (well football) plays a prominent part in the title sequence (there’s some black and white footage of someone scoring a goal and some other footage of Lord Bragg at Old Trafford) so clearly he’s going to consider sport, right?

Well, wrong. The only contributor who demonstrated any insight into the importance of sport was Pat Barker when Lord Bragg asked her early in the first programme what culture meant to the working classes in the early 1900s.  In reply the novelist suggested that while the working-class cultural experience would be limited, football would be a part of it. Lord Bragg nodded sagely and then ignored sport completely until the final ten minutes of the last of three hour-long programmes and even then he spent less than five minutes on the subject.  It was a tacit acknowledgement that sport is part of our culture but, despite having ample opportunity to inject it into his thesis at various points, it felt like sport (and the only sport mentioned was football) had been tagged on at the end as an after-thought.

It’s odd that Lord Bragg should overlook this aspect of our culture because a few years ago he wrote about his own football fandom in an article for The Guardian.  In it he outlined how football provided common ground for conversation between him and others, such as his postman.  Did he ever talk to his postman about the South Bank Show, I wonder?  Maybe, but the fact remains football (and sport in general) is a lingua franca far more than the arts.

To be fair sport wasn’t the only glaring omission from the series.  There wasn’t much room for the working class either.  In the first episode Lord Bragg interviewed six people of whom four went to Oxford or Cambrige, three were either life or hereditary peers and one was a CBE.

In later episodes Lord Bragg wheeled out supposedly working-class figures like Pete Townsend of The Who and Sue Townsend author of Adrian Mole. However, when he asked Irvine Welsh and Terry Hall of The Specials if they still felt working class, Welsh unashamedly declared himself as “upper class” and “idle rich” while Hall replied “when I’m sipping macchiato in Islington, I’d like to think it’s a working class thing but it really doesn’t feel that way”.  You can’t begrudge either man the wealth and comfort their success has brought them, but their comments gave lie to the fact that these culturally successful figures were any longer truly representative of the class they had been born into.

In the final part, Oxford-educated Lord Bragg discussed the working class with Owen Jones, the Oxford-educated author of Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class, and Ferdinand Mount, the Oxford-educated author of Mind the Gap, (while failing to mention that Mount is actually a baronet).  The irony of this elite group of Oxford alumni discussing the abandonment of the working class by the upper class while denying that working class any meaningful voice in the documentary seemed to be lost on them.  But then I guess that’s the class system for you: ours is not to reason why, ours is but to watch and learn.

There was another interesting section when Lord Bragg spoke to the comedian Russell Kane who talked about the “democracy of laughter”. Kane suggested comedy superceeded class because it was brutally measurable: "If I'm double first from Oxbridge or I'm Dave who works at Tesco, people are either laughing or they're not," he said.  The pair then discussed the fact working class, northern comedians like Roy “Chubby” Brown are excluded from TV because they're deemed too offensive. While acknowledging Brown's popularity, Kane suggested “people with an agenda” determine who gets exposure and that agenda was a good thing.  Maybe it is, but it would have been nice for Brown or perhaps some of his working-class fans to join the debate.  I guess the version of democracy on show was the limited kind in which freedom of speech is only afforded to those who say things you like to hear.

But I digress. Perhaps Lord Bragg doesn’t think sport’s a significant part of British culture because the country lacks the long literary tradition of sports writing found in, say America where the likes of Norman Mailer and Jack Kerouac were sports journalists . There sports writing has never been defined by class or the belief that it is ‘low’ culture and someone like Ernest Hemmingway could get paid $30,000 for a 2,000-word piece on bull fighting for Sports Illustrated.

Chavs at play.

In Britain in the pre-War years there was a significant amount of writing focused on cricket from literary figures like PG Wodehouse and AA Milne.  However, as football became the country’s dominant sport - a sport the writing classes tended not to play - these works were forgotten and aside from perhaps Eamon Dunphy’s Only a Game? and Hunter Davies’ Glory Game nothing similar emerged from within football itself. Brian Granville wrote some football novels but, despite the insight he’d gained as a journalist, he felt that due to his middle-class upbringing he could never do the working class characters justice saying: “essentially the football novel should have been a branch of the proletarian novel”. 

This Sporting Life, which has as its central character a northern Rugby League player, is unquestioningly a proletarian novel.  Written in 1960 by David Storey, himself a working class former Rugby League player, its themes – namely the death of community and exclusion – are as relevant now as they were then and speak volumes about our class system.

Predicatbly it was overlooked and while Lord Bragg did have time for Alan Sillitoe's novel Saturday Night, Sunday Morning and the film adaptation of it, he didn't  mention his novella The Loneliness of Long Distance Runner. In that story, the main character Smith talks of “us” and “them” - them being the law-abiding, property-owning upper and middle class majority and the working class police, us being the sizable working-class minority alienated from the system. It’s the flipside of Nancy Mitford’s notion of “U” and “non-U” vocabulary used by the upper classes to look down on those below them.  I guess it's to be expected that Lord Bragg mentions the latter but not the former, after all what could a novel about sport possibly have to tell us about class and culture?

Typically, perhaps, it was the work of an Oxbridge-educated middle-class writer – Nick Hornby – which started the boom in intelligent football writing over the last 20 years (although Hornby was merely following the path already trodden by Pete Davies in All Played out and Bill Bufford in Among the Thugs).   Yet while there’s now a multitude of insightful, well-written books on the social aspects of football both in this country and abroad this whole section of culture was ignored by Lord Bragg.

Throughout the series youth sub-culture was discussed with Lord Bragg telling us about the importance of the Teddy Boys, Mods, punk and 2Tone with their focus on fashion.  He also told us how the Mods fought running battles with the Rockers, violence that terrified the middle class.  However the highly fashion-concsious casual movement which was born out of football and confronted the establishment through terrace violence and became one of the most enduring and influential examples of youth subculture was totally over-looked. Likewise there was no room for any mention of the fanzine movement.

And so it went on.  Lord Bragg discussed the media but without any reference to the hugely important, mutually beneficial relationship it has had with sport, a relationship which helped popularise newspapers, radio, television and satellite TV.  Think about it, Sky was on its knees financially before it secured the rights to the Premier League a deal which arguably saved the company and the cultural ramifications of which are still being felt today.  LOL.

Nor did Lord Bragg, when he mentioned TV, discuss how sport went on to dominate the schedules and become a battleground between the BBC and the newly-created ITV.  Nor did he mention that because early sports broadcasts were produced almost exclusively by Oxbridge graduates they focused on upper-class pursuits such as cricket and Wimbledon.  The fact that the Oxford and Cambridge boat race – a minority sport event competed for by two elite universities – still clutters up our TV schedule every year is a hangover of this.

The first broadcast of the highly representative boat race.
Nor was there any discussion of the huge class schisms within sport itself which still saw a distinction between (working-class) professionals and (upper-class) amateurs in sports like tennis and cricket until as recently as the 1960s. These same divisions saw splits between the first-generation middle-class, northern administrators of the Football League and the upper class, southern administrators of the Football Association. Rugby too fractured along class lines between the northern, working-class Rugby League and the southern, middle and upper-class Rugby Union.  A north-south class divide?  Maybe sport has something to tell us about our society, after all.

When Lord Bragg finally did get round to briefly discussing sport it was a very simple analysis.  I’ll forgive him the fact he called Old Trafford the biggest football ground in the country (maybe he’s never heard of Wembley) but that was where he went to tell us that football culture had changed radically in the last 100 years.  It was also where he met a self-proclaimed, working-class Manchester United season ticket holder who told him the price of his season ticket had increased over the last 40 years and that there are more middle-class fans these days.  That was it.  It was sociology 101, containing nothing a competent A-level student couldn’t have told you.

In the end Lord Bragg asked if top division football “with its priced-out working-class fans, millionaire players and billionaire owners is less for the working class and more for the rich or super class”.  He didn’t answer the question and football was really just a way of getting from the discussion about chavs to a discussion about the super rich.

Lord Bragg took it as read that all footballers were working class with no discussion as to why this was the case or why the middle class is largely excluded from playing the sport professionally.  There was no mention of the fact that a working class player like Robbie Fowler could direct homophobic insults at his England team mate Graeme Le Saux simply because Le Saux is middle class and reads The Guardian. (Incidentally, can you imagine if Twitter had been around then? And let’s not even mention the handshakes…)

There was no room, either, for a discussion about how during the 20th Century a game essentially run by the upper classes has repeatedly been struck by horrific disasters which have led to mass loss of life among (mainly) working class supporters.  The list of post-war football tragedies is all too long with Hillsborough being the worst but for the 96 dead on that grim day in 1989, read 56 dead at Bradford's Valley Parade in 1985; 66 dead at Rangers' Ibrox Stadium in 1971 and 33 dead at Bolton's Burnden Park in 1946.

All these disasters tell the same story: a poorly-policed infrastructure allowed to fall into disrepair by a wealthy ruling class all too keen to place profit above public well-being.  Then when that fails a supplicant media, owned by the same wealthy elite, is on hand to place greater importance on the establishment line than the actual truth.  I’d go so far as to say it’s a metaphor for our society in general, but clearly not in Lord Bragg’s cultural universe.

There the growth in size of the middle class coupled with their increased access to the arts can be declared "a good thing" with little acknowledgement of the fact that as the middle grows so, neccesarily, does the gap between the very rich and the very poor. It's also a universe in which sport, culturally important to so many from every class, is merely an afterthought.

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