Football and the working man’s ballet

By All Blue Daze

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. 

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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 I could unearth pointed me in the direction of a particular West Ham fan. Although a fictional character – the figment of comedy scriptwriter Johnny Speight’s creative mind – unreconstructed 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 (I own a few) T-shirts with the quotation. Apparently Shostakovich 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 in 2009, Roberts Vinovskis produced a supposed inspection of football, focusing on drunkenness and hooliganism analysed by various ‘experts’ in his documentary. Entitled Working Class Ballet, hmm, I doubt it will be on my viewing list 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 let’s get back to the real issue.

I guess there are three elements to my distaste for labelling football as ‘working class ballet’. I know that in my sixth decade I can be a bit of a cussed curmudgeon but 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 actual ballet. Therefore, we need to have our own version. Is calling football ‘working class ballet’ 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. I’m fairly confident that you could like both of those things at one and the same time. The point is, 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 Nureeeeyyyeeeev! 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 …

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 and have the rough end of almost everything going. But you have got your nice little football, haven’t you? And it’s just like our ballet!” It’s akin to being handed a bag of sweets, then expected to 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 – and 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.

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