Will Self: It’s no wonder sport fans are angry so often, they’re the victims of a massive con

Will Self's "Madness of Crowds" column.

You’ll be aware by now that of all the frenzied crowds that trouble my uneasy sleep, sporting ones bother me the most. I mean to say, to be crushed to death by a mob that is rampaging because tyranny flies at its backs has a certain justness but to be stomped on by people driven berserk by a ball game would be a pitiful end. Sporting events by their nature embody the worst excesses of late capitalism: the spectators are mere passive consumers of the commodified prowess of the athletes and the seasonal character of the spectacles mimics the cyclic time that this new peasantry is trapped in, while the masters of money and power forge ahead. No wonder sports fans are so often pissed off: they’re the victims of a massive con.

When I stopped going to sporting events, the crowd at the Arsenal still strongly resembled an L S Lowry painting: rank upon rank of mufflered and capped men, raising their Bovril cups to their chapped lips with the monstrous synchrony of a group mind. Around this time – the early 1970s – I also went to Wimbledon a couple of times. This was a different sort of crowd – blazered and frocked, bourgeois – and the Centre Court also had a sort of hushed intimacy: the net stretched decoratively across the carpet of grass, the tiered seating somehow G Plan.

Nevertheless, here was the same disturbing unanimity, the eyes sliding back and forth like those of automata, the counterpoint of players’ grunts and spectators’ groans suggesting – even to my pubescent mind – participation in some mass act of sexual congress. (I may have been reading Brave New World at the time.)

Still, at least tennis had the virtue of a certain individualism – single combat, armed with catgut, wood and rubber – and I think I went on watching it on TV until at least the middle of that decade. Plonking myself down in front of the set some 35 years later, I was heartened to discover that little seemed to have changed with the Wimbledon crowd: there were a few more handmade signs and some garish tam-o’-shanters that I didn’t recall from the days when Ilie Nastase flipped his wig but otherwise it was business as usual. (Andy Murray was even drinking what was unmistakably Robinsons Barley Water.) Yes, you guessed it, the Championship bid by the down-home boy from Dunblane had lured me out of my sporting retirement.

True, I wasn’t court-side but the way the BBC chose to cover the Wimbledon crowd was surely indicative of this aspect of the zeitgeist: the distraught relationship between the particular and the many. Murray’s authenticity as a sporting hero derives as much from his intractability when it comes to the usual skill transfer of celebrity as it does from his prowess. As yet, there’s been no smelly water line or pseudo-styled sunglasses – his product placements at least superficially appear to be out of necessity and he even (for which I could’ve kissed him) appeared to pooh-pooh the idea of a knighthood when old buttock-face had him straight round No 10 the day after his win. I suspect that lurking behind this is a deeper level of crowd consciousness, because if modernity teaches us anything, it’s that the seeming omnipotentiality of the notorious – so you’re a cabinet minister: why not chance your arm at ballroom dancing? – rests on a correlative loss of true expertise. If you can be anything, how can your ability at one thing be credible?

Murray is a personification of the most physical possible impact between the anomie of the individual and the madness of the crowd; he is thus a hero twice over. No wonder, as the camera nosed about the arena, we were treated to the disgusting spectacle of Messrs Cameron, Miliband, Clegg and Salmond-with-saltire almost sucking each other off, such was their desire to repose in the crotch of the champion.

Murray, meanwhile, submitted to the bizarre court-side interview – a ritual I cannot remember from the 1970s and one in which the well-known faces in the crowd, picked out by the camera, are integrated into the mass to reinforce the hoary new delusion that they’re just like us, really.

You may have detected a certain soft, emollient tone in this week’s column – but have no fear, readers, remember: Murray the Minted is a sports “ambassador” for none other than RBS. It’s given the feisty wee chap thousands of our pounds to play big pingpong, so mind, we own the fucker. Now, new balls to kick, please!

Andy Murray's authenticity as a sporting hero comes as much from his intractability as from his prowess. Photograph: Getty Images.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle