Golden balls. Robert Winder on a hymn to Becks: a misunderstood victim and paragon of working-class values

Burchill on Beckham

Julie Burchill <em>Yellow Jersey Press, 148pp, £10</em>

ISBN 0224061917

I have not followed Julie Burchill's career as avidly as perhaps I should, so I always find her writing rather mystifying. She is obviously brilliant - sharp, funny and full of mischievous zest - but her routine tray of references consists of either pop icons about whom I have no strong feelings, or friends of hers whose names, she seems to imagine, are on the tip of everyone's tongue. So I was surprised to find, reading her brief and hilarious hymn of praise to David Beckham, that we do have something in common after all: neither of us has ever seen Beckham play football.

I think that if I were writing a book about the man, I might feel impelled to go along a few times: the media are unreliable narrators. Perhaps, given that her book is not about the footballer but only about "Becks" the celebrity, it doesn't matter (and hell, there are plenty of people writing about the actual games). But it was risky, and not only because it has given critics such a handy stick to beat her with. In truth, it's like writing about a novelist without bothering to read the books. However much fun it is (and it is fun: lively, rude, intemperate and tart), it is also pretty ridiculous.

What is it, then? It's not quite a biography, and not quite an essay. It's not even quite a book - it's a magazine profile in hard covers. I suppose we could call it a "take", a snapshot of modern celebrity, and this is a topic on which Burchill could be very sprightly. We are the new idol-rich. "We have Friends instead of friends," she writes, "and Neighbours instead of neighbours." But like many of her best moments, this is an aside - she is a maestro in brackets - and is not pursued for long.

Quite what she does pursue isn't clear. Hers is a brand of populism which insists that, even when you are posing as a subversive firebrand or cultural iconoclast, you must never leave the beaten track (where the commercial smart money is). That's fine: you can live with the idea that you are piggybacking on someone else's fame. It has a Thatcherite flavour, though, and Burchill often does sound like Norman Tebbit, only with better gags. It takes a fair amount of cheek (one of her strong suits, luckily) to present Beckham, as she does, as some sort of reviled, misunderstood victim. The book is primarily a critique of those who hate him - snobs, repressed homosexuals, pathetic bourgeois saddies or anyone else whom she considers (in her deepest term of abuse) "naff". This is standard: people always use celebrity as a convenient hook on which to hang their own prejudices, and Burchill is no different. But she is far too smart to want us to take this seriously. Beckham is one of the most popular men in the land. Hardly anyone hates him, unless you count the panto-hatred of the terraces, where he is hated not for personal failings, but merely as the poster boy and merchandising spearhead for Man Utd. He was obscenely shouted at for some silly petulance that cost England a World Cup match; but that was years ago. Today, he lives neck-deep in hero-worship.

Burchill is undismayed by such considerations. She clings, presumably for comic purposes, to the notion that even in assessing an idol as haloed as Beckham, she is somehow riding to the rescue of an unjustly persecuted figure. "We don't expect our intellectuals to be great footballers," she writes, "but for some reason we expect our great footballers to be intellectuals." This must be a parody of the nonsense that sometimes passes for cleverness - a conversation stopper for dumbheads. Have you ever met anyone who expected a footballer to be an intellectual? I haven't, and I bet Julie Burchill hasn't. As so often, she finds herself lashing out at . . . thin air.

It's all very odd. She's a controversialist without a controversy. She wants to be disagreeable, and what makes it especially annoying is that no one disagrees with her. In fact, the ideas in the book are dyed-in-the-wool conventional. Her Beckham is a prodigy of working-class grit and dignity, a "golden child" who has risen from rags to riches, copped a pop vixen in a blaze of lubricious publicity, been haunted by the press mob (like Princess Diana), yet somehow, er, kept his feet on the ground. There's lots about his "breathtaking boldness and beauty", his "incredible dignity and grace", his "relentless beauty", his "fine and noble face", and so on. It's a Disney outline, more or less. Burchill offers him as an anti-laddish symbol of old working-class values - he reminds her of those proud men of her childhood, "paragons of generosity, industry and chastity". But in emphasising that he has prevailed "through sheer will and effort", she doesn't reflect on the institutions that have moulded his life and career, the commercial interests that have reared and promoted him.

Naturally, the memory of those working-class paragons doesn't stop Burchill giving the modern proletariat - the "ruins of brute masculinity" - a good kick in the shins. "When Saturday comes," she writes, "a hell of a lot of lads go home with hard-ons." They're jealous of him; they're jealous of her; and they hate themselves. That about covers it, eh? It utterly contradicts her grand assertion that the working class (as represented by Becks) is sure of itself sexually, but who cares? As a joke (I presume), Burchill goes out of her way to have it both ways. "Show me a man who loves football," she writes, "and nine times out of ten you'll be pointing at a really bad shag." That Beckham himself loves football seems not to spoil this line of thought. He himself, she louchely asserts, is "hung like a horse". "He's packing a foot, and it ain't got toenails." Who needs to go to matches when you have this kind of inside info? It's courageous of her to divulge it, though I am pretty sure that it is what those generous, chaste paragons of yore would call mere lavatory talk.

It is brave of Burchill to mix her many genuine glints of perception in with this kind of in-yer-face trash. There are some bravura swipes - at the "big man, little woman" paradigm that the Beckham union figuratively rejects, or at the built-in treachery of celebrity, the revelation that our heroes or love objects were only ever in it for the money: our money. Burchill has a bit of a problem with Posh, because obviously it wouldn't be cool to admire anything as "naff" as a Spice Girl, so she credits Victoria for being wised up, for making the most of those "huge chocolate-drop eyes" and being "delightfully common", while suggesting primly that she might be a "bad influence". But she scrabbles away at the glassy Beckham image with spirited determination. She even wonders soulfully what he might think about on "those long, lonely journeys from North to South and back again".

The answer might be less soulful than she hopes. He probably wonders whether, when he drifts in from the right, he isn't clogging up the space around Veron, or what prank he could play on Andy Cole. He might brood on his golf handicap and, as the wipers go wop-wop-wop, nurse fantasies of bending in a 30-yarder against Italy. Or there's the big question: should he stop for petrol in Walsall or Stockport?

Who knows? Julie Burchill certainly doesn't. And she doesn't care who knows it.

Robert Winder writes monthly for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2001 issue of the New Statesman, And now the trouble really begins