Sunday, 11 September 2011

Beauty in different places

It was just gone 11.20am on Saturday morning and the train was hauling itself out of London. There was Wembley on the right, with Norman Foster's already-iconic arch towering over the skyline.

All those times I passed it and uttered a silent prayer to the gods of football for City to make it there. There was no need for the same prayer on Saturday: we have been, seen and conquered and, if I couldn't get a ticket for last May's FA Cup final victory, at least I was there for the semi win over United.

Saturday itself was the first act of live worship this season, with the visit of Wigan. It continued a mightily impressive start to the term – with a brand of football that really is beautiful on the eye and likely, on occasion, to take the breath away.

I’m still expecting someone to wake me up – and I’ll be on a train to somewhere like Scunthorpe.

So I'm long enough in the tooth as a City fan not to take anything for granted. Things have changed enormously, but there is still a little niggle in the back of my mind, a tiny gnawing doubt that says that we, the club that was famously described as being able to win cups for cock ups, can still do exactly that.

As the train got under way I listened to Beethoven's sonatas for piano and violin. Beautiful.

It's probably ridiculously juvenile, but the juxtaposition of football and 'culture' always tickles me.

It's amused me to wonder what people have thought when, after clocking my football shirt, they'd notice the title of a book that was slightly beyond Janet & John.

Not, I hasten to add, that anyone can hear the Beethoven.

I'm not the only one who has such thoughts, either. A colleague, who is a season ticket holder at Arsenal, was telling me only the other day that she regularly used to go to a match on a Saturday afternoon and then to the English National Opera to see whatever was on there.

And it amused her to wonder how many other people enjoyed such a combination of entertainments.

Even in the 21st century, it seems that we compartmentalise culture - so that we find the idea of a football fan loving opera too as rather odd.

In Italy, of course, opera has long been popular across society's boundaries - not least Verdi, who has long been linked with the Risorgimento, that country's unification movement.

And opera there was also accessible across the social spectrum, unlike in the UK, where it's still often viewed as an elitist form of culture.

Back in 1996, when England was hosting the European Football Championships, I had travelled to Liverpool to report the match between Italy and Russia. My main memory of a less than scintillating encounter was seeing Gianfranco Zola for the first time; the little man getting his foot impossibly high to bring down the ball that then seemed utterly glued to his boot. Such instant control.

But the journey back to London was memorable for being chaotic. One train had been cancelled, so most of the fans were backed into a single train.

Seat reservations were useless unless you were lucky enough to find your seat before someone else with the same number.

I was ticked off by a very young policeman for swearing at one point, and I started the journey standing until doing something very unusual for me and flashing my press card at the train manager (who was trying to hide from the chaos) and demanding that I sit in first class, together with the half a dozen fans whi were also standing in the same corridor.

Press cards have their uses.

But in the coming days, it emerged that a train from Glyndebourne, bound for the capital one night, had been held in order to wait for a business bigwig or two who had been at the opera.

Football has long been known as ‘working man’s ballet’ – the apotheosis of male working-class culture in a country that effectively kept the plebs well away from high art – just as the cult of amateurism in sport was simply a way of keeping working people away from many other sports.

Now, it’s not been quite as simple as that for some time: in the north, for instance, women have attended football for a long time.

And post-war equality opened up opportunities not simply to see art, but also to participate in it. A blossoming of film, theatre, music and architecture all benefitted from the greater social mobility for working people.

But football’s audience has changed again in recent years, as the cost of going to matches has risen. There are good and bad points about this: personally, while I can look back on going to matches in run-down stadia with only one loo for women, I don’t have any sense of rose-tinted, misty-eyed longing to stand at the bottom of a terrace (me being a short arse) and see streams of piss bubbling down between my feet.

The view I have when I go to City games allows me to really be able to watch the game, unhindered.

On the other hand, as with an increasing amount of things, many ordinary people are being priced out of attending. That’s not just about football, though, but about a far wider cultural change that’s been taking place in Britain – and England particularly – for the last 30 years, and to even skate the surface would take a lot more words than you want to read here and now.

But for me at least, to be a football fan doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate opera (or Beethoven) – and visa versa.

In Amadeus, Peter Schaffer portrays Mozart as a musical genius with more in common with Sid Vicious than was entirely in keeping with the polite society of his day. I have little problem imagining Mozart attending football matches as an Ultra.

Beethoven was an awkward sod. So were many other composers – and countless authors and painters and sculptors etc.

For their work to be co-opted by respectable society is rather amusing really. Not that it matters in the grand scheme of things, but I wonder sometimes how much some of those who spend small fortunes to be seen at, say, the Royal Opera House, really get of what they see.

And sometimes it’s difficult not to feel that art has, in the UK at least, been largely neutered to make it polite.

A couple of years ago, I saw Daniel Barenboim play some Beethoven piano sonatas at the Royal Festival Hall. All alone on the stage with his piano, it was Beethoven as I’d never seen or heard preformed before – but Beethoven as I suspect it was meant to be: wild and angry and full of Romantic passion and energy.

The vast auditorium flashed away and it was as though I was the only one there, watching something that was as close to its original intent as to suggest I'd been thrown into some time flux and the pianist and composer had become one. It was magnetic and magnificent and deeply intense.

Like music, football is the personal and the public combined. And on Saturday, what I saw was art made flesh. And like the Beethoven, it took my breath away and left me with a sense of awe.

They are not so far apart as some would suppose and as some would like to suppose.

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