Sunday, December 30, 2007

A class act

At this time of year reading comes in two types, the serendipity bought as Christmas presents from my over-long Amazon wish list and the books that I should read, determinedly ferried backwards and forwards from England, usually lying untouched in my suitcase. The now relenting cold gave me the perfect excuse to engage in the former and, once again, neglect the latter.

My Rugby League addiction was satisfied by Stevo, the autobiography of the former Great Britain hooker and Sky TV summariser, Mike Stephenson. It isn’t a great read, although it isn’t one of those anodyne, ghost written sports books (if it had been there would have been a few less exclamation marks). Punches are pulled towards the end about the creation of Super League, bringing to mind the embarrassing Pravda broadcast on Sky where Eddie Hemmings and Stevo pretended the fans were all in full agreement with the proposals. (I had just come back from Keighley, who were being denied promotion, where the crowd, whipped up by the chairman, demonstrated against them on the pitch. Some towns held protest marches, whilst I always remember a foul-mouthed, belligerent female Featherstone fan who attended matches all the following season wearing her "Maurice Lindsay is a wanker" tee-shirt. The fans won a partial victory when the proposed club mergers never took place).

It was the start of the book that grabbed me, celebrating the game’s Northern, working class roots. A Dewsbury miner’s son, Stevo had an upbringing that we would now think of as shockingly poor. There was little money, his schooling was weak, and he was in minor trouble with the police as a youth but sorted himself out through sport. This was the 1960’s, romanticised as the era of youth rebellion, hedonism and affluence. Not for the Northern working class. The way that players were treated by club owners, with their general parsimony towards those who earned a part-time living by playing the toughest sport of all, can only be described as feudal. The game was hard, bordering on psychotic, scrums were real, and the camaraderie amongst the players, cemented by a common upbringing, was boisterously blokeish.

Stevo played in the Great Britain team that won the World Cup in 1972 (many years before the Rugby Union even dreamt of holding one), an achievement studiously ignored by the Southern-based, national media. It was only afterwards, in 1973, when he went to play in Australia, that he became a sporting star with something like the rewards associated with being an international of the highest class. Not bad for an asthmatic with a twisted spine.

Self-deprecation is second nature in the North. It is to be expected that Stevo would take the mickey out of his looks, especially after fourteen broken noses. However, he also talks of his lack of brains. The old joke is that it is a requirement for playing in the front row of the scrum, but that isn’t what he is saying; he means it.

And this is a man who, as a lad, hitchhiked to Italy so that he could indulge in his love of art, who later became a successful restaurant owner, a print journalist and a broadcaster. This is the man who set up a travelling exhibition of Rugby League memorabilia all round Australia and now has his own museum at the birthplace of Rugby League, the George Hotel in Huddersfield. All this was achieved despite the impressive proportion of his life that has been spent pissed. He still thinks he is thick.

Just imagine where he would be now if he had not been good at sport. Probably, he would be like many another working class sixty-year-old - in poor health; recently retired from clearing drains blocked with the detritus of other peoples' affluence; and still with an unfulfilled passion for art, forever held back by the inferiority complex he was taught to embrace. Never doubt the damage done by inequality, by class prejudice, and a lack of expectations that stifles the aspirations of the best. Celebrate every attempt at social inclusion, especially in education, at all times of life, instead of falling back into a lazy elitism of defending 'standards' against 'dumbing down'. There are loads of talented Stevos out there; the only difference is that they are not world class sportsmen.

There would seem to be no connection at all with my other gift, Anne Fadiman’s delightful collection of essays, At Large and at Small. I have already posted on the extract read on Radio 4 about naturally nocturnal people.

The whole book is full of such gems. There are essays on favourite indulgences, coffee and ice cream; marvellous pieces on the Romantics, especially the one on Charles Lamb; and others on Arctic exploration, butterfly collecting, literary criticism and more. It ends with an acutely observed tragedy. The essays are an examination of the world in miniature and, at times, the book is no less profound for its small compass.

So where is the link with Stevo? Fadiman is impeccably middle class, East Coast American, the well-educated daughter of a writer. The answer comes in her post 9/11 essay on her relationship with the American flag.

In her youth she rejected flag waving. Why? Nominally, she would have associated it with her opposition to the Vietnam war. Now, after 9/11, she is clear that her "disdain for the flag wasn’t political; it was social". Patriotism was associated with the working classes, with which her circles "professed heartfelt solidarity" whilst never meeting anyone from them and scoffing at their tastes and way of life. This was the Sixties too, days "which pretended to be egalitarian but were in fact unthinkingly, unapologetically, unbelievably snobbish". Days when a young, art loving, Dewsbury miner’s son learnt how to see himself as thick before becoming a plumber’s mate and going on to be a star in the most unpretentious sport on earth. Have we become more egalitarian since? I am not so sure.

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