john davies
notes from a small curate

updated regularly
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

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    Poetry, Sheer Bloody Poetry!

    from When Saturday Comes October 1987

    It was Oscar Wilde who said "Football is all very well as a game for rough girls, but it is hardly suitable for delicate boys", a statement which comes as no surprise to followers of both football and fiction. You could hardly imagine Morrisey's favourite literary figure lasting very long on a field with Mick Quinn, for instance. Or having to contend with that other rough girl of our time, Norman 'Nancy' Whiteside. It has often seemed that most, if not all, of the poets of our glorious past, have been, like Wilde, 'delicate boys'. But new evidence is coming to light of a previously unheard-of devotion to football by the cultural giants of a bygone age. Re-reading the old masters reveals that many of the great British poets could have been players or fans.

    Penned in the days when Brazil was just a tiny smudge on some explorer's piece of parchment, Lord Byron's epic poem 'Italy versus England' is a piece of reportage that set the trend for today's 'serious' writers. He doesn't mention the game, but instead waxes lyrical about religion, politics, the arts and the scenery, concluding with the line, "England, with all thy faults, I love thee still!" Obviously our boys had been subjected to a hearty continental drubbing, but Byron's blind devotion in the face of incredible incompetence is still in mode today.

    Lord Byron wasn't the only one. Andrew Marvell recognised the dilemma of his own support in his celebrated line, 'The Definition of Love':
      My Love is of a birth as rare
      As 'tis for object strange and high;
      It was begotten by Despair
      Upon Impossibility
    Experts suggest that Marvell was a founder member of QPR supporters club.

    Some poets seem to have been players, none with more nerve than George Herbert who, in 1630, faced his directors with a transfer request unique in British poetic tradition:
      I struck the board and cried "No more!
      I will abroad"
    Before the days of Freedom of Contract, no doubt such violent action would have been seen as the only practical means by which players could get their way. Herbert's attempt to escape from the obscurity of non-league soccer in Salisbury seems to have failed, however. The history books don't record any move to Inter Milan, and the last we hear of Herbert is as a vicar in the Midlands.

    Ben Jonson is another poet who seems to have had footballing connections, but he wasn't built in the Herbert mould. In an 'Ode to Himself', he asks:
      Where dost thou careless lie
      Buried in ease and sloth?
    In those days of 0 - 0 - 10 formations and no offsides, Jonson evidently found his niche as one of those blokes who would hang around at the edge of the area, waiting for the ball to come to his feet. Who was worse - him or Thomas Gray, whose 'Elegy in a Country Churchyard', a poem of incredible misery, is now believed to have been inspired by a Rangers' away defeat in the 3rd Round of the Scottish Cup? Gray ranted on about "some village Hampden that with dauntless breast / The little tyrants of his fields withstood", and though, ever since, earnest scholars have been trying to figure out what this piece of garble actually means, it now becomes obvious that it was the work of a bitter man the worse for whisky.

    So much for the poems which we all had to study at school, and hated. Many original versions of famous literary works are now also being uncovered, which reveal that many of our most celebrated writers were in fact obsessed with soccer. Shakespeare himself doodled:
      At three o'clock the match began
      With hey, ho, the wind and the rain
      Now we've lost 3-0, the lads are done in
      And the rain it raineth every day
    - surely a precursor of the losers' terrace chants of today.

    By contrast, William Wordsworth was obviously more of a 'delicate boy' than a football fan, and an incident in the Lake District had such a shocking effect on him at the time that it inspired his most famous first line:
      I wandered lonely as a cloud
      That floats on high o'er hills and vales
      When all at once I saw a crowd,
      Ten thousand very rowdy males,
      Outside the pubs, all round the place,
      Singing, " Workington are bloody ace!"
    By now it should have become obvious that football has had even more effect on British cultural tradition than we've previously assumed. There may be many more examples where these came from, but meanwhile I shall conclude this brief appraisal of the literary traditions of our great and noble game by quoting William Cowper, who in 1770, wrote what is believed to be the first ever pools poem:
      God moves in a mysterious way
      His wonders to perform;
      I got eight draws on Saturday
      But didn't post the form.

    This article is likely to be in The First Eleven - The complete first 11 issues of WSC, 1986-1988. Foreword by John Peel, and available from the WSC shop