After last week’s storm, this week, calm.
I want to tell you about why it is that my thoughts tend to turn towards the beautiful moving stillness of LS Lowry’s most famous painting, Going To The Match, whenever I have those routine bouts of ennui that afflict the modern football fan. It’s within those huddled masses of matchstick men and women converging upon a football stadium somewhere in the industrial North of the 1920s, that the essence of football is forever captured. Despite the fact that it’s a snapshot of a long distant age, it nevertheless continues to resonate for all of us who remain (reluctantly) enthralled by the culture and routine that football nurtures and sustains.
I was lucky enough to see it up close over the summer. As part of Tate Britain’s retrospective of Lowry’s work, it hangs immediately to your right as you enter the exhibition. I don’t frequent art galleries as a matter of course, but it was the presence of that particular work of art that drew me to the haunts patronised by the nodding and chin-stroking patronising classes. Judging by the congregation of several (mostly Northern) men in their early thirties to late forties around it, I am not alone in feeling that Lowry somehow understood why we still keep going back to the game, even when it seemingly does its outmost to make us turn our backs with revulsion on a weekly basis.
Afterwards, I couldn’t bring myself to part with a week’s worth of powdered milk and nappies just to buy a print. I settled for the postcard that I now use as a bookmark. And I find myself staring at it every night in those winding down moments between another Sherlock Holmes case and sleep.
It’d be easy to suggest that the painting fuels the happy glow of nostalgia when you see it. All those men in cloth caps and women in headscarves walking purposefully towards the turnstiles. Dogs running loose, a row of terraced houses and a man puffing on a smoke with his hands in his coat pockets, shielding them from the cold. You forget the looming spectral presence of the factory chimney stacks within a grey landscape, where a storm is likely brewing. It’s almost as if Lowry sensed that industry’s time was up even back then. There’s no sugar-coating. I imagine outhouses and long hours and feet soaking in hot water poured out from a kettle and as Jarvis Cocker once sang, “I can’t see anyone smiling in here”.
Lowry doesn’t condescend us with some rose-tinted view of football. It looks cold, it looks drab, it looks like it’ll hurt your lungs. However, it’s that one little sliver of the pitch where the wooden stand rises behind the goal, which is the artist’s masterstroke. It is there that dreams reside. And all those people moving towards that stadium have that in common. We don’t need to see the pitch because we as football fans, however far removed from that particular moment, instinctively understand what lies beyond those turnstiles. It’s no wonder the PFA parted with nearly two million pounds to have it hanging in Gordon Taylor’s office in 1999.
If Lowry was to paint Going To The Match in 2013, I wonder how it would reflect football’s evolution since 1928. Car parks, of course. Lots of car parks and cars inching slowly towards their designated spots, jammed in and listening to 5Live. The houses would have been demolished years ago. In their place, trendy flats overlooking shopping complexes and burger emporiums. No coats here either. Just replica shirt followed by replica shirt and phones to ears as mounted police patrol the circumference. Some, like Barnet and Coventry fans, would arrive on coaches displaced as their clubs are from their local communities. Small fortunes slapped on to credit cards by families arriving on trains from sleepy suburbs. Grand days out. Spurs fans wouldn’t even need to look out for ticket touts, seeing as sadly, now you can tout your own season ticket at your leisure without the need to stand in the rain.
But regardless, Lowry would still have that tiny strip of the pitch. And it’s that instinctive knowledge and understanding that we all share which makes the concept of the painting easily transferable to any time and place.
With the (very) imminent arrival of our second child, I find myself thinking more and more about how both of them will watch football and what it will mean to them. In my darker moments, I’ve imagined Orwellian dystopias where people sit in little rooms and create their own twisted versions of fantasy football. But beyond such melodramatic vignettes, it’s more a case of worrying about the connections the kids would have to Spurs, seeing that they’re so geographically dislocated from the place. Tottenham would mean nothing to them other than a place their dad takes them to every other weekend. After all, they’ll be in the early stages of their football lives when the continental merry-go-round of Euro 2020 will be unleashed by UEFA. What would a sense of the complexities and rhythms of these stadia mean to them if most of their football is experienced through the latest Apple magic trick?
Remember though… there’s that pitch. Easily understood despite the passing of generations.
If I learnt anything from my skirmish with David Baddiel last week, it was that (most) people were willing to engage and debate a sensitive subject with reasoned respect for one another’s views. That’s heartening because sometimes it feels that we’re all being increasingly boxed in and actual physical interaction is a rarity. Putting up and shutting up as we conduct our friendships via Facebook, order our groceries via a website, decide when we want to watch the latest episode of Breaking Bad rather than watching it at the same time as everybody else. We’re fractured and polarised more than we ever have been. The overwhelmingly positive response I had to last week’s posts prove that people do feel an urge to belong somewhere.
That belonging always manifests itself through football. Politics and religion are too divisive and although football has its tribal element, we can all understand the magical promise of that illusory goal post in the wooden stadium from that bit from history. That’s football’s beauty. And that’s Lowry’s enduring genius.
Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life is at Tate Britain until 20th October.
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