Real interest lies in hidden nuances of the class game
By Michael Moynihan
I see Martin Amis has a new book out.
The title is Lionel Asbo and it deals with a chav type who wins the lottery.
There seems to be a certain amount of hostility in the reviews based in essence on what an Oxbridge-educated member of the cosmopolitan elite would know about life as it’s lived in the asbo-gathering stratum of English society. Amis has previous in this regard — his novel London Fields focused on a champion darts player living in a rough part of the English capital, and while some of that book is fantastic, there is a smell of I-may-be-posh-but-I-know-the-street-innit off that book, anyway.
Or I-think-I-know-the-street. I like Martin Amis’s books: he went on tour with Watford to China in their Elton John-sponsored early-80s prime, and his description of a young John Barnes, examining his own elbows and forearms as though stunned by their own flawlessness, is one of the funniest, and most accurate, descriptions of a sports star I’ve ever read.
But a lot of the down and dirty stuff in his novels sounds like the nice middle class lad that you know who insists on going to a “real spit and sawdust” kind of pub in order to show some kind of authenticity.
That reference to the middle class is deliberate, because Martin Amis and his yearning for street cred kind of loops back to a conversation I had last week with a noted academic on another topic altogether but which strayed into social classification — class, by any other name.
“You know, there’s a book there, just waiting to be written,” said my learned friend. “Class in Irish sport. Everyone thinks Ireland is a classless society, but if you want to see proof that there is a class system, you only have to look at sport in this country.”
He’s right. Our Olympic boxing representatives clearly don’t come from fee-paying schools, for instance. There’s a certain uniformity, by contrast, to the educational background of many of our rugby internationals.
Those are plain enough statements of fact, ones which don’t carry a hint of either ‘to the barricades’ or ‘let them eat cake’, but that’s the point about class in Ireland, or writing about class in Ireland, which I should have made to my pal in academe.
It’s the stuff that’s lurking behind the obvious that’s interesting, but that’s the stuff that’s the hardest to stand up in print.
For instance: last Saturday Brian O’Driscoll gave a television interview on the field just after Ireland’s narrow loss to New Zealand, blood pouring from a divot in his cheek, the heartbreak of a last-minute winner equally plain on his face.
Nowadays O’Driscoll’s bravery and bottle are proverbial among Irish sports fans of every stripe, and the lazy assumption would be that any delay in acceptance of his guts was tied up in a bias against his accent — that anyone who spoke like that couldn’t possibly have the inherent ferocity that O’Driscoll plainly possesses.
The uniformity of mid-province monotones among Munster players — whether from East Clare, rural Limerick or Cork city — would have fed into that. But to me the true power of the Irish class system in sport is that you can tell people congratulate themselves on ‘seeing through’ O’Driscoll’s accent to the warrior beneath. This is one of the funniest solo acts you can witness, people paying tribute to O’Driscoll’s toughness while patting themselves on the back — metaphorically — for outfoxing their own prejudices.
There are even more nuanced situations around, of course. Henry Martin of Limerick has written two illuminating books about the GAA on Shannonside, and one riveting aside is the allegation that one Limerick selection committee was more minded to pick the sons of powerful farmers than ordinary labourers. Then of course you have the long-touted rumour that one prominent county wanted to change captains mid-season because it was felt the proposed replacement as skipper would give a far better acceptance speech in Croke Park come September (an affront to karma which was duly punished).
Ultimately, any book on this subject would also be weighed down by one essential truth. Just as all art supposedly aspires to the condition of music, all sports aspire to the kind of authenticity we mentioned above — mass acceptance. That means a lot of sports must pretend to be something they aren’t, which in terms of class is a common occurrence.
By the way, I’m happy to accept a finder’s fee from a publisher commissioning any such book, though M Amis is the man to write it. His standing in my eyes is not solely due to his writing skills. Almost 20 years ago he extracted a £300,000 book advance from a publisher. Now, that’s class.
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