From the sidelines by James Oddy – no. 1

By August 10, 2019

Sports. Leeds.

I’m currently nearing the end of Phillipe Auclairs seminal biography of Eric Cantona. It’s a wonderful book. Like all the best biographies, it provides insight into its subject without projecting onto them the authors neurosis and pop psychology. Furthermore, it gives you a peek into a world you never really knew you could have any interest in. It turns out local authority politics in late 80s France were fascinating.

As a secondary school English teacher, and a fairly successful writer myself, people often ask me what I’m reading and why, especially when I’ve got six whole weeks over the summer to do so.

“I’m reading this brilliant book” I say, desperate to talk about it. I can see the excitement building in their faces. Lots of people really do like to talk about books. Perhaps I’ve found an undiscovered gem?

“It’s a biography of Eric Cantona and….” and I can see that I’ve lost them. Football? Sport? Ridiculous. What a folly.

I always feel the need to justify why I read and write about sport. And, as this column develops, I’m sure I’ll explore those in greater detail. But I often wonder why people struggle to take sport seriously.

It’s not so much why don’t people enjoy it. People enjoy different things. It’s why people hold the belief that sport and everything associated with it is inherently anti-intellectual and representative  of ‘low’ culture. That a footballer isn’t worthy of a 500 odd-page, serious biography. That a world title fight isn’t much much more than two people punching each other, but a snapshot of culture and society at the time it takes place.

Why people are snotty about sport is complex, but I’ve always suspected it boils down to that most British of things – class. Football, rugby league, boxing. They’re the original pop entertainments, by and for (although often controlled by) the masses. It often doesn’t require some kind of extensive cultural capital to love and appreciate. Unlike most culture, it’s rooted in its accessibility and wide appeal.

It’s telling to me that, as someone from a working class background, but father to a little boy who will be very middle class, how much I obsesses about his sporting pedigree. He adores kicking a football.  With his mop of blonde hair and rosy checks, he bares a passing resemblance to a young David Batty. I’ve taken to referring to my son ‘baby Batty’.

Perhaps subconsciously, I’ve been hoping that his enjoyment and the embryonic signs of some ability help tie him to me and his background. That he won’t, one day, ask me why on earth I’m wasting my time reading a biography of Eric Cantona.

James Oddy is the author of ‘True Professional’, a Guardian Sports Book of the Year 2017

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