Wednesday, September 10, 2003

“Chants Would Be a Fine Thing”

Forget your Shakespeares, Keats and Dylan Thomases. Some of the greatest poets this nation has ever produced plied their art on the football terraces of England. But as the terraces succumb to the bulldozer and the sterile atrmosphere of the all-seater stadium, the art of the terrace chant is in danger of dying out completely. At Liverpool, there was the famous Spion Kop now featuring thousands of red plastic seats, at Chelsea the Shed has become a hotel and leisure complex and the Chicken Run at yer actual West Ham has gone to the slaughterhouse. Only Manchester United fans remain unscathed, as there are no plans to demolish Guildford just yet.

In the mid-eighties I stood with a small gang of friends at the back of the North Bank at the Arsenal. There was a certain camaraderie, a nodding acquaintance with the other regulars, such as mulleted Sid The Sexist lookalike Noddy and his gang; and Big Nose’s mob, several of whom had ordinary sized conks. We had a laugh (and if you saw the football back then, you needed a sense of humour), we traded banter, we wound up the humourless undercover police assigned to watch over us with video cameras the size of suitcases, and when it mattered, and just to prove we weren't all hooligans, we sung our hearts out for the lads.

And they were right, those social commentators, never has such inventiveness been seen in people of such limited IQ since the Great Train Robbery. Some of the songs were straight from the top of the genius pile, while others were just crass, crude and downright stupid. And bloody genius too. For example, my brother claims to have been present at the birth of this little number on an away trip to Doncaster Rovers, a ditty put together to the tune of “My Old Man’s A Dustman” to commemorate the then Spurs Manager’s habit of getting picked up by the law soliciting for the favours of young ladies:

“David Pleat’s a pervert
He’s friends with Elton John
He writes him dirty letters
And tries to get it on
But Elton’s got his rent boys
And he’s gone off pervy Pleat
So Davey gets a prostitute
And shags her in the street.”

It’s got everything. Foul and abusive language, total hatred for your local rivals, sexual deviancy, libel and just a touch of homophobia for the less politically correct. I remember five thousand Gooners and an inflatable doll belting that one out in the away end at White Hart Lane like it was yesterday. It was about the same time that Big Nose came up with a simple “question and answer” chant, where one person would lead and the rest of the crowd would follow:

Leader: “What do you think of Tottenham?”
Crowd: “Shit!”
Leader: “What do you think of shit?”
Crowd: “Tottenham!”
Leader: “Thank you.”
Crowd: “All right.”

Of course, the biggest laugh came with Noddy’s rendition of a dismal night at Oxford’s ramshackle (Ramshackle? It was like Cardboard City) Manor Ground:

Noddy: “What do you think of Tottenham?”
Crowd: “Shit!”
Noddy: “What do you think of Tottenham?”
Crowd: “Shit!”
Noddy: “What do you think of Tottenham?”
Crowd: “Shit!”
Noddy: “What do you think of Tottenham?”
Crowd: “Shit!”
Noddy: “God I hate Tottenham!”

There was nothing in the world like starting a chant and hear it pick up spead, spreading across the terrace and around the ground. The first time I managed it, I basked in an aura of smugness for the rest of the evening. We lost.

It’s a dying art though. Ask any Scouser, and he’ll regale you with tales of the ready wit of the Kop End, belting out their latest renditions of chart hits, and on one particularly foggy Saturday, “What’s the score?” to the fans at the other end of the ground. There was even an album doing the rounds of the Kop Choir, and a national competition to find the best terrace singers in the land. These days they can hardly get up a chorus of “You’ll Never Walk Alone”.

Arsenal is no different - it’s not known as the “Highbury Library” for nothing. With stringent penalties from police and ground stewards alike against people daring to enjoy themselves at the footie, along with automated ticketing sales doing their best to keep groups of mates apart, the glory days of the football sing-song are now well and truly gone.

With this important artform in danger of fading away, I have made it my life’s mission to find these treasures a new home where they can be saved for the nation until such a time that that can be appreciated once more. Rather like the Victoria and Albert Museum, only with swearing. I doubt if the great poets or writers of any age would have come up with this kind of genius. Bacon. Orwell. Morrissey out of the Smiths (on account of him being a soft lad who’d run from the Stockport Under Eleven Boot Boys given half the chance). Kipling. Rank amateurs the lot of them. Only the late Oscar Wilde, whose love for Charlton Athletic was only equalled that of the Marquis of Queensbury’s lad, could hold a candle to the collective genius of the English football terrace of the sixties and seventies.

Consider this from an anthology of Wilde’s verse:

“The wankers Tottenham Hotspur went to Rome to see the Pope
The wankers Tottenham Hotspur went to Rome to see the Pope
The wankers Tottenham Hotspur went to Rome to see the Pope
And this is what he said - FUCK OFF!
Who’s that team they call the Charlton?
Who’s that team they all adore?
They’re the boys in red and white
And they’re fucking dynamite
And David Pleat’s mother, she’s a whore.”

No wonder they banged him up in Reading Nick. Elm Park never heard the like, before or since.

And, in closing, let us not forget the greatest football chant of them all - a multipurpose taunt for all occasions, which can be used both in and out of the ground. The subtle hand gesture with the flick of the wrist that only true football fans can manage, which can be used as a rule of thumb to discover if your contemporary is Of The Terraces, or merely a faker:

“You’re shit.... AAAARGH!”

You may now allow mums and aunts back into the room.

Coming Soon: Something special. Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen, alternative uses for historical artifacts and a rather embarrassing End of the World, inspired by Neil Gaiman. Just as soon as I’ve written it.

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