Control freak

I am over halfway through Nick Hornby‘s first book, Fever Pitch – an autobiographical account of his life-long tragicomic love affair with the beautiful game.

I tell a lie. Actually, it is a story about his affectations for a North London football club that ruined the sport as a spectacle until a certain Monsieur Wenger came along.

As any nervy debutante would, Hornby started slowly; a bit tentative on the humour and sparse on the wit. But the prose quickly settled, found its form and flair, and went on to fire on all cylinders.

All was good. I was almost ready to forgive his undying, at times masochistically foolhardy support for Arsenal. Until he brought up the 1979 FA Cup final, that is. But since this moment of Gooner glory was sandwiched between the agony of two 1-0 FA Cup final defeats (to Ipswich in 1978 and West Ham in 1980), I found it in myself to be utterly patronising and let the offence slide.

To his credit, he has yet to dole out the tired cliché about the religiousity of football fanhood. He did however drop a subtle reference to it during his retelling of his Cambridge years.

It was the late ’70s, and Hornby had just rediscovered his Arsenal passions amidst a naughty fling with his new local club Cambridge United. In his desire to will the U’s upward in the Football League, he put his faith in an unusual ritual.



What happened was, Chris Roberts bought a sugar mouse from Jack Reynolds (‘The Rock King’), bit its head off, dropped it in the Newmarket Road before he could get started on the body, and it got run over by a car. And that afternoon Cambridge United, who had hitherto been finding life difficult in the Second Division (two wins all season, one home, one away), beat Orient 3-1, and a ritual was born. Before each home game we all of us trooped into the sweet shop, purchased our mice, walked outside, bit the head off as though we were removing the pin from a grenade, and tossed the torsos under the wheels of oncoming cars; Jack Reynolds would stand in the doorway watching us, shaking his head sorrowfully. United, this protected, remained unbeaten at the Abbey for months.

Hornby went on to describe a selection of his other match day superstitions before concluding:

Nothing (apart from sugar mice) has ever been any good. But what else can we do when we are so weak? We invest hours each day, months each year, years each lifetime in something over which we have no control; it is any wonder then, that we are reduced to creating ingenious but bizarre liturgies designed to give us the illusion that we are powerful after all, just as every other primitive community has done when faced with a deep and apparently impenetrable mystery?

An allusion to the mystical powers of incantations to an invisible magic friend living in the great kingdom in the sky?

Perhaps. But beyond the usual mono-directional allusion of football fanhood to religion, the metaphor really works both ways, and it speaks I think to a fundamental human desire to be masters of their own destinies.

For all the supposed devotion to a “higher” power, the idea that future events can be shaped by performing rituals and uttering words of worship is antithetical to the belief in an omnipotent supreme being. The agency of god is diluted by the actions of man. Man isn’t quite in control of his own fate (as harsh reality reveals), and thus is seduced by the idea that he can still pull some strings by pleasing a higher force that is conveniently accorded unlimited powers.

Yet I don’t think Hornby’s observations were entirely on the mark; rituals and superstitions are not products of primitive communities. They are elaborate cultural constructs; the visible appendages of entire belief systems. One could dismiss the likes of cargo cults and shamanism as “primitive”, but only in an manner reeking of latent racism and Northern Hemisphere bias (see: Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion).

After all, critics don’t deride the Church of Scientology, Aum Shinrikyo or Heaven’s Gate as “primitive”, even if they dismiss their beliefs as being as wacky and irrational as those of cults from so-called “primitive” peoples. Nonetheless, the glaring similarities between the scientifically unqualified and contrived nature of these beliefs and those of “mainstream” faiths are conveniently ignored, swept under the carpet of intellectual/spiritual conceit.

Look at the heathen indulging in their silly rituals and superstitions. We, the modern, industrialised, educated, economically sophisticated and, most importantly, civilised peoples, know better.

Do we?


~ by spiegel2071 on December 20, 2009.

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