17 April 2009

'Pataphysical Football: The potential banana skin

Ed.: I was recently talking to Prof. Avril Fish-Wink-Wink, Jerome Sapir-Whorf's fellow footballolinguist, and she put me in contact with an interesting chap called Anastasios Pépin, a 'pataphysicist. Said Avril: "This man could completely change the way we think about sport, if he can lay off the absinthe. Or maybe if he can stay on the absinthe, I'm not sure." She suggested that we could perhaps host one of his articles: "He's pissed off a lot of people and there aren't many places left for him to go. His voice needs to be heard."

Hmmm. You'll be the judge of that, I suppose. Here it is, anyway. And just so we're clear: this dude is, like, totally non-fictional, yeah?


With the FA Cup semi-finals but hours away, it would be instructive, I think, to consider the true nature of this fabled competition: the oldest competitive mass-walk-on-a-financial-district-pavement in history.

The FA Cup is a fine representation of the comedy and tragedy of the English class system. It began life as the main competition of an association founded for the benefit of ex-public schoolboys. But it soon became a vehicle for the symbolic subversion of the hierarchical structures of British society: first, as provincial working-class upstarts took over; then, as the professional game formally stratified into leagues and divisions. It is this feature of the tournament that defines it most strongly to this day; hark! the cries of that's what the Cup is all about when the second best team in League One scores early against the worst team in the Championship.

The metaphor of choice for the possibility of a team defeating a higher-ranking club in the FA Cup is the banana skin. The Cup can be considered as the efforts of a group of city gents — wearing bowler hats and carrying black umbrellas — to negotiate the distance between their final Tube stop and the large, faceless financial institution at which they work. However, the footpath along which they must travel becomes narrower and narrower as their journey progresses. Only one can finally reach the headquarters of Power and All Her Evil Accessories. The gents jostle for the ever-decreasing space on offer, and inevitably, some are nudged over the kerb and into oncoming traffic.

We take little pleasure from such an incidence because, even though one upper-class person has met his demise, said demise also represents the survival of the upper-class person who pushed him. Where the fulfillment, such as it is, lies is in the extra obstacles the poshos must dodge: the banana skins. These have been left on the pavement the previous night by merry class pranksters. When a gent encounters a banana skin, there are two possibilities: (a) the gent avoids stepping on it, by chance or by spotting it in time and stepping around it; or (b) the gent fails to spot it, or spots it too late, and treads on it, slips and falls.

In the event of (b) occurring, there is much rejoicing and hilarity to be had. The stiff, pompous snob who is trying to reach the house of oppression has been rendered buffoonish by his pratfall, and horrifically injured by both the fall and the subsequent trampling he receives. The banana skin is propelled forwards ahead of the throng, where it awaits the next potential victim.

In the meantime it is hailed as a heroic emblem, much like the carbon rod that saved the crew of the space shuttle in that episode of the Simpsons. However, the banana skin's very inanimatedness is the first component of its innate tragedy. Its function is simply to cause city gents to slip, and thus be propelled forwards. Without the gents to slip on them, they become no more than detritus to be swept up and binned by noon. This raises issues about the banana skin's sense of identity: It will only be given true meaning when it is trampled on by the upper classes, or it will be ignored and left to rot in a dump.

The second component of the banana skin's tragedy is that it will never succeed in reaching the financial institution and gaining control of a key societal apparatus. The chances of the peel being propelled forward diminish as the journey continues, as there are fewer and fewer gents on the pavement, thus providing them with an unobstructed view of any potential hazards ahead.

You can see how all this symbolises the working class anxiety about the barricades which separate them from true power and influence.

A very interesting thing has happened to the way we understand the FA Cup. Some time in the mid-to-late 'nineties, the metaphor of choice began to shift from banana skin to potential banana skin. This may appear to be a simple linguistic quirk, a mutation of a cliché. But language is never just language. The small club may be a banana skin, but equally, it may not be. The peel is no longer sitting there on the footpath — it is in a state of intermediate existence, between existence and non-existence. Much as Schrödinger's cat is both alive and dead until we observe it, the banana skin both exists and does not exist until the gent approaches it.

What we have here is an additional layer of potentiality. Two things now determine whether the skin gets trodden on: the very existence of the skin and the gent's ability to manoeuvre around it. Thus is the skin even further removed from the great prize at the end of the race, and more gents prevail than before. The connection between this and the growing chasm between the haves and have-nots in football need not be pointed out, I'm sure.

The recurring angst over the FA Cup's relevance is also tied into all of this. The potentialising of the banana skin's existence is both an anxiety dream and a mild guilt trip caused by the well-testified embourgeoisiement of Britain's working class. How the ongoing recession, and the de-embourgeoisiement of the working class, will affect the perception of the FA Cup is uncertain. The anger at those who control the nation's financial health and the desire to see them topple are greater than ever. Will the hanging of effigies of bankers be a substitute for the FA Cup or a spur for greater interest? We must wait for next season to see.


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