I grew up in an environment where football wasn’t in the least bit important. But in 2008, I decided to become a football fan. Embarking on this Damascene adventure was, on the one hand, an anthropological experiment: can passion be learned? On the other hand, my decision was fuelled less by empirical observation than by domestic curiosity: I’ve been living for 25 years with a man who is a sports fan.
Actually, he’s a Sports Fan. From the early days of our relationship I quickly cottoned on to two unassailable truths: that Test matches last forever (in fact, golf made me love cricket because cricket at least wasn’t golf) and that when Match of the Day is on television, asking “Is there anything interesting on?” is not the right way to go about things.
It was football that most fascinated me. Deciding which club to support was relatively straightforward. I chose unwitting Tottenham Hotspur to be the focus of my newfound pastime. My Jewish father-in-law, a lifelong Spurs supporter, grew up in Stoke Newington, a short bus journey from White Hart Lane. My own father was a North Londoner: my grandparents lived for decades in Mill Hill. So the geographical and cultural connections were there.
It was the club’s name, however, that clinched it: Hotspur. The lure of a football club that combined a new passion (football) with an old (Shakespeare) was irresistible. The names of former players and managers rapidly became an almost poetic litany for me: Danny Blanchflower; the Alans Mullery and Gilzean; Bill “Nick” Nicholson. On a stadium tour I learned about Walter Tull, the club’s first black player, who, as an officer in the “Football Battalion”, survived the Battle of the Somme but died in the trenches in 1918. I sat in what was then Harry Redknapp’s smart pitch-side seat, and realised that the club had begun to get under my skin.
Within weeks I’d been to home and away matches; had learned to watch the top four places of the Barclays Premier League table with the focused concentration acquired after years of textual analysis; and had agonised over the sale of key players such as Robbie Keane, Peter Crouch and, most recently, Gareth Bale. Aaron Lennon, who plays on the right wing, became my favourite.
And I learned that the club’s Jewish heritage was kept alive and well by home supporters in their chants of “Yiddos”, “Yids” and “Yid Army”. The songs, with their resonant bass notes, are a crucial element in the club’s identity. I “joined” the club, of course, after the worst anti-Semitism of the 1970s and 1980s, when opposition fans would greet the Spurs players with the hiss of the gas chamber or the vitriolic use of “Yid”.
That sordid hatred isn’t in overt evidence any more (although I’m sure it’s still there) and the “Y-word” is now owned by Spurs fans as a badge of defiance and pride.
Tottenham, as I see it, has always celebrated diversity (Tull’s portrait hangs in the hospitality area at the ground). After the Broadwater Farm unrest in the mid-1980s and the more recent Tottenham riots of 2011, the club was instrumental in instituting outreach programmes. It’s a key player in the establishment of Tottenham University Technical College, scheduled to open within the year.
And it is here, in recent controversies concerning the “Y-word”, that my love of football chimed in surprising ways with my research (is it a disease peculiar to academics, I wonder, this near-compulsion – always – to connect?).
In my recent book, The Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History, I consider the etymology and usages of the word “cunt”. I talk about “the errant twins of context and intent”. “Cunt” is a taboo word and, in the moment of utterance or writing, the word leaves us. How it is heard or read by others is beyond our control. But motivation and intent are assessable through the basic application of common sense. In the context of Tottenham fans chanting “Yiddos!” at a football match, the impression is one of solidarity and positivity, not, by any stretch of the imagination, anti-Semitism and hate.
But that little “Y-word” has a colossal impact: in 2012, the Society of Black Lawyers threatened to report to the police details of Spurs fans using it. The writer and comedian David Baddiel has been vocal about his loathing of a word which, as he put it recently in The Guardian, “legitimises and sustains the racist abuse aimed at Spurs by other fans. It’s a call and response dynamic, like many at football matches. So the more Spurs do it, the more it comes back, with menaces. Many Chelsea fans who I have challenged feel they are justified because ‘the Yids is what Spurs call themselves’.”
But I think Baddiel misses the point here about context and intent. How will a word ever be reclaimed from negative associations if those wishing to make it positive are denied its use? In other words, by all means police vitriol and hate, but please don’t police language. It’s the same argument for feminists who want to use the word “cunt” in a denotative way, or for other reclamation words such as “nigger”, “dyke” or “queer”.
Baddiel’s response to this, that non-Jewish fans should not be able to use the “Y-word” about themselves, because “the equivalent case would be a club in Brixton made up mainly of white fans adopting the N-word as their ‘badge of honour’ ”, ignores the point that there are long-standing, traditional associations between Spurs and Jewishness.
The club’s own consultation over the “Y-word” closed at the end of October 2013. It was a detailed exploration of prevailing attitudes towards the word’s use and abuse. The Tottenham Hotspur Supporters’ Trust emphasises the importance of education over censorship, arguing in an official statement that “more work needs to be done to educate supporters of other clubs as to why it is completely unacceptable for them to continue to sing songs and chants that do not focus solely on Spurs fans but slur the Jewish community as a whole”.
The Metropolitan Police statement depends on two pretty nebulous and subjective notions of “offence” and “acceptability”: “Offensive language, within football chants or otherwise, has no place within football, or indeed in society, and those who engage in such behaviour should be under no illusion that they are committing a crime. If it is unacceptable outside football then it is unacceptable inside football.”
As I write in The Vagina: “When we use the word ‘cunt’, or even when we use its euphemistic ‘C-word’ synonym, there’s no escaping the fact that we are conjuring up not only an anatomical truth but, in fact, centuries of misogyny, hatred and ugliness.” But our denotative use of it continues to present a vital challenge to its detractors. The same is true of the “Y-word”: I will not allow it to become the exclusive linguistic property of anti-Semites looking for an excuse to tout hatred and paranoia. Similarly, if we leave the “C‑word” to the misogynists we deny ourselves ownership not only of all it denotes but, linguistic evolution being what it is, lose control of what it might profitably connote, too.
If we give “Yid”, “Yiddo” and “Yid Army” to the haters, we are setting ourselves up for a future of intimidation and fear in our football grounds. Those errant twins must be placed firmly at the heart of these debates, since ownership of a word is a powerful step towards redefining its connotations. I’m awaiting the club’s publication of the consultation’s findings with great interest, and not a little trepidation.