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Going to the Match

Nick Catley waxes lyrical over his favourite painting.

 I’m currently listening to quite a bit of the Richard Herring Leicester Square Theatre Podcast, in which comedian Richard Herring plays the part of an incompetent, shambling interviewer, having a disorganised chat with his guests (usually also comedians). This persona often leads interviewees to be much more relaxed and revealing than might otherwise be the case. One of the show’s key features dates from the start of the run in 2012, when Herring was actually an incompetent, shambling interviewer. These are the Emergency Questions, originally designed to ensure there was always something to say if inspiration ran dry. They have survived, partly because they proved popular, but mostly because they take the conversation in unexpected directions. Some of them – for example, “What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever found in the embers of a bonfire” – are so specific there’s unlikely to be a genuine answer. However, they set minds spinning in search of something appropriate, meaning that lesser-used stories and incidents come out, as opposed to well-worn ones that have been used and heard endlessly. Essentially, they’re a random anecdote generator.

However, for one question that popped up recently, I knew what my answer would be immediately and absolutely. To the question: “If the world’s museums decided you could choose one of their exhibits to take home, which would it be?”, my only possible answer is the L.S. Lowry painting Going to the Match.

Until recently, Lowry has been unfashionable in artistic circles, a particular criticism being that his work is repetitive, and makes its subjects faceless and indistinguishable. To me, these are two of his strengths – life in Britain was repetitive for most people at that time, and Lowry reflects this, while a faceless crowd represents the mass labour required to run heavy industry, and thus the difficulty in identifying individual members. To me he’s a chronicler of mid-20th-century Britain like no other, so I was always likely to be sold when his attention turned to football.

You’ll have seen the picture. I’m looking at it now (a print, sadly). Visible on the right are the factory chimneys (obscured by smog) and terraced houses of post-war Bolton (1953, to be exact). But the wave of humanity isn’t heading towards them. Instead they are all drawn towards Burnden Park, all pointing in the same direction like iron filings towards a magnet, gradually forming into queues for the turnstiles as they get closer to the ground. You could argue this is all a little ‘on the nose’ – heading away from the monotony of work, and the worries of home, to the escapism of the football ground. There’s so much more going on though. The excitement is almost palpable – you can tell Lowry (a Manchester City supporter) had experienced the same situation and sensations. You can see the crowd gathering on the open terrace inside. Crucially, you can see a tiny patch of the playing area. This feels very true to life – my first sight of the pitch is still one of the best moments of a day at the football. At Watford, this is sometimes through the gates towards the top of Occupation Road, a sliver of green foretelling the more generous view to come.

As it happens, the picture has become more symbolic than literal in the 67 years since its completion. Not many of us work in factories with chimneys any more, and very few of us walk to the ground. In spirit, though, the representation of counting the days during the working week, and escape for a few hours from responsibilities at home, is as relevant as ever. The painting is sheer essence of quarter-to-three on a Saturday afternoon.

This perhaps takes us to the most obvious, and yet most telling feature of the picture. We’re not inside the ground, watching the football. We’re outside, anticipating it. (You could argue, of course, that Lowry might have had a job setting up his easel on the Railway End, but the point still stands.) Football is escapism, but only to a point – it can compete with any standard, everyday worries in making me irritable and miserable. But in those few minutes beforehand, anything’s possible. The print is 1,036 square centimetres of joy and excitement.

I sometimes like to think of some of the individuals in that crowd. A teenager – let’s say a 13 year-old – would have seen Bolton beat the post-Busby Babes Manchester United in the 1958 FA Cup final, followed by a gradual decline, culminating in the fourth division and half an end replaced by a supermarket in 1987, then a recovery, a move to a new stadium, a couple of League Cup finals, a period of success highlighted by a run in Europe, and finally another decline to their current sorry state, a journey that all football fans can sympathise with, even if it doesn’t exactly match their own. You can be certain of one thing though – if they’re still around, that teenager, now 80, is still a part of that crowd on a Saturday afternoon, in spirit if not in reality.

I’ve loved the painting for decades, and had a print of it on my wall for years, but it feels particularly relevant now. Because – for me anyway, and I’m sure for many others – it’s not really the football we’re missing at the moment. We can re-watch highlights from past games, and feel a small echo of the joy of those days. We’ll probably be watching football on TV again relatively shortly. But what we’re really missing is going to the match – the places we go, the friends we see, the rituals we enact. The facelessness of Lowry’s crowd in this context doesn’t show the slightly sinister dehumanisation of heavy industry, it represents individuals joining together to represent a common cause. It’s a way we belong, a society we become members of, a shared language – to take a tiny example, I don’t know you and you don’t know me, but when I mentioned Occupation Road earlier you knew exactly what I was talking about in a way that very few non-Watford fans would. I could equally mention Eddie (or Gary) Plumley, Gladys Protheroe, or Dave the programme seller – same thing. It’s not about football, it’s about being a football supporter. It’s when me becomes we. More than anything – even in the title – Lowry captures this perfectly.

Around Lowry’s Burnden Park, we can all see ourselves, our own lived experience, our standard routine as we merge ourselves into the greater whole, in a way that we really can’t anywhere else at the moment. I’ve just ordered myself a bigger copy. I hope we can get back to the real thing before too long