There is something very un-English about the rags to riches story.
In America ordinary-man-makes-good is a cause for celebration, and approbation of the self-made millionaire finds its voice in media and legend. It is essential to the cult of personality we all follow. In U.K. we find such self-made man stories rather uncomfortable. Though we are pleased to take the crumbs from their plates (or the whole plate if their back is turned for too long) we want to know – well, we don’t want to know, actually – how good they are at what they do, or how they achieved their success. We do want to know if we’d enjoy a round of golf with them, if they’d behave too loudly if we took them out to dinner, or if they have some connection we might derive benefit from.
“Has he met the Prince of Wales, do you know?”
“He went to a state school? Really? Co-ed? My God!”
To the English mind there is much solace to be derived from those two soothing words ‘Eton and Balliol’.
“Now there’s a chap with a sound classical foundation – such convivial company!”
We do not care to acknowledge that our most outstandingly talented people can come from any other sphere. If they do, we’d rather keep it quiet.
David Beckham retired this week – well, pretty much. I bet you wondered where all this was going, didn’t you? Son of a kitchen fitter and a hairdresser, ‘Becks’ went to a state co-ed and followed all the rules to set him on course for a mediocre life, except…..
It would be easy to say ‘except he was very good at football’ – a great temptation, because he was, of course. He had natural talent. But he worked at it. Aged eleven he appeared as a mascot at Old Trafford, the Manchester United stadium, before a match between the home side and West Ham. He went to academy; he spent years honing his craft and learning its limits. He’s played for the best sides in the world, scored innumerable goals, won a glass case-full of trophies. But I think he discovered very early in his career that in order to transcend he had to cease being a footballer and become a brand. He had a signature skill, the spinning bullet of a shot so dreaded by any who faced one of his free kicks. They made a film about it – ‘Bend it like Beckham’. And he married a Spice Girl.
Two important factors why I doubt if we’ll be seeing him hanging around the soup kitchen for a while. Yet all these achievements, for me, are superseded by the greatest of all. In a society dedicated to dragging success back into the clay wherefrom it sprang, he’s succeeded in remaining, to all appearances at least, a squeaky clean, thoroughly honest and modest family man. He gives back to the sport that made him and always remains to some extent the kitchen fitter’s son.
So, David Beckham, I’m a little old to be anybody’s ‘fan’ but to you I raise a glass. Whatever name you select on the signpost at this junction may the road you take be a happy one. Who knows – maybe you might get an honorary degree from Balliol?