In praise of rugby chants

    23 June 2020

    Meghan Markle’s husband weighed in over the “weekend” on the Swing Low Sweet Chariot controversy. He is, it seems, against it. Whether he was speaking from the heart, or on behalf of the Boss, he has clearly grown as a person since he found it amusing to dress in Nazi beach gear at costume parties and one must congratulate him on his journey to self-healing. Nevertheless, I think he’s got this wrong, perhaps dangerously.

    Besides drinking and rivalry, communal singing is what unites sports fans. And the best chants out there are the ones that have sprung from the bottom up with no top-down intervention. At football matches, for every eighteen-minute version of “Amazing Grace” with the lyric subtly altered to reflect the current score line, there is an example of almost absurd comic genius. Dagenham and Redbridge goalkeeper Elliot Justham is used by now to hearing “Sh*t Tesco Sandwich! You’re just a Sh*t Tesco Sandwich!” to the tune of Guantanamero. Meanwhile, Swindon keeper Steve Mildenhall is greeted by the news that “You’re just an airbase in Suffolk!” to the same melody. There is something about a goalie, of course. Captive audience.

    Prince Harry talks with James Haskell and Maro Itoje of England (Getty)

    Prince Harry talks with James Haskell and Maro Itoje of England (Getty)

    Perhaps reflecting their less marginalised class, England Rugby Union fans are rarely so creative or up tempo, sadly. Their favourite song, their National anthem, has been for thirty years or so the almost absurdly sombre Swing Low Sweet Chariot, sung andante, at best.

    Written by a slave, Swing Low was and remains a deeply moving lament, beseeching the Lord to grant the vehicular redemption He had once shown to Elijah, to this poor soul, to grant him a heavenly escape from his woes. The great baritone and civil rights activist Paul Robeson performed perhaps the definitive rendition, little thinking that this would one day bring it to the attention of British rugby fans.

    In the hands of these fans, it became, of course, a rather tiresome drinking game, one in which a sequence of crude mimes had to be performed with an all too predictable liquid punishment administered for every error. At some point, like a lumbering lyrical virus, it made the species leap from pub to terrace – probably at the 1988 Twickenham match when England broke a very bad losing streak to come back from a three point deficit at half time to win 35-3. This included a hat trick by the young black winger Chris Oti, so it may have not have been an entirely colour blind. But to say it was well intentioned would be an understatement. Anyway, it stuck.

    Few fans I know admit to liking it, or thinking it the ideal anthem for a vigorous game ideally played on brisk autumn afternoons. It drags, to say the least.

    But for all that I would be very hesitant to make any moves to try and suppress it, let alone to enforce a ban. It seems very unlikely that it is sung in any sort of hostility or disrespect to those for whom it remains an artefact of oppression. Sport is a safety valve in this country and around the world, a place where potentially dangerous rivalries can be sublimated relatively safely and a bit of excess spirit is allowed to burn off in the open air. It’s hard to overstate just how effective it is, but it only works because it is ground up. Any attempt to manage the fans any more than strictly necessary should be resisted.

    One of the most dispiriting afternoons I ever spent was in Toronto watching the Maple Leafs. Ice hockey is a tricky game to enjoy the first time you see it, as the puck is essentially invisible and the whole game might as well be mimed, like the tennis in Blow Up. But what really got me down was the top down control of the crowd. They were docile, bovine even. No cheers or songs emerged from them the way they do in a British stadium, like weather moving across the sea. Instead, as they sat obediently stuffing their faces with hot dogs and gallons of Pepsi, every so often the PA system would broadcast the intro to the next cheer they were expected to sing along to.  Utterly dismal.

    So much is being attacked at the moment – or “addressed” – it is very hard to sort the wheat from the chaff, to know which hills to die on etc. Indeed, it is hard to avoid feeling that that is part of the plan. But anything which robs British culture of its natural fruits, in the hope of attaching something more palatable to the twigs, would be a mistake. However much I, personally, would not care if I ever heard it again.