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Joey Barton is more than the sum of his violence

21st May, 2012

Saturday’s edition of the Guardian contained a curious piece by Daniel Taylor, the paper’s chief football writer, on QPR midfielder and captain Joey Barton.

“Joey Barton’s latest act of violence proves he is no renaissance man” intones the solemn title, immediately under which appear the words “Forget the Nietzsche quotes and Newsnight appearances, Barton’s vicious temper is always just below the surface”.

The renaissance man comment presumably refers to Barton’s fame as a luminary of the twittersphere, famous for drawing information from a broad range of sources, including the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, for many of his sub-141 character pronouncements.

I do not wish to offer a defence here for Barton’s catalogue of crimes. Most of them have been well documented in the press, such as the time he stubbed a cigar in the eye of Jamie Tandy whilst at Manchester City and his craven assault of then team-mate Ousmane Dabo at Newcastle. His elbow to the face of Carlos Tévez in the final match of the season just past, followed shortly by a knee in the thigh of Sergio Agüero, have returned the Liverpudlian’s name to the headlines.

Taylor’s choice of term to describe Barton’s propensity to turn to violence in moments of frustration is “recidivism”. The word came into the English language in the 19th century and is therefore particularly apt as there is something oddly Victorian about the tone of the outrage that permeates the article.

Recidivism entered the lexicon at a time when the social Darwinism had taken hold of the imaginations of great swathes of the British monied classes and men such as Francis Galton and Hebert Spencer, authors of the terms eugenics, and survival of the fittest respectively, were figures of no small influence in intellectual circles. It was a time when a belief that the cream had risen to society’s top because of their naturally greater intelligence and superior capacity for leadership, far from being the sole province of fringe thinkers, was accepted by many of the era’s supposedly greatest minds. For many criminals were bound by their defective lineage. Recidivism wasn’t merely a term used to describe a person who returned to crime, but to suggest an inescapable and insuperable flaw, typically corroborated by a low position on the social ladder,  in her very nature.

According to the madcap pseudoscience of the Victorians and Edwardians, Barton would have been an example of his type: a poor rough boy from the industrial north, undeserving of an education and whose natural inheritance was the life of violence and barbarism which matched his characteristics. A life of hard labour, possibly as a prisoner, would probably have been his lot, in service of the British empire. Given the utter absence of a welfare state at the time, it is unlikely that he would have had the chance to impress with familiarity with the works of major literary or philosophical figures, for his avenues to such knowledge would have been far more greatly curtailed then than now, but perhaps if he had he might have had a future in the circus as a hirsute Neanderthal capable of reciting passages from Paradise Lost before being fed slabs of scarlet raw meat or perhaps devouring small animals whole in front of an enrapt and horrified audience.

But perhaps in some ways we haven’t moved so far in the past century of so. Mr Taylor is not alone in expressing his horror at what he appears to see as an inevitable relapse into brutishness. Writers from more conventionally conservative sources have, unsurprisingly, also expressed their dismay. In the Telegraph Paul Hayward, formerly of the Guardian (and the Daily Mail), has decried Barton as a false prophet of the working class, before introducing the “recidivist” claim towards the end of his piece, apparently as a sort of argument-clinching trump card. Martin Samuel, in more robust terms, has done much the same in the Daily Mail, though he has managed to avoid the “R” word. None of these articles seem to recognise one simple fact: human beings are complex creatures.

The biggest irony of the title of Taylor’s piece is that it is patently untrue. Violence and intelligence (and by extension intellectual curiosity) are not intrinsically incompatible. One only has to look at the life of a man who has come to be counted amongst most celebrated painters of the Italian Renaissance. Michelangelo Merisi, better known as Caravaggio, after the Lombard town where he was born, is a man whose name is inextricably linked with acts of brutality that even Joey Barton cannot add to his own CV of destructive behaviour.

After leaving the north of the Italian peninsula, on the run from the law, Caravaggio arrived in Rome in the late 16th century where in time he established himself as one of the city’s most sought-after artists. He also earned himself a reputation as a drinker and a brawler, and one of his fights led to the death of Ranuccio Tomassoni. His flight took him first to Naples then to Malta, where, after a period of great success he was arrested and imprisoned for brawling. In fact Caravaggio’s short life was, for better or worse, characterised by trouble with the law as by his genius with the paintbrush.

It might be unproductive to compare the two men as artists, for Barton is surely no Caravaggio of the footballing world (though curiously Zinedine Zidane, one man whose balletic grace and majestic vision on the pitch would surely not be out of place if mentioned alongside some of the greatest expressions of other artistic forms, was no stranger to rage’s hypnotic grip).  There are nevertheless parallels to be drawn between their lives. Both Messrs Caravaggio and Barton had a talent that was in high demand, but whose professional progression was marred by moments of extreme violence. Of course Caravaggio’s Europe was, on the whole, more tolerant of violence than the one in which Mr Barton grew up; though this might not excuse Mr Barton, it does suggest a time during which great artistic production coexisted with equally great barbarity. In other words the original Renaissance men would often themselves have likely been no strangers to bloodshed.

Let us not paint Joey Barton as a hero. Many of his actions have been reprehensible. But let us neither resort to reductive characterisation. He is not thoroughly evil solely because he is capable of violence. Let us avoid the use of terms such as recidivism, which is an ugly and unhelpful word that belongs to an earlier age which mistook dogma for social and scientific inquiry. It should be left with the social Darwinists, with the phrenologists and their callipers, and with opponents of universal education, child labour laws, women’s rights and the welfare state. Taylor has fallen into the same trap as Messrs Hayward and Samuel, both of whom see Barton as some sort of rabid circus animal who has been allowed to take refuge from the wild only because he can balance a ball on his nose with great skill. Or in this case demonstrate an interest in an intellectual world typically reserved for those with a public school education. Hayward and Samuel’s rage and contempt, though inexcusable, is perhaps understandable when viewed through the editorial prism of the right-wing publications for which they write. Taylor has no such excuse; if he is expected to toe a political line it surely is one to the left of the centre. Taking such an uncompromisingly conservative stance suggests that he must generally believe that Barton is nothing but the brute he claims him to be.

A little more nuance would be refreshing. The idea that Joey Barton is a fraud because he professes to have read broadly and to have an interest in fine art, perhaps a sort of latter-day Eliza Doolittle, only self-taught (and therefore all the more aberrant), is as reductive and as patronising as the words of the three columnists I have mentioned here who all, in their own way, suggest that Barton has duped us and that he has exploited middle-class social guilt in order to inveigle his way into the affections of the university educated. The implication is that people who really read works of philosophy, who really go to art galleries and who are justifiably asked for their opinions on Newsnight  (Hayward accuses Barton of shoulder-barging a Daily Mail journalist off the programme’s line-up) do not hurt other human beings, though if Taylor et al assume that no Newsnight guest has ever had any blood on his hands they must clearly have missed Anthony Blair’s appearance on the programme.

Violence and intelligence are not mutually exclusive and many of us are capable of both. Alex Clark’s Observer piece on Barton from April this year shows a very different side of the man. If he is a charlatan he must be a very clever one. In fact, even if he were a crafty confidence trickster, even if he were so accomplished in his depiction of a thoughtful and curious young man, would that not in and of itself be proof of the intelligence that so many of his more reactionary critics accuse him of lacking?

Hate Barton if you will, but don’t assume that the brutal acts he has committed represent the only side to his nature.

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From → English football

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