Monty Python’s famous match is replayed in North LondonIt’s May 9 2010, and on the last day of football’s Premier League, football fans all over Britain are glued to televisions and radios, following the final twists and turns of the long campaign. All over Britain? Not quite. At Wingate & Finchley’s Harry Abrahams Stadium in north London, crowds are gathering to watch an assortment of philosophers, academics and comedians pay homage to Monty Python in what, World Cup year or not, is their biggest match of the year.
There was certainty a lot of talent on display. Unfortunately, very little of it was sporting, as my own role as centre back for Socrates Wanderers testifies. Numerous philosophers were playing, including Simon Glendinning, Stephen Law, Brendon Larvor, Tom Porter, Mark Vernon and Angie Hobbs. Nigel Warburton was the referee, while AC Grayling was managing Nietzsche Albion, a mischievous name, given the German’s dismissal of English moral philosophers as “an unassuming and fundamentally mediocre species of men.”
Also on the pitch were the historian Bettany Hughes and comedians Mark Steel and Arthur Smith, while broadcaster and sociologist Laurie Taylor provided the commentary. Finally, just as the inclusion of international footballer Franz Beckenbauer in the Pythons’ German team was “a bit of a surprise”, so the manager of Socrates Wanderers was actually former England boss Graham Taylor.
The original Python sketch is the stuff of comedy legend (see below). But why put on a tribute to it nearly 40 years later? I asked the organiser, Peter Worley, who runs the Philosophy Shop, which brings philosophy into primary schools. His idea of the match was as a profile raiser for his “fourth R” campaign, which promotes reasoning as a basic skill that should be taught alongside reading, writing and arithmetic (the original three Rs not having included spelling). How better to do that, he thought, than by re-staging the Python football match?
Hang on. That needs some explaining. “It’s such a funny sketch about the pointlessness of philosophy, and what I wanted to do was play that against itself. So, something pointless and surreal, but at the same time making the opposite point that philosophy has a role and has some importance.”
And how had he managed to get so many important, busy people involved, even getting all the surviving Pythons to give their blessing and sign a ball? “Sheer temerity,” says Worley. “It was just a case of, this is so ridiculous, how can you possibly turn it down?” Some took little persuading, however. When asked why he was playing, Brendon Larvor replied “Because it’s years since I’ve played a game with corner flags. That alone makes it worthwhile – just the lure of corner flags.”
Surely others had some deeper reasons? I asked Tom Porter if he had seen any connection between philosophy and football in general, ever in his life. “No,” came his admirably succinct reply. Larvor, however, could see a very clear one indeed. “Our approach on the German side is based on the German idealist insight that meaning, reason and truth abide in the system only. The player only plays in so far as he plays his part. So the motto of our team will be to be mindful of your station and its duties.”
Heady stuff. I asked Stephen Law if the Greeks had a similarly high-minded philosophy. “Boot it up there and run will be our policy today.” I nodded sagely, commenting that I believed that is what Pythagoras is reputed to have said, “He put more effort into calculating the angles,” said Law, “whereas I’m just going to hoof it.”
Match official Nigel Warburton could also draw on a great thinker of the past to help him prepare for the match ahead. “Hobbes said that contracts without the sword are very difficult to enforce and as I’ve been emasculated and told not to use yellow or red cards, I think it could get quite nasty.” Angie Hobbs, meanwhile, was getting her excuses in early: “I was told I could be Zeno and refuse to move.”
It fell to Simon Glendinning to offer something approaching a sensible comment on the relationship between football and philosophy. “One of the things that I find philosophically significant about football is the relationship between doing something well and doing something beautifully, that strange sort of aesthetic of sport. I’m also very interested in the way in which there are certain kinds of being with others involved. Team sport is a site in which the presence of the other is an absolutely non-contingent feature and we’re really only doing it because we’re going to be being with others in a certain way.”
With pre-match chat like that, clearly this was no ordinary game. Indeed, as we kicked off, it soon became clear that the standard of play was not at all ordinary, never once rising to such heights. After a tight first half ended with our team 1-0 up, thanks to a rather good Simon Hughes goal, we headed into the dressing room for the all-important team talk from Graham Taylor, who demonstrated the motivational skills that made him a top manager. “We’re one-nil up, and we can’t alter that,” he told us. “You’ve done so well to try to alter it, I don’t know whether to compliment you or say we’ve been bloody lucky, and I think I’ll go for the latter.”
“Is this what it was like with England?” asked Mark Steel.
“I think the difference between now and England is that with England I didn’t have any decent players,” he replied, before coming up with the genius insight that “If they don’t score, we will win 1-0 – unless we score again.”
While Taylor was talking, the crowd were watching the Dagenham Girl Pipers, the legendary London marching band that have played at more FA Cup finals than Manchester United. From an entertainment point of view that was probably the peak, despite the sending off of Arthur Smith and the appearance of Peter Worley as a streaker. In the second half, our team fully repaid Taylor’s faith, conceding three goals and running out 3-1 losers.
With national media reporting on the event, Worley certainly succeeded in its primary goal of getting people talking about philosophy in schools. And for those involved – especially middle aged men impressed by the romance of real corner flags – it was tremendous, silly fun.
“There’s certainly no lack of excitement here”
The original Monty Python Sketch was filmed in Munich’s Olympiastadion in 1973 for the second of two episodes of Monty Python’s Fliegender Zirkus. The Germans were playing the Greeks – at least that was the theory. What actually happened is that after the whistle was blown, the players simply wandered around the pitch, deep in thought, not touching the ball. There was drama however, as Nietzsche was penalised for accusing referee Confucius of having no free will. In a line which dates the sketch, commentator Michael Palin reported, “Confucius he say, ‘Name go in book.’”
The sight of Marx energetically warming up on the touchline suggested that, although hitherto the philosophers had only interpreted the game, he was about to change it. But once put on as a substitute, he simply fell into the same pensive stupor as everyone else.
But then, on the 89th minute, Archimedes suddenly shrieked, “Eureka!” ran towards the ball and kicked it. Palin picked up the commentary.
“Archimedes out to Socrates, Socrates back to Archimedes, Archimedes out to Heraclitus, he beats Hegel,” who was, however, still as immobile in thought as the rest of his team. “Heraclitus a little flick, here he comes on the far post, Socrates is there, Socrates heads it in! Socrates has scored! The Greeks are going mad, the Greeks are going mad. Socrates scores, got a beautiful cross from Archimedes. The Germans are disputing it. Hegel is arguing that the reality is merely an a priori adjunct of non-naturalistic ethics, Kant via the categorical imperative is holding that ontologically it exists only in the imagination, and Marx is claiming it was offside. But Confucius has answered them with the final whistle! It’s all over!”
But as we now know, it had really all just begun.
Julian Baggini is a lumberjack
Subscribe to tpm today for many more articles like this, plus free access to a 13-year archive