On my way back by train to Brentwood today, I picked up a discarded copy of the Daily Mirror. Inside, between the latest tabloid stories of celebrity infidelity, was a poem by Carol Ann Duffy. But what really made me pay attention was that the poem was about David Beckham and his latest injury. There can't be many (if any?) poems written about a footballer by a poet laureate:
Achilles (for David Beckham)
Myth's river - where his mother dipped him, fished him,
a slippery golden boy flowed on, his name on its lips.
Without him, it was prophesied, they would not take Troy.
Women hid him, concealed him in girls' sarongs;
days of sweetmeats, spices, silver songs...
but when Odysseus came,
with an athlete's build, a sword and shield,
he followed him to the battlefield,
the crowd's roar, and it was sport, not war,
his charmed foot on the ball...
but then his heel, his heel, his heel...
For Duffy, Beckham is a modern day Achilles and not just in terms of his injury. Beckham has been ordained the golden hero of our age and his life has provided a worldwide public with a contemporary Iliad. "Like Greek myths," she says, "such public lives can contain triumph and tragedy and in a way we all learn from them, as we do from Ovid, or the Brothers Grimm, or Shakespeare." Certainly, we are fascinated by Beckham's triumphs and travails but whether he can tell us anything more profound about ourselves is questionable. He does, however, provide insights into the present configuration and direction of our culture.
In a secular age, Beckham, the cultural icon, provides a perfectly manicured symbol for the aspirations, values and moral ideals of our age. But this is a symbol without any weight, depth or valency. He is a symbol that is anchorless and open to interpretation by any group or individual in order to satisfy their needs. For example, the sports journalist, Matthew Syed, writing in The Times makes inflated claims for Beckham's influence:
By broadening and softening the contemporary notion of masculinity, Beckham nudged the nation towards a wider vision of inclusiveness: the idea that it is not what you are or what you wear that matters, but what you do. "I always liked to look good, even when I was a little kid," he once said. "I was given the option when I was a page boy once of either wearing a suit or wearing knickerbockers and long socks and ballet shoes - and I chose the ballet shoes and knickerbockers."
Such anecdotes are used as evidence that bending it like Beckham includes the bending of gender roles and identity. And that's why the David Beckham phenomenon is so potent. You can believe in David Beckham without having to believe in anything. You can say anything about him; pin any value or attitude to him and they will not be rejected. He is a cultural construct that satisfies the needs of a secular mentality for "diversity" and "inclusiveness" on its own terms. Beckham's tattoos are a visual advert for this philosophy. Their syncretism satisfies the secular principle that "all religions are the same". Spiritual quotations, snaking across his arms and torso, retain an exotic veneer by being written in Hebrew, Chinese and Latin. The names of his children and wife (Victoria in Hindi) snuggle between the wings of angels and an image of Christ as the Man of Sorrows. Beckham's body is a living passport, containing inky stamps accumulated during many years of spiritual tourism and for the secular mind, it can be read in whatever way you please, should you please.
If David Beckham was just a great footballer he would be of much less interest and value to our secular culture than he is at present. Beckham has been fashioned - by himself, sports agents and clubs, the media, the fashion and advertising industry, cultural analysts, etc - as much more than a midfielder. He is a sporting god. He is a hero and role model. He is a clothes horse and celebrity. He is a family man and gay icon. He is the Leytonstone boy next door and no.1 sportsman on The Sunday Times rich list...and, oh, he is a footballer who can curl a ball and create a piece of football magic. Maybe, that is where his real significance lies.