Picture credit: by Tom Dulat/Getty Images
Artillery Row

A working class hero?

Luke Littler should be allowed to be himself and not a culture war lightning rod

The Undertones weren’t singing about darts prodigy Luke Littler when they penned the lyric, “teenage dreams, so hard to beat”, the opening line on the Northern Irish punks’ debut single “Teenage Kicks”, but it’s an apt descriptor of the despondency etched on the face of the 16 year old, Runcorn born archer, who fell at the final hurdle on Wednesday night in the PDC World Darts Championship final.

For coming up short against the assured Luke Humphries — the current World No. 1, so there really isn’t any shame in that — “The Nuke” bagged himself a cool £200,000 in prize money. That’s a lot of money to spend on kebabs and Fanta, Littler’s meal of choice, which he chowed down on in the wake of his first round victory over Dutchman Christian Kist. “You’ve got school in the morning!” chanted the excitable Alexandra Palace crowd as the schoolboy whitewashed the former world champion.

Littler’s face has been the topic of much discussion in recent days

Littler’s face has been the topic of much discussion in recent days. Last night it was despondent, but words like “old” and “haggard” — as one social media wag put it, “did he do a paper round in Chernobyl?” — have all been uttered as the working class – his father Anthony is a cabbie, mother Lisa works at a scented candle shop — PDC World Youth Champion rampaged to a mere seven sets from darts’ biggest prize. Blimey. There is surely no socioethnic group it would be acceptable to say as much about in the supposedly enlightened 2024.

Which seems a bit off, really. A recent report by the House of Commons Education Committee revealed that the proportion of white British pupils eligible for free school meals who progressed to higher education by the age of 19 was just 16 percent — the lowest of any ethnic group other than travellers of Irish or Roma heritage. Just 12.7 percent of this group are white boys. Young white men are also more likely to kill themselves than any other area of British society. This isn’t a demographic which is thriving. Luke Littler’s success was an opportunity to celebrate a win within a demographic that is achieving less and less.

Many did. Chants of “There’s only one Luke Littler!” rang out around Ally Pally last night. And loudly; men dressed as bananas, women as Teletubbies — pray for those on rota at your local dry-cleaner/fancy dress shop today — cheered for their new hero. But there were knowing smirks away from the oche. TalkSPORT’s Andy Goldstein told the teenager, on air, that he’d made a bet about Littler’s real age. “You’ve lost your money there because I’m 16,” replied Littler. “I’ve had the beard for a good two years now.”

The Littlers have said that jibes about Luke looking older than his age started on the darts scene itself. “Some years ago when he was winning everything,” Leanne Seddon, his mother’s cousin told a tabloid, “other parents of young players started a rumour he was lying about his age. To stop the hate his parents posted proof [on social media].” Leanne might be underestimating the extent that her talented relative and his ascent to prominence has exposed the contempt for the working class within British society.

Because where many saw an old face, those of us who grew up in northern towns — like Warrington, where the Littlers now live — just saw the kid at school who could get away with buying the White Lightning. Just like we saw our friends and neighbours, when the “four lads” meme — a photograph of four young men stood outside a bar in Birmingham which came accompanied with suggestions they were racist and simple — went viral in 2021. Or when we struggled to accept the portrayals of our communities as bigoted in the wake of the Brexit result in 2016.

It’s likely that Littler cares little about being part of any political discourse

It’s likely that Littler cares little about being part of any political discourse, despite his name now being currency in such conversations. This morning social media is ablaze at the audacity of the Britain’s Prime Minister congratulating a British citizen on his remarkable achievement. Darts as a signifier of authenticity tends to send people a bit bonkers, despite Littler making his way to stardom via the Junior Darts Corporation, not working men’s clubs. Last week, alarmed by the turning of public opinion against him, the youngster apologised for holding up a copy of The Sun newspaper — and a kebab — after the opportunistic tabloid photographed him doing so, with the headline “Darts star Luke loves a doner and The Sun… can’t beat a Pitta bully”.

“Today a photograph of me holding up a newspaper has been published in the media,” he quickly wrote online. “The media attention I have been getting is very new to me and I didn’t fully understand at the time what I was being asked to do. In no way do I endorse that newspaper or the headline which accompanied the article and I sincerely apologise for any offence this has caused.” Oversensitive perhaps, but remember Warrington is just twenty miles from Liverpool and the ever raw memories of the Hillsborough disaster. It remains a city where The Sun isn’t welcome.

Instead of The Undertones, perhaps a better song to describe Littler’s position is John Lennon’s 1970 single “Working Class Hero”. “There’s room at the top they are telling you still / but first you must learn how to smile as you kill”. Despite stuttering last night, Littler’s talent seems destined to take him back to the top of the game, perhaps even before his first legal pint. But it’s unlikely he’ll get there without pitfalls to navigate and taunts to endure, or characterisation as a kebab devouring clown obscuring how inspirational such achievements might be.

“A working class hero is something to be”, sang Lennon in the aforementioned tune. Question is, in a culture that now sneers at the idea, will anyone let them?

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover