Monday, April 21, 2008

The Season Ticket

Jonathan Tulloch (the man, not the horse) has written a whole bunch of award winning short stories, four novels, won numerous prizes and awards including New Zealand’s lucrative Betty Trask Award (2000) for his debut, The Season Ticket, and the JB Priestley Award for The Lottery (2003). In 2004 he was on the TLS list of the twenty best young writers. He’s recently co-written a piece of children’s fiction with his wife.

The Season Ticket, the book this blog is interested in, is a tale of two wee Geordie boys trying to raise the cash for a seat at St. James’s Park for a season.

Sewell and Gerry live in Gateshead, home of one of Europes biggest shopping centres and all those clipped and busy industrial city streets. Like George and Lenny in Steinbeck’s book, Sewell has strength and Gerry is wee and wily. They never go to school and they’ve never got any money. Looking at the superstructure that houses their beloved Noocastle United they decide to raise the enough cash to watch the games. But the best laid plans of their almost impossible goal sets them on a frequently funny and sometimes heart crushingly poignant series of adventures.

Tulloch also penned an excellent film adaptation of the book called, Purely Belter. Directed by Mark Herman (Brassed Off and Little Voice), it even featured a cameo from Noocastle’s favourite son, Alan Shearer.

While the film unfortunately suffered from comparisons with Herman’s other more successful and popular works, the book stands on its own as an excellent read, whether you’re interested in football fiction or not. It offers a finely tuned perspective on the fragility of the human condition, but more importantly (for this blog in particular) it offers a stunning insight into the hope that football gives us.

Besides the top drawer wallow in financial excess enjoyed and perpetuated by big clubs and Roy Keane’s, prawn sandwich munching and happy to pay through the nose for it, fans, the most romantic of footballing notions resolutely survives. No matter the volume of love, devotion or cash we pour over it, each new season and each new signing enflames our limitless hope and grants us the power to believe irrational promises can be fulfilled. The Hope That Kills Us right enough.

Like many of his contemporaries (as far as I know) Tulloch’s only ever written one piece of football fiction. There must be a reason for that. I’d love to know what it is. Nevertheless, I hold out the hope that he will write another.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Drawing a line between magicians

A football fiction connection between Pele and Shakespeare? Of course there is. Cynics reading this might think I’m playing the long ball here, but the move is there and the passes have been strung together…

Keeper rolls it out. The bold Bill put quill to parchment in 1601 and knocked out the comedy, The Twelfth Night. Loosely put, it’s about a lovely wee lassie who, pretending to be a boisterous, though we’d have to say fairly effeminate, boy falls in love with a boy. Opportunities for revelations of her gender are forbidden, obviously, and she can’t find a way to tell him without coming across as a boy who prefers other boys and he’s no buying it. This kicks off a two-halved game of uncomfortable moments, comic problems and general hilarity. People wouldn’t still be telling it if it wasn’t a good story regardless of what you think of the premise.

Pass.Recently I caught the latest interpretation on the telly. It’s called She’s the Man and it’s pish. Except for one thing – it’s about football. Which, I would argue, entitles it to a spot, allbeit at the shite end, on the DVD shelf in my football fiction library.

Essentially it’s a vehicle for some young empty-headed Hollywood starlet to play a boy playing football and more importantly shine. Euphemism about polishing poo aside, for me, a football fiction fan, the inclusion of the glorious game suggests a positive future for this wee genre.

This notion is readily supported. Goal!, despite an absolutely stinking sequel, did really well. ....Jimmy Grimble is very likable. A couple of Dougie Brimson’s books are being turned into films as you read this. He told us that himself (see his interview in an earlier blog). Then there’s that clever eedjit Will Ferrell’s Kicking and Screaming and less recently Vinnie Jones’Mean Machine, a remake of a Burt Reynolds film which was originally an allegory for the Nixon administration (apparently).

Header. There are a host of others too - Disney’s made for TV monotony Her Best Move, the Olsen Twins had a crack at the soccer film before they started messing around with Heath Ledger (sharp intake of breath); it’s a dreadful number called Switching Goals. There are plenty mediocrities - Sean Bean’s banal effort When Saturday Comes is a great example.

John King’s Football Factory Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch and Jonathan Tulloch's The Season Ticket warrant future blogs of their own.

(And just when you thought the thread was getting away from the needle…)
Knocks it down. None of these films have gained the cult classic status of the incredible satire Mike Basset or the unrivaled success of Knightley’s career-launching Bend it Like Beckham which also spawned a reasonably successful novel tie-in; arguably the only bona fide example of football fiction in this post.

Pele’s legendary “I juggled oranges in the market" crack in his unforgettable movie debut role in Escape to Victory stands today as a major part in probably the best football film ever. Shoots and scores.

With the all drama, intrigue and eh, plot sophistication, it’s entirely possible (with a room full of monkeys) it could’ve been knocked out on a laptop by a silky skilled Shakespeare had he been alive today. Whose to say? If JC Thring, the inventor of the rules of the game, had been born 300 years earlier, wild Bill could just as easily have scratched his inky feather across …Victory and had it played to the final whistle at the Globe back in the day.

Whether it’s Pele or Shakespeare, Dougie Brimson or the Olsen’s, if football is gaining popularity enough for film people to take notice of its value, it means the market for football fiction cannot be too far behind…hopefully.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Karren Brady singing the Blues

Karren Brady is a bit of a football fiction all-star. Not because she wrote a couple of pieces of lipstick football fiction, she's the chairman of Kerrang! allegedly the world's biggest selling weekly rock magazine, and a non-executive director at Channel 4, Mothercare and Sport England.

Most famously though she is the Managing Director at the EPL's very own Birmingham City FC. When appointed at the ripe old age of 23 she became the youngest Chief Executive in the U.K. Her rise to fame started in advertising before she moved onto brutal tabloid nonsense papers like the Daily Sport - obviously where she refined her flair for a pungently perfumed phrase -and that was before she turned her hand to football clubs and novel writing.

She was arrested recently on suspicion of conspiracy to defraud and false accounting. It's been reported in uk tabloids that the police are investigating illicit payments made to agents among other things.

Most controversially, despite her marriage to a Luton Town player and her job with the Brummies Football Club, she's a Gooner... apparently. It's scandalous I tell ye.

But keep the naughtiness with the old shares fraud and the paperbag payments in mind for a moment. The run down on the book I've chosen to review this week will help you understand why.

Brady's novels aren’t necessarily what discerning readers would readily call football fiction. But the field is a small one and there's room for everybody. Besides Karren Brady is in the business, and better than most, she knows there can be little difference between a good buy and a bad one.

The story of her first novel United goes something like this… The protagonist, a sexy wee lassie called Sara, has it all. The glam, the lifestyle, the first division footballer... no sorry that's a different story. She does though, Sara has it all and then her bloke buries his slippers, all be it, like everything else in the book, most tragically. Then she takes the helm at a football club she’s inherited, where fantastically, (remember the naughtiness) she discovers a web of corruption that’s running rampant through the club. Its all unashamedly secret and there’s danger at eh, every turn. Every now and then there’s some wanton lovin' to keep you interested.

I have to be honest I couldn't spoil this one even if I wanted to. A month in the sun couldn't spoil it. I can’t even remember what happens at the end. I do remember that any real twists and turns happened on the park, but they were in such very short supply that I'm not even sure it was the same book.

But its the life imitating art's imitation of life angle that adds another dimension. And reminded me of her work's place in the genre.

Karren has written four books all up; a factual account of her first season at Birmingham City, cleverly called Brady plays the Blues particularly so now she's singing them, the two novels, United and Trophy Wives and her latest non-fiction effort Playing to Win is a kind of self-inspired, self-help piece about successful women in business.

They might not be books you’d add to your football fiction collection but they are topical and hey, it’s all part of the wee, and sometimes inglorious, world of football fiction.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Simplest Game interviews…Dougie Brimson

The last blog was all about the work of ‘hoolie-lit’ hero, football fiction and non-fiction writer, Dougie Brimson. You’d be hard pushed to find a harder working novelist. He was kind enough to answer a few questions about being a football writer and better still, makes a lot of sense while he’s at it… (if you need more background check out the previous blog )

The Simplest Game: Why do you choose to write about football? What is it about football (and related issues like football violence) that appeal to you as an author?

Dougie Brimson: Well the primary reason is that I'm a football fan and so as I tell anyone who wants to write, the golden rule is write what you know. But the truth is, I never, ever set out to be a writer. It kind of just happened.

In 1995, as EURO 96 approached and the country was already going hooligan crazy, there was nothing which discussed the issue from the perspective of those who were being perceived as the problem and so, having spotted a gap in the market, we (my brother and I) set out to fill that gap. As time progressed, I was asked my opinions on all kinds of issues and so continued to put my thoughts into print. And in most cases, as anyone who has read any of my books will know, the bulk of them are just that, my opinions. It just so happens that they seem to strike a chord with other people.

TSG: With 12 books in 12 years (including 10 in 7), you're clearly a very prolific writer. What drives you to write?
DB: It's 13 actually! (Humble apologies, Dougie) The main reason I write is because I have a lot to say and no other way of saying it! That said, I do think the market for books like mine is slowing to a trickle so it's unlikely I'll do another non-fiction book for a while.

TSG: One of the best qualities about your fictional work is how vivid it is, especially the fight scenes, you put the reader right amongst it, how do you think you are able to do this?
DB: Thanks very much. It comes back to the point I made previously, write what you know. That's not to say I was some kind of major scrapper in my time, but I have vivid recollections of certain incidents and that really does help when you're constructing a scene.

TSG: There seems to be a general belief that men prefer reading non-fiction over fiction – it’s been put forward as one of the reasons for the dearth of football fiction. Do you think this is true and do you think your non-fiction books made it easier for your audience to access your fictional work? And do you think there is a defined market for football fiction?
DB: Absolutely. I think I was very lucky to be given the opportunity to write fiction because it's something I really enjoy doing and I would love to do some more. However, the sad reality is that the market for football fiction is very small and whilst my books, The Crew and Top Dog, as well as The Football Factory and Awaydays have all sold really well, for some reason we have seen very few writers follow the fictional path and I have no idea why.
I've spoken to a number of agents about this very thing over the years and they've all said that whilst there is clearly a market for ‘Lad-Lit’ -within which ‘hoolie-lit’ surely falls- when it comes to fiction publishers have become fixated on SAS/Army type books or the type of drivel which simply apes Chic-lit and makes blokes sound like limp wristed tossers.

I personally think this is insulting to the average male, yet until we can get the publishing community to take a gamble or get readers to start badgering publishers for more fiction related to the great game, it'll never change. Hopefully, when the film adaptations of The Crew and Billy's Log hit the cinema's, it will kick start an upsurge in interest and a change in thinking. I hope so anyway.

TSG: So do we. Another theory is that footballers are better at expressing themselves with a ball than a pen, why do you think there is so little fiction about a sport which is so popular?
DB: I think if we relied on players for fiction we'd be in trouble anyway! Most would struggle to write their name let alone construct a novel!

Again, I think it comes back to the fact that publishers are reluctant to take a gamble with writers, even established ones. But to be fair, the key to fiction is always the story. If you don't have a good plot then no one is going to even think about publishing it let alone want to read it. And that's the challenge for the writers.

Check Dougie’s work out for yourself at

The Simplest Game would like to thank Dougie for taking the time to consider a couple of 1-2’s in the wee world that is football fiction.

Whether you’re an Andy McNab fan or a sensitive metrosexual, if you’re interested in football writing of any sort his work is most definitely worth a look .

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Football fiction, Hooligans and Dougie Brimson

Green Street Hooligans (just Hooligans in the UK), Frodo Baggins ferocious break away from hairy backed hobbit love was inspired by the actions, notions and imaginations of Dougie Brimson.

It’s a tight, tidy, fiercely violent film about an American fish out of water falling in with a West Ham crew. Froddo finally gets the doing he deserves. Instead of crying to his sidekick Sam about it, he takes it on the chin. While the film’s links to football are less exposed than his numerous black eyes and split lips, they are in there. It’s also a subject very close to Brimson’s heart.

On the back of 12 books in as many years it would seem that Dougie is one of the UK’s most prolific authors, let alone football writers. Currently being held up as a leading light for ‘lad’ culture, Brimson’s site shows he has a bit more on his plate, and in his mind, than yer average knuckledusted, fightin’ for the phukin’ buzz minded ‘lad’.

Easy to read, accessible and entertaining, he’s one of the few football fiction writers to turn his love for the game into a highly successful writing career, well at least one that goes beyond writing about fighting – ’cause let’s face it you don’t write 10 books about football hooligans without some level of passion for the rougher edges of pugilistic artistry.

Though, now he’s into the film industry it might be a different story from here.

I’ve now read a couple of his non-fiction thuggery anthologies and all three of his fictional works The Crew, Top Dog and his wee comedy number Billy’s Log. The books are all similar to Green Street in that they aren’t so much about the football in so much as they are about fans. Football serves as a backdrop for more visceral foreground shenanigans. Namely graphically brutal and well-choreographed scrapping.

Billy’s Log (the exception) is a light-hearted look at a single fan’s search for lager and love. The other two are diamond rough and ready, organised crime, perfect for tv, thrillers.

In the The Crew, protagonist Billy Evans is motivated hard man with a plan, a dodgy car business and a nice, if dangerous, little earner up his sleeve. In Top Dog Evans continuing story centres around his firm taking over security at Upton Park, EPL team West Ham’s stadium. It’s a Hammers house of horror take on the lunatics looking after the asylum.

I have a couple of close friends, life-long West Ham supporters, who especially appreciated the story as well as the sentiment.

His non-fiction back catalogue, from what I’ve read of it, are reasonably, and sometimes questionably, argued accounts of football thuggery which perpetuate the questions Government keep asking of their own security systems and problematise the systemic horizontal violence brought on by the Government decisions which created the issues in the first place.

There are many books about football hooliganism or ‘polarised fans’ (an expression I learned recently (thanks jt.)) their inclusion or perceived merit as football fiction will be discussed in a future blog. Brimson’s place in football fiction however is well established and one to be considered if you’ve an interest in the game at all.