Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Damned United

The Damned United is probably the best football fiction book on the shelf so far. It’s a rare beast, a work of literary football fiction. Another sub to this ever expanding wee genre of mine.

Author David Peace has written a number of other works including award winner GB84, an account of the British miner’s strike, a kind of Billy Elliot for those less inclined to wear tights.

The Damned United (released in late 2006) follows the 44 days (total) of Brian Clough’s tenure at the helm of the 1974 Leeds United side. And it’s a remarkable, stunning, breath-taking book. Seriously. As Peace beatifically picks the scab off Clough’s verging-on-psychotic state of mind and his equally volatile managerial style, you find yourself violently pulled along on the book's force and simultaneously admiring its brilliance.

As a work of man management, something Peace does incredibly well across his work, it is an utterly absorbing, down and dirty fictionalised account of actual events. It’s exactly what fans imagine Cloughie would’ve been like at an emotional level. Arrogant, awful, conflictual, deceitful and dogmatic. A man who could pick a fight at a funeral. Terrifyingly enough, as a reader, you still like him more than the moody, churlish, obstinate players he’s supposed to be coaching and lots more than the less honest drink stiff Board employing him.

Paced like one of Clough’s famous surges of fury, …United plays as a maniacal headlong rush through one of the most notorious and the briefest manager/club relationships in the darker corners of football’s more sordid histories.

Through Clough’s eyes we see the divisions threatening to break a club even at the peak of it’s most successful period, divisions among those in charge and those on the pitch and how it’s all tenuously held together by what happens on the park. Or in Clough’s case not happening on the park. They only won one game while he was there.

It could be an analogy for what’s going on inside Clough’s head. As he takes an axe to his predecessor’s Don Revie’s desk, falls out with Billy Bremner and bitterly considers the end of his own playing career, we also get an account of sorts of Clough’s early career as a manager, a taste of his drinking habits and a razor sharp insight into the devious and dangerous nature of a complex football mind.

But The Damned United does much more. It raises questions about the place of football fiction, and sports writing in general, in the literary world, (except maybe Julian Barnes writings about chess right enough). It demonstrates how football fiction can be more than just a readable extension of fanatacism and most importantly, for me anyway, it legitimises the novel as a means to recreate or give life to events which would otherwise be reduced to vapid statistics and dry old football history. An area I’d like to look at more myself.

It’s also an awesome read. A book to swallow whole.

If you haven’t already, you should be thinking about getting yourself a copy.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Is time on your side?

I’ve just realised something. I’ve just watched the Scottish Premier League Press Box followed by the Inside the SPL and the Friday Football Show and even started watching the Blue Square review. That’s almost three straight hours of football speculation, discussion, pundit slaver and talking pish. Particularly from that feckin’ eedjit Gerry McNee.

Then I set the wee box under the telly (Foxtel IQ here in Oz, Sky Plus in the UK or I think TEVO in the US – I’m not sure) to record the two Scottish games. Then I looked at the fixtures to decide which English games I’ll most likely watch. The power of the technology in that wee box lets me record two channels at the same time. One English game, one Scottish game. And there’s the unbelievable option on Foxtel Sports that allows me to choose one of five possible games kicking off at 3pm (UK time - Midnight in Oz). The rest of the games are shown all day Sunday before and after the A-League games.

I’d already lined up a seat on the couch for the Men’s Olympic Gold play-off between Argentina and Nigeria, so by the time I’ve looked at the World Game, BBC sports and Pitch Invasion on t’internet, selected my team in the fantasy football league competition, read through all the speculation about potential transfers and made myself a cup of coffee I’m looking at the best part of 12 hours of watching or reading about current football. That’s just today.

Thinking about what I should’ve been doing instead of looking at football stuff, the impacts of consumability and immediacy on the tiny world of football fiction rolled right over me but I was struck by something even more pervasive.

There simply isn’t time to read a book about makey-uppy football.

In my search for reasons why there isn’t more, I’d failed to consider how much free time even the most discerning of football fans (I’m not necessarily including myself there) actually have to consider anything beyond their own teams.

Then there’s the bigger picture, the time between seasons beginning and ending. The time left between the dust settling on the pea in FA Cup Final whistle and the first kick of the ball of whatever summer tournament the marketeers have got us hyped for. In ’06 it was the World Cup; in ’07 it was the Women’s World Cup and the Asian Pacific Cup; in ’08 Euros and the Olympics - though what the likes of Messi and Ronaldhino are doing at the Olympics is beyond me. The 2010 World Cup looms large on the South African horizon. Which leaves about 4 weeks in 2009 to read something that’s not topically football.

I have just realised something else. Something you probably realised before me. Am I actually talking myself out of a career as a football fiction writer? Maybe. I’m not worried though, in order for me to carve out a wee niche it’s important to realise where the boundaries are. That’s what this whole blog is about. I’ll just have to do it by stealth. Shorter pieces and different markets, but that’s a story for another day. I haven’t the time to tell you now.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Hornby, a lawyer n sex in the city?

At the weekend in the boozer, I was having a gas with a football fan. He was a lawyer, so obviously his opinion meant a great deal to him. He asked what I did and I told him about my PhD. Being the experienced litigator that he is, he knew about my quest to map the world’s football fiction in a matter of no time. I’m not sure what he thinks of the quest. You might need to invoke some kind antidote to the client confidentiality clause he keeps up his sleeve for his days at the coalface of human misery. He did however forthrightly give me his opinion on why there’s a shortage of football fiction.

He says its because every single story, every moment of drama, tension, mystery and … he used other words too, a lot of other words, but I was drunk, he was slavering - he’s a lawyer remember. Essentially, while he’d probably never admit to it, he agrees with Nick Hornby (see Fever Pitch) ) who said, “I've never particularly wanted to read a football novel. Like most football fans, I suspect, I wouldn't believe in a Melchester Rovers, nor in a player I'd never heard of. And I'm not sure what the POINT of such a book would be. Real-life sport already contains all the themes and narratives you could want.
(see Full Hornby Penguin Q & A))

I don’t agree with either Hornby or the lawyer I think there are still loads, maybe millions, of stories, moments, results to discover and perspectives to be offered. There can never be enough football. There will never be enough football, especially well-written football. I do think Hornby and the lawyer have a point though. I think it’s more likely, as my friend big T pointed out, that disproportionate levels of football fiction is due more to the most contemporary of capitalist values, immediacy and consumability. And there’s the solace in forgetting what happened the week before. A devastating early exit from European competition for example, is something you’d want to put behind you as quickly as possible.

It takes time to read and digest a novel. If it’s good you never want to forget it. But regardless of how good it is, it offers very little to discuss with your mates in the pub. Unless your mates are the book club. Otherwise it’s kinda like great sex with the wife, husband, mistress, master or sister. No matter how good it is, you’re not going to be giving a stranger the details over a pint are you? Are you? I don’t know. I have to say the lawyer crossed my mind. And I did say kinda.

Like the most casual, frivolous, promiscuous sex, non-fiction football books offer real-life anecdotes, giggles and embellished tales to share openly. In fact I would say there’s a customary, if sometimes taciturn, one-up-(wo)manship in who can find the best, weirdest, most abstract and utterly scandalous to relay to the lads and ladies in the pub. A dirty, dressed down Sex In The City for football fans if you like. It’s easy to see why there’s so much more non-fiction football writing when it's put like that innit?

Even if he wouldn’t cough up for his share of the taxi, (miserable bastard!) I am grateful to the lawyer. It’s good to revisit the questions that started all this.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Strangers in a stranger land…

I’ve had to do a couple of readings recently and I’ve got a couple more coming. The thought of them is not any more alarming than actually doing a reading. It’s mortifying to be in front of a crowd reading out loud something you’ve written. What if they think its shit? What if they don’t like football? – in Australian literary circles there’s a fair chance that might happen or worse still, what if they can’t understand the thick Scottish Brogue? For me, in Brisbane, this is as close to dead cert territory I can get without getting electrocuted on the wire.

As a football fan and a football fiction enthusiast (read geek), I feel like a stranger in a stranger land. Like I’m looking for golden pins in a field of straw. The only Australian football fiction I’ve found, by Cath Crowley (Gracie Faltrain) and Neil Montagnana-Wallace (Megs), are both aimed at young adult fiction reading audiences. Australian Sports Commission and Football Federation of Australia figures point to the game’s popularity among young adults and children so it goes without saying that’s where the lion’s share of native football fiction should be aimed.

But I’ve not found any Australian based football fiction aimed at older audiences, so I’m asking for your help. Can you tell me if you know any?

See, I naively thought, “there’s a hole there”. And I thought,“I’ll fill that”. So I did. I wrote a book and thought, “Right, I’ve filled it”. The game of football in this country (a place where the uninitiated steadfastly call it feckin’ soccer) will be even more popular as a result of my work. But we all know that’s a long free kick from deep in your own half away from the truth. I kinda knew that before I started. Now I don’t say this because my work is unpublished, (I’m confident it’ll find a home one day). I say it because even if it was, I’m not sure I’d have filled the hole. Isn’t there just too much drama in the real thing without reading made up stuff about it?

The season, A-League version 4.0, beckons so you can make your own decisions. Before you do, please consider the following…

The A-League teams are improving beyond all expectation. Well enough, in fact, to attract stars from overseas. Queensland Roar, having already found a home for Craig Moore - albeit 20 minutes before his retirement from international football - have signed an indubitably hefty Charlie Miller. Moore’s former Rangers teammate, stopping only to empty kitchen cupboards all over b-side europe, has made his way to Brisbane. Hopefully his diet will fair better with all the fresh fruit and sea food here. Don’t worry Charlie you can still get a fish supper. They aren’t as good but you can get one. The best part is he looks like their best player.

Then there’s the Central Coast Mariners controversial Mark Bosnich.
In December 1995 the way clubs sign players changed significantly, thanks to a Belgian bloke called Bosman, allowed players to become their own Masters. Kind of like subcontracting tradesmen with the literal and figurative ball at their feet.
The Bosnich ruling is something else altogether. Signing a Bosnich is the equivalent of having a pinless grenade taped to your chest. While you can hold the grenade parts together with one hand, your other is holding a rope tied to a safety rail precariously floating off the side of a 80 story skyscraper. Either way it goes, it’s trouble. Sure, from a distance it looks spectacular. The close proximity truth is nobody knows what’s going to happen, except that, whether it’s the window cleaners or the street sweepers, someone’s cleaning up a mess. And that, as we all know, makes it worth watching.

I say good luck to the high-steppin, high flyin, crazy, crazy bastard. I hope he’s settled down. He is, after all, the lesson that one act of stupidity is not the unmaking of a man, unless, of course, it’s a nazi salute to a stadium full of Tottenham Hotspur fans. Even though I’m confident I’ve never done anything that stupid, I feel like I can kind of relate. Playing to the crowd, the literary or the football, can be an awesome responsibility. And there are clearly some stories you just can’t write, whether you read them out or not. I have to say though when the real-life stuff is that scary, I think I prefer the fiction.