I was going to leave this till the new year but I figured it’s a good place to close one year and enter into the spirit of the next where discussions about what isn’t and what is football fiction should continue unabated. Ferociously even, if I can manage it.
David Walliams has written a book about a boy who plays football. A boy who plays football and likes wearing dresses. In the interests of additions to the shelf, thesimplestgame thought we’d better take a look at it.
David Walliams is the tall one from Little Britain . While that should tell you about the level and style of humour in the book, for the sake of context, had you not seen the very popular BBC (now stateside) series, he’s a straight man more comfortable wearing dresses than talking about football. Still he’s had a crack (oh dear, apologies).
The Boy In The Dress has done well as far as bookshops are concerned and it should. It’s funny, touching, heart-warming, sweetly delivered to its intended audience and, possibly best of all, has potential for controversy.
I lost the very stiff woman I was trying to sell it to at ‘…and he likes wearing dresses’. Odd in itself because I imagined Australians more tolerant of cross-dressing than they are of football. That’s if it is cross dressing, for kids this age it probably still qualifies as dressing up, doesn’t it?
Back to the book…Its a delight to read. And not, as your brain leaps into panic at my flagrant use of the term ‘cross-dressing’, about a boy with a sexual identity crises. He just likes wearing dresses. Make up, eyelashes, tights, heels and dresses. He likes playing football too. Almost as much as he likes wearing dresses, which is just as well, because it’s his football prowess that wins his detractors over in the end. That would be a spoiler to some, but only a few, discerning readers.
See his Mum’s gone, his Dad, a fairly hefty cardboard cut-out of an earnest and fairly typical embodiment of overtly masculine fatherliness – he likes football a lot too, but he doesn’t do boys in dresses – (apologies again for inappropriate word choice) is left to look after the boy in the dress and his rough ’n ready big brother.
When he’s sent to detention the boy meets a girl. She’s only the school’s coolest, most beautiful girl. The girl he’s had crush on since like forever. They make friends and she seduces him out of his clothes and into her best frocks with a pile of Italian Vogues and a nice shade of lippy. Before anyone realises what’s going on, he’s become The Boy in the Dress in class, at his own school, where he poses as a female French exchange student until he falls over and shakes his wig loose.
Importantly, he’s also the school’s star footballer. His skills allow him some Shane Warnesque leeway when his couturian adventures are unveiled. Before the stumble, he plays a few games and even scores a couple of goals, which help get his teammates to the grand final. With his teammates needing him and the headmaster having banned him for all their blushes, Williams promises and delivers an excellent resolution opportunity for the whole will-he/won’t-he-play, will-they/won’t-they-win scenario.
Walliams’ description of the football can be painful and may even be excused when the narrator openly announces early doors (page 28) that he knows nothing about the game. Its an effective way to reduce audience expectations – this is not a sports novel. In fingering the flaw Williams essentially highlights the football as the vehicle that gains the protagonist understanding (from his family), ‘forgiveness’ (the awful general societal kind) and acceptance in his local community. It also lets Walliams make one of those oft used, parochially English, self-deprecatory joking truths designed to smooth the sharp edges off a blatant lack of competence.
That’s not to say that Walliams is lacking in competence. He’s a funny man and he writes well. It’s just his football knowledge that’s tosh. I would imagine in terms of a football fiction perspective his efforts have, at the very least, taken the game to new audiences. That has to be commended and as a result we’d have to say The Boy In The Dress has found a home on the shelf.
Be safe in your bringing the year in. Nurse your hangovers with Irn Bru if you can and if you can’t, we hope you don’t suffer too badly. All the best from thesimplestgame.