Wednesday, January 28, 2009

thick herberts - DJ Taylor on Football Fiction

DJ Taylor is a critic, novelist, biographer and most recent hero of thesimplestgame. He received the 2003 Whitbread Biography Award for his work on George Orwell and contributes to The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Independent, New Statesman and The Spectator among others. Importantly he’s published a football fiction novel called English Settlement(1996), a non-fiction work called On The Corinthian Spirit: The Decline of Amateurism In Sport(2006) which is ‘mostly’ about football and penned a rather significant essay about football fiction. Like I say, he’s made a heroic contribution to my PhD without even realizing it. (thanks David). He was even good enough to answer a few questions.

tsg: The Encyclopedia of British Football notes your observation on what it calls ‘the predicament of football writing’. Apparently serious writers avoid the topic of football literature (fiction anyway) because of the often patronising or negative response given to books that try to reverse the trend. Did you know they’d mentioned you? Did you really make such a statement? And could you elaborate on what you meant?

David Taylor: I didn't know about the reference in the Encyclopaedia. I think it refers to an essay I wrote in a short-lived (but very good) book-length soccer biannual called Perfect Pitch (four issues, 1997-8) published in the UK by Headline Review. (tsg will be discussing the essay soon) The piece appeared in the first number (1997) and is called '"Rally round you Havens!": Soccer and the Literary Imagination' and the quote, about why it's so difficult to write convincingly about football, runs:
"Another drawback might be the characteristic inarticulacy of the game's participants, which in fictional terms is the eternal problem of equating the sensibility of the artefact with that of the characters the author has chosen to populate it. Perhaps in the last report this is just a way of saying that novels about soccer tend to be written by educated gentlefolks who have observed the game from afar while the cast of such works will necessarily be thick herberts, and that a certain amount of patronage, or rather distance between writer and raw material, inevitable."

tsg: What motivated you to write English Settlement? Was it a response to your observations about the market?
DT: I wanted to write a satirical state of the nation novel about England in around 1990 and I thought football was a wonderfully symbolic arena to set it in. Also a good background for the plot - an accountant friend once explained that there's no better place to launder money than a big soccer club.

tsg: Ian Plenderleith said good writing about sport avoids action on the field of play as much as possible. Nick Hornby said there's enough drama in football as it is without people needing to make up stories about it. Do you agree with either of them?
DT: Plenderleith not necessarily (see a brilliant novel which is, inter alia, about soccer called From Scenes Like These (1969) by Gordon Williams). Hornby - no with emphasis. There are no off-limits for novelists.

tsg: One of English Settlement’s real strengths lies in how much it allows you to say about England at that time (Thatcher out, Major in). The football seems to provide a window to look at the country. Was this a deliberate ploy? Was it because there were things you had to say? Or did you find that the football wasn’t enough on its own?
DT: If I could boringly quote from the essay mentioned in 1:
“On the face of it, football...ought to provide a perfect subject for fiction. There are several reasons for this, but one of the more obvious is that it involves at least 22 people spending 90 minutes in the same place, leaving aside the pre- and post-match socialising. Another is the game's centrality (along with boxing, pop music and organised crime) to the whole notion of working-class self-advancement, a social phenomenon in which the twentieth-century English novel has occasionally shown some mild interest. Then there is the agreeable, if sometimes faintly insidious, way in which soccer can transform itself into a moral exercise - the rock-like defender humbled by the jinking imp, the non-League club that brings down the Premiership's finest, that whole motivational dynamic of doing one's best against insuperable odds. Finally, and in some ways uniting the previous explanations into a single point of focus, there is the fact that soccer is essentially a romantic activity.”

tsg: You’ve also written about The Corinthians. What do you think it is about football that appeals to you as an author?
DT: I think that this is more or less answered by my response to 2. This was just the time when money was coming into the game in huge amounts - Sky etc, first inklings of the Premiership. Although English Settlement is probably more nostalgic for the old megalomaniac chairman for whom the club is a kind of private fiefdom - Walham is based on the pre-Al-Fayed Fulham, whom I used to watch in the '80s.

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. 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 that is so popular?
DT: see the essay again, which is a 20 page discussion of exactly this.

tsg: Do you think (or did you think when you wrote English Settlement that) there’s a defined market for football fiction?
DT: No and (probably) no. English Settlement was the least successful novel I've ever written (though, oddly, it was translated into Italian and won a prize there). I thought the 'literary' audience would take it as a novel, but they were puzzled by the football stuff. I think the football audience was puzzled by the literary stuff.

thesimplestgame would like to thank DJ Taylor for his time, efforts, answers and generosity. We’re particularly grateful for his contribution to the field - academic, non-fiction and literary. It’s about as good as it gets as far as my PhD is concerned.

Unfortunately English Settlement is out of print, but you can still get a copy if you’re lucky. We’ll review it here in the next couple of weeks. It’s worth a look.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Queensland's Women Roar

thesimplestgame has a remarkable interview to post. David Taylor, author of English Settlement, was generous enough to answer some questions so we’ve been looking forward to posting it.

And I will, soon enough.

Not today though. Today, its hats off to the Queensland Roar’s W-League team who followed their minor premiership win by taking out the grand final on Saturday.

The game itself wasn’t a great spectacle. Two good goals inside the first 25 minutes wrapped it up for Queensland. Canberra United never recovered. The event though, the winning of the inaugural league in front of over 5,000 paying fans, is something to consider. If a women’s league final can generate this much interest the game is clearly gathering strength and position in this country.

A-League fans would tell you that it’s been happening for a few years already. Their detractors, and there are still a lot more of them, would have you believe otherwise. For thesimplestgame, avid supporters of the W-League and our local team, a noisy women’s final is surely all the evidence that’s needed.

My wee lassie’s first trip to a big game was the story for the day. It’s hardly news right enough and she’s been in a stadium before, a glorious stadium, but she was too young to that remember now. She’s a sturdy, ‘grown-up’ (her words not mine) six year old.

One hot dog and 20 minutes of concern over the food wrappers being blown onto the pitch later, she’d missed the first goal. She was elated to have caught the second, and cheered along with the rest of us. I spent the remainder of the half explaining as much of the football as I could. Like any dutiful daughter she listened politely. She even exhibited some signs of interest.

Half time refreshments called for a run up and down steep stairs and a trip to the merchandise van, despite the Aladdin’s cave of orange attire on offer, all she wanted was a flag. So we got one. She waved the living shit out of it for the first 15 minutes of the second half. We stayed away from seated punters so she could do so with a reasonable amount of freedom. I then managed to get her back to our seats, but not before we’d tried higher in the stand and then lower, before settling back to the midway point. We sat in front of the wall at the bottom of the tier. She could not see the pitch and spent the duration of the game standing on my knees shouting as loud as her wee voice would allow.

With only a few minutes left we decided to start making our way to an exit. Thankfully she missed the streaker, if only because my explanation of that incident would have generated slightly more confusion than the offside rule.

Most importantly she wants to go again. She wants to go as soon as the season starts. I’ve not pushed her. Yes the game was my idea and the onus was on me to entertain but the Queensland Roar women’s team helped me out, enough to see her want to return.

It goes without saying that the more popular the game is, interest in football fiction will follow suit.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Could it really all have kicked off with King Lear?

Football fiction has turned out to be a tricky little vixen. I’ve had a great deal of difficulty in tracking stuff down, but now I’m starting to get places. Thanks in part to the Encyclopedia of British Football written by Richard William Cox, Dave Russell, Wray Vamplew and the National Football Museum.

I’m looking at scoping the history of the genre. The where-it-all-began. It’s hardly a journey back through the mists of time, but it spans the best part of a hundred years. So long as you don’t count Shakespeare. But I’ll get to that.

It didn’t start with Sydney Horler either, but among the 150 or so books he wrote, Horler penned a spree of almost romanticised football fiction (about 20 of the blighters) like Life’s a Game about spy footballers and all sorts. Along with works by Arnold Bennet and JB Priestley, they were published around the 1920’s right up until the 50’s.

A new favourite author of mine, Robin Jenkins, wrote The Thistle and the Grail in 1954 and little seemed to come afterwards until the mid to late 60’s when Barry Hines knocked out A Kestrel For A Knave (1968) a cold, hardbitten northern English story. Hunter Davies published the notorious Striker in the late 70’s and the story of Sinderby Wanderers was published a couple of years before it. Reviews of some of these titles will follow in the coming weeks.

Things picked up in the 80’s and 90’s when the likes of Roddy Doyle (the Van), DJ Taylor (English Settlement), Julian Barnes and Martin Amis, among others, wrote about or made reference to football in their work and, wittingly or not, established or imposed something of a literary level on the genre. No doubt, the nobility of the Italian World Cup, with its Nessun Dorma’d operatic theme contributing, the low brow gained some height before the likes of Irvine Welsh (Marabou Stork Nightmares, the Acid House) and John King (The Football Factory, Head Hunters and England Away) brought it back to earth with a lager-fuelled, hard-edged come-down and a solid terrace-style beating.

Since then there have been a number of other standouts, peers and undeserving derivatives of those mentioned, as well as a few which found themselves out of play for one reason or another. More recently David Peace lifted football fiction out of the doldrums with The Damned United. (I've reviewed it already)

There’s more to this in my PhD. Things are filling out. But my main concern will be in identifying trends, peaks and troughs, hits and misses and the anomalies, the oddities, the plain old plums and the triumphs.

Importantly I’m searching for the exact place it all started. There’s been speculative news reports and comic strips and a host of other stuff too including fiction books for kids of all shapes and sizes since the dawn of the era. I would imagine people have been telling football tales, tall and true, since the first ball was kicked. There’s even mention of a “football player” in King Lear, which could mean that Shakespeare wrote the first football fiction.

As much as I doubt it, from my studies point of view, I think it might be very cool if he did.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

probably the pishest part of a PhD

I would’ve liked to have started the new year with a cheeky wee book review. A nice easy opportunity for diatribe. When I say that I mean wholly objective critical examination obviously. But I’ve not the time to read or even examine said reading.

I am currently embroiled in writing the confirmation paper for my PhD. You could say up to my alabaster scottish neck in it. (Aye, alabaster - I’ve not been out of the dark wee room for days).

It requires a great deal of thought, hard work, perspiration (I know. That’s exactly what I said. Nobody tells you about that bit) and, if I’m honest, gluttonous persistence – read: sitting in a dark wee room trying to write like an academic till you’re so far past the point of boredom, it’s back on the horizon because you’re about to Lance Armstrong lap it.

And I don’t mean lap it up. This is the penance for accepting a scholarship, the part where they get their money’s worth.

I tell you all this not for sympathy – my old man used to say sympathy comes between shit and syphilis in the dictionary. I tell you because the process requires a 'real life' definition. In the throes of understanding the parameters of the cosy little niche I’m attempting to carve for myself, I need to determine, beyond it being the umbrella that shades my blog, what football fiction is exactly.

Any definition would have to be simple because, let’s face it, I’m no really that clever. It would have to straight forward enough to withstand scrutiny of the definition police in attendance at my confirmation, and it will requires a great deal of flexibility or be hard enough to take the beating it'll need to fit into or, at least, get strapped onto my thesis.

Here’s what I’ve got so far:

Any story with any degree of makey-uppy football in it.

There, simple, straight forward, hard and flexible. I went through all my posts to see if there were any I rejected on the strength of some spurious criteria but I’ve either been extremely discerning in my choices up to this point, too embracing read lenient or I haven’t developed stringent enough criteria. I can’t write that in my PhD though. I could try, but I’m pretty confident it won’t help my cause. It’ll have to be something more like…

Any work of fiction with a genuine and significant reliance on football as a central or substantive element of the narrative.

In the unlikely event that you feel a twinge of sympathy, a sense of altruistic good (bloglike) neighbourliness, or even the need to pour hot saucy scorn over the happy sandwich filler I've managed to process so far, please feel free to do so. Smashin'. Thanks.