Thursday, February 26, 2009

its criminal.

Crime-related football fiction is a world unto itself. I nearly said underworld. It started a way back in the day, we're talking the 1920s and 30s here. Sydney Horler's Tiger Standish series probably aren't strictly crime but they are crime-related and more importantly, we here at the simplest game think they're great.

Tiger was a secret service agent who banged the goals away on the weekend and banged the bad guys away during the week. Barring hiccups, replays and midweek European ties obviously. Mind you, you'd have to presume the Euro ties would've been great cover for catching up with the international bad guys.

Plenty of thrills, the review in the Evening News said at the time. His real name was the Honourable Timothy Overbury Standish. He's the son of the Earl of Quorn, Master of the Quorn Hunt (that'd have to be some kind of vegetarian picnic), a better than bond style secret service agent and the finest centre forward in the land. What a Guy! He was so inspirational, Benny, his butler, followed him through four years of war in Flanders and then played on the left wing for his team - it's absolutely champion stuff.
Here's a wee sample I found elsewhere...
A pipe, a dog and a golf club : if you want to win the heart of a man, give him one of these. And when I say a man, I mean a MAN - not one of these emasculated cigarette smokers.

My other favourites of the day are Leonard Gribble's The Arsenal Stadium Mysteries (1939 and 1950). There were two of them - he pushed the boat out coming up with a name for the sequel. It was called The Replay. They were serialised in the papers. Gribble was allowed unprecedented behind-the-scenes access to the Arsenal stadium and team. He cut a deal with the Chairman of the club and included actual players and their names in the mysteries - like they were playing themselves in a movie. Imagine getting a deal like that now. He also wrote They Kidnapped Stanley Mathews which was about, you guessed it, the kidnap of a famous player. Loads of fun.

There's also Gerald Verner's Football Pools Murder (1939). I've not been able to learn anything about it so far - apart from what the title tells you. John Creasey's Inspector West Kicks Off (1949), is a murder mystery which leads Inspector West on a trail from the body discovered at a football match, through the echelons of big club football and into the world of organised crime. The other book I'd love to learn more about is Cup Final Murder by Brendan Newman (1950).

Next week I'll have a look at the comtemporary offerings in the crime-related football fiction movement. In the meantime if anyone could tell me more, or at least anything, about these books I'd sure appreciate it.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

the Global Game meets the simplest game part 3

This is the final part of John Tunbull's interview for thesimplestgame, but I am absolutely positive that this will not be the last time his words will appear on this site. John Turnbull, editor of the glorious collection of football writing The Global Game, is the guru of football writing. I've just read one of his papers about football journalism and I've got to tell you, the guy really knows his gear. But I'll get to that in the next couple of weeks. The book is a remarkable piece of work. I'll be reviewing it soon too. These are the rest of John's answers...

thesimplestgame: What about football appeals to you as a writer and reader?
John Turnbull: Football contains the world. I cannot imagine an aspect of human experience – faith, fellowship, politics, language, law, love, resistance – that could not be addressed by considering the football ground. It is probably the most subtext-heavy sport on the planet. For a writer with interests in theology and international affairs and cross-cultural study and language, football offers all these ingredients.

My interest in football as a reader really began with Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow – a beautiful title, especially in the original Spanish, El fútbol a sol y sombra. After referring to the “astonishing void” in academic histories of the region, Galeano demonstrates how football bears much in Latin American society and culture. His is not a rhapsodic, nostalgic treatment. He is critical of the sport as spectacle that, in the modern day, is “organized not for play but rather to impede it.” That the best football writing might accommodate such perspectives of melancholy and loss – the game’s shadow side – is a strength.

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?

JT: The problem with the statement is the assumption that only men would be interested in football fiction. I suppose it is an explainable bias. Decisions about football books in English, to a large extent, come from publishing houses and agents in London. And as Steven Wells says, “From the British perspective, football is a measure of masculinity. It’s actually more important than possessing a penis.” Therefore, from commissioning editors lacking in imagination, with pounds sterling and the euro as the only frames of reference, we get fed a diet of hooligan memoirs (aka “hoolie porn”) and ghosted biography.

There might be some parallel in fiction to Galeano’s observation concerning the absence of sport from academic histories. Football exists in a nether region between intellect and emotion, aesthetic and kitsch. On the one hand, many writers and intellectuals see the game as too common to inspire higher sentiments; at the same time, our stereotypical image of sports fans is that they do not respond to appeals to the mind and reason. Yet clubs in the UK such as Tottenham, Barnsley and Brighton and Hove Albion have or have had poets in residence. Why not novelists in residence? Or philosophers in residence?

Jorge Valdano alone would disprove the thesis that footballers are incapable of narrating their own experience. I imagine that talented writers are no more or less common among footballers than in the rest of the population. It is open to question whether non-English-speaking footballers receive better educations or are more broad-minded than counterparts in the UK, USA, Australia and so on. From Australia, for example, the late Johnny Warren has written eloquently on football’s capacity to transcend cultural and ethnic divides.

But Alexei Smertin, a Russian player with experience at Chelsea, Portsmouth and Charlton, mentions to Marc Bennetts in Football Dynamo the challenges of learning English when “surrounded by guys whose vocabulary is limited to ‘fuck,’ and who make mistakes with grammatical tenses. ... I found it quite hard to communicate with English people in a non-football environment.” Bennetts has also quizzed Russian footballers on their favorite books. One popular selection is The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. Smertin also likes Nabokov and Balzac.

tsg: Do you think there is a defined market for football literature, particularly fiction?
JT: The answer depends on the market that one considers. Certainly one would have better success pitching a football novel in Barcelona than New York. Having said that, I am aware of several novels in the United States on the “soccer mom” theme – bodice rippers about women whose overcharged libidos stray far from the touchlines.

John Turnbull's interview has been something of an enlightenment. An education in football writing. thesimplestgame is very, very grateful. We would like to thank John for his help, his time, his generosity and his patience. Thanks John.

You can have a look at excerts from John, Thom and Alon's book or even buy it at The Global Game The site really is worth a look.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Global Game meets the simplest game part 2

John Turnbull is the editor of a colourful, often beautiful and equally riotous, truly international, collection of football writing called The Global Game. But I told you that last week. I’ve now read a whole lot more of the book. It's a remarkable piece of work. I'll tell you more when I review it. Right now I want to post some more of the answers John generously gave when we spoke to him about football fiction.

thesimplestgame: 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. Would you agree with either of them?

John Turbull: It is true that little content in The Global Game: Writers on Soccer describes match action. Orhan Pamuk’s comment is suggestive: football is faster than words.

Matches tend best to be described in the recollection, when the action can be parsed and account made of the writer’s perspective as supporter or participant. Ian Plenderleith himself, in “Save of the Day,” describes his protagonist making a series of stops in goal, but the narrative keeps its distance. “My life at that time,” the narrator says, “was in fact a series of mental football games.” Other writers have made use of the unique existential position of the goalkeeper to help get around this conundrum – the need to describe action at a pace faster than that possible on a page. A notable example is Peter Handke in The Goalkeeper’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. Albert Camus and Vladimir Nabokov have drawn on their time as young players – both goalkeepers – with Nabokov famously saying that, at Cambridge, he served less as the keeper of goal than “keeper of a secret.” The goalkeeper, to Nabokov, is “lone eagle, the man of mystery, the last defender.” He continues, writing in Conclusive Evidence:

I was crazy about goal keeping. In Russia and the Latin countries, that gallant art had been always surrounded with an aura of singular glamour. Aloof, solitary, impassive, the crack goalie is followed in the streets by entranced small boys. He vies with the matador and the flying ace as an object of thrilled adulation. His sweater, his peaked cap, his knee-guards, the gloves protruding from the hip-pocket of his shorts, set him apart from the rest of the team.

One of the most sustained descriptions of match action I have encountered, in English, is that by Barry Hines in A Kestrel for a Knave (1968). Again the young hero, Billy Casper, is a goalkeeper – and not a very committed one. At one point he climbs onto the crossbar “to scratch his arm pits, kicking his legs and imitating chimp sounds.”

One criterion for composing credible match action might be that the matches do not replicate fixtures in the real world. Were one to insert 10 pages of Arsenal v. West Ham in a novel – unless something were happening in the stands (as in Yury Olesha’s Envy), or the account were written from a fractured, Joycean perspective (like the match description in Antonio Skármeta’s I Dreamt the Snow Was Burning) – it is hard to imagine how this would serve exposition. (Chris Cleave’s Incendiary is based on an attack at Emirates Stadium during Arsenal-Chelsea, but I have not read the book.) But given that the authors above have integrated their own memories and imaginings into a world they have created, with their own characters and narrative logic, the football matches they describe take on meaning. Consider that the football scene in Hines’s Kes consumes 20 pages (the match itself is roughly eight pages) of a fairly short novel – Hines must have felt that the football evoked important qualities in Casper’s character.

I should also mention that as I write about “match action” and descriptions of such, I think of a male-centered world. This is a bias that is hard to discard. It might be interesting to analyze how Nalinaksha Bhattacharya, in Hem and Football and Hem and Maxine, integrates football action within novels involving a principally female cast.

Regarding Nick Hornby’s comment, I would be interested to learn more about the context. I suppose, if you think about Zidane’s head-butt near the conclusion of the 2006 World Cup final, it would be hard to create a more dramatic football scenario on the page. Yet if one were to construct a story that integrates Zidane’s upbringing in stretched circumstances in Marseilles, his conflicted heritage as a Berber and Frenchman, his talismanic role on a timeless green zone of fantasy, liberated for 90-minute intervals from all inhibition ... the climax might appear still more thunderous.

Hornby himself has written a lovely fable, Small Country of a boy press-ganged into playing for the national XI of the mythical Champina. (He read the story, part of a McSweeney’s collection published in New York, on an American radio program in 2005.) So, it’s likely that Hornby would wish to nuance this statement, if he has not done so already.

Part 3 of this interview will follow next week. In the meantime I've set about tracking down some of the books he mentions. At least the ones I haven't got yet.

thesimplestgame are extremely grateful for John's time and generosity in providing us with so much material for the site and for the PhD. Thank you John.

You can have a look at excerts from John, Thom and Alon's book or even buy it at The Global Game

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Global Game meets the simplest game part 1

John Turnbull is the editor of a colourful, often beautiful and equally riotous, truly international, collection of football writing called The Global Game. What I’ve read of it is fantastic. When I’m done I will certainly include a review here. John and his friends in football, Thom Satterlee and Alon Raab, have done something that's a little special. Ye see, for the first time, that I know of anyway, someone has taken the time to seek out and translate football writing from around the world and put it in the one place. It's like a sampler, only smarter. With something to read from, and an introduction to, each author. It's an education, that's entertaining. And that's the way we like it here at thesimplestgame.

They aren’t all fiction. Some are just straight out quality football writing. There’s work in there by the likes of Mario Vargas Llosa, Gunter Grass, Simon Kuper, Ian Jack, Ted Hughes and Elvis Costello. There’s a whole lot more. Writers from all over the world. Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be looking at the book in much closer detail as well as adding some of the answers John Turnbull gave me when thesimplestgame approached him to discuss his work.

The sites are well worth looking at too. Here’s a link to The Global Game - soccer writers site.You can buy the book there too.

Thesimplestgame really like the site, what motivated you and your colleagues to kick it off?

John Turnbull: Certainly there is a promotional aspect to the Web-based material, but, speaking for myself, I wanted to use interactive tools and especially podcasting to reduce the artificial separation between anthology editors and contributors. We are lucky to live in a time when such connections can be made with relative ease. Given that it was our intent in the book to draw on material from cultures and languages unfamiliar to Americans, it was inevitable that we would include selections from writers that we, as an isolated country, had never heard of before.

For example, within the book and via Internet telephony - in a podcast on the Writers on Soccer microsite - we have the chance to hear from Elísabet Jökulsdottír of Reykjavík comparing the mystery of football to the mystery of the ocean. After our conversation, she said that she had never spoken before with an interviewer from North America. That her name and her work might reach a broader audience alone is one reason for the book and accompanying Web site.
I also spoke to Uroš Zupan of Slovenia. It would be an oversimplification to say that his prose makes him the Nick Hornby of Central Europe, but he does cite Fever Pitch as at least partial inspiration for essays on overlapping recollections of World Cup tournaments and of his upbringing in the former Yugoslavia. I was able to speak with him about his 2007 book, Textbook Panini, and how he grades both teams and players via a private set of aesthetic criteria. Interesting that, for Hornby, Arsenal Football Club to some extent
shaped his identity as well as his attitude to the wider world. Zupan, in contrast, samples from the menu on offer without prejudice as to nationalities, perhaps a trait acquired from having lived in a culture of restrictions. But, more likely, he is probably just curious.

There’s a whole lot more to come from John Turnbull - too much for one blog. Thesimplestgame are very grateful to John for his generosity and his time and look forward to many more electronic conversations with a man who, it has to be said, really knows his football writing. We're also grateful for the opportunity to put Elvis Costello and Gunter Grass in the same blog.