Tuesday, 3 June 2008

D-U-C Travel Writing Awards Spectacular Third Instalment: Football

I would call this category 'Sports Travel Writing' but for two reasons. Firstly, 'Sports' can indicate participation as well as observation, which would mean that all cycling-based travelogues would become (kind of) eligible. Seeing as this category is about the way in which sport's investment with meaning can tell us something about the psyche of a country or region, and cycling around a country or region and writing about it doesn't give us the same perspective, I've placed an embargo on 'sport as a mode of travelling' narratives. Secondly, and feel free to argue this if you like, I feel that football writing at its best offers readings of places in microcosm that analyses of rugby- just to pick an example out of a hat- never will. While I appreciate that the idiosyncrasies of certain countries may crop up in their sporting pursuits (hurling, shinty, bullfighting...), football is a level playing field*, a lens which allows for the examination of a variety of cultures. Plus, I have next to no interest in other sports and a very short attention span. And I haven't read Death in the Afternoon.

Anyway, there is a big shortlist here. A lot of people would go for Tim Parks's A Season with Verona, which details the adventures of the author (a professor of literature in Milan) as he tours Italy with Hellas Verona's hardcore. ASV is 'about' lots of things apart from what happens on the pitch, although the actual football ends up lending the book a novelistic narrative structure as Hellas escape the drop into Serie B with a second leg play-off win against Reggina in the Mezzogiorno. Parks deals with the prioritising of regional over national identities that he (rather paradoxically) sees as being Italy's defining characteristic, with the 'rhetorical, figural potential' (cf. Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading) of the game, with racism and anti-semitism, with the sublimation of violence into sport (via Cesare Pavese), and with the contradictions and self-deceptions that are inherent in sporting fandom. It really is a very good book. There's also The Miracle of Castel di Sangro by Joe MacGinnis, the tale of a side from the backwoods of the Abbruzzan Apennines who make it to Serie B against all the odds (the English equivalent would be a level 10 team reaching the Championship). MacGinnis doesn't know his football as well as Parks, and he's also less up to speed on Italian culture, but, once again, the sheer weirdness of the club's season lends to the book the feel of a novel. The characters are all larger than life, even though we know they're real, and they all seem to be mired in corruption, indicating that MacGinnis has a Raban-esque feel for the tawdrier side to his subjects. An honourable mention also to Jonathan Wilson's Behind the Curtain, which is the story of football in eastern Europe before and after 1989.

The winner, though, is closer to home. Harry Pearson's The Far Corner has more modest aspirations than Parks or MacGinnis- its author clearly has anthropological interests (he discusses Mass Observation, amongst other things), but doesn't seek to turn them into omniscient philosophical readings of the world. It's geographical scope is locked, more or less, between the Tees and the Tweed, and it is fundamentally episodic rather than driven by the structure of the season. Over the course of the 1993/1994 campaign, Pearson visited a variety of north-east clubs, ranging from the great (Keegan-era Newcastle United) to the mediocre (Darlington, Hartlepool) to the absolutely miniscule (West Allotment Celtic of the Northern Alliance). Though he never explicitly states it either in The Far Corner or its unofficial sequel , Racing Pigs and Giant Marrows (which consisted of a series of outings to country fairs in Durham, North Yorkshire, Northumberland and Cumbria), Pearson's objective is to give some account of the identity of the 'real north'. While the likes of Paul Morley, Simon Armitage, David Peace, Stuart Maconie and Bill Drummond have tended to create a symbolic geography of English northerness which is based along the M62 corridor, and is centred on Leeds and Manchester, Pearson- as the title implies- writes about the less well-known lands beyond the A66.

County Durham and Northumbrian dialects are way more detached from RP than the bristly north midlands twang one finds along the M62, and are in many ways closer to Scots. Geordie and Ptmatic are the English equivalents of Occitan, Sorbian or Sardinian, and would probably be afforded language status in a country less politically obsessed with the notion that all those who live within its boundaries must have a common linguistic identity. Phonetically, Italian and Romanian have more in common than the accents of Southend and Sunderland or Bexley and Blyth. Pearson digs out this difference by chasing up specifically north-eastern pursuits and obsessions. Although he visits all the region's league clubs, as well as a couple of sides who were then in the higher reaches on the non-league game such as Gateshead**, Bishop Auckland and Spennymoor, his main focus is on the delightful and deranged world of the Northern League. If those words would, to an Italian, suggest a weird right-wing separatist party, they have some of the same connotations in this case. In most parts of the country, football below Step 4 (the regional leagues a couple of divisions below the Conference) isn't very important, and attendances frequently drop below 20. By contrast, the Northern League is something of a cause celebre once one passes Northallerton (home to its most southerly club). Although the higher attendances- for derby games and season finales- aren't enormously high by the standards of the level, most teams pull over 100 fans on average, and an average NL weekend will see a couple of thousand people watching games in old pit villages such as Esh Winning, Crook, and Horden. The league has a particular draw for non-league football pervs, and at least one weekend a season is scheduled so that the groundhoppers (some of whom have to cross time zones to be there) will be able to take in several matches, as well as- one would have thought- numerous pints of real ale.

However ideal this might all sound, there is a problem. While most of the Step 5 leagues have regularly launched clubs up the Pyramid system, occasionally seeing their former charges (Accrington, Rushden & Diamonds) reach the Promised Land of the Football League, the NL has failed to promote for something like 13 of its last 18 seasons. Most of its champions have declined promotion on the grounds of the costs of travelling to places like Manchester and Staffordshire for pointless midweek games, but the league committee also clings onto its members like acrumbling empire opposing secession. Consequently, the 'Far Corner' is woefully under-represented at the higher levels on the national non-league game. When the Conference (then known as the Alliance) was first formed- or so the story goes- the NL was offered the chance to become a fever at an equivalent level with the Northern Premier League (to which it now, in theory, promotes to) and the Southern League. Presumably, this offer was made on the basis of the disproportionate success of the NL clubs in the Amateur Cup and (later on) the FA Vase, although there was a strong tradition of the area's clubs reaching the early rounds of the FA Cup proper as well: Blyth Spartans, famously, made it all the way to Round 5 in the late 70s. If the NL had accepted the Alliance's offer, the north-east would still to this day be jammed with teams from the Durham and Northumbria, and it doesn't take a great stretch of the imagination to conceive of teams like Blyth, Spennymoor or Durham City gaining enough impetus to acquire league status.

Instead, as Pearson wonderfully evokes, the game in the north-east has become introverted and frankly surreal. Meat packets are offered as half-time raffle prizes, a mysterious paragon of footballing jargon is encountered in the North Sea winds at Seaham, and Pearson is accosted on a bus in Rowland's Gill by that most stereotypically north-eastern of figures, the 'price of beer bore' who knows the cost of a pint of Camerons in every licensed establishment from Piercebridge to Bamburgh. The north-eastern football fan (and by extension, all the people of the north-east) is characterised as witty, cynical, friendly and gifted with a profound understanding of the importance of the minutiae of life. The Far Corner is, like Orwell's 'The Lion and the Unicorn', a study in Englishness, but it seeks to turn the Orwellian/ John Major-ian vision of 'old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning' on its head: as Pearson points out, that isn't the vision of home that occurs to most Geordies or Mackems when they're exiled (as he was) in an off-licence on the Old Kent Road.

Anyway, this eulogy probably needs to stop now. Read it, even if you're not a football fan- it will still make plenty of sense.

* Yes, please excuse the awful pun.

** Who are, happily, on their way back up now, with a new ground on the way.

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