Today, Live Soccer returns to ‘our screens’ after a six-month haggle between TV and the Football League. It’s Charlton versus West Ham in the Cup and we are being exhorted to look out for West Ham’s new ‘goal-machine’, the Scottish striker McAvennie: ‘Now you’ll be able to see him for yourself,’ the papers say – an oddish line for journalists to take, I would have thought, but there we are. What matters is that soccer Is Back, and that we can all happily plug in again on Saturdays: Frank Furillo might be cool in dead-ball situations but he’s no Glenn Hoddle, and we all know that at Hill Street no one ever heard of a slow-motion replay ...
So it goes, or so it’s meant to go. But something jars. The jaunty build-up – our old buddy welcomed back, our prized weekend routines restored – ought to discover an answering jauntiness in us. It doesn’t, though. How could it? After all, the last time most of us witnessed Live Soccer on TV it was Juventus versus Liverpool in Brussels.
In case this sounds a little over-sonorous, I ought to own up that on the night of the Brussels disaster, and for several days thereafter, my disposition was to defend ‘the game’ against sermonisers who seemed to be cashing in on what had happened: people who hated football anyway and wouldn’t at all mind if it were blown away. I would point out to them that the set-up at the Heysel stadium was ‘at least partly to blame’, that you could go to football matches every week in England without running into any ‘really bad’ passages of violence, that in any case it wasn’t ‘soccer’s fault’, and so on. I suppose I’d take the same line still, if pressed by the same kind of people. And yet there is this lingering unease, this feeling that ‘business-as-usual’ is being announced a bit too soon, a bit too eagerly.
And I’m not the only one who feels this. At my own team, Spurs, the gates are down this year by some ten thousand – that’s to say, 25 per cent – and they now stand at a lower average figure than at any time I can remember. The few stay-aways I’ve been able to consult all speak of something temporary, a mild disaffection that will surely pass. It’s not that they won’t carry on preferring soccer to most other things. At the moment, though, the separation between it and those ‘other things’ doesn’t feel quite so magically, or childishly, clear-cut as it did half a dozen months ago.
For myself, I’ve already had a couple of unsettling epiphanies this soccer year. Out of habit, I battled my way to White Hart Lane on the first day of the season, expecting to savour the ten-year-old’s sensations I’ve been savouring for thirty years: the verdant sward, the August sun, the eager, shirt-sleeved throng and, best of all, the certain knowledge that my thoroughly unbeaten team would surely prove unbeatable this year. (I’ll admit that in order to keep such simple-mindedness alive I’ve had to blind myself to some of the fine detail, but that hasn’t been too difficult.) This August, though, the whole thing was quite different. Even before the game started, I felt sour, irritable, out-of-it – a bit literary, I suppose you could say. The yobs on the Shelf were grunting the same old thicko war-chants. A year ago, I might have smiled frostily and thought ‘Ah, well ...’ This year, I felt the urge to climb up there and give them a quick blast of Further Education. And when the players trotted out, peacocking in their new tans and hairstyles and waving to the yobs as if they liked them ... it had to be confessed that, if you looked hard enough, there was something a bit yobbish about them, also. Even their new shirts – featuring a grotesque semiotic punch-up between Holstein and Hummel, and with just a touch of blouson at the shoulder – seemed to proclaim their dumb servitude to the bejewelled young Directors who were even now filing into the West Stand. And just look at the West Stand – those glass-faced boxes in which, thanks to an urgent application to the local magistrates, ‘business parties’ could escape the Government’s post-Brussels liquor ban. The game, the season, was kicking off, and here I was, longing to go home.
And so I did, and stayed there for three months. Until last week. I’d been reading Alan Ross’s excellent new autobiography Blindfold Games,[*] somewhat stirred by the book’s several heartfelt passages on sport-as-art: ‘The development of a style in prose and poetry and the perfecting of a stroke at cricket or rackets have much in common. They are the result of a desire for excellence, for the gesture that contrives an exact requirement, and which can be achieved only by self-discipline and practice.’ And it was three months since I’d seen Hoddle and Ardiles. So off I went again, this time to Highbury on New Year’s Day, for Arsenal v. Spurs. Since this is the key grudge-match of the year, I ought to have known better; on the other hand – with Ross’s text in mind – there was this feeling that the likes of Ardiles ought not to be neglected for too long. As it turned out, he played beautifully, and after about half an hour I was beginning to feel some of the old tension and contentment. Then Graham Roberts struck. With the ball nowhere in sight, Spurs’ neanderthal defender followed through on Charlie Nicholas with such force that the Scot was hurtled over the groundside hoardings into about the fifth row of the concrete enclosure. He was lucky to escape without a broken back. Within seconds of impact, as if some huge lever had been pulled, the Spurs fans lurched into song: ‘There’s only one Graham Roberts,’ with accompanying solo barks of ‘Kill him next time’ and ‘I hope the wanker’s dead.’ And this carried on for the next sixty or so minutes, swelling in volume and ferocity whenever Nicholas went near the ball – which wasn’t often. At the whistle, Roberts showed his gratitude by lingering on the pitch, his arms aloft: the bloodstained conqueror. So much, then, for aesthetics. And so much for my comeback. I just hope I feel better in time for the World Cup.
To return to Alan Ross, though. Ross is – or used to be – a Spurs fan and he has written poems about footballers which, sad to say, are now looking a bit long in the shorts. From time to time, this poet sounds like Ezra Pound addressing his first publisher:
The greatest of all time, veraglioso,
Stoke City, Blackpool and England.
His first game, though, is cricket, and it is usually Sussex CCC he has in mind when he is musing on the heroic possibilities of ‘poetry in action’. He himself was good enough to almost play for his home county (and later he was the Observer’s cricket writer for some twenty years), but the war put a stop to Ross’s adolescent dreams of wristy cover-drives and hazy French Romantic verse. He was drafted into the Navy and was one of the few ‘war poets’ to see active service: there is a harrowing account here of his U-Boat war, in which he almost died. There is also a rather less harrowing long poem on the subject, ‘JW51B’ – one of several slabs of (already published) verse with which Ross punctuates his elegant and rather diffident prose text. The prose takes us up to 1946 (there is some good stuff on Fitzrovia and J. Maclaren-Ross) and – as with the verse – is richer, more effusive about places than it cares to be about personal relationships. But then perhaps discovering sex in landscape is only to be expected from one who can so readily sniff out the poetry in sport.
There is much sniffing, not to say snuffling – and quite a bit of sport – to be found in William Amos’s The Originals: Who’s Really Who in Fiction,[†] but, like many a hired sleuth before him, Amos feels the need to elevate his labours to the status of an ‘investigation’ or ‘research’: ‘There are those who contend that the identification of originals has less to do with literature than with vulgar curiosity. But just as a wall owes much to the builder’s choice of bricks ...’ It’s a pity that Amos has to mumble thus. Of course it is vulgar curiosity that makes us want to know that X is really – or even ‘might well be’ – based on Y, and there is no good reason for this author to feel ashamed of the ten years he has spent browsing through biographies, sending out questionnaires and listening in to whatever low-grade literary gossip happens to have come his way. His book is as entertaining as Trivial Pursuit, and just a shade more purposeful. Indeed, if he’d been really smart, he would have put it on the market as a game.
As it is, most readers will anyway approach his text in sportive mood. Only the most stony-faced will fail to chuckle when they are told that Tertius Lydgate might well have been based on ‘an Eton housemaster who was sacked for his homosexual proclivities and on his retirement wrote an ode to the penis’, or that Edith Sitwell took to her bed for six weeks after Noel Coward put her in a play as Hernia Whittlebot, or that Ibsen three times over a period of twenty years based characters on a ‘fellow poet, novelist and dramatist whose easy self-confidence’ contrasted with his own ‘sense of personal failure’, or that Charlotte Cornwell (she whose ‘bum’ was recently the subject of a libel action) is the model for John le Carré’s Little Drummer Girl and ‘the daughter of a fraudulent businessman’, or even that Dorothy Brett did on two occasions go to bed with D.H. Lawrence only to be told (twice): ‘It’s no good. Your pubes are wrong.’
And so it burbles on, for 550 pages – curiosity could hardly be vulgarer, I’d say. Mr Amos, for all his protestations, has a keener-than-most nose for the sexy or sensational parenthesis, and he misses no opportunity to press upon us his own somewhat leeringly facetious bonhomie: ‘So erotic for Joyce was the flushing of a lavatory that I suspect he was at heart a plumber’s mate.’ Still, there is some clean fun to be had from The Originals. For example: who is the most popular of literary models? My league table shows Frieda Lawrence to have experienced no fewer than 13 ‘portrayals’, with husband Dave bagging a mere nine, thus yielding second place to Violet Hunt (10) – although Ms Hunt’s credentials must be questioned, since seven of her based-ons spill from the pen of F.M. Ford, an author who was compulsive in his need to turn friends into fiction. Ford’s labours, for example, hoist the unlikely figure of Arthur Marwood into joint fourth place with Nancy Cunard, which doesn’t seem quite fair. Ms Cunard’s marks are culled from a variety of sources, not the least of these being George Moore’s Ulick and Soracha, whose character Brigit apparently ‘owes the description of her back to the author’s sight of the hindquarters of Nancy Cunard’. For glimpses of the rest of her see Wyndham Lewis, Richard Aldington (twice), Evelyn Waugh, Michael Arlen and Aldous Huxley. As one might anticipate, Nancy Cunard is a favourite with Amos: often copied, and unfailingly good copy. Indeed, he finds it hard to mention her without throwing in a curious or vulgar little footnote: ‘Nancy Cunard seems to have had lovers almost as often as the rest of us have lunch, and such was their variety that one wonders if she ever paused to glance at the menu.’ Unfair to Cunard. Only a sexual gourmet could have come out with her comment on a night with Aldous Huxley: she said it was ‘like being crawled over by slugs’.
[*] Collins, 303 pp., £12.95, 6 January, 0 00 272773 0.
[†] Cape, 614 pp., £12.95, 28 November 1985, 0 224 02319 5.