‘The author of the best books written about English culture since the War’… reads the blurb on the cover of John King’s landmark 1996 novel ‘The Football Factory’, a rampaging yarn about a gang of miscreant Chelsea supporters strutting their stuff around a succession of English cities and football stadiums and offering an uncompromising portrayal of the dark motivation of the archetypal English ‘hoolifan’.
It’s a bold assessment of a bold novel, offered by King’s contemporary and fellow Jonathan Cape stablemate, Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh. The ‘Trainspotting’ author has himself occasionally wondered onto the football fiction turf, most notably in ‘Maribou Stork Nightmares’, when protagonist Roy Strang is assessed for his ‘casual’ credentials by a group of fellow Hibs supporters on a train to Motherwell.
But King’s book is different in that it is explicitly set in a world which takes football and the environs of fandom as its main setting, and it explores attendant issues with the kind of trenchantly opinionated voice that one is unlikely to find replicated in national newspapers or on Sky Sports News.
Welsh’s comment is undoubtedly calculated to make the greatest impact for a debut author signed up by the same publisher, but even so… ‘the best books written about English culture since the War’? We’re talking about a football novel here. How did it ever come to this?
We’re used in our culture to separating schoolboys at a very young age into one of two groups; either sporty or academic. From then on, it seems, never the twain shall meet.
It has certainly proved very difficult for these two apparent polar opposites to be subsequently reconciled in literary fiction, and to be sure football fiction in the UK has a fairly dreadful reputation; even at the best of times publishers are extremely wary of the whole genre, if indeed an established genre can seriously be considered to exist at all.
On novels about football Mark Jensen, co-owner of the largest sports bookshop in the world, The Back Page in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, is quoted as saying:
The only one people come in and ask for is ‘The Damned United’. I’m not sure whether football novels don’t sell well because not may are published, or whether not many are published because they don’t sell well.
The suggestion of an answer to that dilemma can be found in the recent demise of at least one specialist publisher. In 2010 Know the Score Books, an established and reasonably successful outlet went out of business after becoming entangled in multiple legal cases against several of its own authors, who they claimed owed them money.
Slow sales of sports books in an era of recession however was the primary cause of their collapse. When I approached Simon Lowe, the company’s MD, about my novel ‘Paradise Road’, he refused to even accept any sample chapters from the book. Football fiction doesn’t sell, he told me, bookshops don’t know which shelf to place it on.
But the evidence would suggest that football fiction can be done properly and, if it is, there is a market for it. King’s novels (he followed up ‘The Football Factory’ with two sequels, Headhunters and England Away, completing an unlikely trilogy) offer little, if any, implied criticism of the protagonists’ behaviour.
The reader is compelled to accept his characters as they come, and we can see this uncompromising approach as a reaction against the middle class embracing of the game, which flourished post-Italia90, post-Fever Pitch, and out of which the Sky era later grew.
In a literary sense this is a very modern technique employed by King, the reader ultimately has to decide for himself about the characters’ lifestyle choices, there is a noted absence of preaching in any sense, and this lack of truth or moral certainty is a characteristic of what might be described as postmodern art in its various forms.
Other works to have followed the King model in treating the concerns of the post-Thatcherite, English, urban male include Kevin Sampson’s ‘Awaydays’ which was filmed in 2009, and Dougie Brimson’s ‘The Crew’, which, along with his non-fiction work on hooligan culture, provided the inspiration for the movie ‘Green Street’.
David Peace’s novels are, by contrast, set in the world of football itself, rather than around the periphery of fandom, and despite the apparent temptation to wax lyrical about what Shankly might have made of the modern, post-Sky game for example, they do not offer much social criticism or cultural observation.
Thus we might establish, despite the obvious difficulty in genre labelling with so few titles to consider, that modern football fiction can be separated into two categories; the Peace/King divide.
Peace takes us into the world of football itself and employs an imagined literary voice in the head of real characters (Clough, Shankly) operating around the margin of real events, which are often meticulously described and come complete with a raft of statistics concerning dates, goalscorers, attendances etc.
Peace’s work has been described as “a fusion between history and fiction creating a hypo-history, a story under the surface of the known”. Because he deals with real characters in real settings, while still writing what is undeniably recognisable as fiction, it is hard to think of a purer voice in the entire history of this genre, and if one is asked to consider the apex of what modern football fiction represents, then Peace will surely be considered its archetype.
What King has done however, is what the best writers of any age have always attempted, ever since Homer, the first great literate European of whom we know – he has investigated his own culture and offered a literary representation, which is based partially on his own experiences and developed using the full force of his creative imagination.
Despite the obvious differences – Scottish/English, left-wing/right-wing, Catholic/Protestant, Celtic/Chelsea – I was aiming for something similar in ‘Paradise Road’. It is the story of a rejected ex-footballer trying to make a living as a joiner, and the book examines the role of young, working class men in a post-industrial landscape, where the manufacturing and heavy industries which used to sustain their communities have been almost completely replaced by the ever-expanding retail and service sectors.
How have these and other changes affected the traditional relationship between a working man and his football club? All the issues are there, sectarianism, declining standards in Scottish football, the power and role of the media etc., so we can see that by asking questions which affect modern football we are now considering some of the most important issues that society has to deal with as a whole.
Thus, hopefully, we have arrived at a situation where novels about football, regardless of what one thinks of their literary value, are undeniably at the cutting edge of literary fiction, because they portray and attempt to explain not just the narrow footballing context in which they are set, but also the society in which modern football takes place and ultimately the world around us.
They capture the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, and we see our cultural predicament reflected back at us through them. Perhaps this is what Irvine Welsh was alluding to, when he described ‘The Football Factory’ in such apparently gushing terms.
This article is an abridged version of the piece that appeared in Issue 16 of The Blizzard.