I keep being told to downplay that my book is about sport. That’s easy: my book is about a group of friends growing up in London and facing up to the fact that the world doesn’t always work the way they dreamed it would. It’s also about idealism and prejudice; and money. It’s about a young woman who needs to choose between various futures; who needs to find a life she can live with in modern Britain.
Why should I have to downplay that my book is set in a football club? It’s incredibly patronising. Did people tell JK Rowling to cut the quidditch scenes? Harry Potter plays the game because sport is part of every fully conceived culture. Iain M Banks’s brilliant sci-fi novels frequently use sports to demonstrate how alien societies think, and in one, The Player of Games, he imagines a game so ornate and complex that it is used to select a planet’s ruling caste. Games provide a great arena for writers to express and demonstrate character, to have their creations face adversity and act with very clear consequences.
Also, asking me to steer away from sport when publicising my book is patronising towards women: the subtext clearly being that most readers are women and most women don’t like sport. But do women skip the quidditch? Did only men buy Salmon Fishing in the Yemen? Even if you think fishing isn’t a sport, did all those readers lap it up because they liked salmon fishing? Polo and Riders were huge bestsellers about sport. Women bought Fever Pitch. They buy Dick Francis novels in droves.
Finally: the request is fabulously patronising about sport. Every weekend, 40,000 people pay £15 each to watch football in the lowest of England’s four professional divisions. Just ask any author you know whether he or she thinks this is a lot of people putting their money where their mouth is. Also there are the hundreds of thousands of people – of whom I am one – who play sport every week.
Sport is a central part of our society. It is ridiculous that there are so few books about sportsmen compared to the vast swathes about writers. If novels are supposed to discuss the human condition, then the sheer numbers of sports fans and players suggest there should be more novels about sport. And if novel readers want to understand the human condition, which a lot of them say they do, then they should be no more afraid of a novel set in a football club than one set in a trench.
There are some exceptional and successful sports novels, of course. There are stories like Howard Jacobson’s The Mighty Walzer (ping pong), David Peace’s The Damned, Utd., Bernard Melamud’s The Natural and Robert Coover’s extraordinary The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J Henry Waugh, Prop. (the latter two both about baseball), which are fundamentally character studies. There are more wide-ranging and quasi-whimsical, quasi-serious sagas like Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel (baseball again) and JL Carr’s How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup (football).
Non-fiction often uses sport to talk about society, be it Laura Hillenbrand’s portrait of Depression Era America in Seabiscuit, Michael Lewis’s astonishing dissection of the statistical revolution in decision-making in Moneyball (baseball), David Winner’s warmly clinical celebration of what constitutes Dutchness in Brilliant Orange (football, currently being updated to include the transformation of Holland and Dutch football, symbolised by the team’s brutal spoiling display in the recent World Cup final), or HG Bissinger’s searing and moving picture of racism and twisted dreams in Friday Night Lights (American football). Or Richard Askwith on health, safety and reconnecting with nature in Feet in the Clouds (fell-running), David Kynaston on amateurism and social change in WG’s Birthday Party (cricket) or Adam Gopnik meditating on the difference between America and Europe in an extended New Yorker article on the 2000 football World Cup. Or – I could go on.
And still people worry about ‘sport books’. Did Brassed Off only appeal to colliery band fans? Is Le Concert just for classical movie buffs? Is Moby Dick only for whaling nuts? These are obviously ridiculous questions. Stories use their settings. Football should be no different, but because it is rammed down our throats by a hysterical media, many people treat it as a monolithic mass, which they dismiss out of hand.
Football is dramatic. It is part of our society. It’s full of money. It teaches its participants about getting old at a ridiculously young age. There are no out gay players. (This is still one of the most astonishing things about it). And so on. It is a great setting for writing an uncynical, romantic story about idealistic people trying to stay more or less pure in a complex and corrupted world. I could have tried to deal with these themes via politics, but that’s very problematic in Britain. We’re cynical about our politicians; and a good thing too. The Americans have West Wing; we have Yes, Minister and The Thick of It.
Stories are patterns we impose on a complicated world. The West Wing is not how American politics works, but it gives a sense of what a better America’s politics might look like, about what could happen if the right people were part of it. I didn’t think this way at the time, but in retrospect it is no coincidence that I wrote The Kilburn Social Club at the height of my West Wing obsession. I wanted to describe a football that football-haters could love, and that football-lovers could dream of being real.
We can still, just about, infuse sports with this kind of romantic idealism. We know the reality is often awful, violent, money-grubbing and drug-fuelled, but we can dream.