I actually had bought Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch several years ago, in London. I was there on one of several extended business trips I took there in the late 90’s. I don’t remember the details of why I bought it, but I vaguely remember that I had taken a budding interest in soccer during that trip, I must have seen a game or two on TV, and I even bought a soccer magazine. I hadn’t heard of it or its author before but something about the book must have sold me. (Speaking of memory, I can’t remember which Charing Cross Road bookstore I bought Fever Pitch from, but I can remember walking back to the office — a two-bedroom flat near the Goodge St. Tube station — and the exact sushi restaurant I stopped at for dinner, just off Tottenham Court Rd., a bit before where the electronics shops start in earnest, being the only customer in the place, and reading the first pages of the book there while I dined on salmon and tuna sushi pieces.)
Like my budding interest in soccer which was just impossible to maintain upon returning back home to the States, these being the days before I had satellite TV (I didn’t even have cable at the time), and no home internet either (though I’m not sure it would have occurred to me to follow Premiership soccer on the web even if I had had access), so too I found it hard to sustain interest in Hornby’s memoir of his obsession with the Arsenal football team, and I soon abandoned it. Quite honestly, I couldn’t understand it. It was far too impenetrable for a Yank soccer neophyte like me.
I don’t think at that point I had even heard of Arsenal (though after finishing the book I realized I had actually watched an Arsenal game on TV once, their infamous shock FA Cup loss to Fourth Division Wrexham in January 1992, when I was living in London during an internship at the London Film-Makers’ Co-operative), and had little understanding of the geography of London in relationship to the various clubs. (I may have still thought at this stage that Tottenham played their home games somewhere near my company’s office/flat since we were located one block off of Tottenham Court Rd.) To say nothing of where the hell where places like Ipswich or Swindon or Derby (Christ, those places might also be in London for all I still know). My mental map of English soccer was Chelsea in London (because the first time I visited London in 1986 I had stayed in a B&B in Chelsea), Manchester United somewhere up north (because that’s where The Smiths and Joy Division came from), and Liverpool somewhere near Manchester (because that’s where The Beatles came from).
Beyond the amorphous cities and towns I was coming across in Hornby’s book, the names of the soccer clubs were befuddling. Arsenal. What kind of name was that? It just sounded, well, medieval actually. Wasn’t there some old building in Venice called “Arsenal?” How could one support a team named after a stockpile of weapons? (Actually, the naming thing still befuddles me. Sheffield Wednesday? Who puts a day into their club name? Leyton Orient? And what’s with all the “x United” team names?)
This time I was primed for Hornby’s book. It’s not that I had just read in succession three of his other books, but I had also just spent a good part of my New Year’s holidays watching English soccer during what they call the “festive” program which crams four games per team into the space of about ten days. I must have watched about 12 games during this time.
Well, here’s the strange thing. I still had trouble getting into this book. Part of it I think is that this is one of Hornby’s earliest books (his first mass-published book at any rate, in 1992), and the voice therein is just different than that of the books I had recently read, all of which had been written in the last five years. Not better or worse, or younger, just different. But more substantially, a lot of why the book didn’t really grab me until I was about a quarter of a way into it was that my lack of any grounding in the history of English soccer — and to a lesser extent, having only a superficial idea of English culture — was leaving me feeling rudderless, not sure of where I was standing.
Ask me about baseball’s Bob Feller, or Enos Slaughter, or Johnny Mize, and I can place them into a context for you, even though they finished their playing days before I was even born. Of course, I have my father to thank for this, just as Hornby has his father to thank for introducing him to soccer. For the most part, the Hornby takes the names and a lot of the historical context in his book for granted, and this made it hard for me to get into the book. But then again, Fever Pitch is not about soccer, it’s about Hornby, and once I started to realize this, the somewhat arcane nature of its ostensible subject ceased to be much of a barrier to enjoying this book. More importantly, there was much for me to relate to about how his obsession with the Arsenal soccer team has been not only shaped by his life, but has given his life the shape it has.
Hornby was the same age — 11 — as I was when our respective parents divorced, and while naturally our individual family circumstances were quite different (for starters, my mother moved out, my brother and I remained at home with my father), what he has to say about how that informed his early teens, and his latching on to soccer and specifically the intoxicating atmosphere he found at Highbury (Arsenal’s old stadium), was very resonant for me, as someone who also felt marked by the divorce of one’s parents, who took on the loner role almost as a badge of honor or martyrdom, and who developed obsessive interests to help define who I was, and to create something I could belong to, that was all mine. (Though it must be said, Hornby has been particularly consistent with his now almost 40-year old obsession with Arsenal, while I have burned through many different obsessions in my life, and continue to do so).
The book is structured as essays, each one based on a different soccer match, and these progress chronologically, starting from his first live soccer match in 1968, and continuing through 1991. But these are not match reports, or even diaristic essays of that particular day and match (for the most part, the results and any other details of the game such as who scored are presented parenthetically), but rather as a starting point to talking about his childhood, or his family, or the atmosphere at the grounds, his schooling, the struggles to find something to do with his life after school (another aspect that seemed to speak directly to/about me), his love life, and his getting older. (In an “essay” entitled “Seats” near the end of the book, about finally purchasing season tickets to Arsenal’s matches, there’s a great list of some of the things that have happened to Hornby in his thirties, including “I have stopped buying New Musical Express and the Face” (same here) and “I have bought a CD player” (ditto).)
So I learned and related to Hornby’s life, and his obsessions, and in the end I also learned a few things about this sport we Americans call soccer that I seem to find so fascinating at the moment. One aspect of the book that I really liked is that through Hornby’s experience and his thoughtfulness about both the game and its fans and what it means to him and many people, I could also learn about certain negative aspects of the sport which have really been up to now one-dimensional images. Here I’m talking about hooliganism, racism, and the twin tragedies at Heysel and Hillsborough.
I never got a sense that Hornby was writing about these things because he had to, that somehow you couldn’t write about English soccer of the 70’s and 80’s without mentioning these subjects. Indeed, when writing about hooliganism in particular, it is what Hornby writes about his own flirtations with violence, his teenage “hooligan fantasies,” that illuminates the larger picture:
In many ways, of course, this was funny, in the way that the vast majority of teenage hooligan pretensions are funny, and yet even now I find it difficult to laugh at myself: half my life ago, and I’m still embarrassed. I like to think that there was none of me, the adult man, in that furious fifteen-year-old, but I suspect that this is over-optimistic. A lot of the fifteen-year-old remains, inevitably (as it does in millions of men)[….]
I was lucky […] that I nauseated myself pretty quickly; lucky most of all that the women I fancied, and the men I wanted to befriend […], would have had nothing to do with me if I hadn’t.[…] But there are football fans, thousands of them, who have neither the need nor the desire to get a perspective on their own aggression. I worry for them and I despise them and I’m frightened of them; and some of them, grown men in their mid-thirties with kids, are too old now to go around threatening to kick heads, but they do anyway.
For all the trouble that I had getting into this book, in the end I didn’t really want to leave the milieu Hornby had created, which was as much London and soccer matches as it was Hornby’s obsessions. As is my wont with all good books I read, as I got nearer to the end, I started to slow down my reading, putting distractions in place, dipping into what was next in the reading queue, all to delay the inevitable. If there was any hint of dissatisfaction at the end, it was only that the book ends in 1992 and I wanted the story itself to keep going, to reach into the present, a time that, even simply confined to English soccer, seems radically different than the time of Hornby’s book.
After finishing Fever Pitch I looked through my copy of Football Days: Classic Football Photographs by Peter Robinson, a “coffee-table” type of book of soccer photography from Robinson’s career. I had bought it last year (remaindered, and very cheap) but had never looked through the whole thing, perhaps because a lot of it was, like Fever Pitch was initially, hard to get into, so many unrecognizable faces, clubs, grounds, etc. But on this second look, I found that much of it was the perfect visual complement to Hornby’s book. While the photography spans several continents and events up to the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea, football in England in the late 60’s and the 70’s makes up the heart of it.
The photo shown below of the Arsenal team at Highbury circa 1969 (Hornby’s first match was in 1968) is from a section of photos titled “Home,” focusing on various grounds and stadiums, much of them in England, much of them pre-Hillsborough. (That tragedy eventually led to the conversion of most stadiums in England to all-seater venues.) Robinson’s photos really helped me to conjure up what it must have been like to attend matches at those places during the time Hornby’s obsession was being born. Beyond that, the photography (one needn’t append the qualifier “sports”) is excellent all throughout the book.