Football vs. Books

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Once you start publishing your writing, whether online or in book form, it’s only a matter of time until you’re asked about your influences.  Like most people I could happily ramble on for ages about writers and stories that have meant a lot to me, from Marvel comics to William Blake to Philip K. Dick, etc.  However, recently I realised that the first, and therefore founding, influence on my approach to writing arrived when I started watching Glenn Hoddle play football – he made me appreciate elegance of delivery, vision, invention, unexpectedness, poise.  To this day, when I set out to make sentences and stories those are the qualities I aim for.

 

In honour of this abiding influence on my creative instincts, it occurred to me that I should provide an entirely unique and unwanted service, i.e. to make football an absorbing, thought-provoking experience for creative writers whilst turning literature into a fist-pumping rollercoaster ride for football fans, with extensive footnotes.

And so –

In England the new Premier League season began at the weekend1.  It’s only fitting that the team whose adventures we will follow is not only Glenn Hoddle’s former team, but the most literary sounding of English football2 clubs: Tottenham Hotspur (aka “Spurs”).  Note the fine Shakespearean pedigree of the name Hotspur, and the competitive, medal-chasing spirit evinced by the character of that name in this line from Henry IV, Part 1:

“To pluck bright honour from the pale-faced moon”3

It should be noted, however, that despite the Shakespearean allusions of the name, Spurs of late is a club that evokes nothing so much as a desperate, parodic and hysteria-tinged, version of the condensed works of Jane Austen: always chasing, with panting breast and flushed cheek, after an elusive and shadowy Mr Right who will offer a stable home, steady income, and shining trinkets that will allow the blushing bride to meet the eye of the unbearably snooty neighbours, proudly and without demur.  The latest Mr Darcy wannabe is a smouldering Argentinian gentleman by the name of Mauricio Pochettino.

Jane Austen's crush

Jane Austen’s crush

Daniel Levy's crush

Daniel Levy’s crush

 

Match Report –

West Ham United vs. Tottenham Hotspur (Saturday 16th August)

The 2014-15 season began with the first London derby of the campaign, adding the antagonism of local rivalry4 to an already crucial5 fixture.  Before kick-off Upton Park, the home of West Ham, rang out as always with a cacophony of song:

“I’m forever blowing bubbles

Pretty bubbles in the air,

They fly so high,

Nearly reach the sky,

Then like my dreams,

They fade and die.”6

And on that ringing, teary, yet celebratory note the referee7 blew his whistle and the match kicked-off8.

Match Highlights –

Kyle Naughton of Spurs is Franz Kafka’s “K” sent tumbling into the world of professional sport.  Each time he takes his place on a football pitch I see the bewildered attitude of a man who has no understanding of the nameless forces that dictate his appearance in that location at that time.  Clearly, there are rules that govern his being there but of these he seems to have no real comprehension; pained and perplexed by the withholding of this knowledge, so crucial to his wellbeing and sense of self, he struggles desperately for ninety minutes to find an exit from his excruciating predicament.  Yesterday K’s predicament was ended mercifully early by his being shown a red card and sent off9.

This meant that Spurs were down to ten men and at the mercy of their opponents, who still fielded eleven players10.  But luck was with Spurs on this occasion.

Sam Allardyce, the West Ham manager11, boasts an approach to football that Hemingway would consider overly concerned with the attributes of machismo, physicality, guts – his players are locked in an unyielding, elemental struggle with the opposition, with the forces of nature itself, in a brutal duel that leaves only one still standing. In fact, if Allardyce could slip eleven football shirts onto eleven rampaging bulls and send them onto the pitch on match day, in some bizarre re-mix of Death in the Afternoon, it would pretty much constitute the team of his dreams.

This approach to the game naturally lends itself to rough and illegal play, to countless fouls being committed12 and red cards being shown by the referee.  So it was that a West Ham player was also soon pulped and the match was played out as ten versus ten.

The match descended into a repetitive mishmash of misplaced passes and players running into dead-ends, like one of Gertrude Stein’s dispiriting modernist experiments with cubist prose.

Finally, however, in the third minute of added time13, Eric Dier sprinted into space from the Spurs defence.  Rounding the hopelessly exposed West Ham goalkeeper, Dier slotted home on his competitive debut and was immediately pronounced the latest in a long line of would-be boy wizards at White Hart Lane.  Sadly, in the real world, and even in the utterly unreal world of Premier League football, such magical triumphs tend to be fleeting, soon forgotten.  Meanwhile, another long day’s journey into Thursday night Europa League qualification awaits Spurs over the season ahead.

Final score: West Ham United 0 : 1 Tottenham Hotspur.

 

Footnotes –

1 – This equates to the publication of an all-new blockbuster saga by the most stellar name in publishing: “Bigger, better, brasher – more irresistible than ever before!”  As the blurb would unfailingly have it.

2 – i.e. “soccer” in those parts of the world with curious notions about what constitutes “football.”

3 – The meaning of this particular line of verse was better rendered by a former Spurs captain and poet laureate of White Hart Lane, Danny Blanchflower, who pithily pronounced: “The game is about glory.”

4 – Think of Hachette vs. Amazon.

5 – Hyperbole is the lingua franca of all sports writing and is especially true in the case of football.

6 – Readers will of course note the fatalistic romanticism that is the default emotional setting for the English football fan, making the stadiums of England the rightful home to the spirit of the Lyrical Ballads.

7 – The editor of the text, always attempting to excise the bad and promote the good, although often succeeding in achieving the exact opposite.

8 – Page 1 of the story is begun.

9 – The reviews are in, and so overwhelmingly negative that the entire print run is pulped.

10 – The Spurs chapter has pages missing, while the West Ham chapter still has all its pages.

11 – The team’s author.

12 – Bad grammar, essentially.

13 – Having already finished the last page you then decide to go back and reread it from half-way down.

Alack

The war was unstoppable. It had raged back and forth for so long that the combatants had lost any conception of its meaning. Only the endless, bloody skirmishes remained, only the hourly struggle against fatigue. It had taken on a logic of its own, which would grind on to its conclusion, no matter the cost. It was grinding up everyone who fell under its influence. Numbers dwindled as countless lives were grabbed up and made to vanish from the scene.  It felt abrupt and meaningless to those who were left behind, who waited their turn.

Arthur Hotspur and Kenneth Lilywhite were foot soldiers in the militia. Humble men, and dogged, they marched where they were told to march, pikestaffs gleaming in the rain or in the sunshine. Heading towards this enemy or that, they grumbled as much as they fought and they fought as hard as they grumbled. Once proud of their station, of their service to flag and throne, they’d come to see their only duty as being to each other and their common preference for survival.

“Forsooth, Kenneth,” sayeth Arthur one day, as another cold dawn bit into his bones. “Dying’s a fool’s errand.”

“Tis, tis true,” sayeth Kenneth, and spat. “And war’s the cruellest mistress the likes of us’ll ever see. Damned expensive mistress, at that. Cost me kith and kin and all that ever was mine.”

“Aye,” nodded Arthur. “I even wonder how it is the likes of us get invited to sample such expensive fare. Tis more to your noble’s taste, surely. Am I right?”

“Surely. As right as this here hand of mine that’s been my only bedfellow since last I saw the inside of my wife’s goodly chamber.”

“Well, there was that whore in Cheapside, Ken…”

“Aye,” Kenneth spat, fondly. “But my point still stands. And what I do say is this: since all this warring is mite too rich an indulgence for such fellows as you and me, tis best we bow out. Let yon monarchs have all the guts’n’glory they can stand. They can afford it, so let them and them alone battle it out.”

Arthur gazed through the morning mist to where the royal encampment was erected on the hill. Soon the True King would step out to survey the remnants of his troops, and at his side would stand the Free Queen. Arthur was disillusioned and he had a marked preference for not dying, yet he still loved his queen. He loved both his queens.

Indeed, Hotspur and Lilywhite were the loyal servants and protectors of two noble queens now, since, in the madness and confusion of wartime, two queens had been crowned. “Aye, maybe it was madness,” Arthur reasoned with Kenneth one day, “yet maybe there was method in the seeming madness, too.”

“How’s that?” Kenneth sayeth.

“Forsooth, another crowned head serves to protect the rightful line of succession,” Arthur nodded.

“Line of succession my arse,” Kenneth spat. “You’ve been talking to the bishop again. Warned you about that more than once, I have. ‘Sides, these fair queens of ours give you the horn is all.” Arthur chuckled and didn’t deny it.

Be that as it may, as the vagaries of war raged, one of these beauteous queens had been captured and set in chains, to Arthur’s dismay. She was henceforth called the Trapped Queen while the other, by contrast, became the Free Queen. And it was she, the Free Queen, appearing like an apparition through the dawn mist on that day, who would rally the shattered forces to her standard. They would follow her to hell and back if only she gave the sign; if, from her vantage point, she surveyed the enemy lines, saw them buckle and yield, and ordered the rout.

The sun rose higher and musket shot and cannon balls clouded the sky as they rained down. Waiting for the order to engage, Kenneth grumbled all the louder and Arthur squinted through the missiles to where his queen stood, imperious. Short-sighted at the best of times, the constant need to duck for cover hindered Arthur’s vision all the more, as he tried his damnedest to interpret all the frantic comings and goings atop the royal hill.

In desperation Arthur turned, as always, to his brother-in-arms. “Are we to charge then, man? Speak up! Was that her signal that we’re set fair? Well? What’s the Free Queen see, Kenneth? Ken?! Oh alack…” Arthur groaned, as his friend split asunder. “They killed Kenneth!”

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This story was written in response to the yeah write challenge #171 – This week’s optional prompt is: What’s the frequency, Kenneth?, which I managed to include, phonetically, at least.

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