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Stuff I’ve Been Reading: January/February 2015

by Nick Hornby
Illustration by Charles Burns

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: January/February 2015

Nick Hornby
12 Snaps

BOOKS BOUGHT:

  • This Boy: A Memoir of a Childhood—Alan Johnson
  • David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants—Malcolm Gladwell
  • Everything I Never Told You—Celeste Ng
  • Modernity Britain Book 2: A Shake of the Dice, 1959–62—David Kynaston
  • Sin in the Second City—Karen Abbott
  • Speedboat—Renata Adler
  • Soul Picnic: The Music and Passion of Laura Nyro—Michele Kort

BOOKS READ:

  • This Boy: A Memoir of a Childhood —Alan Johnson
  • Invincible: Inside Arsenal’s Unbeaten 2003–2004 Season—Amy Lawrence
  • Roy: The Official Autobiography of Roy of the Rovers—Roy Race (with Bob Dickens)
  • Swing Low: A Life—Miriam Toews
  • & Sons—David Gilbert

have been writing in these pages for a long time now, so I think I have a pretty good idea of who you are. You are a man aged between fifty and sixty-five, born in the Southeast of England—Watford, say, or Ba­singstoke—called something like Phil or Keith. You started watching football in the 1970s, never missed The Big Match with Brian Moore and Jimmy Hill on Sunday afternoon, and subscribed to Tiger or Lion, as well as Shoot or Goal. You had a Rod Stewart haircut in 1973/74, but you went a bit punkier in 1977. Uncanny, right? (And if none of this applies, then the Believer isn’t the magazine for you. Move along! There’s nothing to see here! Go and read the New Yorker!) Well, have I got a book for you.

I hardly need to tell you that Roy Race played for the Melchester Rovers for thirty-eight years, and that every single game was documented, in enthralling detail, in comic-strip form. Some would argue that this makes him a fictional character, and the Melchester Rovers a fictional team, and I understand the argument. It has merit, in the sense that neither player nor club ever existed, but he was real enough to us, wasn’t he? Well, now Roy Race has written his autobiography, and it’s every bit as action-packed as you might expect from a man who has been kidnapped by terrorists, mostly from Central America, eight times in his career. And…

Oh, hell. Sometimes you just have to hold up your hands and admit defeat. This book is unlikely to be published in the US; in fact, it is more likely to receive a high-profile launch in Vanuatu or East Timor than in your country. And even if you could find it in your local bookshop, and even if you did pick it up and think, Huh, the Believer said this was pretty good, I would probably attempt to wrestle it from your hands and push you toward the new Alice Munro collection. I know, deep down, that your name isn’t Phil, and that you don’t come from Basingstoke, and that you don’t know anyone called Phil from Basingstoke who can sit you down and explain, in great and consequently unamusing detail, precisely what the joke is. (Or rather, what the jokes are. There are literally thousands of them.) But that doesn’t diminish the genius of Roy: The Official Autobiography of Roy of the Rovers, which is the funniest book I have read this year by a comfortable distance. Whoever wrote this book for Roy—Giles Smith, actually, who also “edited” the excellent Rod Stewart memoir that came out a couple of years ago—has used an extraordinary and possibly inappropriate amount of comic intelligence to produce something that Wodehouse would have been happy to put his name to.

Roy Race is part of the lexicon of sport in the UK. A last-minute winner, an outrageously good goal, an unlikely triumph are all invariably described by commentators and tired sports journalists as “Roy of the Rovers stuff” (the “stuff” is obligatory, for some reason), because Roy has spent his entire career doing unlikely things. So actually being Roy is quite difficult. How do you live that life without turning into an insufferable prig? The sad truth is that Roy lets himself down every now and again. He’s a sort of humblebragging Pooter who tries to play down his extraordinary achievements, but in so doing somehow ends up drawing even more attention to them. He also manages to parody British myths about every decade since the 1950s, but he might not have known he was doing that, and I fear that you, dear reader (Erin, aged twenty-eight?), might not know he was doing that either. I don’t know what to suggest, really, other than that you go out and find an equivalent book that makes you laugh a lot. There aren’t many of them, and, now that I come to think of it, the ones that work for me—this, the Molesworth books by Willans and Searle, Auberon Waugh’s diaries—are very culturally precise. You will feel better for it, though. “People often ask me, ‘Roy, what’s it like to be in a coma?’” says Race, looking back on the time he was almost shot dead by the soap star Elton Blake. “I wish I knew! It’s like they always say: if you can remember being in a coma, you probably weren’t in one!”

Just to ensure that Erin stops reading, I am going to turn my attention to another book about football, Amy Lawrence’s Invincible: Inside Arsenal’s Unbeaten 2003–2004 Season. I have written about that particular season already in these pages: the June 2004 issue of the Believer contained a detailed description of the attendant celebrations, although there was no literary justification for doing so. I was just happy. I’ve been an Arsenal fan since 1968, a season-ticket holder since 1986, and they’d just won the championship, the first team to do so without losing a match since the nineteenth century.

Ever since then, however, Arsenal has lost lots of matches. This year, they have made their worst start to a season for thirty-odd years, and my sons and I are miserable almost every weekend. I’m presuming that you are as interested in Arsenal as you are in Roy of the Rovers, Erin, so I’m not going to talk much about Invincible, other than to say that everyone should read it, even you. It’s a well-researched and compelling account of a key moment in recent cultural history. What makes it even more valuable, though, is its ability to provoke profound philosophical self-examination.

Invincible made me sad because it reminded me of a time in my life when watching football made me happy. And this paradox made me wonder whether it’s really ever worth enjoying anything that one knows from experience isn’t going to last. Should we go on holiday? Should we fall in love, and have sex with the object of our affections? Should we ever bother going to parties, or to see a band? Obviously the answer to these questions—or to most of them, anyway—is a qualified yes. And if we stop enjoying the holidays, or stop liking the person we have fallen in love with and the attendant physical expression of that love, then we give up, sooner or later. What’s different about watching sports is that one insists on doing the same thing in the same way, over and over again, apparently in the conviction that the happy days will come back. People do give up watching teams, I suppose, and that would clearly be the wisest course of action, but I haven’t managed it yet, and most serious sports fans are not built that way. I’m stuck with them, forever. And as a consequence, I really am beginning to think it might have been best if I had never seen Bergkamp, Henry, and the rest of the magnificent 2003–2004 side. The joy was fleeting; the misery has gone on for a decade.

I have also been reading books that are not about football, although, frankly, Alan Johnson’s memoir, This Boy, finds plenty of room for Queen’s Park Rangers, Johnson’s team. (They are even worse than Arsenal, but they have always been bad, ergo Johnson is a happier fan than me, according to my theory.) Alan Johnson is a former government minister who many people believe could lead the Labour Party to victory in the forthcoming general election. Unfortunately, he doesn’t want the job, so that’s that, and there’s every chance that his reluctance will lead to a conservative victory. He’s sane, is the trouble. The reason he’d be so good is the reason why he won’t do it. It’s the original catch-22.

This Boy, which has won awards and much admiration in the UK, is the story of his childhood in Notting Hill, in west London—a childhood so blighted by poverty that it’s hard to believe Johnson was born at the midpoint of the twentieth century. He was twelve when the first Beatles single came out, but he was living in a sporadically lit and often unheated flat that should have been deemed unfit for habitation decades previously. His father was feckless and unable to provide, until he disappeared altogether, and his mother, a cleaner, was chronically ill with a heart condition, but had to work several jobs anyway. You know the 1966 Antonioni movie Blow-Up, about Swinging London? Well, This Boy isn’t like that. You know the Dickens novel Oliver Twist, written in 1838? That’s the vibe.

Despite the obligatory sepia cover, This Boy isn’t a misery memoir, the genre that bloomed and then died in the first decade of this millennium. Johnson rather brilliantly avoids self-pity. Instead, he pities. He pities his mother, and he pities his sister, who in her early teens had to provide for her family. And though Johnson doesn’t thump many tubs, the events described in this book could have shaped only a Labour politician, although that might be me tub-thumping. There’s the want and the squalor and the absence of a safety net, but on top of all that, Johnson lived in a borough that was among the first in England to have to deal with racism in its basest, ugliest, and most violent form. Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists, stood for election as a member of parliament in Johnson’s constituency of North Kensington, where the first wave of immigrants from the Caribbean settled; Lily, Johnson’s mother, witnessed the buildup to a racist murder that shocked the country, and made eye contact with the man she believed to be the murderer. (He was never arrested, and neither was anyone else.) Johnson has a sharp eye for the places where his own history and the history of the country intersect, and a lot of these intersections disfigured the short life of his own mother.

I hope you know Miriam Toews’s work already. Her novel A Complicated Kindness is a modern classic, but you may have missed Swing Low: A Life, which was originally published in 2000. It’s another memoir about a deceased parent, except Toews’s breathtaking and entirely successful innovation is to write in the first person, from her father’s point of view—in other words, to ghost her father’s autobiography. Because her father killed himself, after battling with depression for much of his life, her decision requires extra­ordinary empathy, forgiveness, delicacy, and imagination, all of which Toews has by the bucketload. Oh, but this is such a lovely, sad, sweet, unusual book, and though there’s no way of describing it without making it sound grim—or none that I can think of, which is entirely my failing—the experience of reading it is not grim at all. This is partly because one marvels throughout at Miriam Toews’s tenderness, and partly because Mel Toews is a kind of Mennonite Anne Tyler character, rueful and unusual and decent. I don’t suppose many people in the world will read both This Boy and Swing Low more or less back-to-back, and in so doing I have discovered what you probably already knew: that we are endlessly finding creative ways of honoring our parents, whether they speak to us every day or whether (maybe even especially if) they are no longer around.

Let’s change the subject. David Gilbert’s novel & Sons… Oh. It’s exactly the same subject, as the title suggests. It’s about parents and children, and the damage we do and have done to us. A.N. Dyer, the book’s central character, is an aging big-deal cult writer, with a huge, revered, much-studied first novel on his backlist. (It’s called Ampersand, hence the title, which is neat and smart, like the rest of the book.) He has three sons, two by his ex-wife, the third via a different route, and it’s the weirdness and wildness of that particular path that take the novel to places you really weren’t expecting. & Sons is sharp about all sorts of things—literature and the literary life, movies, disappointment, marriage—but it’s also gripping, in ways that books as stuffed with ideas and ambition as this one is rarely are. Every now and again, Gilbert tosses in a fantastic high-concept narrative idea that a lesser writer might have been tempted to turn into a whole different novel entirely; a couple of times you worry that he might sink the book entirely, but it stays triumphantly afloat.

You’ve probably read & Sons already, though, or maybe it’s sitting there on the bedside table, all ready to go. You’re not going to read Roy: The Official Autobiography of Roy of the Rovers, though, are you, Erin? I can tell from your body language. How about this, then? It’s actually about fathers and sons. Or parents and children, if that “fathers and sons” sounds too masculine. There’s actually quite a lot about Roy’s relationships with his dad, and almost as much about his mother’s cooking. And you get all these jokes about 1950s sports journalism and 1990s celebrity thrown in for nothing. No? Oh, dear. Keith, Phil, Nigel… Where are you? Take out a subscription! If you ignore all the articles about art and books elsewhere in the Believer, you’ll find plenty here to enjoy. 

 

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