Friday, 28 August 2009

There's no disguising it, I really don't like football

‘Thugs return to drag soccer back into the gutter’ screamed a headline on the back page of The Sun following the West Ham versus Millwall match at Upton Park this week.

Hold on a minute, let’s go back on that headline. ‘…drag soccer BACK into the gutter’. It’s never left the gutter!

I speak from the perspective of somebody who has never really enjoyed football. Ever since I can remember, ‘footy’ has been the sport of the numpty, the racist and the hooligan. Football is all about tattoos and cheap lager and it has the audacity to call itself, rather self-consciously, ‘the beautiful game’. What’s beautiful about football?

Football is such an unattractive sport that it’s almost hard to work out where to begin in this tirade against it. Well, how about the stereotype? That awful thing about all men liking football and all women rolling their eyes affectionately as ‘their men’ – yes, we’re talking about women with lower back tattoos, or ‘slag tags’ – go down the pub to watch the match on the plasma. Needless to say, they return later, having missed their dinner (it’s in the f**kin’ dog! – and he’s a pitbull called Tyson) and their ‘slag tag’ women are still rolling their eyes.

Men who like footy are often called Gary or Kevin – alright, we’re sticking with the stereotype, but bear with me – and they wear football shirts and knee-length shorts, exposing a calf muscle tattoo which only sees the light of day in the summer or down at the local authority leisure centre on a Sunday afternoon along with all their other tattoos. Look at any photograph of football violence and you can be guaranteed to see a tattoo somewhere. It goes with the territory.

And what about the ‘professional supporters’ who reinforce the stereotype? There are high profile people who want other people to know that they are staunch supporters of some team or other just so that they can be seen as ‘down with the plebs’ when it comes to getting a vote at the next general election.

There’s nothing worse than politicians who ram their support of a football club down our necks. I’m thinking David Mellor, the late Tony Banks and, of course, the original ‘spin doctor’, Alastair Campbell. Oops, I almost forgot Adrian Chiles, [former] co-presenter of The One Show, and his very public obsession with West Bromwich Albion, cue eye-rolling from Christine Bleakley and any other women in his vicinity.

The worst thing about all of this is that men are sort of expected to like football from an early age. There is that great stereotypical ‘man and boy’ nonsense that involves father taking his son to the ‘footy’ and then his son becoming a diehard supporter until the day he dies. Yuk! We hear people talk about their ‘beloved Burnley’. Give it a rest!

Football is a bad-tempered game for strops, which, ironically is ‘sports’ spelt backwards. Is it just me or is the word ‘football’ the only sport one can add the word ‘violence’ to without flinching? Somehow they go together quite nicely and there are countless examples of football violence, including the recent West Ham/Millwall incident, which prove that football is a yob’s game. You never hear of tennis hooligans or cricket hooligans.

Personally, I dislike the assumption that all men like football and the fact that men feel obliged to engage other men in conversation about the ‘beautiful game’. I would go as far as to say that it used to make me feel inadequate, the fact that I knew very little about the game, but now I am quite proud of my ignorance towards it. I’ve noticed that, armed with just a few miniscule facts, one can keep a football conversation going all afternoon if need be – it’s that shallow.

“You watch the game last night?” 
“Er….” “Chelsea Man U?” “
Oh, no, I missed it, but Chelsea won didn’t they?” 
“Yeah, 4-1, a good match. Felt sorry for Giggsy, though”

But if you swear a bit, bring in a little of history and then swear again, you can go on throughout the night if need be and even convince the person you’re talking to that you know a bit about about ‘the beautiful game’.

“You watch the game last night?” 
“Yeah, f**king shit. Ooh you support?” 
“Ah right, the f**king blues, yeah? Well, yeah, like, I’m with Man U. Never been to f**kin’ Manchester, though, but nor have half of their f**king supporters, have they?” 
“Nah, right. Felt sorry for Giggsy, though.” 
“The f**king Giggsmeister? Star f**king player, Giggsy. Could do with a f**king shave, though.” 
“4-1, though, you were thrashed.” 
“Yeah, well, if we’d had star players like Sir Bobby or Bryan Kidd on the field, we’d have won hands down.” 
“Nah, your team’s f**king useless, mate; you should support a decent team like Chelsea, you c**t.” 
“Yeah, yer c**t, we’ll beat you in the next round, you wait an’ see.”

And on and on and on it goes, the play-acting, but now, thanks to a few choice expletives, you can carry on the chat, even if your level of football knowledge is virtually nil. Throw in a pint of gassy, cheap lager, go and get a tattoo on your calf and you’re one of the lads.

And don’t you hate all that ‘Giggsy’ rubbish? Everybody’s name gets an ‘eee’ at the end: ‘Giggsy’, ‘Crouchie’, ‘Wrighty’, ‘Colesey’.

While I use to be concerned about my lack of knowledge of the beautiful game, I no longer care. In fact, I make a point of intensifying my ignorance of the game by bringing in players long retired if ever the conversation arises. If, for example, Chelsea is about to play a big match, I might ask if Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris or Peter Osgood is still playing. Such a remark is normally met with a sigh of impatience as football people hate it when they converse with somebody who doesn’t understand the sport or who might be taking the Michael. I wallow in the fact that I am completely in the dark as to who is playing who, which teams have made it to the FA Cup Final or who is where in the Premiership or the Champions League.

I was on a foreign business trip once when the people I was with – both Arsenal supporters – spent the entire dinner time watching their mobile phones as friends back in the UK kept them updated on the score of a crucial match. To watch these two grown men glued to their handsets was both disappointing and irritating in the extreme and I almost found myself wondering, is this just put on? Have they reached a point in their lives where even they believe they like the game so much that they have to exclude themselves from any form of human interaction just to keep up with the score of some match back in the UK? It was pathetic to watch.

Within my own family there are idiots who quite happily plunge themselves and the rest of their immediate family into a state of depression if their team loses a match. They don’t stop to think that it’s only a game.

But for me the worse thing about football is the uncalled for hatred it generates among the supporters – especially in the case of so-called ‘arch rivals’, which are normally those involved in what is called, for some reason, a local ‘Derby’. What the Derbyshire town or the Epsom horse race has in common with football I don’t know – apart from Brian Clough once being manager of Derby County. So if Arsenal is playing Spurs, or West Ham is playing Millwall or Brighton is playing Crystal Palace, Everton playing Liverpool and so on, there’s always a heightened sense of trouble on the horizon.

Brighton and Crystal Palace fans refer to one another as ‘scum’ – which sums up the level of ignorance among their football supporters; and we all know what happened at Upton Park the other night.

The level of ignorance is turned up a notch or two when you consider that supporters at a football match are not allowed to watch a game of football and drink alcohol at the same time. It doesn’t happen in any other sport: people drink solidly all day at cricket and rugby matches but you rarely hear of there being any trouble. At a football match, however, as soon as the players run on to the pitch, the shutters go down on anybody in corporate hospitality drinking a can of lager. Why? Because that’s the law and your average football supporter is such an idiot that he cannot be trusted to watch the game and drink at the same time for fear that he might go on the rampage.

Racism – or being racist – is a sign of ignorance anyway, but in football, it often goes with the territory. Many white football supporters think it is acceptable to call a black player certain names if he scores a goal for the rival team and again there are countless examples of this in press reports dating back years. Hell, even the players and managers have been accused of making racist remarks.

When there is ‘violence on the terraces’ it tends to reinforce my argument that the game is its own worst enemy. Try as they might to stop the trouble, the football authorities are fighting a losing battle because that is the way it is with football and its supporters and nothing will change it. If football supporters are so volatile that they cannot be trusted to watch a match and drink a pint of lager at the same time, then what hope is there?

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

A novel idea...

If you have difficulty deciding what book to read when you next wander around a bookshop, worry no more as I might have the solution. For years, the thought processes behind my choice of novel were based on the recommendation of others, a book review in the Sunday papers or simply an impulse purchase based, perhaps, on the dodgy practice of judging a book by its cover.

I was getting frustrated. I needed some kind of structure to my reading life. I wanted a goal, something I could achieve. I was having problems knowing what to read next. Chick lit was always a no-go zone and so were bestsellers. I have always been a bit leftfield where literature is concerned. I don't want to follow the pack. I veer towards the sort of books you tend not to see people reading on the tube: Patrick Hamilton, Philip K Dick, Richard Wright, Saul Bellow to name but four authors whose work I have enjoyed.

A novel idea sprung to mind. What if I read an author for every letter of the alphabet starting with A and finishing with Z? I set about working out the ground rules, the main one being that I could not read any author whose work I had read before. The idea was to find new authors and tread new ground.

This would be an exercise in purity, so translations were out of the question. I had to follow the alphabet and I couldn't stray from A to T to Y to F. The challenge lay ahead and there was nothing else to do other than get started. What I didn't realise until I reached the letter F was that I needed a guide, something to keep me on the right path and provide scope, depth and enlightenment. I wanted to remain outside of the mainstream, but not having a guide meant that I fell at the first fence.

I chose Jake Arnott's The Long Firm, a bestseller recommended to me some time ago. Crime fiction is not my bag. Another rule sprung to mind: I would only read books that I bought personally. No outside influences. Everything had to be my decision. Next up was David Baldacci's The Christmas Train, a rather schmaltzy tale of a journalist who meets his ex-girlfriend on a train from Chicago to LA. It was like reading the screenplay of an American 'rom-com' – the sort of thing you might expect to watch in the afternoon on Christmas Eve.

JJ Connolly's Layer Cake followed. This and Arnott's The Long Firm were what I call 'shut it you muppet' books, the sort of novels Guy Ritchie might adapt into feature films with Vinny Jones and Bill Nighy in leading roles. Not my cup of tea, but the gauntlet had been thrown down and another rule too: I had to finish every book as, to the best of my knowledge, the police had no intention of announcing an amnesty on unread novels.

A lot of people find it hard to believe that I have never read any Roald Dahl. Even I wondered whether or not I had broken my golden rule unknowingly as I sat down to read Kiss Kiss, a collection of Dahl's excellent short stories, especially Parson's Pleasure. Dahl proved to be the best so far and in many ways acted as a kind of bridge to better things ahead, starting with the letter E.

Dave Eggers' first novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity, drew me into the realm of 'cult' fiction. It is the story of Will and Hand and their decision to journey around the world in a random fashion giving away inherited money in obscure countries. "Everything within takes place after Jack died and before my mom and I drowned in a burning ferry in the cool tannin-tinted Guaviare River, in East Central Columbia, with forty-two locals we hadn't yet met." That is the novel's opening sentence. I expected great things and found them.

My guardian angel appeared in the shape of the Rough Guide to Cult Fiction, an excellent directory of cult novelists billed as 'genre benders, beats, gurus, drunks, junkies, sinners and surrealists'. I didn't have to follow the guide, but it steered me away from the junk and into the path of some interesting writers like John Fante whose Ask the Dust, one of four novels collectively known as the 'Bandini Quartet' was next on my list.

Fante, an American born in 1909 went largely unnoticed as a writer until novelist Charles Bukowski, who listed Fante as a key influence, mentioned him in one of his novels. Both men were key exponents of what became known as the hard-boiled style of writing: unpretentious and to the point. I stuck with the hard-boiled style for my letter G and a novel by another American writer, David Goodis, billed as 'the dark prince of paperback pulp'. I chose The Moon in the Gutter, the story of docker William Kerrigan looking for a way out of his sorry existence in scrag-end Philadelphia. Not bad, but I needed something a little heavier and found it when I chose my next book, Michel Houellebecq's Atomised.

I had to break one of my rules. My copy of Atomised was translated by Frank Wynne which meant that I was not reading the original text. I decided to go ahead based on the theory that rules were there to be broken. Atomised proved to be emotionally moving for me and I can't figure out why. It is the story of two brothers who share the same mother but live completely different lives. One is a libertine, the other a thinker and idealist. The book was tinged with sadness and tragedy which, I admit, brought a tear to my eye.

The letter i proved problematical as I had decided, thanks to the Rough Guide to Cult Fiction, to read something by the American author Gary Indiana. I considered and rejected Guillermo Cabrera Infante, the only other author listed under i, because I had already broken my rule on translations with Atomised. The bookshops had proved uninspiring where the letter i was concerned and this sorry state of affairs meant breaking another rule – that I should not jump out of alphabetical sequence – as I had to move on to the letter L and my first non-fiction title, Richard Lomax's The Railway Man which I picked up in a charity shop for 99p. Lomax was one of many prisoners of war tortured by the Japanese while constructing the Burma Siam Railway.

Getting hold of a copy of anything by Gary Indiana in the UK was proving a big problem so I had to abandon my quest and carry on with the task in hand. I chose BS Johnson's Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry as my letter J. Johnson, much to his own dislike, was billed as an experimental novelist. He didn't believe in beginnings, middles and ends and produced one of his novels in 27 different pamphlets so that readers could shuffle and read it in any order. Christie Malry is the story of a man who gets even with society using the principles of double-entry bookkeeping.

Johnson was one of two novelists on my list who committed suicide, the other being another so-called experimental novelist, Ann Quin, who walked into the sea at Brighton and drowned. Like Gary Indiana, however, I never found copies of her work in any bookshop in the UK. It took a trip to Portland, Oregon, and a visit to the world famous Powell's Books to finally pick up Horse Crazy by Gary Indiana; Ann Quin's Three; and Will Self's How the Dead Live. By this stage in my challenge I had moved along to the letter R and was reading Derek Raymond's How the Dead Live. The reason I bought Self's novel was because I was intrigued to read two completely different books sharing the same title. Self openly admits in the foreword to Raymond's book that he blatantly ripped off the title, quoting Auden who said 'Bad writers borrow. Good ones steal.'

Raymond, born Robert Cook in 1931, died in 1994. According to the Rough Guide to Cult Fiction, drink had taken its toll. He was billed as the 'Godfather of English noir fiction' and used the pseudonym of Derek Raymond in homage to detective novelist Raymond Chandler. Raymond's How the Dead Live concerns the investigation of a previously unexplained death. The novel's central character – a nameless detective – features in Raymond's so-called Factory novels of which this is one.

Self's novel is all about Lily Bloom, a former PR executive who dies of cancer and moves to Dulston, a part of London where the dead live alongside their spiritual guides. Bloom spends her dead life watching over the calamitous lives of her two daughters and is eventually 'reborn' as her own granddaughter. It is a good novel and while there are those who criticise Self for his use of 'big words', Self, like Henry Miller and JG Ballard, is a technically brilliant writer in my opinion.

But what about the letters J through to P? Jim Giraffe by Daren King was the ludicrous story of Scott Spectrum, a man haunted by a ghost giraffe. Perhaps I missed the point, but I found King's book too silly for words and a little bit tiresome as a result. I chose Patrick McGrath's Asylum for my letter M. The Rough Guide to Cult Fiction had good things to say about McGrath, the son of a medical superintendent at Broadmoor. Asylum is the story of a doctor's wife who falls in love with a violent mental patient at an institution not dissimilar to Broadmoor. The letter N gave me the chance to read Nabokov's controversial Lolita, the story of Humbert Humbert and his obession with a 12-year-old girl. Looking back through my copy, I note that I have underlined interesting words throughout the text such as 'favonian' , 'acrosonic' and 'phocine', none of which can be found in my Concise Oxford Dictionary.

For the letter O I had plenty to choose from: Patrick O'Brian and Edna O'Brien being two novelists I could have chosen. Instead, I opted for somebody less well known and with a less conventional O' name. Stewart O'Nan's Night Country was the story of the aftermath of a car crash and the story of the victims' ghosts who come back from the dead to visit those they believe are responsible for their deaths. O'Nan, an American writer, has seven other novels to his name.

There were so many Ps I could have chosen, but I foolishly started judging books by covers and opted for Chuck Palanuik's Haunted, a novel of different stories told by people imprisoned in an artists' retreat. It was alright in parts but it dragged and I was glad when I finished it.

Ann Quin's Three was another book I was unable to find in the UK and bought at Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon. I was hesitant about Quin because I was uncomfortable with 'experimental' novelists. I didn't want to read a book written, say, with no consonants, or a novel that could be read backwards. Quin's novel, I am pleased to say, was not thatexperimental. In Three, she experiments with different kinds of narrative. The book centres on the lives of three people living together in a house on the south coast (Quin lived and died in Brighton). Ruth and Leonard are middle-aged and married and S is a young woman who comes to live with them. The novel starts with the girl's suicide and then becomes a haunting snapshot of their lives together, their suspicions of one another, told through the different narratives. The thoughts of S are expressed through a diary she kept while living at the house. I approached Three with trepidation and under the impression it would be a hard slog, but I was pleasantly surprised and like all good novels, it haunts me now.

Derek Raymond's and Will Self's How the Dead Live were next and then another non-fiction book, this time Mark Thomas' Belching Out the Devil, the story of how Coca Cola has exploited work forces and ruined water systems in Turkey, Mexico and El Salvador. Thomas' book was good but it was ruined by a staggering number of literals. Here's just one, "They did not asked us to come."

The letter U was absent from the Rough Guide to Cult Fiction and nothing really inspired me in the bookshops. Fortunately, I owned a dog-eared copy of John Updike's Rabbit, Run, the first in a series of stories about Harry 'Rabbit' Angstrom, his doomed marriage to Janice and his pointless affair with Ruth.

I checked out my Rough Guide for the letter V and found only Kurt Vonnegut and Jules Verne, two authors I had read before so they were out of bounds. At the bookshop I found Willy Vlautin's Northline, the story of Allison, a young woman who escapes an abusive boyfriend and moves to Reno where she meets a succession of people who renew her faith in human nature. I loved this book for its clarity and atmosphere, its vivid characters and, ultimately, its hope. Vlautin has been labelled the 'Dylan of the dislocated' and I look forward to reading his other novel, This Motel Life. Vlautin also fronts the band Richmond Fontaine who will be playing in London in the autumn.

The letter W offered plenty of authors including Evelyn Waugh and PG Wodehouse, novelists I haven't read, but again I wanted something more leftfield and opted for Christopher Wilson's The Ballad of Lee Cotton, the story of a 'white' 'black' man with psyhic powers who wakes up after an accident to discover he's a white black man that has changed sex. For some reason, I read this book with a Chris Rock accent.

I thought the letter X would prove problematical but it was no problem at all. I found a copy of Village of Stone by Xiaolu Guo, which I bought, but then I found myself breaking out into a cold sweat. Guo, that's G, not X, so I rushed back to Waterstones and opened up another book by another Chinese author beginning with an X. I forget the name of the author, but in the preface it is pointed out that Chinese people put their surnames first, hence Xiaolu Guo. Guo is her first name.

I am half way through Village of Stone, the story of a young Chinese girl living in Beijing remembering her life in the Village of Stone, a coastal fishing village seemingly miles from anywhere.

The end of the project is nigh and I can already see the light at the end of the tunnel, which says I can read something else soon. And I really do want to read something else, something not in alphabetical sequence. There are other novels by the authors I have been reading for this task that I want to read, like Michel Houellebecq's Platform, like the rest of John Updike's Rabbit novels and, of course, This Motel Life by Willy Vlautin.

There are also novels that I simply have to read, like Joseph Heller's Catch 22, the red spine of which has been staring me out for years as I sit at my desk, mildy fretting that I have yet to pick it up and go further than just flicking through the pages. I've tried to read it before but have always given up and read something else.

I know what comes next. Metaphorically, right this minute, I have skipped a few chapters of my task and checked out the ending. For my letter Y it will definitely be something by Richard Yates, probably Revolutionary Road, but I'm not absolutely sure yet; and then, with Z, I'm not sure – possibly Richard Zimler – but I'm going to scour the bookshop shelves thoroughly before I reach for his The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon.

Has all this been worth it? Yes it has. I have introduced myself to novelists I would never have read, I have brought structure into my reading life and an element of randomness that has been exciting. Twenty six books – well, almost – and I will continue to the end and then, in true John Fowles fashion, come back and write another ending for this mammoth article.

How have I rated the books I've read? Well, to be honest, there are only a few of the chosen novelists who I would consider reading again. Definitely Dave Eggers, John Fante and Michel Houellebecq and I enjoyed Stewart O'Nan, Ann Quin and Derek Raymond. I will return to John Updike definitely and Willy Vlautin is on my list too. The rest were okay, but I wouldn't bust a gut to read more of them.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

The problem with ‘quiet’ coaches on trains

If you are a regular user of Inter City train services in the UK, you have, no doubt, noticed the trend towards ‘quiet’ coaches. I know why they exist: to protect travellers from those boringinly loud bastards on mobile phones who either make hundreds of excessive calls – I was on a train recently with a woman conducting a conference call on her mobile phone – and those who don’t know the meaning of the word ‘quiet’, ie you don’t shout, you talk.
‘Quiet’ coaches are, however, bloody irritating and, of late, I have noticed that they are being accorded the same status as smoking carriages in the days before smoking was banned, first unofficially and then for real back in July of 2007.
There was a time when, on a crowded train, if you were looking for somewhere to sit you would invariably be amazed to see ahead of you, as you clambered over suitcases and brushed gingerly past morbidly obese American tourists, that there was an empty carriage. Okay, it was at the very front of the train, but hey, beggars can’t be choosers, you might have thought until, that is, you realised that the reason the carriage was empty was because it was a ‘smoker’, it reeked of fag ash and there was enough people in there to make the journey splutteringly unpleasant.
Well, the ‘quiet’ carriage is now in the same position – except that there are no plans to abolish silence in public places.
Now, don’t get me wrong here. I’m all for silence, I would love a bit of peace and quiet, but the ‘quiet’ carriage is taking the piss. Not only does it catch you unawares: you find your seat, you sit down, unpack your laptop and reach for your mobile phone…and then you see the notice on the window: ‘Quiet Coach’. This is your cue to shut the fuck up, even if you’re not making any noise. And it sucks. Big time! What’s more, it’s unfair.
In the ‘quiet’ coach, you’re not banned from talking. If there was a group of you travelling together, you could still engage in an animated conversation, you could still laugh and cry and interact with your fellow human beings, but as soon as you picked up a mobile phone and started talking, evenly quietly, you would be contravening the number one rule, that mobile telephones – the very reason behind the quiet coaches – are taboo. You would be frowned upon by those who believe that your telephone conversation is far more intrusive and offensive than the group of office workers drinking Stella and guffawing loudly about last night’s office outing.
Train companies should employ somebody to stand at the entrance of all quiet coaches – now relegated to the far end of most trains – to say ‘Shhhhhhhhhhhhh!’ at everybody who enters, just by way of warning of what awaits them should they decide to take a seat. ‘Shhhhhhhhhhhhhh!’
‘Quiet’ coaches are full of inhuman, nosey neighbour types, the sort of people who peer at your from behind net curtains, the sort of people who have spent far too long in insurance and the sort of people who just want to moan at somebody, anybody, just as long as they can get their word in, which, of course, they can, because it’s a quiet carriage and, therefore, no risk of being interrupted. Quiet coaches often contain troublemakers. People looking for confrontation and wanting to throw their weight around. I remember sitting in quiet coach a few years ago when I noticed a man with tattoos on his hands looking for anybody about to reach for their mobile phone and reminding them, in a slightly menacing manner, that they were sitting in a quiet coach. Quiet coaches, therefore, can be dangerous places, not only full of 'complaining types' but also nutters.
I write this on the 1545hrs Paddington to Swansea train. I have just inadvertently walked into the ‘quiet’ coach, reached for my mobile phone and then spotted the words ‘quiet coach’ spread across the windows. But only AFTER I had dialled home to call my wife. Looking around, I noticed I was getting distasteful looks, but I still proceeded with the call. Hanging up would have been to admit defeat. I spoke quietly, finished my call and then made my way out of the coach.
I am now sitting in the noisy coach. You know the sort of thing, babies crying, phones ringing, but I don’t care. I like the hubbub and I hate feeling restricted. What I wish I had done while I was seated in the quiet coach was press the ringtone and then, in Dom Joly fashion, shout, "HELLOOOOOOOW! YES, IT’S ME!!!!! PARDON!!!!! NO! I’M IN THE QUIET COACH!!!!

Thursday, 13 August 2009

In case anybody was wondering....

...the reason behind my lack of posts lately has been my other blog ( I've been posting quite a bit about teashops and caffs around the UK and, indeed, the world. I will be posting here again shortly, though.