June 16, 2021


Football is not football: On the Europeanization of a once-American genre (Simon Kuper, 6 June 2021, The European Review of Books)

When I returned to London, and told my editor that I'd visited 22 countries on four continents and interviewed people and begun writing the book, he raised my advance by another £1500. I think he had never actually expected me actually to go off and do it. In 1993, while I was back in my parents' house trying to write up the book, I read a newly published football memoir: Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch.

When Hornby began writing the book, he was an unsuccessful journalist in his mid-thirties who taught English to foreigners on the side. His friends thought, "Poor Nick, he's writing this crazy book about how being an Arsenal fan explains his life. Nobody's going to buy it."

Fever Pitch is a completely original book, the first to examine the apparently unremarkable experience of being a football fan. It's also a hilarious but true social history of Britain from the 1960s through the 1990s. It became the most influential football book ever written, the one that did more than any other to launch the genre.

Like mine, Hornby's original inspiration for Fever Pitch had come from the US. He was a literary critic, and his very first book - published in 1992, the same year as Fever Pitch - was a study called Contemporary American Fiction. He had been particularly influenced by two American memoirs: Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life, and Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes, about being an alcoholic dysfunctional New York Giants fan. As a tribute to both books, Hornby gave Fever Pitch the subtitle "A Fan's Life".

But he was also inspired by a now defunct London bookshop. In 1985 a New Zealander named John Gaustad had opened a tiny store in Caxton Walk, off the Charing Cross Road in London called Sportspages, which had the crazy idea of only selling sports books. At first, Gaustad was the only employee. Initially, inevitably, most of the books it sold were about cricket.

Gaustad - who probably knew the history of football writing better than anyone else - once told me the genesis lay in about 1987, when a tiny publisher in the provincial English town of Derby produced a statistical history of Derby County Football Club. Hardly anybody noticed at the time, but the book turned out to be a precursor. Within a few years almost every British club had its statistical history. Gaustad also told me: "Pete Davies was John the Baptist to Nick Hornby."

Hornby used to spend hours in Sportspages, reading the fanzines of different clubs that the shop sold. These fanzines were a product of the late 1980s, and now exist mostly online; most clubs have at least one. Fanzines typically publish articles by fans of a particular club, people who in real life are schoolteachers or taxi drivers, but who write so well that as a professional journalist it often scares me. The most prominent and literate British fanzine still exists today: When Saturday Comes.

Hornby said years later that Sportspages "showed me there was a market for a book like Fever Pitch. Publishers may have refused to accept that there was such a beast as the literate soccer fan, but there were always hundreds of them in Caxton Walk, so I knew who I was writing for." Sadly, Gaustad was eventually ousted from Sportspages, and in the internet era the shop closed, because nobody needed to leave the house anymore to find sports books. John Gaustad died in 2016, but without him, literary football writing might never have existed.

Posted by at June 16, 2021 6:21 PM