British literature doesn’t do sports very well. In comparison, at least, to our brothers and sisters across the Atlantic, there is a paucity of good writing that features sportsmen or women as protagonists. Any reader who enjoyed DeLillo’s End Zone, Malamud’ The Natural, or, as I recently did, Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, would in my opinion search in vain for a comparable text about football or rugby (though I am happy to be corrected). Cricket, traditionally in receipt of a higher-brow style of journalism, struggles to fill the literary void. Even the mercurial David Peace treats more with managers than the men they order about.
There is, however, a brilliant writer for whom football is a rich seam running through his measured, observational books on the English working class: Alan Sillitoe. Sillitoe, perhaps the greatest prose chronicler of the social upheaval of the immediate post-war period, one foot in post-war boom and one in pre-war grime and toil, finds a rich metaphor and powerful backdrop in football. While he wrote only one story specifically about football, ‘The Match’, which centres on a spectator anyway, the game is a crucial and often recurring theme in his writing.
The opening lines of his debut novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, establish football as a trope throughout his work:
“It was Benefit Night for the White Horse Club, and the pub had burst its contribution box and spread a riot through its rooms and between its four walls. Floors shook and windows rattled, and leaves of aspidistras wilted in the fumes of beer and smoke. Notts County had beaten the visiting team, and the members of the White Horse supporters club were quartered upstairs to receive a flow of victory.
Arthur was not a member of the club, but Brenda was, and so he was drinking the share of her absent husband…”
Arthur, the protagonist, a lively, wily, young man who relentlessly pursues his sybaritic path, not least with married Brenda, is a narrator of sorts; the action occurs through his eyes for the most part but he is not enormously reliable. As such, though, the story is told through his language and from his frame of reference, both in literal occurrence and in metaphor. Arthur is infused with a love of life, a hedonistic desire to pursue the fun in life, taking advantage of new opportunities granted by steady employment and improved labour laws that granted a worker at once more freedom and more security, a product of the war, as he sees it:
“No more short-time like before the war, or getting the sack if you stood ten minutes in the lavatory reading your Football Post – if the gaffer got on to you now you could always tell him where to put the job and go somewhere else”.
“The difference between before the war and after the war didn’t bear thinking about. War was a marvellous thing in many ways, when you thought about how happy it had made so many people in England. There are no flies on me, Arthur thought.”
Arthur’s self-conferred perspicacity is rooted in actuality though, as labour conditions and the power of trade unions, as well as the decrease in a healthy labour force as a natural corollary to the devastation of the population of young men had indeed granted men like him a greater self-determinacy.
The history of football in England is woven with this too. As labour laws were relaxed pre-war, a five or six day week allowed for Saturday afternoon football. As its popularity grew, especially in the working class, industrial areas of the north and Midlands, football came to be seen a benefit resulting from this sort of relaxation and an opportunity to bed a social activity into a now free weekend. For the social groups for whom communal labour was the source of income, the factory workers and their like, communal entertainment in the form of football was also a natural pastime. As the importance of football grew, it is hardly surprising that a man like Arthur should see it as a crucial part, if not of his life, then of the life of his social milieu; as such, it is also hardly surprising that football should crop up so often in his thought and speech as a prism through which much of what was now good in life should be viewed.
Football is such a part of Arthur’s life that it is not only the backdrop to events, like the opening passage above, but it also informs his own similes. While his affair with Brenda is in full swing, he meets her off the bus to go to a local working men’s club:
“The walked up the dark quiet tree-lined lane on their to the club building. He told her how long he stood there before she came, making a joke of it, saying it was like waiting for a football match to start on the wrong day, saying many wild things to make her laugh.”
But while football is a natural repository of comparisons and a thread running through Arthur’s actual life, a backdrop and a familiar frame of reference, it also provides, in several ways, a form of escape from the ordinariness of life too. Whether it is the reading of the Football Post in the toilet at work, as quoted above, or through the potential of winning the football pools, the game provides something above and beyond the day-to-day toil, escapism:
“…in any case you never knew when the Yanks were going to do something daft like dropping the H-bomb on Moscow. And if they did then you could say ta-ta to everybody, burn your football coupons and betting slips, and ring up Billy Graham. If you believe in God, which I don’t, he said to himself.”
To Arthur, as to many in his class, the football pools and gambling were the only real way to come suddenly into wealth, and if the nuclear cataclysm were to occur, obviously money would cease to be of any use. Arthur sees football as a chance, however, remote, of easy money and a life without work. In this way, football provided escapism in another way to the working classes of England. It is, indeed, more of a form of escapism than religion, a new opiate of the people, as many Marxists have suggested.
But the escapism could also be more immediate, more literal. Brenda’s husband Jack surprises Arthur and Brenda in the club where Brenda meets Arthur under the pretext of playing darts. Arthur senses danger but also that his masculine bond with Jack, born out of working in the factory together, is threatened. He therefore deploys football:
“Arthur wanted to shake his hand and tell him everything…that he didn’t like to see him suffer because of a looney thing like this, of a woman coming between them.
Instead, he drew him into a conversation about football, and over their third pint Jack was declaiming on how Notts would get into the second division next year. Everyone at the club put in their various pieces of knowledge, using imagination when knowledge failed.”
Jack warms to his theme:
“’Bolton’s centre-forward’s got the best kick and aim o’ the lot on ‘em, I don’t care what you say,’ Jack cried, up to his neck in it now. Arthur had never seen him less worried.”
Arthur watches and feels moved by Jack’s skilful argument and his passion, though, as he wryly thinks, “he had heard all about football before”. Football is the common denominator that all men can have an opinion on, a distraction so important it can remove from a man’s mind his suspicions about his wife’s infidelity, and yet also so repetitious and rehearsed that the arguments are in no way new. This duality shows what a central plank football was in the experience of men of that time and place and anyone who has participated in a pub football argument will identify with the experience as Sillitoe describes it, though not necessarily for the same reasons.
Sillitoe’s masterful collection of short stories, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, published in 1959, a year after Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, also shows how he works football into his writing as a means of identifying and explaining facets of the working class in England at the time. The collection is wide ranging in its themes and its concerns, and, indeed, it is only the title story which has no mention of football, concentrating as it does on running and a borstal boy.
In ‘Mr Raynor the School-teacher’, the eponymous narrator is a sex-obsessed schoolteacher, angered by his class’ inability to sit still and quiet and allow him to enjoy the sweet curves of a young woman who works in a draper’s shop opposite. In his characterisation of them, he demonstrates a middle class sense of opprobrium for the various perceived opiates of the working class:
“The one feasible plan was to keep them as quiet as possible for the remaining months, then open the gates and let them free, allow them to spill out into the big wide world like the young animals they were, eager for fags and football, beer and women and a forest of streets to roam in.”
Raynor’s “unwilling and unsuitable scholars” are disdained by the self-styled aesthete whose classically inflected and pretentious disinterest in their future allows him to disdain football, the working man’s game, as one of a host of otherwise obvious vices.
In another story, ‘On Saturday Afternoon’, which obviously takes its title from the time associated with football, a young boy assists a man attempt suicide by hanging. The narrator, miserable because “everybody in the family had gone to the pictures, except for me who’d for some reason been left out of it”, sees a man fussing with a rope and, intrigued, goes into his house and discusses, matter-of-factly, why his attempts to kill himself might not work. The man then slips the noose around his neck:
“Suddenly his long legs wriggled an his feet tried to kick the chair, so I helped him as I promised I would and took a runner at it as if I was playing centre-forward for Notts Forest, and the chair went scooting back against the sofa…”
The man is rescued by a passing policeman and the narrator ends by resolving that he will “stay alive half-barmy til I’m a hundred and five, and then go out screaming blue murder because I want to stay where I am.” The initial fatalism, inspired in part by a lack of options on a Saturday afternoon (it is never explained why the lad didn’t go to football instead) is replaced by a fierce and antagonistic will to survive, a metaphorical kicking out as opposed to the literal kick, framed in terms of football, that would assist a man on his way out. But, as in much of Sillitoe’s writing, the explanation for and, indeed in this case, rationalisation of a frankly bizarre act, is written in terms of football.
Perhaps Sillitoe’s most concentrated piece of football writing is found in ‘The Match’, where fatalism once again rears its head. The story is also marked by some beautiful descriptions of the game, but I urge you to read it for yourself for those. The protagonist Lennox is a portrait of a fan many of us would recognise:
“Bristol City had played Notts County and won. Right from the kick-off Lennox had somehow known that Notts was going to lose, not through any prophetic knowledge of each home-player’s performance, but because he himself, a spectator, hadn’t been feeling on top form. One-track pessimism had made him godly enough to inform his mechanic friend Fred Ironmonger who stood by his side: ‘I knew they’d bleddy-well lose, all the time.’”
This elision of fandom and team performance is a feature of later football writing, not least Fever Pitch, but the strong sense of Lennox’s personal attachment to the ebb and flow of his team’s performance is almost pathological. Fred tries to cheer him up with but Lennox is “still in the backwater of his personal defeat”. Lennox’s misery is reflected in his mocking at the hands of a colleague but it is the failure of his team to lift his spirits that brings about the story’s denouement. His long-suffering wife asks herself a refrain shared by many football fans and their partners: “Why did he make Saturday afternoons such hell on earth?” The crashing end to the story, where Lennox’s fury spills over into domestic violence is both shocking in its anger and ordinariness. Though Fred and his wife, hearing the tumult, remark that it is good that Fred doesn’t let football bother him in the same way, it is obvious that football is merely a symptom of the whole of Lennox’s sense of powerlessness, his sense of failure and entrapment that a defeat for Notts brings into tragically start relief. Once again, Sillitoe manipulates reactions to football brilliantly to shine a light on the interior of working class life.
Of course, Sillitoe is widely held to be a working class writer and football was, and to many still is, a working class sport. Martin Polley has written superbly about post-war sport in all its guises, and to him, football’s association with the working class stems from its centring in a localised, masculine environment where shared experience on the factory floor morphed into a visceral, immediate need for entertainment, but an entertainment whose roots where in the same cultural milieu as its spectators. It is also very interesting to note that, as with the improvement in workers’ conditions and employment laws for those in factories, the period of the late 1950s and early 1960s saw a marked professionalisation of football too. In 1958, the year that Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was published, the Association Footballers’ and Trainers’ Union was renamed the Professional Footballer’s Association to demonstrate the increasingly organised and, indeed, professional nature of the representative body. Polley, drawing on work by Wagg and Redhead, notes that this era saw “post-war rises in wage levels outside football and a growing perception within football that players’ occupational culture was closer to that of entertainers than to the skilled working class from which they predominantly and traditionally came”. Is it therefore possible that Sillitoe’s use of football as a working class professional was already becoming outdated by the time he wrote and published his work? I would suggest not, but rather that he captured a time when the working class roots of most players were beginning to diverge from that of football’s spectators, yet another sign of the changing times of that period. One of football’s most endearing characteristics is the importance of localism, a characteristic that endures in the face of the increased globalisation and monetisation of the sport. Sillitoe’s use of football as a prism through which to elucidate working class experience was rooted in that experience, even as it was changing.
Perhaps, to finish off then, it is worth returning to Sillitoe’s own writing, and the story ‘The Disgrace of Jim Scarfedale’, a story rooted in this tension of class. Jim is a mummy’s boy, working in the factory and living at home, until he meets Phylis at a local club and they discuss politics. Phylis is almost caricatured through the eyes of the narrator, a boy who lives next door to Jim, as a well-meaning, middle-class socialist, so eager to rub shoulders with the oppressed working class that she ends up marrying one of them: “I’d never heard anyone talk so posh, as if she’d come straight out of an office, and it made me think that Jim hadn’t lied after all when he said they’d talked politics at the club”. The marriage is destined to end in ruin and Jim’s eventual shaming as a sexual deviant, and Jim describes to his mother in a conversation overheard by the narrator how Phylis goes from calling him an example of the sort of man who should rule the world, rather than “money-grubbing capitalist bastards” to sarcastically calling him “the noble savage”. She sets fire to his newspaper because he “couldn’t get my eyes off the football results” and ends up leaving him to his working class pursuits and lack of ambition. Sillitoe’s portrait is clearly satirical but it represents well the kind of schisms that existed at the time and, as with the rest of Sillitoe’s writing, he uses football to explain and illustrate.
While none of his protagonists are footballers, Sillitoe’s use of football is as brilliant as any in English literature. He captures a time of transition and tension and deploys football as a metaphorical lens through which the rest of us can understand his world. In doing so, he allows us to empathise and observe and, most of all, to understand.
Martin Polley, Moving the Goalposts: a history of sport and society since 1945 (London: Routledge, 1998)
Alan Sillitoe, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (London: Harper Perennial, 2008)
Alan Sillitoe, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (London: Harper Perennial, 2007)
This piece was originally published in The Football Pink: Issue 3 and thanks are due to Mark Godfrey for permitting its reproduction here.