Thursday, December 08, 2011

How We Used To Read

Browsing second hand book shops I often get pangs of nostalgia when I come across books I recognise from the dim and distant days of my childhood.

Often these books involve football.

My knowledge of today's children's literature is limited. But 20 or 25 years ago there seemed a proliferation of books that used football as a central hook to draw readers in.

It was, of course, an attempt to turn young boys into readers. Was it successful?

For some of us perhaps it was.

But football has changed massively in the last 20-odd years. And so, I suspect, has childhood.

Have our fictional footballing heroes, the ragbag collection of underdogs, unlikely romantic leads and unorthodox midfield maestros, stood the test of time?

Time to find out. And for me to be the weird guy sat on the Edinburgh to Glasgow train reading out of print books that I'm a good 20 years too old for.

All My Men by Bernard Ashley


In a bleak Essex town in the bleak 1970s, our hero, Paul Daines, faces a bleak future.

Uprooted from London he is an alien in a strange, unwelcoming place. His parents are chasing a dream, they've left him in a nightmare of dislocation and loneliness.

Football, then, will be his salvation.

A simple enough tale of soccer exploits providing a path to redemption, acceptance and contentment?

That would be the expected narrative. But Bernard Ashley throws the reader a curve ball.

Redemption and happiness lies not in football but in the love of - or at least some hand holding with - a good woman, the friendship of what we might now call the class geek and an act of airborne heroism during World War Two.

You'd be forgiven for not seeing that coming. Judging a book by its cover has always been the last word in foolhardiness.

To prosper on the football field Paul must win over Billy Richardson. But Billy is the class bully, a red tracksuited grotesque who dominates the playground thanks to his imposing size and the stupidity of his cohorts. It was ever thus.

Paul can't help but compare the new top-dog in his life with the old one. In London Paul's sun-king was Simon Tulip.

Tulip, we're given to understand, inspired his disciples by example not by fear, creating what Paul recalls as Utopia but actually seems to have been more of a benign dictatorship.

Hindsight allows to see Tulip and Richardson as the yin and yang of a prototype John Terry. One the snarling bully with his henchmen cowering in his wake, the other the man of inpirational destiny leading his troops to greatness with an odd rallying cry of "all my men."

They sound, frankly, like a pair of arseholes.

But poor Paul can't see this. He needs to be one of Tulip's men again. In the absence of the real thing that means becoming one of Richardson's men.

This, as is the nature of such things, leads Paul to give up the chance of friendship with fellow new boy Arthur Little and carry out what must be one of the most dramatic thefts of a large box of After Eights ever committed to paper.

He seems to be getting somewhere. We're even treated to the book's most sustained football action:

"The boy on the left centred the ball, his Wellingtons lifting it high, just the sort of centre a goalkeeper and a centre-forward would have to contest; and before either Billy or Paul had time to think about it the ball was dipping towards them and they were both moving forward and jumping.

"Paul had taken off fractionally before Billy in a bid to outjump him, and his head met the falling ball a split second before Billy's reaching fingertips, arching it in a high lob over Billy to bounce cleanly against the wall in the centre of the goal.

"The elation Paul felt was hard to define. It was probably the goal that made his stomach tingle with a warm pleasure, for even in a pick up game in the playground a goal is a goal; but it could have been the boy's silence after the hardness of the knock, the mutual acceptance of the tumble, the strange feeling of sharing an experience which a sporting tussle brings."

Do you still see boys playing football in their wellies in British playgrounds?

What respect does this brave goal bring Paul? None. It brings him a decomposing pigeon through his parents' letterbox.

Alone and miserable, Paul needs to be saved. There is a willing list of volunteers.

There's his classmate Lorraine who teaches him that love is more important than football. She also inspires a rhapsody about the beauty of arms that might just get away with being sweet at Paul's age but could quickly turn into something of a fetish.

There's his teacher, herself new to the school, who needs Paul to succeed so she can prove her value. There's the urbane headmaster offering quiet encouragement - and nothing ages this book like the heidie smoking in his office in front of the pupils.

There's Arthur's grandfather - if indeed it is his grandfather, we're left to guess - who shows him that bygones can be bygones and forgiveness is a true sign of strength.

And so we reach our denouement with Paul, Arthur and Lorraine, supported by her friend Rita, using a football pitch for his redemption.

Not by playing football but by re-enacting that moment of Second World War heroism - the proximity of such wartime experiences being another sign of the book's vintage.

And in chasing the bully Richardson:

"Come out you great pilk or I'm bloody coming in. Come out! Come out and fight!"

Football, Ashley suggests, is but a game. Acceptance and contentment lies in schoolwork and friendship. And in threatening your enemies with physical violence.

A lesson for the ages.

All My Men by Bernard Ashley, first published 1977.

Want to see a book you remember featured? Give me the name and I'll try to track it down.

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