November 28, 2012, by aezjm2
Home and Away
The place where I live in Nottingham is pretty close to the City Ground, home of Nottingham Forest FC. On match days I enjoy opening the windows or inventing jobs that need doing in the garden so that I can hear the noise of the crowd rolling and rumbling towards my house. The noise has become a kind of comforting leitmotif to my Saturday afternoons, and I have become reasonably expert at discerning the way that the different sounds relate to different moments of drama throughout the game. The full-throated, higher-pitched cheering of a home goal is unmistakable, but so is the sudden graveyard hush that greets those times when an opponent scores, the unified explosion of anger that greets a poor refereeing decision, or the vaguer bubbling of disquiet that can be heard if the team is playing badly.
Although I’ve been into the City Ground a few times, I’m not actually a Nottingham Forest fan myself. My team, Aston Villa, play about an hour’s drive away. But I always enjoy listening to the Forest fans, I think, because for me the noise conjures up a very specific image of the crowd at that particular venue, the people who I know from the neighbourhood enjoying themselves and at leisure, free from the pressure or tedium of day-to-day work.
In addition, and perhaps by contrast, that crowd noise allows me escape the specifics: to imagine far-away times and places. It allows me to think about some of the memorable matches I’ve been to, to think about friends and family who have accompanied me. I probably dwell on the fortunes of my team that weekend in some different place, and the broader fortunes of the teams involved in games all across the country (the pathetic Schadenfreude I feel if Birmingham City have lost, for example, or the grudging attention that I am forced to pay to my wife’s team, Arsenal). It is undoubtedly the case that my knowledge of English geography owes most to the names of those exotic locations that could be found on the Panini football stickers and on the television videprinter of my childhood, full of unknown potential and mystery: Liverpool, Swindon, Port Vale, Wimbledon.
Anyone who goes to football games is likely to be aware of that tension, a tension between the specifics of very immediate local references and the desire to imagine a place or time elsewhere. For example, football chants often express local rivalries and antipathies that do not translate from ground to ground; the programmes are full of stories about people and activities in the local area; the tannoy announcers and half-time comperes proudly demonstrate regional accents and phrases; to say nothing of the idiosyncratic music choices and local customs on show at particular grounds. I have yet to find anywhere that replicates the one-time habit of fans of Walsall FC, who would start mooing whenever a milk lorry drove along the M6 next to their ground.
Yet at the same time, football fans, in their chants and banners and costumes, tend to demonstrate that they are thinking about somewhere different, about other places and other times: about past glories, about future successes, about the trip to the next away game, or about the friends and enemies who are elsewhere that weekend and need to be communicated with during the game from within the stadium. A number of commentators have written about the more noxious effects of such imaginings in recent years, as club chairmen flutter their eyelashes at the Russian billionaire or Saudi sheik whose unimaginable fortune will help attract talented footballers from the Italian or Spanish leagues, or from the slums of the developing world, in order to help the team win international silverware. Indeed, a number of fans’ movements in recent years have articulated the desire to restore the balance in favour of the needs and sentiments of local supporters. Those movements are, notably, not winning.
One of my favourite chants, which emerges from the Forest fans, expresses exactly that longing to be present, but also to be elsewhere. Intermittently, at almost every home game, the fans sing: ‘City Ground, oh mist rolling in from the Trent, my desire, is always to be here, oh City Ground’. At once, the song imagines the local river, and the specific bankside location of the ground. More importantly, the song dates from the most glorious period in the club’s history (when the club became the unlikely champions of Europe under Brian Clough in 1978-9), and so allows the fans to re-imagine that era, and perhaps to hope that they are the once and future champions. The song is also, obviously, sung to the tune of Paul McCartney’s ‘Mull of Kintyre’, which means that the football chant at least carries the ghost of an entirely different set of imagined geographies and ideas about home.
This ghosting was at the front of my mind this week, when I attended Billy Ivory’s charming new play Diary of a Football Nobody at the Nottingham Playhouse. The play is based on the memoirs of David McVay, a one-time Notts County midfielder, and on the night I saw the production it was clear that a number of local fans (and professional players) in the audience were appreciating a set of particular references to the club’s specific history, ethos, and personnel. At the same time, those of us who knew little about that period in the fortunes of Notts County could still enjoy the piece because it was equally about a sense of nostalgia for the 1970s, replete with flared trousers, mustachioed faces, and a great deal of familiar music. In this play, the Nottingham Playhouse was evidently hoping to recreate the same spirit that had been on display in 2005, when the theatre produced Stephen Lowe’s drama Old Big ’Ead, which did a similar job for Nottingham Forest and for the club’s famed manager Brian Clough. In each case, Nottingham Playhouse audiences were asked to engage with the specifics of a particular period of club football, and to observe individual player names and personalities, whilst crucially, at the same time, being drawn away from the specifics into a more general set of ideas about a bygone era, and to compare our modern assumptions, tastes, and social attitudes with those of the 1970s.
This tendency isn’t confined to the stage, of course, but to other literature that deals with Nottingham’s football clubs. John Harvey’s crime novel of 2007, Trouble in Mind, asks the reader to reminisce about a fictionalised version of Notts County’s successful cup run in 1991, but uses that scenario in order to draw us into a contemplation of broader global geographies, not least in asking readers to consider the experiences of those soldiers who fought in the first Iraq war. More famously, Alan Sillitoe, who was certainly no football fan, used the Notts County ground for one of the stories in his 1959 collection The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. In Sillitoe’s story a local fan with poor eyesight attends a game, and finds himself distracted by the terraces rather than the sport: ‘They stood in the one-and-threes, Lennox trying to fix his eyes on the ball, to follow each one of its erratic well-kicked movements, but after ten minutes going from blurred player to player he gave it up and turned to look at the spectators massed in the rising stands that reached out in a wide arc on either side’. After his team lose, Lennox returns home, beats his wife, and causes her to leave him. In the case of both Harvey and Sillitoe, then, the local football ground is a site of some key, specific action, but it action that is always held in counterpoint by a notion of escape from, or to, somewhere else.
In formal terms, the most interest example of this tendency is in B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, an experimental novel from 1969 that asks us to shuffle a box of loose-leafed chapters into whatever order we might choose. In the novel’s very construction, it therefore invites us to compare what we are doing here with our previous reading experiences, to note the difference between Johnson’s randomly ordered chapters and the strict linearity of the bound volumes with which we might be more familiar. In this way, we readers go through a comparative process, and one that reflects the progress of the narrator, who – however you shuffle the chapters – arrives in a fictionalised version of Nottingham and travels to what is recognisably the City Ground in order to report on a football match, but spends his entire time insistently reflecting on the death of a friend who he has known in the town in years gone by. The book reflects on previous times in Nottingham that cannot be recovered, with the pilgrimage to the football match providing a narrative focal point for these ideas. The narrator remains a sports reporter who is fixed on the specifics of the game and whose reason for being in the town is to write about the football. Yet, as he admits, ‘my mind wanders off’, and the strange but beautiful novel leads us into quite a different realm of nostalgia and memory.
For people who hate football, I realise, the entire event looks bewildering, boring and vaguely threatening, populated by overpaid players and supporters who often appear to have the complexion of a cheese and onion crisp. But, for me at least, a writer like B.S. Johnson has put his finger on a key truth. When I attend the football I naturally want my team to do well, and I cheer, boo, and swear accordingly. And yet the specific action I am watching often leads me to think about very different notions of emplacement, located in the geographically and historically distant. As a result, at some times, it is paradoxically the noisy and unruly stadium that provides one of the best places to sit and think…