We might might come from the opposite ends of the UK, Ian Ayris from Dagenham in East London and me from a small town just east of Inverness, but we seem to have quite a lot in common. Born just weeks apart at the tail end of the 60’s, we’ve both written and published novels that deal with growing up in Britain in the 70’s and 80’s. Ian is keen to point out his book is not about football as such. Rightly so, but Abide With Me does feature a character called John Sissons who is brought up as a fan of West Ham.
I compared notes with Ian, chewing the fat over that old Countries of the World theme of the changing face of football as well as writing, spellin(g), and some of life’s big questions, such as whether it is advisable to call your son “Kenny”…
SP: “No-one would dare to write a story like this, even in a fictional world,” said Brian Moore, I think it was, during West Ham’s 1975 FA Cup win. Well, in a way you did.
IA: Great quote. I remember him towards the end of his time getting the names of the teams wrong and players. Very sad. Sunday afternoons at our place were the smell of roast chicken cooking, Police 5, then On The Ball. Great memories.
SP: I’d forgotten about kicking a tennis ball around in the playground until you wrote about it. We had a huge grass park in my primary school grounds, and a football pitch, but weren’t allowed on there in winter and, playing on the concrete around the school building, we had to use a tennis ball so we didn’t break any windows. Should have ended up with the skills of fucking Brazilians when you think about it. And talking of memories, May 1975 is a month that seems to have left its stamp on us football-wise. The England v Scotland game at Wembley is mentioned early on in Countries of the World (COTW) and that’s genuinely the first match I can remember watching on the telly. What about you? Can you remember West Ham winning the FA Cup in ’75, as described at the beginning of your novel?
IA: That final was my first experience of watching a match. Funny how me and you seem to have those sort of connections.
SP: I feel there’s a lot of scope for quality fiction featuring football, but one of the drawbacks is that many people will not go near it if they don’t like the sport.
IA: I think there is a definitely a place for football in fiction – the literate supporter is a huge untapped market, I reckon. COTW is such an original spin on the tired old trope of Fever Pitch copies, it’s a book, as I’ve told you before, I will read over and over again.
SP: Thanks. On the one hand I think there’s still some literary snobbery around that dismisses using football in fiction, and on the other there’s a sort of anti-intellectualism that resists any association with serious literature. Neither is healthy and too often the result is mediocre writing or more cliches. I’m not sure which other books you’re referring to but I liked Fever Pitch at the time. I know it gets a lot of stick for being very middle-class now. Whether Hornby was aware of this back then I don’t know, but for me it kind of reflects the era around Italia ’90 when the game underwent a makeover and its public image changed.
IA: I too loved Fever Pitch when it first came out. As much, I think, because the night Arsenal beat Liverpool at Anfield was still pretty fresh, and still ranks probably as the most incredible finish to any football season ever. But looking back I think the accusation commonly aimed at Hornby as representing the middle class football supporter is pretty spot on. Can’t blame him for it. Just how it was for him.
SP: Are we in another phase now when you look at the growing number of empty seats in stadiums? Do you notice that at the games or is it business as usual at Dagenham, the team you support?
IA: The only thing that’s changed at the Mighty Daggers from when I was a kid is the grass mound behind the goal I used to sit on with my brother and our mate, Nicky. It’s now an all-seater stand – we have a digital clock above the opposite terrace, and the rickety wooden stand sat on the half-way line is now an all-seater affair running the entire length of one side of the pitch. But the other side is all still one long covered terrrace – and it is fantastic. Just a low wall all the way round separating the fans from the players, the smell of burgers and hot dogs, the banter, and the same old faces. Nope, fundamentally, all the millionaire shenanigans at the top end of the game have failed to filter down to our level. And I pray they never do.
SP: I love your description of the 1980 FA Cup Final in Abide With Me (AWM) as well. For me, it’s one of the highlights of a very powerful novel, and a pivotal moment if you like. But were you concerned some people might be put off by too much football?
IA: You’re right about the pivotal moment of the novel being the 1980 Cup Final chapter. After that, things for John sort of go downhill. Being a Daggers fan and not a Hammer, I had memories of the 1980 final, but not enough for what I needed. So I got hold of the DVD off ebay and basically watched it with a pen and notepad, transcribing the match as it went along. Just a case of transposing some of my experiences of standing on the terraces at Dagenham over the years, and it all came together. I didn’t think about there being too much football because to me this isn’t a story about football. Football is merely a vehicle for the emotions of men to join together when all hope is lost. Working class glue, if you like.
SP: Another thing we have in common is that we both use some local dialect in our writing, you more so than me I think it’s fair to say. AWM is written in Cockney vernacular if I can call it that? It must be a nightmare to put it through a spellchecker?
IA: An absolute nightmare. Had to go through it dozens of times. I still think I missed a couple. With the male characters dropping ‘g’s and the female characters and Kenny not, just that alone was a horrendous job.
SP: I know the problem. I’ve started a sequel to COTW and standardised some stuff, such as leaving all the ‘ing’ endings in. It’s such a hassle otherwise. Maybe one day they will invent something that can cope with Cockney and Scots – a Jockney spellchecker! But I hadn’t picked up on that point with your novel. What’s the reasoning behind only some of the characters dropping the ‘g’s?
IA: I wanted to replicate the speech of all the blokes I’ve known from round here. John’s mum is representative of the type of mum trying to bring their children up better than their husbands were brought up – trying to maintain a bit of respectability in the face of a tide of degradation. John’s aunts in the book – John’s dad’s sisters, all drop the ‘g’, whereas Becky doesn’t, the influence of her mum paying off there. Kenny speaks nicely – not dropping the ‘g’ – being inured from the culture that surrounds him due to his learning difficulty and his mum being ‘not from round here’.
SP: That’s interesting. The mother of the narrator in COTW also talks a bit differently from the others. I think that’s more geographical than anything else because she comes from a town where they speak less Scots. But you could be onto something there with the point about mums (!) … Both AWM and COTW have a character called Kenny who ‘isn’t quite right’. What’s with the choice of name? Just a coincidence or are a high percentage of Kenneths a bit mad?
IA: I didn’t, don’t, think at all when I’m writing. It’s more I write whatever comes into my head, listen intuitively, I suppose, and write down whatever comes. All I can say is that’s his name. But it is mad. Jung’s old collective unconscious, I reckon.
SP: Lol. There were a fair few mad or eccentric Kens when I was at school. There was one known as ‘Kenny Kite’ who stuck in my mind to characterise. Also, the protagonist’s hero is Kenny Dalglish, so perhaps in a way I wanted to have something of an anti-hero as well. Although, I agree as writers don’t analyse too conciously when actually writing. Biq question to end with… In COTW, the reader was asked to ‘imagine the FA Cup final without a rendition of Abide With Me’. The chapter considers whether football is a ‘religion for atheists’, as some people have suggested. Would you subscribe to that? Does it fill that ‘gap’? In other words, is it the new opium of the masses?
IA: Listening to the gamut of emotions blokes are able to express at Victoria Road – joy, extasy, fear, disappointment, hatred, projected self-loathing, anger, etc. – without football, all these emotions would either be pushed down inside or expressed at home or in society in general. Football, while no panacea for the masses, is a real outlet for vital male expression.
SP: Thanks, Ian. Hope the Daggers get a win this weekend.
IA: Speak to you soon, mate. Got to pick the kids up from school.
SP: See ya later!
ABIDE WITH ME will be officially launched in paperback and ebook on 19th March 2012, with book signings taking place around Essex and East London between 24th March and 5th May.
COUNTRIES OF THE WORLD is available in both paperback and Kindle format.