If there was a Turner Prize for best book cover then Pomona would win hands down. Once more designer and typographer Christian Brett has produced a cultural artefact, a genuine piece of art, something of such utter beauty I felt guilty putting it on my bookshelf with the other riff raff. It felt a little like re-housing the Queen on a council estate. Not that there is anything wrong with council estates like, but you get my drift.
Brett, for all of you typographic heathens out there, has produced sleeve art and live visuals for Manchester based Narcissus as well as various collaborative projects and exhibitions with illustrator Alice Smith and ex-members of Crass. The boy knows his stuff and has been instrumental in helping create the distinct Pomona brand.
If we were to judge a book by its cover then Hunter Davies certainly has his work cut out. Fortunately, he has more than adequately lived up to expectations. The Second Half is his follow up to The Fan, and once more is a collection of articles published in The New Statesman. Davies is of course one of Britain’s most acclaimed writers and journalists with over 30 books to his name which cover topics as wide and as diverse as the Eddie Stobart story, walks around the lakes to a McCartney authorised biography of The Beatles. More recent projects include his own autobiography as well as ghost-writing instalment one of the Rooney chronicles.
Hunter Davies, like a good wine, is an acquired taste. He reads a bit like a crotchety old git with his own particular language (footer, buggerit); complaining about his duff leg, the problems of parking at grounds and how expensive the modern game is. Although these observations tend to be repetitive at times I found them quite endearing and in many ways perfect for the genre. Football is all about repetition, ritual and routine and as a result the oratory skills of Brian Marwood or the influence of Sky on football schedules is something which grates every fan at the same time every week.
Davies fills the 299 pages with a series of facts, observations, predictions and gripes which in turn are interspersed with general meanderings about life in general. This enables him to strike a good balance with the reader to keep them suitably engaged.
For example, where as his nemesis John Motson is a hardened statician, driven by a kind of turrets induced factuality, Davies has all the qualities of an obsessive fan but one for whom humanity takes precedence over the cold harsh rationality of facts. For example, he follows the career of Mat Jansen because he comes from his hometown Carlisle and because he has asthma. He also follows the fortunes of Graeme Souness because he once gave him a lift home in his car when he was a seventeen year old apprentice at Spurs – as Souness didn’t have a car then. Without stating the obvious this subtle observation tells you more about how the game has changed for players over the following three decades than any list of stats could.
Another way in which Davies differs from his contemporises is the skill with which he juxtaposes facts, thereby making subtle cultural observations. It should be noted, however, that as this is a collection of articles rather than a sat down and planned book, this particular compliment may fall on the shoulders of Mark Hodkinson, the man who carefully selected these ‘best of.’
His dealings with technological solutions to footer related problems exemplifies this. Davies recognises the pressure put on players’ and referees to achieve perfection as a result of the financial rewards of the game and sardonically notes how they should be administered with remote controlled equipment which will give them electro-convulsive shocks for a poor pass or missed goal. He then whisks us back into reality by citing a referee in an American game who marked the free-kick spot with talc so that team couldn’t cheat and gain yards. ‘The obvious’ as Oscar Wilde once said ‘is stated by the intellectual.’
The book covers the last three seasons, Euro 2004 (is ‘XAVI the name of a Barcelona player or is this his number in Latin’) to World Cup 2006 where a particularly ineffectual Becks performance leads to him being described as ‘a spare tattoo at a biker wedding.’ It is an intoxicating ride taking on board everything football no matter how trivial. What makes this journey particularly interesting is Davies supports or rather follows three teams, depending on where he is living at the time. These are Carlisle United, Arsenal and Spurs. This is because he is a football fan foremost and therefore is able to break the taboo of following two rivals. Such honesty is refreshing and certainly admirable, although I am undecided if this makes him more or less of a footer nutter than the norm.
Perhaps his saving grace is that he is aware of his mental obsession. This does not necessarily equate with a resolution but at least it suggests awareness. Consequently, he demands a testimonial for fans rather than players and reasons ‘surely there must be a football therapist by now, one who will talk you out of your obsession. This probably consists of watching 1970s videos of John Pratt shooting over the West Stand into Tottenham High Road – until you scream for mercy, promising never to watch a game again.’
“Kids and granddads and dogs were always able to turn up at any training ground and watch their heroes. That stopped with the Premiership. Clubs became so rich and self-important that they banned such access, erecting security gates, putting tanks at all corners, shoot to kill if any kid looked through the barbed wire.”