Finally, a book on football that's more than just a stack of stilted clichés

Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters: reviewed.

Writing about football tends these days to want to take on the big themes, to paint the big picture. The game itself is pumped up, self-important, at times hard to love, even for those of us who admitted we were hopelessly hooked years ago. So much importance is attached to a game that seems never to avoid the opportunity to shout about how important it is.

And yet, as is so often the case, the real pleasure, the real measure of worth, resides in the small things, the tiny details and quirky corners that come together to create something loved and valued, something with meaning. That’s why Daniel Gray’s book Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters is such a delight. It’s the kind of book, filled with astute observations of small details, that might just convince the most confirmed football sceptic why football has such a place in our culture.

Gray is a Teessider who, having lived in Scotland for 10 years and realising he is about to turn 30, embarks upon a search for the essence of the England he left behind. He choses to visit provincial football grounds, but the match is merely the hook for an exploration of place and identity. Gray takes the trouble to research the history of the places he visits, all the better to understand what makes his destinations what they are.

In each place he tells the tale of how the club was formed and how the local people embraced it, providing a history of industrial development and later decline as he does so. In Middlesbrough, where he grew up, we learn of the influence of Quakers and steel, and of the rise and fall of the wonderfully named Middlesbrough Ironopolis, early rivals of Middlesbrough FC. In Luton we learn of hatmaking, popular riots and the brief establishment of a workers’ Soviet by disaffected soldiers after the 14-18 war, and of a modern town more comfortable with its mix of people than the demagogues of the EDL and the radical mosques would have us believe. In Ipswich, the boozy paternalism of the posh Cobbold family is writ large, while in Chester the establishment of a supporter-owned club heralds a more modern notion of community, but one rooted all the same in working class traditions of self-help.

It’s Gray’s eye for detail, thoughtful observation and lyrical turn of phrase that make this book more than the stilted stack of clichés it could have been. And so, most importantly, does his ability to recognise things for what they are, rather than to sneer and patronise. In his introduction he says: "I wanted the book to celebrate the provinces and pinpoint why parochialism matters and is not always a bad thing". Later on he observes how easy it is to condemn the Everytown trend instead of looking behind the High Street facades. His historical research is complemented by a social awareness and an ear for dialect, snatched snippets of conversation and a lashing of incisive asides weaved together with vivid description of place to bring to life a middle England far richer and positive than the narrow and depressing place the phrase conjures up.

In Luton, for example, Gray is struck by the segretation between communities, but also at the way people come together: “It is done in subtle ways, in food, in football, in young people boxing together”. In Sheffield, the steel city that cradled the English game, his observations lead him to reflect on how “history and the present are interwoven; how good England was and can be, instead of bemoaning the state of things”. And he says, “this England I have come across resembles the highest ideal I built in my Caledonian exile” – one of a number of asides in which he wonders if the seeming inevitability of a more formal split between England and Scotland will simply show the sum is greater than the parts.

The football clubs in Sheffield and Luton and Chester and Crewe and Hinckley and all the towns Gray visits are as much a part of the place as steel or hatmaking or locomotive assembly ever were. Noticeably, Gray does not visit any of the clubs in the grandiously-titled Premiership. For one thing, the price and sheer trouble of getting a ticket does not make it easy for the casual visitor, for another, Gray seems to conclude, football at the top level is already a place apart, while “away from the jaded cynicism of its highest reaches it remains a social movement”. It is an observation that goes to the heart of the modern game, raising the prospect of a detached top tier that may eventually be undone by its remoteness from those very ideas of place and identity that made football what it is.

As Gray concludes: “In an England of flux, where no job is certain, families break up or live far apart, community or church is loose or weak, football is more important than ever. It breeds belonging in an uncertain world.” Gray manages to be both realistic, eschewing the rose-tints, while retaining an optimism often missing from modern social histories. The result is a book to savour and to make you think.

Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters by Daniel Gray is published by Bloomsbury.

Photograph: Getty Images

Martin Cloake is a writer and editor based in London. You can follow him on Twitter at @MartinCloake.

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This week, a top tip to save on washing powder (just don’t stand too near the window)

I write this, at 3.04pm on a sticky Thursday afternoon, in the state in which Adam, before his shame, strolled in the Garden of Eden.

Well, in the end I didn’t have to go to Ikea (see last week’s column). I got out of it on the grounds that I was obviously on the verge of a tantrum, always distressing to witness in a man in his early-to-mid-fifties, and because I am going to Switzerland.

“Why Switzerland?” I hear you ask. For the usual reason: because someone is paying for me. I don’t think I’m going to be earning any money there, but at least I’ll be getting a flight to Zurich and a scenic train ride to Bellinzona, which I learn is virtually in Italy, and has three castles that, according to one website, are considered to be “amongst the finest examples of medieval fortification in Switzerland”.

I’m not sure what I’m meant to be doing there. It’s all about a literary festival generally devoted to literature in translation, and specifically this year to London-based writers. The organiser, who rejoices in the first name of Nausikaa, says that all I have to do is “attend a short meeting . . . and be part of the festival”. Does this mean I can go off on a stroll around an Alp and when someone asks me what I’m doing, I can say “Oh, I’m part of the festival”? Or do I have to stay within the fortifications, wearing a lanyard or something?

It’s all rather worrying, if I think about it too hard, but then I can plausibly claim to be from London and, moreover, it’ll give me a couple of days in which to shake off my creditors, who are making the city a bit hot for me at the moment.

And gosh, as I write, the city is hot. When I worked at British Telecom in the late Eighties, there was a rudimentary interoffice communication system on which people could relay one-line messages from their own computer terminal to another’s, or everyone else’s at once. (This was cutting-edge tech at the time.) The snag with this – or the opportunity, if you will – was that if you were not at your desk and someone mischievous, such as Gideon from Accounts (he didn’t work in Accounts; I’m protecting his true identity), walked past he would pause briefly to type in the message “I’m naked” on your machine and fire it off to everyone in the building.

For some reason, the news that either Geoff, the senior team leader, or Helen, the unloved HR manager, was working in the nude – even if we knew, deep down, that they weren’t, and that this was another one of Gideon’s jeux d’esprit – never failed to break the monotony.

It always amused us, though we were once treated to a terrifying mise en abîme moment when a message, again pertaining to personal nudity, came from Gideon’s very own terminal, and, for one awful moment, for it was a very warm day, about 200 white-collar employees of BT’s Ebury Bridge Road direct marketing division suddenly entertained the appalling possibility, and the vision it summoned, that Gideon had indeed removed every stitch of his clothing, and fired off his status quo update while genuinely in the nip. He was, after all, entirely capable of it. (We still meet up from time to time, we BT stalwarts, and Gideon is largely unchanged, except that he’s now a history lecturer.)

I digress in this fashion in order to build up to the declaration – whose veracity you can judge for yourselves – that as I write this, at 3.04pm on a sticky Thursday afternoon, I, too, am in the state in which Adam, before his shame, strolled in the Garden of Eden.

There are practical reasons for this. For one thing, it is punishingly hot, and I am beginning, even after a morning shower, to smell like a tin of oxtail soup (to borrow an unforgettable phrase first coined by Julie Burchill). I am also anxious not to transfer any of this odour to any of my clothes, for I will be needing them in Switzerland, and I am running low on washing powder, as well as money to buy more washing powder.

For another thing, I am fairly sure that I am alone in the Hovel. I am not certain. To be certain, I would have to call out my housemate’s name, and that would only be the beginning of our problems. “Yes, I’m here,” she would reply from her room. “Why?” “Um . . .” You see?

So here I lie on my bed, laptop in lap, every window as wide open as can be, and looking for all the world like a hog roast with glasses.

If I step too near the window I could get arrested. At least they don’t mind that kind of thing in Switzerland: they strip off at the drop of a hat. Oh no, wait, that’s Germany.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times