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Football promises to be a book no-one will like – and delivers

Football by Jean-Philippe Toussaint is a strange mix of heightened prose and stilted banality.

“This is a book that no one will like,” are Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s opening words, “not intellectuals, who aren’t interested in football, or football-lovers, who will find it too intellectual.” This is a bad start – the fans v intellectuals divide was a false stereotype even in the 1980s – and the essay then goes quickly downhill. Jointly with Ashley Cole’s memoir, My Defence, Football is the worst book on the sport I have ever read – a demonstration of how not to write about it.

Toussaint, an admired Belgian novelist, comes from a francophone intellectual tradition that still generally dismisses football as beneath contempt. However, many clever people outside this milieu are football fans. In fact, quite a few of them have written cleverly about the game since Nick Hornby and Bill Buford started a new literary wave 25 years ago.

Toussaint seems unaware of all this. Instead, he starts from the premise that he is the first “intellectual” to notice the topic. Most European football fans, he explains, “are male, violent, racist, full of beer or wine”. Images of football on television are “trivial” and “profane”. It is therefore intrinsically interesting and terribly amusing that a brilliant novelist such as himself should be a fan, too.

Toussaint tells us that he is even capable of being as stupid as ordinary fans: “During a match I am in a state of simple-minded comfort, the more flavoursome for being accompanied by a temporarily acceptable intellectual regression. I become biased, aggressive, vehement, combative, I insult the referee, I curse and castigate him. I vilify the other team.” This could have come straight from what is arguably the worst piece of would-be highbrow football writing in English, Salman Rushdie’s 1999 essay for the New Yorker, in which he casts himself as an average, unthinking fan who has “lost his heart” to Tottenham Hotspur.

Loving football doesn’t justify writing a book. I love chocolate cake but I would struggle to work up a thousand words on it. Most good books about football are about more than just football. They are about a place, a time, a society and personal relationships. Hornby’s memoir, Fever Pitch, for instance, is a social history of Britain from the 1960s through to the early 1990s. It’s also a funny yet serious psychological investigation – Hornby delves into his life to explain how supporting Arsenal helped him cope with difficulties with girls, his parents’ divorce, and so on.

But Toussaint’s book is set in a vacuum, with the author as the only developed character. Sometimes he goes on press junkets to World Cups in Germany or Japan; sometimes he watches matches on TV, alone at home. He does make a few worthwhile points. “The nature of the wonder that football provokes derives from the fantasies of triumph and omnipotence that it generates in our minds,” he writes. “With my eyes closed, whatever my age and my physical condition, I am the star striker who scores the winning goal [et cetera].” (For an 85-page book, Football is surprisingly wordy.)

He observes that the sport needs to be watched live, because when you do so, “football time” merges with real time and seems to become life itself. And, like other writers before him, he notes that football can serve as a kind of madeleine that returns us to childhood.

But beneath the heightened prose and Shaun Whiteside’s stilted translation, there is a lot of banality. Here, in a single passage of reheated journalism, Toussaint repeats pretty much every single cliché about Brazilian football:

[I]t’s always Brazil that I carry in my heart when it comes to football – what would football be if it weren’t for Brazil? – with its artistic play, its technique and its grace, its lightness and speed, with its immemorial yellow and green and its colourful supporters, its carnival queens in bikinis with gold tiaras in their hair, their bare bellies and their skin tanned and palpitating in the summer evening . . . the carnival got going, drums at the front, and started to come down the stands . . . to go and dance an endless samba beside the pitch . . .

Other passages are plain weird:

Nothing can happen to us while we are watching a football match: as in the advantageous frontal proximity of a woman’s sexual parts in certain positions of the act of love, which instantly disperses the dread of death, which anaesthetises it and melts it away into the moisture and sweetness of the embrace, football, while we are watching it, holds us radically at a distance from death. I am pretending to write about football, but I am writing, as always, about the passing of time.

There’s also a rambling skate over the surface of Japan (humidity, some rain), a meeting with Jeff Koons (who turns out to be a good guy), some reflections on Zinedine Zidane (a melancholy artist) and many welcome blank pages. The opening words nailed it: this is a book that no one will like.

Soccernomics by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski is published by HarperSport

Football by Jean-Philippe Toussaint and translated by Shaun Whiteside is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions (85pp, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred

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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist