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20 April 2016

The topic that taught me to read – in spite of myself

New Statesman staff members India Bourke and Henry Zeffman talk about how books crept up on them via other interests.

By Henry Zeffman Henry Zeffman

Henry Zeffman on football books and why he could still play for Liverpool. . .

I’m sure when I was young I read some books that weren’t about football. I just don’t remember any of them.

First it was Alan Durant’s Leggs United series, in which the Legg cousins formed a football team under the tutelage of their ancestor, Archibald Legg – who was a ghost. Then a series by Haydn Middleton where Third Division minnows Castle Albion, led by schoolboy stars Luke Green and “Cool” Frederick Dulac, win first the FA Cup and then the UEFA Cup, all despite the resistance of Luke’s football-hating mum. Those books were uncomplicatedly about football, with long passages describing triumphant set piece routines and spectacular goals.

Next were the County Cup books, by Rob Childs. These ostensibly provided an exhaustively detailed account of a year-long football tournament between 16 schools in the county of Medland. And that was pretty much what they delivered – though, whether I realised it or not, other themes were beginning to creep in at the fringes: bullying at school, parental conflict, accepting defeat.

Then a pair of thicker books, both over 200 pages, that fell somewhere in that literary gap between “young adult” and “child”. One was The Transfer, by Terence Blacker, in which Stanley Peterson presses the wrong button on his mum’s computer and accidentally becomes a star striker named Laszlo. It turns sour, and the book was really about Laszlo’s realisation that he’d like to be Stanley again. 

The other was Playing on the Edge by Neil Arksey. Openly darker and more political than any football book I’d read before (not that I properly grasped that), it was set in a sporting dystopia of 2064, where Easy Linker is pumped with drugs so he becomes a 14-year-old football superstar – before he goes on the run to expose the actions of the wealthy and powerful who have taken control of the beautiful game.

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The most important football book I read was Keeper, by Mal Peet. The book’s protagonist is Paul Faustino, a South American football writer, who interviews El Gato, a World Cup-winning goalkeeper, about his childhood in the Argentinian rainforest.

Most of the plot is hazy, but I do remember quite clearly finishing the book, realising that it had barely been about football, and that I had enjoyed it all the same. It turned out that it wasn’t just the “football” of “football book” that appealed to me. I liked reading.

There really is nothing more tiresome than adults moaning that childhood isn’t what it used to be but I do think that had I been born in 2004 rather than 1994, I wouldn’t have read football books so enthusiastically.

I watched plenty of football. A weekend game or two on Sky and the premier league highlights. But that was it until the next weekend. If I wanted to rewatch a game, or a goal, or a save, I just couldn’t. I subscribed to the Liverpool FC magazine, and I remember once receiving with an issue a CD-Rom containing just a clip of a John Arne Riise goal against Manchester United. So I watched it. Again, and again, and again. And then I got bored of it and read another football book.

Football books plugged the gaps in my life where I couldn’t watch or play football. If I’d been able to pass the week between Liverpool games by watching more football on a laptop or an iPad, then there wouldn’t have been a gap for books to plug. When you can summon a clip of any footballer from around the world in a matter of seconds, why would you need to read about the Legg family summoning their manager forbear by rubbing an old football?

But I’m not just grateful that these books translated an obsession with football into a love of reading. The books were a vehicle for my childhood ambitions, long before I realised that aggravating factors like a profound lack of talent and laziness and asthma might intercede; long before my pathetic confession to a friend, aged 10 or 11, that I was probably only going to be good enough to play for a Championship team. Not that I understood this then, but it was easier to dream of lining up alongside Steven Gerrard when I was reading about the exploits of Laszlo or Luke Green than when I was puffing about with a football in the park, already weaker and slower and all-round worse than most of my friends.

A few days ago I went home, grabbed a few of the books off the shelf, and skimmed through them again. The plots were more familiar than I expected: I remembered in surprising detail Leggs United’s battle to overcome Weldon Wanderers, and Castle Albion’s famous victory over Bayern Munich, not to mention El Gato’s final, shocking revelation in his interview with Paul Faustino.

Most of all, though, the familiar emotion, as potent and self-deluding as ever before: I’m going to play for Liverpool one day. It’s never too late.

A portrait of the artist bulking up before a big match.

India Bourke: The Robin That Showed the Way

I don’t remember my first book but I do remember faces: faces with big eyes, big ears, and big teeth – all the better to talk to me with. I remember wolfing down stories about animals, as eagerly as their protagonists feasted on stolen cider. And then I remember these walking, talking creatures fading away. But why? What made books with furred-friends feel so outgrown? And how did beings without real voices leave me a life-long love of words?

Charlotte made me want to write in big, silvery thread; Carbonel was my epitome of cool. If I grew to value reading it was in no small way due to the enlightened kindness of a bumbling bear and a little pink pig.

The only problem was that, outside of fiction, animals were not great at conversation. My first forays into reading felt flawed: spiders have never woven words in webs, foxes don’t lead rabbits to safety, tigers don’t talk back (and not for my want of trying).

And the higher up the shelves I climbed, the fewer four-legs I found. Mikhail Bulgakov’s Behemoth and George Orwell’s Snowball person some of my favourite books, yet, as Virginia Woolf feared of her fantastic novel Flush, animal tales are apt to be seen as “charming, delicate, ladylike”.

Perhaps seeking compensation, I sought out their real world counterparts, on film and in non-fiction. And now I wonder if my adolescent self was too quick to write off non-verbal powers of communication. Pets who rescue their diabetic owners, the monkeys who raised a boy, whales that sing – all remind me that even where words end and speech stumbles, the will to connect continues.

So I’m grateful to my childhood’s cast of anthropomorphised characters, for showing me the way into books and the tumbling, teeming worlds that lie on literacy’s other side.

This piece is part of the New Statesman’s Literacy Week.