“Fever Pitch,” by Nick Hornby (239p)
Fever Pitch is self-confessed football (soccer) tragic Nick Hornby’s semi-autobiography and memoir of his life built around supporting Arsenal FC. Originally written in 1992, Hornby chronicles his youth and teenage years growing up as a divorced child, his years at university, and first forays into adulthood while connecting everything to his obsession of the Arsenal, fan worship and the way obsessions find a way to rule a man’s life. The memoir is told in the format of each chapter being a short essay on the lead-up and goings on in his life preceding a particular match.
The story begins when Hornby is still quite young with his parents divorced and living separately, a uniqueness to a middle England that made him one of the only boys with an absentee parent at his school. His father had attempted many failed ways of reaching out to his son to spend time with him when he could – nothing worked much, and days at the zoo were enjoyed by neither father nor son. Eventually, his father talked Nick into taking him to a football match, despite Nick protesting he had no interest in football. This was soon to change. His first match was in 1968, Arsenal versus Stoke, at Highbury in London. Young Nick became enraptured by the game and developed an admitted unhealthy obsession with the Arsenal, and soon his relationship with his absentee father became shaped around the club – he would make sure his father could come over to spend the day with him whenever Arsenal had a home match, and that was their father-son relationship for several years. Football, Arsenal and Highbury.
Eventually, the football became their only reason to spend time together, and as Nick began to reach his teenage years he soon branched out into supporting his obsession on his own when he no longer needed the company his father to attend matches with, and could go on his own. To the teenaged Nick Hornby, football and Arsenal was a matter of life and death, and he cites this as the true height of his obsession. He likens attending a match to growing up into adulthood – first, you’re young and therefore have to sit in the safe seats with the rest of the older men, but as you grow up and start becoming your own man, you finally get to stand in the big, swaying and over-populated home terrace behind the goals with the rest of the big boys. Football never really suffered at first when he became interested in girls, either, combining the two in an uneasy juggling act until he hit his late teens.
In his late teens, Nick Hornby’s obsession waned. He stopped attending matches – and by his own admission, that includes the Wednesday night matches in the middle of god-knows-where in the north in winter – regularly and eventually not at all for several years, as he found a replacement for his Arsenal obsession. Girls, music, drinking, drugs and literature filled his time instead and he regarded Arsenal and football as behind him.
That changed when he hit university at Cambridge, however, as the obsession came back when he started attending local Cambridge United matches, and then eventually travelling back into London for every Arsenal home match. Hornby embraced the return of his obsession and became comfortable with it, feeling a different man from the teenager whose very existence seemingly depended on an Arsenal home win, he grew to accept the tyranny that football still held over him and learned to not drag down his friends and family with him as he once did. Now in his full adulthood, Hornby likens his dream of seeing Arsenal finally win the league (Arsenal did not win it from 1971 to 1989, during which most of Fever Pitch takes place) to the realisation of his dream in being able to write for a living. According to Hornby, for the obsessive, football’s high and lows matched his own life’s highs and lows, because what goes around comes around.
I am a football fan and I am also an Arsenal fan, and I have read Fever Pitch at least four times. I, naturally, love it. It is one of my all-time favourite reads. I realise that the subject matter will probably be unappealing to most people, particular people who don’t have the first clue about football or any interest in it. But the funny thing about this book is that even if you aren’t football fan it is still bound to resonate with you, because we all have something we obsess over and involve ourselves in so deeply it becomes the main part of our life. It doesn’t necessarily have to be football and this is not a football book in itself. I get this book, because I get football and I get why that club and why that sport became so important to him. I have spent the majority of my life feeling much the same as Hornby as I have supported Arsenal since 1992 in my own right.
But this is a book that any person can read and understand; we all have our obsessions and whatever it is – music, film, reading – it all ends up the same. Hornby’s writing style and humour makes it a funny read as he unabashedly shares some of the more unfortunate stories of his life and times supporting the Arsenal with self-depracating humour and brutal honesty. He also writes about many themes that a lot of men can relate to, as I think we all went through the same thing growing up, so his thoughts on masculinity and what’s proper for a young man and the way we ought to be is interesting and reflective. In many ways it is a social critique and his discussion of the way we live and obsess over something that should be unimportant shapes our lives is quite interesting. I think any person will understand this as they read Fever Pitch and in the end, they will get what this book is actually about. I highly recommend it.