Archive | May, 2009

“Fever Pitch,” by Nick Hornby

28 May

“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.



“Flashman at the Charge,” by George MacDonald Fraser

23 May

“Flashman at the Charge,” by George MacDonald Fraser (321p)

1854-1855: Crimean War and the Charge of the Light Brigade, and the Conquest of Central Asia

Flashman at the Charge is the fourth in the late George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series of a false-memoir detailing the life and times of the heroic but cowardly Harry Flashman. Written in 1973, Flashman at the Charge takes Flashman to the front of the Crimean War and details his involvement in not only the suicidal Charge of the Light Brigade but also his exploits on the wild steppe frontier of Central Asia.

Britain and her continental allies were hurtling toward war with Russia, with disputes over sovereign authority of the Holy Land at the heart of it (for more, go here). Flashman, meanwhile, is kicking about on half-pay while scheming to prepare his way out of the inevitable conflict by taking up a position with the Ordnance Board. All seems to be going well until Flashman’s reputation as a gallant and valiant officer comes to the attention of Prince Albert, where Flashman is tasked by the prince consort to be the guardian and mentor of one of Victoria’s cousins, Prince William of Celle. Despite his every attempt to avoid it Flashman and Prince William are soon packed off to the war front so the young prince can experience what war is all about. Prince William is soon killed at the Alma and Flashman himself falls desperately ill with cholera, recovering only in time to rejoin his aide-de-camp duties on the 25th of October; the day of Balaclava and the day of the most infamous cavalry charge in history.

Flashy’s day starts off in the usual fashion as disaster quickly befalls him. While carrying messages across the battlefields he finds himself trapped with Colin Campbell’s 93rd Highlanders as the Russian cavalry attacked, and then with Scarlett’s heavy brigade as they chased the Russian cavalry uphill in a daring charge. All the while Flashman just wants to go and have a lie down with his stomach still ailing him terribly. He almost manages to get away from further duty after Raglan sends an order to Cardigan in the care of Louis Nolan until needing to add further instruction to his order, so he sends Flashman after Nolan to catch him. Unknowingly, Flashman was about to see himself thrown into the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade. He survives, somehow, but is taken prisoner by the Russians. Flashman is at first bundled off to a makeshift prisoner of war camp away from the battlefield, but as an officer he is then transferred to be a hostage (more like a guest) at the home of a trusted landowner in the Ukrainian countryside.

At the home of Count Pencherjevsky Flashman is reunited with Harry “Scud” East (from Tom Brown’s Schooldays), also taken prisoner, and spends many weeks in the company of the Cossack Count Pencherjevsky and his family, including his daughter Valentina, who Flashman is unable to resist spending a few late night’s with in the bedroom. One such late night sees Flashman and the curious Scud East, curious of the constant arrivals of other guests to the Pencherjevsky house, chance upon a meeting of several Russian military and government officials planning an invasion of British-held India. When the opportunity arises Flashman and East escape, taking Valentina with them, and head off for the Crimea and the safety of the British army. They almost make it but Flashman is re-captured by Count Pavel Ignatiev and quickly locked up again, before taken across southern Russia and deep into Central Asia, blackmailed into acting as a double agent in Ignatiev’s scheme to end British rule in India.

While imprisoned at a fort on the Aral Sea coast Flashman meets Yakub Beg and Izzet Kutebar, two Tajik warlords and befriends them. They are soon rescued by Beg’s men and whisked off to the wild steppe (modern Uzbekistan) by Beg’s lover, a Chinese castout woman. There, Beg and his followers hatch a plan to halt the Russian advance over their own lands by performing a near-suicidal attack on the arriving magazine ships, thus destroying any hope of an immediate attack on the Central Asian khanates and eventually British India. Flashman, drugged with hashish, leads the attack and they are successful, allowing him to steal away from Ignatiev and flee into British India. The story is continued in Flashman and the Great Game.

I have always said this is my favourite Flashman novel and, having just re-read it for the third time, my opinion on that front has definitely not changed. I loved it again just as I did the first time. It is, as the endorsement on the front cover suggests, vintage Flashman. That means it is wildly entertaining, superbly written, historically accurate, engaging and engrossing, amusing and with perfect characterisation. Flashman himself is on the top of his game as Fraser presents the anti-hero in his usual swagger – cowardly, perpetually horny, deceptive, lecherous and resourceful. The way he paints the picture of Flashman trying to get his way out of doing anything remotely dangerous while maintaining his public face of a gallant hero, with Flashman’s own running commentary, makes for tremendously amusing reading and a number of laughs. The history is very strong as well and Fraser provides a first class account of the ineptitude of the Crimean War and the events that led to a cavalry charge headlong into artillery, this is bound to make for interesting reading for any history buff as it actually reads, as it always does, that Flashman was actually there and you can essentially take his word as gospel (why not? These books are so meticulously researched you wouldn’t be wrong to quote him).

As seems to be the case with the Flashman novels, Flashman at the Charge doubles as a social commentary of the nineteenth century as well. Flashman’s travels across southern Russia should give a unique insight into the life of a common Russian peasant and their pitiful existence of subversion and submission. In addition, there is a nice social commentary on the state of the officer corps within the British army at the time (which was soon to change following the disastrous Crimean War) and the spirit of the steppe people, which is a welcome change to the present bad press people from that part of the world receive in the modern age.

A first class and immensely enjoyable read. This is the very best of a brilliant series by an exceptionally talented author and one not to be missed.