Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby

It would be seriously remiss of Sporting Polemics not to review this one, even though it has been around for nearly twenty five years. The category of classic is heavily overused these days but in its own unique and particular way I think Fever Pitch can rightly claim that epithet. In an age of relentless atomisation and the accompanying alienation, this little tale of football tribalism and personal obsession, is perhaps more apposite than ever. Families, local communities and entire national, class and religious affiliations are crumbling in front of our very eyes. So it is little surprising that fanatical sporting allegiance should step forward to fill the void. Hornby’s Fever Pitch is not only funny and poignant but sociologically spot on.

One can approach this book from any one of three angles; a purely footballing one, one of individual neurosis, or a broader sociological study of alienation as the inevitable product of modern capitalism. Hornby cleverly interweaves all three but the first two gets the lion’s share of Hornby’s attention. But it is the latter perspective, that of modern day alienation, that holds the most promise of explaining the unique absurdities of football club obsession. It is an obsessive tribalism that this writer, despite his best efforts, has not been wholly immune to.

If there is one underlying theme to Fever Pitch it is that we humans have a desperate in-built need to belong. And in this increasingly atomised society, that need manifests itself in many a strange way. Hornby gets to grips with this Homo sapiens trait right from the very beginning:

The first and easiest friends I made at college were football fans; a studious examination of a newspaper back page during the lunch hour of the first day in a new job usually provokes some kind of response. And yes, I am aware of the downside of this wonderful facility that men have: they become repressed, they fail in their relationships with women, their conversation is trivial and boorish, they find themselves unable to express their emotional needs, they cannot relate to their children, and they die lonely and miserable. But you know, what the hell? If you can walk into a school full of eight hundred boys, most of them older, all of them bigger, without feeling intimidated, simply because you have a spare Jimmy Husband in your blazer pocket, then it seems like a trade-off worth making. P15

It’s all there in that early paragraph; self-deprecating humour, psychological perspective and sociological analysis. Of course, it doesn’t really matter whether it’s football, another sport or any one of the thousands of sub-sets to popular culture it’s all about the sense of belonging. Hornby, fixated as he is with all things Arsenal, fails to make this clear, though no doubt today he would not dispute its validity.

In this country, as in most, we all used to belong to religion. In too many countries that is still the case. Even those that have tried to escape its clutches are invariably forced to define their identity, at least in part, by their relationship to the prevailing religious institutions. For example Jews might define themselves as orthodox, reformed, liberal, secular or atheist. But in all cases there seems to be a need to belong. Similarly people that grow up in a predominantly Islamic society cling to labels like Shia, Sunni or Wahhabi. And so it is with all religions. But with the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century and the accompanying European Enlightenment, religion in Europe began to lose its influence. Not overnight, but slowly, slowly, drip by drip. And not in an even way either, but country by country, region by region, town by town. But despite this unevenness, it has all the hallmarks of an unstoppable phenomenon. Even in once deeply Catholic Ireland, the Church has lost its vice like grip.

As religious allegiances retreated, so political ones advanced. In particular, in industrialised nations, class became a defining feature of people’s lives. Class consciousness became more explicit and political allegiances more tribal. With industrial society everyone had a new sense of belonging. Left and right, moderate or revolutionary, Labour or Tory and any number of specialist sub-groups. New organisations sprung up trades unions, political parties and secular educational institutions. Everybody could fit in somewhere. But what seemed to be fixed and forever soon began to dissolve. All that was once solid began to melt away. Industrial societies began to morph into weird, difficult to define post-industrial societies and once again old, rigid allegiances started to unravel. Not entirely of course, as the recent European wide surge in support for both left and right wing political parties suggests, but a clear distinct pattern is discernible. People were increasingly defining themselves not in terms of religion or class but in the much more amorphous concept of personal identity. Enter a one Mr Nick Hornby and millions just like him.

So with religion and political allegiance increasingly redundant, at least in most in most western countries, huge numbers of us faced a great gaping void. But as science tells us, nature abhors a vacuum so up pops popular consumerist culture to fill the gap. First came organised, codified sport; spawning thousands of local sports clubs, cricket, rugby and football, with the latter usually in the ascendancy. Then, after the Second World War, the options began to multiply. Music, fashion and a distinctive youth lifestyle offered young people a new chance to belong. Football was still a big draw but not the only one, Teddy boys, mods, rockers and then punks all had their passionate adherents. There were hippies and heavy metal freaks and dozens more exclusive clubs to join. Folk music, jazz music and traditional rock and roll. For the more wealthy middle classes there was opera, classical music and ballet. And then there was gardening clubs and fishing clubs, walking clubs and chess clubs. The proliferation under consumerist capitalist was endless. Everyone had somewhere to belong. Of course there was overlapping. You could be obsessed with Chelsea and chess. You could be devoted to Brighton or Birmingham whilst being devoted to bridge and ballet. Nobody need feel left out. This is the wonder of modern day capitalism. A long as we are hooked into the capitalist matrix we are free to follow our passions. And in this way we can keep our underlying alienation at bay. And what Hornby imagines is unique to football enthusiasts turns out to be a much wider and deliberate construct by capitalism itself.

Of course, as I’m sure Hornby would concede, football does not exist outside of the wider parameters of capitalism. Nothing can. And as industrial capitalism has morphed into parasitic finance capitalism, football has mirrored that transition. Global money has poured into the game and nowhere is this more evident than in the EPL. Why, even unfashionable Crystal Palace has just secured some mega bucks from some American financiers eager to get onto the footballing bandwagon. And as Hornby notes:

The big clubs seem to have tired of their (traditional) fan base, and in a way who can blame them. Young working class and lower middle class males bring with them a complicated and occasionally distressing set of problems; directors and chairmen might argue that they had their chance and blew it., and that middle class families the new target audience will not only behave themselves, but pay much more to do so. P68

Finance capital does not want to be associated with the violence of the lumpen proletariat; decidedly not good for the corporate image. One of the most poignant passages in Fever Pitch has Hornby in full philosophical mode, musing on the absurdity of it all: We invest hours each day, months each year, years each lifetime in something over which we have no control.; is it any wonder then that we are reduced to creating ingenious but bizarre liturgies designed to give us the illusion that we are powerful after all, just as every other primitive community has done when faced with a deep and apparent impenetrable mystery? P103

I love that passage. Those few insightful lines elevates Fever Pitch into something so much more than a book about football. Having spent thirty years of my life building a mini table tennis empire, I know exactly what Hornby is getting at. Hornby is spot on. We are all, in our own way, engaged in the project of creating meaning in what is in all probability, a totally meaningless universe. We create families, we create careers, we create empires big and small, and we create any number of leisure time obsessions. An obsession about a football club, even one that has lost nearly all connection to its local community, is absurd, but no more absurd than say a lifetime devoted to a set of religious superstitions or a lifetime building a pile of joyless money.

Clearly so much of our lives are about belonging. Economic survival obviously comes first but belonging to a welcoming tribe comes a close second and, if you think about it, is closely connected to the first priority anyway. Hornby teases all this belonging stuff out throughout his memoir:

So what’s this all about? Why am I hell-bent on seeing a match involving Arsenal in one part of London but not another? What, in the jargon of the therapist, is the fantasy here? .. The answer I think is this: I am frightened that in the next game, the one after the one that I missed, I won’t understand something that’s going on,.. so the place I know best in the world, the one spot outside my own home where I feel I belong absolutely and unquestionably, will have become alien to me. P207

So there you have it. A desperate need to belong that we all, without exception, have hardwired into us. Whether we can ever get to the stage where we can feel secure and content simply to be a citizen of planet Earth, where our tribe is the entire human tribe, is another question. I aspire to that concept but I doubt, if I’m fully honest with myself, if I’ll ever reach that noble plateau.

At the end of my road there is a church hall where a bunch of evangelical Christians meet every Sunday to sing and dance passionately to their imagined god. I like to walk by and get a whiff of that sense of belonging that they have created for themselves. No different really from the sense of belonging that any football supporter gets every time they attend a home game. No different to the millions of bloggers who have created a sense of belonging in the blogosphere. We’re all at it, trying to satiate that craving to belong in a world where the dominant economic system seems hell-bent in atomising us thus creating ten billion individual consumers. Is this a step forward or a step back? I’m not entirely sure.

If Fever Pitch, a great, great read, has one failing, it is that it elevates football obsession above all others. But notwithstanding this little flaw, this is definitely a classic read that has stood the test of time.

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