Books | Drumsagart Thistle, Nick Hornby and the literary imagination

Jeffrey Hill‘s book Sport and the Literary Imagination: Essays in History, Literature and Sport (Peter Lang, 2006)—recently reviewed online by the Sport Literature Association—includes chapters on the foundational works by Robin Jenkins (1912–2005) and Nick Hornby.

Hornby’s Fever Pitch (1992), naturally, is well-known. The book has been developed twice into feature films, neither of which follows the outline of the book—although the very good Channel Four Films production (1997), for which Hornby wrote the screenplay, comes closer (incorporating Arsenal rather than the Boston Red Sox). Perhaps more obscure to American readers is Jenkins’s Thistle and the Grail (1954), concerning Drumsagart Thistle’s pursuit of the Scottish Junior Cup in postwar Lanarkshire.

Critics conclude that the Drumsagart slums stand in for Jenkins’s experiences as a trainee teacher in the East End of Glasgow. “Football has long taken the place of religion and no other ambition has survived,” writes the BBC in its summary. In its obituary—Jenkins died more than two years ago, at 92—the Scotsman labels Jenkins perhaps the finest Scottish novelist of the period. He was “the self-appointed scourge of Scotland” … an “apostle of irreverence,” a conscientious objector during World War II quoted as having said, “I think I blame Americans for all the troubles in the world, and I blame the English for Scotland being the wee dump that it is.”

In his review of Hill’s essay collection, Fred Mason writes that the approach is to view sport literature as historical source, “a reflection of the times,” but also to see the work as “something that creates the times, as a cultural artifact that assists in producing ideology and the reality in which it circulates.”

Hornby’s Fever Pitch has been seen in this light, somewhat to the author’s chagrin. Did the work help generate rising middle-class identification with football (Hornby “helped turn football into a fashion accessory,” reads one rant), or, as Hornby told a Times interviewer in 2005, did he give “voice to a generation that already existed”? The phenomenon became known as the Fever Pitch “backlash,” to which Hornby had to address himself in When Saturday Comes in 1995:

Fever Pitch seems to be taking the rap for all sorts of contradictory effects. It has turned us into morons at the same time as it has intellectualized football; even more confusingly, it is to blame both for the gentrification of the game and for the return of yob culture. … Now, I’m quite prepared to believe that I’m guilty of something. But I’m not prepared to believe that Fever Pitch has somehow managed to produce a mutant strain of Guardian-reading, lager-swilling, Kierkegaard-quoting, Gaultier-wearing hooligans, the bastard children of Sarah Dunant and Paul Gascoigne, simply because I have serious doubts about whether such a strain really exists. So what exactly is Fever Pitch responsible for? (“Pitch Battle,” WSC 103)

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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