Escape is all about the ball
exually speaking, James Brown was a drive-through in his years as the editor of Loaded, the London-based magazine he created in his own image in the mid-1990s and which spawned a lucrative if short-lived global genre: the lads’ mags market. The elfin, ringleted Yorkshireman could laugh almost any model into bed, but even men found it difficult to dislike him. He was too astute, a man’s man and — graciously, apologetically — impervious to intimacy, as his ex-wife and numberless “birds” discovered.
In his mind, he was one of the Stones, with all the flamboyance and dissipation that entailed. He was also lost. So when he announced he was working on a book, the expectation was of a roman a clef or memoir about his time at the vanguard of Cool Britannia, awash with damp Agent Provocateur panties, Moet, rolled-up banknotes and rehab. No one anticipated a love song about amateur soccer.
When an article he wrote about his longstanding five-a-side teammate’s sudden death went viral, the now greying, balding, bespectacled, asthmatic and near-spherical 51-yearold Brown gave pause. In tandem with the encroaching issue of mortality, he began to think about the game — unforgettably described as “sporting karaoke” — and the intimacy of its kinetic release.
“We are the men — and increasingly women — who disappear for an hour or so and come back looking like we’ve been chased by bulls, starved of water and oxygen, and collapse like a wet cardboard box awaiting the attention of a loved one,” he writes.
Every week, the gasping, hirsute and tenacious Brown, an urban minotaur in his “hastily assembled, mismatched kit” and slippy boots, meets his middle-aged playing squad (“Naked, we look like something Lucian Freud might have painted”) in a “two-pitch polished-floor gym sunk well below street level, where ceiling lights illuminate a half-used car park and a bike rack cluttered with wheel-less orphaned frames”. There, they forget themselves. “Artificial surfaces, artificial dreams. Grown men still imagining they’re playing for their childhood teams.”
Brown hammers his target at a precise pace and angle: Above Head Height nails the axis of the game’s allure. “Here beneath the bright lights I can confidently say that you will find beauty. It exists, I’ve both felt it and seen it. It comes with motion … For me, the ball should always be moving.”
This ideal — that of motion — informs a narrative that incorporates recollection, interviews, impassioned sports debate and anecdotes so funny that I repeatedly had to put the book down because I was laughing so hard. His documentation of his punitive relationship with food (“There was a time … when I didn’t look like I’d eaten a cauldron”), the metal hairbrush story and his tale of the underpants encrusted with faecal matter all stand as classic examples of effortlessly comic writing.
On paper, Brown is an amalgam of James Herriot, Woody Allen and Carl Sandburg. His hooliganism has clearly always been a mask of sorts to disguise an agonisingly intense receptivity to the world. The structured game of soccer, with its rules and routine, allows him not only to emote without fear but to escape both “the howling gale of distraction that makes up my head” and what is clearly a stressful and masochistic personal life.
His hankering for childhood, then, is not merely a wish to forget about “twenty-five-year mortgages … leaking roofs to fix … bosses or clients being a pain … (and) complicated personal relationships to balance or untangle” but a deep desire to start again. Five-a-side is, he recog- nises, an “escape” from unhappiness. As he notes, “you can’t be expected to stop that hour a week that keeps you alive”.
Brown’s feeling for the game is close to religious; the pitch is his true church. In this respect, Above Head Height is remarkable within its genre, not because it is a species of Bildungsroman with soccer balls, but because its poignancy is so heartfelt.
“In real life now we’re all older than our dads were then,” he writes, “but when I recall those names I see streets of kids playing football, riding bikes, hanging around up trees, sitting on garage roofs and draped over stone walls like a Bayeux tapestry of street football.”
The book is littered with such breath-catching moments.
Brown can be lazy — in a recent 426-word piece about his erotic yen for Helen Mirren, he used the word “brilliant” three times — but this book is anything but careless. His prose is fluent without being artful; his descriptions, deft; and the subtext is invariably moving.
In recounting the experience of returning to the flat of a “funny Italian woman” he met in a bar, he writes, “[I] hung out with her until she nodded off on her own secret heroin stash. As she slept I opened her windows and looked out over the jewel-lit London night and realised that probably the further away you were from Hoxton the better it looked or sounded. Six months later I asked my mate (who’d introduced me to the girl) how she was and he replied, ‘ Oh, she committed suicide. I didn’t tell you because I thought you’d be upset.’ ”
I can think of no man — other than perhaps Milo Yiannopoulos — who would not love this book. In a market saturated with substandard ghosted autobiographies of uninteresting footballers, Above Head Height glows like an Aeschylean beacon. The journey from Loaded to literary festivals may have been circuitous, but James Brown has finally come home. latest book is Mama: Love, Motherhood and Revolution.
James Brown has clearly hidden behind a mask of hooliganism