Es­cape is all about the ball

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Antonella Gam­botto-Burke’s

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

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