Modern British history has met its match
Historian and lifelong Aldershot FC fan David Kynaston’s personal diaries – written over the course of the 2016/17 English football season – offer a remarkable social history of Britain since 1966
Shots in the Dark: A Diary of Saturday Dreams and Strange Times
By David Kynaston
SBloomsbury, 255pp, £16.99
ports fans have a gift for absorbing peak experience. David Kynaston’s revelation came quite early in a life that has been wedded to the fortunes and – more frequently – the disappointments of following Aldershot FC.
It is Friday, May 4th, 1973, and Kynaston has travelled from Oxford, where he is preparing for his final exams, to see “the Shots” away at Stockport in a heady bid to leave Division Four for the first time since the formation of the club in 1926.
The football fare is mundane, but the 1-1 draw sparks a euphoric pitch invasion and the afterglow sustains the student on an overnight coach journey from Manchester to London, where further glory awaits. His father has given him a terrace ticket for Wembley to attend what will become a celebrated FA Cup final upset between Sunderland of the second division and mighty Leeds. Both games leave him giddy with a sensation that he understood could not be surpassed.
“The evening, in a journey in an oldfashioned compartment with mellow sunlight through the window, I took the train from Paddington back to Oxford. It seemed then, as it still seems now, the best footballing twenty-four hours of my life. And I suspect I already knew – or at least had a kind of premonition – that I would never again be so wholly or straightforwardly in love with the game. In short, everything could only get more complicated.”
Indeed. It’s an arresting image; the 21-year-old future historian moving through England in the smoky, louche years of 1970s England with thoughts of pop music (references abound here to influences such as Leonard Cohen and Ray Davies), football and a future in academia tumbling through his head. One imagines that this diary was written unconsciously to the young man on that train because, like all diaries, it is a chronicle of the passing of time.
He begins on July 30th, 2016. The sweetly acidic opening entry reads: “Sixtyfive today (information not gleaned from the Guardian’s birthdays list),” before embarking on a terse revelatory journey of one-liners through previous birthdays – a biopsy at St George’s at 61; bringing his daughter to a Boyzone concert at 45; waking up on the banks of the Po at 21, and back to the still point of a half century ago, when England and Germany played in the World Cup final on his 15th birthday.
He watched the game in the family living room and found extra time so unbearable that he went upstairs and put on a Nancy Sinatra LP, returning to see the last of Hurst’s goals. Half an hour after the celebrations, the family was watching David Jacobs and his Juke Box Jury. The sketch is vivid but with the final paragraph the tone turns brisk and extraordinary:
“Well, Wolstenholme dead, Jacobs dead, my stepmother dead, my father dead. It somehow makes me particularly happy that Bobby Charlton is still alive. And at this afternoon, at the family gathering, the plan – my plan – is to watch a dvd of the match in real time. Everyone so far surprisingly tolerant.”
And with that Kynaston strikes a distinctive voice that is in turns warm and sharp and heavy-hearted and dismayed, and stays audible throughout the days and months as he frets and ruminates on the form of the Shots, whose hopes rest disproportionately on the influence of Jake Gallagher. Meanwhile, storm clouds gather.
The increasing discontent
This football season is played out on the canvas of post-Brexit England, with Donald Trump looming ominously into view as the would-be president across the Atlantic. It’s all beginning to fall apart for the liberals, and throughout the pages Kynaston grapples with the increasing discontent and entrenched views, glumly quoting an Observer piece on Richard Rorty (“American, Old Left, now dead”), who forecast that the left’s fondness for cultural politics would inevitably lead to the stressed middle and working classes seeking out a strong man as economic and social conditions worsened: “someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots”.
A day later, he quotes Martin Kettle quoting Coleridge that history is “the lantern on the stern of a ship ploughing across the sea through pitch darkness”, before adding: “And as I write this down, with Barnsley versus Notts Forest on silently in the background, Nicklas Bendtner comes on as a late substitute for the visitors. A good man to have on your side when you’re 4-2 up against ten men.”
The pages are filled with entries like this: easily absorbed and entertaining but deceptively thought-provoking and sometimes dense with information. Music matters – you can only applaud anyone who can remember precisely where they were when they first heard Bette Davis Eyes by Kim Carnes.
Elsewhere, Kynaston’s slow turning away from the elite tier of English football is convincingly explored. When he gets it wrong – for instance, in his woefully misjudged assessment of George Michael – he is quick to admit so in later entries. He’s a “print junkie” who reads the Guardian opinion pieces and writes letters to editors and is mildly crestfallen if they are not published. He goes to the Shots games or listens to them on obscure radio channels – Radio Kent! He has, on balance, what reads like a very pleasant life.
And for the first few pages the reader might wonder: what is Kynaston up to here?
Yes, he’s a true fan, having attended his first Aldershot match as a seven-year-old in the late 1950s. Still, he must have known that not even the Shots devotees would be fully convinced about the merits of a straightforward diary on what he describes as “an obscure, small town football club”. And the odds of a publisher taking on such a book would normally be about the same as the Shots winning the FA Cup.
Unless, of course, that diarist happens to be Britain’s foremost social historian and the author of the seminal trilogy Austerity Britain (1945), Family Britain (1951-1957) and Modernity Britain (1957-62). Contemporary diaries were invaluable source material for Kynaston in his research. He understands the importance of capturing daily thought.
A personal preference would have been for less old-match reportage here and more about the feel of those days – the other fans, the stadiums and the atmosphere. There’s a gorgeous reflection, for instance, from Sunday, January 8th, on the previous day’s game.
“I realised about halfway through the second half that, during a winter match on a Saturday afternoon, I’m still thrilled during those moments that the sky darkens behind & above the trees, the floodlights are fully on & and those footballers in their red and blue strive their utmost. It sounds absurd, but there’s not much I’d swap those moments for.”
He speaks for the masses here. After everything – the decades lived – the football match is the comfort and consolation for the diarist and hundreds of thousands like him. We forget that not every English person supports the teams we see on MOTD. And the appearance of teams from places such as Macclesfield is a representation of an England you never think about when watching those glittery highlights.
On two journeys
The effect here is of a man embarking on two journeys, much like the writer’s goldhued journey from Paddington. We get to share in the clutter – the laughter, the fragmented memories, the friendships, family, the voices heard by a mid-20thcentury smart English boy with a social conscience and a deep concern for the future of his country.
And, simultaneously, we get the impression of a man who has spent his life studying the progression of postwar Britain, taking the temperature of the heartland during a year when right-wing ideology is clearly on the rise and old certainties are crumbling fast.
Of course, Shots in the Dark – a fabulous title – will now be published during the year of a pandemic even as the international political theatre lurches towards the darkly absurd. And already, the year that Kynaston chronicles is beginning to look like the land of lost content, when going to a football match was a simple and automatic pleasure.
This fascinating book of opinion and reflection offers a wistful snapshot of the rewards of staying the course with the team.
Captain Bobby Kerr lifts the trophy for Sunderland after the 1973 FA Cup Final.