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

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Keith Dug­gan

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.

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