on 3 March 2003
“West Ham: Irons in the Soul”, by Pete May
“Irons in the Soul” is a rare literary cocktail that seamlessly fuses sport, obsession and humour. Having begun this book in the morning before work, there was no choice for me but to forget work and read it through.
Books written by soccer aficionados now cover sizeable swathes of the sports sections in UK bookshops, showing the level of passion attached to Britain’s favourite outdoor game.
But whereas the quality of the prose often leaves the reader hungry for insight, humour, objectivity - in fact anything that shows an independent and flexible mind at work – “Irons in the Soul” scores on a number of levels that many of its peer attempts lack. The tone is set by the title, punning on the philosophical and stoical qualities required to follow West Ham that even JP Sartre himself may have chuckled at.
Admittedly, you’d probably need to be a West Ham fan to milk every last drop of appreciation from the 224 pages, which bring together lifelong fan Pete May’s thoughts on the club’s 2001-2002 season in the English Premiership. If you fit that bill, then this is as good as soccer writing gets (maybe with the honourable exception of Hugh McLlvaney).
From the lure of the cover picture of the peerless football magician Paolo do Canio, through to the last day of the season, when a minor dream comes true, it is unlikely that there has ever been a better description of the glorious torture involved in being a “Hammer”. May steeps the book in club and personal history, which reminds supporters of all those bittersweet reasons for taking a London Underground train to Upton Park station in the heart of the city’s East end, walking along a thronged, hot-dog and onion scented Green Street, and then paying upwards of 30 quid to watch a spectacle whose outcome will often combine farce and tragedy with some of the purest soccer and foulest humour known to mankind.
As classic terrace catch-phrases such as “Come on Hammers, really pep it up and make it mediocre” are recalled and mulled over, every one of West Ham’s 38 Premiership games – and various cup events – are teased out in detail. The book moves chronologically through a not unfamiliar picture of an early season flirtation with the relegation zone through to a less expected rise through the table to an eventual 7th position.
This provides the platform for bringing out one of the book’s greatest strengths, an in-depth appreciation of the players’ abilities. We all know that Rio Ferdinand has become a regular England star since leaving West Ham for £18 million, but few point out that he still makes costly mistakes based on over-confidence and wavering concentration that made the deal a good one at the price. May has twigged this, and everything else worthy of note about the WHU players past and present, but lets his views seep through quietly to the reader, for consideration rather than dictation.
Flesh is added by an interview with club icon di Canio and rookie manager Glenn Roeder, and other characters such as the club’s matchday announcer Jeremy Nicholas. Not to mention an assorted cast of WHU fans and friends who remind that suffering is a universal human quality, delivered with frightening regularity by mysteries such as West Ham’s notorious “half-time wobble”, when good first half performances are thrown away by sloppy defending minutes before the break.
So the football side is sewn up seamlessly, but that’s only half of the story. There is a wit and intelligence at work that comes tumbling out in nearly every sentence, bringing to mind then likes of Pete McCarthy and Bill Bryson. But instead of wandering around Ireland or Scandinavia to stimulate his muse, May simply stays at the hotel in West Ham’s new grandstand, absorbs calories and grease in Ken’s Café around the corner, or tries to travel back from Southampton to London using public transport late at night.
He discovers that di Canio elected not to leave West Ham to save his beloved pet piranha fish, and that some Americans believe the “real” East End exists at Upton Park. He relentlessly builds metaphor and simile around the antics of Australian Hayden Foxe, who took a piss on the bar during the players’ Xmas 2001 private party.
Pete May also loves his (pop) cultural cross-referencing, so a chapter on a heavy cup tie defeat in West London is entitled “I Don’t Wanna Go to Chelsea”, and the infamous 7-1 loss at Blackburn goes under the header of “Four Thousand Holes in Blackburn, Lancashire”.
And if you want confirmation that life beyond football exists, even for the most obsessed fans, proof comes in the section when the terrorists hit the US on 9/11/01, and Pete chooses to miss the game at Reading. We also learn later that the author’s youngest daughter has a painful skin condition, which sometimes forces mum and dad to hold her hands all night to prevent her scratching herself. These details - and a set of intriguing but sympathetic portraits of Pete’s gang of mates – draw the reader further into the action.
Well worth £9.99, most of all as a reminder of why so many of us cannot do without the soccer drug.