on 28 October 2014
At 52, respected genre novelist Graham Joyce is called up to the England Writers XI football team, to play in a tournament in Florence. Long since retired from kicking a ball, he decides to embrace the offer and goes into goal. This is the story of what happened, tied in with a history of the beautiful game and shot through with Graham’s humanity.
I read this is memory of Graham, who I’d been hoping to see at FantasyCon 2014 but he couldn’t attend and passed away two days later and I don’t think I could have made a better choice - earthy, funny, full of life and spirit, it’s a terrific read and you can almost hear him narrating it. Alternating chapters between the England Writers XI (first in Florence, later in Malmo) and a history - of the game, of goalkeeping, of his experiences of football and goalkeeping from childhood through to adulthood - this is thoroughly captivating and the humour is often laugh-out-loud funny. For example, he’s considering if, at age 52, he’s in shape - “I discuss it with my wife, Suzanne, who, of course, still thinks of me as a lithe Adonis, a shot-stopping lycra-clad superhero capable of near-magical feats of agility.”
“You bloody idiot!” she replies.
Along the way, he describes his team-mates (including horror writers Conrad Williams and Nick Royle) and his thoughts on literary writers (it isn’t pretty) and also deals with issues closer to home, of parenthood and fear of loss. At the time of writing, his dad was fighting recently diagnosed bladder cancer and Graham deals with it very movingly, quoting Mark Twain of how children see their fathers at different stages - how he’s strong and wise when you’re a kid, a peasant when you’re a teen, then strong and wise again. This extends to his being a strong advocate of kids playing outside, especially of kids and their dads playing together (as he and his son Joe did). As straightforward with them as his adult team-mates, he admits that he often tells them to “walk it off” if they get injured, rather than coddling them and the humour spikes again when he takes a ball direct to his “wedding equipment” and as he drops to his knees, groaning, he’s “surrounded by half a dozen gleeful little orcs singing “Walk it off! Walk it off!”, right in my face”.
Not a fan of how times have changed - he mentions teachers running football teams in their own time, playing outside and getting coated in mud and frozen by winter weather and details how Mr Ship, the PE teacher, would bundle kids into the back of his van to take them to football matches (“wouldn’t be allowed now, health and safety regulations”). A highlight for me was a wonderful section where he recalls playing for the team at the holiday camp he worked at over two summers - The Derbyshire Miners’ Holiday Camp, near Skegness (which is still there, we ate at the restaurant below it a couple of years ago). This is the key location for his fantastic and beautiful novel “The Year Of The Ladybird” and reading how he describes the camp and the people, it’s as if he’s sketching out plans for a novel he wouldn’t write for a few years.
It perhaps helps if you enjoy football, however fleetingly, but this is a wonderful book and the cover blurb has it right, it is indeed a “riotous memoir”, featuring a man who clearly loved life and enjoyed being in the thick of it. Moving and melancholic it might be at times but this is mostly upbeat, superbly well written and very funny and I would highly recommend it.