BOOK REVIEW / A twerp's best moment ever: 'Fever Pitch' - Nick Hornby: Gollancz, 13.99

WHEN HE was 15 years old, Nick Hornby saw his first dead body. Leaving Selhurst Park with his friend Frog, they came on a Palace fan who'd had a heart attack lying grey on the pavement. It's hardly the most cheering of scenes - but it sparks one of Hornby's gloriously loopy little meditative digressions. 'It worries me', he says, 'the prospect of dying in mid-season like that.'

On the question of mortality, however, the football fan knows as well as anyone that hoping to die with your loose ends all neatly tied up is futile. 'The whole point about death, metaphorically speaking, is that it is almost bound to occur before the major trophies have been awarded.' So when his own time comes, Hornby's best hope is that he'll linger on in some form around Highbury, a spectral presence watching the first team one Saturday, and the reserves the next. 'It doesn't seem a bad way to spend eternity.'

Hornby was 11 when he first watched Arsenal, a morose child whose parents had separated, and who was badly in need of some ground, some subject on which he and his father could meet and communicate. Highbury was the ground; Arsenal filled the hole in his emotional life, and an obsession was born.

Fever Pitch is the anatomy of that obsession, a knowing, bittersweet, and very funny autobiography in which the writer's life is measured not in years, but in seasons - not by the Gregorian calendar, but by the Gunners' fixture list. I've read no better account of what being a fan really means - and as such, the book performs two invaluable services.

First, it's a sound corrective to Bill Buford's inaccurate and morally repellent Among The Thugs. Second, it explains one of the great mysteries of life in our time - namely, why does anyone become an Arsenal fan?

Perhaps, had his father taken him to White Hart Lane or Stamford Bridge, Hornby's whole life might have been different - and evidently, his father came to regret the choice he made. But once determined, a football loyalty 'was not a moral choice like bravery or kindness; it was more like a wart or a hump, something you were stuck with'.

Hornby and Arsenal were made for each other. As a teenager he was 'dour, defensive, argumentative, repressed' - and, season after season, so were Arsenal. 'We're boring, and lucky, and dirty, and petulant, and rich, and mean, and have been, as far as I can tell, since the 1930s . . . we are the Gunners, the Visigoths, with King Herod and the Sheriff of Nottingham as our twin centre- halves, their arms in the air appealing for offside.'

Then George Graham takes over, and Hornby gets his reward. The passage describing the extraordinary goal with which Michael Thomas won Arsenal the 1989 Championship, in the 92nd minute of the last game of the season, is a piece of writing veined through with the headiest jubilation - and, for a bonus, it sparks another of Hornby's sublime meditations.

What pleasure, he asks, can possibly compare with this? Orgasm? No - sex may be more fun than football ('no nil-nil draws, no offside trap, no cup upsets, and you're warm') but it's familiar and repeatable, and you can't say that about winning the Championship.

Childbirth, maybe? No - it doesn't have the element of surprise. Winning the pools, then? But no - that's not communal. And there is, he concludes, literally nothing that can describe it. 'I can recall nothing else that I have coveted for two decades (what else is there that can reasonably be coveted for so long?) . . . so please, be tolerant of those who describe a sporting moment as their best ever. We do not lack imagination, nor have we had sad and barren lives; it is just that real life is paler, duller, and contains less potential for unexpected delirium.'

The essence of the delirium's potency, of course, is that it occurs so very rarely. True, in 1991, Arsenal won another championship - 'take our points, imprison our captain, hate our football, sod the lot of you' - but normal service was soon resumed. The next season they got trounced by Benfica, and knocked out of the FA Cup by Wrexham. No wonder, then, that 'the natural state of the football fan is bitter disappointment'.

But still he keeps going, for the simple reason that he has to. He's a man who never stopped being a boy (this is very much a story about the mysteries of masculinity) and the boy wants two things. He want to believe every week that next Saturday will be better - and he wants to forget himself, to merge into the magic of the mob surge and roar. As Hornby asks of his teenage self, 'Who wants to be stuck with who they are the whole time? I for one wanted time out from being a jug- eared, bespectacled, suburban twerp once in a while'.

But in a way, in the end, he does grow up. Or at least, he grows up enough to buy a flat near the ground, and a season ticket in the seats, and to write this book: and he's given us, by doing so, a priceless insight into why football is unique, a crowd ritual entirely different from any other form of popular entertainment.

It wouldn't have worked if it had been only about football. Without the interplay between football and the tricky, sometimes morbid process of Hornby's growing up, the drama of the game would have remained more opaque altogether. And without the wry acknowledgement of his obsession for what it is - 'both a backbone and a retardant' - he'd probably still be in suburbia now, dreaming of N5 the way others dream of Africa or America.

But when we are unhappy, Hornby says, we settle for the richest medicine available. It's cheering, in his case, that the treatment appears to have worked.

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