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.

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick