Chattering classes write a good game

BOOK OF THE WEEK; A Book of Two Halves: New Football Short Stories edited by Nicholas Royle (Victor Gollancz, pounds 9.99)
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The Independent Online
Such collections invariably prompt reviewers to lament the dearth of good fiction football inspires. Puzzling, since there are some treasures out there, like Brian Glanville's novel The Rise of Gerry Logan; JL Carr's gently rivetting How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup; Dick Morland's darkly futuristic Albion! Albion!; and the Adrian Mole-meets-Ron Knee drollery of Merv Grist's Life At The Tip.

Authors such as Arnold Bennett, JB Priestley, Howard Jacobson, Julian Barnes and William McIlvanney, if not writing specifically about football, have also constructed narratives around it. The same is true of much of A Book of Two Halves, a title surely penned by the a publishing luvvy who thinks Gary Lineker is Gazza and which invites the verdict the volume deserves: half decent. That is not to say that the contributors have alighted on the clattering classes merely because they are again fashionable with the chattering classes. Among the 23 stories (and three poems by John Hegley) are several with the Deep Heat-like whiff of authentic football experience.

Irvine Welsh's "The Best Brand of Football" for one. Like Trainspotting it is high on the black humour of drug-fuelled dialogue. Though he tends to eschew description, there is a priceless cameo of the main characters (whose chemical intake suggests it must be the only way to make watching Hibs bearable) strutting a dancefloor "like three pre-heart attack Graeme Sounesses".

Kim Newman's "The Germans Won" belongs to a burgeoning "what-if?" genre which includes Ian R MacLeod's brilliant "Snodgrass" (John Lennon quits Beatles on brink of fame and ends up as dole clerk in Brum) and Mark Lawson's Idlewild (JFK and Marilyn survive and meet again in dotage). A well-worn formula, then, but carried off entertainingly. The title refers to the '66 World Cup final - 4-3 to Fritz in extra time - and my, how things have changed as they reconvene 30 years on in Los Angeles. John Pilger is the sensitive voice of the Sun; Edward Heath is conducting the John Lydon Youth Orchestra; and Harriet Harman ("she had such a sympathetic face, and made a point of travelling everywhere on public transport") is Downing Street-bound.

Steve Grant's "Casuals" is, one suspects, an autobiographical exploration of a father-son relationship, and cleverly conveys both tenderness and embarrassment. Together they watched the Corinthian-Casuals in their pink- and-chocolate pomp at The Oval, before a chasm in education and generation as wide as the cricket ground itself came between them.

Mark Morris also delves into generational conflict in "The Shirt". Three youths break into a pensioner's house threatening to take everything, including the occupant's "heart on a plate". Then they become fascinated by an old football shirt. Like two goals in the dying seconds of a cup- tie, there are a couple of stunning stings in the tale...

Phil Shaw