Tales of pleasure, pain and the beautiful game

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The Independent Online
The Agony and the Ecstasy: New Writing for the World Cup Edited by Nicholas Royle (Sceptre, paperback pounds 6.99)

LIKE none before it, this summer's World Cup has sparked a market-place conflagration of cash-ins and sell-outs, spin-offs and come-ons, and publishers have done their bit to keep the fires burning. For a piece of opportunism, though, The Agony and the Ecstasy has much going for it. Royle, a novelist with one football anthology, A Book of Two Halves, already on his CV, succeeds with this collection of World Cup-related memoirs and short stories simply through the quality of the writing, making it an ideal fall-back for those inconvenient gaps between games.

One goes into a book like this a little sniffily at the thought of all those high-brows working themselves up to their quadrennial flirtation with the people's game, wearing their metaphorical Bob Maxwell baseball caps while giving forth with Gazza's lifestyle choices. In fact, it's not like that at all, or at least not often. Most of the pieces are atmospheric and evocative. I read this book through, put it down, then picked it up again some weeks later to review it, and found several pieces still fresh in the mind, particularly the stories, such as The Killing Fields, Jimmy Burns' mordant account of a young Argentinian in Paris risking friendship with his fellow exiles by placing football above politics and going home for the 1978 World Cup. The Disappointed, by novelist and critic D.J. Taylor, gives a tart account of painful media types gathering in discord for the 1990 semi-final against Germany. They're people with aspirations to be exactly the chatterers I'd imagined this book would be by and for: "Alexandra et salade nicoise and French bread and listened to the football talk."

One of the best efforts is Graham Joyce's As Seen on Radio, a tender, aching betrayal of unrequited adolescent love at Golden Sands Holiday Park in Rhyl in 1966. There's no telly, and the wireless is prone to frequency drift at the drop of a tensed muscle: "`You moved,' I roared. `Don't move!'...Billy sank back in his seat, anticipating another hot ear."

Perhaps my favourite piece also involves not getting to watch the football. Rupert Thomson's name was mutiny, despite the five novels to his name, but his memoir, A Kickabout in Paradise is his own short-form plebian Alexandria Quartet, though Thomson would probably cite Cavafy as the principal influence on his account of being in Egypt during USA 94. There's not a great deal of football in it, to be honest - though it climaxes in the eponymous beach game at a workers' holiday resort called Paradise -- but the languid, torrid ambience sweats through every pore of a fine piece that typifies the accomplished writing on show in this enjoyable book: "Ahmed put on a cassette of dance music that had been recorded by a plumber in Cairo. Noor served cups of sweet tea and slices of apple on a wooden plate. It was hot in the room, and Tiger and Noor had taken off their shirts. They sat on the bed, running their hands over their bodies with the dreamy complacency of people who have just eaten a fine meal." Oo- er, as they say in North Africa.

Chris Maume