A genius for the average Just your average genius

profile: Nick Hornby
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The Independent Online
Six years ago, Bill Buford, then the editor of the literary magazine Granta, published a book about going to football matches. In its most vivid chapter, he described how he felt in the surge of the crowd: "I had no control over where I was going. Stampede was the word that came to mind. I was forced up against the barrier ... crushed against it, wriggled sideways to keep from bruising my ribs ... everyone was grimacing and swearing; someone, having been elbowed in the face, was threatening to throw a punch. What was this all about? This was not an important moment in the game ... This, I thought, is the way animals behave."

In the broadsheet newspapers, reviewers agreed. Their praise for Buford was breathless with references to mobs, war zones, the "chamber of horrors" on the terraces. From this influential perspective, football stadiums contained all that was most futile and brutish in the British male. Buford had chosen the right title: Among the Thugs.

The following year, another noted football book appeared. Fever Pitch also had a middle-class author and finely-turned sentences, but its description of life in the crowd was completely contrary. "I loved it," Nick Hornby wrote. "I loved the different categories of noise: the formal, ritual noise when the players emerged ... the spontaneous shapeless roar when something exciting was happening ... [And] I grew to love the movement, the way I was thrown towards the pitch and sucked back again."

Hornby's book won. Among the Thugs seems a period piece now, a relic of a dismal era when the government could propose football fans carry identity cards, the badges of a despised minority. Fever Pitch, in good- natured contrast, is approaching ubiquity. In its first year, it sold nearly 200,000 copies, the most for a sports book written in English since Season on the Brink, an American volume about basketball published in 1937. Fever Pitch has also become a play, first in Brighton and then in the West End, and most recently a film, opening in April, with such favourable newspaper pre- publicity that many might imagine it was being shown already.

Last June, the Evening Standard ranked Hornby one of the 25 most influential people in Britain, alongside Sir Terence Conran and Peter Mandelson. The film, which Hornby scripted, may well make him more so. Like the book, it is essentially autobiography, tramping obsessively back and forth to Highbury, home of Hornby's beloved Arsenal. Sometimes Arsenal conquer thrillingly; sometimes they stumble and bore; what remains constant is the wry, fatalistic figure of Hornby, still living through football as he edges winningly towards 40. And his screen portrait is flattering: tall and tousled and played by Colin Firth, fresh from being Mr Darcy, when the real-life Hornby is solid and bald. At the climax, as Arsenal score and win the league title in the last minute of the season, the film recalls, the Hornby character dances for joy. Old men, young women, and children of all races celebrate around him. Following football seems the noblest thing in the world.

This change is not entirely due to Hornby, of course. Clever football fanzines, Italia 90 and Euro 96, Gazza's tears and Sky's millions - all have revived and gentrified the sport. But Fever Pitch was not just about football; modern masculinity, in all its bruised, defensive detail, was equally Hornby's subject. With his leather jackets and his lager, his flat vowels and his needless fact-volunteering, Hornby's persona on the page seemed archetypal at first; by delicate self-probing, he gradually revealed something more intriguing, and vulnerable: the small surly boy hiding behind the score-draws.

Hornby has widened his explorations of his fellow men since. High Fidelity (1995), a second bestseller, poked around in another male refuge, the specialist record shop. Its thinly fictional narrator, Rob Fleming, was in his mid-thirties (Hornby is 39), had trouble with women, and owned a narrow bolt-hole of second-hand records. "My genius, if I can call it that," Fleming says early on, "is to combine a whole load of averageness into one compact frame." Hornby's genius - which is what many critics think he has - is to make people want to read about it.

He was born in Maidenhead. It was 1957, and Hornby's father was away all week in his company car. A slow suburban childhood beckoned. When Hornby and his friends learnt to drive, they began visiting petrol stations at night, "because they were open".

Football was of no interest. The nearest big teams were in London, an impossible 20 miles away. Hornby and his schoolfriends settled for trainspotting and a little low-key vandalism. Then his parents separated. His father moved out, reappearing only to take his son to restaurants. The silences were grinding.

Football saved them. To get away from the restaurants, Hornby's father suggested a match. Hornby said no, changed his mind, and found himself, small and 11 years old, swept up in the crush at Highbury. Arsenal were not a great side, in fact a notoriously dour one, yet to Hornby, after Maidenhead, the old stadium in its vice of terraced houses became a bewitching big city world, enticingly fierce in its loyalties. The seed of Fever Pitch was planted.

Later, in that book, Hornby wrote, "I had no ambitions for myself whatsoever before I was 26 or 27." But he was clever, and, staying on at grammar school as long as possible, he entered for the Cambridge University entrance exam. He passed, and escaped from Maidenhead to somewhere twice as far from Highbury.

At Cambridge and after, he drifted. He got a poor degree in English, started teaching English at a comprehensive, then left for London to do the same for Italian students in Soho. He lost girlfriends; he moped; he lost other girlfriends; a depression settled over his twenties like a fog. He thought about giving up Arsenal. But then, like countless bored, bright graduates before him, Hornby stumbled upon his purpose.

He could write. Not about football - that was still too much of an obsession for analysis - but about his other, more apparently respectable interests: soul music, American films and fiction. Hornby began reviewing. As he squeezed short pieces into Time Out and longer ones into the Literary Review, so the ambition he had long denied began to crystallize. "He became bloody-mindedly determined to do something good," says an editor he worked for. "It didn't matter what it was. It was a question of getting the angle, the hook, the deal."

Book reviews, however, were not the big time. By 1990, aged 33, Hornby had a tiny flat in Highbury and a collection of unbroadcast television scripts. The price of an Arsenal season ticket was rising fast. He locked himself in to write a book.

It was not Fever Pitch, but a polite critical monograph called Contemporary American Fiction. The book was published in 1992, and promptly vanished. Hornby's quiet forays into Raymond Carver and Richard Ford served a purpose, however. The Americans' alchemy of the everyday and personal into best- selling literature suggested a use for his own experiences, in particular all those wet Saturday afternoons on the North Bank

"He had this idea of doing his life through football matches," says Robert Harris, who is married to Hornby's sister. "One thought it was slightly peculiar, a bit narrow for a first proper book." Harris was wrong. Fever Pitch was alive with decades of remembered incident, cheeky images - Coventry fans "cavorting like dolphins" after they take the lead at Highbury - and ecstatic match descriptions that ignored on-pitch cliches for the ebb and flow of the crowd. "Football is a context where watching becomes doing," Hornby wrote. From his reviewing, moreover, he had the connections to ensure an audience for his bracing terrace opinions. Fever Pitch was serialised in one paper, granted 1,000-word reviews in others - rare attention for a new author. Within three weeks of publishing, in September 1992, Hornby was top of the non-fiction chart.

He has seized his opportunities since. In High Fidelity and columns for magazines and newspapers (including this one), Hornby has honed his easy style into a kind of middle-class, middle-brow Esperanto, cosy with Americanisms - "sort of", "stuff", "I guess" - picked up from popular imports like Cheers and Friends. He and his fictional representatives are urban and liberal, recently young, mildly baffled by the fashion and pop music they no longer follow - they could be in offices and classrooms anywhere in the country.

Hornby has a house near Highbury now, with a separate flat to write in, away from his wife and young son. "Nick knows where things belong," says a friend. Robert Harris is a writer of bestsellers too, but he still finds Hornby a little relentless: "Whenever I talk to him he has already done his quota of words for the day." Two years ago, Hornby wrote an approving article for the Guardian about an accountant. He is already tapping out another novel and film script.

There are dangers, of course. High Fidelity was thinner than Fever Pitch, in texture if not pages, and its reviews have not been matched by its reputation since. The fate of Irvine Welsh, the other writer recently made, and then oppressed, by early word-of-mouth success, suggests itself. At the football magazine When Saturday Comes, any piece that refers to Fever Pitch in its first paragraph goes straight in the bin.

But Hornby is soaking up his rewards while he can. He says he does not know what to do with the money - he just piles it up in his building society - but he can joke with Jeremy Paxman at parties now, and bob about sagely at book launches while people queue up to talk to him. Ian Wright, Arsenal's star striker, has given him a hug. Hornby ranked the moment with the birth of his son. And if the chubby lad from Maidenhead can seem too perfect, his masculinity remains flawed. He still can't drive.

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