BOOK REVIEW / Gascoigne and the jawbone of an ass: 'Gazza Agonistes' - Ian Hamilton: Granta 45, 7.99 pounds

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A FUNNY old game, football writing. Just when it's clear that we're not much good at soccer, the bookshops have gone football crazy. Pete Davies reminded us what could be done when he captured, in All Played Out, the splendid frenzy of the 1990 World Cup. Then Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch dug away at the bizarre pathology of a long-suffering fan. And Roddy Doyle has packed his novels with merry scenes of blokes in pubs shaking their fists at the telly when Ireland scored. There hasn't been much joy on the pitch lately, but these were winners: quality books by quality writers, as we say in literature.

In recent weeks, three new ones have appeared. My Favourite Year is an anthology of football memories, edited by Nick Hornby; Three Sides of the Mersey is an oral history of football in the city of Liverpool; and now Ian Hamilton has filled half the present issue of Granta with a civilised essay-memoir about Paul Gascoigne. After Italia 90, Granta 45. It is not the first time that a literary journal has given football top billing (the London Review of Books put Gazza on the cover, and even went so far as to call him 'a priapic monolith'). But it confirms the energy of a trend some people might find easy to satirise: the snotty intellectual has a kickabout with the national game.

It is hard to see why this should strike anyone as unwelcome. Television has created a population of armchair fans every bit as 'real' as those who barge through the turnstiles. And the demarcation line between serious and popular culture is (thank goodness) growing blurred. Paul Gascoigne has made a noisy splash in English life - he seems vivid even to those who have never clapped eyes on him (and never want to). So it's good news that a leading poet-biographer such as Hamilton should want to write about him; it might even give a black eye to a couple of drab stereotypes: one, that football is for yoiks, and two, that writers are airy-fairy drips who should stick to Philip Larkin.

Hamilton (or Hazza, as book fans call him) once wrote a smart account of his failure to meet J D Salinger, and this time he doesn't even attempt to track down his subject: he is what we might call an armchair biographer. His subject, though, is not Gascoigne but Gazza; he is interested in the phenomenon (and his own response to it) as much as in the man himself. The result is very stylish: by the final whistle Hamilton has sketched a compelling figure: reckless, cocky, twitchy, hyperactive and half bonkers - but with flashes of implausible grace that connect with the dreams of his audience. A fan is half fanatic, half fantasist, and while Hamilton is perhaps too poised to be either, he narrates the saga with lots of dry charm.

It has to be said, though - what a terrible title. Nothing could have lent stronger support to the view that this is a lofty cuttings job, that Hamilton is a posh geezer having an after-dinner jest at Gazza's expense, that it is all rather de haut en bas, as we footballers say. Milton's Samson Agonistes (agonistes being the title of the ancient Greek athletic champions) is an epic poem about a hero brought low in, of all places, Gaza. Samson was Israel's midfield dynamo; he had 'heav'n gifted strength' and was 'designed for great exploits' - just one bad haircut, one moment of folly, and he got his marching orders. The parallels, I suppose, are almost irresistible - we have only to think of Gascoigne's bully- boy shaved head, or the jawbone of an ass; for 'eyeless in Gaza', read clueless in Gazza. But they should have been resisted. It is grandiose and irrelevant to compare Gazza to a Miltonic tragic hero: an exaggeration every bit as silly as the tabloid hype Hamilton is so quick to scorn.

Samson Agonistes also has allegorical tendencies that can't help infecting Hamilton's account. The key drama is between Samson's strength and his blind stupidity:

O impotence of mind, in body strong]

But what is strength without a double share

Of wisdom?

Inevitably, this becomes the drift of Hamilton's essay. Though obviously a genuine and alert admirer, his hero emerges as a nimble moron. The tabloids used to like dressing Gascoigne up as a clown, a gunslinger or Santa Claus; but even they didn't think of cloaking him in biblical myths and tragic archetypes. Apart from anything else, it is premature to see in Gazza's rise and fall a tragic symmetry, because he hasn't fallen yet. He keeps stumbling, but he remains England's only witty player.

It all casts shadows over a portrait that is otherwise beguiling, acute and great fun. Fans might feel that there isn't a whole lot they don't know already, but even they will find it a shrewd and poignant version of the familiar story. Hamilton begins with a description of the time he first saw Gascoigne playing for Newcastle, and dwells on the vexed banter between Gazza and a Brazilian player called Mirandinha, who had mysteriously arrived in the North-east (they thought they were getting Maradona, the wags remarked). Just when you think it sounds a little far-fetched, Hamilton writes: 'All this, I am aware, sounds fanciful and is perhaps misremembered, written up. But if it is: well, that is the spectator's fate - we watch, but in the end we have to guess.'

That's true. Hamilton is speaking up for the silent majority here. He seems to shun anything like research, yet manages to tell us plenty about Gazza's life in Rome. More important, he has articulated a common experience, has traced the bruises left by the passage of a top player through the life of his admirers. The essay is wrapped round a jaunty set of photographs that emphasise the gap between Gazza the publicity stuntman, and Gascoigne the footballer. We see a man who is only truly in his element, with the ball at his feet and the crowd on theirs, for a few seconds each week: the rest is a cartoon.

Gazza Agonistes isn't the only article in this month's Granta. There's a short story by Ethan Canin and essays by Jonathan Raban, Michael Ignatieff and Nick Hornby. Look out, too, for a delightful squib in which Timothy Garton Ash meets Erich Honecker in a German jail. In the pocket of his prison pyjamas the former leader keeps a bit of dog-eared paper with Chancellor Kohl's direct telephone number on it. He gives it to Garton Ash, and guess what? It works.

You have to get stuck in to come up with factual nuggets like that, have to get your knees dirty. Hamilton is a Glenn Hoddle fan: he wants to stroll magnificently through the game and still have clean shorts at the end. In a way, he pulls it off. But sometimes, in biography, you have to roll your socks down and start tussling for those awkward 50-50 balls.