Betraying the Tribe

Originally published in December of 2010, this entry is about one of Mr. Wingrove’s favorite pasttimes: football. Or as we Yanks call it: soccer. Full text after the break.


Preparing Chung Kuo for its re-launch, I found myself looking at the original acknowledgments pages and author’s notes and realizing just how much my life has changed since I first published those eight original novels.

You see, I’m a football fan. And science fiction readers (and writers) are very often not football fans. Like the late Vivian Stanshall (of the late Bonzo Dog Doodah Band) they weren’t into sport as a child. But I was, and still am. I get off on the adrenaline rush of a good football game, and there’s nowhere I’d prefer to be than watching a game live. Only looking at those pages again after all these years, I note that there’s a bit of catching up to do. And some explaining. Because these days I’m an Arsenal fan and back then, when the Chung Kuo volumes were emerging at the rate of one a year, I was a QPR fan, famously hailing my team for going up to Old Trafford on New Years’ Day and beating Fergie’s table toppers four-one. Stuffing them, in fact.

Back then – and we’re talking about the early nineties here – I was living in the wilds of Stoke Newington, and I had two season tickets for the front row of the upper tier, right next to the director’s box at Loftus Road. I’d had them for years, and all my girls, when they reached the ripe age of six or seven, had accompanied me to games.

Then, in December 1995, we moved. To a big Victorian house near Highbury Corner, less than a mile from where my Susan was born, and only a couple of hundred yards from where we used to live – before the girls arrived – in a tiny one-bedroom flat in Barnsbury.

Coincidental to the move, my team underwent a decline that coincided, let’s say, with Chris Wright’s ownership of the club. Despite two stock market flotations and the sale of endless good players – Les Ferdinand, Trevor Sinclair, etc – there seemed to be less and less money and the team got worse and worse, until they dropped out of the premiership. The years of decline set in.

I still went to watch. It was painful now. Like watching some ghost team, whose spirit was broken. All of the flair I’d loved about them – that I’d come to expect since the late 60s when I first went along there – vanished. They became that worst of teams – mid-table, uninspired. A selling club.

Overlapping this, during this dark period of disillusionment and decline, I was asked by my third daughter, Georgia, then six, if I would take her to the Arsenal. It was a big ask. For years, you see, I’d held out against the temptation of being sucked into Sue’s family’s obsession with the Arsenal. How intense was it? Well, her dad, Percy, had first stood on the terraces at Highbury in 1928. He’d seen the great Herbert Chapman’s three-time title winners. Both her brothers and both of her nephews were Arsenal fanatics, as was Sue herself.

In the end I took Georgia. They were playing Sheffield Wednesday and they were one nil down late in the first half when Ray Parlour got injured and on trotted their latest purchase, a tall, gangly black nineteen-year old from somewhere in the Senegal. His first touch was magnificent – a forty yard pass to feet – and he was man of the match. Arsenal went on to win 4-1 and the crowd chanted the young boy’s name all the way home – “Vierra… oh oh…”

Next week Arsene Wenger turned up, to begin his spell as manager. They already had Bergkamp. But the best lay ahead. By Christmas I had taken Georgia to four games (you could buy tickets for most games back then) and they had never scored less than four – on two occasions five. We saw Wrighty break the goal scoring record. And, I’m sorry to say, I was hooked. In the year to come the family encouraged me, reeled me in, even got me into an Arsenal shirt for the cup final – where we beat Newcastle, a young Nicolas Anelka scoring twice.

Now the thing is this. Football is tribal. Intensely so. People who could have understood me running off with some nubile young woman and abandoning my family, couldn’t believe that I could change my club. It was much worse than having an affair. Much much worse. I had betrayed my team. Gone chasing the glamour of a big club. like all those Man United fans who live in Surrey, or some of the Chelsea fans of more recent infamy.

Against which I argue thus. For the last fifteen years I’ve lived in Highbury. Arsenal are my local team. I have season tickets and can walk to the ground in just over ten minutes. And all of my family are Arsenal too. And I have to admit something. It’s like coming home. And now that nephew Joe has joined the gang – an Arsenal fanatic at eight years old – it feels even more natural. Yeah, I betrayed my tribe. Gave up on them. I can’t deny that. But I found a new tribe. One I am – if it’s at all possible – even more obsessed with. A team that – barring Barcelona – plays the best football on the planet. A club that’s not a selling club.

Oh, I still watch how QPR are doing with a great deal of fondness, and they’re doing very well right now. Only… just as you can’t love two women without coming to grief, you can’t love two football teams. And The Arsenal are my tribe now.

Okay. Not much to do with writing or science fiction this time round. But it’s all part of the mix. Oh, and I’m about halfway through Robert Jordan’s THE GREAT HUNT now and enjoying it a great deal. The more the novel moves away from its Tolkein influences, the better it works.

David Wingrove    Wednesday December 1st 2010

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