This excerpt appears in the book Kick and Run by Jonathan Wilson. The author spoke with Bill Littlefield on Only A Game. (Listen to our interview with Wilson and read Bill's book review.)
I am six years old and walking with my father to the flower gardens at the summit of Gladstone Park. I like the dwarf hedges there, which make me feel tall, and the stone sundial. It takes us a long time to reach the gardens because my father stops frequently to rest his weary heart. It is Saturday afternoon. When we arrive and enter through the trellised gate heavy with ivy, we see Rabbi Rabinowitz and his son David sitting on a bench next to a freshly trimmed yew tree. The rabbi and my father are still in the same dark suits they have worn to synagogue that morning. I have a tennis ball in my pocket. I have kicked it through the park, running ahead of my father to retrieve and kick it again. David gets up and stands about ten feet away from me, facing me without speaking. I put the ball on the ground and side-foot it toward him. Frozen rigid, he makes no move. He isn’t allowed to play with a ball on the Sabbath. The ball rolls into an undergrowth beneath the yew tree. I search but I can’t find it. I’m not sure if my father is embarrassed that he has allowed me to come into the park with a ball, or if it is all right.
The four of us walk back downhill, past the drinking fountain, past the swings, past the soccer changing rooms, over the railway bridge near the allotments, past the refreshment booth and out of the park. The rabbi and my father in front, then me bouncing and kicking an imaginary ball, then David, trailing along the path.
I harbored few illusions, even as a child, that I could become a professional soccer player, but this certainly didn’t prevent me either from indulging in extravagant soccer fantasies, “It’s Wilson…for England… he scores!!!!” or from playing every chance I got. My career began in Gladstone Park, a picturesque green space bisected by a railway line that occupied several acres behind my house in Dollis Hill, a suburb in North West London. Frequently, as I walked from Helena Road to Park Avenue and approached the two giant oaks that God had set precisely eight yards apart for use as a goal, I watched from a distance as happy, frolicking ten- to fifteen-year-olds kicked the ball, so lively and high-stepping that they might have been dancing round a maypole. Proximity, however, told a different story. The running boys were my friends, but all too often a pride of local thugs was in pursuit, members of the vicious Chapter Road gang, who had 1) stolen our ball, and 2) were about to throw someone to the ground and assault him with kicks and bicycle chains. Somewhere between the essence and the descent fell the shadow.
I lived on a street where all but two families were middle-class Jews, like us, the Wilsons, formerly the Wilsicks until, after almost a decade of pressure from my mother, my father changed his name in 1940. His father, Wolf, an alive but absent presence in my life whom I only met once, had arrived in England as Wilczyk in 1904.
From the age of five I attended Gladstone Park Primary School, a five minute walk from our home. At first my brother Stephen, six years my senior, (my oldest brother Geoffrey, 21 when I was five, had been conscripted into the army for two years) took me to school in the morning, a journey intermittently as fraught as the soccer games in the park. In a brilliant stroke of town planning the local authorities had situated the reform school for local delinquents in the heart of our middle class neighborhood, while the “nice” school for local kids of all stripes was located on the edge of a tough neighborhood. Thus, the schools’ respective students had to cross paths every morning and afternoon. The hard kids were not fond of the middle class kids, and held a special animus towards Jews. Once, on the way to school, a group of them stopped my brother and me. They ignored me but held Stephen up against a wall and singed his eyebrows with a cigarette lighter. I said, plaintively, “Leave my brother alone,” but of course they just laughed. Afterwards Stephen grew angry with me, but how could he not? There was no one else around to soak up the humiliation and the pain.
The year I turned ten, I was appointed captain of the school soccer team by our form master and coach, Mr. Fielding. Mr. Fielding knew very little about soccer; he was far better at compelling our interest in adventure stories by reading aloud in class from John Buchan’s Prester John and H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, novels that later in life it was disappointing to discover were salient examples of the worst of British imperial arrogance and racism. There were forty children in our class; those who came, quite literally, from the wrong side of the tracks (the Bakerloo tube line ran aboveground outside our classroom windows) frequently had holes in their sweaters and shoes, and looked like the Dickensian poor. When a Jamaican boy, Jarvis Campbell, was introduced to the room, it was the first time any of us had ever seen a black child our own age in person before. Jarvis’s family was part of a small first wave of immigrants moving to London from the West Indies. Several of us happily wore Sambo-like golliwog pins—enamel collectibles redeemable from Robertson’s jams and marmalades—on our sweaters and lapels. During break the girls took turns stroking Jarvis’s hair.
Gladstone Park Primary School played in yellow and green quartered shirts. Our home field was in the park, where the “changing rooms” were tiny huts whose amenities consisted of two benches illuminated by a single light-bulb and a communal cold-water sink. In the season that I was captain, we lost every game except the final one against our local rivals, Mora Road. Our school had some tough kids, but Mora Road was completely committed to the hard life.
After we had taken a 2–0 lead, a group of Mora Road’s harshest ruffians simply lined up on their bicycles about an inch behind their goal line (there were posts and a crossbar, but no nets). It was a brilliant move: we could no longer aim at the goal, for if the ball hit one of their bikes it would provide the required excuse to beat the shit out of us after the match was over. Of course they didn’t really need an excuse, but it was thoughtful of them to pretend that they did. Mr. Fielding, as always, had gone home at halftime. He had a long commute.
Despite Gladstone Park’s poor performances, I was selected, by whom I never knew, for team trials to play for my local London district, Willesden. In those years, Willesden (of which Dollis Hill constituted a part) was a middle-middle, lower-middle, and working-class neighborhood of Jewish bakers, Greek-Cypriot barbers, and Irish laborers. Forty years later, when Zadie Smith, also a Willesdener, put it on the map with her pyrotechnic novel White Teeth, the Jews and the Greeks were long gone, replaced on the roster of immigrants by Asians and West Indians.
Unfortunately, the October match to determine selection for Willesden U12 was scheduled for Yom Kippur. In places with large Jewish populations, like New York City or Newton, Massachusetts, where I have lived for the last twenty-seven years, and where local public schools are closed on the Jewish Day of Atonement, such a conflict could never occur, but in England, Jewish sensibilities are not so delicately attended to, and my participation in the trial was not even up for debate.
I was profoundly disappointed not to try out for Willesden. But the footballing heart of a ten-year-old is resilient, and when the autumn Jewish festivals ended, I made a bold move. Each week I read two comics, The Lion and The Tiger. The Tiger featured the soccer superstar Roy of the Rovers, who played for Melchester, a team clearly based on Manchester United. The Lion, however, included a column in which readers could advertise their own nascent soccer leagues and search for other teams to play. I created Gladstone Park Rangers, and I even wrote to the Football Association, England’s governing soccer authority, and someone in their organization wrote back an encouraging letter. We had sticks for goals, no crossbar, and no net. We played on an unmarked field in an area of Gladstone Park not officially designated for soccer, there was no referee, and yet other teams, informal collectives of neighborhood kids from different parts of the city, traveled to play us. No parents or coaches were involved at all. It was surpassingly great.
My school friend, David Feldman, a goalkeeper whose father was a socialist and not an observant Jew like mine, did get permission to try out for Willesden. Though he didn’t make the team, Feldman was as soccer-obsessed as I was. That winter we played Subbuteo, the hands-on precursor to Nintendo’s FIFA Soccer 10, in his family’s dining room. We unrolled the green baize field on the table, set up goals, corner flags, and spectators, chose our teams, and passed hours deftly flicking the tiny weighted figures onto and around the plastic ball, passing, shooting, scoring.
The following spring, for reasons that elude me to this day, my friend decided to torment me: he persuaded all the boys in my class to stop talking to me, and insult to injury, he stole my cap! My father was sick, his heart condition had recently worsened, and perhaps my response to this new phase of his illness presented some heightened vulnerability in me that my peers, like predatory animals, sensed and could not resist exploiting.
I spent the last months of elementary school in something close to monastic silence, my only friend another rejected boy, Julian Fazler, a kind-hearted nerd before there were nerds. At one point, Feldman offered me a way out. If I would agree to fight (i.e., get beaten up by) Brian Lundin, the toughest kid in the school, I could return to the group, credentials intact. I declined the offer.
My mother wanted to know what had happened to my cap. Eventually, I told her, and she went to the Feldman house and retrieved it. She wasn’t surprised by the theft. She considered the Feldmans at least one rung below us on the social ladder—Mr. Feldman was a tailor—and it galled her to no end when, eight years on, David got into Oxford and I didn’t.
In his poignant essay The Crack-Up, Scott Fitzgerald counted his failure to make the (American) football team at Princeton the first of two juvenile regrets of his life. (The other was not getting overseas during WWI.) Yet, in the end, from these twin frustrations evolved the deep understanding of illusion and disillusion that inform his greatest work.
If Fitzgerald had made the football team at Princeton, I doubt there would have been a Jay Gatsby. I’m not saying that if I’d made the Willesden soccer team in 1960 I wouldn’t have tried to become a writer, but certainly lessons in disappointment must play some part in forging a creative sensibility.
The philosopher Jacques Derrida is another case in point. In response to a question about whether he ever did anything “normal” in his life, like “go to the movies or play sports,” Derrida replied: “You’ve touched a private part of me … I wanted to be a professional soccer player, but I had to give it up because I was not good enough.” As with Fitzgerald, we have Derrida’s relative ineptitude on the muddy fields of glory and his subsequent surrender to the lessons of the real to thank for the entire magnificent invisible city of his (de)constructions.
According to the supremely inventive Russian formalist critic and novelist Viktor Shklovsky, this kind of sublimation, whether it takes the form of unrealized ambition or unrequited love, is probably responsible for most of humankind’s cultural achievements. Shklovsky himself fashioned a formidable experimental novel, Zoo or Letters not About Love, out of his failure to persuade his beloved, Elsa Triolet, to return his feelings in kind. Fitzgerald, too, said he wrote The Beautiful and the Damned “to get the girl.”
Presumably this all goes back to hunting. Adolescent boys I knew in London used to refer to their Friday night peregrinations in search of suitable female partners as “going on the ’unt,” while soccer has frequently been designated by anthropologists as a late-coming incarnation of the prehistoric hunting party, where teamwork and slinging stones were essential for a good kill. But what if, like some ten-thousand-year-old Fitzgerald or Derrida on the African savannah, you were lousy at hunting? Well, most likely you went back to the fire to entertain the women, got them to gather round and warm their hands while you sat upon the ground and told sad tales of the death of kings.
Of course, failure doesn’t always work out so advantageously. My cousin Cheryl, who lived in Neville’s Court at the top of Gladstone Park, from whose vantage she had a magnificent view of the great, green, windswept expanses of at least three soccer fields, wanted to be a ballerina, and raged against her short and dumpy but otherwise accommodating and sweet parents for years on account of the gene pool they had assigned her by mating and which, in Cheryl’s case, had created a figure light on its feet, but, sadly, eminently resistible to corps de ballet worldwide. First she taught ballet, always a downer, and then she went into IT, only to despair of that broad but denatured avenue and return to her first love, to run the box office at Sadler’s Wells while long-legged girls, the daughters of tall, slender Nordic parents, slipped their dainty shoulders in and out of the stage doors.
In the England of my childhood, no Jewish person, as far as I was aware, played in the top tier of professional soccer (in France, Derrida clearly thought he might be the first), and it was not until 1979 that the situation changed, when an Israeli, Avi Cohen, joined Liverpool FC. Even if Avi had arrived earlier, everyone knows that in the matter of sports, Israelis cannot count as role models for young Diaspora Jews—which is not to say that I did not venerate a Jewish soccer god in my childhood. I did, and his name was Miles Spector.
In the democratic 1950s and early 1960s, amateur soccer had a large following in post-war, entertainment-starved England, and the Amateur Cup Final held at the country’s premiere soccer stadium, Wembley, with its magnificent twin towers, drew crowds of up to 60,000. My brother Geoffrey, who couldn’t have been less interested in soccer, was nevertheless kind enough to take me, with his friend Noel Gellman, to one of these finals: Hendon (a neighborhood only two or three miles from our house) v. Kingstonian. Miles Spector played for Hendon, in the unglamorous Isthmian League (there were amateur leagues all over London named for the glories of ancient Greece: Athenian, Corinthian, and, following suit, the Ionian League, invented by my friend Richard Tucker for Gladstone Park Rangers and its adversaries. He drew impressive columns and caryatids for the championship certificates). Miles Spector was Hendon’s burly center forward, a prolific goal scorer with both foot and head, and, as everyone had mentioned to me at least four hundred times since I had announced that I was going to the Hendon v. Kingstonian game, yes, Miles Spector was Jewish!
But even becoming Miles Spector was clearly out of reach. You had to be a Christian god to play professional soccer; a Jewish deity could apparently rise through the ranks in the amateur leagues (years later I learned that Miles Spector had, in fact, played six times for Chelsea, a superhuman achievement), but a mere Jewish boy from Willesden? Fuggedabahtit.
Jacques Derrida or Zinedine Zidane? Whose cultural impact has been greater? In deference to Derrida, we must eschew the either/or. Enough to know he wanted to be Zidane.
© Jonathan Wilson 2013