As a way of paying literary tribute to the event which has been seriously compromising my sleep over the past month, I thought it only fitting to revisit an old friend this week. Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby's first book, is a work of non-fiction, which follows his life from his school days to (what once was) the present day. The book differs widely from a standard autobiography though as it links the ups and downs in Hornby's life with those of his favourite football club, Arsenal, and along the way attempts to explain the hold football has on people and why it matters so much to so many.
While the first part of the book is full of youthful adventures and cheery anecdotes, the middle section is slightly darker and more serious. Hornby traces the origins of his passion for the beautiful game to an attempt to find common ground with his father after his parents' divorce, but it later comes to support him in a period of his life where he can't seem to get going and where everything he does seems doomed to failure. On further analysis though, the writer starts to wonder if football is a help or a hindrance: are Arsenal his only crutch in his darkest days, or a retardant preventing him from growing up properly?
The other major theme of the book is an attempt to explain what football means to the wider community and to explore who follows football and why. While our allegiances may seem clear-cut, it's still worth wondering what exactly we're following. Are we attached to the club? Are we just obsessed by the players? Or (as Hornby suspects in his case) is it the stadium, the secular shrine, which is the focus of attention? With your relationship with your football team being compared to a marriage (but with no chance of divorce), it's probably best to know the answers to these questions...
I have read this book far too many times over the past fifteen years or so, which made the first section of the book slightly tedious (when you remember most of the anecdotes word for word, you start to lose interest after a while). However, the writer's struggles to find a niche in life and his consequent use of Arsenal as a comfort blanket are still brutally honest and fascinating, and a lot more open than you would expect.
My circumstances have also changed, and it is this which makes my reading of the book so different this time. When I first read it (probably in 1994), I was a football-mad university student with absolutely no vision for the future stretching beyond the next indoor 5-a-side game, and many of the events described in the book were still fresh in the memory. Now it seems a little dated, and with sixteen years more life experience, and a greater exposure to the world outside English football, it all seems a little more distant from my life. Which is a shame.
At the time the book came out, it was sold as a book everyone should read, a work which would help people to understand what's going on inside the brains of football fanatics. In 2010, I'm not sure that the wider community would get as much out of it, especially if you're not British. Which is not to say that it's not worth reading (it most definitely is, and don't let my slightly reflective and nostalgic post fool you into thinking otherwise); it would just benefit from the addition of footnotes for the casual, international reader.
Eighteen years on from publication, some things have changed immensely. Hornby is now a world-famous writer, of both novels and screenplays; his beloved Arsenal have moved out of Highbury, thus potentially destroying one of the reasons for his passion; and player salaries have rocketed to astronomical proportions. In an early chapter, Hornby recalls a fan abusing a player, questioning how he could be earning a hundred pounds a week for such a shoddy performance. The performances (and the abuse) may not have changed much, but the salaries certainly have: try a hundred thousand pounds a week...