REVIEW BY PAUL McPARLAN – @pmaccap
J.F. Cummings – or James as he is known to his friends and family – is a life- long Wycombe Wanderers fan who had lived most of his life in High Wycombe and until 2001 and had never travelled beyond the United Kingdom. Small Town Dreams is the story of a fan’s devotion for his local team, who in all the years he had spent supporting them had never progressed beyond the third round of the F.A. Cup. However, in the 2000/01 season, things were about to change for James’ in some very unexpected ways as two life altering events were about to take him off in directions he could never have imagined.
Although Small Town Dreams is based on real life happenings, it is an excellent example of football fiction where the conversations and reactions are created to respond to events as they unfold during the development of James’ story. This technique was used to brilliant effect by David Peace in his classic novel The Damned United, but whereas that focussed on the management and players’ views, Small Town Dreams is the experience of a fan and his fellow Wycombe Wanderers supporters.
I approached this novel with a certain degree of trepidation, especially when I saw it ran to over four hundred pages. How could I possibly be interested in the experiences of a Wycombe Wanderers supporter and the depiction of daily life in High Wycombe?
I was wrong.
J.F.Cummings’ style of writing engages you from the first page. He describes his fellow supporters in humorous detail, creating imaginary conversations based on his knowledge of each individual, through the eyes of a thirteen-year-old. This helps to place the rest of the novel in context. These stories and observations bring the characters to life and the frustration and despair of supporting a small-town team come across; as does the joy. James regales us with stories of the Roobarbs, the hard-core group of Wycombe fans, most of whom are his friends who follow the team home and away. By the end of the novel you feel as though you know them personally.
However, the novel is not just about football. It is also about the experiences of James growing up in High Wycombe – from the awkward teenage years to the struggle to build a life and career.
This is when his life is about to change. James finds himself out of a job because the warehouse which employs him is going to be closed down. However, there is some good news. He is to receive a redundancy payment equivalent to seven months’ pay. Suddenly, a once in a lifetime opportunity presents itself, even if he might miss a half season of Wycombe games. He asks his girlfriend Cathy if she fancies joining him on a round the world trip in January. There is only ever one answer to that question.
Wycombe are still progressing in the F.A. Cup, and by the time James is getting ready to fly to Bangkok in January, Wycombe have made it through to the fourth round for the first time in their history. Bad timing or what?
The rest of the story develops as James and Cathy start their travels just as Wycombe start their cup run.
On arrival in Thailand, James’ tales of the trip are, at times, frighteningly similar to those of Karl Pilkington in “An Idiot Abroad”.
Back home, Wycombe’s cup run is still alive; James keeps abreast of developments through the Bangkok Post and the internet whenever he can get online.
Next stop for James is Hong Kong where he gets to watch the epic win over Leicester City in the quarter-final before he and Cathy move onto China and then Australia, battling sickness on the journey – both physical and for home, where Wycombe are making headline news.
While James continues to explore the globe, Wycombe’s adventure ends at the hands of Liverpool in the semi-final
J.F. Cummings really does a brilliant job of mixing travelogue with footballing odyssey. As a reader, I loved how James recounted the struggle to adapt to foreign cultures and lifestyle whilst at the same time empathising with his difficulties in trying to keep up with Wycombe’s progress in the cup. The story is written with elements of humour and brilliant insight into how the mind of a football fan works.
If I was being critical, I would say that the book is just a little too wordy and that perhaps some of the detailed match reports and descriptions of the places visited could have benefitted from some trimming.
But, in James, we see the spirit of the eternal optimist that lives in every fan of a small town football club and how the fates combined to have him ten thousand miles away when Wycombe played in the semi-final of the FA Cup, after he has spent hours on trips to places like York and Kettering watching his team. This is such an uplifting read and has a real feel-good factor to it. You may see something of yourself in James. And Cathy, how she didn’t leave him in Bangkok, I’ll never know!
You can buy Small Town Dreams by J.F. Cummings from Amazon HERE