BY PAUL McPARLAN – @pmaccap
Paul Breen – regular contributor to The Football Pink – is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Westminster in London and an avid supporter of Charlton Athletic. Born in Ireland, he has lived in south London since the middle of the last decade and has grown to love the area. This book continues with some of the themes of his earlier novel – The Charlton Men, which was published in 2014.
There is potentially a large untapped market for fiction novels involving football. Rarely do such works make the top ten lists or arrive on the shelves with a growing recommendation from Richard and Judy. Apart from Anthony Cartwright’s Iron Towns, I have not come across any reviews of football fiction in the Sunday tabloids or broadsheets this year. Perhaps, there is an assumption that this genre of writing is stuck in a seventies/ boys comic time warp, where it is expected that any such novel must feature such key staples as local boy overcomes disadvantage to make it as a top grade player for his local team and then scores the winning hat trick at Wembley. Thankfully, as the academic background of the author would indicate, this is a novel that stands out as a work of fiction due to the quality of writing and the complex current societal issues it addresses.
The questions will be asked – do I need to understand football to enjoy this novel? Do I have to be a dyed in the wool fan of Charlton Athletic to interpret the subtle nuances of plot development? Will my reading of the story be compromised by a lack of knowledge of football terminology? The answer to those questions is a resounding no. However, if you are a Crystal Place fan, you may find that your club is not shown in the most complimentary fashion.
The main protagonist is Fergus, a young Irishman who has moved to and settled in South London( shades of Breen himself here) where he has fallen in love with Charlton Athletic Football Club and his long term girlfriend Katy, possibly in that order. Fergus has moved to London from Ireland (where sadly he was a Liverpool fan) to try and rebuild his life after he was involved in a car crash that killed his friend. Since moving to London , he has become “addicted “ to following Charlton and his happiness is entwined with the fortunes of his team. Needless to say, Katy does find his infatuation with all things Charlton difficult to understand. Katy herself has a developing career as a writer, which leads to her moving to Ramsgate to take up a book offer from a publisher, whilst Fergus stays in London.
Lance, a fellow Charlton supporter is the best friend of Fergus, even though he scathingly refers to him as a “ convert” at times. Lance fought in Afghanistan and was the victim of a landmine which exploded, shattering his lower leg to pieces and ending his military career. Unsurprisingly, this impacts on his view of the increasing migrant population in Greenwich. Lance puts his love of Charlton above all else. When Fergus realises that his relationship with Katy is in trouble he advises “Forget Katy, let’s talk football”
Unlike Fergus, the family history of Lance is firmly based in London, from the heyday of the London Docklands through the violent era of the Krays to the present day. He regales Fergus with stories of how things used to be and how much the community he knew has changed, for the worse in his view and since his return from Afghanistan he has struggled to readjust to the “new” London.
Part of the “new” London is featured in the character of Dyana who runs a tattoo shop near to Charlton’s ground. She had a perilous journey to England from West Africa via Amsterdam at the hands of a people smuggling gang. She is part of an immigrant community group who support each other. She knows what the people smugglers are capable of. She also has a young daughter, whose father is dead. Fergus becomes involved with her after a visit to her tattoo shop.
Although the story develops around the progress of Charlton during the 2012 – 13 season , the football forms only one element in a fast paced developing story. The plot is focussed initially in the Charlton / Greenwich area but tragic events there have consequences which lead to the action moving to Ramsgate. There the story draws to a dramatic conclusion involving kidnapping, guns, people smugglers and police.
The theme of community and the impact of change on a long established community is a key concept of the story. The sense of being displaced and the feeling of isolation and alienation affects all of the main characters at some stage. This is reflected in the travails of Charlton Athletic who were made homeless and ended up having to play their games at the ground of arch enemies Crystal Palace. However, the strength and vibrancy of the area is what Fergus loves and he feels truly at home there. Living there is like belonging to a particularly fearsome tribe at times. And the community knows how to respond when one of their own is threatened.
However, there are several key themes that flow through the narrative and they are often used to relate what is happening now to what occurred in the past and how events unravelled, both in a football and societal sense. An undercurrent of violence and threats run through the chapters involving gangs and groups from different eras and continents. Racism and immigration feature strongly as different cultures challenge the old guard with new ways of operating. Even Fergus, as a college lecturer, struggles with the morality of the younger generation in his charge. But, one element that remains constant is the importance of loyalty to your family and friends, footballing or otherwise.
The author is a skilled writer with an expansive range of vocabulary to engage the reader. I loved the image of the “Tarantula of Relegation” and the people who had “Smiles as sharp as pikes”. The feeling of going prepared for battle is covered in some of the chapter headings such as “Before the battle” ,“Shooting for snakes” and “Shots in the evening”. He conjures up some brilliant names for some of the other characters in the story, such as Vivaldi, Wagner, Demetrius, The Giraffe and Lucifer. He also describes the dilemma that you may face at some stage in your life. Your wife/girlfriend wants to go to a special event but your team are playing at home on the same night. Where do your loyalties truly lie?
At the conclusion, the reader is still unsure as to whether Fergus will take the opportunity of a new life direction or will the pull of past relationships still have a hold over him that will call him back?
This is an extremely well written story, full of imagery and feeling and may grip you enough to finish in one sitting. The plot is skilfully constructed and develops at a fast moving pace as the events which unfolded in South London come to a dramatic finale in Ramsgate, with unexpected twist and turns at every corner, involving kidnapping, people smuggling and death. Fergus is a frustrating but sympathetic character whose life swiftly unravels in a direction he could not have possibly imagined after his innocuous trip to a local tattoo parlour.
If you have not read any of Paul Breen’s previous work, and you are not a Crystal Palace fan, you may find that if you abandon your preconceptions you will thoroughly enjoy this story.