by Jim Milnes
The 1960s: skirts got shorter, and it seems that memories got shorter too. Larkin’s verse above exemplifies this. Written looking back on the ‘Annus Mirabilis’ from 1967, he conveniently ignores that his own sexual career started much earlier than this.
English football had its own annus mirabilis, of course, three years later, a blend of amnesia and ambrosia that still defines the national game. The World Cup victory in ’66 served to dispel worries that the rest of the world had overtaken the inventors of the game. The post-war humiliations suffered at the hands of the Republic of Ireland, the USA and Hungary were erased. The final against West Germany, the disputed goal and Kenneth Wolstenholme’s famous commentary act as a watershed: without them the decade would not have been as swinging. It is no coincidence that the nation’s narrative has repeatedly returned to the match.
The longevity of this one match is incongruous in one particular way. The players that lifted the trophy at Wembley are, for the most part, still with us, and some, like Greaves and the Charltons, have been influential across the sport, in management, behind the scenes, and in the media. But the commentary and reporting on that final smacks more of the ‘50s than the year that The Beatles released Revolver. In a way, Wolstenhome’s famous line marks another year zero, one at the start of modern football writing.
I must have seen it forty times
Taking the ball past one, another,
Stumbling, recovering, scoring
Always I want the defeated full back to stop him
Ah, the chances let slip!
-B S Johnson, ‘World Cup Shot’
The idea that sport is defined by its reporting is not new. While baseball was being developed in the US, sports writers attending games were considered official scorers, their reports a matter of record. In cycling, the Tours of France and Italy were created by L’Auto (which became L’Equipe) and La Gazzetta respectively.
So it would seem that the commissioners of Goal!, the official film of the 1966 World Cup, had one eye on posterity, when they employed Brian Glanville as scriptwriter. The novelist and ghost-writer could be relied upon to create the immediate and lasting sense of nostalgia required of these films. There was just one thing: Glanville was the second choice.
The first writer chosen was B.S. Johnson, at the time (at most times) a struggling novelist. By the mid-‘60s, Johnson had published a few novels that couldn’t be more different from Glanville’s. He delighted in playing games with form, insisting these games were vital in creating a truly ‘modern’ piece of art. So, in Travelling People, the reader gets through nearly the whole book before a crashing authorial intrusion reminds them in un-broadcastable language that it was all a fictional construction. In Alberto Angelo, he went even further, cutting holes in some pages so that the reader had a textual ‘premonition’ of the future.
Johnson was made a huge offer to write the script for what became Goal! – £250 to begin, and another £250 upon completion. He set to with gusto, aiming to better the film of the Tokyo Olympics two years earlier. In Johnson’s script, the players of each team were to be observed in their free time in each host city – he had vague hopes of capturing the likes of Eusebio and Beckenbauer in quaint English pubs. This in itself would have been hugely problematic in a 90 minute film.
He also had a vision of a film that worked through automatic mental associations in the viewer. Hence his introduction ran like this:
City tower blocks…
glass link to: …Kew Gardens…
grass link to: Regent’s Park…
clothes link to: Carnaby Street (if you must)…
junk link to: Club Row Sunday morning market…pan…to PO Tower.
Tower link to: …St Paul’s…
Cathedral link to: …’Pop’ architecture, includes pub at southern base.
Pub link to: …football game in London pub…
Ball link to: Father teaching small son to kick football in tiny back garden.
Child link to: …school playground.
Ball link to: Street game: goal marked out in chalk.
Even now, it seems far too mannered and formalised to make a popular film. The producers certainly thought so: they sacked Johnson from the project at the beginning of the competition’s second week. On the film’s eventual release, it won a BAFTA, though The Sunday Times dismissed it as being like “…those Walt Disney nature films where they lay it on not so much with a trowel as with a mallet.”
B.S. Johnson continued at the World Cup, though, writing reports for The Times of India. His constant devotion to experimentation on form did not quite preclude him from earning a small living as a football and tennis reporter, though his relationships with editors – on newspapers and in publishing houses – was tempestuous to say the least. At the middle of the decade, his football reports could be found in The Observer. Richard Burton offered the odd rugby piece, and philosopher A.J. Ayer also reported on football for a time. Johnson would often rail against the butchering of his copy by the subs, even though for his first report he managed to get two goal scorer’s names wrong. This continued until he simultaneously quit the paper, and began a story about a football reporter.
This would turn into his most famous novel, The Unfortunates. That is, if you can call it a novel. This story of a sports hack returning to an industrial city to cover a football game was published as 27 separately bound chapters, in a box. The first and last chapters were marked as such; the rest were to be read in any order the reader liked.
The story in The Unfortunates is narrated by an unnamed football reporter, based on Johnson himself. The reporter arrives in an unnamed city (slowly revealed to be Nottingham), and mixes the day’s match with memories of an earlier visit, to a friend who has since died of cancer. The novel was finished in September 1967, though it is set, according to Johnson’s biographer, Jonathan Coe, at a match on New Year’s Day 1963. So the novel looks back across the decade in the exact same way that Larkin does. Johnson’s view of ’63, though, was less celebratory. As the year began, he scribbled the following, unpublished lines:
Nineteen hundred and sixty-three-
A year I hardly thought to see.
But since it’s here I won’t complain –
Just hope it won’t come back again.
Johnson rails against the barbaric treatment of language in sports reporting. The ‘Last’ section of the novel consists of a transcription of a reporter reading his copy down the ‘phone to his paper. It is ironic that despite “This bloody reporting”, this block of language, broken down into the familiar and increasingly meaningless football clichés, is the most easily understandable. As the narrator says, “Thank Christ I don’t have to write…preliminary speculative meaningless crap…just my own kind of crap.”
The Unfortunates can be read as a critique of those ‘swinging’ years when London was the centre of the world, and England ruled football. In his narrator’s musings on what was the disguised City Ground, Johnson notes the shortcomings of the “popular” stands, and allows himself a dig at Wembley, where a year since the author should have been filming. This sense of decay inherent in the fabric of football is meant to mirror the physical decay of the reporter’s friend, dying from the ‘random’ advances of cancer.
Touched nearly to the point of obsession with these decays, B.S. Johnson would descend into drinking and depression in the years after 1966, though football retained an allegorical power for him. Looking back, he mapped the gaps in memory over the gaps in play on an imperfect City Ground pitch, doing so with ellipses and gaps in the Unfortunates text.
One of his last acts was to watch his beloved Chelsea. At Stamford Bridge, as a friend tells it, Johnson rued a poor performance by a Chelsea player, commenting that he could be relied upon to “do the obvious”. This player then “Put the ball over the centre-half’s head…turned around and hit it into the back of the net”. Johnson and his friend celebrated madly, the author shouting long and hard, “The fucking obvious!” This real-life illustration of randomness and plot on the football pitch seemed to settle something in the writer: he slit his wrists in the bath a couple of days later.