A Section of the Crowd
By Stuart Evers.
Each year, as a birthday present, I write a story for my nephew, Kyle. A month or so before the day comes, he tells me what he wants me to include — Killer Robots! Pirates! Slimy aliens! — and I mesh it to a plot about a bunch of jumping rodents called the Tumble Bunnies. It’s pretty simple stuff, but when I was recently asked whether I would be interested in contributing a children’s story for a website I thought it’d be easy to adapt one into something for all kinds of kids, not just Kyle. Somehow, though, it just didn’t seem to work — and I was forced to rethink. In doing so, I spent a lot of time thinking about what I’d liked when I was a nine-year-old, the books that inspired me.
At that age, I was a voracious and inveterate re-reader. I read the same books and novels over and over again. Not good ones, either, certainly not great works of children’s literature. I read trash almost to the exclusion of anything else. Even though there was a well stocked and well-run library in town, my literary diet stuck to very narrow, unadventurous confines: Star Trek adaptations, novelizations of films, Choose Your Own adventure books, autobiographies of footballers — all read and reread several times over. This was especially true of The Bumper Book of Football Stories, which has probably had more of a lasting influence on my literary tastes and passions than any other.
The book was cheaply printed and included such great titles as “The Boy Who Couldn’t Kick” and “The Utility Man”. Back then I was obsessed by football, by Ian Rush’s moustache and Craig Johnston’s curly mop, by Jan Molby’s bulk and Steve McMahon’s mullet, and when I wasn’t playing or training, I was thinking about football. When I wasn’t thinking about football I was reading, and normally I was reading The Bumper Book of Football Stories.
It was the perfect escape, an entry point into the world of football that I felt sure I would one day join. As I can’t locate a copy of the book, by necessity I’m recalling all of this from a distance of 25 years or so, but the memories of it are startlingly clear. “The Boy Who Couldn’t Kick” for example — with its plot of a star striker helping a young boy he meets in the park to kick the ball better — already sounded implausible in 1985, but part of me really did think that it was possible to pop down to the playing fields and bump into Paul Walsh or Frank Stapleton.
Every story — bar one — in the collection played on the romance of an already bygone era of football; the pitches were muddy, the youngsters plucky and the captains rugged, money was never mentioned (except when a chairman put in a cameo) and everyone was bound together by camaraderie and team spirit. What they suggested was all that everyone really, deep down, wanted to do was play football and score goals. All of them bar the story called “A Section of the Crowd”.
Unlike the conventional narrative arc and trajectory of the other stories, “A Section of the Crowd” was on more than nodding terms with the reality of football in the 70s and 80s; a reality, especially post-Heysel, that the remainder of the book was either ignoring — or was entirely ignorant of. Its difference was striking, and though I have forgotten so many things about it, I can recall exactly that first realisation that this was not a nice story.
It was the first time I was genuinely shocked by writing; the first time a story had made me feel physically uncomfortable. What I remember most is thinking: but why? Why is this awful thing happening? And not being given a clear answer from the writer. It was just the way it was: there was no explanation. Those first times I reread it, I did so thinking I’d missed something; but there remained no clues. A section of the crowd hated this one young footballer — and they made sure he knew about it.
They holler, they chant, they hurl abuse his way, but no reason is ever given. His form is affected and he’s dropped from home games, but even when he’s sitting on the bench, the bile from the crowd is incessant. And he can’t do anything to stop them: the baying mob have made up their mind. I could imagine them pointing and leering in much the same way I would later on when reading about the one minute’s hate in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
As I remember it, there is no happy ending. I think he ends up getting transferred or something, not that it really matters now. It had such power on me that it changed the way I read books, the kinds of stories I hunted out. I liked the ambiguity, the sense of not knowing what was coming next or why things were happening in the first place. Ultimately, it made me think at a young age that stories don’t always do what you want them to.
“A Section of the Crowd”, hidden in the anthology like a hacksaw inside a prison-bound cake, inadvertently led me to seek out books for older readers. I wanted to feel that visceral thrill again; that I was being taken to a realistic world where you couldn’t be sure that everything would be okay. More so, it made me interested in the process of writing, of how a story could be told, rather than just reading it, consuming it and moving on to something else. This interest was piqued as I later stumbled across the writers who shaped my literary consciousness — Orwell, Joyce, Patrick Hamilton, Carver, Perec, Delillo — but it was instigated by this strange little football story, by an author whose name I don’t even know. It’s the kind of story I wish I could write all the time.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stuart Evers writes about books for a variety of publications in the UK, including the Guardian, the Independent, the New Statesman and Time Out. His fiction has appeared in Litro, The Book Club Boutique Magazine, Everyday Genius and 3:AM. He is currently completing his new collection, Ten Short Stories About Smoking.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, February 12th, 2010.