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Sins Against the Soul

Daniel Harris Interviewed by Richard Marshall.

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3:AM: Getting your book On The Road out is a great achievement. Did you always want to write?

Daniel Harris: I’m a writer and journalist, though I trained as a lawyer in the City – not something in which I’d ever had even the remotest interest. But I’d left university intending to write but without a firm plan of what exactly it’d be, though I’d begun a novel, so a couple of years of law school followed by a couple more in a firm seemed like a pretty good way of making sure I worked it out, whilst allowing me to subsist at the same time. In actual fact, about ten minutes would have sufficed, but by then I couldn’t get out of it, so had to wait until I’d finished my training contract before an escape was possible.

3:AM: Had you always read a lot and how did that influence your writing?

DH: I read loads until I was about 10, but nothing precocious – the various Enid Blytons, everything by Michael Hardcastle, all the Jennings books, a fair bit of Agatha Christie – and also had Roy of the Rovers and The Beano delivered every week; Dennis the Menace is a hero, and the subject of perhaps my favourite ever piece of published work. But the one book that stands out most, especially in terms of something that made me want to write, is the brilliant Secrets of the School Underground, by Pete Johnson – I implore anyone who’s not read it to pick up a copy and defy them not to love it. But by the time I was in secondary school, I’d pretty much stopped reading anything apart from the sports pages, including set texts. And now, it’s hard to find time to read because any time I could be reading feels like time I should be writing.

Though I kind of regret not reading the plenty of things I’ve never got to, I’ve permitted myself the indulgence or excuse of wondering whether it helps in developing an individual voice. I wouldn’t say I model myself on anyone else – when I think of the writers I like, other than a nebulous concept of style, there’s not very much that connects them to one another, and, of course, even less that connects their writing to my own, but in any case, it’s often a book or two, rather than their entire canon that I’m into.

But I love the sweeping texture of Steinbeck at the end of his career and I love the otherwordliness of Murakami when he’s good. Irvine Welsh is another favourite, with three hilarious, sensitive, brilliantly-observed novels, but a fair amount of dross too. As prose stylists, I admire Michael Cunningham, J.M. Coetzee and Michael Chabon, though I’m not crazy over Chabon’s novels; Raymond Chandler at his best paints picture and atmosphere like perhaps no one else; and the edgiest, most interesting writing I’ve read in recent years is Junot Diaz‘s.

That said, it’s not just other writers who’ve inspired and inspire me to write. Culturally speaking, the three most significant episodes in my life have been discovering Bob Dylan: though there are a couple of hip-hop emcees who come close (Nas and Biggie, in case anyone’s interested), no one gets the poetics of language and imagery quite like him; Eric Cantona jumping into the crowd at Selhurst Park in 1995; and watching Pulp Fiction in the cinema for the first time, which seemed like precisely the film I’d have wanted to make for myself, and the way its style forms its substance is something I’d always hoped to accomplish in my own storytelling.

I’d always been a bit obsessed with playing with words, but Pulp Fiction in particular, and specifically its dialogue, made me think that writing things was something I needed to do, annoyingly just around the time I’d stopped doing it. The way that the English educational system is structured, you don’t get to do much creative writing beyond about 14, let alone learn about how stories work or anything like that. But amongst my group of friends, there was always the challenge of being the best at recounting anecdotes, performing routines and distributing insults – like the fighting, farting and all the even more unpleasant things that we got up to, partly as another way of competing, partly in the name of entertaining ourselves and each other.

Towards the end of my time at school and during my time as a student, I was grabbed by the work of Marx, Nietzsche and Foucault, which has informed my work to an extent. I’ve also spent a fair bit of time reading the work of Jewish thinkers, primarily Maimonides and Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, and studied biblical and Talmudic texts in reasonable depth, the former perhaps the definitive piece of literature and accompanied by the most incredibly rich tradition of exegesis, interpretation and language games.

3:AM: So tell us about your book.

DH: Whilst still a lawyer, I started writing for a Manchester United fanzine called Red Issue. It’s both as sophisticated and as base as the genre gets, and when I started reading it as a young teenager, I was immediately taken with it, first by its savagery and then its subtlety. Many years later, one of its writers, whom I’d got to know via its internet messageboard, asked me to do a piece for them, and I’ve been a contributor ever since. Dubious though this may sound, and I promise I do know some real people, via the same messageboard, I came across the editor of Soccernet.com, ESPN’s football website. I was looking for work, so pitched him a few ideas and wrote a few pieces. Then, at the beginning of the last football season, he asked me to do a weekly piece, which we decided would be about following United around – to away games only, as I’d stopped going to homes after the takeover. In the event, that ended up as what’s hopefully a starting point from which to examine why people love football, why people love anything and why they behave in the way that they do kind of thing, as well as an opportunity to hand out plenty of impeccably-merited stick, along with the personal anecdotes and observations that seemed worthy of repeating. And then it became a book.

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3:AM: There’s a lot wrong with football…

DH: Yes, as there is with pretty much everything. For a writer that’s a gift, but as a person the state of the game makes me sick to my soul. It’s hard to know where to start listing all the things that are wrong with football – the owners, the players, the broadcasters, the authorities, the government, but there’ve been two crucial moments as far as it goes in this country: first when the FA allowed Irving Scholar to circumvent its rules by taking Tottenham public – effectively legitimising any kind of avarice – and then after 1990 World Cup. Suddenly it was not only socially acceptable to like football, but almost unacceptable not to, when before, it had largely been considered, by the government in particular, as a vehicle for working class thuggery. Then, all of a sudden, it identified itself as an unexploited resource that could make a lot of money, and the Premier League was formed, Sky bought in, and that was pretty much that – gentrification and ruination ahoy, the carousel of money going round and round, filling all the wrong pockets and emptying all the right ones.

Thinking about it, it’s also worth flagging Hillsborough as something that was influential. By imposing all-seater stadia – a totally unnecessary measure when all that was needed was safe grounds, safe standing and sensible policing – clubs were also able to charge more for a less enjoyable experience. But because supporters are so emotionally invested in their clubs, most who are serious about supporting them will wear increased ticket prices until they can’t afford it, and similarly, there are very few armchair viewers or matchgoers who are prepared to do without Sky if they can afford it.

All-seater stadia also makes the crowds easier to control and observe – the unruliness that’s a central part of going to the game, and paradoxically a huge part of what’s always attracted those not interested in participating in the unruliness itself – is much harder to create now.

Socially, perhaps the most significant result of the increased cost of tickets has been the pricing out of young people. There was a time when kids with nothing to do could just go to the game, and even if they got into trouble whilst they were at it, better they did so there, where they might also find a sense of belonging to something greater than themselves, than in parks and on street corners. Now, that’s not possible, and football grounds are full of middle-aged types with no obvious successors.

3:AM: So what do you think about club ownership?

DH: Between them, the FA, Premier League and government have made the most insanely large pig’s arse of this – as they have of pretty much everything connected with the game – allowing a succession of death-avoiders, carpetbaggers, speculators, human rights abusers, toy-seekers and nationalist megalomaniacs to buy clubs, with utterly predictable results.

In terms of the health of the game, the highly leveraged buyouts are most dangerous, but the ones done via insane wealth are almost as bad. Either way, what you end up with is a situation where, though conceptually speaking, what and whom the clubs represent remain the same, the game done changed. When United win a trophy, the happiness is diluted because there are people not there enjoying it who’ve either chosen not to go on principle – I stopped going to home games in 2005 after the takeover – or had that choice made for them by economics, and the more success United have, the longer it’ll take to end the occupation. And then, of course, there’s the players – the intersection of my joy with, say, that of Rio Ferdinand, is somewhat disconcerting.

3:AM: Do you think there’s a difference between watching English football and European?

DH: The fanaticism has a different kind of intensity outside the UK, though in terms of loyalty, it tends to be the English who attract the biggest crowds and travel in the biggest numbers. Germany is probably most geared to supporters, largely because those supporters have put aside parochial loyalties to campaign together on issues that affect them all. So at Bundesliga games, you can stand on a terrace, buy a beer in the stand, and generally enjoy yourself, without being interfered with.

The Germans have also built the best new stadia; in England they’re round-edged bowls designed around private boxes and the unobstructed sight lines that simply aren’t that important – if they were, you’d just watch on telly. New English grounds also tend to stretch backwards rather than upwards, meaning that you’re not really involved in the action, when being there’s about proximity not visibility.

Policing and stewarding is another area in which England is a mess, and yet another one of those circular hustles that negatively impacts the folk it’s meant to protect. The more people nicked at the game, the more police can be justified at the next, the bigger the budgets the more lucrative and widespread the overtime, the bill for which is ultimately footed by the fans.

So at Birmingham last season, for example,at half-tie, there was some general rowdiness under the stand, but nothing in particular going on, when suddenly a load of robocops turn up and within seconds are indiscriminately clattering people with truncheon, shield and feet, leaving a few who’d had the misfortune to be shoved into them with blood pouring out of head-wounds. Then, leaving the ground afterwards, there were more police than you’ve ever seen before in your life, lined up for absolutely no reason and doing absolutely fuck-all – United Birmingham in the snow and ice is hardly high-risk. But it’s a gravy train, and no one’s remotely interested in getting off.

3:AM: Are some places better than others?

DH: Of course, though the corpulence of the Champions League means that when the draws are made, it’s no longer as straightforward as hoping to go somewhere nice. The pattern of the competition and its perpetuating cycle of money retention means that you’ve been to all the big cities and grounds generally more than once, so trips that would once have been viewed as special simply aren’t any more. Instead, you’re hoping for obscure trips to places you’d never go to were it not for the game.

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3:AM: What about the role of Ferguson in everything happening at United?

DH: Fergie’s not solely responsible for the mess, but he’s certainly played a leading role. Much of this is simply an unfortunate consequence of his position, but that’s just the way it is: with great power comes great responsibility.

When Fergie was contemplating retirement and beginning to dabble in horse racing, he effectively invited JP McManus and John Magnier into the club to the benefit of no one but himself. When they fell out over money – or more precisely, when Fergie’s greed got the better of him – Coolmore destabilised the club by bringing it into the argument, exposing the same dodgy financial dealings with club money and business that Fergie was accused of by the BBC, though they were irrelevant to what was a private matter.

Even then, though, everyone supported him. Not because everyone believed he was right – the evidence was damning, and he never sued – but because it was part of supporting United. And despite the dishonesty, Fergie was still way in credit, thanks to the glory he’d brought and trophies he’d won largely playing the United way – fast, attacking, entertaining football, with young players, maverick characters, hard bastards, incredible fortitude and a take-no-shit attitude. So despite his sticky fingers – not something Sir Matt Busby was ever accused of – he was still a hero.

But once Coolmore sold its shares to the Glazers, even if you could argue that it wasn’t a direct consequence of the row over Rock of Gibraltar, which you just about credibly could, his conduct since then has been an embarrassment. Until May 2005, Fergie had always promised, in public and on the record, to say nothing of his private briefings, that he, along with chief exec David Gill, who had spoken forcefully about an “overly-aggressive” business plan, bullishly surmising that “debt is the road to ruin”, would always protect United from predating leeches like the Glazers.

Had both refused to work for them, it’s inconceivable that the banks would have leant them the absolutely loads of money they needed to complete the takeover. Gill, though, is ultimately a suit, so was never to be trusted, but Fergie, on the other hand, was meant to be and had made self-righteous capital out of being one of us.

Thing was, Fergie’s position at the time was as weak as it’d been for a generation – the team were playing badly, he’d signed a collection of nomarks for alleged personal gain, and people were losing patience, if not love. Suddenly, here was a chance for him to cement his position until he decided to retire; the Glazers needed him more than he needed them, so he broke all promises and acted in what he perceived to be his best interests. Whether they actually were does, I suppose, depend on whether you value honour, glory and legacy over success, money and longevity, but with every fellatious fawn about what great owners the Glazers are, he falls further into the abyss of traitorous purgatory.

Fergie goes on a lot about how the club has always developed young players, which is true. But whereas in the past we did it because it was important, now we do it because it’s a necessity. If all the money that’s been taken out of the club, money that’s effectively paying the Glazers for the privilege of their ownership, had remained within it, every fan could watch every game for free, and there’d be plenty of change too. There’s been success since the takeover, but in spite of it not because of it, and in any event, that’s not what’s important – when I was a kid, success was an occasional garnish. I didn’t get the bug because United won trophies, and the notion of winning is neither why I go nor why I care; it’s to do with the fact that my granddad went to Old Trafford in the 30s and 40s, passed it down to my dad, and I’ll do the same to my children. The values and ideology that United represents – flair, artistry, rebelliousness and spirit, inculcated within you from an early age, ensure United-related experiences then become incredibly formative.

3:AM: What’s next after this book?

DH: I’ve written a novel – called Ego Sum – that my agent’s about to start pitching, so hopefully that’ll be out in the next bit, though the market is tricky. I write what I suppose would have to be termed literary fiction, which doesn’t make money at the best of times, and at the moment, publishers are particularly circumspect and risk-averse; they want to know what a book is similar to that’s already made money for someone else, and how precisely it can be classified, not that it’s original, which is obviously something I’m hoping quite hard to be.

3:AM: How does your Jewish heritage affect your writing?

DH: In the football book there’s quite a few Jewish and Yiddish references and analogies, and because the book’s personal in some ways, and being Jewish is a significant part of who I am, it comes through to an extent. Let me give you an example: at the start of the little section in which I make most of my principal complaints about Fergie, I compare criticising him to what, in biblical parlance, is called a sin against the soul – something that happens only five times in the whole Torah and is marked by a particular note that explains the turmoil of the individual involved – most famously when Joseph resists the advances of Potiphar’s ridiculously beautiful wife.

More generally speaking, being Jewish informs my writing in the same way as everything else I’ve ever seen, heard, read or experienced. I put as much of myself into my work as I possibly can, and it so happens that Judaism is a huge part of that. I grew up with a love of vernacular, story-telling and self-deprecation, shot through with a very loving but also harsh spirit of piss-taking and rudeness – characteristic of a childhood spent in Jewish schools and at Jewish summer and winter camps. That said, I’m nothing like Howard Jacobson, who writes specifically about Jewishness – though given how brilliantly he’s doing perhaps I should say that I do too…

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Marshall
is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, December 3rd, 2010.