Saturday, August 15, 2009
A Save Before Dying
This time, the setting is Glanville's native England, and the book's protagonist is Len Rawlings, a celebrated international goalkeeper who has found it impossible to adapt to life beyond football. Brief stints in management have proved painful and frustrating, and the days of endless cosy commentating jobs are a long way off (the book was published in 1976). Rawlings' seething anger at his new-found irrelevance go hand-in-hand with his jealousy of the playboy lifestyles of contemporary stars, unencumbered by the dreaded maximum wage; a potent mix which sends him down the path of petty crime.
The book shifts between two narrators: Rawlings' upwardly-mobile daughter Jenny, by turns contemptuous of the footballing world and heartbroken by her father's steep descent, and Rawlings himself, a fallen idol who hasn't managed to move beyond adolescence, and is stuck in an atavistic holding pattern of derision and self-pity. The ruminations of the tragic hero are interspersed with quotes from a fictitious autobiography, From Post to Post, in which Glanville has great fun parodying the ghostwritten inanities of that particular genre.
The cast of characters is a cross-section of the English football establishment in the sixties and seventies: ignorant self-made chairmen, gushing former fans offering double-edged assistance to the likes of Rawlings, flinty-hearted administrators, and all the rest. Rawlings finds refuge in the past, but the story of the book is essentially that of the present catching up with him.
The chronological jumps in the first part of the book are a little off-putting, and the idea that Rawlings feels "cheated" by football is rammed home a little too thoroughly. But as a portrait of a sportsman whose life is left a terrifying blank after his playing days are over, the book works very well, and resonates for many sports other than football. Rawlings' description of the circumstances that led him to steal a watch after a tribute dinner - his first step on the wrong side of the law - is acutely poignant. And the unexpected conclusion of the book is genuinely disturbing.
It's difficult to imagine, these days, the grip exerted by the maximum wage in England before and just after the war. Footballers were the idols of their day, but they could be left virtually penniless at the ends of their careers, and Glanville undoubtedly knew figures like Rawlings in real life. Coincidentally, his latest column for the World Soccer website contains a splenetic account of the activities of the current Chelsea squad, and a sad aside about the heroes of the past. For John Terry et al., crassly advertising their wealth in nightclubs may have no effect on their performance on the pitch...
...but at a credit crunch time, when more and more thousands are losing their jobs, more and more thousands are in fear of losing their houses, it is surely the height of insensitivity to go into such an orgy of conspicuous consumption. And one cannot help thinking – though it’s no fault of the current crop – of all those fine players of the past who died in obscurity and poverty.
I would imagine that, as he penned those last lines, Glanville was thinking of The Dying of the Light.