Tuesday, 15 May 2018

The plight of the novel in society when kids refuse to grow up

There is plenty of advice out there on how to get an agent, and much of it is similar. So, it must be right, yes?

Well, given that agents stand guard over the watchtower that protects the entrance to the fortress of publication, what they say goes. Without them you will not get a foot on the drawbridge; the portcullis will never be raised, no matter how much you shout at the thick stone walls. They all say they are on the lookout for new writers to excite them – to elevate some poor aspiring writer amongst the many on the outside all hoping to access the London literary citadel. And there are so many millions on the outside: too many people writing books, which quite frankly aren’t very good. It is therefore hard for even superb, new books to surface above the vast sea of mediocrity. The agent becomes a necessity.

But the focus of agents by necessity is on the inside of their castle – first and foremost they have to make money from their existing list of authors. That is how they pay their bills, buy their Prosecco. That means spending time and effort schmoozing with publishers and promoters to get those projects onto the mass market – selling tens of thousands on the shelves of Tesco and the newsagents at railway stations and airports.

They all claim to be in favour of diversity, but they cannot easily take a risk with something that is not like something else that has already sold well, or with a book by an unknown whose very name does not automatically generate interest in our celebrity-obsessed society. If you regularly appear on TV, your new children’s book / romance / kiss-and-tell is a shoo-in, whether it is any good or not. The book has to be a good bet to sell to the thirty-something, tube-riding, Pret A Manger-eating, aspirational female.

So, agents become the arbiters of taste. The advice that comes down from on high is advice – not on what makes for good literature – but what they might best be able to clinch a big deal on with publisher. Do they amount to the same thing? Sadly not.

An agent will spend a small proportion of their time looking at submissions. They will rarely read past the first page – if they even get as far as picking the manuscript up. They rarely waste their valuable time in correspondence, or the basic courtesy of a reply to an inquiry letter. So, what is the advice for that crucial first page? They all say they have to be grabbed immediately by what they read; they want to be in the story straight away. These are not people who are fond of a long slow chat-up or gentle foreplay. They want their pants down on page one. George Eliot would not get her novels looked at if she was around today. Adam Bede has one of the best introductions in English literature but it is long and slow and descriptive and you have been reading some time before anything much happens. It leads the reader gently by the hand rather than thrusting them rudely up against the wall.

An intelligent reader of these modern high-octane novels, soon tires of the formula, of immediate peril, of tension being cranked up, of being psychologically manipulated by an author who is writing to a recipe. Louise Doughty’s brilliant novel Stone Cradle is skilfully crafted, is languid. It is as near perfect as a novel can be. Yet it is the Alton Towers-ride, nauseating rush, of Apple Tree Yard that is popular and sold in large numbers.

What is going on? It is all symptomatic of an infantilization of society. Those who read Harry Potter, who proudly announce they favour YA fiction as a genre. Thinking is a trait to be discouraged – in fact, how often do you hear it proudly rejected – when you tell someone about a great book and they reply that they don’t read books but have seen the film because it requires nothing from them. It is mere passivity. Who but a crank would read Tolstoy these days? Anna Karenina is a terrible book by modern standards – badly plotted, dreadfully paced, parallel, largely unrelated stories (of Levin and Anna), far too wordy and full of description that does not serve the plot. And the title is just boring and says nothing about what the book is about.

As authors we are told we are competing not with other authors but with other forms of entertainment. What hope then for an author who wants to write intelligent adult fiction in a world where there are fewer and fewer grown-ups? Where people in their 20s, 30s or 40s go and watch Star Wars without even the excuse of taking their kids with them. Grown-ups who still drink fizzy pop, who prefer their coffee milky and caramelly, who dress like American teenagers, and who can’t be bothered to work out how to vote so trip out the mantra that “they are all the same.” That is of course the point. Large corporations want brand loyalty, they need you to be a slave to your smartphone, to upgrade it every year, and it suits governments who don’t want you to think for yourself – they want you to leave them to get on with it otherwise they might lose power and risk the overly large slice of the cake they and their friends enjoy.

If that has depressed you, take heart. Just as indie-music kicked down the doors of the stronghold of the likes of the EMI, RCA, Polydor and CBS in the late 70s, so there are more and more small and independent publishers out there who are not tied to huge print runs, who are fleet of foot, not tied to London, who run a tight budget and care more about great literature than shovelling stodge down the throats of the masses. The big publishers like to regard themselves as guarantors of quality, but as with music in the 1970s, they no longer have such a monopoly. The big publishers still have a stranglehold on the shelf space and tablespace in big bookshops, but readers are finding other ways to discover a more varied, richer reading diet.

Friday, 1 July 2016

A Mother's Love

A Mother’s Love

Joe stepped off the train and held the package close to his side. He adjusted his weight on his crutch and dropped his kit bag to the platform. It smelt like home – the grease and steam from the engine mixed with that distinct smell of man, beast and machine working flat out to produce shells and armour plate. And yet there was no joy in him.
    Mick’s mother lived in the notorious Crofts; he would take a cab from the front of the station: people moved aside, a look of horror mixed with pity in their eyes. Before he could attempt to rebuild his life he had to give her this – all that was left of Mick wrapped in, now smutted, brown paper – Christ! how was he going to explain to her. The Christmas table at Mick’s would have a very empty seat. Good ol’ Mick – what a bloody laugh they’d had last year – as he lost his last Christmas dinner over the side in the Bay of Biscay. Sailing to Egypt was just one big adventure then for boys who, until they’d enlisted, had never been further than Derby that happy September day in times of innocence when the United netted five.
The old horse strained to move the cab away – all the good ones had been blown to bits in France. Town looked just the same, and yet everything had changed. He fingered the string on the packet – Mick’s book – his Bible – his lucky charm – with a sniper’s bullet right through the middle of it. What sort of God was this? As he’d lain there next to Mick he felt warm liquid seeping over his own chest – he’d been hit too. Except, when he’d felt inside, it was just his pewter flask leaking whisky where it had been punctured by shrapnel. The bloody irony of that! The sweet boy who’d taken the pledge, shot dead through his holy book, and the sinner saved by his sin.
   Ten minutes before Zero on the first of July they’d left the trench, comrades side by side, as the mortars opened up a hurricane bombardment and a huge mine exploded to the south shattering the world and sending smoke and earth hundreds of feet into the sky, drowning out even the deafening noise of the bombardment. There they’d lain down in the middle of No Man’s Land as grenades and artillery flew over. Then it went quiet, momentarily – perhaps it wouldn’t happen after all? But Zero had arrived – the artillery started again and the whistles blew. They got to their feet – they had to walk with rifles raised, not run – and then all of hell descended. They were supposed to be going forward but didn’t: as the front line fell more targets took their place, bodies piled up and blood and humanity mixed with mud. Screams and moans and cries of “mother” from boys only just in breeches pierced through the din, the smoke, the blasts that shook and rent flesh. Him and Mick pushed on but the bloody wire was still there and they couldn’t cross the last few yards. Then Mick fell and he’d picked him up and dragged him towards a shell hole – then a grenade went off and he came round with Mick under him and a searing pain in his foot and across the side of his face. Mick was conscious; he tried to keep him talking but gradually he had faded in his arms. He kissed him, but he had never known just how much he meant to him. How could he ever?
   There were a few of the Pals in that shell hole. They’d had to fight like hell to defend that open grave until nightfall. Then he’d had to leave Mick – along with all the others they stepped over on their way back. All he could return of Mick was that precious Bible – the one with pressed poppies and wild flowers in.
   He had been amongst the one in three of the City Battalion that survived that day.
   He was shipped out to a first aid station and was spared those next three nightmare days clearing up the mess. He had tried to find out if Mick’s body had been retrieved and buried – he couldn’t bear to think of that beautiful boy – out there – being stripped by rats and maggots.
   The next day the post from home arrived and they were instructed to open it all – cigarettes, chocolates, socks, packed up with tender cards, letters of good wishes and prayers sent out to a God who just wasn’t there.
   No afterlife. Just this. One go at getting it right.
   No post arrived for Mick, for which he was grateful.

He tried to give the cabbie the one and six but he refused it – always that look in their eyes – he’d rather have their respect. He stood and looked round for the right courtyard. A child stood gawping at him.
‘Nah den kid, weer’s Mick Flannery’s ’ouse?’
The child, bare-footed and wearing clothes his own mother wouldn’t have considered fit for cleaning cloths, led him timidly into a soot-blackened courtyard. There was a stench of overflowing middens; some hens pecking near an open drain and the broken paving was coated in brown slime. He shuddered as his mind flashed back to July. His hand went up to the claret scar on his cheek. The boy indicated the house; Joe tossed him a ha’penny and approached the door. He took a deep breath and knocked. A girl pulled the door open, something in those blue eyes said she was Mick’s sister – how could he not know? – but Mick never spoke of his family.
‘Is Mrs Flannery in?’
‘Mother there’s a fella at t’ doo-er’
‘What’s ’e want?’ came a voice from inside.
‘I dunno.’
Joe waited. A dishevelled woman came out of the gloom. She was filthy; grey, matted hair, ancient-looking. Joe thought she had been drinking.
‘I’m looking for Mrs Flannery – Michael’s mother.’
‘Tha’s found ’er.’ Joe was shocked. This woman could surely never have given birth to someone so beautiful.
‘I’m a friend of Mick’s.’ He held out the package. ‘This was his Bible. I think he might have wanted you to have it.’
‘Tha can keep it. I’m not bothered.’
The door closed in his face. He didn’t move. She was supposed to invite him in, ask how Mick died, weep and wail.
How could a mother’s love be less than his own?

You can get the book that this story is taken from here
All author royalties go to War Child to help support children in conflict affected parts of the world.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Helen Hollick is a writer herself as well as the Historical Novel Society's Indie editor.

    It is confusing for readers faced with the plethora of indie-published novels to know whether any of them they are worth spending time and money on. At least a commercially published novel is a guarantee that it has passed some sort of quality threshold isn't it? (Not always. Many of them are plain rubbish or badly written). In my experience,  indie-novels can be superb - they may just have been over-looked or not sufficiently "like something else" that has sold well: how many times do you see books sold using things such as: "Will appeal to fans of..." (insert "Downton Abbey," "Ian Rankin," "Harry Potter," "Call the Midwife," "Kathy Lette," or just about anything popular). Do we always want to read the same old stuff? How many more books on the Tudors can we take? Indie-novels don't make it onto the shelves of  Tesco just because they are not like anything else, not written by authors with an already large fan-base, and not written by celebrities. They may still be very good in their niche, but not something that large publishers feel they can take a risk on because there is no guarantee of selling 10,000+ copies.
    So, how do readers find these gems amongst all the dross? (and let's face it there is a lot of dross). Large numbers of reviews on Amazon may be one way, but what about novels that have not managed to reach readers in the first place, and can you always trust that reviews are not just posted by mates of the author?
    One way is to rely on other thresholds of quality, such as the HNS Indie Editor's picks.

This month Helen is doing a fantastic job showcasing some of these indie gems on her A to Z Challenge blog. Each day in a April a different book is featured using the fun idea of interviewing the books' lead characters. All of the books featured are, readers can be reassured, good reads, and the authors know their subjects and have the skills to entertain their readers.

Follow this link to Helen Hollick's blog, bringing my character Rab Howell back to life (copied below). There you'll also find the link to the other 25 books all of which come with a guarantee of indie-quality:

Throughout April I have invited 26 authors who had been selected as Editor's Choice by the Historical Novel Society Indie Reviews
 to help me out with the 2016 A-Z Blog Challenge...

Except to be a little different I interviewed 
their leading Character/s...

Today's Character is from :

HH : Hello! I believe you exist in Steven Kay’s  novel – The Evergreen in red and white. Would you like to introduce yourself – who you are, what you do etc?

Now just hold up. I don’t know how you’re doing this. I never went in for all that hokabens – y’know old Romany folk looking into the future – just a money making trick. I’ve been dead for nigh on eighty year, lass! But anyroad, I’ll try my best, like I allus do. They call us Rab – Rabbi Howell – them newspaper types they sometimes called us “the terrier” or “the evergreen.” I were one of the best half-backs in my day – some days the very best in England. Played right up to when that lundy sod from Burnley broke us leg – they heard the crack all round t’ ground.

HH : Where and when are you? Are you a real historical person or did your author create you?
Oh right, I see. I were real enough. I were born on a hill just outside Sheffield – a gypsy see. When were it? – I dunno – a fair while back – an’ I started playing for the United in 1890. Before that I were a hewer – down t’pit. Becoming a professional footballer were one of the best things that happened to us – that and meeting Ada. That were in 1897 – what a year that were, eh?
HH. In a few brief sentences: what is the novel you feature in about?
What I just said, lass – that year when I met Ada. It were a bit awkward – ’cause I were already married – an’ it were a bit of a scandal, an’ football clubs back then were right strict about stuff like that – run on strict Methodist lines – “nobody ever gets lost on a straight road” was the watchword. Well myroad weren’t that straight sometimes, shall we say. The United won the Championship that year – they wouldn’t have wi’out me – but carryin’ on got us the sack, an’ I were already a Liverpool player by t’ last day o’t’ season. Only time they’ve ever won it an’ all.

HH :  I ‘met’ my pirate, Jesamiah Acorne on a beach in Dorset, England – how did your author meet up with you?
He says he first read about us back in 1989 and spent the best part of 20 year – daft sod – wonderin’ if what were written about us were true – they said I were sacked for match fixing – I’d’ve swung for anyone who accused us of that: my only crime were to fall for Ada.
HH : Tell me about one or two of the other characters who feature with you - husband, wife, family? Who are some of the nice characters and who is the nastiest one?
Well there’s Ada of course – wi’ her beautiful blue eyes an’ red hair – Irish lass. Then Selina, the missus, and the kids: Lizzie, Little Selina, Little Rabbi and the baby. And the United team, and Victorian Sheffield – can that be called a character? Nastiest ones were the Philanthropist or the Tooth-yanker maybe – them what got us sacked.
HH : What is your favourite scene in the book?
Well I’ll let yer know summat for nowt – it’s mostly made up! That Kay fella – cheeky sod – reckons to know what I were up to, but, leastways, the football’s authentic – that game against Villa were a cracker. Me an’ Ada at the theatre – he makes us out as bein’ a right soppy sod – I never were really. Not me – not Rabbi Howell. Hard as nails me.
HH : What is your least favourite? Maybe a frightening or sad moment that your author wrote.
I didn’t like being reminded about that nightmare in Sunderland – where they said I scored two own goals – and them Sunderland fans! It were a tough year right enough. He might have made stuff up, but I reckon it were a half-decent stab at it. I don’t come out on it too bad do I? You can see fair enough why I had to leave my family?
HH : What are you most proud of about your author?
Proud? Nah – not proud on him. He does what he likes. Nowt to do wi’ me. But gi’ him his due – me and Ada were buried in an unmarked grave in Preston, an’ they’d even got Ada’s name wrong in’t book – had us buried with a stranger it sempt. Now I’ve got a right grand headstone – fit for an England International – that’s down to him an’ his book. So that’s not bad, eh?
HH : Has your author written other books about you? If not, about other characters? How do you feel about your author going off with someone else!
Aye. He says he’s on wi’ stuff. Full of daft ideas if you ask me. Summat about a copper – another story from back in my day, and another about a miner of all bloody things. Says he’s sending stuff to agents but not to get him started on that.
HH : As a character if you could travel to a time and place different to your own fictional setting  where and when would you go?
Tell you what, though, I wouldn’t mind playing football these days – most I earnt were four quid a week – more than a miner, granted – but only just. Imagine if I were playing for the United or Liverpool now, eh? And another thing: you know Liverpool an’ all their money – they contributed nowt to my headstone: not a brass farthing. Preston and Sheffield Untied were there, but bloody Liverpool – they insulted me, and my gypsy curse is on them!
Thank you that was really interesting!

Now where can readers of this A-Z Blog Challenge find out more about you and your author?

Links –

Friday, 1 April 2016

Joe Stepped off the Train (and other stories) is a new collection of short stories by debut and established authors, all with a war theme: how it affects people and changes lives. It started life as a short story conversation between myself and a colleague: following a short story competition at work for which we both chose the same starting line from the given list (The “Joe Stepped off the Train” of the title), and both coincidentally chose a war theme. We went on to write some more but it fizzled out at 8 stories.
    So, in the summer of 2015, I put out an appeal on social media and the blogosphere asking writers to contribute: the idea being that all royalties would be donated to War Child. The result has been a genuine collaborative effort: in compiling the collection I set out to not just accept or reject contributions. I have had my fill of that kind of  approach being taken with writers. Instead I chose to work with the writers to make them the best stories they could be.
    It has turned out to be, not a jumble of short stories, but a really coherent collection of stories that complement each other: tackling subjects like bereavement, love, hope, determination: feelings that war and conflict intensify. It is exciting to be able to contribute something to War Child – a great little charity which aims to provide sustainable support to the most marginalised and vulnerable children and young people in conflict-affected parts of the world — through work rooted in local communities:  https://www.warchild.org.uk/

Please take a peek at our video, (and please buy the book to support War Child):

My Radio Sheffield interview - 

This is the press release:

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Interview with Paul Breen, author of The Charlton Men

Steve:   Football fans are supposedly not interested in fiction – preferring autobiographies (the book stands are flooded with them after all). What made you want to go against received wisdom?

Paul:   I suppose there were a couple of reasons. First I hoped that this wasn’t just a book for football fans. Secondly I think there is a market out there for fiction that has a football theme because on many of the fans’ forums at Charlton, for example, supporters often post threads relating to the books they are currently reading. However I have found from experience that there is a perception out there that a book is either football or it is fiction, and something between the two camps can confuse people.
            That said, quite a few people have suggested that I have got the blend right in terms of how the two aspects are connected and spread out in the story. It has appealed to football fans and non-fans alike, but not in the same numbers as something such as Fever Pitch or the Football Factory which are more clearly autobiographical with underlying elements of fiction. I would hope though that the book does serve as an example of how it is possible to combined football and fiction, and would like to think we will see more of this combination from others in the future.  

Steve:   Did you originally go down the conventional route of trying to get published: sending submissions to agents etc? How was it?

Paul:     Yes, I sent the book off to several agents and publishers before finally getting it accepted and then published by Thames River Press, an independent imprint that was operating on a shoestring budget compared to the main publishing houses. I got replies from several agents and some publishers around the same time, with the latter saying that they were mostly interested in autobiographies, as the previous question suggests.  

Steve:   I don’t think most readers have any idea how much graft goes into writing a novel, and how little the return is per book sold. Any idea how long it took you to write The Charlton Men? How do you fit it in around life?

Paul:     It was about two years from start to finish in terms of the journey from first draft to publication. It was also a very busy period in my working life, and I was studying a course at the same time. Originally, I did this as a hobby just to see where the story went and then when I finally found a publisher who showed interest I took a couple of short periods off work to put together the finished draft. It’s certainly a tough slog and the hardest part is the editing and the proof reading, once the writing is complete. I never try to calculate time spent versus profits made because the hours would soon turn to nothing more than pennies! That can be de-motivating in some ways but I enjoy writing so I stick at it, even if I doubt that I will ever make a living out of it. 

Steve:   Despite enjoying your book, I’ve been more critical than your other reviews which show the book has been well received. It was perhaps more the technical, writing stuff that was a problem for me rather than the story and the characters who were strong and believable. Do you want to come back at me on that?

Paul:     In all honesty, constructive criticism is beneficial for a writer because it serves as a guideline for the future and also a spur to do better. In your feedback Steve, you talked about my tendency to overdo the ‘literary’ style of my writing, and I suppose this comes from an attempt to try and stand out by being poetic. I’m not even sure that this was a case of not editing enough. In places it was a case of editing so much that I was trying to create lines that might be more at home in a poem, which isn’t always what is expected in a book such as this. I should have known that from having studied Literature at university, but in the heat of editing and facing a deadline for getting the book out it’s often possible to forget the simplest of things. Some people have loved that, and interestingly many of those are female readers with not so much interest in football. Most of my male readers and football supporters have commented on the strength of the backstory and of the characters, especially Lance and Fergus, which is something that you also commented on, so I have got lots of feedback of different types, but all constructive.  

Steve:   Should a reviewer go easier on an indie-author than a commercially published one – given that indies don’t have the backing of a team of editors, proof-readers, marketing people etc. to help polish out the flaws?

Paul:     It’s very true that there were a lot less people helping me out, but I don’t think it would be helpful for me, or anyone else, as a writer if reviewers said good things just for the sake of it. In fact it is probably more important and valuable to get writing advice from outsiders when you work with a small publishing house. Also, regardless of the size of the publishers, I have heard from other writers that there is a tendency for much of the analysis of the book to be done in advance of publication and less once it is out there on the market. Therefore as writers we rely on our audience and our critics to give us their opinion. Besides, as they often say in marketing, there’s no such thing as bad publicity because in the long term it drives all of us on to do better. 

Steve:   I read somewhere that this was the first in a trilogy. Is that still the case? If so does it follow Lance, Fergus and Katy? Are you currently working on this?

Paul:     Originally I agreed to write three books, and have written a sequel that does also feature the same main characters, with some more added in. This one is less literary and more of a crime story than a football story, although there are still plenty of references to and descriptions of football. I have several agents and publishers looking at this at the moment because Thames River Press has not been producing anything in recent times, and may not be able to release the sequel. It can be very hard though to get a sequel published since most agents and publishing houses do see it as being like adopting somebody else’s baby! I would also prefer not to go down the self-publishing route because as you have said a good book should come about as a result of a team effort. I do though have quite a few readers of the original who are waiting on the second and hope to get that released at some point this year.

Steve:   Thanks, Paul. Best of luck with it.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Early Class Influences on Football

Article first published in issue 9 of The Football Pink
One of the greatest things about football is that no one can claim to own it, though many have tried. All you need to play some form of the game is the ability to stay upright and a loose object to kick. It is probably as old as language or music.
It was certainly played in Britain in a relatively organised fashion throughout the Middle Ages by all classes. Then in Victorian times there was a step change in the evolution of the game: what was clearly a widespread, “folk” or children’s game in the early part of the century started to be codified in several places at once. Several things led to this.
One was the increase in demand for education both in the public school system and for the masses. One of the dilemmas for the advocates of “muscular Christianity” was what to do to keep adolescent boys from their vices and in particular the scourge of “self-pollution,” something which seems to have worried our forefathers inordinately. Vigorous outdoor sport was seen as a means of teaching discipline, morality (through a sense of fair play), and of tiring boys out physically so that when they went to bed they would sleep. (For a more detailed exposition of these ideas see David Winner’s Those Feet, 2005.) When the 1870 Education Act made education universal, sport was taken up within Board schools as a means of improving the health of the working classes, who were causing employers concern because unhealthy slum living (and unhealthy acts) were creating physically incapable workers for their mills.
A second factor was the increase in leisure time created by improved standards of living. The middle classes had enough time for regular pastimes and the working classes could afford to take time off to watch if not play – unofficially through traditions like honouring “Saint Monday” in Sheffield (unapproved absences from work on Mondays) or through the eventual right, obtained through the 1850 Factories Act, to Saturday afternoons off work, which slowly displaced the Monday habit.
Improved mobility through the railways meant that teams not from the same district or institution could play each other – and how would they do that if they had different rules?
Also a natural Victorian British desire to impose order undoubtedly came into play.
The fact that different codes sprang up was one of the seeds of a later class struggle sown in the early modern game. The public schools in the south of England and Cambridge University played their own versions of football and naturally, given their desire for order, imposed rules. These men were the country’s elite and laid claim the game as of birth-right. “The game of football, as originally played at the Wall at Eton, was the author of every sort and condition of football now played throughout the United Kingdom,” wrote someone in The Etonian in 1884. This myth that football was handed down from the public schools persisted and infected the game. (There is an ongoing, somewhat esoteric debate in academic circles as to who can claim the birthright of the modern game – the public schools or ordinary people (for example: Adrian Harvey: Football: the First Hundred Years, The Untold Story, 2005, and Graham Curry and Eric Dunning: Association Football: A Study in Figurational Sociology, 2015).
History is the account written by the powerful, whereas the working class footballers of the time let their boots do the talking, the fans doing theirs in the pubs afterwards. As a result their voices are few and far between. The football played on village greens, and that in the streets and backyards by generations of children would not have been written about. There are some accounts of matches outside of the public schools, often the newsworthy ones at holiday times and the traditional Shrove Tuesday games. (For example, it was worthy of note in Derby in 1848, because of attempts to ban it and the locals ignoring their betters: the military were called and the Riot Act read.) In this sense the public schools can only be said to have codified the popular game.
You also cannot ignore the fact that the first strong footballing sub-culture took off in Sheffield following the establishment of the Sheffield club of 1857. This club also drew up rules not long after those in the public schools. Sheffield Club was set up by young men from Sheffield’s higher classes: largely ex-pupils of Sheffield’s best school, the Collegiate (now King Edward VII comprehensive school), who drew on their experiences of versions of the game, probably those they grew up with in the district, as well as drawing on what they knew of the public school games.
The Football Association was founded in 1863 largely as an association of a handful of London clubs that set out to draw up an agreed set of rules. They were not uniquely ex-public school men so felt no strong bond of allegiance to any one set of rules. Also the Sheffield Club appeared to have sent observers to inaugural meetings. There was communication between Sheffield and London, and they played against each other. The strength of the Sheffield game was certainly a key influence over the FA in those early years, as was an increasingly critical mass of footballers in London (but neither were playing according to the nascent FA rules). In 1877 a single set of rules for the game was finally agreed, a synthesis of the Sheffield rules and that grew out of Cambridge and the public school versions.
There remained, though, this tension: that the game meant different things to different classes. This increased as the game took off and got worse as football finances became important: money was needed to run clubs, buy kit, develop grounds etc. Spectators with leisure time were willing to pay to watch, but, to continue to draw in spectators, there was competition to attract the best players. The issue of professionalism came to the fore.
The “old boys” clubs saw paying players as dirtying their sport – contaminating their moral purity. Beardshaw of the Sheffield Club said that “Professionalism in football is an evil, and as such should be suppressed” – little more than rank snobbery (though later he had live with it as a Sheffield United committee member).
Some of the attitudes of the higher classes are best revealed by looking at early fiction: literature being almost exclusively their domain at the time. I recently published a collection called Historical Football Stories taken in part from an earlier collection written at the end of Victorian era. I believe these to be the oldest football stories in existence. Fiction can provide better insights into some aspects of life than factual accounts, particularly emotional life. The curse of professionalism is a recurrent obsession in these stories. For example, in An International Proxy we read: “He was an amateur to his finger-tips. The association of money with sport was abhorrent to him. He was an opponent of the League system because it drew an invidious distinction between “League matches” and “friendly matches” — as if they were not all friendly!” Then in A Matter of Luck: “ ‘I like you Jack,’ he said, ‘and Nell loves you, but I can’t give my lass to one who makes his play his work. If you wish to win her you must give up soccer… ’ ”
Amateurs saw money as distorting the game in other ways. When penalties were introduced in 1891, it was claimed to be an effect of professionalism — of those who had not “imbibed the sporting spirit of the game at school” (i.e. public school). The famous amateur C B Fry said “It is a standing insult to sportsmen to have to play under a rule which assumes that players intend to trip, hack, and push their opponents and to behave like cads of the most unscrupulous kind.”
Jack Kelly: ' yankee oik'
The Amateur Rowing Association, custodians of a sport even harder for oiks to break in to, kept a tighter hold: their rules excluded, not only anyone in receipt of payment for rowing, but also anyone who had been by trade or employment a “mechanic, artisan, or labourer or engaged in any menial duty.” Even up to 1920 rowing banned Olympic gold medallist Jack Kelly from Henley because he had once earned money as a bricklayer.
The middle and upper classes did not like their loosening grip on power in the domain of football any more than they did in the political one.
The rugby version of the early game had split away following the codification by the FA over an argument over the legality of “tripping and hacking.” The association game could have split again in 1884/5 over professionalism. The “old boys” at the FA initially tried to resist, Canute-like, and threw Preston out of the Cup for fielding professionals – this nearly led to a breakaway “British Football Association,” but to everyone’s credit they drew back from the brink. Instead the FA tried to regulate professionalism by placing additional restrictions on the ability of professionals to participate in competitions, for example, based on two years residence within six miles of the ground, and banning them from any football administration role. The professionals were to be treated like servants to their club committee masters. There was one rule for amateurs, one for professionals. For example, when England faced Ireland in Belfast in 1888, the amateurs Lindley and Walters refused either to travel on the same boat or stay in the same hotel as the professionals.
The response of the gentleman-players was to largely reject football and seek refuge in the unsullied game of rugby, and an ultimately failed attempt to set up a rival Amateur FA. Another response was the setting up of the Corinthians in 1883 – to try to uphold the ideals of amateurism. It was in truth “sham amateurism” – they demanded and obtained financial guarantees to play friendly matches, didn’t publish balance sheets, and handed out lavish expenses to playing members who were believed to earn more than professionals, in addition to their independent means. They competed for a while because they had learnt and practised the game through school and Oxbridge, were better fed, housed and protected by medical advice. Professionals soon overtook them, but nevertheless, the FA continued to give them a bye to the third round of the FA Cup as late as the 1930s.
The other side of the story, that of the working class footballer is rare for the reasons previously stated. One exception was Ernest Needham of Sheffield United and England – one of the few working class men whose voice was heard: he wrote a book in 1901, simply entitled, Association Football. He strongly defended the right to earn a living from the game: “Would that all could play for love, and be the perfect gentleman on and off the field, as so many of my amateur friends are.” He talked of: “the advantage to the style of the game, and the necessity for paying those who devote themselves to its improvement. I might claim for payment of players all the arguments in favour of the payment of Members of Parliament. To play the game scientifically a man must bring to it a mind free from fear of personal or family difficulty in case of disablement or retirement and only substantial pay will guarantee this.” (Needham earned about £5 per week at that time, just over twice the pay of an ordinary working man — which gives you an idea what he meant by substantial.)
Another obsession of the middle classes comes through in Historical Football Stories – that of gambling. The Victorian amateurs often raised this demon in arguments against professionalism. The middle classes were in fear of the depraved lower classes, their lack of morality, and this leading to riotous behaviour and a threat to order and security of property. Sport was encouraged as a way of counteracting vice. So to see money as the motivator was anathema — and then to see large riotous crowds assembling and betting on the outcome was abhorrent. Needham dismisses this. He says: “We hear a lot of talk about betting at football matches. Some people given over strongly to romancing have likened the game to the racecourse — with bookmakers and all their paraphernalia. Such highly spiced tales are nonsense. Betting there is, but it is done more or less secretly; and once let the delinquents come within the clutches of the officials of any club, let alone the police, and I will vouchsafe a bad quarter of an hour for them. Any sane person who attends matches knows that betting is not allowed openly and it is only so asserted by those who decry the pastime.”
Another aspect of the early game shown by Historical Football Stories is its physicality. Early football was far more brutal and dangerous than the modern game. By the late 1890s, ten years into the League structuring of the game, the rules were largely as they are now, partly in response to an understanding that the game needed to improve its safety record. Hacking, tripping, jumping at a player and charging from behind were not allowed. The main differences in risk were probably down to factors such as interpretation by referees, equipment and condition of pitches: matches were almost never abandoned unless fog was so dense that neither the spectators nor, more to the point, referees could see whether the ball had gone in the net. Frozen pitches, mud, hale, snow etc, were not reasons to call games off.
The physicality of the game provided different responses in Victorian society. They upheld virtues of manliness and codified aggression that sport provided — as can be seen in the stories by players continuing despite broken bones. This is as common a theme as that of bribery in these stories. A player playing on with a broken collar bone was something to be admired — and this was not just a fictional device. In those days substitutes were not allowed, so there are frequent accounts in contemporary match reports of bloody and broken players playing on. (Can modern players who roll about in agony at the slightest touch please take note?) The physicality of the game was, however, something that provoked feelings of horror amongst some in society; particularly the idea of working class men being violent — how could you possibly trust them to be aggressive with chivalry, like a gentleman?
 There are arguments that these class prejudices continue to afflict British football right through to the modern era. This amateur belief that talent is inherent, and that learning of skills from an early age, techniques, and all the myriad of minor improvements that go towards building success (diet, kinetics etc.) are somehow akin to cheating or an excuse for insufficient pluck, and best left to “Johnny Foreigner.” An approach that has clearly worked well…


David Winner, Those Feet, 2005
Richard Sanders, Beastly Fury, 2009
Adrian Harvey, Football The First Hundred Years, 2005
Graham Curry and Eric Dunning, Association Football: A Study in Figurational Sociology, 2015
Ernest Needham, Association Football, 1901
Frederick Wall, 50 Years of Football, 1884-1934, 1934
JAH Catton, The Story of Association Football, 1926
Percy M Young, Football in Sheffield, 1981
Percy M Young, A History of British Football, 1973
James Walvin, The People’s Game, 1994
Graham Curry, Football Spectatorship in mid-to-late Victorian Sheffield, Soccer and Society, Vol 8, No.2/3 2007
Steven Kay, ed., Historical Football Stories, 2015