Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Getting Between the Lines: A Review of 'Countries of the World', by Steven Porter

Steven Porter's novel 'Countries of the World' (available from Amazon HERE) is the kind of book you immediately want to do well. Much like the charismatic midfielder with an attitude that drives his manager mad, or the striker who never trains but still bags 20 goals a season.

Players like that are rare in modern football. Books like this are rare too, which is probably why Porter had to go down the indie route of assisted self-publishing when it came to getting this quirky, sensitive and touchingly humorous account of growing up in Scotland.

This is a book which is hard to categorise after all. If it was a footballer, one senses that it would play 'in the hole', neither striker nor midfielder, neither winger nor central thruster, occupying space where no one else quite sees it. And keeping the crowd, rather than the vain venture capitalists in the directors' box, happy.

This is certainly a reader, rather than a publisher's kind of book. The bittersweet characteristics present in much of Porter's best prose are here in great numbers. Porter's respect and affection for his characters is also clear.

Tales of maniacs like Wilson Dodds, who in any context apart from football would be viewed as an anti-social nutcase, litter the book. There is no contempt for the characters at all, no sneering from a writer at his less than perfect creations. Instead, we understand them better because of the context in which Porter presents them. Dodds, a man who "put his love for his club above his own welfare at times", emerges as a loveable British eccentric when viewed through this lens.

Not that Porter would thank me for describing his creation as 'British'. There is much in the book about Scottish identity, and the reader gleans a clear sense of Scottish Nationalism throughout. The tone is never one of bagpipes, tartan and shortbread though. Again, it is subtle, pointing out Scotland's cultural differences with England in a way which is not always obvious unless you are reading carefully.

Scotland's rejection of the values of Margaret Thatcher is dealt with nicely in an encounter at a Scarborough caravan park, where the English owner hails the Iron Lady and indulges in some casual hatred of the Welsh. The great blue elephant in the room of Rangers fans' bigotry and idolising of 17th century Protestant heroes comes into focus during a coach trip to Northern Ireland, where an Orange march holds things up for a handy family discussion. The link made to the Freemasons would not be obvious to anyone with little awareness of how the Protestant Ascendancy is expressed in Scotland.

At times, the tone can perhaps become a little didactic, particularly when it comes to filling in the details about football history. But that is easy to say when you know all this football history. It is sometimes easy to forget that many, perhaps even most, do not have the same obsessive knowledge as this author, and the detail is often necessary to make an obscure point a little clearer.

Scottish Nationalism peeps through a few times, but it is subtle stuff. One interesting passage relates a classroom discussion in the early 1980s. All the students pose as English haters before realising that many of the things they most like, such as Liverpool FC, The Specials and Torvill and Dean, are from England. Porter himself sums it up perfectly with his description of his feelings when watching 'It's A Knockout'

Porter perhaps sums up his own brand of Scottish Nationalism best when viewing it through the lens provided by football. "For Scotland supporters, losing a few games or going a year or two without a trophy is not a crisis...Winning more often than losing is the best any Scotland fan can hope for, qualifying for a major tournament and then falling flat, to be mocked and patronised. But we can laugh at our neighbours when their expectations of glory don't materialise."

The range of characters in the book is also great, and many of them have tics and nuances that require some knowledge of Scotland to fully appreciate. One highlight is the Roman Catholic Pole in the town of Breogan, who has become a full-on Rangers supporting Bluenose who makes sectarian remarks about Celtic fans.

When we find out that many of those Celtic fans are actually Protestants, a subtle point is made about how football shapes identity more than people's actual identity. Porter, typically, teases out the point, leaving it up to the reader to grasp it fully. This kind of writing is very appealing; it places the burden on the reader. If you want to really understand what he is saying, find out for yourself.

 The book can also be returned to time and again. Indeed, its quality becomes more apparent when picked up and dipped into. While the over-arching narrative of a young man coming of age is nothing particularly noteworthy, the way in which each piece functions as something which can be read entirely independently of the others is something special.

The references to pop culture will also strike a note with many readers of a certain age, with sweets, television programmes and chart hit records all given ample page time. This functions like a kind of literary archaeology, allowing the reader to date the events in accurate layers according to Subbuteo sets, Grifters, Commando comics and Russ Abbot on telly.

Difficult to market properly, skilful and neat, with maybe a touch of deliberate indiscipline around the edges: this is a book like all your favourite players. Sign it up for your bookshelf now.

Get yourself a copy of 'Countries of the World' at Amazon. Check out the Facebook page HERE.

Zack Wilson is the author of 'Stumbles and Half Slips' from Epic Rites Press. Also available from Amazon.com.

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