Whether Kane’s calamity, Messi’s magic or the many questions around Qatar, it’s been even harder than usual to avoid football this winter. However, for some—including many around Nottinghamshire—following their regional non-league team means much more than the glitz, glamour and greed that the World Cup has come to represent. I met up with Nottingham poet Christopher Towers to chat about his latest poetry collection Hinterlands, which is dedicated to the more local side of the global game.
Without generalising too much, is it fair to say that fans of football and fans of poetry don’t always go hand in hand?
Maybe that’s an issue of social class or education or a few other things. Maybe poetry doesn’t make itself accessible enough: it comes across as all intellectual and distant. “You’ve got to be intelligent to understand it.” No, we’ve got words, we share them. We all have words, we all have stories.
Memory is a theme that runs throughout the collection: looking back, nostalgia. To me there’s something sad there, as are the football grounds that live in the shadows of industrial glory and now often represent troubled communities. Was this intentional?
It’s interesting you should say that because I’ve got a friend who said that this book isn’t about football. He made that point, he said it’s about a world that’s lost. I’m not entirely sure about that, these worlds still live. Sad nostalgia? Yes, there’s a lot of that but I wouldn’t say that’s gloomy. I would say that’s quite cathartic, for me that can be quite enjoyable. At least there’s meaning. It’s not like living in a completely meaningless world. There’s something here that matters and still matters, the past matters and people get pleasure out of it.
The World Cup has just finished and there couldn’t be two more different iterations of the sport than the competition in Qatar and the football we have in Hinterlands. Is the book an attempt to recapture the rich heritage of the sport?
Most definitely. When I was a teenager I had a season ticket at Notts County. I could stand anywhere and it was just so accessible. I saw them in the old First Division, you could go on the night and get a ticket for teams like Everton or Liverpool. I occasionally went to see Forest play massive games too. But now, to get a ticket for a Premier League game you have to be a club member, go through the security checks, all to be penned into these plush stadiums. And it’s all so serious and everything, it bores the pants off me to be honest. I’m almost living what football in the 70s and 80s used to be in non-league, I’ve transposed it there and it’s alive and kicking. I went to a game recently, Runcorn Linnets against Belper Town in the FA Trophy. The ground was buzzing, loads packed in there. It was a superb game: some of these players have had trials for big clubs, they’re talented. Runcorn won but at the end, one of their strikers went around virtually every Belper Town supporter and shook their hands. The Belper Town fans were made up, you could see that. They literally got a connection with the sport—how could you get that from Premier League players?
The experience of going to a game is really vivid in the poetry, but there is also this occasional feeling that the match itself is almost incidental. Is this an insight into the ritual of going to a football match itself?
When I go to Halesowen or Trafford or Belper, I’m free of being partisan. I don’t really care who wins that much so my head goes to other places. I just want a nice game, a nice day out. I’ll discover a new place and get chatting to someone. The whole experience is what matters more than the game. It reminds me of a game between Stamford and Wisbech Town that ended up being a poem in the book. The game was the dullest thing, nil-nil. I just called the poem Nothing because nothing was happening. But I don’t regret going, I can say I was there against Wisbech.
Could it be seen as an act of resistance against seeing football as a product?
It’s not a product, that’s right. There’s a bit of symmetry with county cricket. I love the four-day game and I love Minor Counties cricket. These aren’t products, they’re experiences. It has that freedom that comes with it. When sport is a product I lose interest, when it just seems like a transaction. I’d be no worse having an afternoon in Sainsbury’s. I want to watch some sport that matters where the team that wins has the most skill, guile, hard work, organisation. A bit of talent here and there.
So can you give one recommendation of a book to read and a Nottingham non-league match to get down to?
I would recommend people to go to the new Hucknall Town ground. You’ll see a lot of pride in the new location, in an old team in a new place that’s not too far away. In terms of books, I went to a game at Coalville
and I got talking to a guy about football and about seeing beauty and something lovely in football. I told him that the international game I remember most was the Netherlands vs West Germany in the 1974 World Cup final in Munich and this beautiful Dutch team with Johann Cruyff playing this incredibly well-organised, fine- tuned German side. I said I like to see some artistry from players, as well as hard work, and he said you ought to read the book about Dutch football, My Turn by Johann Cruyff. I read it and it reminded me of the beauty you can see in the game and you can see that at non-league level as well: movement, skill, adeptness. So I’ve enjoyed reading that book, and it was recommended to me by a fellow lover of non-league.
And last question: what’s next?
I’m continuing to write poems about non-league, I’m continuing to write match reports with a difference. I hope to get some funding for a larger project where I can give some publicity and focus to some particular non- league clubs. So that’s my focus at the moment: to take Hinterlands to being a project and not just an isolated book.
Hinterlands is available at Five Leaves Bookshop, located near Primark and The Council House
You can contact Christopher at [email protected]
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