The new football season is here – an old friend is coming home

It is really like welcoming an old friend again, now the football season has returned. I always feel a little bit sad when the season ends in May, even though this year my team did really well and we went out on a high. Now the new season has started, there is a kind of fresh optimism, a hope that we’ll win the League this year, the Champions League again, and there’s the sure knowledge that we’ll experience highs and lows, wins and losses, times when we were robbed and times when we ground out a victory we didn’t deserve. That’s football. It’s all about the emotion.

Of course wild emotion, blind devotion and hot-headed passion are not always good things. I find myself often having to explain to people why I love football. Many of my friends can’t see the point in the game and they offer me a salvo of reasons why I shouldn’t like it: footballers’ salaries, high ticket prices, homophobia, racism. Sometimes it’s quite difficult to shrug off the negatives and justify the beautiful game.

Years ago, I was a student, watching a derby game. The man standing in front of me swore at a player on the pitch: in one sentence he managed to create an insult that fused misogyny, racism and homophobia. I was shocked by his words and puzzled by his sudden aggression. After all, the player was on the team he was supporting and all he had done was give the ball away.

Football generates such passion. Standing at the kop end, listening to fans singing You’ll Never Walk Alone, surrounded by banners lauding players and ex-players and honouring the Hillsborough 96 always brings tears to my eyes. It’s an incredibly powerful moment in which tradition, ritual and intense loyalty bind a whole crowd of people together as a family. In some ways there’s nothing to beat it, from kick-off to final whistle. I always say to those who don’t understand the point of the game, echoing Camus’ words, that football is pure theatre. Being a fan at a match brings such a strong sense of belonging, despite and sometimes because of the ups and downs of each game.

I’ve just related one single negative incident of aggressive racist behaviour at a match, but there are so many positive stories I could tell. There was the time a man next to me gave me a grin and said ‘Eh, girl, do your kids like crisps?’ and stuffed a six-pack of Smiths into my hands for my two children, who were ten and nine. There was another time at a different game when a huge man in the seat in front of me leapt to his feet to applaud and one of the fans next to me patted him on the shoulder and mumbled ‘Sit down, mate – this girl and her kids can’t see if you stand up.’

I came out of a game once – I think it was against West Brom and we’d just won 4-1 –and a woman I’d never met before caught my eye and came over. She hugged me, her face beaming, and said ‘What a fantastic game that was, eh? Didn’t we play great?’ We chatted for about ten minutes and she was a lovely person. How often does that happen outside of football, a complete stranger making conversation? It should happen much more frequently – it is so rewarding. Football can bring people together.

Racism is a huge cloud hanging over the beautiful game. Yet again this week, just a few days into the season, there have been attacks on Twitter, abusing players such as Tammy Abrahams and Paul Pogba. It is shocking that this still happens.

In the same way that a fan can ask someone to sit down because they have leaped up and blocked kids’ vision, we as fans have to ask people not to be racist. The abused players’ safety and feelings come first and there are ways to change behaviours and protect the players.

My friends often cite the negatives when they ask me why I enjoy football. Sometimes they’ll suggest something trivial to explain why I watch a game: it must be because of the twenty two men in shorts – how else could I tolerate ninety minutes of kicking a bag of wind? I tend to shrug off such comments and remember the good times – cheering in the Kop, being hugged senseless by someone I’ve never met because our team has scored; being in a crowd where I can listen to several accents all crooning the same song; hiding behind the sofa because we have a penalty shoot-out after extra time. But racism and homophobia don’t belong in football.

Football is about ninety minutes of suspended normality, where rivalry and skill and the lottery of goals and the vagaries of VAR come into play, but at the end of the game, that’s all it is, a game. Football’s about laughter and banter, belonging and hope, supporting and solidarity, cheers and fears and tears, but it can never be about hatred and derision in any form. The friend I welcome home at the start of each season is one with a good heart that understands fair play. It’s a lot of fun, a tense performance of two halves packed with suspense and thrills, winning and losing. But the beautiful game of football reflects the diverse beauty of the world, no matter which team we support. There is no place for an unfriendly face or violence or words that wound.

Huge thanks to Toni Morrison for my torchlight tremors

It is always sad to read that a longstanding heroine has passed away. For years, when asked ‘Who’s your favourite author?’ I’d answer ‘Toni Morrison’, seconds before I wondered if I should have said ‘Jeanette Winterson’ or ‘Cormac McCarthy’. But Toni Morrison was always the first name on my lips. So when I heard that she had died, it made me feel sad: even though eighty eight is not a bad age to go, there is still a sense of loss when someone who was so huge in the world of literature and so important to my own literary education dies. She developed and extended the black American literary canon and she championed black writers for more than ten years as an editor at Random House. She was my favourite writer for years. I loved her stories.

I’d read so many of her novels: The Bluest Eye, Jazz, Tar Baby, The Song of Solomon, Sula, and The Origin of Others. My goodness, that woman could write! She could transport you to incredible places with her words; she could evoke characters you could believe were real and she could certainly mangle your emotions. For me, this was evident in all her novels, but nowhere were my emotions mangled more than in her book, Beloved.

 Beloved is a book about slavery, about grief and trying to forget the horrors of the past. Beloved is the baby daughter who was murdered by her mother, Sethe, desperately trying to prevent her child from being snatched into a life of slavery. Years later, she turns up at her mother’s home, a grown woman. Her name, Beloved, comes from the unfinished etching on her tombstone. As a concept, the idea is a spine tingle in itself.

I was drawn in from the first chapter, where Morrison explains that Sethe’s house is haunted by a ‘haint’; the spirit of the murdered child is not at rest and she is angry. Sethe’s sons run away in fear. Only Sethe seems to accept the presence of Beloved’s ‘lively spite.’ So when her daughter returns home in the flesh, Sethe wants to make amends and to love her daughter above herself. Of course, Beloved does not make life easy for Sethe or her younger sister, Denver, or Sethe’s man, Paul D. Beloved is charming, angry, needy, spiteful and vengeful.

I read Beloved while in Israel many years ago on a semi-professional trip, travelling and meeting people by day and reading avidly at night. I’d be tucked up in a tiny bed in Jerusalem, under the covers with a torch, reading the pages while my roommates snuffled softly in the bed opposite. I couldn’t put the book down. Morrison’s incredible writing, at times economic, at times heartbreakingly beautiful, had me hooked. The plot took my breath away; I understood the dilemma. A mother’s boundless love, a mother’s guilt and the desire to put her child first, combined with a spirit-made-flesh who will suck her parent dry. It was chilling, thrilling and all-engrossing.

Then, in the middle section of the novel, Toni Morrison did something truly amazing. Beloved starts to talk. In a language which is jumbled, poetic and terrifying, the character who could not speak when she first arrives at Sethe’s house tries her voice and we begin to understand what she is, why she is. I have never trembled so much under blankets at the end of a torch’s beam. It was truly powerful.

Beloved is a novel with many themes: mother’s love, the psychological impact of slavery, regret, pain and guilt; it is about what it means to be a mother and it is also about the conflict between manhood and motherhood. It is probably the most impactful book I have ever read. In some ways, it is the most important. It unveils horrors and it is traumatic, disturbing and beautifully written.

Toni Morrison is believed to have said ‘If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’ I wonder if Beloved was that book for her? For me, it was a life-changer, a novel in another class above most other novels I had read. And now Toni Morison has died, I want to express how much I loved her writing, and how especially I adored Beloved. It was a tale for which I felt the most respect, the most admiration; it was my favourite novel for which I felt the fattest love.

For, as Morrison says in Beloved, ‘Love is or it ain’t. Thin love ain’t love at all.’