Book Review: Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters
Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters by Daniel Gray
Published by Bloomsbury
At times reading Daniel Gray’s Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters is, despite the ugliness of the title, a joyous experience; an author who clearly enjoys using language talking with warmth and wit about football, people and social history. It’s the literary equivalent of an exhibition of Stuart Roy Clarke photos, and in celebrating community spirit and social cohesion, shares the soft-centred patriotism of a Michael Wood documentary. Gray has decided, at the point of turning 30, to revisit those clubs who were top and bottom of their respective divisions in 1981, the year he was born. Now living in Scotland, and apparently feeling distant from his native country, he wants to find out, by travelling through England watching football, whether he can understand a little better of what England means today.
It’s an honourable if slightly convoluted premise, and it almost works. Gray revels in the parochialism and traditions of his subjects, and appears older than his years in wryly denigrating all the trappings of ‘new football’ and the more tawdry examples of early 21st century capitalism that he sees. He establishes his credentials by talking with misty eyed reverie about watching his club Middlesbrough as a kid, queuing up for player autographs with an assortment of misfits and weridos outside Ayresome Park, and ticks almost all the football and social purist boxes by generally taking an upbeat tone to each of the towns and grounds he visits He sees a chink of soul beneath even the most faceless examples of modern football or contemporary town planning. Even in Luton, where the town sits on a hazardous cultural fault-line, and stewards attempt to take his notebook away because writing things down is viewed as subversive behaviour, Gray refuses to denigrate either the place or the club. And if you’ve ever been to Kenilworth Road, you’ll know what a difficult task that is.
The brief histories of the towns and their clubs are also excellent; snapshots that give each game he attends a certain significance beyond the 90 minutes, even if his descriptions of the games themselves — eschewing mentioning players’ names, underlining his position as a passive observer — feel rather lifeless. But describing football matches is a tricky skill, and even descriptions by players usually render the most dramatic moments rather drab and forgettable.
What the book perhaps lacks, though, is either a central narrative or a cast of characters. Some of the best bits are overheard conversations on public transport or in pubs because they change the tone, but Gray is always eves-dropping rather than really meeting people (or so it seems) and that means he has to work harder to keep the reader’s attention. He is perennially observing rather than acting, and whilst it means he’s able to paint a romanticised picture of the different clubs and towns, at times the sentimentality feel vaguely mawkish. The prose is sometimes overly flowery too. Depending on my mood, the endless word play and evocative similes either made it engagingly erudite or slightly annoying.
I feel rather guilty criticising this book, because if I met Daniel Gray I’d probably really like him. His analysis of the problems faced by many people in supporting the England team is uncanny, for example, and in visiting a range of different clubs he shares some genuinely interesting aspects of both football and social history. But I did get the sense that the book came to its conclusions before it had been written. And at points it feels like the author is in a bubble rather than really getting involved, and this robs the book of some of the excitement and energy you’re meant to feel on a road trip. Perhaps contemporary England isn’t – if you’re English and living there – quite exotic enough to write a book of this length about.