Book Review: The Evergreen in Red and White
The Evergreen in Red and White by Steven Kay
Published by 1889 Books
We have devoted some attention before on this website to a call for a ‘great football novel’, something to plug a gap which cricket and baseball in particular have filled more successfully – a solution to the presumption that football as narrative is somehow unsuited to literary treatment. To date, despite a number of brave attempts, no one book has managed to grab the attention of the Books establishment.
Unfortunately, Steven Kay’s meticulously researched novel, The Evergreen in Red and White is probably not going to change that – a self-published effort via 1889 Books, it’s unlikely to become a cause célèbre amid Soho cafes. That, however, is no reflection on the quality of the book – for Kay’s is a remarkable achievement.
The author follows in the footsteps of the unofficial scribe of the Victorian era in football Paul Brown, by recreating a vivid portrait of the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, a working class world at some remove from the fin de siècle milieu of Oscar Wilde, permeated with fine period detail and closely tracking a season in the life of Sheffield United midfielder Rab Howell.
Kay wisely keeps descriptions of the on-pitch action to a minimum, choosing instead to concentrate on the hero’s home life and constructing a narrative based on the humdrum and consequent infidelity. In this, there are strong parallels to Robert Tressell’s magisterial description of working class life of the age, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.
So we are treated to a familiar litany of now departed motifs – bread and dripping, the belching coke plants of the industrial city, blood and thunder religion, trips to the fairground and the absent charm of the bourgeoisie – phenomena that were arguably still present among the generation immediately prior to our own before being swept away by the consumerism and compromised prosperity of the late twentieth century.
But where Kay’s novel really comes into its own is in the fascinating portrait of Howell as a man of Romany stock. The glossary of terms that accompanies the text is of real help and teases the reader into finding out more of the culture and its antecedents, often buried in the midst of time – but Howell is as much a Yorkshireman as he is an ‘Egyptian’ as the ‘Gorgio’ (those of non-Romany background) folk he interacts with would wrongly assume.
The whole is an intriguing glimpse into an environment at the intersection of two cultures while the football world is inevitably also very different – Sheffield United and Wednesday are ‘Lane-ites’ and ‘Grove-ites’ respectively, Liverpool play in blue and white, Sunderland fans are portrayed as the biggest nutters and players travel to games via train given this was an era before mass production of the motor car.
As the book draws to a close, Howell’s off pitch antics inevitably land him in hot water although he remains sympathetic and one suspects that had age and injuries been on his side, his failure to stay on the straight and narrow might have been overlooked. Still, the prospect of returning to the pithead at the end of one’s playing days was an overwhelming prospect at the time and Kay skilfully allows us into the mind of a footballer torn between duty and emotion. This is a novel that should not be overlooked.