Monday, 26 November 2012

Our Dad, 1943 - 2012

Earlier this year we packed up the car and our three kids and set off on the 250 or so miles from our house to Grandad Turner’s flat by the sea. It was a long, long drive, occasionally punctuated by the usual carsickness and bickering - but they arrived at his door happy, because they got to go upstairs in a lift. And once in his flat they could go out on the roof terrace and see the sea and scare themselves by looking over the side. They lined up all his remote controls on the table and counted them - 22. He had an iPad he let them play on, even a Wii. A robot vacuum cleaner that bounced ineffectually between chairs and walls, bleeping. 22 remote controls! Yeah, Grandad Turner was actually quite cool for an old guy. Of course we never imagined it would be the last time.

When I thought about it I realised nothing much had changed since my brother and I were kids, when the 253 to Stamford Hill, Friday night and back Sunday afternoon, was a decade long ritual. Dad had moved out of our own house when we were little, so I have just the vaguest memory of him coming home from work, and asking if he had any sweets in his coat pockets for us. Is it just in my memory that he always did? Of course we didn’t realise the significance: when we were told he was moving into a flat, our response was, ‘will he take his George Formby records’?


But if you think that coming from a ‘broken home’ - Dad used to jokingly use that term - made for an emotionally impoverished or second rate childhood, stop right there, and think again. To us it just meant that at weekends - any kid’s best days of the week in any case - we had him to ourselves. And those weekends, well, what weekends they were, and what fun we had. Make no mistake, our times at Dad’s were magnificent times.

Dinner was always ham and chips, or egg and chips, or chips and chips, and what’s more, he had a soda stream. There was space invaders on the Atari, football in the park with Dad in goal, weekend long snooker competitions that would end up 63 frames to 39. The spare bed was for tag team wrestling matches. Half a room was taken up by a train set, the network adorned with mountains, trees and tunnels, and of course we set up one head on crash after another.

I like to think Dad put this appalling safety record down to the greedy bosses’ negligence, rather than driver error. Because of course Dad was a socialist and union man. And sure, there were marches to go on, and yes, once he told me he wasn’t too keen on me reading the Beano, as its publisher was notoriously anti-union. But, if I’m being honest, there was a notable lack of austerity around. Like, he had the first push button phone of anyone we knew, the kind you only saw on American cop shows. He had a top-loading video recorder with control levers instead of buttons and a digital watch that I boasted to my school friends about.

And having two homes also meant two lots of holidays, and the ones with Dad were usually the more downmarket kind, which we loved. First the Isle of Wight, hiring a tandem with Dad on the front singing Daisy Daisy give me your answer do, as we trundled down the country lanes. Then the Costa Blanca, all fizzy drinks and blow up dinghies. Later, chicken and chips in Greek tavernas, Dad clicking the waiters, singing Never on Sunday and making us get up to dance.


As the years passed, we would watch every episode of Cheers together on friday nights - Coach was our favourite, then Woody - and more often than not, the next day take three buses out to shabby forgotten suburbs to watch his beloved Boston United lose to the local non-league side. And big matches too, as I joined him in supporting his other team - away games, cup finals, and then standing together as we watched the horror unfold in front of us at Hillsborough. I used to think it was the team I loved, but now I see it was just our way of staying close.

I don’t recall many bad moods or cross words, those weekends. Dad got by with patience and humour and kindness, and now I’m a dad myself I know that isn’t always easy to do. And yes, authority too - not the strict or shouty sort, but the mostly unspoken kind, where the mildest reproach can feel like a stinging rebuke. But the angriest I remember seeing him was when, stupidly, we thought it would be funny to whisper a racist word.

And all the time, every week, the same familiar, repeated jokes. “I’m hungry” would inevitably meet with the retort “oh hello, I’m Austria” and just as surely “I’m thirsty” would elicit “hello, I’m Friday”. Watching golf on a lazy Saturday afternoon - because back then any sport would do - the commentator would whisper, “and this is for his par”, and sure as you like Dad would call back: “what about his poor old ma?” And sometimes it was not so much jokes as downright lies told for his own amusement, like when I asked why Americans spelled words like ‘colour’ without a u, and he told me that during the great depression the government removed unnecessary letters from words to save on ink.


I loved it as well when his friends came round, the rooms turned smokey, the wine flowed freely and the talk turned to politics and the villains of the day. Of course we nagged him about the smoking. “Yes, yes, I know”, he’d say. “Every cigarette means five minutes off your life”, we’d come back. “Ooh”, he’d say, brightening, “Can I choose which five?”

Of course we didn’t care much about his work in those days - what child does? The only thing that impressed me was that as a young reporter he’d once reported on reserve team matches. Oh, and one other time, when on a cross channel ferry and he told the captain he was the editor of the shipping union paper to get us on the bridge and a go at steering. Later, he held my hand as I threw up over the side of the boat.

But as I got older I became proud of his career, one which burned so brightly so early. And years ago, when saw I him described in a book as ‘assiduous and indefatigable’ they became my favourite words. Now I can read his articles on the Tribune archive online - front page feature articles, smart, authoritative, principled, and all written before he was even 30. At 30 I was still trying to figure out what to do when I grew up. And of course he was still there if I needed, on the end of the phone, never critical, always ready to offer good advice, or a timely cheque.


Well, maybe we grew up, but to us Dad never changed, not really. To us he stayed reassuringly the same, even if as the years pass you begin to see the person, not just the father, vulnerable, with flaws and hopes and fears just like yours - sometimes very like yours, too much. But still there was the dry wit, never dulled. And if he was outwardly cynical we all knew it barely hid a sentimental streak a mile wide. His affinity for the underdog and sense of fairness never wavered, either; as if to prove it he kept taking on mediocre football teams around the world until, by the end, it seemed he had one on the go in most countries. More than ever, he bought gadgets, just out and still too expensive.

And the final act in my life: the way he took to the role of Grandad with grace, and pride. He just as generous with them as he was with us way back when, and they loved him back. Of course he couldn’t do what he used to when we were young - no more games in the park - but nothing could stop him making them laugh. But if I can allow myself one regret it’s that my kids didn’t see him enough, and that they won’t know him as they get older, and learn to get his jokes.


You don’t really know about loss until you lose someone, and nothing prepares you for the jolt of losing your father. Suddenly you realise that he’s always been with you, however hundreds of miles away he actually is, that you’ve been subconsciously consulting him, seeking approval for your actions. So it’s hard to come to terms with the strangeness, the disbelief, the downright not-rightness of thinking that you’ll never talk to someone again. And although on the face of it you seem to be progressing through the normal stages - shock, turning to profound sadness - you still don’t really believe it, not really, that it’s not some sort of elaborate prank and he won’t call tomorrow afternoon and demand to know why you haven’t been in touch.  

When he was in hospital, still just weeks ago, I asked if I should come down. He said ‘Good god no, I’m not dying!’. So I said sorry to him - finally - for the time, on holiday one year in France, or was it Spain, he was in a table tennis competition and we thought it would be funny to support the other guy. He hadn’t forgotten.  

So if I’ve already said sorry, and it’s too unreal to say goodbye just yet, maybe I should just say thanks. Because, not everyone is lucky enough to get a good dad. So thanks for the millions of jokes, and for showing me how to be a father. For the dislike of hierarchy and ceremony and authority, except of course the authority of dads. For the love of music, especially the more obscure sort. For how to do a cryptic crossword and the difference between less and fewer. For the Turner good looks, and for showing us that every single person is as precisely as good as every single other person. For teaching me young that all red wine is good red wine. Thanks for the football teams but you can probably have them back now, because they’re no good to me now. For the wrestling and for the soda stream. Thanks. Thanks for being our dad.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Reviewed: Justin Fashanu - The Biography

Justin Fashanu: The Biography
Book review

When Justin Fashanu was a young professional, just out of the youth team and still wet behind the ears, a journalist asked him how he’d like his life to progress. His reply? ‘I’d like to get richer and more famous’. As Jim Read points out in his gripping, long-overdue biography, this wasn’t what eager young professionals were supposed to say. They were supposed to say they wanted to improve, learn from the older pros, win a regular place in the first team. But then, back in the grey, macho world of early 80s football, Fashanu wasn’t much like anyone else. Opinionated, flamboyant and (we now know) gay, he must have seemed like he’d come down from another planet. Football had never seen anything like him. It still hasn’t.

This was just before the moment that would change his life. Playing against Liverpool with the Match of the Day cameras watching, Fashanu had received the ball on the edge of the penalty area with his back to goal, flicked it up with his right foot, turned, and volleyed it past the Liverpool keeper with his left. As Read points out, Fashanu didn’t normally score such spectacular goals; normally he was all elbows. Some team-mates even uncharitably put it down as a fluke. No matter - it looked sensational, and it was duly voted goal of the season. The problem was living up to it.

After two explosive seasons at Norwich, Fashanu was sold to Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest for £1m, but a disastrous spell gave him a reputation of an expensive flop from which he never recovered. He spent most of his career moving around the lower leagues, attempting comeback after comeback, injuries scuppering his chances of ever recapturing his former glories. Read’s meticulously researched book charts Fashanu’s extraordinary journey from Barnardo's home to the big time, then onward to his lonely death in a Shoreditch lock-up. There is a dizzying array of clubs and characters along the way but in Read’s able hands the story is never less than gripping.

And symbolically Fashanu still matters: remarkably, more than 20 years on, he remains the only top-class player to come out as gay. A childhood in care, black, gay - it’s almost tempting to see Fashanu’s life in cartoon terms, as a crusader - Mr Diversity, perhaps - taking on prejudice wherever he finds it, seeing off isms one by one. But while Read rightly draws attention to the prejudice he faced at the hands of rival fans and atavistic managers - in particular the monstrous Brian Clough - the Fashanu he gives us is as flawed as he is admirable.

Because while he vividly demonstrates Fashanu’s breezy charm and winning personality, Read is far too honest a biographer to gloss over the less appealing aspects of his character. Always a lover of money and the limelight, the young Fashanu showed the almost touching naivety and carelessness that can come with early, unexpected success: driving around Norwich parking wherever he pleased, amassing hundreds of fines that he thought he was too famous to have to pay. And as the demands of his extravagant lifestyle began to outstrip his earning power the story becomes darker, with Fashanu using his charm to exploit friends and admirers alike. And while we shouldn’t underestimate his bravery in coming out while still playing, Read reminds us he that did so by selling his story to the Sun for a huge sum at a time his career was floundering.

While Fashanu often spoke out eloquently against prejudice, he was too unreliable too, unpredictable, too torn to ever be a reliable spokesman for the gay community. For one he was never able to reconcile his sexuality with his religion, and at times even tried to go back into the closet. And a string of tawdry tabloid stories in which he falsely claimed to have had affairs with Tory politicians then with his (soon to be former) friend, the actress Julie Goodyear just made him seem desperate and ridiculous. It was this confusion that enabled Justin’s brother John to be able to claim that he wasn’t really gay, just mixed up - a dubious attempt to rewrite history. Read, without ever descending into prurience, does the truth a favour by providing plenty of evidence to the contrary.

Read is also adept at encapsulating social history within the space of a few paragraphs, elevating the book way beyond the average sports biography. One particularly strong section details the way that the black community reacted to Fashanu’s coming out, in particular his appalling treatment at the hands of black paper The Voice. Here, Read offers a potted critical history of African and Afro-Caribbean attitudes to gay people, putting the affair neatly into context. And it’s a trick that he pulls off again and again.

More prosaically, but just as importantly, the book counters the still commonly held assumption that it would be virtually impossible for a top player to come out as gay. Indeed, it is to Read’s great credit that he consistently refuses to fall back on lazy assumptions about bigoted sportsmen. Because while his teammates were somewhat bewildered by Fashanu on occasion - one telling scene sees him turning up to training with his own masseur in tow - even after he came out they mostly rubbed along pretty well, and they thought rather highly of him.

Of course it helped that Fashanu had intelligence and disarming charm to spare, and was fluent in that staple of footballers’ communication, banter. At the Scottish club Airdrie, a player calls Fashanu a big poof. Hey, don’t knock it till you’ve tried it, Fashanu breezily replies. If anything, his fellow professionals seemed to enjoy the campness, and Fashanu to play up to it. Read cites one joint television interview in which Fashanu and a teammate unleashed a string of double entendres: ‘And I’ll try to get hold of his long balls from the back’. But it wasn’t just camp jokes. When Hearts fans protested at Fashanu’s impending arrival, the club captain wrote to the local paper in his support. And when a former teammate’s brother came out as gay, it was to Fashanu that he directed him for advice.

Read also nails a few long-held myths, such as the self-serving story Brian Clough told about Fashanu. In it Clough has himself asking the still closet-dwelling player where he’d go if he wanted to buy a loaf of bread. A baker’s, Fashanu supposes. And where we would he go if he wanted a leg of lamb? A butcher’s, Fashanu shrugs. So why, asks a triumphant Clough, do you keep going to those bloody poofs’ clubs? This exchange has has been repeated so many times it has become an accepted truth, but Read shows conclusively what we should have suspected all along: that the conversation was entirely a product of Clough’s alcohol-fuelled imagination.

Finally, of course, there is Fashanu’s tragic, self-inflicted demise. Wanted by the American police, he hanged himself while facing dubious charges of sexual assault against a young man (not, in fact, as the author assiduously uncovers, technically a minor). He left what must be the chirpiest of all suicide notes, taking this final chance to look back at his career (‘What a start’) before defending himself against the accusations, and finally thanking a long list of people. Betraying barely a hint of depression, it reads more like a Oscar acceptance speech than a suicide note.

So right to the end the enigmatic Fashanu refuses to reveal his true self. But then, was there a ‘real’ Fashanu? He was rarely the same person two days running. Devastating in front of goal then tripping over the ball; couldn’t do enough for people, or would only do anything if there was something in it for himself; fearless on the pitch yet so timorous he’d beg, weeping, to be substituted; irrepressible and gregarious then distant and withdrawn; a highly moral, religious man who readily exploited those around him for money. He is always just out of view, leading the author a merry dance, resistant to Read’s valiant attempts to pin him down.