20110923

Writer Crace recalls bleak days when football became therapy

By Jon Culley


John Crace is a feature writer and satirist for the Guardian newspaper best known for Digested Read, the column in which he sums up the content of a book in a few carefully constructed paragraphs and then, by way of a punch line, in one pithy sentence.   You might see it as a kind of service to the time-poor -- ‘we read the books so you don’t have to’ -- albeit one delivered with tongue firmly in cheek.  Often it is brilliantly funny.

For the first time, in a book, Crace has written about football.  Vertigo: One Football Fan's Fear of Success (published by Constable & Robinson) is about being a Tottenham supporter.  But it is not Nick Hornby in a Spurs shirt.  The occasional highs and frequent lows of following the boys from White Hart Lane are described in ways with which his long-suffering fellow fans would identify but there is another, more personal element to the narrative.

Crace suffers from depression.  Not all the time but regularly enough for it to be a constant, underlying threat to his well-being.  And he does not shy from talking about it, disclosing feelings that others stricken with the curse will recognise only too well.

He sees the funny side of his condition, suggesting that decades of underachievement, an heroic sense of injustice, a pathological ability to rewrite failure as success, a seemingly infinite capacity for self-destruction and a selective memory make he and Tottenham a perfect match.

But when he likens going to a football match to being on a psychiatric ward he is not joking. Indeed, he makes an extraordinary observation very lucidly.

“My psychiatrist,” he writes, “…thinks his job is trying to keep me well enough not to need to go into a mental hospital, but part of me – obviously not the well part – can't think of anything better than going into a mental hospital, because I was sent to one when I was first diagnosed with depression and I quite enjoyed it. Not the being ill bit, but the being in the hospital bit, because it's one of the few places I've ever been where I felt totally safe.”

Later, explaining how, some years later, despite having barely enough energy in the grip of his despair to walk to the end of the road, he still managed to go to football matches, he identified a similar sense of release.

“Beyond just about holding my job together – I had a lot of holiday held over, so I went on a two-day week – and trying to deaden the panic attacks in the gym, the only thing I could really manage was going to the football.

“It… was something that required nothing of me beyond showing up. I could shout or stay quiet as I pleased, and no one would judge. Or notice. At the best of times, the idea of milling with crowds of shoppers on the high street makes me anxious and homicidal. Yet, even when I'm nuts, I feel safe in a football crowd: over and beyond a common sense of purpose with everyone else, I feel as if I'm in a bubble where there's nothing getting in between me and the moment.

“All the other worries that are invading my psyche 24/7 – ‘You're going to die, John, it's only a matter of when’ – dissolve for a few hours. There is no me; only football. It's the most perfect time off, time out from myself. Knowing there are football matches – and therefore moments like these – ahead is one of the things that helps me survive those days when every minute feels like an hour.”

Vertigo’s sub-title -- One Football Fan’s Fear of Success -- highlights the new angst for Tottenham fans faced with the elevated expectations and still greater potential for disappointment associated with Champions League status.

Yet it might have just as easily been: How Football Saved Me From Myself.

Buy Vertigo: One Football Fan's Fear of Success direct from Amazon

Browse more football books

Find more books by John Crace including Brideshead Abbreviated: The Digested Read of the Twentieth Century

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