Jane Stuart – Writer

Writer on beer, football culture and Blackpool FC.

Football Book Review #3: Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters by Daniel Gray

Welcome to the third episode in my new series of football book reviews. Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters had me smiling from the first page – and chuckling uncontrollably before the end of the first chapter.

Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters is the story of an Englishman exiled in Scotland who decides to rediscover his homeland through visits to football towns and cities. Not only does Daniel Gray take in matches, but he also explores the cultural history of the places he visits – and the history of the clubs themselves – making for a fascinating read.

I confess I do enjoy an away day at the football much more when I take the time to explore and immerse myself in the town I am visiting (hence Lincoln – my only weekender from the 2019/20 season – won my top away day award).

Gray completely immerses himself in the culture of each town he visits. (Did you know Ipswich was ‘home of the world’s first motorised lawnmower’?). He perfectly demonstrates how constructing a weekend around a football match can make it feel like a holiday (or at least a mini break). His research is impressive, delving into history, consulting guide books, visiting museums and speaking with (and eavesdropping on) locals.

We are taken on tours of Middlesbrough, Sheffield, Luton, Ipswich, Watford, Leyton, Chester, Crewe, Burnley, Bradford, Carlisle and Newquay. All are fascinating places in their own right with markedly varying cultures. I know I am going to enjoy travelling with the author when he lists in the introduction the things he misses about England:

“…red bricks, canals, fish and chips cooked to order, town markets, reasonably sized hills, ‘dry spells’, small breweries, pubs with coal fires and beer gardens, people calling you ‘love’, proper seaside resorts…”

Cultural differences are stressed – as are the similarities between the fans at each club. Gray observes that none of them talk about the football itself pre-match. I always thought that was unique to my Blackpool friends! Perhaps we only focus our conversation on the football (if at all?) when our team is playing well and winning (surely a small percentage of the time for most clubs?).

Common themes I am beginning to notice in these football fan perspectives (as in real life) are:

1. The refreshments on offer at football grounds is predominantly crap but occasionally wonderful:

“…by 3.55pm the three of us are sipping £3.80 pints of vile, heated bitter from plastic vessels.”

…and yet Burnley sell Benedictine in the ground!

2. Going to the football isn’t really about the football:

“I relish what’s about to come: an hour and a half when I’m not me and when everything leaves my head save for the football. Life becomes simple.”

3. Football without fans just isn’t football:

“…football viewed alone is an incomplete experience.”

…which of course is why the current charade of football being played without crowds is such a nonsense. If we thought football was becoming remote from the people before current crisis, it has never been more apparent than it is now.

The architecture and the natives of each town are beautifully described by Gray:

“…the abandoned wreck of the Adelphi Hotel, a grand old haunted house with its eyes patched by chipboard.”

Gray crafts the most delightful metaphors in Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters – my particular favourite being:

“…more Cockney than Harry Redknapp marinated in jellied eels.”

Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters is my favourite book of those I’ve reviewed so far by a long way. It will take some going to top this. If you’re missing the football and the awaydays, get it ordered and read right away. You will learn so much as Gray takes you on a tour of our wonderfully diverse country – bringing a smile to your face along the way. You won’t regret it.

NEXT UP: The Bottom Corner by Nige Tassell

Please do keep your football book recommendations coming! I will read and review one a week. You will see above I have already picked my book for next week. Why not read along too so you can comment on my review next week. We can be a virtual football book club!

PREVIOUS REVIEWS: She Stood There Laughing by Stephen Foster & A Season With Verona by Tim Parks.

Don’t forget you can also read about my awaydays with Blackpool from the 2019/20 season right here

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