The first week of January is usually the last time you can halfway clearly remember all those solemn resolutions you made on New Year's Eve. Nick Hornby, for instance, vowed to never struggle through an awful book again and ignore the sense of duty that urges you to finish what you've started.
I hope he will find the strength to stick to this resolve. And, Nick, it's not at all that difficult. Just last month I put a book aside after a mere thirty pages.
|“||He obviously doesn't know very much about his subject, meaning Germany, which makes it doubly irritating when he lets you in on how the German Chancellor followed the final and what he thought. ”|
The book was 'An Amber Glow' by Peter Allen. It's about the football that was used in the 1966 World Cup final. The one Helmut Haller took home with him and which was rescued and brought back to England by Allen himself thirty years later, on behalf of the Daily Mail. There's two reasons why I shelved this book (and opened 'The Best American Sports Writing 2005' instead) after only a seventh of the way.
The first is that there were just too many mistakes on the first 30 pages for me not to distrust the 190 that would have followed. Oh, most of them were little things. Such as the claim that 'German TV commentator Werner Schneider' was 'philosophical' after the 1966 final, saying: 'In England, winning at football is treated like winning a battle.'
The TV commentator for the final was Rudi Michel, a man who loved England and nurtured more than just a soft spot for Aston Villa and Arsenal since the mid-1930s, when those two teams had toured Germany. (The radio commentator, by the way, was Herbert Zimmermann, famous for his coverage of the 1954 final.)
How Werner Schneider enters the equation, I don't know. At the time of the World Cup in England, he was one of the hosts of a late-night Saturday sports show. He may have remarked on the final a week later, though I'm not sure how Allen would have gotten a transcript of that.
Another line in the book that may sound terribly informed but ultimately amounts to nonsense is: 'A full-back who had been playing his football in the West since 1961 could have bought all 11 Dresden Dynamos with his accumulated win bonuses.' We may leave aside the fact you couldn't go out and buy a GDR player for any sum in the 1960s. We may also disregard that even if you could have, only the desperate would've chosen a Dresden player - by 1966, Dynamo were in their second season back in the top flight after the whole first team had been delegated to Berlin in the mid-1950s.
But we shouldn't quite forget that 'a full-back who had been playing his football in the West since 1961' had been a semi-pro for two of those years - namely, until the formation of the Bundesliga in 1963. And from 1963 to 1966, the year of the World Cup final, he had been playing under a maximum-wage rule that stipulated he couldn't earn more than 1200 German Marks, less than £120 at the time, per month - including bonuses.
Sure, there were many under-the-table payments and, sure, Allen was just trying to make a point (though I can't tell you which one). But he obviously doesn't know very much about his subject, meaning Germany, which makes it doubly irritating when he lets you in on how Ludwig Erhard, the German Chancellor, followed the final and what he thought.
Erhard, says Allen, 'had avoided the VIP box at Wembley for fear that he might come across any of the large and dispiriting examples of Gallic imperialism which were sweeping Europe at the time, like Charles de Gaulle', and so he was watching 'the 1966 final at home with a TV dinner'.
Allen then lets the reader know that Erhard, get this, decided 'that it was not a time for petty chauvinism. It would be easy to laugh at France's abject inability to dominate one little green field, let alone a vast continent.'
No, I can't tell you either what he's getting at here, why there's all that talk of battles and imperialism and who runs Europe - and what the French have to do with the 1966 World Cup final. There's also, just for good measure, I guess, a bit about Howard Wilson 'giving away large chunks of Africa' and Elizabeth II being dismayed by the English acquiring a taste for hot dogs. It's got something to do with 'the Americanisation of Britain', as far as I could make out.
|“||He comes back to the topic of sauerkraut, which he of course refuses to eat, no less than five times on the next six pages. ”|
Then there's the opening scene of the book. It's the mid-90s, we're in a town north of Augsburg called Neusass. (Actually, that must be Neusäß, but I know how it is with foreign characters.) Allen and a bunch of rival journos who are also after the ball are meeting Helmut Haller in a restaurant called 'Villa d'Este', which I mention only because the name alone tells you it is an Italian restaurant.
Allen's opening line is: 'Pickled cabbage invariably appears no matter what you order in a German restaurant.' He comes back to the topic of sauerkraut, which he of course refuses to eat, no less than five times on the next six pages - and once more when introducing the Queen.
I'm aware Allen had this meal ten years ago, and I know that the South of Germany is a bit more tradition-minded in every respect than the rest of the country. But it's been an awful long time since I last was in a restaurant that even had sauerkraut on the menu.
Must have been when Dave from Chicago asked for some truly German food and we then drove around town for what seemed like hours to find a haunt that would serve him stew. Yes, the post-modern times are hard for people who want to nourish clichés. Try ordering porridge in an English restaurant. Or ask for a British ale in a London bar. They'll probably insist you have Stella Artois. (Mr Allen will be sad to hear that it's Belgian, not French.)
I didn't really mean to be so harsh on Peter Allen, and maybe I'll pick up his book again in a few months' time. But we're less than half a year away from a World Cup that will bring people from all kinds of places to Germany. And I hope they'll leave their preconceptions at home, or at least not gather their information from something like 'An Amber Glow'. I'm sure there must be a few good books on Germany in English, though I can't recommend a certain title.
Or maybe I can, in a rough sort of way. Just the other day I received a book called 'Toon Tales', written by Newcastle United fans Peter Cain and Barry Robertson about following their team during the 2003-04 Uefa Cup campaign.
It's a travel book, rather than a football book, and since both authors have been living on the continent for a while, they really know what those countries are like - and what is noteworthy or funny about them from a non-jingoistic perspective.
Somebody send Peter Allen a copy.
Also available: Uli's new book Flutlicht und Schatten for all you German scholars to gen up on the history of the European Cup.