“Why don’t we live here? Why did you ever leave?” This is Solomon, nine, one of my sons; and these are familiar questions he enjoys directing my way. We’ve just left Goodison Park, the ground of Everton, our football team; and we’re walking back to my parents’ home, not far away. Everton won the game (never a given, recently), and Solly is on a high; he wants to linger in the streets around Goodison, as he does whenever we visit. He likes all the ways the area is different from our home. That it’s rougher, not as pretty – poorer, to put it plainly – than our bourgeois patch of Kensal Green, in London, is all upside to him. He likes the shop we’ve just popped into for sweets with its Haribos behind caged wire like so much precious cargo. He likes the cheeky lads on their bikes, larking around as if auditioning for a documentary dedicated to “life on the street”.
If it were a pal alongside me, I’d be teasing him for romanticising my old home, for taking a walk on the wild side. But it’s my boy and I can’t help but smile at how much he’s enjoying himself.
Anyway, the blame, if blame is required, is mine. The football is a project that I went all in on. I wanted at least one of my sons to care as much as I care – for good or ill – about my team. Why? There are easy answers; answers that resemble the reasons why I want them to be into the Beatles or old Simpsons episodes – it makes life easier if your kids share your interests; there are fewer fights over what to watch on television, or play in the car.
But in other ways, nurturing the football attachment is very different to nudging your child towards the Beatles/Simpsons. For a start, it’s not all about pleasure; or, to be more precise, you can’t guarantee pleasure. Most fans, even of those clubs more successful than ours has been recently, deal routinely with frustration and disappointment. The key difference – solemn as it might seem to the uninitiated – is that the attachment to the club has to do with belonging, with identity. As I followed my father, so Solomon, poor guy, would follow me. And maybe I tried harder because we were 200 miles away from the club’s home.
He loved the idea of fierce allegiance and tribal division. He’d talk of classmates: “X was Tottenham,” “Y was Arsenal.” “Typical Arsenal”, he’d say, without entirely knowing what that meant, but he liked the sound of it; the chance to appraise. He liked, too, the opportunity for banter, for teasing, for rivalry. And he quickly picked up on the politics of fandom with its insistence on real commitment. He rehearsed the joke about one of his friends who changes his allegiance during the game itself, depending on who is winning. Not like him, he’d say: “Don’t worry, Dad, I’ll always be Everton, like you and Grandad.” (Evidently, he also loved the opportunity for melodramatic pronouncements.)
What I hadn’t foreseen was how football would become a gateway to a deeper attachment, to place and family; in particular to the family’s history in Liverpool. For context, I should explain that Solomon doesn’t hear much in the way of scouse nostalgia around our house in London. In fact, you’d struggle to find anyone who had rushed more readily than I had, as a young adult, into embourgeoisement, as I later learned to call it – revelling in the exposed floorboards and bookcases of my new middle-classness. Did I want to join the ranks of those poncey metropolitan liberals? Yes please, if they’d have me.
My son, however, a north London native, literally born on those exposed floorboards and already bouncing between his theatre trips and debating clubs, took a fancy to stepping back into my childhood – with its narrower options but, as he saw it, deeper seams.
Walking to my parents’ from the ground, he finds it fascinating that there are links everywhere that connect to him: schools attended by his dad or grandmother or cousin; churches marked by family births, marriages and deaths; parks played in over generations. My lot has been in Liverpool for a century and more, since the forebears left Ireland; converging in particular on one street, where rented homes, then social housing, would be “inherited” over generations. This history – one place resonating with a family’s presence and memories over a long time – is not part of Solomon’s regular world. In his playground, there are almost as many different football shirts worn as there are children; his school pals’ parents come from all over Britain and way beyond. His own mother, my wife, is Canadian.
His passion has an effect on me, too. As Solomon presses me to summon up memories of the passing buildings, I recognise how much I’ve begun to take from his interest in his “family gang”, as he calls it. Which catches me by surprise: over the past few years, the turn towards identity in the national conversation, I’ve found frustrating, limiting. It comes with an impulse to box people in. Do we really want to be defined by others, by where we were born, say, or by our ethnicity? Are we happy to settle for being a “citizen of anywhere” or “citizen of somewhere”? And yet here was my entirely unboxed hyphenate, our Liverpudlian-Canadian-Londoner, finding something deeply enticing and comforting in belonging – initially through football.
He asks Grandad to tell him about old games, and together they watch recorded matches; the stories my dad tells of these bleed into others, beyond football – of school, of work, of what he and his friends did for fun; my mother now joining in. Some tales are well-worn, the “classics”: my dad’s childhood living in a pub, and the occasional naughty recycling of beer bottles from the yard so his friends could claim, then split, the deposit (it’s never too late to confess, Dad); my mother’s late teenage years in the Cavern during Merseybeat. But some are new to me: how much easier it is for a grandchild to ask.
All the tales are fixed to places close by: where are those venues, those factories now, Solomon asks. Can we walk there, touch them, smell them? (We can, though the smells tend to change. No tobacco nor rum lingers in the air at the dockside warehouse, soon to be an apartment block, where my dad worked as a 16-year-old.) Why are we Everton, not Liverpool? And I’m reminded, as we walk him through the history, that the game, which served as a prompt to all the boy’s wider questions, can itself go deep. The answer, as it happens, is that while the founders of Liverpool FC were wrapped up in the Tory party and had strong links to the Orange order, the early Evertonian boards tended to be Liberal and would seduce the local Catholic electorate by presenting in favour of Home Rule for Ireland. My dad, educated by the Christian Brothers, landed on one side. There’s good fun to be had in reminding my Liverpool FC pals, especially those of a liberal bent, of this history.
As Solomon drinks it all in, I have further reason to thank my nine-year-old sage, further reason to take pleasure in his enthusiasm. Accounts of neighbourhoods like the one I’d grown up in, home to my parents and our football club, can fall into a grim pattern. The problem is not in the documenting of social ills – of course not, that’s the job, our job. (And if levelling up ever proves to be more than a phrase, its purpose is surely to lend more options to those living in such areas.)
But it’s the flatness of the lives depicted that can jar, the greyness – as if colour, vitality exists elsewhere. It’s there in the very idea of being “left behind”; there’s a clue in the phrase. The richness of lives is often missed; the richness formed by history, by memory, by place. It blows Solomon’s mind that our family – the sort of people now often used as the “solid”, “unchanging” contrast to the fluid, fast-changing world in which the boy grows up – were once migrants too, struggling to negotiate the ways of a new country, responding to huge change. And not that many generations ago; so close he can touch their birth certificates, hear about them, read about them. Maybe I’d forgotten a little of this richness myself, in my rush to be elsewhere. The boy, by contrast, hasn’t missed a thing. The boy done good.