Monday, January 3, 2011

Hornby on excellence's long tail

More Hornby. This is a long excerpt from Fever Pitch in which he recounts the story of Gus Caesar, who was, for a short while, a struggling fullback for Arsenal. It's a terrifying story, and makes me wonder if it's ever sane to choose to enter the big pond.
Soon after I had stopped teaching and begun to try to write, I read a book called The Hustler by Walter Tevis. I was much taken by Fast Eddie, the character played by Paul Newman in the film, just as I had been much taken with the notion that I was the Cannonball Kid when Charlie Nicholas moved down from Celtic. And as the book seemed to be about anything you wanted to do that was difficult-- writing, becoming a footballer, whatever-- I paid it extra special attention. At one point (oh God oh God oh God) I typed these words out on a piece of paper and pinned it above my desk:
That's what the whole goddamned thing is: you got to commit yourself to the life you picked. And you picked it-- most people don't even do that. You're smart and you're young and you've got, like I said before, talent.
As the rejection slips piled up, these words comforted me; and as I began to panic about the way things that everybody else had, like careers and nice flats and a bit of cash for the weekend, seemed to be slipping out of arm's reach, friends and family began to try to reassure me. "You know you're good," they said. "You'll be OK. Just be patient." And I did know I was good, and I had committed myself to the life I had picked, and my friends, and Fast Eddie's friends, couldn't all be wrong, so I sat back and waited. I know now that I was wrong, stupid, to do so, and I know because Gus Caesar told me so.

Gus is living proof that this self-belief, this driven sense of vocation (and I am not talking about arrogance here, but the simple healthy self-confidence that is absolutely necessary for survival), can be viciously misleading. Did Gus commit himself to the life he had picked? Of course he did. You don't get anywhere near the first team of a major First Division football club without commitment. And did he know he was good? He must have done, and justifiably so. Think about it. At school he must have been much, much better than his peers, so he gets picked for the school team, and then some representative side, South London Boys or what have you; and he's still better than anyone else in the team, by miles, so the scouts come to watch, and he's offered an apprenticeship not with Fulham or Brentford or even West Ham but with the mighty Arsenal. And it's still not over, even then, because if you look at any First Division youth team of five years ago you won't recognize most of the names, because most of them have disappeared. (Here's the Arsenal youth team of April 1987, from a randomly plucked programme: Miller, Hannigan, McGregor, Hillier, Scully, Carstairs, Connelly, Rivero, Cagigao, S. Ball, Esqulant. Of those, only Hillier has come through, although Miller is still with us as a highly rated reserve goalkeeper; Scully is still playing professional football somewhere, though not for Arsenal or any other First Division team. The rest have gone, and gone from a club famous for giving its own players a fair crack.)

But Gus survives, and goes on to play for the reserves. And suddenly, it's all on for him: Don Howe is in trouble, and flooding the first team with young players: Niall Quinn, Hayes, Rocastle, Adams, Martin Keown. And when Viv Anderson is suspended over Christmas 1985 Gus makes his debut as part of a back four that's kept a clean sheet away at Manchester United.

Howe gets the sack, and George Graham keeps him on, and he's used as a sub in quite a few games over George's first season, so things are still going well for him-- not as well as they are for Rocky and Hayes and Adams and Quinn, but then these players are having an exceptional first full season, and when the squad for the England Under-21s is announced it's full of Arsenal players, and Gus Caesar is one of them. The England selectors, like the Arsenal fans, are beginning to trust Arsenal's youth policy implicitly, and Gus gets a call-up even though he isn't in the first team regularly. But never mind why, he's in, he's recognised as one of the best twenty or so young players in the whole country.

Now at this point Gus could be forgiven for relaxing his guard a little. He's young, he's got talent, he's committed to the life he's picked, and at least some of the self-doubt that plagues everyone with long-shot dreams must have vanished by now. At this stage you have to rely on the judgment of others (I was relying on the judgments of friends and agents and anyone I could find who would read my stuff and tell me it was OK); and when those others include two Arsenal managers and an England coach then you probably reckon that there isn't much to worry about.

But as it turns out, they are all wrong. So far he has leaped over every hurdle in his path comfortably, but even at this late stage it is possible to be tripped up. Probably the first time we notice that things aren't right is in January 1987, in that first-leg semi-final against Tottenham: Caesar is painfully, obviously, out of his depth against those Spurs forwards. In truth he looks like a rabbit caught in headlights, frozen to the spot until Waddle or Allen or somebody runs him over, and then he starts to thrash about, horribly and pitifully, and finally George and Theo Foley put him out of his misery by substituting him. He doesn't get another chance for a while. The next time I remember him turning out is against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in a 1-1 draw, a week or two before the Luton final, but again there is a moment in the first half where Dixon runs at him, turns him one way, then the other, then back again, like your dad used to do to you when you were a really little kid in the back garden, and eventually strolls past him and puts the ball just the wrong side of the post. We knew that there was going to be trouble at Wembley, when O'Leary was out injured and Gus was the only candidate to replace him. Caesar leaves it late, but when the ball is knocked into the box seven minutes from time, he mis-kicks so violently that he falls over; at this point he looks like somebody off the street who has won a competition to appear as a centre-half in a Wembley final, and not like a professional footballer at all, and in the ensuing chaos Danny Wilson stoops to head the ball over the line for Luton's equalising goal.

That's it. End of story. He's at the club for another three or four years, but he's very much the last resort centre-back, and he must have known, when George bought Bould and then Linighan and then Pates, with Adams and O'Leary already at the club, that he didn't have much of a future-- he was the sixth in line for two positions. He was given a free transfer at the end of the 90/91 season, to Cambridge United; but within another couple of months they let him go too, to Bristol City, and a couple of months after that Bristol City let him go to Airdrie. To get where he did, Gus Caesar clearly had more talent than nearly everyone of his generation (the rest of us can only dream about having his kind of skill) and it still wasn't quite enough.

Sport and life, especially the arty life, are not exactly analogous. One of the great things about sport is its cruel clarity: there is no such thing, for example, as a bad one-hundred-metre runner, or a hopeless centre-half who got lucky; in sport, you get found out. Nor is there such a thing as an unknown genius striker starving in a garret somewhere, because the scouting system is foolproof. (Everyone gets watched.) There are, however, plenty of bad actors or musicians or writers making a decent living, people who happened to be in the right place at the right time, or knew the right people, or whose talents have been misunderstood or overestimated. Even so, I think there is a real resonance in the Gus Caesar story: it contains a terrifying lesson for any aspirants who think that their own unshakeable sense of destiny (and again, this sense of destiny is not to be confused with arrogance-- Gus Caesar was not an arrogant footballer) is significant. Gus must have known he was good, just as any pop band who has ever played the Marquee know they are destined for Madison Square Garden and an NME front cover, and just as any writer who has sent off a completed manuscript to Faber and Faber knows that he is two years away from the Booker. You trust that feeling with your life, you feel the strength and determination it gives you coursing through your veins like heroin... and it doesn't mean anything at all.

Hornby on choosing to grow up

Nick Hornby, in Fever Pitch, sees growing up as a matter of seizing occasional opportunities:
I used to believe, although I don't now, that growing and growing up are analogous, that both are inevitable and uncontrollable processes. Now it seems to me that growing up is governed by the will, that one can choose to become an adult, but only at given moments. These moments come along fairly infrequently-- during crises in relationships, for example, or when one has been given the chance to start afresh somewhere-- and one can ignore them or seize them.
I think this is basically right, though I wouldn't put it in terms of "becoming an adult." I'd put it in terms of "becoming the sort of person one wants to be." The older I get, the clearer it becomes that the idea of adulthood is nonsense. We're all still muddling through, the same way we always have.

Hornby seems to treat crises and fresh starts as distinct opportunities for growth. I'm inclined to think they are two necessary conditions. Turmoil reveals the things we'd like to change, fresh starts gives us the opportunity. This is why break-ups are growth experiences for almost everyone: the crisis and the fresh start come bundled together. In those situations, we have a choice about whether or not to change in ways that make us more like the person we want to be.