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In Review: An Irrational Hatred of Luton

Filed: Monday, 20th September 2010
By: Tim Sansom

Robert Banks
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"It is difficult to think of another account written by a supporter that talks about his passion for his beloved club in an honest way without lazy cliché..."

There have been a number of books that have come and gone from the book shops in which supporters talk about their love for their football team. Some work and some don’t and collapse in their own nostalgia and cliché. However, they all talk in very open detail about everything from their first games with their father to those first tentative steps of their own son into the hallowed ground. If you want to use modern words, you are reading about the ‘journey’ of the football supporter, but in many books, this journey often seems to be going round and round in circles. There often seems to be a lot of personal indulgence and very little talk about football.

I suppose that Fever Pitch has been the book of this kind that has gained the most publicity, although I am not quite sure why. The whole Fever Pitch ‘thing’ has past me. I tried to read the book but I failed to get to the final page. I tried to watch the film but I failed to reach the end credits. This whole sorry relationship was similar to my attempts to enjoy the BBC quiz show They Think It’s All Over that was a big hit at my school. Along with The X Files and Tarrant on TV, those were the must watch shows in our class. I tried to watch They Think It’s All Over and tried to laugh, but there are few things that are more awkward in life when you are trying to laugh about something that you are trying to find funny. I would stumble into school the next morning, and school friends would be in tears of laughter about the show. Everything was lost on me. I began to wonder whether it was me.

Like a lover in desperation to make a doomed relationship work, I tried to enjoy Fever Pitch. After giving up on the book, I watched the theatre production of Fever Pitch around 1996. To be honest, I think that I turned up at the theatre, because I saw the word ‘football’ on the posters which is always a bad move. I do remember that the theatre was full of football fans screaming with laughter at every single punch line or any anecdote. I also remember that this actor was stood in an Arsenal shirt in the middle of the stage enjoying every single moment when his stories were creating delirium in the audience. The whole thing was lost on me in a dramatic way. I have given a wide berth to Fever Pitch since that evening.

When I started reading An Irrational Hatred of Luton, I thought that this was going to be Fever Pitch for West Ham. Having been originally written in 1995, when I was trying to understand Fever Pitch, this book talks about the story of a West Ham fan from Beckenham in Kent, making his first steps to Upton Park, and following the team during the eighties and early nineties. There is a large amount of Fever Pitch styled description about life off the pitch, when Robert Banks struggles through his teenage years trying to find the perfect romance as well as getting to know a range of fellow Hammers fans who follow him to East London and across the UK. The detail is relentless, and you do get a different and more grass roots perspective about football in the eighties.

We are talking about a period in the history of West Ham that covered cup successes, relegation battles, the playing days of some of West Ham’s iconic and less iconic players as well as various moments of what people like to call ‘transition.’ There was also the thrilling league campaign in 1986 when the Hammers pushed Liverpool to the league title. Outside of Upton Park as well as east London, that campaign has never quite got the recognition that it deserves. People often talk about the eighties as Liverpool’s decade. The stats can only show so much about a season.

It is obvious that West Ham means a lot to Banks and this book celebrates that passion and those memorable matches at Upton Park over nearly twenty years. The descriptions of those journeys to Upton Park during the late seventies make you feel as if you were there with the author from the leafy suburbs of Kent makes an exciting trip to Victoria then the District line to Upton Park, and trying to make sense of the strange new area where he found himself to be. The stories are refreshingly devoid of all of the clichés about skateboards, flying saucers, Nationwide and Abba that you often get with any reflection about that period on those I Love Seventies ‘talking heads’ shows.

The early Eighties is often talked about as the period when football was in crisis whether on or off the pitch. Banks talks about a violent encounter in west London in such intense detail that you feel as if you were on that underground train or on the platform of the underground station. On a lighter note, it was heartening to read about Banks’ enjoyment of the West Ham players of the decade. He particularly enjoys watching Frank McAvennie in action and there is a most bizarre photo in the middle of the book with McAvennie pictured with his F-reg Audi next to a particularly plain suburban house, compared to today’s standards of footballer’s pads in Cheshire. With various references to bizarre cup competitions, and random televised matches for the benefit of terrestrial television rather than Sky, this book makes you feel that you are solidly in the eighties.

The chapter headings are even references to the songs of the age that is now twenty to nearly thirty years old. That was a nice touch, but on a more serious note, you do appreciate that the decade was not always a case of continual relegation struggles and frustrating mediocrity. I especially enjoyed the match recollections of the 1985/ 1986 season when West Ham pushed Liverpool to the division one title. These chapters talked about a feeling that the Hammers were having a truly memorable season and something special was occurring at Upton Park.

I tried my best, but I could not keep up with the various off the pitch relationships between Bank with girlfriends and the various social developments away from Upton Park. Many football books from supporters do not dwell on these details, but to a certain extent, this information gives a fuller picture of Bank’s life. Although many of us love our football matches, other things do happen in our lives. Football often helps us make sense of those off the pitch events. On many pages, Banks talks in an impressively open style about his attempts to find the perfect women as well as his relationships with school friends and his family.

By reading this book, you are reading a story about a teenager turning into a twenty something whose only constant in his life was his beloved West Ham United Football Club. The original book was written in 1995 and a new chapter has been added about the 2009-2010 season when the Hammers were typically inconsistent and the league campaign seemed to be going nowhere.

A whole range of characters were name checked in the original story, but Banks admits in 2010 that it was impossible to be now so open and so vivid about his love for West Ham. Things have moved on, the companions that accompanied Banks to Upton Park in 1983 had disappeared from the social diary but Robert Bank’s passion for his beloved Hammers remained as strong as ever. It is a moot point to finish on, but I enjoyed reading this book. It is difficult to think of another account written by a supporter that talks about his passion for his beloved club in an honest way without lazy cliché.

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