Books: Even As We Speak — Incident at St Denis |
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Incident at St Denis

For Ian Hamilton’s 60th birthday

Out near the left corner post, Miller, with characteristic hauteur, beat Ungaretti and launched the cross without even looking inward. Hamilton, moving in at top speed from right of centre, instantly calculated where he would have to be to intercept it. There were two Italians he would need to outrun, Montale and Quasimodo. Both were fast, but they were facing the wrong way. With his unrivalled footballing brain, Hamilton knew already that he would get there. The problem would be to strike the ball into a space that the Italian goalkeeper, Pasolini, was already moving fast to close down. With only thirty seconds left before the whistle, and the score level at five all, this last, slim, desperate chance could decide the World Cup in England’s favour. It was all down to Hamilton. He had scored all five of England’s goals, three of them from his famous upside-down overhead backward somersault bicycle kick, but if he missed this one he would not be forgiven. Experience would help. He and Miller had been in the front line of the England squad since Moore, Charlton and the rest had helped them to that first World Cup success — the prelude to so many others — at Wembley in 1966. On that occasion, too, a typically sly pass by Miller to Hamilton’s unerring right foot had clinched the issue. That had been a while ago, of course: Hamilton would be the first to admit it. Miller never admitted anything, but even he, if threatened with a cocked automatic, would concede between clenched teeth that he might no longer be quite capable of the ninety-yard diagonal run that had left Beckenbauer floundering before the back-flick to Hamilton had yielded the decider. Still, that was the great thing about this game. You might lose the odd tiny fraction of a mile per hour for each decade at the top, but you made up for it in wisdom, guile, grit and craft.

As Hamilton, after feinting to Montale’s left, hurdled over the Italian’s hacking right leg, his mind played its familiar trick of expanding, for a crucial split second, into another time, another place, another life. For strangely enough, this man, who ranked amongst the nonpareils of football (‘There is another Pele called Maradonna,’ Brian Glanville had once written, ‘and there is another George Best called Paul Gascoigne, but there is no other Hamilton’) was cursed, or blessed, with an imagination that furnished him with a whole separate existence. In his dreams, which came upon him most intensely when he was awake, and were at their most luxuriant in moments of professional footballing crisis, he was a poet, critic, editor, biographer and all-round man of letters. Unlike most imagined lives, his was full of vivid detail. He did not just vaguely dream of being a poet. There were actual poems, composed instantaneously in his head even as it was still ringing with the impact of the opposing goalkeeper’s drop-kick clearance sent back past that stunned individual into the top corner of the net at seventy miles an hour. It was happening now.

In the corner of my eye
You move to the kitchen.
Why do I not tell you
That I ate the last bran flakes
During the night?

It was the first stanza of a new poem which he knew would complete itself in the next few seconds of furious physical action. Such compositions — terse, acerbic, pregnant with angst, armoured to the core against any probe for sentimentality — lay at the heart of his early and still recurring conjured persona as the hard young literary guru of Soho. The same scenario would replay itself endlessly in his mind at moments like this. In his imagination, he entered once again the decrepit pub in Greek Street. The grand name he had invented for this sticky-carpeted dive, the Pillars of Hercules, was designed to create an ironic distance from its squalor. The place fell silent as he strode slowly in, dressed in black like Doc Holliday breasting the swinging saloon doors of Tombstone. Gripped in his lethal right hand were the galleys of his little magazine, the Review, the rarely appearing periodical in which established poetic reputations were riddled and left for dead. Propped against the bar, his worshipping acolytes tried unsuccessfuly to look casual as they sensed his entrance. Which of them would be next for the bullet? Which of them would next discover that no amount of loudly professed loyalty was proof against the unswerving integrity of their chosen editor? Once again he bathed in the furtive glance of fear, even as now, in real life, he saw apprehension in the eyes of the Argentine fullback, Borges, the only man he had left to beat before he faced their legendary goalkeeper Sabato, who was already on his way out to narrow the angle. Borges was practically sideways in mid-air, launching a tackle designed to cut Hamilton’s lithely muscled legs from under him. He could let it happen, get the penalty, and finish the match that way. The second stanza flashed into his head.

Perhaps because
I need your disappointment
To equal mine. The hallway
Is full to waist level
With buff envelopes.

The poem was already half done. Soon it would finish itself, just as he would finish this goal. A goal it would have to be: a penalty was the coward’s way. It wasn’t his style. His style was integrity, and that meant what he must do now: beat the tackle with all the skills he had first developed as a youth in those endless hours of kicking a crushed tin can through his letterbox while being attacked by the family dog, and had gone on honing through hundreds of First Division and international matches in which the opposing backs had dedicated themselves to marking him out of the game. With a delicacy and precision made doubly incredible by the speed at which he was travelling, he nudged the ball through the space left under the horizontal body of the Brazilian fullback, de Moraes, and launched himself over it as the crowd’s continuous roar rose to an orgiastic frenzy. Hamil-TON! Hamil-TON! It got boring sometimes, all that adoration.

He was still in mid-air when he began to calculate the options available to the rapidly advancing goalkeeper, Cabral. Here once again, if it were needed, was startling evidence of Hamilton’s greatest single gift: the ability to compute possible trajectories even while his finely tuned physical capacity was fully committed to the action of the present instant. (‘If the photon-stream of the Hamiltonesque footballing mode can best be resolved through a lens which owes more to Heidegger than to Heisenberg,’ George Steiner had once written, ‘perhaps the crux of our appreciation lies in the very synchronicity of spurlos intellection and breath-bereaving Affekt which we, simultaneously deceived and undeceived, are delightedly aware unites us in belief even at the moment when we are unable to believe our eyes.’) De Moraes was already behind, flailing helpless on the turf, automatically signalling innocence to the referee for a foul which he had not managed to commit. Hamilton descended to rejoin the ball as Cabral checked his own headlong rush and distributed his weight evenly to both feet, ready to launch himself in whichever direction the hurtling Hamilton might choose to strike. It was the supreme moment of decision.

As I forge through them
To the front door,
It sounds like cereal being eaten
Without milk.

Hamilton had nobody left to beat except the Norwegian goalkeeper, Ibsen. It would not be easy. Ibsen stood ready to go either way. But Hamilton the footballer could read an opponent’s intentions in the same way that, in his imagined role as Hamilton the literary biographer, he could read the complex creative psychology of his chosen subject. Just as, in his reveries, he had penetrated to the central motivation of Robert Lowell’s paranoia and J. D. Salinger’s strange reluctance to offer himself up for questioning, so now, in reality, he infallibly analysed the Scandinavian’s notorious coiled-spring poise. The bacchantic tumult of the crowd was not enough to muffle the crack of a heavy-calibre rifle shot as Hamilton struck the ball with all his force to his opponent’s right while imparting to it, with a long-practised flexing of the foot, the special spin that would curl it to the left. Even as he did so, Hamilton was looking into the grandstand out of the corner of his eye. Kate was there, taking a day off from filming Titanic II. Jennifer and Courteney were on either side of her: production of Friends had been suspended for a day at their insistence. Julia was only just arriving, typically: later on she would probably babble that the private jet from Los Angeles had run short of fuel. He was getting sick of Julia’s excuses. If she kept that up, her suite in the women’s wing at his chateau on the Loire (Hello! had done a special supplement, back in the days when Sigourney and Michelle were still in residence) might just have to be reassigned to young Gwyneth, who God knows had put in enough requests. Even now, with all the women on their feet cheering, Gwyneth looked the most ecstatic. Good girl. Hamilton was resolving to reward her with a new Porsche even as Ibsen read the trick, reversed direction in mid-air, and got a hand to the ball.

Now you have the milk
But without cereal.
Tough break.
Let’s call it a draw.

The poem was completed but the goal was not. The German goalkeeper, Festschrift, had got a hand to the ball but of course he couldn’t hold it. Hamilton’s shot, moving at only just below the speed of sound, had been too powerful. Hamilton knew what must happen next. He had planned it all along. The only chance with Festschrift was to get him with the second bite of the cherry, not the first. The ball rebounded in a high arc. From behind, the fullbacks Enzensburger and Grass had recovered fast and were moving in. Hamilton was upside down in mid-air when he glanced into the stands and saw Julia, Jennifer, Kate, Courteney and Gwyneth all clutching their distorted faces in horror at the prospect of his missing this most vital of all goals. But he was not going to miss. He never missed with the upside-down overhead backward somersault bicycle kick with the special spin. ‘Ach, du Schweinhund Hamilton mit deine magische Talent! screamed Festschrift as the ball streaked past him into the net.

Slack-jawed with awe, the referee finally remembered himself and blew the whistle. A hundred thousand people were shouting too loudly to hear it. Nor could the object of their adulation. But he didn’t need to. He knew the job was done. On his hands and knees, suddenly weary, Hamilton glanced towards the grandstand and realized at last why Julia had arrived late. He had forgotten but the girls had not. Julia had brought the cake. They were all lighting the candles.

Damned pity it took such a long time, but there was a lot more football in him yet.

(From Another Round at the Pillars, a Festschrift for Ian Hamilton, edited by David Harsent, Congo Press, 1999)