By James Reid
“Suddenly I was one of the old blokes I used to look at and wonder how they got there” chuckles Harry Pearson, author of recently released book The Farther Corner. The blokes Pearson refers to are those so vividly depicted in both his latest book, and its prequel, The Far Corner.
These characters that Pearson describes with such wit and sharpness are likely instantly recognisable to anyone who has ever been to a non-league game. The person who shouts the same thing all game, the father intricately detailing the game to his son, the person who thought it was much better in their day.
There is an intense fondness for this that comes from both the books and while chatting to Palatinate. His affection for non-league, and the Northern League in particular, is something that shines through. “It was like a lifeline for me” reflects Pearson after he returned to the Northern League football after large changes in his life. “For a lot of people, football probably is that thing.”
It is a fondness that is entrenched in each and every page of both books, and the interview. Each page contributes to a rich tapestry of North Eastern working-class culture and is much a guide to the region as it is a book about football. The Farther Corner comes 25 years after its critically acclaimed prequel and is particularly wistful about the changes that have occurred within football and wider society in that time frame.
The game that Pearson returned to is very different to the one that was depicted all those years ago, largely to much derision. “Part of my disillusionment with Middlesbrough is just the Riverside Stadium: it’s so terrible. You don’t feel like it’s part of anything at all.”
This disappointment with modern football is a recurring theme. Pearson has little time for Newcastle United’s acceptance of mediocrity, the current academy system or kids preferring the Metro Centre to playing football.
Indeed, the Metro Centre gets quite the battering in both books, but it is a critique that is largely consistent with Pearson’s outlook on football. A yearning for a former iteration that is almost impossible to go back to.
“I am an old football romantic” admits Pearson. It is probably the one thing that most aptly sums the writer up. Throughout the one hour and 45-minute chat with Palatinate, Pearson flits from between anecdotes. For every topic, there is someone on the committee of a non-league club, a story from a match 40 years ago that fits perfectly, even a photographer’s assistant in Oman who preferred watching games on TV than in real life due to the lack of replays.
It is these anecdotes, effortlessly transporting you from Dunston UTS vs. Pontefract Collieries to 1930s Middlesbrough, that really bring the books to life. The focus on the characters, sights, smells, and stories perfectly demonstrate how football is far more than just a game. It is about community.
This sense of community comes through when talk turns to the future of clubs in the North East. “Everything is gone except the silver band and the football team, so they become much more important” argues Pearson. While the industries that they had been attached to have gone, the football clubs largely remain. Many are threatened by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, but Pearson is upbeat about the future.
“Non-league is vinyl”, Pearson chimes, “some non-league clubs, in a way they’re sort of vinyl and sourdough clubs.” It is an example of Pearson’s richly descriptive style, this time used to denote the steady increase of fans at non-league games, largely the result of disaffection with the modern game. “People are just disillusioned with it. It’s not just the money, it’s the fact that the clubs have given up. Newcastle United now make no attempt to win anything.”
It is largely why Pearson is positive about the future of non-league. “These are institutions that have lasted a long time that are run by local people and are very competently run and have been for centuries and I think that’s a really uplifting thing.” It is again another example of the obvious affection the Middlesbrough native holds for both the North East and non-league football.
It is this affection that partly lies behind the decision to write a second book. “I sort of felt like I owed the Northern League something. My whole career was built on that book really. Writing a second book I hope is sort of a slight repayment of that.”
It could have been very different however. Despite the success of The Far Corner, Pearson went into it with little experience. “I didn’t even know how to write a proposal for a book because I’d never done one and I’d never seen one” reflects Pearson on what would become a classic of the football genre.
It appears in both The Sunday Times’ and The Observer’s lists of the 50 Greatest Sports Books of All Time, though Pearson is almost painfully modest. “It was a good time to write a football book because Fever Pitch definitely opened the doors to books about football.” This is just one of the many things that is described as “luck” by the writer who has gone on to write a series of critically acclaimed books as well as writing regularly The Guardian.
Despite his illustrious career, Pearson’s advice for writers is decidedly simpler. “I just say you get a piece of paper and you get a pencil, that’s how you start. The only way to learn to write is by writing. It’s like a child learning to walk.”
Pearson’s story is one that is heartening for aspiring writers. His route into writing is unconventional. “I didn’t go to university so I didn’t even know how to structure an essay.” Before The Far Corner, the longest thing he’d ever written was just 2,500 words long.
Yet it is perhaps this unorthodox route that gives the books their distinctive style. The rich depictions of non-league culture are a warm embrace of football at a time when it is missed by so many.
Further, the books are an evocative guide to the North East as a region. Despite Pearson’s choice, though well-natured, words for Durham students, it is a fascinating insight into life into a region that has seen so much change in recent years and that has such a rich history.
The chances of The Furthest Corner? Slim. “I’ll be 85, I don’t know what state I’ll be in by then!” It is unclear what state the game, or the region, will be in either. But for now, Pearson’s books are a glorious celebration of both that should be both read and experienced.
Image: Harry Pearson