#ScottishNovelWorldCup: The World Cup in Scottish Novels

Selection of Scottish book covers
Category: Reading

Which style of football will stamp its mark on World Cup 2018? Will it be a resurrection of tiki-taka harking back to Spain’s 2010 glory? Or will the German-engineered gegenpressing that so memorably savaged Brazil in 2014 triumph again?

Of course we might be asking similar questions about Scottish Book Trust’s Scottish Novel World Cup. Casting a sofa-based pundit’s eye over the runners and riders, I saw two distinct playing styles coming to the fore. For gegenpressing vs tiki taka read: realism v the supernatural.   

Like a literary Mark Lawrenson, my pundit’s brain then digressed up a side-alley. Which Scottish novels have actually featured the World Cup in the text, I wondered?

Which Scottish novels have actually featured the World Cup in the text?

The first that sprung to mind was Group D’s Trainspotting, and that goal by Archie Gemmill against Holland in ’78. It led me on a hunt through one of Glasgow’s most spectacularly disorganised second-hand book shops, followed by a re-read over an overpriced San Pellegrino, to realise that the goal, and Archie McPherson’s doctored commentary, feature in the film but not the novel itself. So much for that.

In fact - confession here - I haven’t read half the novels in the Scottish Book Trust tournament, a failure of research that, as an aspiring pundit, I am determined to correct. But of the 32 that are in there, one I know which definitely does feature the World Cup as a significant element of plot is James Robertson’s The Testament of Gideon Mack, lurking at the foot of Group H. If you’ve read this spellbinding novel, you will recall Gideon’s father, a minister of the old school for whom pleasure is a frivolous distraction from a life devoted to the Lord. And yet he has a chink in his Presbyterian armour - the desire to watch the World Cup - which leads him to purchase a television in the summer of 1966.

“It was only a matter of time before it did something offensive. And on the second last day of July it did: it showed England winning the World Cup.”   

Surely no reader can help smiling at this. But talking of offending, the lack of any A.L. Kennedy novel among the 32 is surely intended not as a slight, but to mirror the absence of giants like Italy and Holland from the real tournament in Russia. At least the omission made me recall 1995’s So I Am Glad, which sees Kennedy at her weird and wonderful best, recounting the arrival of seventeenth century French playwright and duellist Cyrano de Bergerac as the love interest of an emotionally damaged female narrator in contemporary Glasgow. The novel’s climax takes place on the evening of the 1994 final between Brazil and Italy, as an impromptu World Cup house party forms the backdrop to a fight even more savage than Zidane’s headbutt on Materazzi twelve years later. I'm not sure whether Kennedy is a football fan or not, but the whole scene evokes an understanding that the World Cup transcends the ordinary realm of sport, to become a microcosmic embodiment of the flawed human spirit. It begins in pristine wall charts and choreographed ceremonies, and ends in a grinding nil-nil draw followed by the cruel theatre of penalties.

It seemed curious that the two novels I could think of which feature the Cup itself have supernatural themes

Which brings me back to - where else? - my pundit’s meditation on the various playing styles that will grace this summer’s Scottish Novel World Cup. Bearing in mind the realist v supernatural tactical divide, it seemed curious that the two novels I could think of which feature the Cup itself have supernatural themes. And then I hit upon an explanation for this: give me a World Cup year and I’ll remember what I did and who I was with in that summer in a matter of seconds. Give me a novel with a supernatural plot device at its core, and I’ll believe it a lot more if historical events like the World Cup give the setting a richly textured sense of reality. And yes, dear afficionados of that wizard on the wing in Group A, who this pundit is predicting will eventually lift the trophy: I suppose we could be generous and include the World Cup of Quidditch.  

Tony Garner

Tony Garner studied English Literature at the University of Edinburgh, and an MA in Journalism at Napier University. He is now based in Glasgow, where alongside teaching he writes fiction and literary journalism, some of which can be found on his website.

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