With a career overlapping four decades as a music journalist, editor, media entrepreneur and broadcaster, from scribe with Sounds and N.M.E. to founding editor of era-defining loaded, it’s amazing to think Above Head Height is James Brown‘s first book. It’s perhaps less surprising that the subject matter for that first book is football. While also occasionally containing elements of a more conventional autobiography, the focus is very much on the beautiful game. Or rather, the slightly less beautiful version of that game many of us play, up and down the country, on our evenings, our weekends and our lunch breaks. While Brown uses ‘five-a-side’ as a cover-all term for amateur football of all kinds, be it 5, 7, 8 or 11 aside, it’s the five-a-side version played by ageing men in leisure centres that will be the most relatable. Inspired by an article he wrote about a friend from football who unexpectedly passed away, Brown perfectly captures that strange friendship/brotherhood you have with someone you play football with, but know little else about. I’ve been playing with the same crowd of men for about seven years now, and, half of them, I don’t even know their surname or what they do for a living, never mind anything more intimate about them. But that feeling of kinship one gets from playing with and/or against a group of people for so long is very real, but something I’ve never been able to quantify, but Brown does it superbly here. As well as his own footballing stories, from childhood to middle age, we get dozens of other amateur football anecdotes, many of which will have you laughing out loud, either because you play with someone just like the guy being described, or because you’re glad you don’t. He details the kind of attempts to get/keep fit, thereby gaining some slight advantage for our weekly game that most middle aged blokes will be able to relate to.
As you would expect from someone who’s lived the life Brown has, there’s some fantastic celeb based anecdotery; playing in Los Angeles with Sex Pistol Steve Jones and Ian Astbury and Billy Duffy from The Cult on Robbie Williams’ private pitch, Woody Harrelson turning up at his midweek game, a kick about with Rod Stewart. All great stories, and enough to make you hope Brown does write a traditional autobiography at some point (as do the parts where he talks about how he beat his drug and alcohol addiction) but the most touching parts of what was a surprisingly moving book are where he talks about the innocence of playing with your mates as a kid. Endless games of wall-y, kerby, heads and volleys, or whatever region-specific names you may have had for these games, with as few or as many of your mates that showed up. There is something about the pleasure you get as a kid, playing until it got dark, and maybe beyond, that is hard to match at any other point in your life. Even if your refusal to stop playing even for long enough to do a wee does lead to a nasty kidney infection, as happened in my case.
Above Head Height is a must read for anyone with even a passing interest in amateur football.