The Battle To Keep My Faith
My wife says I’ve been acting like a selfish grizzly with a migraine, since early May. Nothing new there of course; I’ve always hated closed seasons, especially those that fall between World and European championships, when I’ve sometimes been so desperate to see a match, that I’ve prayed that one of my TV channels might repeat the full 90 minutes from some meaningless mid-table encounter between eg Stoke City and Sunderland playing out a goalless draw on a nondescript January evening.
But this summer has been altogether different. I’ve been confused; I’ve been angrier than ever; I’ve been worried, and not just about my wife’s points of reference vis-à-vis bears. I was afraid that I’d lost the faith.
Things came to a head one afternoon last week, I found myself crouched uncomfortably in the stifling heat of the loft, staring forlornly into a box of accumulated NUFC memorabilia, still sat there gathering more dust, but a little nearer to the hatch, from the last time I was supposed to have had a clear out. The corrugated cardboard box had been crudely decorated in black and white stripes by my 16 year old self and contained two seasons of badly packed programmes from 1974-1976. Most of them had had the token cut out, which was a requirement back then, when applying for Cup tickets, if you didn’t own a season ticket.
(To feature like Balls The Cat on the website/magazine, send in your letters/articles to [email protected])
My Granddad (who had been a Sunderland fan since somebody had peed down the back of his legs at St James’ in the 40s) had bought me one of those precious £30 a season tear-away ticket books for the West Stand Centre Pavilion, seat A4, but I still studiously cut out the numbered tokens, all the same. After each home game I dutifully stuck them, with great precision, onto the sheet provided in the centre of the early season issues, in the hopes that a) we would progress that far and b) my dad would want to renew his relationship with the club and come along with me. In the spring of 1974, I had pleaded with him to go to the 6th Round FA Cup tie against Forest, because we’d been doing so well, and I had one of those ‘good feelings’ about this run. But I distinctly remember being taken aback, not only by his complete lack of enthusiasm, but the stream of invective that poured from his mouth as he maligned the club he’d supported since the halcyon days of the 1950s. I’d never heard him talk like that before and, well, I just could not understand it. As it transpired, he succumbed, on this occasion, and we both ended up in the Leazes End that day, which is another story; suffice to say he never went back for the following 20 years.
I perched on the loft beams, almost 40 years on, sweating like a hostage, and thumbed nostalgically through the programme of that last game I’d attended with him. I thought about the one-sided conversation we’d had that day and his stubborn unwillingness, at first, to go and the abject hatred in his tone. The truth was, however, that his outburst had been coming for a while; since the late 50s through most of the 60s perhaps.
It’s no secret in my circles that I’ve long been unhappy with the state of Newcastle Utd, and the approaching season was again building up into what felt like yet another chore akin to tidying the kitchen before bed or vacuuming the stairs after work, or even clearing the loft. It was an ugly realisation that, apart from the odd notable exceptions, last season had more or less petered out in similar fashion to so many of the previous ones, so that by early April, I had found myself wrestling once more with the dilemma of renewing or finally throwing in the towel. Not only had I grown mightily tired of moaning on endlessly about the same old festering garbage; but the well-documented list of stuff that made me angry seemed to have grown as long as the queues at the ever crowded bars at St James’ Park.
It’s a sad fact that no amount of articles or groups dedicated to mobilising fans, is ever going to organise an effective boycott that could force the club hierarchy to pay attention. Fans are generally far too self-centred and complacent, including me.This was undoubtedly the bleakest I’d felt, so close to the start of a new season and the turmoil of conflicting emotions seemed more acute than ever before. My desolate mood had been undeniably exacerbated by the Remy signing, which had also precipitated a particularly foul-mouthed outburst by me on various social media, but the stark reality was, I had been gradually falling out of love with Newcastle United for longer than I cared to admit and now, I was at the stage where I hated them, passionately; just like my dad had done.
As I flicked through the musty memories of mid-seventies cup runs and long-forgotten line-ups, I came across an old ‘O’ level (GCSE in new money) Latin exercise book of mine, buried at the bottom of the twisted pile of programmes. My mother had always maintained that Latin would come in handy one day, although it was with some dismay that I left a full Spanish class with the gorgeous, young Miss Palmer to join a ‘dead language’ class (of just two girls and another boy all of whom were much cleverer than me), with the curmudgeonly Mr Liddy, and no place to hide. The other boy, I recalled, was a dyed in the wool Sunderland fan, which went some way to explaining why the cover of my exercise book was tattooed in all manner of Toon-related black biro scribblings.
I pulled the book from the programmes. It was folded back at the last piece of work we’d done,which clearly had had very little to do with imminent exams, and included copious notes on Bob Dylan’s ‘Blood on the Tracks’ -“a confession of heartache and anger, an album obviously borne out of pain”, I’d written, (probably copied from the NME), which sat alongside far fewer notes on a poem by someone who revelled in the name of Gaius Valerius Catullus. The elegiac couplet that we’d evidently been trying to compare to the seminal ‘Tangled up in Blue’ was ‘Odi et amo’ (“I hate and I love”), perhaps thebest-known epigram of the Roman poet’s entire ‘Liber’.
“Odi et amo. Quare id faciam, fortasserequiris.
Nescio.Sedfierisentio et excrucior.”
“I hate and I love. Why I do it, you may well ask.
I don’t know, but I feel it and I am tortured.”
I read it and re-read it. There it was, as clear as the contrast in the hallowed colours. There was my own torment, right there in glorious black and white, in a battered old black and white box of black and white. It was true, I hated Newcastle United with a passion, with the same passion that Sally Albright hated Harry Burns, I really did hate them; because it’s a perfectly natural thing to do, hate something you truly love, isn’t it? I had just got myself all tangled up in black and white.
I reverently replaced the exercise book among the programmes and immediately, a huge weight had lifted from my shoulders. My mood was vastly improved. I was smiling inside and probably grinning like a fool; because I realised that things might have been much worse. I might not even have cared enough to hate them. If I hadn’t really been bothered by any of the club’s shenanigans, if I didn’t hate them as much as I did right now, then that, surely, would have been so much worse? Hate is just the other side of the coin after all.
The direct contrast of feelings caused by ‘true love’ is the most common motif in all literature and Catullus was fully aware of his troubles; a drama heightened by the wretched realisation that these difficulties arise independently of human will. He had no choice but to note the situation and suffer terribly (‘excrucior’, literally,‘on the cross’). As fans of Newcastle United FC, we have no choice either, other than to note what is happening at our ‘cathedral on the hill’ and to continue to suffer along with the rest of the truly faithful. It turned out my dad had no choice either, still, has no choice, although after a spell back in the West Stand during the 90s, he tends to suffer now from the comfort of his own armchair.
The loft is just as cluttered as before but the box of programmes is still there, further back now, away from the hatch and tucked up against the chimney breast, like some holy Roman relic, in the unlikely event I should ever feel the need to reaffirm the my faith.
For the first time in a long time, I’m chomping at the bit of the new season; because I’ve got that indescribable, wonderfully tortured feeling back in my stomach; like a kaleidoscope of black and white butterflies, “and I hate you Newcastle United, I really hate you. I hate you.”
If you would like to feature on The Mag, submit your article to [email protected]