It’s perhaps fitting that I sit to read this as England’s current crop of lacklustre footballing heroes disappoint the nation again. For the pivotal moment of ‘Billy Parks’ is a what if. What if England had scored against Poland to qualify for the World Cup in 1973? What if they’d brought Billy Parks on?
Football is perhaps the one area of life where nostalgia is ok – it really was better back then. When you read a book that references Stanley Matthews, Alf Ramsey, Bobby Charlton and the like, you can’t help but think “ah, those were the days.”
Billy Parks cashes in on this nostalgia too. He earns a spot of money and a few beers by toting his anecdotes around bars. But in reality Billy is a mess. Because England didn’t qualify in 1973, they didn’t bring him on the pitch and now his life has deteriorated – his liver’s packing up, he’s lost contact with his daughter and grandson, and his friend and occasional squeeze is giving up on him.
Into Billy’s life walks a man from the Council of Football Immortals (I leave it to your Friday night pub session to discuss who you’d put on your Council of Football Immortals, then you can check your choices against Roberts.) They want him to join them. They offer him a second chance – to go back, to get on the field and to score that goal against Poland. And from there, everything will be ok. Can Billy do it?
I read this as part of the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize, an Arts Council funded literary prize which celebrates British writing and awarded eight novels the prize this year. Reading for prizes always carries with it a slight tension – for several years I contributed to the Guardian First Book Award reading groups. You try and sit with an open mind, dreading how you will feed back if you hate the book, and plough in. A notebook sits at your side, waiting for you notes on the use of language, imagery and characterisation, like you used to have to do for school. If the book is a good one, by around page 50 this is all forgotten, and you get straight into the pleasure of reading.
(If the book is bad, however, the notebook does tend to get used to mark down pages or passages that provoke ire and disbelief, even the occasional snort of derision.)
For this novel my notebook is untouched. This is an enjoyable book, even for non-football fans like myself. It doesn’t just cover football, it shows us how quickly our fates can change and be changed by a seemingly innocuous event. Roberts builds up a moving picture of Billy’s life – of his tragic childhood, how football saved him but how it also plunged him into a life of drink and fast women, of events that meant he forgot your friends, abandoned his family and sunk into a cycle of self destruction. If you’re wondering why players paid more in a week than you’ll earn in a lifetime can’t go and win stuff, here are some clues as to what’s stopping them.
More than that, it’s a ghost story – ghosts of the family and friends whose life didn’t go the way they planned, ghosts of people you left behind but who haunted your thoughts giving you a slight twinge of guilt, ghosts of the great men you watched and admired from afar. Finally, it’s also about the ghost of the person you were, and what happens to them.
Whatever Happened to Billy Parks? by Gareth Roberts is available now