James Joyce: the Aston Villa Years

Words: Tom Lennon

Photo: Clare Lennon

 

Next week’s auction of rare manuscripts by the great Irish author James Joyce looks set to ignite a bitter dispute between private collectors, leading academics and fans of a West Midlands football team.  Featuring handwritten drafts of some of his earliest published work, the collection includes more than 1,500 pages of articles, match reports and in-depth player profiles that Joyce wrote between 1919 and 1924 for Aston Villa’s weekly souvenir programme.

‘This has got us all worried,’ says Harry H. Earwicker, a lifelong Villa supporter and spokesfan for the Anglo-Irish ‘soccerlit’ pressure group, Villa Yootha Joyce.   ‘There’s a very real danger that some well-heeled foreign buyer could snap up part of this great club’s history.  These documents are the last surviving link between the modern-day Claret and Blue Army and the lost world of Modernist literature.  They should remain at Villa Park, or at least somewhere in Witton.’

As well as being a literary heavyweight, James Joyce will also be remembered as one of Aston Villa’s original ‘famous fans’.  According to Joyce scholar Hugh Kenner, he was ‘the Nigel Kennedy of his day’, and Joyce would often boast about this in public despite the fact that no serious artist in the 1920s wanted to be compared to Nigel Kennedy.  What first attracted the Dublin-born writer to this legendary West Midlands club has been the subject of much speculation over the years.  Most scholars now agree that it was probably a defiant act of artistic rebellion against the dated literary conventions of Victorian novelists like Thomas Hardy, Anthony Trollope and the Brontë sisters, who all supported Birmingham City.

Whatever the case, his passion for the club found its way into of many of his most famous books.  His autobiographical novel, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, was originally entitled Portrait of the Artist as a Villa Fan, while his masterpiece Ulysses was inspired by an away victory against Sheffield Wednesday in 1904.

Joyce began writing for the club’s souvenir programme in 1919.  He was living in impoverished exile in Zurich with his lover, Nora Barnacle, and was desperately struggling to make ends meet.  By the time his ends eventually did meet it was too late, as the pair had already moved to Paris.  To help alleviate Joyce’s poverty his well-connected patron, Harriet Shaw Weaver, put in a good word with Aston Villa’s owners.  In those days, the West Midlands football souvenir programme industry was a melting pot of Modernist talent and many of the great artists of the day got their first break working for these publications.  The likes of T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein and Marcel Proust cut their creative teeth writing articles, match reports and in-depth player profiles until people started taking them seriously.  Writers weren’t the only people to benefit:  Pablo Picasso famously produced a series of lurid strip cartoons for Birmingham City’s souvenir programme during his ‘Blues period’.

Over the next five years Joyce was a prolific contributor to the Villa souvenir programme.  He produced 276 articles, 573 match reports, 834 play-by-play tactical analysis charts and over 15,000 in-depth player profiles.  This prodigious output was all the more remarkable as he spent most of this period living in the leafy Parisian Rue La Danny so struggled to attend home games.  Instead, he had to rely heavily on detailed telegrams, eyewitness accounts and geometry.

Joyce’s early articles for the souvenir programme featured a winning combination of hard-hitting match analysis, erudite Irish wit and obscure literary allusions that proved to be a big hit with Villa fans.  His classic work during this period included the groundbreaking match report Villa v QPR (1919) and its disappointing sequel, Villa v QPR (1920), and during Villa’s 1921-22 FA Cup campaign Joyce received widespread acclaim for his detailed account of the long road to Wembley, which was entitled ‘The M1.’

Unfortunately, Joyce’s love affair with Aston Villa was not to last.  Egged on by fellow Villa fan Ezra Pound, he began to introduce increasingly experimental literary techniques into his Villa programme contributions.  His play-by-play tactical analysis reports featured an increased use of multiple-viewpoint narration and Lobachevskian geometry, which confused scores of fans more familiar traditional third-person narrative approaches and Euclidian geometry.  He also abandoned many of the traditional rules of punctuation: a 1923 interview with Frank Barson upset the legendary ‘hard man’ striker after Joyce removed all the quotation marks and replaced them with inverted commas.  Barson eventually got his own back by stealing the apostrophe from Finnegans Wake.

The situation finally came to a head in 1924 with his controversial profile of one of Villa’a most notorious fans.  Anticipating the 1970s phenomenon of ‘streaking’ by almost half a century, Macintosh Brown would interrupt Villa matches by charging across the field wearing nothing but a brown macintosh.  Joyce’s profile of this shady exhibitionist – complete with pop-up illustrations – resulted in a highly-publicised obscenity trial and Joyce was forced to accept a three-match ban.

The club’s owners were furious with Joyce.  When Villa were defeated by Newcastle United in that year’s FA Cup final, Joyce submitted a 10,000 word match report which featured passing references to Irish patriot Charles Stewart Parnell and Catholic theologian St Thomas Aquinas.  The club owners urged Joyce to remove these references which, they felt, were ‘somewhat irrelevant’ and ‘confusing to younger fans’.  Angered by this act of censorship, Joyce rewrote the piece as a 10,000 word profile of Parnell and Aquinas which made only passing reference to the FA Cup Final.

For Joyce this was the final straw.  In a fit of rage he attempted to set fire to his vast collection of Aston Villa scarves, track suits and other paraphernalia.  Unfortunately, due to his failing eyesight, he only managed to incinerate a pair of curtains and an early draft of his planned Ulysses sequel, Twolysses.

Despite this, nearly a century later Joyce’s influence still remains strong at Villa Park.  In fact, many of his early, lyrical poems have formed the basis of some of the club’s most enduring supporter chants.  These include the poignant ‘We Love You Villa, We Do’, the rousing ‘We are the Boys from the Holte Army’ and, of course, the ever-popular ‘Shit on the City.’

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