Scribes' elder statesman

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ON A freezing cold afternoon, the celebrated biographer of William Thackeray, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Daphne du Maurier opens the door, shows me up the stairs and ... hang on a minute, let’s run through those names again: Thackeray, Browning, Du Maurier, not a bad midfield trio, educated left feet all round, and I claim the distinction of being first to get them onto the sports pages.

But, you know, maybe Hunter Davies beat me to it. He should have done: his wife is the selfsame biographer, Margaret Forster. In that case, perhaps he and I should settle this with an arm-wrestle, or at the very least, a quiz on how much we know about our respective teams.

I tell him Spurs to my dad meant Whyte & Mackay, but back then I was too young for the hard stuff. To me they used to mean Hoddle and Waddle but now they just mean dawdle: dithering, mediocre inconsequentialists and poncey with it, always fancying themselves in the cup but just as likely, early doors, to be dumped on their shiny blue backsides somewhere oop North.

Really, they’re best summed up by Darren Anderton: his jawline, so masterful and yet ... his vulnerability to any kind of tackling, daylight, life itself, and a floppy fringe that Richard "Love, Actually" Curtis would reject for being too silly even for his fairytale vision of Britain.

OK, Mr Smart-Arse Davies, One Half Of The Most Successful Writerly Mr & Mrs Strike-Partnerships In Britain, and currently working on a biography of his own, subject: Gazza - tell me about Hibs.

"Er, did Billy Steel used to play for you? Billy Liddle? Well, I know what your strip looks like ... "

Typical, you might think. But Davies - fidgety, Pythonesque moustache, calls everyone "pet" - is actually Scottish. The author of The Glory Game - the 1972 fly-in-the-liniment account of life inside White Hart Lane and one of the best books ever written about football - he grew up supporting Queen of the South. What’s more, until the age of 11, the most frightening sight he’d seen was Rangers’ George Young thundering into a challenge on a rock-hard pitch. (Injury latest: Anderton’s just read this and he’s out again.)

It’s a while since Spurs were any good, so ghosting Paul Gascoigne’s book has been a poignant experience for Davies. The prankster-genius often frustrated him. "By the force of his personality, he made other players pass to him, even though they were better-positioned." He admits he used to make fun of Gazza’s twitches, but now regrets this. "I found out he’s always been plagued by these tics. He developed nine different ones in three years."

Something else for you stat fans: Gazza’s injuries amount to four lost years. I’m after something juicier in advance of the book’s June launch, but Davies says: "Gazza doesn’t rubbish anyone, only himself. But I can tell you that his spell at Rangers was the most enjoyable of his career. I’ve produced a chart which backs this up. I always thought that Walter Smith and Archie Knox let him away with murder, but he was shit scared of them. He was chucked out of Ibrox - sometimes physically - five times."

Davies, 66, was born in Dumfries. "Queens were my team and Billy Houliston was my favourite player - an old-fashioned, bullet-headed, barge-the-goalie centre-forward. When we moved to Carlisle I still read The Broons in the Sunday Post and listened to Tammy Troot on the Scottish Home Service, and every May I’d suffer a little heart-attack because I used to get so excited about the Home Internationals.

"Look, pet," he says, producing a chunky plastic folder, "I collect Scotland-England programmes."

He shows me the index, apparently written in crude caveman script. "It’s code, so my wife doesn’t find out that some of them cost 150 quid each." The chaotic study of Davies’ Hampstead home reflects his passion for the Beatles - he was the authorised biographer of the Fab Four when he and Forster were a cool-cat couple of London’s Swinging Sixties - but football is the dominant theme and a pair of antique boots worn by the great Alex James takes pride of place.

"I wish the Scotland-England match was still played. Scotland wouldn’t always get stuffed. I support Scotland at everything but I don’t hate England. I support Spurs but I also watch Arsenal. When Spurs are boring - a fortnightly occurrence - the crowd sing Stand up if you hate Arsenal. I turn to my neighbour, a retired accountant, and say ‘I’m too old to stand’ and he says ‘I’m too old to hate.’"

But Davies is not above ranting. In his football columns for the New Statesman, the best of which have been collected under the title The Fan, he articulates the frustrations of the lumpen supporter, post-Premiership, Sky and Bosman.

"The standard of football is better today but supporters are treated abominably," he says. "They’ve always been fodder. When the likes of Spurs attracted 70,000 crowds, where did all the money go? It’s worse now because gate receipts only account for about 30 per cent of clubs’ income, so they really don’t give a bugger about us.

"But while I’m cynical about clubs - they’re all bastards - and cynical about players - total mercenaries - I’m not at all cynical about football." If he can’t get to a game, he surfs Planet Football on TV, sometimes sitting through eight hours of action in one go, ever-alert with a pen tied round his neck for the next deathless cliche. In a shameless bid for a namecheck in his scribblings, I tell him about Jimmy Calderwood’s reaction to Dunfermiline’s recent defeat of bogey team Rangers: "That gets the monkey off our necks."

One last attempt at getting a Gazza exclusive. The book has been a saga in itself, with its subject falling out with two previous ghostwriters. "One of them, a reformed alcoholic, made the fatal mistake of preaching to Gazza during an interview," says Davies, who jumped at the chance to be a late substitute.

Davies ghosted Dwight Yorke’s book - a frustrating experience. "He’s a very solitary person, not lonely in the way Gazza is, but totally private." And he turned down Gary Lineker’s life story because he couldn’t think of a question to ask him.

He would love a go at David Beckham, once describing his eyes as "narrow and nasty", reforming his view later, but still: what’s behind them? "Everyone who’s really famous and successful, there’s something that bugs them. Usually it’s a more famous and successful person."

For now, though, Gazza is keeping him busy. "He’s a flawed man and you can’t beat them. He’s been sober since last February when he came back from Arizona and his big worry now is that he’ll end up boring."

That’s not a charge you could make against Hunter Davies. But as for his team ...

The Fan (Pomona) 9.99.

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