Dave Simpson talked to James Brown about his ‘five a side life’ and his new book Above Head Height.
Ray Brown writes:
James Brown has been an anarchic cog in the British cultural machine for over thirty years. In his early teens he was amongst the forefront of punk publishers, his fanzine Attack on Bzag! a passport to an ever increasing rock scene. A few years later, as NME's youngest features editor, his bailiwick had expanded to Los Angeles and beyond. Then came another publishing innovation, LOADED. He is still, I believe, the only British Society of Magazine Editors ‘Editor of the Year’ for two consecutive years. Then came the editorship of GQ. And so on. Throughout it all was an obsessive dedication to football, as supporter of Leeds and a regular player. At just over fifty he still plays three games a week.
Above Head Height began life as a broadsheet feature he wrote when a footballing pal died. Finding its way onto the internet, the feature went viral. And James realised that he had a lot to say about amateur football, the stable in his life and in millions of others. And the publisher Quercus realised that no-one had said it before.
Veteran of the Culture Show, Newsnight, and presenter of two radio shows (football and music – what else?) James was at ease in the sold out Litfest event. Dave Simpson (of the Guardian) kicked off by recalling a fifteen years old James approaching him in Dortmund Square and persuading him to buy a copy of Attack on Bzag! They are old pals. After a little introductory banter James read Chapter 1, We Cremated James Yesterday. The James in question was James Kylo, the five a side pal who died unexpectedly and too young. The chapter is more or less the original feature. And to some extent it sets the tone of the book, more laughter than tears, but the tears are there. It’s a spy hole into an intricate joyful mainly masculine (for how long) world.
James and Dave very obviously enjoyed the evening and so did the large audience. The place was full of laughter, interest and respect. James dipped into his life in football and occasionally threw in snatches of his life as a music journalist and editor. Anecdotes from the book abounded, and all told with unassuming good timing and followed by unforced laughter.
Let me come clean. I’m his dad. And I have no interest in football.
Be sure that had I not been his dad, or had not read the book in advance, I would not have been at the New Headingley Club last night. In fact when he told me he was writing such a book I was not overjoyed. To be honest I saw the task of reading it as a paternal chore. He is a good writer, but... football! When he talks about football I like to think that all the players with Latinate names are opera singers or renaissance painters, it makes the images interesting.
In the event I read Above Head Height with pleasure. Didn’t skip a page! It isn’t just football, though somehow he makes that game interesting, it’s an exercise in nostalgia and, most of all, a book about friendship. Which, you will appreciate, is a relief to me.
Watching him perform last night, sitting with Dave Simpson where two years ago I sat with Doug Sandle, launching my novel In All Beginnings, gave me a bit of a glow of rightness. And it took me back to the years when we lived in Headingley, him playing football in the garden with Dem, our Bearded Collie, who could outrun any of the local kids and sometimes forgot he was playing football in favour of rugby, taking the ball in his mouth and streaking across the Filey sands or into Battersby Woods.
And from those days, here is a little gift, perhaps to him as well, since he may not remember.
At primary school (Bennett Road) he wrote the inevitable ‘What I did on my Holidays’ essay. We drove to Devon and back. In his account we stopped off in the Midlands and visited a zoo were he rode an elephant and saw real lions, tigers, monkeys, etc. ‘Why?’ I asked him. ‘To make it more interesting,’ he said. At Bedford field he wrote ‘The Storm’. It was full of billowing bruised purple prose that really puzzled me, where had it come from I wondered? ‘I pretended to be Dylan Thomas,’ he said. Later he would name my first grandchild Marlais, Thomas’s middle name. A born writer then.
After hundreds if not thousands of articles written and others edited, Above Head Height is his first big hardback. He assured us there would be more. His is a life dominated by football and music, and he’s made a living by enjoying himself. Long may it last. And perhaps he will bring all the future books home to the LitFest.
Very engaging and well structured. Enjoyable regardless of a specific interest in football. Venue was perfect for the themes of British Culture and the community vibe.
Very interesting, never been interested in football, but I am now, and I am going to buy the book.
It was a most stimulating and engaging evening. Much more than just football 'blather'. Thank you for organising it, it brought 5 older men out for a talk!
Entertaining - very laddish but funny. Enjoyed the bits about being young + 5 a side best. Look forward to reading the book.
Great to hear stories from where I grew up. Great venue. Will check out LitFest website.
*good format * entertaining evening * good engagement with the audience * value for money!
Very entertaining evening. A good collection of humorous anecdotes. Worth coming!
The whole evening was very entertaining and had lots about amateur football but little about the men who played it. Great section at the start on writing. Bit rambling at times.
I don't even like football. However this was a very interesting evening.
High energy performance from an obviously rich life! Bit too much football, but clearly an entertaining, even interesting and informative book. Talented and amusing guy. Did not know that football could be so amusing.
Should have had a PA - would have made it more professional. I have no interest in football whatsoever - however thoroughly enjoyed this evening, really interesting and engaging! First time attending the LitFest event, would attend again.
Interesting and informative evening about the passion of 5 a side football and the impact upon peoples' lives.
Well run event with interesting discussion. May have been quiet at times.
Most interesting and a blast from the past.
Interesting on all sorts of levels. Thought provoking - thanks. (+ very funny)
A welcome down to earth part of the LitFest. Intro to the book.
Very entertaining evening. The sort of guy you'd be happy to spend an evening in the pub with.
James was v. informative, interesting and entertaining. Enjoyed it.
Good event. Chair of event needs to let speaker be the focus and prepare more quotes!
Voices of Leeds very evident in this event.
Brilliant. Very interesting. Maybe better shorter, without an interval.
Resonated with so much ??? Done = 25 years of 5 a side.
Interviewer too interested in telling his own anecdotes and not asking questions. Too much football. Fortunately James was very entertaining - despite the name dropping.