I’ve always been a fan, I think. It makes me wonder about the difference between being a fan and just liking things. My wife, for instance, is not a fan. This doesn’t mean there aren’t books or films or telly programmes she loves. There are. She will happily gobble down a TV box set beside me, and there are many cult shows she likes more than I do – Game of Thrones and Mad Men for example. She can disappear into a novel more fully than anyone else I’ve ever met, so much so that conversation becomes impossible. As, with a troubling degree of convenience, does the possibility that she might play with the kids or do the washing up.
The difference is that, while she may be just as completely absorbed as me by one of these things when she’s reading, or watching, or listening, she doesn’t feel compelled to expend much time or energy on it the rest of the time. She doesn’t crave the action figure, or read the Official Guide to Season Two. Nor the unofficial one. She doesn’t scour the internet for interviews with the showrunner/ director/ novelist/ singer songwriter in question. She doesn’t allow it to colour the way she looks or dresses or feels or views other people or the world around her. The difference between the fan and the non-fan, in the end, is in the degree to which you allow the thing you love to occupy the inside of your head when you’re not actually in its company.
To offer just one small example. I’m a fan of the American band the Mountain Goats. It’s a fairly recent fixation, and it’s probably all too predictable for me to say that it’s one that began when their song Up the Wolves cropped up on the soundtrack at the end of one of my favourite episodes of the brilliant AMC zombie series The Walking Dead. I adored the song at first listen – quite an unusual thing for me, perhaps driven by the way this first encounter was tied up in my mind already with the backstory of Daryl Dixon, my favourite character from the show – and was immediately and fannishly unprepared to leave that adoration at the casual enjoyment level of most viewers.
I didn’t recognise the song, or know what it was called, but a quick Google of the chorus lyric meant I could source it quickly enough. Persistent as the true fan, this one hearing was enough for me get hold of the album The Sunset Tree which a quick run through of track lists on Amazon told me was the album which featured the song. A more sensible approach might have been to simply download the one track I knew I liked, but that would not be a fannish enough response for the likes of me. And the album was extraordinary; a breathless, fragile, beautiful song cycle full of beauty and hope and pain and survival.
Again, the casual fan – I’ve seen it suggested that there is no such thing as a casual Mountain Goats fan – might have stopped at that point. Oh no. Not me. More research. I find that the band is essentially the vehicle of the singer songwriter John Darnielle, whose first novel, Wolf in White Van I immediately order and blissfully devour over a couple of days. I hunt you tube, and find interviews and concerts galore.
On one of these forays I come across a song that speaks to me as instantly as had Up the Wolves. This one is called Animal Mask. It’s the beautiful clarity and simplicity of the chord pattern which attracts me first. I play a little guitar myself and have written a few songs from time to time, one or two of which I would proudly claim even begin to stumble awkwardly from the barren valleys of Appalling Incompetence to almost attain the distant peaks of Borderline Mediocrity, and that limited little bit of abilty and experience is enough for me to recognise and admire that beautiful finger walk from G to some kind of suspended C. It’s a chord move which I also knew from a few Oasis tracks and Tracey Chapman’s Talking Bout a Revolution as well as a song I’d written called Grains which used the same two chord step. That was a love song I’d written about my then lover, now wife, and at first a straightforward love song was what I heard in Animal Mask too.
But quickly, as I listened and re-listened obsessively, I came to know the lyrics as well as the chord structure, and it didn’t seem to fit. Darnielle appeared to be singing, tenderly and lovingly, about wrestling. That’s actual wrestling, costumes and tag teams and half-nelsons and all that, not wrestling as some kind of double entendre. Fan fan fan, I had to know more. Yes, I discovered, the song was indeed about a cage fight and was actually a track from Beat the Champ, which was – and get this – a concept album about the world of professional wrestling. And not today’s big budget Hollywood star producing corporate version, but the low end pre-WWF world of pro wrestling which Darnielle remembered from his 70s childhood.
I immediately fall even more deeply in love with John Darnielle. It’s not that I’ve ever liked, or had any interest in wrestling whatsoever, but the sheer chutzpah of insisting on a much derided childish obsession as worthy of an album of songs made me – perhaps wish-fulfillingly – recognise a kindred spirit, thousands of words as I am into a blog about the deep philosophical significance of a season of horror double bills I saw forty years ago when I was nearly twelve.
But still I hear a gentleness, a vulnerability in the words which call me back to my original sense of Animal Mask as a love song. Some things you will remember, he sings, slightly tremulous, completely heartfelt, Some things stay sweet forever… Ostensibly, the song is about the formation of a wrestling tag team in the heat of battle, but now I’m hearing, in the singing, in the delivery of the lines, the power of metaphor. It’s a song about forming bonds, about trust and hope, about what we get from, and give to, relationships and friendships and love.
I don’t think I’m an exceptionally gifted or astute listener or critic, and I don’t kid myself that anything I’ve described so far about my evolving relationship with the song is anything which an average, reasonably motivated listener might not have got to. What happens next though, is different, and it’s the true mark of the fan.
I keep digging. I listen, and I listen – at this point the Mountain Goats seem to have erased the whole of the rest of my record collection. I can’t listen to anything else without thinking ‘Why am I listening to this when I could be listening to the Mountain Goats?’ and quickly rectifying the mistake by listening to the Mountain Goats instead. So I listen, and I listen, and I listen. And something else seems to begin to work its way mysteriously through the song’s central metaphor.
They won’t see you, he sings, Not until you want them to, with an extraordinary, tender protectiveness, that doesn’t quite sit with a sense of the song as either a straightforward wrestling ballad or as love affair metaphor. So I dig deeper. Interviews, live clips. And there it is, eventually. A live performance from the Newport folk festival, and Darnielle introduces Animal Mask with a funny and self-deprecating explanation of the song’s wrestling background, and just at the end, a throwaway line just before those beautiful chords kick in. ‘And it’s also about the delivery room,’ he says.
And now the song reveals itself to me so purely, so openly and entirely that I can no longer listen to it without tears stinging my eyes. I don’t think I would ever have reached that reading of the song without that throwaway line, and without hearing an interview subsequently in which Darnielle elaborates a little, movingly, on the relationship which forms so immediately as your child is presented to you in the delivery room, that moment in which you form your own specific tag team, passionately and protectively.
And now the song makes me cry, because I’m connected to it on an intensely personal level which would never have happened without the obsessive dedication that sent me though hours of songs and interviews and youtube footage. I don’t think anyone would pick up on the parent and child bond theme of the song from a casual listen, or even a few casual listens. The lyric is so oblique, so indirect, I don’t think that immediate connection is possible. It could be argued, I suppose, that this is a weakness in the songwriting; that if the song relies on a level of metaphor that requires a fannishly obsessive response, then the song doesn’t stand on its own two feet – a metaphor needs to be readily understandable and general to really resonate, rather than specific and cloaked. But, needless to say, I don’t agree.
This last, most specific level to the song doesn’t narrow the power of the metaphor; it deepens it. I don’t share Darnielle’s ability as a songwriter, sadly, but I do share the intensity of those moments in the delivery room. His experience and mine become one, because that last, half hidden and very specific and personal level of the song is general in a deeper sense, and the fact that, like a true fan he wraps up his most profoundly personal and emotional moments in the language of his own fannish obsessions means even more to me. It is, partly, because of this shared journey that I love the song so much. I cry with joy and tenderness and recognition. And this is the gift of the fan.
As a very small child I loved Watch With Mother, which English people of a certain age will remember was the umbrella title (and one which makes me smile now, not only for what it says about the blithely unknowing sexism of the time, but also because today it would be called Watch on Your Own while your parents check Facebook) for a lunchtime children’s TV slot which showed a different programme each day – many of them now among the most fondly remembered shows of the period – things like Camberwick Green, Trumpton and Pogle’s Wood. Although I loved all of these, my own favourite was The Herbs.
Just in case anyone under forty-five or who isn’t from the UK is reading, The Herbs told gentle, sweetly song-punctuated stories about the adventures of Parsley, the lion (‘I’m a very friendly lion called Parsley/And you must never speak to me harshly…’) and his friend Dill the Dog. ‘I’m Dill the Dog, I’m a dog called Dill’ Dill used to sing, with emphatic if rather circular logic. There were a number of other eccentric herb-related characters such as the aristocratic Sir Basil and Lady Rosemary, and the ruggedly proletarian Bayleaf the Gardener (‘I’m Bayleaf I’m the Gardener, I work from early dawn/You’ll find me sweeping up the leaves and tidying the lawn’). The witch Belladonna, or Deadly Nightshade, gave just the hint of threat so beloved of toddlers everywhere in this otherwise bucolic garden world, while Sage the owl provided some grumpy comic relief (‘I’m a rather fat feathery owl named Sage/ I’m not very happy in fact in a rage’).
For those of you by now not unreasonably wondering why instead of reading about Hammer’s gruesome Plague of the Zombies in this blog about horror movies you’ve stumbed upon, you seem to be surrounded by almost unbearably cute friendly green lions waving at you, the point is that, even as a pre-schooler I was recognisably a fan. It wasn’t enough to simply watch the show. I drew Parsley the lion repeatedly, with the relentless resistance to boredom of the true obsessive. I had to have the annual. If there’d been the T shirt to have got back then, I’d never have taken it off. And perhaps most significantly, I made up continuing stories about Parsley and the gang when The Herbs wasn’t on.
I think this, for me, is the redemptive quality at the heart of fandom, in all its otherwise pointless nostalgia and adolescent self indulgence, and this is why I refuse to feel any further shame or embarrassment about the fact that, when alone, I’ll often find my hand curling, ring and index finger splayed in a passable imitation of the Lugosi claw, before it reaches out to pick up my Curse of Frankenstein mug for a swig of coffee, which I started drinking black twenty five years ago because that’s how Agent Cooper liked it. Whatever else it may or may not have done, my enslavement to the fan gene has been the spark to ignite whatever capacity for creativity or imagination I possess. My lifelong love of fantasy, and storytelling, and the pleasant tingle of suspense, can be traced back in a line through Whedon and Gaiman and Lynch, and Philip Pullman and Hitchcock and Star Wars, and the glorious fifty year history of the Doctor, through Conan Doyle, and horror double bills, and on back through Spider-Man, through The Hobbit and Stig of the Dump and Narnia’s wintry landscapes, and on, further and further back, through Mole and Ratty, through the Moomins and their apocalyptic comet, to the gentle garden adventures of a ragtaggle gang of condiment-christened animals and cultural stereotypes in The Herbs.
Without the trigger that comes from obsession, rather than mere enjoyment, I may never have found my love of story; may never have tried writing my own; may never have shone in English lessons; may never have gone to university. Who knows, in other words, how different, and how spiritually impoverished, my life might have been. The things that allow, or even demand, fandom as a response are precisely those which enlighten or enliven the creative process, by making the audience or reader active, rather than passive.
Social realism, soap opera, the kitchen sink – these things have their place, but it’s hard to see them inspiring fan fiction, or any sort of response beyond an admiring recognition of a certain kind of verisimilitude. Judy Blume, Jan Mark, Melvyn Burgess, others of their kind – these are wonderful children’s writers, but I don’t think they inspired many of their readers into writing themselves. J. K. Rowling on the other hand, will almost certainly be responsible for the next generation of storytellers, just as script editor and noveliser extraordinaire Terrance Dicks begat Russell T. Davies, Moffatt, Gatiss and all. I feel incredibly lucky to have stumbled upon so many stories and writers that made a fan of me, because in doing so they widened the doors of perception for me much more truly and lastingly than any drug. They made me who I am.
Inheriting the pattern from Parsley, and Doctor Who, it was Plague of the Zombies which prompted my first foray into horror film fan fiction. Strange in a way that it hadn’t happened earlier – but something in the way that Plague took place in Cornwall, rather than middle Europe, something about the rather sketchy backstory of its chief villain, triggered something in me, and at some point in the year that followed I attempted to write a full sequel – now sadly lost to the archives – called Return of the Zombies. The story was just a clumsy rehash, and the style – I’m guessing – was histrionic and forced, but it would also have shown the impact the horror double bill season had already had on my reading history.
I’d graduated directly from Doctor Who novelisations to Stoker, Mary Shelley, and Poe. At school, immediately prior to the swimming lesson which, in a fairly competitive field, marked my personal lowlight of the week, we had a blissful reading hour in the Library, allowing a final glorious escape before the humiliating watery plunge to follow.
During one of these hours I came across a specific edition of Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, which I devoured obsessively, and also of an anthology edited by Peter Haining called The Monster Makers which I read fervently and desperately, and returned to week after week after week, but most particularly to the extract from Frankenstein and to Poe’s The Facts of M. Valdemar’s Case. I have such fond memories of these old friends that it was a delight to me to come across the self-same editions of each of them together once more, and be able to rescue them from a purge of old stock in the library of the school where I now work. Shelley and Poe and Stoker became the models for my attempts to ‘write like the nineteenth century’ in my Plague of the Zombies sequel, and in almost everything else I wrote for the next three or four years.
Even later, as a supposedly more mature individual with more refined tastes, a student, rather than merely a reader, of Literature, the fan was never far away. As a nervous sixth former reading off-syllabus (always much more fun than on-syllabus) I discovered James Joyce, and immediately clutched him to my heart, but I did so as a fan, not as a student or critic. In the absence of a ‘Joyce Rules’ T shirt I carried around my copy of Ulysses ostentatiously, hoping someone might notice it, realise how clever and erudite I must be beneath the gawky awkward twitchiness of my everyday persona and therefore shag me. And I copied him. Embarrassingly badly, but I did.
I wrote stream of consciousness fan fiction.
Just as surely and appallingly as later I copied Dylan Thomas’s poetry, and Orwell’s prose.
Worse still, I responded to criticism of my literary heroes as a fan responds. There’s nothing measured in my dislike of Virginia Woolf, for instance. She had the temerity to object to the coarse, Rabelaisian quality of Ulysses and dismissed the most important novel of the century as a ‘queasy undergraduate squeezing his pimples’, preferring her own predilection for minutely dissecting the oh so sensitive thought processes of over privileged well-to-do dilettantes as they arrange the lilies and mull over their dinner plans. I loathe her work accordingly, never really giving myself the chance to see anything of value in the output of a writer universally recognised as one of the most insightful and perfect prose stylists in the history of the novel.
It’s the flaw of the fan; the total inability to see or accept anything from the other side. Someone telling me they like Woolf is a bit like them telling me they follow Ipswich – it may not be their fault, but it makes them Them rather than Us, and it’s hard to forgive. I stopped just short of chanting ‘You’re shit, and you know you are’ in lectures on Virginia Woolf, but it was only a small step away.
Football, incidentally, is fandom-lite. Most people experience it to some degree or other, and in many cases it can be all-consuming, but its place now is so mainstream that its fannish eccentricities and idiosyncrasies pass relatively unnoticed, normalised by their generality.
I’ve been a fan of Norwich City since going to my first games at Carrow Road with my dad in the 1971-72 season – working class rites of passage tradition that it is, or rather was, before such a thing began to be priced out of possibility. I would have been six or seven. I can still name that squad from memory (Keelan, Paine, Black, Forbes, Stringer, Anderson, Briggs, Paddon, Livermore, Foggo, Sylvester, Cross, Bone…).
Again, the games themselves were never enough – I painted scenes from the match, the most vivid image captured in this way being the strikingly blond hair of Mervyn Cawston, the reserve team goalkeeper (yes, we went to reserve games too), framed through the net in mid dive forever, frozen into immortality by the power of my art – until it was chucked in the bin a week later. During long hours of back garden football with my dad I fantasised scenarios in which Sir Alf finally turned to my hero, Kevin Keelan – the finest goalkeeper never to be capped by his country, his career coinciding with an embarrassment of English goalkeeping riches that included Banks, Shilton, Clemence, Stepney, Bonetti and Corrigan – with a long overdue callup. I collected programmes and kept a scrapbook of match reports and features from the local paper.
All of this being completely normal, of course, except that a similar habit when applied to horror movies or sci-fi programmes has the perpetrator immediately delineated as ‘sad’, ‘nerd’, ‘geek’. And the same people most likely to snigger up their sleeves at all those convention-goers dressing up as their favourite Doctor, or pretending to be Klingons, see nothing odd in pulling on their replica shirts to go to the game on a Saturday afternoon. What is a middle-aged man in a Man United shirt that says ‘Rooney’ on the back doing if not dressing up as his favourite character?
Ultimately the point is not whether football fandom is better or worse than horror fandom, or sci-fi geekery, or any of the other outposts of obsession to which the human being can fall victim. In one of the more wonderfully hilarious news stories of the past couple of years, the police were called to a sci-fi convention in my home city to break up a violent clash between the Whovians and the Trekkies.
In the end the point is belonging, and it’s fundamentally tribal in instinct. We’re all desperate to belong: to lose ourselves and to find ourselves in the company of those who share our particular and absurd passion. On countless occasions I have threatened, raucously and tunelessly but in some imitation of song, to kick in the fucking heads of total strangers who happened to be sitting or standing in a different section of a football ground to me, not because I ever intended to do anything of the sort, but simply because I wanted to join in the song that everyone else around me wearing the same Canary-yellow shirt as me was singing.
A similar instinct once found me, several pints down and in my local to watch an England game, joining in with a particularly catchy number which had begun to echo around the bar before I even recognised or realised that I was singing No Surrender, and that, therefore, presumably, the BNP were in town. Interestingly, at the point I realised what was happening my membership of a different, left-leaning, tribe, led me to stop singing along and begin bellowing ‘Shuttup you twats’ at the top of my voice every time the chant began, and ultimately led to me being invited outside to settle our disagreements. An invitation which I readily accepted, one of my favourite maxims at the time being Trotsky’s ‘If you fail to persuade a fascist by argument, acquaint his head with the pavement’.
Rather more seriously, and perhaps one of the reasons I found ignorant hairy-knuckled Norfolk-dwelling Neanderthals chanting No Surrender so unacceptable; I spent most of the 1980s living in Northern Ireland (or ‘war-torn Northern Ireland’ as my Belfast-born friends of the time used to ironically introduce their homeland to anyone who came from anywhere else – ‘Hello. I’m Janet from war-torn northern Ireland.’). For the first part of that time I was a lapsed English Catholic living in a quiet but staunchly Protestant little triangle of coastal towns surrounding Coleraine, and hearing rumours about naïve English girls being punched in the face in pubs by locals for referring to the biggest local town as Derry rather than Londonderry.
For the latter part of the decade, just to really get to grips with the contradictions of my own position, I went to live in Belfast, just off the Antrim Road. For those unfamiliar with Belfast geography, that was, at the time, middle class enough to be – probably – safe enough to have an English accent without worrying, and religiously mixed enough to – probably – be OK whichever foot you kicked with. I lived in a house from which you could, very occasionally, hear the bombs and the bullets, but in which you could also blithely ignore them. I loved Belfast, always feeling very comfortable with its warmth and vibrancy, and for years afterwards, now back home in England, would bore anyone unwise enough to ask for my impressions of my time living in the city with my startling and idiosyncratic insight that, like Newcastle or Liverpool or Manchester, it was really just a Northern Industrial Town. Then I bought a Billy Bragg album called William Bloke, which had a song about Belfast on it called Northern Industrial Town and realised my insights weren’t quite as unique and startling as I’d hoped, so I decided to shut up about Northern Ireland. Until now.
Politicians and sociologists, intellectual commentators and tut-tutting figures of all descriptions have attempted to explain the ‘Irish question’ in any number of different ways, and all of them riddled with irreconcilable contradictions. The leftward radical slant of the Provos for instance, none of whom ever seemed to recognise that there was a somewhat ambivalent quality to spouting internationalist proletarian socialist solidarity while shooting 18 year old working class squaddies. Sometimes while perched as a sniper in the ironically named Friendly Street. The point, in the end, is tribal. Not religious. Not political. The point is belonging. The we and the not-we.
There’s a well-known story about a young American reporter caught up in a skirmish at the height of the Troubles being dragged round a corner by balaclavaed and kalashnikoved paramilitaries who hissed at him with a gun to his temple ‘Are you a Protestant or a Catholic?’ To which the hapless reporter replied ‘I’m Jewish’, only to be undone by the remorselessness of his interrogator’s bigotry. ‘Of course you are. But are you a Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew?’
None of this is peculiar to Northern Ireland, admittedly, but I think it may be true that having spent most of the eighties across the water may have meant I was a little less baffled than some of my contemporaries by the kind of thought processes that could later lead to fatwas and the burning of The Satanic Verses on the streets of Britain. To the Taliban and the shooting of young girls who dared to want an education. To ethnic cleansing and collateral damage and friendly fire. To 9.11 and 7.7, and cars driven at pedestrians on Westminster Bridge. To the rise of UKIP and Little England. To Syria and Islamic State and online beheading videos which attract almost as many views as clips of cats doing the funniest things.
Ultimately the path to peace is in ourselves. It’s a change of our own mental landscape we have to aim for. A revolution in the head. We need to stop judging, and abandon our own sense of shame. Accept our absurdity, embrace the ridiculousness of our tribal fandoms and enthusiasms and faiths and beliefs alongside the ridiculousness and absurdity of everyone else’s. We must truly and finally accept that our membership of this or that tribe is no sign of our greater moral worth or insight into the One truth, but simply an accident of birth or circumstance. Born forty miles down the road, and, much though I shudder to admit it, I’d have been an Ipswich fan. Actually, Virginia Woolf can write a bit.
In the end, The Whovians shall lie down with the Trekkies, and their sonics and their phasers shall be beaten into ploughshares.