Ross Raisin is quite a talent who clearly relishes the ‘under’ side of life as in his previous books. The title of this work can be seen in that vein as it telegraphs an interest-grabbing duality. It is common enough to talk about a talented person (sport, arts etc) as being ‘a natural’. Less likely, though equally real, we have all asked ourselves how ‘natural’ is our homosexuality? Raisin has drawn these two themes together in the conventionally unlikely theatre of English professional football. Anyone who looks at the number of professional players who have outed themselves in that context realises that either this is the perfect selection process for heterosexuality or there are lot of deeply closeted players. There have been a few including one tragic example (Justinus Soni “Justin” Fashanu) and publicly stated messages of support (rainbow laces) but almost no one has ventured out.
I am very ignorant of soccer (age showing again) except in my very early childhood though I have had friends deeply embedded in the game as organisers, fans and fathers or sons of players. Likewise, I am entirely ignorant of the overall processes of talent location, training, payment and general living conditions of the full range of players at all levels but especially in the British scene. Most of us are familiar with the publicity that surrounds the ethereal upper echelons of the game (same with most sports) and WAGS (there is one minor one that plays a key role in this story) but would be totally ignorant of the bottom feeders striving at the lower club levels to find their way to glory and some measure of economic success.
Raisin places Tom Pearman in exactly that context. He is a 19 year old with a record of youth attainment and experience of the football ‘schooling’ system. His family and friends live his experiences with and through him. He is playing at the bottom level of the League (literally) and wants powerfully to advance his career. His life is built totally on developing his body and skills to that end. He presents a little differently as he is more carefully considered individual, somewhat interior and reflective of what he experiences around himself. There is a reason for this as he begins to gradually realise the growth of feelings in himself for other men, experiencing the full range of responses to those feelings which become ever more pronounced engendering fear and an uneven determination to suppress them. As a ‘natural’ homosexual he fails and, as his career passes through highs and lows, he gradually develops a relationship which is going to present him with terrifying prospects and a powerful need to interrogate himself on what role his homosexuality has to play in the life he has set out to pursue. Sorry, you will have to read to get the details and the outcome.
I found the book a little difficult initially to get into as Raisin provides an incredible (but entirely believable) amount of detail about this young man’s daily life and routines and the club and family life that surrounds him. This can be difficult to accept (some might even reject the book on those grounds) but I gradually warmed to wanting to know and feel more and more of this situation that mixed the conventional and apart world of his sport. There is nothing here that is remotely sensational but all entirely believable. There are some weak points in the plotting that emerge late in this book but I do not include the conclusion in that assessment. Again, some might find it a little weak and understated but I found it very powerful in its simplicity and inevitability.
I warmly recommend this book as an eye-opener to a world about which I knew almost nothing and as a meditation on the continuing resistance of so much sport to the involvement of gay men and women.