A lot has happened in the five years since David Cameron made his Aston Villa gaffe. During April 2015, the prime minister was celebrating the diversity of Britain, telling an audience in south London that "we're a shining example of a country where multiple identities work. A country where you can be Welsh and Hindu and British. Northern Irish and Jewish and British . . . where you can wear a kilt and a turban, where you can support Man United and the Windies and Team GB all at the same time. Course, I'd rather you supported West Ham."
The punch line drew laughter but was instantly seized upon as Cameron had long claimed to be an ardent Villa supporter. After all, his uncle had brought him to his first game at the impressionable age of 13. And that uncle had no problem landing tickets: Sir William Dugdale – old Etonian, war hero, grand national jockey, solicitor – was the Villa chairman during a transformative period when the club went from third division strugglers to European champions.
Cameron sucked up the derision and apologised, claiming a ‘brain fade’ and the moment was logged for future merriment. But it caught something, too: the cardinal sin of treating your football team as a triviality and the lingering suspicion about the notion of one Britain’s gilded class genuinely supporting a football team. That he could forget which team – that he got his colours confused- was proof that when it came to Saturday afternoons, the prime minister was at best a dilettante or at worst fraudulent.
Just a year after Cameron's howler, the historian David Kynaston decided to keep a year-long diary loosely chronicling the fate of his own football club, Aldershot Town FC. The idea was to merge his professional life as one of Britain's most respected and prolific social historians with his boyhood passion for the perpetually twilit fortunes of Aldershot. He sets the 2016-2017 season on a political and social canvas that has already acquired an ominous gloss.
The horrific transformation of Donald Trump from Joker to president; the aftermath of Brexit, the death of David Bowie, of Prince, of George Michael; the disappearance of Cameron and the faltering Teresa May government . . . these events and the flotsam and jetsam of daily life drift through Kynaston's thoughts and diary entries as 'the Shots' find yet another way to narrowly and thrillingly miss out on promotion from their long-term tenancy in England's national league.
‘Shots in the Dark: A Diary of Saturday Dreams and Strange Times’ is definitely one of the best book titles of the year and it’s a fascinating idea because football has remained one of the few reliable pillars of British life since the second World War. Kynaston’s acclaimed on-going sweeping multi-volume history of Britain, ‘Tales of a New Jerusalem’ chronicles the transformation of post-war Britain through everyday experience. The series will close in the year 1979.
“When the big break with Thatcher,” he said over the phone just before his diary was due to be published. “That period has its own arc and integrity. So there is a huge question of how to compare that world with the contemporary world. And one can’t quantify but I think my broad feeling is that the big loss has been the loss of psychological certainties. People knew who they were and how they fitted in and what their work was – which were often jobs for life.
“And often they had a much stronger sense of extended family. These certainties were symbolised, for instance, by the fact that football matches started at three o’clock on Saturday afternoon. And people didn’t move around much. I use diaries a lot from the 1950s and 1960s and I am struck by how static life was. In 1976 only one in nine British had ever been in an aeroplane. We are a much more . . . jittery society now.”
The jitters have worsened. Kynaston was prompted to write the diary because his 65th birthday fell on July 30th in 2016, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Gorgeous Technicolour afternoon when England won the World Cup. The book opens with a shimmering evocation of that occasion, spent in his parent's home in Aldershot: the author then 15, lucky enough to own a record player, his father's war already receding, the 1960s blooming into wildness and years at Oxford ahead of him: he surely belongs to what might be referred to as Britain's lucky generation.
“Well, I would have liked to be just three years older so I could have caught the best of the 1960s,” he laughs.
"I was a little too young – one friend saw Dylan at the Albert Hall in 1966. I would have liked to have been there. But yes, in some obvious ways we were incredibly lucky. When I was in university there was only one in 10 going. If you were fortunate enough to go, it was all for free and when we went into the labour market, it was broadly full employment. Peaceful times – no serious wars or national service. And we weren't young during the coronavirus lockdown!
"The only rider is, for me, is that because I was born in this long era of peace and economic prosperity, I feel a certain degree of lack of authenticity about my life. I think now about my father who took part in D-Day when he was 19. At that age I was a long haired student in Oxford doing nothing much. My mother died last year and she grew up in Germany and went through so many tough times during the war.
"In another sense I am grateful I never had to experience anything like that. But with a slight nagging reservation. Henry Longhurst was a golf correspondent for the Sunday Times and he wrote a biography called 'My Life and Soft Times' and that title has always stayed with me. It is a puritanical nagging in me."
On one level, Kynaston unconsciously traces his evolution as a football supporter in his diary. From a distance, we tend to think of English football as the stuff we see on Sky television or on Match of the Day but for vast swathes of Britain’s football community, that stuff is a fantasia, like a West End production. The real football is to be found far away from the cameras, in the hinterlands and suburbs. Kynaston can appreciate the pace and skill of the elite contemporary game while experiencing it as sealed off, somehow less than real. Following a football team – even the behemoth clubs in London or the north did not involve the kind of financial outlay it does today. Tickets were attainable. The star footballers often emerged from the streets near the stadium.
"One shouldn't romanticise the ownership structures in the old days because there were some real villains or semi villains then also. But usually there was a strong local identity involved. The classic example was Bob Lord, the Burnley butcher. A prosperous local butcher who came to own the football club. And often there was a degree of paternalism involved which could be good. With the flotations and that moment in the early 1990s when Sky TV was trying to establish itself and used football much as the tabloids used page three to get the cash flow going . . . the gulf became absolute.
"Leicester winning the Premiership was a one-off freak. Burnley won the league in 1960. Ipswich won it in 1962. The first cup final I consciously watched was between Luton Town and Notts Forest. It is an utterly familiar combination now when you reach the semi-finals. A team like QPR had an attractive combination of old and eccentric players in the 1970s. So what has happened takes a lot of the fun out of it really. As a neutral what one wants is a fair competition on a level field with uncertainty about the outcome."
So his consolation is to spend his winters touring the strongholds of the fifth tier of the game – places like York and Hartlepool and Maidenhead. He's following the ebb and flow of the Shots' form in the diary, of course, but what he is also doing is taking both pulse and snapshot of England circa 2016, detailing the 1950s urban experiment of Boreham Wood or describing the feel of York City's home ground, Bootham Crescent, opened in 1932 and, as course, scheduled for demolition.
“It makes me so cross,” he writes on Sunday, October 2nd. “And will of course be replaced by some soulless affair. It’s such a shame – having a pee in the cave-like gents in the away corner, where the arrangements clearly haven’t changed since the ground opened in 1932 felt particularly a moment to savour.”
As an historian, Kynaston has always railed against the thoughtlessness behind much urban and civil planning in the post-war period, against the way that stuff is torn down and erased.
“It’s a personal bee in my bonnet: the complete arrogant mess that was made in urban redevelopment in the 1960s,” he admits. “There were some slums that had to go. But a lot of decent stuff that could have been salvaged with some imagination did not. And whole communities were just torn down and were replaced by truly grim stuff – high rise and other stuff, most of which only lasted 30 years before it was also torn down because it was such a disaster. And in terms of community cohesion: what a disaster.”
As an academic, he is wedded to the tools of his time, trawling libraries and old diaries and he has retained from his youth the habit of underlining and noting or even cutting out bits of newspaper columns and articles and quotes that catch his mind. There are several instances in the diary where he is abroad and trawling through foreign editions of the Guardian hoping for a mention of Aldershot results. It’s not as if he is alien to the idea of simply opening the online edition on his phone. But he is unapologetic in his belief that the disappearance of printed newspapers would be of incalculable loss and doesn’t agree with the argument that the move to digital is a natural and inevitable progression.
"Well. I would cite the title of that Milan Kundera novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being. That, actually, print gives a kind of solidity and meaning and weight to things in a way that something that is purely online is incredibly transient. Habits and customs change, of course. But for the History of Britain series I have been collecting obituaries. I will cut an obituary out and keep it. And the physical obituary gives some kind of permanence to all of these diverse lives and contributions people have made.
“Whereas, otherwise, it all disappears into the ether. And with print people are slightly inclined to just slightly read it a bit more slowly and carefully. It’s what differentiates it from all the other electronic and social media stuff just passing through people’s brains, you know, which I find the most appalling prospect. There is so much, whether in newspapers or magazines or books, print material that one would ideally like to find the time to read, why go in for all of that electronic semi garbage?”
He has also several standalone books, from a history of London to an exploration of the three-day cricket event to celebrate the 50th birthday of WG Grace to Engines of Privilege, condemning the unfairness of Britain's private school system. "The resource gap is grotesque. It is obscene" he says now. The Britain he encounters in 2016 and the sense of simmering restlessness and anxiety and resentment has its origins, he feels, in the sweeping macro-changes which were taking hold even as Bobby Moore was holding the Jules Rimet trophy. The erosion, he feels, of the certainties that rooted generations of British people had begun even then.
“Yeah, they were underway in the 1960s and accelerated in the 1980s. What caused this? Well, the whole economy changed because from the 1960s onwards manufacturing went into decline. We lost about a quarter of our output in the first few years of Thatcher. And communities were often based around manufacturing. I think the industrialisation caused huge psychological problems for at least two generations of men who were unsure of their roles. And it is interesting because I think Brexit was in many ways a male fuelled thing.”
In his research, he once came across an old television show in which people wrote in with the answer to the basic question: what do you dislike most? One of the most popular replies fascinated him.
"Stuck up people," he laughs. "You know, the world has moved on since then but deep down I think that is still quite important. And that includes intellectual stuff, which is one of the reasons why Britain has been such an unsatisfactory member of Europe. One of the reasons is that we – this is a crude generalisation – but we are more suspicious of intellectuals than is in the case in Europe."
In the pandemic summer, the world feels much more precarious than it did when Kynaston was writing his diary notes. He is resolutely dismayed by Boris Johnson and sometimes fearful of Trump’s volcanic temperament swings. But for all of that, he has retained the optimism of his generation. He’s not thrilled to have another old Etonian resident in Number 10. And he’s worried by the increasing assaults on the structures of democracy. But when he moves about, in the shops or at the theatre or in the football stands, he firmly believes that life is better now than it was for the generations he chronicles as an historian.
“We have become a more understanding society. I think there is more room for people to express themselves and have interesting lives. Broadly speaking, this country used to be a much more hostile environment for non-white immigrants. And one of the crucial changes is the relationship between generations. Parents and children now communicate infinitely better than we used to.
“I often speak about this with friends and we look back at our lives with our parents in the 1950s and 1960s. And we never talked with them about anything much. I was very struck during the first two weeks of the coronavirus of the strong sense of people coming together. I had real lumps in my throat. Everyone in the street was out and we were smiling at each other. And it was all to do with what values were there.”
Meanwhile, Kynaston will do his best to follow Aldershot in the national league, scanning the reports and listening to the radio reports until the day comes when people are allowed to go to football matches again. The Shots finished 16th last season, one spot above Eastleigh and just below Torquay. In light of everything, it's a place that feels reassuringly familiar.
– Shots in the Dark by David Kynaston is published by Bloomsbury.