Tim Parks had a surprise in store for those of us gathered to see him at the British Council. Im not here to promote my new book, he announced. Im looking for new recruits for the Rome branch of the Hellas Verona Fan Club.
Like most people in Italy, Tim Parks is a soccer fan. He is also a translator, an academic and a renowned novelist. Born in England and educated at Cambridge and Harvard, he has lived in Verona for over 20 years. A versatile and prolific writer, he is perhaps best known for his non-fiction, in particular his hilarious and beautifully observed portrait of everyday life in Verona, Italian Neighbours. His new book A Season with Verona: Travels around Italy in search of illusion, national character and goals covers the ups and downs of a year following all the matches, home and away, of a minor Serie A club.
Unfortunately Parks is going to have a tough time finding new recruits for the fan club. Veronas fans, the Brigate giallobl, are notorious for their violence, vandalism and racism. A fact which begs the question: Why on earth would a respected author want to spend a whole year travelling around Italy with them? Did Parks nobly rough it with the riff-raff for the sake of his art? Not quite. Writing a book was the only way I could justify to my wife watching every Verona match for nine months, he explains.
A Season with Verona is an engaging and frank portrayal of the booze-swilling, oath-taking, cocaine-abusing youngsters who make up the Brigate giallobl. But its much more than a book about football and fans. Parks takes a phenomenon dear to the nations heart and uses it to convey his thoughts and reflections on todays Italy. His intention when writing the book was to transcend both sport and chronicle. He succeeds quite brilliantly.
Part of what makes Parks a fascinating character is that the influence of the Brigate has clearly rubbed off. Unlike most writers and journalists who cover football, Parks has been in there with the ultras and seen things through their eyes. In the book he gives himself up completely to their conspiracy theories and persecution complexes, convinced his team is cheated by referees and footballs powers-that-be. And while he criticises the fans misbehaviour, he obviously sympathises and identifies with them too. He argues that while the fans like to think of themselves as rebellious, they dont actually get up to very much mischief. He is also critical of the way the supporters are treated by the Italian police. In all the away games I saw four or five violent incidents, he says, most of them involving excessive reactions on the part of the police. [The amount of violence] is very low when you consider the number of people and the emotions involved. Most of it is verbal, there is very little actual violence. The fans almost never throw glass bottles, only plastic ones. He also suggests that what trouble there is, particularly if it involves Verona, is blown out of proportion by the media.
Naturally, this is controversial stuff. Parks is seen by some as nothing more than an apologist for racist, homophobic, violent thugs. By his own admission the Brigate are an unsavoury bunch. They read Mein Kampf on the way to the matches, gloat about earthquake victims and make ape noises when black players from the opposing teams touch the ball. The book has also earned Parks enemies in Verona itself. Many in the local community object to the way he has aired their dirty washing by putting the fans swearing and racism into print.
When confronted with such criticism Parks himself admits that his own ideas arent so clear. He is sure though that its not as simple as the goodie-goodie press would have us believe. Its easy to write these people off as unacceptable for two minutes of madness. But when you spend time with them they welcome you. There is no connection between their normal behaviour and the moments they go too far.
But what about the racism? In the Brigate giallobl there are about 200 real racists. The rest of the curva thinks racism is a game. At half-time you can see them chatting and joking with black vendors. According to Parks the boys on the terraces are out to look bad but dont actually believe most of what they say. In the book he says: It often seems that the Brigate are vocally racist mainly in order to prolong a quarrel with the pieties-that-be.
It is doubtful whether the black players on the receiving end would be so generous. Whether you agree with Parks or not though, A Season with Verona is well worth a read.