Steven Kay’s self-published debut novel, The Evergreen in Red and White, is about the first professional footballer of Romany descent, Rabbi Howell, and his final season at Sheffield United in 1897-8. Kay has dedicated a post on his blog to reviews of fourteen Sheffield novels – a great reading list for anyone interested in the city’s representation in fiction – and invites a review of his own effort. So here goes…
The action starts with a friendly in Glossop in such horrific conditions the teams agree to play half an hour each way. United are preparing for an ambitious tilt at the title and Rabbi and his best mate Mike discuss how long they can expect to last as professional players. United’s matches punctuate the narrative, sometimes from Rab’s point of view in italicised passages and always true to contemporary reports from United’s most glorious season. There is fascinating detail about football history: players are forbidden from training with the ball to make them hungry for it on match days; they are confined to the club house the night before games to keep them away from pubs and music halls; managers travel in first class whilst players go in second. Kay is clearly a die-hard Blade and has meticulously researched the club’s finest year. There is much here for fans of football history more broadly, too, but the novel has more to it than that.
Sheffield United in 1891-2: Rabbi Howell is 2nd from the right on the middle row.
Rabbi returns from matches to a fractious home life where there is no enthusiasm or respect for his profession. Having been cheered by thousands of fans, he is sneered at by his father-in-law for playing ‘schoolyard games’ and becomes increasingly marginalised in a household that is dominated by his wife’s family. As in many novels of working-class life, there are sharp contrasts between the predominantly feminine domestic sphere and the macho worlds of mining, manufacturing and match days. Having turned pro, Rabbi has far more time on his hands than his brother and father-in-law who still work at the pit, and spends it walking over Wincobank, smoking his pipe and strumming his Spanish mandolin. His estrangement from family and ordinary working life, compounded by away matches and training camps at a hotel in Matlock, make Rabbi restless and unhappy whenever he isn’t playing. The Evergreen imagines how these tensions played out through Rab’s playing career and private life using what little evidence remains about his life.
Rabbi and his wife, Selina, are from Romany families who have recently left the old nomadic life to settle in ‘chooreste-gav‘, or ‘knife town’, the Romany name for Sheffield. Rabbi was the first Romany player to be capped for England and Kay presents his hybrid identity with skill and sensitivity. Rabbi’s speech switches between Sheffield and Romany dialect and he brushes off his team-mates’ jokes about gipsy spells and Egyptian ancestry with the kind of good humour in which they are made. Prejudice, though, plays a part in the management committee’s treatment of Rabbi at the end of his United career – something which, to avoid spoilers, I won’t go into here.
Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee celebrations feature in the novel. With a healthy dose of republicanism…
The other character that is meticulously researched and lovingly brought to life by Kay’s prose is Sheffield itself. Rabbi’s home in Brightside is a short walk from Wincobank Woods, which overlooks ‘the Don valley and its majestic array of chimneys’. Sheffield is painted as a friendly, bustling place where the clanging and hammering of industry provides the backdrop for a vibrant cultural scene. Crowds flock to football matches and music halls and a scene in which Rabbi visits the theatre – to see Henry Irving and Ellen Terry, stage superstars in their day – captures the class anxieties of a rapidly expanding city. Kay does a good job of evoking late-19th-century Sheffield and giving its inhabitants genuine depth and humanity without over-romanticising, a difficult balance for a historical novel to strike. Readers from Sheffield will enjoy encountering familiar places and well-written dee-dah dialect; it’s great to see industrial Sheffield come to life on the page and have well-drawn working-class characters walking its streets.
This is the best Sheffield novel I’ve read for a long time and anyone interested in the city’s history will find it a fascinating and entertaining read.