What Ever Happened To Billy Parks?
By Gareth R Roberts
The Friday Project, 2014
In the lofty world of fiction, few subjects are deemed as fatal as football. And I say that in 2014,nearly a decade after the success of David Peace’s The Damned United. The beautiful game, despite its inextricable ties to human nature and contemporary society, remains the source of exasperating literary pillory. But blessed be the few brave souls who fight the tide. This year, most notably Danny Rhodes took on memories of the Hillsborough disaster in Fan, and Gareth R Roberts inserted a fictional hero into the iconic world of 1960s West Ham United in What Ever Happened to Billy Parks? The former has been a much-heralded success; the latter won a prestigious Fiction Uncovered Award.
Billy Parks might be a footballer, but he is first and foremost an archetypal ‘nearly man’, pained by regret and pining for redemption. He was a highly talented winger in a golden generation, who, through a combination of tragedy, womanising and alcoholism, wasted his opportunities for true greatness. Parks spurned offers from Matt Busby’s Manchester United and Brian Clough’s Derby, and sat helpless on the bench as England failed to qualify for the 1970 World Cup. By the novel’s opening, he’s in his sixties and reduced to sharing stories at a Sportsman’s Lunch for £60, some drinks and, most importantly of all, an afternoon of adoration. Alternating between this often tragic present and his more auspicious past, Billy Parksis (to borrow the most tired of football clichés) a tale of two halves: fame and fortune, fading into reflection and remorse. As with Peace’s portrait of Brian Clough, Roberts’ novel is a moving human drama played out on the sporting stage.
For all his failings and misdemeanours, Billy Parks remains an endearing narrative voice. His aim is true, his personal battles are tough and vivid, and he favours self-knowledge over self-pity. He rues ‘the growing carbuncle that was my ego, drunk on alcohol and adulation’, but makes no excuses for himself. Even in the midst of his most depraved spells, there are small expressions of weakness; ‘just occasionally a black sadness before or during a game, as I grappled with the reality that failure would mean an endless abyss of nothing’. Later on, at death’s door, it’s Parks’ genuine desire to make amends with his daughter and grandson that keeps him sober and alive.
But to focus on the sadness in Billy Parks is to ignore the sense of joy and excitement. The novel is a thorough, loving tribute to a bygone era and most importantly, to the delights of youth. Roberts brilliantly captures the pure ecstasy of that first game (‘There were goals and movement and swear words and arguments and kicks and shoves and I loved it all’) and that first goal (‘I felt my body and mind surge with the glorious fresh air of life’). The inclusion of match stats throughout – date, venue, team line-ups, goalscorers, attendance – is the inspired touch of a writer in his element. The macho invincibility of footballing fame is also well-captured; ‘we drank and revelled in being young and carefree and oh-so-very-very male.’ Parks and his teammates are ‘knights of the round table, the untouchable dynamite dealers of Saturday afternoon’.
And then there’s Roberts’ wildcard, which turns out to be a winner, if perhaps not a trump card. Without saying too much, there’s a mysterious ‘Service’, a very eminent ‘Council of Football Immortals’ and the chance to rewrite history. Just when Billy Parks is cruising along towards traditional ‘memoir’ territory, it takes a left turn into Back To The Future. But worry not, sci-fi sceptics; it’s no giant leap and it’s all in the name of feel-good, football fun. Out of its oddly disparate elements – football, family, love, addiction, regret, nostalgia, comedy, tragedy, fantasy – Billy Parks emerges as both a heart-warming human tale and an engaging sporting narrative. Perhaps Roberts should consider adding manager to barrister and novelist.