小号ometimes the detail of a single life story can stop half a nation in its tracks. One such arresting moment was the footballer Ian Wright’s extraordinary Desert Island Discs interview with Lauren Laverne in February last year. I had the radio on in the kitchen in the background while I was working to a tight deadline. As soon as Wright started to talk about his childhood, 尽管, I gave up all hope of finishing what I was writing and gave the broadcast my fullest attention. I texted Lisa, my wife, and my daughters to tell them to stop what they were doing and turn it on. By the end, I was crying nearly as much as Wright was.
最近几周, when I’ve mentioned to various friends that I was due to talk to Wright for this piece, they have, unprompted, recalled a similar reaction to hearing him as a castaway: a couple of them remembered blubbing and that compulsion to call loved ones to tell them they had to listen too.
What were the stories that Wright told to produce this reaction? There were three, 特别是. The first was a raw memory from when he was 11 years old and was waiting for his estranged father to bring him some money so he could buy a pair of decent trousers to go on a community trip to the seaside the following day. Wright’s father had walked out on the family when Wright was a baby and he’d only seen him subsequently a handful of times. On this occasion, Wright recalled sitting alone and anxious at the entrance to the block of flats in Brockley, 南伦敦, where he lived, 从 9.30 in the morning, when his dad was due to come, until a quarter past five, when he finally showed up with the few pounds for the trousers. “I can’t say what emotions went through me in that time,” Wright said, but you could hear dozens of them in his voice.
Then there was the recollection of the domestic violence suffered by his mother at the hands of his stepfather, a pain that was triggered, as it was always triggered for him, by the first bars of the Ike and Tina Turner song River Deep – Mountain High, one of his chosen discs, a record that always caused his mother to break down. “My stepfather was a big, growly voiced, gambling, weed-smoking, angry man, who frightened me,” Wright said. “My mum was four foot 11 and he was six four. I saw what he did to her. When he used to be manhandling my mum my brother would cover my ears, so I couldn’t hear it.”
And then there was the third story. In among all of that reinhabited pain, there was a recollection of the first small window of redemption or escape. This was the story of Mr Pigden, Wright’s primary school teacher. Wright recalled himself as a kid who couldn’t sit still. He struggled with his writing and reading: “I was a very angry and confused little guy.” Mr Pigden, a very strict teacher, who had served as a pilot in the war, had come across Wright when he had once again been ejected from a classroom and was outside in the corridor. He said three words that changed seven-year-old Wright’s life: “Come with me.” Instead of punishing him, Mr Pidgen talked to him about football and gave him some responsibility in the school, some extra help with his reading. 他是, Wright recalled, the first person “to see some use for me”.
In later life the pair had lost touch – Wright thought his teacher had died – until they were reunited in a TV documentary. A video of that surprise reunion, in which Wright, the famous footballer and pundit, is transformed once again by the sight of his teacher into that seven-year-old boy, received millions of internet views. Mr Pigden had been one of the veteran pilots chosen for a Battle of Britain flypast of Buckingham Palace. “But he said,” Wright recalled, through sobs, “that he was more proud that I played for England than him flying over Buckingham Palace.” He apologised to the Desert Island Discs audience for his tears. “Don’t worry Ian,” Laverne observed, without doubt, “they’ll all be crying with you.”
Among those who also heard that episode were editors at Scholastic, who soon afterwards contacted Wright to see if there was a book he could write for pre-teens who might be growing up facing similar issues to him. Through a football podcast Wright had become friends with the poet and writer Musa Okwonga, and they talked about Okwonga maybe helping Wright to construct that book. Okwonga’s feeling was, 然而, that people knew the nonfiction of Ian’s story. A better book, it seemed to him, might be a fiction that cast Wright’s childhood, and his eventual triumphs, forward to the present.
The result is Striking Out, a book for older children that tells the story of Jerome Jackson, a young footballer in present-day east London with a chaotic home life. His prospects are transformed one Saturday when, playing on Hackney Marshes, a passerby happens to see a world-class goal he scores. The spectator is Ian Wright, who becomes his mentor. I read the book in one sitting and then last week sat down with Wright and Okwonga to talk about the issues it raises and the emotions it evokes.
Wright and Okwonga make a very easy, if distinctive pair. In some ways, their backgrounds couldn’t be more different. Wright had little formal education and left school before he took any exams to become a plasterer’s labourer. The lowest point of his pre-fooball life was a fortnight he spent in prison for non-payment of fines.
Okwonga, born in London to Uganda parents and now based in Germany, went to Eton aged 13 on a scholarship and then trained as a lawyer at Oxford University before becoming a full-time writer and journalist.
Although those early opportunities were contrasting, the pair share a few crucial experiences that are fundamental to the book they have written together. Both men were significantly defined in their formative years by the absence of fathers. Okwonga’s dad had been Uganda’s chief army surgeon and during the civil war in the 1980s was killed, when Musa was four, when a helicopter in which he was travelling was hit by a missile, almost certainly fired by members of current president Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army.
They also had in common the experience of the casual and not so casual racism of the very different English milieus that they found themselves in: England’s football grounds and the playing fields of Eton (experiences recounted in Okwonga’s memoir, One of Them). In their own ways they both clung to football as an escape from those traumas. Okwonga’s grandfather had been president of the Federation of Uganda Football Associations and the pair talked tactics as a way of avoiding more difficult subjects; 赖特, 当然, never felt more free than when he was playing.
Wright loves the role that he has been given in Okwonga’s storytelling. “The great thing about the book,“ 他说, “is it’s kind of me talking to my younger self. And Jerome doesn’t always respond to my character, despite all the help I’m trying to give. I like that. Because part of being a mentor is not pressuring people but giving them some space. That’s the kind of advice I would have wanted.”
In his adult life, Wright has had plenty of opportunity to be that mentor. He is the father of eight kids from two marriages and other relationships. His elder sons Shaun (whom he adopted) and Bradley Wright-Phillips both became professional footballers, Shaun playing 36 times for England (three more caps than his old man). Whatever was going on in his life, Wright has, 他说, always tried to be there for them – “kids need two things: love and education” – without being overbearing.
“I’ve always tried to say: this is the way I think you might go,“ 他说, “without telling them: go this way. I don’t want them to make mistakes I made. When we wrote the bits where I’m speaking to Jerome in the book, I was thinking: ‘Jesus Christ, if I could have just had that person there… ’”
“When we started out with the book,” Okwonga says, “Ian said he wanted it to be like therapy from the community.” He has tried to weave all the elements in that might support a child like Jerome: mentors from church; his kindly uncle at the barbershop; the friendly faces in the neighbourhood takeaway. 和, 当然, football. “There’s that great lyric by [the rapper] Dave,” Okwonga says. “‘It ain’t who came around but more about who stayed around.’ A lot of people come and go in a life like Jerome’s. Even though this is Ian Wright the famous footballer, who is to say he will stay around?”
I wonder if in constructing this story they talked much about the respective absence of their own fathers?
“It’s really strange [that absence],” Wright says. “Because even though he was never around, and I never knew him, I used to think about him all the time. And because my stepdad was how he was, I’d think about him even more. Not really comparing them. 更多的: ‘Why isn’t he here to protect me? Why doesn’t he like me?’”
Okwonga has been working through his own sense of absence in his recent autobiographical novel, 在 the End, It Was All About Love, which in part recalls a cathartic journey he took back to his father’s village in Uganda to find deeper connection to a man he hardly knew. There are elements of that soul-searching in Jerome’s story (his father has also died). “Absence means you mythologise,” Okwonga says. “That’s why Jerome in the book can’t go to his dad’s grave. It is too big for him to contemplate. Obviously some of my own history goes into that, but also listening to Ian talk about his own absent father. That, 反过来, puts a whole burden on mothers in that situation. Part of this story we are telling is about the calculations that Jerome’s mother makes as she holds down several jobs and tries to keep a stable place to live for Jerome. It takes, 一般, seven attempts for a woman to leave an abusive partner.”
Wright suggests that they made a deliberate decision that the book’s depiction of domestic violence would be more restrained than he remembers it. 仍然, it captures the ever-present menace that he felt being in the flat with his bullying stepfather. “When I got to a certain age, he used to stare at me, with real hatred,“ 他说. “And you’d look away and when you looked back later he would still be staring. It was really horrible. Jerome is angry like I was, and then he finds a way to deal with it.”
If the domestic situation in the book mirrors Wright’s own, a lot of the detail of Jerome’s footballing life is closer to the stories of modern players. Okwonga has previously written a book about the England star Raheem Sterling, and both he and Wright admire the way that the England manager, Gareth Southgate, has encouraged his players to talk so openly about their “origin stories” in recent years, tales of struggle and tragedy (Sterling’s father was murdered in Jamaica when he was two years old) that help to give emotional context to their lucrative success.
“We’ve adapted details from the stories of several players,” Okwonga says, “Raheem, Jadon Sancho, Mason Mount. Like Jerome, 例如, Jadon Sancho left home for a boarding school on a football scholarship. And then Raheem will talk about the importance of certain mentors in his life.”
That model of footballers talking openly about the difficult childhoods that formed them has obviously recently found its most inspiring expression in Marcus Rashford’s campaigning. Wright is in awe of what the Manchester United player has achieved at the age of 23. “What I love about what Marcus has done,“ 他说, “is he started off from that one fact: ‘I know what it’s like to be hungry.’ From that he found ways to use his platform to make sure that kids like him are not hungry.” Like Wright, Rashford proves that however far you might travel from your childhood, financially, socially, such feelings never go away.
It is interesting, I suggest, that the other strand of Rashford’s campaign is concerned with literacy – he also has a bestselling self-help book out, You Are a Champion: How to Be the Best You Can Be, aimed at the audience Wright and Okwonga are addressing. In our age of Instagram and TikTok do they think they can reach the kids who might most be helped by the messages of their book?
They absolutely believe they can. Wright wasn’t a great reader in his teens but he likes the promise of calmness and private worlds that reading a book implies. “I think Marcus can inspire that,“ 他说. “You can come to a book in your own time. There’s something kind of permanent about it, I think.”
Øver the years, watching Wright as a pundit on TV, he’s often seemed to me to have a kind of introspection that his fellow ex-players don’t quite share. He plays up to the caricature of the great enthusiast but occasionally he seems to drift off into a little private reverie. At those moments you have that sense that while for most players football was what they did, for him it was always more something that he was, heart and soul. You wonder how much that is tied up with how close he came to not making it.
Unlike the prodigious young black talents of the modern game, Rashford, Sancho, Sterling, there were far more reasons for a player of Wright’s vintage to not get spotted, to fall through the net. He had a few examples that both kept him going and made him realise how precarious the fairytale ending might be. There was his great friend and former Arsenal teammate David Rocastle, who died tragically young at 33 of non-Hodgkin lymphoma and grew up on the same estate. And from the previous generation, the England striker Cyrille Regis, whose career followed a similar trajectory to Wright’s.
“Cyrille was always the one I looked at,“ 他说. Like Wright, Regis had been rejected from several trials with clubs in his teens and eventually only got his break after he had given up hope and was working as an electrician. “In that time that was a common story,” Wright says, “so you can imagine how good Cyrille was. 到底, they couldn’t stop him.” (I recall how hard some tried, 尽管. If any single story characterises the racism that black footballers experienced in the 1970s and 1980s it is the chilling fact that when Regis was called up for England for the first time, he opened up an envelope that had been left for him by an “England fan”. It contained a bullet and the words: “If you put your foot on our Wembley turf you’ll get one of these through your knees.”)
Racism also played a part in Wright thinking he was never going to make it. He usually went to trials on his own, unlike the other kids with support networks, and felt that stood against him. He was a plasterer and Sunday league player when he finally got picked up by Crystal Palace aged 22. And it was six years later that he properly made the big time. You could argue that happy ending was 20 minutes away from never happening. Those 20 minutes occurred at the end of the 1990 FA Cup final, in which Palace were the underdogs to Manchester United. Wright had broken his leg twice in the previous year and seemed unlikely to be fit to play. 到底, he came on to the field as a terrifying, irrepressible substitute with 20 minutes to go and scored the two goals that tied the game.
Thirty years on, like millions of other football fans, I can still remember exactly the extraordinary impact Wright made on that match. It was as if, having waited so long for his moment, he wasn’t going to let it pass for anything. Palace lost the final in extra time, but on the strength of that indelible performance, 赖特, 老龄化 28, was transferred to Arsenal for a then club record £2.5m and went on to become their record goalscorer in the years he had left. His character in Striking Out uses that example to motivate Jerome: always be sure to seize an opportunity because, as Wright knew only too well, they don’t always come along.
He recalls that final, 当然, 就像昨天一样. “It took so long for me to get on,“ 他说. “Seventy minutes, 73 minutes.” When he got on the pitch he picked up the ball almost immediately, put two of United’s international defenders on their backsides and then did something he had learned from Mr Pigden all those years before as a seven-year-old. “When you are through on goal, Ian,” Mr Pigden had said, “slow down, pass the ball into the net, score beautiful goals.” Watching Wright score that goal again on YouTube you can see exactly that sense of sudden calm in among all the frenetic craziness of the cup final, of his life. And in those moments, 再次, he suddenly sees the whole world open up like the Wembley goalmouth in front of him and he slides the ball into it, celebrates as if he will never stop and doesn’t look back.