Citing the examples, anecdotes & words of Coltrane, Van Gogh, Chesterton, Einstein, Mondrian, Cruyff and Bob Dylan to tell you why football writing matters.
‘’Have you heard the story about the Church of St. Coltrane?’’ I ask the musician who asked me, ‘why football writing?’
It is one of those questions you get asked so often at parties that you eventually get better at answering them. This story is an answer.
John Coltrane blew air into a pipe for a living. He was pretty good at it too until he started to think that his talent privileged his behaviour.
Coltrane was a saxophonist in Miles Davis’s band. The legends of jazz, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie would all snap fingers to Coltrane’s tune. That was until unrighteous fame pockmarked the bend of his arm with heroin hickeys and left him wasted on the curb in 1957.
It is at this point of the story that a smallish crowd usually gathers around me with their drinks. And I scan their faces for one with a perpetual curled lip – an expression resulting from extended exposure to cynicism.
I turn to the man who introduced himself as a data scientist earlier, and ask him if he’s religious. The answer is usually ‘no’.
To that I say, ‘Did you know Einstein was religious?’
“To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly…this is religiousness. In that sense I am religious.” I have quoted these lines by Einstein so many times that now I have them memorised. And good memory aids anecdotes, as do examples.
Consider classical physics: mass multiplied by the acceleration of a ball falling down to earth. The force generated should see the ball bounce a further ten feet upon hitting the ground. This is, of course, without accounting for the wind velocity, the hardness of the ground or the velvet dew on the grass, further aiding the bounce.
Consider Dimitar Berbatov: a Bulgarian footballer with gypsy blood and muddy blue eyes. An exhibitionist with the frame of a starved Dadaist who dabbles in painting French girls. His movement is as understated as the colour grey, and under the surface like the waters where catfish glide. Imagine his foot encased in a bright football boot, cradling that falling ball with a kiss: a gentler kind of physics. Rockabye baby, sweet dreams.
Picture the stillness of the ocean lapping at the pebbles on a beach. Focus on the certain fate of a pea trapped by a fork, with a backdrop-chaos of mashed potatoes and ham. Picture the momentary pause of Robert Lewandowski after his studs rake the ball behind him, wrong-footing the entire Mainz defence and the rotation of the earth, making compass needles tremble.
Consider scientist Andrey Kolmogorov’s conundrum: the matter of turbulence – a force yet to be quantified. An enigmatic eddy of fluid dynamics and chaos theory. It is observed in everyday phenomena: surf crashing onto a sandstone cliff, kayak-worthy rapids of frothy-foamy water, billowing storm clouds, the chimney smoke from Pink Floyd’s most lucid dreams – all exhibited in a game of football and in art.
Like mathematics and art, expressed in and through all things, football is where fluidity of motion is expressed by motion itself; by stillness and by speed.
Scientists will one day find the principles of turbulent fluid structures where the Venn diagrams of mathematics and madness overlap. And if they share that headspace for long enough, they’ll start peeking behind the curtains of one-eared Van Gogh’s mind.
“The Starry Night” was Van Gogh’s view of the Province of St. Remy from an iron-bar window in Saint Paul asylum. Coded in the strokes of swirling clouds and starlight, he was describing the patterns of German physicist Werner Heisenberg’s wildest dreams.
It was Heisenberg who said, “When I meet God, I will ask him two questions: First, why relativity? Second, why turbulence? I really believe he’ll have the answer for the first.”
Van Gogh, with half a foot lodged firmly in psychosis, depicted the second question on canvas, sixty years before Kolmogorov drew up his first equation on the chalkboards of Moscow State University. The innocence of art hidden in plain sight was proven guilty for the ultimate collusion with God.
This is the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk (universal art). A term first coined by composer Richard Wagner, endowed with the notion that art, like science, can be a celebration of a communion with the universe – a miracle.
Consider Johan Cruyff, another Dutch impressionist minus one mutilated ear. Or Piet Mondrian, known for his précisément in his strokes. Both painters, after a fashion, and theoreticians who are regarded as the greatest artists of the 20th century in their respective fields. One painted patterns with the brush, the other with the ball.
Both Cruyff and Mondrian started from figurative impressionism in their football and art respectively, to an increasingly abstract style, reaching a point where their artistic vocabulary was reduced to simple geometric patterns.
Triangles are my favourite shape. – Alt J, Tessellate
The Netherlands were experiencing a cultural, architectural and a philosophical revolution in the 1970s, and at the centre of that was the concept of space, or, more accurately, the lack of it.
Inundated by the North Sea, the Netherlands was a nation that grew up with an innate lack of space. And a dearth of something that’s usually taken for granted inspired a sort of multidimensional reverence in every conceivable facet of Dutch life.
Minimalism and abstractness were at the forefront of everyday thought. The architectural concepts of Michel de Klerk, the precision in depth-perception of Vermeer, and the reductionist nature of Mondrian’s art was unknowingly imbibed by Dutch footballers. Football has never been just a game since then.
“Once you become aware of this force of unity you can’t ever forget it. It becomes a part of everything you do.” – John Coltrane
Partaking in a Darwinian struggle, the footballer’s life, like that of playwrights, painters, musicians, comedians is spent by the touches of these miracles of minimalism and insight, mathematics and madness, turbulence and technique: all done in order to communicate.
Dampen the sound of the crowd’s crescendo behind Diego Maradona as he runs. Slow down the frames and play Wagner’s The Ride of the Valkyries underneath his highlight reel when he mounts all of England, chest out like a rooster in heat, and scores one of the two impossible goals. Maradona suddenly becomes this operatic symbol of the constant human struggle for a touch of divinity.
Almost zen-like towards the end of his life, Einstein called his life’s work as attempts to humbly grasp a mere fraction of the image of the Entirety.
The most incredible thing about miracles is that they happen. – GK Chesterton
In their search, one starts out standing and proud, as the poet Dylan noted, but they wise up and realise they’re peeking through the keyhole down on their knees.
It was the same sense of wonder that salvaged John Coltrane’s soul. His comeback album A Love Supreme (1964) paid gratitude to a higher power. His live shows felt like soul-stirring musical sermons. And in one of those communions in 1965, a couple swearing they felt the force of the ‘Holy Spirit’ within him, formed the St. Coltrane Church.
The African Orthodox Church anointed him as Saint John William Coltrane, posthumously. Like most prophets, his message was heard after his demise.
Every act of communication is an act of art, and art is a revolt against meaninglessness.
Science tells me, at this very moment, little jolts fizzing through neurons are cascading down my spine, flowing into my arms, making my fingers twitch. It turns electricity to thoughts and thoughts into motion that ra-ta-tats away on the keyboard – intermittently pressing the spacebar and shifting electrons and displacing subatomic multiverses on my whim.
In football writing, I attempt to explain life and its meaning to myself.
Carl Gustav Jung, Freud’s contemporary, and a nemesis of nihilism, used to say that the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being. A man without its muse is a hollow vessel.
Rutherford and the Mayans propounded that God was round. For the former it was an atom, for the latter it was the sun. For Eduardo Galeano, Juan Villoro, and I, God is in the quiet dignity of a ball being cushioned when it has no right to be and in the words it makes us write.
“And that’s why football writing matters” I conclude, refilling my fruit punch.