Coming of Age on the Soccer Field

Professor Jonathan Wilson’s new memoir recounts growing up as a Jewish football enthusiast in 1950s London
Jonathan Wilson
“Growing up playing soccer with my friends in the park was extraordinarily liberating and an enormous amount of fun,” says Jonathan Wilson. Photo: Alonso Nichols
March 25, 2014

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Jonathan Wilson grew up with a passion for soccer as a child in London—playing it at every opportunity and loyally following his team, Tottenham Hotspur. His parents were not thrilled. In the 1950s, it was a game for working-class toughs, not for a boy from a middle-class Jewish neighborhood.

In his new book, Kick and Run: Memoir with Soccer Ball (Bloomsbury), Wilson, director of the Center for the Humanities at Tufts and the Fletcher Professor of Rhetoric and Debate, tells his life story with soccer as a leitmotif. He writes about a time that now seems distant: postwar London, the quiet lives of the families in his neighborhood of Willesden, and then the clash between that old world and the radical mores of the 1960s. He writes sympathetically about his father and frankly about his mother—a scene at a restaurant of her throwing her plate at Wilson is hard to forget—and often with a self-deprecating sense of humor.

The author of two novels, two collections of short stories and two scholarly books on Saul Bellow, as well as a biography of the artist Marc Chagall, Wilson wrote regularly for the New Yorker in the 1990s, and covered the World Cup for the magazine when it was played in the U.S. in 1994. Even though the underlying thread is soccer, Kick and Run is Wilson’s life story, touching, amusing and at times bittersweet. He sat down with Tufts Now recently to talk about the book.

Tufts Now: What was it like growing up Jewish in England in the 1950s?

Jonathan Wilson: Northwest London, where I grew up, had a number of Jewish neighborhoods and enclaves; on my street there was only one family that wasn’t Jewish. Jews in England tended to be self-effacing in some ways, highly assimilated. It wasn’t as if you were Jewish you couldn’t aspire to and achieve the highest goals. You could be a politician, a judge, the foreign secretary—all those things were there. But at the same time, there was a sense of otherness. I always felt, and it may not be this way now, but I always felt you weren’t fully English if you were Jewish—even if, like my father, you’d been born in England in 1906. You couldn’t quite fully integrate into the society.

How has your boyhood neighborhood of Willesden changed?

The Willesden where I grew up was a middle-class Jewish neighborhood, not as wealthy as nearby Jewish neighborhoods in Hampstead and Golders Green. But Willesden was a step up for Jews who were moving from the East End of London. My mother grew up in Dalston in north London, and my father had an impoverished life in East London. It was like a move out of the Lower East Side, for example, to Queens or Long Island.

Then Willesden became predominantly West Indian; it’s the same thing in America, with different strata of immigrants moving into certain places. Zadie Smith grew up in the same neighborhood as me—she’s a lot younger than me—and wrote the novel NW about northwest London, about Willesden.

The strange thing is that property prices in London are so high now that Willesden is becoming gentrified, so it’s changing again, because it’s close to the inner city and it’s become a desirable place to live.

In the book, you write about discovering that your parents had hidden their family connections to the Holocaust.

I grew up as an English Jew thinking that we didn’t have any direct familial relationship to the Holocaust—my parents were both born in England at the turn of the 20th century. But not only did we have a direct connection, my father had this enormous tragic history. He lost 62 members of his family in the Holocaust, almost all of whom were murdered in Treblinka and one or two in Auschwitz. Aunts, uncles, cousins, babies, grownups—and he never spoke about them. My father knew these cousins; I discovered that much later. He’d met them in Belgium in the 1930s; there had been a meeting of English and Polish cousins. It must have been a hard, hard thing for him.

I knew nothing about this side of my family. It wasn’t talked about for reasons that remain a little complex and obscure.

About 10 years ago, I discovered that I had a second cousin living around the corner from me in Newton, and her father and my father were first cousins. Her father had survived Auschwitz and died a few years before I met her. She had known about us, but we knew nothing about her. For whatever reasons—whether to protect us or whether it was too hard to talk about—this world was kept secret from my brothers and me and from the children of my father’s siblings.

Was it difficult—or maybe liberating—to write about your family?

I teach a course here on contemporary memoir, and all writers of memoirs make decisions in that regard, about what to include and what to exclude. There are legitimate reasons for not wanting to hurt certain people with information that you have. You have to decide whether you are going to include things that you feel are absolutely necessary to your memoir but that might not be what the person you’re writing about wants to see in a book. I certainly felt during the writing of Kick and Run that I made several of those decisions as I went along.

And what was your family’s reaction?

Everybody still seems to be speaking to me, though there are a couple who have not mentioned the book. They are speaking to me, but not about the book [laughing].

This year’s World Cup is in Brazil. Who’s going to win?

Every time the World Cup is held in South America, no country outside of South America has ever won. So even though you might imagine that Germany might have won in South America at some point, they haven’t. The home country has an enormous advantage. Even though Brazil is not the best team in the competition, home-field advantage gives you a goal a game, as they say.

But there are some interesting dark horses. Belgium has a surprisingly excellent team and could go quite far. Uruguay has Luis Suárez, who’s one of the best strikers in the world, though he occasionally bites people.

The obvious answer, though, is that England is going to win the World Cup [laughing].

Will soccer ever be as popular in the U.S. as it is in other parts of the world?

The U.S. has a lot of potential as a soccer country. Will it ever replace the god of American football? Not in my lifetime. But it is changing, and there’s now a huge viewership for Premier League soccer from England, and NBC has started showing soccer games in sports prime time on Saturday afternoons, competing against American sports.

But you can’t be a great soccer country if only the middle class is playing. If it’s only little kids in the suburbs getting trophies for showing up, you’re not going to be great. You need an equivalent of basketball, where you can just play anywhere.

It’s different from the way you describe playing as a kid.

Here there are all these endless practices. When I was a kid in England, we never practiced, because we were playing all the time, kicking the ball all the way to school, playing in the playground. Growing up playing with my friends in the park was extraordinarily liberating and an enormous amount of fun. There was absolutely no parental oversight. The only downside was that it was a little scary, because we were beaten up not infrequently by tough kids who were wandering around in the park. That doesn’t happen in youth soccer in the U.S.

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu.

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