I’m reading a book written by one of my favourite authors. John Hillaby was a naturalist, historian, international perambulator extraordinaire and above all a damned fine writer. The journeys he undertook and later wrote about are littered with fascinating insights into the history of the places through which he passed and observations on the present at once pithy, unusual and dryly comedic.
While fascinated with the past he never fell into the trap of viewing it through the prism of sentimental nostalgia. He was honest about mistakes of the present but could be equally caustic on the many examples of how badly things used be done. This is just one of the many lessons Arsenal fans could learn from Mr Hillaby’s work.
The book I’m reading at the moment is unusual in that it is all about London. Nothing odd in writing about that huge, muscular sprawling powerhouse of a capital – many pages have been devoted to it in both fact and fiction. I say unusual because this is a walker, a travel writer exploring a city usually traversed via subterranean tunnels or inside slow moving metal boxes through its traffic choked streets.
I am more used to following the author through the lanes and byways as he walks the length of of the country in his peerless masterpiece Journey Through Britain. In this book Hillaby often encountered incredulity from passing motorists when he politely declined the offer of a lift. He found it difficult to explain how taking the slower, often more painful even occasionally torturous route was preferable. Where was the sense of achievement without the discomfort, the danger, the difficulties which preceded the sudden vista from the top of a Scottish mountain, or the unexpected panorama of the sea?
We may feel that we are following the slow and twisting back lanes to the title in 2016. Getting lost on what appeared on the map to be a straightforward road, or becoming stuck on the moors, waist deep in sticky mud when we seemed to be making great strides. We have taken turns which have led us in entirely the wrong direction but still somehow we are trudging on, our journey three quarters done, the other walkers drawing away from us one week then stumbling themselves when we least expect it.
Will Leicester City stick their foot down a rabbit hole again between now and May? Looking at the map they’re following it all seems to be straightforward without a bump in the road to disturb their progress. If they should unexpectedly confuse their north from their south will we be close enough to take advantage? We could do ourselves a huge favour this lunchtime by grabbing hold of the straps on Mr Pochettino’s rucksack and swinging alongside him. If we can get back into our stride today and shake off the hesitant gait which has seen us lose sight of the track on the last two legs of our journey then even the fans who seem to have lost interest in the whole trip might perk up a little bit and stop complaining about their blisters.
Hillaby was a hugely experienced walker. When he wrote Journey Through Britain he was already in his fifties and would one imagine have known all there was to know about travelling à pied. However, he still managed to find himself slowed to a near stand still with cramps, sore heels, and swollen toes even quite early in the journey. At other times he described hitting a stride with an unconscious ease which , once achieved, could, he felt, propel him without effort for days on end. He experienced a near weightlessness, as if he were gliding across the landscape barely in contact with the sward beneath him.
It is, I suspect, the same for anybody whatever their discipline, whatever their speciality. Even top footballers used to working in harmony with one another can suddenly inexplicably find the simplest task just that little more difficult than it ought to be. Once a couple of cogs fail to mesh the entire machine looks a little ungainly and in a league as competitive as ours the couple of inches by which the end of a move is off means that instead of running out winners by four goals to two we hit the woodwork three times and lose by two to one.
Make no mistake we were not as awful as those who would rip up the map and catch the first bus home would have you believe. A team simply doesn’t create the chances we do nor come so close to scoring if they are playing that badly. Tottenham today will provide a stern test, a steep and difficult climb but the match is also an enormous opportunity. Peg them back today and we not only draw level with them on points but condemn them to back to back defeats and we know all too well how that can drain one’s moral and unchain the lunatic element lurking in the fanbase of every top team.
The odds may appear stacked against us. The stakes are high. Lose and that is three on the bounce and a very tough road ahead. Win and the momentum swings the other way, the pressure shifts, the stone is in their shoe and we begin to step more lightly across the ground, belief is rekindled.
Once John Hillaby crossed into Scotland he had already completed much of his journey and may have been forgiven for thinking the end was in sight and he could stroll to the finish, the hard walking all behind him. Of course he discovered that much rough and unpredictable terrain lay ahead of him. At one point he slipped and rolled down a sheer cliff face among a small avalanche of scree convinced he was falling to an untimely demise. He picked himself up, made a painful and tortuous return to a track he felt sure he’d lost entirely and eventually completed his journey.
Giving up was never an option. Cursing the map, the clouds which obscured his landmarks, the damaged compass or his disintegrating shoes was pointless, counter productive and more likely to guarantee failure. Belief, perseverance and a stubborn bloody minded refusal to allow the setbacks to get him down. Those were the qualities which saw him through, those were the days when he won the battle against despair – not on the beautiful sunny open meadows nor in the easy springing step across gentle turf. Anyone can do the simple stuff. It is when the going gets hard that we are all truly tested.