Book Review: Countries of the World by Steven Porter
Having read the book and then attempting to write this review, I must admit I was unsure where to start. This was not because this isn’t a good read, but that the book covers so much ground, in so many styles and elicits so many emotions.
So let’s start with some basics. The book is 194 pages long and covers a time period between 1973 and 1998. It is divided into 9 sections – I’ve not called them chapters as some sections are no more than a single page, whilst others contain a collection of pieces.
In terms of writing style, these pieces cover the narrators life, with extracts from his homework as a child (in the fictional Scottish town of Breogan), through to journalistic articles from adult life. Detailed within the pages is the fictional story of the narrator growing up, going to school, his friends and family and the local football team Breogan Citadel. This is also interwoven with the factual, which ranges from the Scottish national football team and their trials and tribulations, to political events in South America and in the United Kingdom. It is a real story of compare and contrast, the parochial and the global. The book has a warm and resonance about childhood days that I can relate to. All I’ll say about the 1978 World Cup is that it provided a massive distraction to my O-Level year, much to the dismay of my parents. However, the cosiness of the childhood environment is shattered on a number of occasions by the realities of life at home and abroad, especially with events such as the atrocities in Chile and Argentina. The narrator within the book provides a summary with the following words. “…Football and politics frequently mix. No matter how hard we try, there’s no getting away from it. Shanks was wrong to separate football from life and death. They are all part of the same cog that keeps spinning generation after generation. It is the sum of its parts…”
What I love about books is not just the clues that the content gives us, but what the title of the book or the cover may or may not mean. For instance the title, “Countries of the World” – on the one hand this is reference to the wonderful tome that the narrator in childhood uses as his source of information and window on the world. On the other it simply refers to the various countries of the world that come to be detailed through the World Cup years and political events the narrator writes about. Is there significance in the choice of name of Breogan? My old friend Wikepedia informs me that “…Breogán, Breoghan or Breachdan, son of Brath…was a mythical Celtic king from Galicia…” Presumably this is homage to Porter’s life in Spain. Indeed, why is the local football team not simply Breogan City, United or Rovers? Instead we have the intriguingly named Breogan Citadel. Is this in terms of the town being a stronghold, a castle or fortress, a refuge or sanctuary? I was also curious as to whether the picture adorning the front cover of the book had meaning. The border of the cover showing various flags reflects the title, “Countries of the World”, with the main cover photo featuring Cathkin Park (by Brian Prout). The image shows a worn goal-mouth and posts, whilst in the background remnants of a terrace can be seen amongst the trees. The football reference and relevance is that this park in Glasgow was home to Scotland’s oldest club Queen’s Park (1884 – 1903) and Third Lanark from 1903 until the club folded in 1967. Does it symbolise the death of a club? It is about the past and dreams lost? Or it is simply a great football image?
For me the book is like a great night out with your mates. You don’t want it to end – it has made you laugh, made you cry, made you think, made you reflect and ultimately has left an impression.