Monday, August 28, 2006

Sixteen again

This year is the twentieth-first anniversary of me being 16.

To celebrate I have renewed the Fulham season ticket I last had for the 1984/85 season, and started to wear my old Smiths T-shirts again.

On Friday Tania and I went to see Tom who plays his guitar under the name Boss Hog every Friday night in the Willoughby Arms in Kingston. Its a friendly old style pub, where the landlord has been there for exactly twelve years and says goodbye to you as you leave.

Tom played old songs by Billy Bragg, Jam, the Clash, The Cure. He sings them well, you can hear the words and he does them justice. At his best with 'Thats Entertainment', 'Say hello wave goodbye', 'Boys don't Cry' and 'Fairy tale from New York'.

Tom is a big Billy Bragg (and Fulham) fan. I told him at the interval that when I was sixteen I had done a deal with my sister: she could play Billy Bragg and I would play the Smiths. Like Spain and Portugal in the Renaissance dividing up the New World with the blessing of the Pope. I was the older brother, so like Spain I think I got the best of the deal (though history tells us that the Portugese part of the new world has won more world cups than the Spanish parts). In the gig Tom played the intro to 'Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now' then stopped and told me I should have chosen Billy Bragg, because its easier to play on guitar.

In 184-85 I sat with my dad in Block C, row C of the Stevenage Road stand at Craven Cottage. The oldest football stand in London. A listed building. I dont think there were many other season ticket holders that year, I dont remember anyone who sat round us, they must have changed every game. Block C was great, half way towards the Hammersmith End, the goal Fulham usually shoot to in the second half. Row C was three rows back from the Enclosure, where people stood up. You could hear the banter from the Enclosure while enjoying the view from the seat. If you went with some friends you just forgot about the seat and went to stand up on the Enclosure. Average home gate that season must have been 6,500.

A lot has happened to Fulham since 1985. First the chairman Ernie Clay sold off the first team as part of his plan to kill the club and chuck the carcass to a property developer. He made his millions, and Craven Cottage was saved only by a collapse in the UK property market. Then ten years of slowly sinking down the divisions. By 1994 Fulham were in the bottom division, under the chairmanship of the cringeworthy Jimmy Hill. No money. The players had to eat sandwiches on the way home from away games as an economy measure, the coach wouldn't even stop at a fish and chip shop shop for them. The ground looking a bit dilapidated. The top of the Eric Miller stand spelt out a message to the world 'F LHA ' in big letters (wouldn't have liked to have been standing on the touchline when the U and the M fell off).

Then the wheel started to turn, Mickey Adams cobbled a team together out of nothing, on nothing, wins an unlikely promotion and the club attracted the friendly interest of Mohammed Al Fayed. Inexorable rise to the top division with plenty of good football with a gallic twist played along the way, some of it seen by me, an occassional visitor popping back to an old friend.

So here we are at the start of 2006/07. Not all that much cash compared to many in the rest of the Premiership (would have been nice to have had enough to have bought Emile Heskey). Our star midfielder Malbranque won't play for us again. Needing to work hard to keep the wheel rolling forward, to stop it rolling back.

You hear lots of conversations when you go to a football match. When people talked about our first game of the season (away at Man Utd) you always heard the word 'shambles'. When people spoke of Wednesday's game with Bolton you heard the word 'poor'. True you would have come across the same words if you had read a newspaper, but the journalists added another word, not to be spoken of, beginning with 'r' and ending in you being sent to Coventry and Southend and loosing millions of pounds.

You pass a second hand bookshop as you start walking from Putney Bridge station to Craven Cottage. In 1984/85 it was always shut on matchdays cos the owner coached a team on a Saturday. For the last ten years it has been open on matchdays: the bookseller got disullusioned with coaching 'couldnt stop my players from cheating' he said. On Saturday we met a Sheff United fan, Jim, looking at the books outside it. He had a thoughtful air, which could have been induced by the weighty tomes he was looking at, or by the fact that as he later told me, he was meeting his priest at the match, who in turn was going to work in Peru for three years.

I put the thoughtfulness down to the fact that Sheff United were, like us, facing a real test. Their first two games in the premiership had been against Liverpool and Tottenham, games they would expect to lose. This was the type of game they needed to get something from if they are going to avoid that 'r' word.

I told Jim, as I always tell every person I have met from Sheffield, that my sister lives in that City. He asked me whether Chris Coleman will still be manager of Fulham by Christmas, and told me that Fulham have not yet seen the best of Micheal Brown, who had been brilliant for Sheff U.

At the ground. We are in block CL, in the seats they have put over the old Enclosure, just underneath Block C where I used to sit. And on our seats is a T-shirt each with a picture of Jonny Haynes on it, a black and white picture ofthe black and white hero of the 1960s, to celebrate the fact that the Stevenage Road stand has been renamed after him. It is only us in the Johnny Haynes stand that get the T-shirt, we feel special, we know the rest of the ground wants one too. (The one on Andrew's seat is a junior size T-shirt, they must have put junior ones on the seats with kids season tickets)

So our second game in a week, our second game in our seats. All the people around us are the same people from Wednesday, we are safely cocooned within loyal season ticket holders. United start off better than Fulham: they are behind our defence in the first minute but our keeper Niemi catches it off the head of that big handful of a striker Rob Hulse.

Later the ball got booted into our block of the stand. A big bloke leaps up like David Seamen in his pomp to parry the ball and squashes his neighbour as he lands. The lady next to us turns to me and said 'not your turn this time'(referring to my catch of the ball on Wednesday) and asks whether I saw myself on telly . I had to confess that nobody had stopped me in the street.

Fulham start playing a bit after twenty minutes. Collins John (young, big, fast, still with a lot to learn) spun and hit the post. Jimmy Bullard had some shots. The sun came out after half an hour, it was shining right at us, and was being reflected from the floodlights. Two bright for Andrew, he couldnt look at the game. So we left our cocoon and went down behind the stand to buy a Fulham cap. While we were away Fulham scored. When we got back a fellow behind us tapped me on the shoulder to tell us how good Bullard's free kick was.

Second half. Fulham take a stanglehold on the midfield. we are down fairly low down, close to the action, Liam Rosenior rampages down the touchline near us. In 1985 we were watching his dad, Leroy, a great header of the ball, strong and powerful centre forward with a mild temprement. He later went to West Ham and famously scored a hat trick that got Chelsea relegated one year.

Tomas Radzinski comes on, looks like he is carrying a bit of weight. He was through on goal, he could see the whites of the goalkeeper's eyes but choses to pass instead. He is obviously short of confidence, Bullard almost saves his embarrasment by picking up the loose ball and cracking it against the post. Later Brian McBride surged through, underneath us again,this time their keeper managed to get a foot on it.

The three minutes of added time were a bit nervy, because all of a sudden Fulham pulled everyone back surrendering the ball to United. They had a couple of situations but we got the three points we deserved.

So the gloom has been lifted, at least for now, The midfield was solid and dominant, Bouba Diop was winning balls and playing neat passes, Jimmy Bullard was everywhere and did everything, Michael Brown passed well. Louis Boa Morte still hasnt found his touch yet though. Our central defence was solid, Philipe Christianval read things well and kept it simple. Lots of our threat came down the right from Liam Rosenior's forward runs. Just need one of our strikers to pick up confidence and start scoring goals.

So the walk back to Bishops Park, next to the Thames, tidal at Putney. One lad commented with suprise how much water there was in the Thames when there was virtually nothing there on Wednesday: could have been a metaphor for Fulham's week.

Talking of metaphors I read this joke in John T Barrow's book on infinity:
Question: what did the mystic say to the hamburger salesman?
Answer: 'make me one with everything'

At the end of the park we saw Jim from Sheffield again. He looked disappointed. He said we deserved our win, I wished him luck for their next home game (with Blackburn). Our next home game isn't till September 23, against our local rivals.

Will Chris Coleman still be Fulham manager at Christmas? I hope so.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Lowering the stakes

Amos Oz, the Isreali novelist and peace campaigner, is quoted by Wikipedia as saying that

the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a war of religion or cultures or
traditions, but rather a real estate dispute--one that will be resolved not by
greater understanding, but by painful compromise.

When you boil that conflict down to a dispute over specific land and resources it loses its ability to fracture and destabilise the world.

Those promoting a war will always badge it as being a war for principles and values. A war for democracy, freedom, civilisation, the motherland, islam, national security: a war against terror, dictatorship, fundamentalism, zionism, genocide.

By appealing to these principles the conflicts becomes harder to resolve, more likely to spread, and more likely to lead to additional cruelty and racism.

Why do those promoting wars always appeal to principles? So that they can win the support of those who may not care about the particular resources being fought for, but do care for the values and principles being espoused.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Great first touch

I took Andrew to Fulham v Bolton yesterday evening.

Half way through the first half Ian Pearce (Fulham's ageing centre-half) sliced a clearance into the crowd above were we sat. Someone in C block knocked it back down and I caught it as clean as a whistle.

In all the hundreds of football matches I have been to it was the first time I have touched the ball. Their were no stewards near. El Hadj Douf of Bolton down on the touchline was waiting patiently. I could do what I liked with it. I could have drawn a cartoon on it, given it a huge boot, pretended to eat it like it was an apple........

Or I could have tried to fulfill my childhood ambition: When I was six and my dad used to take me to East End Park to see Dunfermline Athletic I had a plan that the ball would come to me sitting in the stand and I would throw it into the other teams net to score a goal for Dunfermline.

I didn't do any of those things. I went to throw it back then remembered andrew sitting next to me and handed it to him. He delayed a bit then threw it forward.

It got to Diouf eventually. Bolton created a kerfufle in the penalty area from the throw but nothing much came of it.

The most suprising thing about the ball was that it felt cold. Its at the centre of the white heat of a premiership encounter and it feels cold.

Monday, August 21, 2006


David Grossman is an Isreali novelist. Just 2 days after he and fellow novelists called for a ceasefire to halt his country's offensive in Lebanon, his son Uri, a tank commander in the Isreali army, died in the fighting. On Sunday the Observer printed his article Uri, my dear son. It is a beautiful piece of writing.

Uri was known as the lefty of his batallion. Grossman praises his son for sticking to his values even in the heart of the Isreali army. He writes:

'In our crazy, cruel and cynical world, it's not 'cool' to have values, or to be a humanist, or to be truly sensitive to the suffering of the other, even if that other is your enemy on the battlefield.'

The first casualty of war is not the truth: the first casualty of war is empathy for people who are defined as being on the other side of the conflict.

This asymmetry of empathy is encouraged by the way many media outlets report incidents of killing. The reporting gives out strong signals to us as to whether our basic emotional responses such as sympathy, fear and anger should be engaged.

Look out for the following signals in any report of deaths , on either side of any conflict:

  • Do we get to hear about the lives of the people who died and the impact on the relatives and friends left behind?
  • Do we get the impression that the victims are people like us, or different from us?
  • Is the incident reported in a 'matter of fact' manner, or are expressions of shock and outrage added to the report?
  • Is the action described as a 'military' action or a 'terrorist' action?
  • Do we get the impression that a similar incident could put our lives under threat, or is this the type of thing that only happens to people unlike us?

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Politics and cream teas

We have had a wonderful fortnight on Downhouse Farm, on the National Trust’s Golden Cap estate in Dorset.

We stayed in a National Trust cottage just off the South West Coastal footpath, in Higher Eype.

Six memorable things about the holiday were:

• The view from the cottage garden over the fields sloping down to the sea. We could see chesil beach sweeping round and the whole of the Isle of Portland stuck on the end of it like a big football boot

• Looking out of the window at night and seeing the lighthouse light twenty miles away on Portland Bill appear, disappear then re-appear half a minute later. Just like in Edward Ardizzone's Ginger and Tim book, where the children make friends with the lighthouse keeper. One stormy night Tim couldn’t sleep, so he lay awake watching the lighthouse light come and go. Then he noticed a long gap without the light coming back. He knew something was up so he woke up his dad (who told him to get back to bed) and then put on his rainmac and secretly crept outside and went to the boatman's house. Together they rowed over to the lighthouse just in time to surprise some robbers who had kidnapped the lighthouse keeper and switched the light off so they could steal its cargo when it crashed into the rocks. I had my waterproof at the ready, but the light kept coming back.

• Playing epic games of football in the garden with Dougie the farm sheepdog. We gave ourselves a point everytime we scored a goal against the little wall in front of the front door. Dougie got a point every time he intercepted a pass or blocked a shot. First to ten won. Once Dougie learned to read our tactics he won every single game. When I went out wide he would come out to block the cross, if I chipped it over him he would leap like a salmon to catch it, if I pulled it back behind him to Andrew he would turn quickly to get in front of his goal to block the shot. Even with the help of star players like Jack, Charlie and Kotalo (campers in the field opposite) we couldn’t beat Dougs. We got to 9-9 one game and Andrew’s shot agonisingly hit the post. From the restart Andrew tried to pass me, Dougie was there, business as usual, the chance had gone.

• Having bats fly so close to the house after dusk that we could make out the brown of their bodies as they rushed past.

• Going to Leakers the bakers in Bridport which does three varieties of flapjack (pecan and maple, cherry and coconut, almond and apricot.) Unless any of my readers can nominate an alternative these three will sweep the board at this years World flapjack award ceremony. If there was a world bread pudding award they would surely win that too, for their innovative Bread pudding cube, the size of half a housebrick. The other distinctive thing about Leaker’s is its social conscience. It had made a mural on the wall opposite the serving counter: someone had written Peace in big green letters with a dove next to it, and there was a chubby marker for you to sign your name on the wall. The lady behind the counter was bemoaning to me that their hadn’t been a 'Ceasefire now' demonstration in Bridport. (they had a notice up for the national march in London). It was heartening to see that this bakery was bravely going against the advice given to me by my friend James’s dad Don, when I started working at La Boulangerie bakers in Guildford in 1990. His tip for me on dealing with the customers was:
‘remember they want bread. Not Lenin, not Marx, just bread’

• Having the farm café next door to our cottage. Downhouse Farm is run as an organic farm by Nikki and Dean, and between mid march and mid October they open up the garden of their house as a café (it has plenty of shelter and shade). They do sublime ploughmans lunches and cream teas. Many was the time we popped next door for two big slabs of dorset apple cake to share between us while we watched Anna and Andrew’s favourite programme: the very wonderful Raven (set in the Scottish Highlands, combinoing celtic mythology with a kind of Krypton factor for kids). Disclosure: When I was eight I played football, in Guildford, with the son (or it might have been the nephew) of George Burns, who presented the Krypton Factor.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006


I was sitting in a fish and chip shop in Lyme Regis when I heard on the radio that George Bush had refused to condemn the Qana massacre.

Qana: a massacre of 50 people, a similar number to the July 7 bombings in London, except more of them this time were children. People sheltering at the bottom of their apartment block. People who had been faced with the choice of either staying in a village that the Isreali air force was liable to bomb, or fleeing along roads that the Isreali air force was liable to bomb.

In Britain over the last ten years we have observed more and more one or two minute silences. They are based on the assumption that our society is united in valuing human life and mourning the passing of whichever public figure or group of innocent victims is being commemorated.

I will not observe any more such silences this year. If George Bush won't condemn the slaughter at Qana, and if there is still only an insultingly thin wafer between UK foreign policy and that of the US, then how can we pretend that we all value human life, and that we value all human life?