Tightrope walking: pub life in East London

One of my favourite recent commissions was for Norwegian Air’s magazine, N, who asked me to write text accompanying Jan Klos’s terrific photographs of East London pubs that, as he says, “capture a distinctly British culture that is facing extinction.” The article is here.

I visited several pubs, interviewing the landlords about the difficulties of running a pub in London. “London’s pub landlords are tightrope walkers,” I wrote. “Maintaining a delicate balance between tradition and innovation.” What fascinated me about successful pubs was how they balanced their role as “a communal living room” as Pauline Forster, formidable landlord for The George Tavern described it, with their need to draw custom by programming events, from the ubiquitous pub quiz to the more avant-garde offerings at somewhere like the Jamboree on Cable Street. Even that is not always enough, and the George is under threat of development.


All the pubs had been photographed by Jan for his project, the Photographic Guide To The Pubs Of East London. He explained to me via email how it came about:

“I was looking for a project and I was playing with the idea of examining London’s tourism industry. The idea of photographing pubs was born from (believe it or not) cycling by Parliament Square and Big Ben and watching all the tourists. I really hate crowds and landmarks. There’s much more to London than Big Ben, double decker buses and telephone booths and I wish more tourists would see that.

I thought of all the tourists who come to London following travel guides full of landmarks and return with home with exactly the same boring photographs as everyone who has ever visited. I felt it a duty to show them what they are missing out on. Around the time I started plotting the project, more and more articles started appearing in the press about gentrification, pub closures and the death of East London. I’m a massive fan of East London’s pubs and slowly a way in to my project took shape.

I thought it made perfect sense to combine a “tourist guide” idea with a documentary approach to capture a distinctly British culture that is facing extinction. It gives insight into London’s pubs as a good tourist guide would, but, most importantly, it documents these fantastic institutions and groups of people – “families” – who run them. The family portrait approach I have taken also highlighted how close the teams are and how strongly they feel about their survival: many of the staff I encountered have other jobs but still do an odd day of work  in the pub, just because they enjoy being part of a close-knit community.”

Disappearing London: Food For Thought

I have a piece in the Guardian about the closure of Food For Thought, one of London’s most charismatic and seemingly nuclear-proof (and I’m not just talking about the consistency of the scones) restaurants. It closes on June 21, rising costs – basically rents and wages to cover staff’s rents – forcing the owner Vanessa Garrett, to shut a business that has been successfully operating since 1971.

Food For Thought is one of those places that’s always been there. It was there when I prowled Neal Street on amateur shopping trips in the early 1990s. I knew, instinctively, that it was some sort of hippie joint, so went elsewhere, a teenage boy in thrall to the twin thrills of the Sex Pistols and bacon double cheeseburgers.

Years later, grown up somewhat, I began to eat there regularly, usually nabbing a takeaway from the ground floor during lunch breaks at Time Out. It always felt more than just a lunch venue. Without wanting to get too Sinclair about it, waiting in line at Food For Thought felt like a visit to polydimensional London, somewhere that had been quietly doing the same thing, for the same people, in the same place, for generations. Close your eyes, and you could be in 1970s London or even London in 2015. For secular souls, there are few areas that carry this atmosphere in quite such an effortless way, not so much a timewarp as timeless. It wasn’t dated, retro or old-fashioned, it just was.

I didn’t realise then quite how entwined Food For Thought was with the counterculture that spawned Time Out. When I tweeted about the closure of Food For Thought, the writer Richard King responded thoughtfully that: “FFT felt like one of the final remaining traces of the original Tony Elliott vision of London for Time Out.”

It was an astute observation. Food For Thought was born in the same spirit as Time Out, a desire to make London new, fresh, exciting, modern and funky, but also to make it, for want of a better word, good: cheap, utilitarian, healthy, an experience to expand the mind and reward the soul. London can still do this, but not in such a distinctive and understated political manner.

It went deeper. One of Food For Thought’s first chefs was Sue Miles, the wife of Barry Miles, founder of International Times, the underground newspaper from which Time Out hatched in 1968. Sue had learnt her trade at the Arts Lab, a counterculture take on the ICA that operated from Drury Street, and she later worked at Time Out, writing its first pair of London guides, which included enthusiastic reviews of Food For Thought.


What’s particularly depressing about the closure of Food For Thought is that it wasn’t doing anything wrong. It was popular, it was serving good food at reasonable prices. They could have expanded, sought outside investment and gone into the franchise business, but they felt that would dilute the experience. Why should they change when they were doing what they wanted and doing it well?

And it was this commitment to offering value for money – that deeply held desire to not rip off the consumer – that led to its demise. That was at the heart of what Food For Thought represented, and it is precisely the sort of thinking that doesn’t wash in rentier London, where even success is punished and landlords feel duty bound to wring more profit out of something they have done nothing to create, like Mafia bosses demanding their cut. People revolt when a government behaves this way, so why is it acceptable for landlords?

What a city we have created.

Charlie Cooke: Chelsea wing wizard

I recently dug up an old PC, and found this interview I conducted with former Chelsea and Scotland footballer Charlie Cooke in 2007 for Time Out.

It has become common currency for fans and players of other clubs to decry Chelsea’s lack of history, a revealing attitude that mistakes ‘history’ for ‘success’ and ‘wit’ for ‘arrogance’. Chelsea, of course, have a rich history, albeit one of spectacular underachievement and remarkable foot-shooting, of which the legendary – and much-romanticised – 1960s side is the best example. One of the geniuses of that team was Charlie Cooke, the brilliant Scottish midfielder who replaced Terry Venables in the heart of the Chelsea side and rivalled Peter Osgood for the affections of The Shed. Cooke was a combination of Pat Nevin and Joe Cole – phenomenally gifted, an extraordinary dribbler and visionary passer, but one with a prodigious work ethic. He was Chelsea’s player of the year three times – a record shared with a certain diminutive Sardinian – but only won two major trophies in his two spells at Stamford Bridge.

‘We were underachievers, and that was our own fault,’ says Cooke, on the phone from the United States where he coaches children’s soccer (‘I have to call it that’). ‘We underachieved on the big occasions – we were dreadful in the FA Cup final against Spurs in 1967, and we lost to Stoke in the League Cup final in 1972. We were out of control, wild and crazy, we egged each other on with the drinking culture. I have regrets. From this perspective, it was a lot of nonsense. At the time, you’re having fun, or you think you are, but I’m not one to say that if I had it all to live over I’d do it exactly the same. I’d be a bit smarter, more self-controlled, not so willing.’

It’s telling that Cooke’s autobiography The Bonnie Prince, lacks the drinking stories common to memoirs written by footballers from this period – that’s because Cooke, who doesn’t quite admit he was an alcoholic, can’t remember many of them (although he gets some off-page prompting from his drinking partner, Tommy Baldwin, nicknamed ‘The Sponge’ for his ability to soak up booze). Instead, Cooke gives a thoughtful account of a playing career that took him from Greenock High School to California Surf, via Aberdeen, Dundee, Chelsea and Crystal Palace.

‘I took it as an opportunity to retrace a lot of my life and find out things I’d forgotten,’ he says. ‘One of the strange things was that my sister had been doing some genealogy and the interesting thing to me – although it may be of no interest to anybody else – is that we, the Cookes, came from a long line of circus people. My umpteen great grandfather was the first person to take a big top to America. Another Cooke would ride round the ring on a horse taking off costumes of different Shakespearean characters. I come from a long line of hairy-chested women, Romanian jugglers and fat men. Entertainers, sure, but I’m not sure it’s a rich lineage – maybe a tacky one.’

Cooke also writes about his own failings as a player, showing self-reflection that’s unusual in books of this type. You rarely see footage of Cooke in action – ‘sometimes you’ll see a tiny clip of yourself and think, “that wasn’t me was it? Ach, I thought I was a better player than that!” – and rarer still a Cooke goal: he scored barely 20 in nearly 300 league games for Chelsea. Cooke’s explanation of this is interesting – ‘I allowed the headlines about my being the team schemer and midfield general to get into my head, with the result that I ignored finishing’ – showing that even positive press can have results journalists might not expect, causing players to subconsciously neglect those parts of their game that do not receive the most publicity or overdoing their strengths in the belief that this is what the public demands.

Cooke lives in America (‘I always wanted to be in the States, I married an American girl and I loved Westerns and American detective series and the blue skies of America always seems to be a place I wanted to try’), but returns to Abramovich’s Stamford Bridge more regularly now than he did under the previous regime. ‘One of the wonderful things about the takeover at Chelsea is that they invite all the old farts back, he says. ‘It had been thrown out the door before. I have no gripe about Ken Bates, that’s what he wanted, but it’s wonderful that they invite us back now, it’s lovely for me and all the guys really appreciate it. You feel the love fans still have for you and it’s fantastic.’

The Bonnie Prince (Mainstream; £7.99).

Robert Fraser: the butterfly, Performance and the Rolling Stones

I’ve often thought that when William Rees-Mogg wrote his famous editorial in the wake of the Redlands court case, the butterfly was not so much Mick Jagger or Keith Richards but the third party in that sorry affair. Art dealer Robert Fraser was convicted alongside the Rolling Stones for possession, but while Richards and Jagger were spared prison partly thanks to the Times editorial, Fraser pleaded guilt and was sent to Wormwood Scrubs. It’s difficult now to think of Richards and Jagger as butterflies; Fraser was the one that got left behind to get broken.

Some of letters and telegrams Fraser received and sent while during his four months at the Scrubs feature in the Pace Gallery’s superb exhibition, A Strong Sweet Smell Of Incense, which runs until 28th March. The title comes from Richard Hamilton’s collage, created as a response to the Redlands bust.

It is displayed alongside one of Hamilton’s other famous creations in his Swingeing London series, which shows Fraser and Jagger being led away from court.

Hamilton was one of several artists that Fraser promoted at his Duke Street gallery in the 1960s, and many of them feature in the show. Here there are works by Andy Warhol, Jim Dine, Eduardo Paolozzi, Claes Oldenberg, Clive Barker, Gerhard Richter, Bridget Riley and Peter Blake, as well as later pieces by Francis Bacon, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat.


Copyright Pace London

There’s also a nice mock up of Fraser’s office.


Copyright Pace London

Fraser had a great eye and a sense of daring, and that helped attract the stars. Fraser’s gallery became a centre for the cool kids of the counterculture, attracting pop stars, actors and film directors as well as perennially lurking scene figures like Keith Anger. Paul McCartney described Fraser as “one of the most influential people in the London sixties scenes” and The Beatles feature in the exhibition, most wonderfully in the shape of the drumskin from Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which Peter Blake created under Fraser’s direction. Fraser was the catalyst for much that happened in this mid-60s meeting of art and pop.

Copyright Pace London

Copyright Pace London

Fraser was nicknamed Groovy Bob and a sense of the fluid interchange of ideas that resulted from these encounters can be seen in a long display cabinet, arranged with artful haphazardness and crammed with personal letters, memos, books, flyers and photographs. There’s no caption for this wonderful ephemera, but rich pickings for those who take the time to drink it in.


Copyright Pace London

I was fascinated by a 1968 letter Fraser wrote to Richard Lock at Simon & Schuster proposing a biography of the Rolling Stones, which “would be satirical and totally fictional”. It was seen as a suitably Stonesy response to Hunter Davies’s recently published and “totally humourless” Beatles biography. Sadly, this came to nothing.

I also liked a letter written by the producer of Performance, confirming that Anita Pallenberg would be renting Fraser’s flat in Mount Street for the eight-week duration of the shoot, at £30 a week. This was presented alongside a page of the script from Performance. Fraser’s spirit is essential to the milieu and mystery around Performance. He had known Pallenberg since 1961, and his interest in art, drugs and bohemia was infectious.  Pallenberg later recalled that around Fraser gathered “a fascinating group of people who were on the cutting edge of what was happening in high society, great cultural evenings, wonderful intellectual talk, plenty of hash and marijuana and speed and LSD.” Marianne Faithfull’s recollection is a more withering English take on the same deal: “Desultory intellectual chit chat, drugs, hip aristocrats, languid dilettantes and high naughtiness.”

The weeks that Pallenberg, with boyfriend Keith Richards, stayed at Fraser’s flat, would be pivotal to the unfolding psychosexual drama surrounding the Stones. Fraser was using heroin (his opium pipe is on display), and soon turned on Keith, who was otherwise writing Let It Bleed and brooding about the shenanigans Pallenberg and Jagger were getting up to while making the film.  The ensuing atmosphere of jealousy, betrayal spiced by heavy drug use would hang round the Stones for decades. As Richards spiteful autobiography shows, they still haven’t entirely gone away.


Cecil Beaton photograph from Performance set.

Also floating around the scene was another arch mischief-maker, Kenneth Anger, and a couple of his missives to Fraser can be found in the cabinet. Best of these is probably the telegram requesting £60 which concludes “GROOVING ON MAGIC CURRENT ONE TRILLION VOLTS AFTER AUSPICIOUS LUCIFER HOUSE BOAT LOVE IS THE LAW”. Indeed.

But it’s the Stones with whom Fraser became most closely associated, for better or for worse. No matter how it ended, I’ve always loved a pair of photographs Michael Cooper took of the Stones with Fraser in 1966 and 1967 in Morocco, a location that is almost as emblematic of the 1960s as London itself, lingering even in the set design of that orgiastic lightning rod Performance. Here is the calm before the storm, before the butterfly is broken.



A Strong Sweet Smell Of Incense at Pace London, 6 Burlington Gardens, W1S 3ET.

Three new London books: then, now, forever

I’ve been immersed in a trio of complementary London books in recent weeks, each of which adds further depth to any understanding of the city’s built environment.

London: Architecture Building And Social Change is a very useful, glossy overview looking at how London’s architecture has developed – or not – with the city’s needs. Sometimes the architecture has led to social change; sometimes social change has led to new architecture. Author Paul Knox focuses on 27 districts – largely central, which is understandable but slightly annoying – exploring how landowners and developers combined to give them their character, before looking at a dozen key buildings in closer detail. There’s rich detail here, as well as nice pictures and helpful maps. I was particularly grateful for being introduced to the word “super-gentrification” to describe London’s current toxic situation. Knox is particularly good at emphasising the city’s sense of scale – how it has repeatedly rejected density in favour of a more humanising style of urban living in the form of terraces or mansion blocks – and showing how this is once more under attack. The overall feel is a little like seeing London through a microscope: first the overview, then closing in on a specific area, then seeing how all this maps on to a single building. It’s also a terrific reference book.

If Knox’s angle is how we got from ‘then’ to ‘now’, Tom Bolton is more interested in what ‘now’ obscures of ‘then’. Vanished City: London’s Lost Neighborhoods hunts the streets for traces of London districts that have been eradicated by time, developers, fire and bombs. Bolton embraces the history, delving into archives to restore to life forgotten quarters such as Ratcliff, Cripplegate, Wellclose, Clare Market and, particularly fascinating, the strange lost towns of Old St Pancras. There’s much incidental overlap with Knox, but Bolton fills in some of the gaps, bringing us the stories of the people who lived in these lost towns rather than simply telling us who owned the land and what was built on it. Brilliantly researched and breezily written, the only drawback is a lack of maps, which would have really helped the reader pin the past on to the present. Instead, as with Bolton’s previous book with Strange Attractor, SF Said adds suitably spooky imagery.

Finally, the reprint of Ian Nairn’s Nairn’s London is a must for any Londonphile. Filling a space between Bolton’s largely historic musings and Knox’s contemporary report, Nairn looked at London at a very specific point in time, the mid 1960s, as the post-war redevelopment of the city was really getting underway. In this way, it makes a nice companion to HV Morton’s In Search of London, roving, individualistic, romantic and revealing. Nairn conceived it as “record of what has moved me, between Uxbridge and Dagenham”, and his idiosyncratic eye meant he was able to celebrate vernacular masterpieces like the Granada in Tooting (“Miss the Tower of London if you have to, but don’t miss this”) while waspishly dismissing some of Wren’s lesser works. Vivid and memorable, it’s like a three-dimensional A-Z. If you don’t already own it, snap one up.

A Saturday in London in the early 1990s

Here are me, Scott and Mike trying to be the Ramones.


We called ourselves the triumvirate and were inseparable. We were also insufferable poseurs.


We spent most Saturdays going up to London. The day usually started here.

Image result for sutton surrey station

The highlight of the train journey came after we passed Clapham Junction and trundled past the hulking mass of Battersea Power Station, which was apparently being turned into a theme park. This classic view of the power station from the railway line is soon to disappear as the building is surrounded by steel and glass boxes for the very rich.

Image result for battersea power station from railway

Crossing the Thames, you could usually make out the floodlights of Craven Cottage and Stamford Bridge if you were quick. There are fewer finer sights in life then the glimpse of far-off floodlight. If all went to plan, we might be getting a closer view before the day was done.

From Victoria, we headed for Covent Garden. Mike was a dresser. He could carry anything off. He still can. Mike had a dapper big brother, Pete, who read The Face and I-D, and so Mike always seemed to know where to go. His keen sense of style didn’t always go down well in the suburbs; when he wore a pair of Adidas shell tops to school, kids in Nike Air and Adidas Torsion laughed at his protestations that he was the trendy one. Still, I was convinced enough to buy a pair of suede Kickers on his say so, and nobody took the piss that much.

We usually went to a few shops on Floral Street and then  Neal Street, maybe first visiting the Covent Garden General Store, which was full of entertaining tat.

We spent much of this part of the day traipsing after Michael into shops where saleswoman would assure him he looked the ‘dog’s bollocks’ as he pulled on another pair of check flares. If I was feeling bold I’d try on something in Red Or Dead or Duffer of St George on D’Arblay Street. On one treasured occasion, Mike’s brother Pete was so impressed by my red Riot + Lagos t-shirt from Duffer that he borrowed it for a party. This was probably the high point of my life as a style icon.



After watching Michael try on clothes, we’d go to Neal’s Yard, where we breezed past the weirdos in the skate shop on our way to the basement.

This was the Covent Garden branch of Rough Trade, a pokey den arranged around a metal spiral staircase, with walls covered in graffiti from bands that had played there. We loved it here. Music was one shared passion. Mike had got us into Sonic Youth, Pavement and Teenage Fanclub; Scott’s dad had a great selection of Van Morrison, Leonard Cohen, Jackson Browne and Neil Young. We all read the NME and Melody Maker and Select. This stuff mattered.

After a quick nose, we’d slip on to Shaftesbury Avenue and round to Cambridge Circus. There was a shop south of here on Litchfield Street that sold trendy Brazilian football shirts which we looked at but could never afford. Usually we headed north up Charing Cross Road to Sportspages.

imgresSportspages sold sports books, but we were only interested in the fanzines, which were scattered over the floor in untidy piles. Football was our other passion. I’d try and pick up the hard-to-find Cockney Rebel, a one-man Chelsea fanzine that combined football with an idiosyncratic take on pop and film culture. I went to Sportspages for years but never actually bought a book there.

After that, it was lunchtime.

Image result for bacon double cheeseburger

We lived for bacon double cheeseburgers.

Then we’d head down Hanway Street, past the Blue Posts on the corner, to visit Vinyl Experience, a huge place over a couple of floors which was covered by this fine Beatles mural.

Blue Meanies on Hanway Street

At some point earlier, it had this fine sign.



There were a couple of other record shops here – JBs was a decent one – and we’d often pop into Virgin on Oxford Street to check out the t-shirts.

From there, we strolled down across Oxford Street and cut through Soho down to Berwick Street, where three more record shops awaited – Selectadisc, Sister Ray and Reckless. Selectadisc was my favourite; although the staff were contemptuous, they were marginally friendlier than in Sister Ray and the choice was wider.

Reckless Records Berwick Street

Sometimes we’d see our schoolfriend Martin, who worked the odd Saturday on a fruit and veg stall in Berwick Street market for his uncle. I was always slightly jealous of this; it seemed an impossibly cool, proper London job for suburbanites like us to have.

Football was next. Despite having visited so many shops, we spent more time browsing then buying so rarely had many bags. Most of our serious record shopping was done in Croydon at Beanos.

What game we went to depended on who was playing, how much money we had and whether I could persuade Scott (Wimbledon) and Mike (Celtic) to fork out to watch Chelsea. It usually boiled down to Arsenal in the Clock End, where we could still pay the kids fee, or Chelsea in the Shed. Occasionally we’d duck into the ground at half time, when the exit gates had opened.

If we didn’t fancy Chelsea or Arsenal, or they were away, we’d head over to QPR, Charlton, Millwall and Fulham. Nobody ever sold out.

After football, dinner.


If we had time, we’d pop into the sweet shop in the Trocedero.

And then maybe a gig: at the Marquee or Astoria.

Or more likely home via Victoria, and then out to the Ship or the Firkin in Croydon.

A week or so later, we’d do it all over again.


Many of these places no longer exist, and I’m not even that old. Or at least, I didn’t think I was.

Forty years of London football

I wrote this in 2008, for Time Out’s excellent 40th anniversary compendium, London Calling.

It’s 1991, and after queuing for an hour to get in, and then waiting another hour for the match to begin, I’m starting to wonder if it was the effort and £8 entrance fee; Chelsea are losing 2-1 to Wimbledon at Plough Lane, the latter’s cramped, tumbledown stadium near Wimbledon dog track. The view from the away terrace is terrible, you can barely make out the top of the crossbar in the goalmouth beneath you, but as Chelsea’s Gordon Durie turns and scores, the surge from the celebrating fans pushes me down the terrace and twirls me back to front. My leg catches on the vertical support of a crush barrier and twists round, creating a huge purple bruise that I proudly show at school on Monday.

Abruptly, the celebrations end. The linesman’s flag is raised. He has disallowed the goal and there’s no big screen action replay to show why. The Wimbledon fans jeer, Chelsea lose, I nurse my wound. Chelsea finish the season 11th; Wimbledon come 6th. Nearly breaking my leg celebrating a disallowed goal is one of the few memorable moments from a dismal season that included a 7-0 defeat at Nottingham Forest.

If you told that story to a 15-year-old supporter from 1968 or one from 2008, it is difficult to guess who would be more surprised. Football has undergone extraordinary changes over the past 40 years, transformations encapsulated by the oscillating fortunes of Chelsea and Wimbledon. In 1968, Chelsea were the most fashionable team in the land: young, vibrant, popular, stylish and successful. Conversely, few knew of Wimbledon, an amateur outfit stuck in the Southern League. Forty years later, and after plenty of ups and downs and a period when Wimbledon habitually outperformed their neighbours, Chelsea are once again one of the biggest clubs in the country. But terraces have gone, Plough Lane has gone – hell, even Wimbledon have gone, a stellar rise through the leagues ending in ignominy when they were split in two, with one ersatz version playing league football in Milton Keynes and the other back in non-league, playing in front of 3,000 in Kingston.


The only way to really grasp these changes is to look at them chronologically. In 1968, football was riding the crest of the postwar wave and attracting huge crowds. However, two trends were emerging that would distinguish 1960s football from its forebears. The first was the transformation of footballers into celebrities, a result of the abolition of the minimum wage in 1961 and the introduction of regular televised matches. Manchester United’s George Best was the poster boy for football as the new cool, but it was also a role manfully shouldered by King’s Road carouser such as Peter Osgood, Charlie Cooke, David Webb and Tommy Baldwin.

The other factor was the appearance of a distinctive youth culture in the later 1950s; teenagers had the freedom and cash to go to games at home and, crucially, away, where bonds were formed and rivalries cemented. In ‘Football Gangs’, a landmark piece published in Time Out  in 1972, Chris Lightbown explained what this meant, as kids claimed the terrace behind each goal as ‘The End’ to be protected from invaders at all costs, vocally and physically.

But football hooliganism was not seen as a major threat: drinking was still allowed on terraces and there was no segregation. But things worsened as the 70s progressed and the fortunes of the four major London clubs – Arsenal, Chelsea, Spurs and West Ham – plummeted from 1971, when Arsenal won the Double, Chelsea won the European Cup Winners Cup and Tottenham won the League Cup. Arsenal went missing for much of the decade; Chelsea were relegated, promoted and relegated again as they stumbled towards insolvency; Spurs went down and up; West Ham beat Fulham in the 1975 FA Cup final, then went down and stayed down. In 1975, Queens Park Rangers were London’s highest-placed club; they came 11th. The decline from the high points of the 1960s was manifest.

The backdrop was uglier. Hooliganism, especially – but by no means exclusively – at Chelsea, West Ham and Millwall was destroying the game from the inside, driving away crowds and investment, turning stadiums into barbed wire police states. Hooliganism effected every club, including Arsenal and Spurs, particularly in any London derby or when a big northern club – Manchester United especially – came to London. On the pitch, England failed to qualify for two successive World Cups as the game faced a talent drain despite an extraordinary run in the European Cup that saw English clubs win the trophy seven times in eight seasons between 1976 and 1984, no thanks to London.

The result was an increasingly unpopular national sport. Chelsea’s crowd drained from 40,342 at the start of the decade to 24,782 at the end; the First Division average went from 32,074 to 27,428 in the same period and continued declining into the early 90s. In 1974, Time Out‘s Sports Editor Peter Ball thought he’d spotted the problem: ‘In the last 20 years, football has been taken away from its natural community, commercialised and given the worst trappings of Hollywood by the media. Is it any wonder that the kids, whose dads used to live next door to the local players, feel alienated?’

The upside of this was that it levelled the playing field and allowed smaller clubs to move into the vacuum. Wimbledon joined the football league in 1977 and began a staggering rampage up the tables that saw them in the First Division within a decade. Crystal Palace were dubbed the Team Of The 80s as they briefly topped the First Division in 1980; Watford’s tag team of manager Graham Taylor and chairman Elton John powered into the First Division and reached the FA Cup final in 1984; even Leyton Orient reached the FA Cup semi-finals in 1979.

But part of the climate that allowed them to prosper was the stunning primitiveness of the English game. Excluding Liverpool, who ruled the era with Stalinist ruthlessness but considerably more efficiency, English football was tactically and technically sterile. Most teams were built on the model of ten grafters and a crafter – Hoddle at Spurs, Brady at Arsenal, Brooking at West Ham, Wilkins at Chelsea. Peter Ball dissected England’s failure in the 1980 European Championships and came up with some familiar problems: ‘The English game… does not enhance the development of techniques, nor of flair players, who tend to be regarded with suspicion. The history of the English game is littered with names whose vision and skills have failed to tell over the long haul of English seasons, and have, in the end, lapsed into a sullen and possibly embittered disenchantment.”

One way to get round this was to recruit foreign players, which Tottenham did in 1978 when they signed the Argentines Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa, a policy that resulted in a couple of FA Cups and introduced the concept that London might be an appealing home for overseas footballers. But for the most part the English league was suffocatingly insular. And often it was plain racist. All the London clubs suffered problems with bigots, but Chelsea, West Ham and Millwall had the worst of them, with the National Front recruiting on the terraces. Whereas West Ham first fielded black players in the 1960s and Millwall in the 1970s, Chelsea did not take the plunge until 1982, and when Paul Cannoville made his debut, a significant proportion of Chelsea fans walked out. It was only under chairman Ken Bates, who had bought the bankrupt club for £1, that a battle to reclaim the club from the racists was staged.

[Image: 6lX5dFI.jpg]

Chelsea weren’t the only club to suffer financial problems, as property developers began eyeing up the valuable tracts of London occupied by half-empty and decaying stadiums. By 1985, Charlton’s average attendance had dropped to 5,000 and the club could no longer afford to stay in its home ground, the Valley, so moved in with Crystal Palace. Two years later, Fulham and QPR fought a sustained battle against David Bulstrode, a developer who wanted to merge the clubs into Fulham Park Rangers and turn Craven Cottage into flats. Stamford Bridge was threatened by Cabra Estates until Bates secured the freehold against the backdrop of a property crash.

Charlton Athletic: The Valley

The turbulence had a positive effect on supporters, who suddenly began to take a more constructive approach. A fanzine movement sprang up, allowing supporters, previously cast as goose-stepping, baby-eating Neanderthals, to show they had wit, intelligence and creativity, and were prepared to challenge their clubs rather than blindly support them. Fans of clubs like Millwall, who rarely had a good word printed about them in the national press, were suddenly able to counter their tabloid image. By the late 1980s every club had at least one fanzine and most had several, ranging from tatty sheets of photocopied, hand-stapled A4, to epic, glossy tomes that rivaled official programmes in expense and were considerably better value. Sportspages, a bookshop on the Charing Cross Road with hundreds of fanzines strewn across the floor in giddy piles, became a rallying point for supporters in London.

The early days of the fanzine movement even engendered a brief flowering of camaraderie among rival supporters who faced similar issues of over-zealous policing and scheming owners – Arsenal and West Ham fans, for instance would unite to battle ‘bonds’, a sort of long-term season ticket – at least until antagonistic, insular publications such as Manchester United’s Red Issue turned up to revel in their own divisive nastiness, hastening the demise of supporter solidarity and heralding the tedious partisan commentary of many of today’s football bloggers. Nick Brown, editor of the Chelsea Independent, recalls: ‘The early Chelsea Independents, like all fanzines, brought fans back to football and allowed supporters to air their views where otherwise they would have been ignored. The Independent could challenge the club on the serious issues of racism, policing, pricing and ticket arrangements.” At some clubs, enfranchised supporters went a step further. In 1990, Charlton fans formed the Valley Party and secured 11 per cent of the vote in local elections on  a platform of getting the club back to their old home. Charlton returned to the Valley two years later.

The 1980s had been a terrible decade, but the fun was returning to football. With hooliganism in decline and crowds returning, this was a good time to be a football supporter. Huge terraces meant cheap tickets and few games were televised, meaning the 3pm Saturday kick-off still dominated. Grounds were vast, so matches rarely sold out, allowing the promiscuous supporter to pick and choose fixtures on a Saturday morning. In London, you could decide that morning whether you fancied the rough-and-tumble of Leyton Orient, the lower league faded grandeur of Fulham, a vocal work-out at West Ham, or even go and watch some of the best players in the country at Arsenal or Spurs.

The cost of this improved environment had been great. Wooden stands were phased out after an inferno at Bradford killed 56 in 1985; that same year, a riot involving Liverpool fans in the Heysel Stadium, Brussels, caused the deaths of 39 Italians and led to improved policing and serious sentences for hooligans. Perimeter fences came down after 96 caged Liverpool fans were crushed to death at Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough stadium in 1989. Hooligans had not gone away but cameras in grounds and the threat of long prison sentences forced them on to the streets, where the anarchic gangs of the 1970s became quasi-military groups, adopting names like the Bushwhackers and Headhunters as they engaged in pre-arranged meetings away from most normal supporters.

On the pitch, the football was tough, fast and tactically primitive, but it could also be unpredictable and exciting. Wimbledon’s ragtag bunch of hodcarriers and hoofers rough-and-tumbled their way into the First Division, where they terrified the elite and won the FA Cup against Liverpool in 1988 – a formidable achievement for a club with crowds of barely 10,000. Arsenal, scarcely more sophisticated, secured an astonishing league title on goal difference a year later (their first since 1971), when they beat Liverpool 2-0 at Anfield, with the crucial second goal coming in the last minute of the last game of the season. Stately Spurs enjoyed some success with a team that included the world class talents of Gary Lineker and Paul Gascoigne, while inconsistent Chelsea and West Ham continued to switch between the top divisions. Smaller London clubs were also prospering – Millwall, Charlton, QPR and Crystal Palace all playing in the First Division.

As the visible threat of hooliganism receded, attendances rose, boosted by England’s unexpectedly successful World Cup campaign of 1990, headed by Gascoigne and Lineker. Which made Nick Horby’s timing all the more fortuitous. Fever Pitch, his solipsistic account of the trauma of supporting one of the most successful clubs in the country, was an astonishing success, launching football into the arena of the middle classes. Published in 1992, it told the story of Hornby’s life, measured out in Arsenal fixtures, and its acceptance by serious critics marked the first significant step in football’s long march towards gentrification.


The same critics didn’t have much time for another Arsenal fan, Colin Ward, who, equally significantly and just as unwittingly, had written a eulogy for the old guard three years previously with Steaming In, a fan’s eye view of terrace culture since the early 1970s. My copy was passed around the playground with wonder, like a holy bible of terrace lore, containing numerous alarming and hilarious anecdotes about football fans from this scorned era. Tough and self-confident where Fever Pitch was reserved and self-analytical, Steaming In was the first book written by a former hooligan and remains the only one worth reading. But Ward was already a dinosaur. The Taylor Report, commissioned after the Hillsborough disaster, called for all-seater stadiums, and the great terraced Ends up and down the country were broken up and sold, piece by piece, back to the fans via the club shop. With this, an entire culture was dismantled; an act of social vandalism that changed football’s character forever. Some clubs, like Millwall, took the chance to sell valuable land and move elsewhere. Others, like Wimbledon, couldn’t afford to pay the builders; Wimbledon said farewell to ramshackle Plough Lane and moved in with Crystal Palace.

Football was fashionable. Next came greed. The richest English clubs had long agitated for a ‘super league’, which would essentially see their income ringfenced from the rest of the football league, and in 1992 they got their wish: the Premier League was financed by an astonishing £190m broadcasting deal with Rupert Murdoch’s Sky that saw an unprecedented 60 fixtures screened live each season. Games would be live on Monday evenings as well as Sundays and several hours would be devoted to each televised fixture. Pundits would even talk about alien concepts like tactics and formations. Inside the ground, fans were treated to entertainment in the form of giant inflatable sumo wrestling and the occasional pop band. Pundits were flabbergasted. Andrew Shields, Time Out‘s Sports Editor, predicted disaster, arguing that an elite league would ‘last two seasons, three at most’ and that fans would refuse to pay ever-increasing ticket prices.

That’s not quite how it worked out.

In fairness, few people anticipated the explosion of interest and wealth that came with the Premier League, as more games were televised each season and clubs’ revenue increased accordingly. Demand began to exceed supply: clubs had to reduce capacity when they converted terracing into seats, but as attendances were rising were able to charge more for entry. With TV revenue also rising, clubs were suddenly rich and could compete with the Italian and Spanish leagues for the best, most exciting players, increasing demand, feeding the whale. The smaller clubs struggled to compete, while others spent rashly to keep up with the giants, now led by Manchester United, a commercial juggernaut masquerading as a football club.

The football-going experience was much changed as ticket prices forced out young and poorer supporters, diluting the atmosphere and deadening the camaraderie. In 1972, Chris Lightbown had said that Chelsea’s Shed ‘sounded like London’s answer to the Kop’, but by 2002 Stamford Bridge was more regularly likened to the nearby cemetery. The same was happening in every Premier League ground but as ever the changes seemed more dramatic at Chelsea. Under Ken Bates, the club charged the highest prices in the country, but the new money paid for superstars such as Marcel Desailly, Ruud Gullit and Gianfranco Zola, who brought unexpected success to the club making them fashionable once more. At Chelsea, as elsewhere, it was hard to get a seat. Tickets were even more expensive on the black market as tourists to London flocked to Chelsea, Spurs and Arsenal to experience the famous English atmosphere they had heard and read so much about, but which had now all but vanished.

Arsenal, London’s traditional powerhouse, were also in the ascendancy. French manager Arsene Wenger transformed the culture of this previously most English of clubs, embracing a cosmopolitan recruiting policy and producing teams of mesmeric beauty. That allowed Arsenal, who had attracted barely 18,000 for a game at the start of the 90s, to build a stadium for 60,000 a decade later. The smaller London clubs could not compete. QPR had been runners-up in the First Division in 1976, Watford came second in 1983 and Crystal Palace third in 1991, but those days were over, as the behemoths of English football began to flex their financial muscle.

Wimbledon suffered most of all when the Football League shamefully allowed their owners to move the club wholesale to Milton Keynes. Wimbledon supporters, rightfully outraged and emboldened, promptly formed their own club, AFC Wimbledon, with a policy of fan ownership and an adherence to what were seen as  pre-Premier League proposals.

Modern football’s alternative model to AFC Wimbledon began close by in London. Fulham had started the trend of rich benefactors bankrolling astonishing success when Mohamed Al Fayed bought Fourth Division Fulham in 1997 and had them in the Premier League by 2001. The ante was upped by neighbours Chelsea in 2003, when Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich pounced on a club that had overspent their way to becoming one of the success stories of the Premier League and were in dire need of refinancing. Over five years, Abramovich, said to be worth £11.7b, invested £500m on players, wages and facilities, and Chelsea joined the European elite. If Peter Ball’s ‘kids’ were alienated from players in 1974, they were living on a different planet in 2008, as ticket prices nudge £50, the amount some players earn in five minutes.

Few think such levels of expenditure are healthy and many question whether they are sustainable, as football threatens to become the game that ate itself. Football has faced bigger crises over the past four decades and survived, but the time may come when individuals have to decide what they want for the future of their sport – supporter-owned clubs like AFC Wimbledon, or oligarch-owned ones like what wits now call Chelski FC.

Park football

I recently played my first football match for about a decade, so thought it would be a good time to revisit this article, which originally appeared in the Independent On Sunday in around 2003. This is an edited version.

“Can we join your game?”

It’s an action stopper every time. The match shudders to a halt as everybody sizes up the newcomers, two lads in Italy shirts with heavily accented English working their way round Regent’s Park like free transfers looking for a kickabout.

“Can we join your game?”

Well, it’s not as simple as that lads. This might look like two dog-eared teams in mismatched shirts puffily chasing a flaccid ball over a softball pitch, but it’s actually an evenly tied humdinger, a finely poised 4-4. Pick the wrong Italian, and that satisfyingly tight and edgy tie could turn into a 10-4 romp. And who wants that?

Welcome to the world of park football, when London’s green spaces become a mass of under-athletic over-enthusiasm. Just after 7pm, gangs of kids and grown-ups who should know better mob up at tube stations – Regent’s Park, Hyde Park Corner, Marble Arch, Clapham Common – and descend upon the nearby park to seek their pitch. Bags become goalposts, talents are weighted and teams carefully picked, and, after token warm-up, the game is on.

And what a game. Pitches are warped, with non-existent boundaries so that the keenest players will go haring off after the ball into the far distance; fouls are rare, with every physical challenge followed by an apology; headers are met with open mouths and closed eyes; teams are mixed in race, sex, size, language and ability. The only unifying factor is that everybody is playing for the hell of it. It’s fun.

This can change when you find yourselves a couple of players short for a decent game among yourselves. You need at least four-a-side for a proper match, so if only seven of you have turned up there are two options. Rope in a pair of eager passing Italians to make up the numbers, or – more thrillingly – challenge another group short on numbers playing elsewhere in the park.

Possible match-up are scrutinised and whispered conferences abound: what about them, they look crap. Don’t ask that lot, they’re wearing shinpads. Check them out, they’re all in Tottenham shirts – they must be rubbish. Eventually the challenge is thrown down, considered, debated, accepted, and the teams line up. At first it is tentative, nervy, almost polite, as you test each other out, softly sparring like virgin boxers. Then your opponents realise how crap you are, and thrash you 9-0.

In these circumstances, there are only two ways to lose: to some awesomely gifted foreign language students who score countless goals of great beauty and raise your spirits with their relentless exuberance; or to some ultra-competitive English accountants who celebrate each methodical goal with high fives and crush your spirit with their relentless commitment.

Indeed, it is almost terrifying how many cultural stereotypes are encountered on these pitches; stocky, tricky southern Americans who want to beat half-a-dozen players before scoring; willing but limited Scots; talented but retiring east Europeans; willing but limited English; pass-heavy Spaniards; clueless Australians playing rugby. All are represented on this uneven playing field.

Here young and old, black and white, join together to bond in unexpected teams. And, most tellingly, here are the Asian footballers that we are told do not exist, playing huge, joyful, eager games and raising the question why no player from the subcontinent has yet broken through to play top level professional football in this country. Well, they’re out there, in London parks, having fun with us and wondering why their role models all play cricket.

Nostalgia corner: Zola, bitumen, Paolozzi and the great ‘is London shit?’ debate

Because of a frantic start to 2015, I’ve neglected Great Wen recently. Hopefully, I’ll find something to stick up soon but in the meantime here are a few interesting bits and bobs.

First, here’s me, writing for the Canal & River Trust, about the experience of taking a narrowboat into drydock, where you whack it with mallets, coat it in tar and get pleasingly sozzled with strange Irishmen.

Second, I really enjoyed this piece by Callum West on the great Chelsea team of the 1990s, and the extraordinary revival of fortunes that preceded the salad days of Roman Abramovich. This isn’t the side I grew up with, or the one that won the most trophies, but it’s the one that gave me the greatest pleasure to watch.

Finally, the great London debate – is it turning shit or isn’t it? – is gathering pace. The constant stream of negative stories, the latest being Eva Wiseman’s pretty dismal contribution at the weekend, has finally been met by counter-argument in Brockley Central.  Is Nick’s point fatally wounded by the use of Giles Coren as a defense witness? Or is he simply missing the point, which is that the death of fun by over-development in central London is a prevailing trend that is already starting to infect areas far from the West End, and we sit and sneer at those uncomfortable at the increasing inequality, inaccessibility, unaffordability and general dreary Dubainess of it all at our peril? Both, probably.

Professional contrarians like Coren will get in bed with anyone if it gets them attention, but I’m not sure many other Londoners should be siding with the developers and speculators.

By illustration, the latest landmark to get the chop are the great Paolozzi murals at Tottenham Court Road. Still, that’s the price of progress! Yay to cultural vandalism!

“In winter, we hibernated”: Christmas on a London canal

I wrote this piece for the Canals & River Trust about winter when I used to live on a canal boat in London.

Everybody has a dream. For London cabbies, it’s ‘riding the green wave’ – that is, to hit only green lights when driving along the Euston Road, surfing the inner city highway entirely unhindered by reds and ambers. For boat dwellers, the dream was a little different: we wanted to ride the red arc, to light a fire at the start of winter that would keep burning until spring, a constant five-month blaze that required no further feeding from firelighters or matches.

I’m not sure anybody managed it. There were rumours about the more calloused boaters, the ones who could measure out their boat life by the decade and bled pure diesel. I know I didn’t. Far from it. For the first few years I lived on my narrowboat at Lisson Grove, I could barely keep a fire alight for a single night. I blame it on my stove, a gargantuan pot-bellied top-loader that was far too big for my tiny boat and practically impossible to control no matter how diligently I layered firelighters, kindling, newspaper and coal, or fiddled with the grate, trying by fractions of an inch to get the perfect draft. Instead, it would burn ferociously hot, so much so that if I wished to sleep amid the inferno I would have to fling open the back and front doors no matter what the weather outside. Invariably, I’d wake icily at 3am to find the fire burnt out, and bury myself in blankets until dawn. A cold boat was not a pleasant place to spend the morning; often I’d have to break the ice that formed in the sink overnight.

Later, I acquired a more controllable stove and would pride myself on keeping it burning for weeks at a time. This allowed me to appreciate the smothering splendour of boat life in winter. For half the year, living on the canal was an outdoors and sociable affair. This was partly a matter of comfort. Boats are largely made of glass and metal, so get very hot very quickly. It’s like living in a car. To combat this, doors were always open and much time was spent on deck, gossiping with neighbours. This easy familiarity would lead to impromptu barbeques that became boozy weekends, with individuals dropping in and out as the mood struck but the essential body of the party remaining intact from Friday evening to Sunday night.

Then in winter, we hibernated. Returning in the evening gloom, even before you reached the canal, you’d catch the homely smell of smoking coal. The towpath would be still, and on every boat, doors and curtains would be closed against the cold, chimneys puffing cheerily away. While summer was a buzz of conversation, hailed hellos and clinking bottles, the sound of winter was the stolid rattle of a coal scuttle being filled. We still visited each other, enjoying wine and warmth and admiring our neighbours’ stove-lighting technique, perhaps exchanging views on the best type of coal to use. But this was an altogether more internal time, drowsy days spent deep within the boat, and, as winter peaked, in contemplation of the view outside. Almost every year the slow-moving canal would freeze grey-white, startling, beautiful, and so close at hand it felt as if your boat had moved overnight to another planet. This virgin layer of ice would gradually get more battle-scarred as the kids from the local estate attempted to smash the surface with increasingly oversized objects, graduating from stones to bricks, until with inevitable surrealism, you’d wake to find a shopping trolley embedded in the ice.

Although our winters were essentially insular they were not entirely so. Many boaters spent Christmas Day on the canal, staggering sociably from boat to boat, admiring each tiny decorated fir and fairy lights slung along gunwales. And, for the Millennium, we held a party every bit as spectacular as any summer barbeque, watching the Thames fireworks from Primrose Hill and spending four solid days carousing, before, one by one, we slipped away, to see out the rest of winter from the cosy comfort of our floating dens.