Tag Archives: Independent On Sunday

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.

Advertisements

The City of London’s secret zoo

My piece on the extraordinary Animal Reception Centre (ARC) at Heathrow – where all animals entering the UK have their passports stamped – appeared in last week’s Independent on Sunday.

One of the great things about the ARC is that by a quirk of administration it is run from Guildhall by the City of London Corporation. As Rob Quest, the facility’s manager, told me, ‘The City is responsible for the import of all animals in Greater London. That’s because in 1965 when the LCC broke up, the City still had a veterinary department because of Smithfield Market so they were deemed the best people to run the border control. They built this place after there was a rabies outbreak in Camberley in 1969 (Fritz, a black-and-white terrier, was released from quarantine early and bit two people) and it was decided we needed somewhere secure for animals to be checked.’

The City still runs the centre today, one of a number of non-Square Mile outposts that includes Epping Forest and Hampstead Heath. For more on the City’s more traditional oddities, check out David Long’s new book Hidden City.

Inside London’s super-rich bubble

Peter Mandleson once famously said that ‘we are intensely relaxed about the filthy rich’, a sentence that has always made me intensely uncomfortable until very recently, when I spent some time exploring the various ways the filthy rich spend their filthy money. What really surprised me, though, isn’t what they spend, but the way they spend it. It isn’t greed so much as purchasing for sheer pleasure on a scale that most of us can barely imagine and that they themselves will hardly even notice.

It began at Christie’s auction house for a piece I wrote for the Independent on Sunday that went behind the scenes before this week’s big impressionist/modern evening sale. The collectors who will be bidding on paintings by Monet, Picasso and Degas are taken from the ranks of the world’s super rich, and will between them spend around £100m on new paintings for the walls of their second and third homes.

Then I went to see some of those second and third homes when I wrote a piece for Gulf Life magazine about London’s super-prime property market – that’s anything from £15 million up to about £150 million. I visited four apartments and houses in Knightsbridge, Bayswater and Regent’s Park – including the Candy Brothers extraordinary One Hyde Park development – that between them had a combined value around £121 million and contained more marble and flat-screen TVs then is good for anybody.

Finally, last week the owner of my favourite football club – who many believed to be losing interest in the sport – dropped in to spend a trifling £70m in one day on two players, just like that.

Now, while it is undeniable that the outlay of such vast sums of money on luxuries is morally indefensible and all the rest, it’s also increasingly apparent that as there is absolutely nothing you can do about it, there’s no point in being anything other than intensely relaxed about it. The alternative would drive you mad.

These people are worth billions, and for them £150m is an irrelevance. To understand exactly why, try this thought experiment, taken from John Lanchester’s outstanding ‘Whoops!’, about the global financial crisis, which shows in a fairly clear way the vast difference between millions of pounds and billions.  

Lanchester writes, ‘Without doing the calculation, guess how long a millions seconds is. Now try the same for a billion seconds. Ready? A million seconds is less than 12 days; a billion seconds is almost 32 years.’

Or as one estate agent told me, ‘When they spend £30 million on a property, it’s not a financial decision, it’s a personal one.’

Nostalgia: Bill Hicks, the NME and me

‘Nostalgia – it’s delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek, “nostalgia” literally means “the pain from an old wound.” It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.’ Don Draper, ‘Mad Men’

You can experience nostalgia in the most unlikely places. Yesterday it was when Lou Reed’s ‘Satellite of Love’ came on the radio, a song my circle of friends listened to incessantly when we were 18 but I’ve hardly heard since. Like ‘Debris’ by the Faces, it’s a song can instantly take me back in time and space, 16 years and to the kitchen of my best friend Scott, when we all had curtain haircuts, smoked like chimneys and were terrifyingly sincere about everything all the time.

A couple of months ago the potent twinge in my heart came when I went to a screening of the new Bill Hicks documentary ‘American’.

When you go and see a film about Bill Hicks you probably expect to come out laughing or enraged or saddened, but I emerged wistful, contemplative and swamped by memories.

I hadn’t thought about Hicks a great deal since 1992, but suddenly it all came flooding back. Staying in to watch Hicks on ‘Clive Anderson Talks Back’ or being interviewed at the Montreal Comedy Festival as C4 surfed the wave of having the hippest comedy content on the block. Reading about Hicks in the NME on the bus to school, enthralled by this astonishing man who called himself a comedian but was sandwiched between features on the Lemonheads, Sonic Youth and Mudhoney and never looked out of place. You couldn’t do that with Jasper Carrot.

C4 comedy and the NME were the two key cultural influences for me at the time, so it’s little surprise that Hicks and his performances should have seemed so important, and also that they should be so easily forgotten, as what we most value in late adolescence is often the first thing that gets abandoned on the roadside during the long march to maturity.

I wrote an article exploring some of this in the context of British love for Hicks in the Independent on Sunday, but can’t help wondering the extent to which I am projecting my own memories of Hicks onto a wider canvas. 

Are these memories entirely personal and therefore largely irrelevent, or are there other people my age who place Hicks in the same C4/NME  bracket? In a sense, I don’t really want to know, because this is my nostalgia, not yours, but at the same, like everybody else, Hicks included (and why else did he love the UK so much?), I desire vindication, some confirmation that my nostalgia isn’t just a ‘twinge’, but something that has real cultural value beyond that. So come on people, vindicate me.