January 28, 2005

Unholy trinity

I was coming home from a concert on Wednesday night and took the Northern Line from Moorgate to Stockwell. Round about Bank, a young lady carrying a couple of small bags got on and took the seat immediately to my right. As soon as she was settled she reached into one of her bags and took out a small Bible.

This is not an unusual sight in London. In fact, on a bus on a Sunday morning you'd be lucky if you didn't see so much a single Good Book. It's not even unusual to see the reader take out a highlighter pen and mark certain passages for her future attention. There never seems to be anything particular profound in the highlighted passages (naturally, I was watching over her shoulder to see if I could see precisely what was so compelling about the Gospel According To Mark, other than it being the shortest of the four) and eventually they put down their pen, and if you are lucky, put away their Bible to, as did the lady in question.

Except that she only put it away in order to get out another one - slightly larger than the previous one, except apparently torn so that it was missing part of the Old Testament at the front. This might explain why, after a couple more minutes, she put that Bible away - and got out a third one, again larger than the previous one, and brighter too, a big yellow Good News Bible.

At this point I began to fear that we were in for a reprise of the loaves-and-fishes story (from which of the gospels, I cannot recall, but I could have asked the lady to look it up for me). I could imagine Bibles emerging from up sleeves and under people's hats, always assuming the power of God worked on the Underground and didn't require direct contact with the sky. Fortunately, Stockwell was the next stop, and I got up and left, without waiting to see what wonders were to be performed.

The farce continues

...and today, remarkably, they have sent me a form so that I can vote in the ballot to elect the General Secretary of UNISON.

January 25, 2005

Display case

On the coach along out of London on Friday morning I went past a Jag whose owner had attached to it the most boorish and stupid personalised numberplate I have seen in a long time. It read:
I was surprised, given that the chap’s self-advertised fondness for conspicuous and thoughtless consumption, that he could not have afforded a larger numberplate on which to fit the legend, less truncated but otherwise identical in meaning:

January 24, 2005

The family of labour

When the post came on Friday it included, rather to my surprise, the magazine that UNISON send to all their members. To my extreme surprise, actually, given that not only have I resigned from UNISON but I have been told that my resignation was not appropriate since according to them I was never even a member in the first place.

In fact, so important was it to them to show that I was not a member that they gave me an impossible ultimatum of about a couple of weeks to pay them two and a half years' worth of subs in one go, which I doubted they would have done had the member concerned not been in dispute with them. And indeed, this vital issue, which absolutely had to be cleared up almost instantly such was its importance, turns out to be urgent only insofar as it allowed them to avoid having to answer, at a public tribunal, for the failings of internal UNISON democracy. Not so important that they have to strike me off their records or anything. This inescapable matter of principle turns out to be one last piece of humbug to add to the large and dismal pile.

In the post a day or two before, came my copy of Private Eye, which I had the opportunity to read over the weekend. A story in the Rotten Boroughs column, headlined Grovelling Apology, caught my eye.

Aptly-named former Doncaster Unison official Frank Perks made several appearances in this column before stepping down in disgrace last year after being found guilty of harassing a black colleague. After he was mentioned in Eye 1020 as a drinking crony of former council leader Colin Wedd, Unison demanded that we apologise to Perks, "A hard-working...dedicated Unison officer". Alas, no apology was forthcoming.

In Eye 1033 we told how a Brighton landlady had sent a £500 bill after Perks and others had attempted to purloin a bottle of Bailey's from her bar, smashing a vase in the process, during the 2001 Unison conference.

Now, at long last, an apology has been delivered - by Frank Perks! It comes in response to a libel action against him begun by fellow Unison officer Doug Wright over the contents of an election address circulated by Perks when he stood against Wright for a union job in 2002. According to his statement, Perks did not mean to suggest that Wright had "threatened to set fire to his house"; nor that Wright had "stolen from Unison subscriptions by abusing the photocopier and printing the leaflets for his own purposes"; and Perks definitely did not believe that Wright had "lied to, threatened, bullied or intimidated other members of staff." As well as the grovelling apology, Perks has agreed to pay Wright's legal costs.

All is not lost for Perks, however. He continues to be approved as a suitable candidate for Labour in the local elections.

All of which is only of interest because the Regional Secretary in charge of refusing to investigate my complaint, of ensuring that UNISON members' subs were spent on an expensive barrister from Matrix Chambers and of writing the letter giving me an impossibly short period to pay the missing subs was somebody called Linda Perks. I wonder if by any chance they could be related?

January 12, 2005


Mark Antony, on the Nile
Made Cleopatra smile.
But Caesar
Could never please 'er.

January 09, 2005

A Christmas story

I don't like Xmas much. But I do like cats, and so for the last three years my present-buying has been entirely limited to cats, a habit I first acquired when living in Loughborough at the end of 2000 and buying something for the two cats in the house where I was staying. In the last three years Alfred and Guthrum have been the beneficiaries, as they were again this year, each receiving a tin of tuna each from an Italian delicatessen I came across while working in Chelsea one day in December.

I bought three tins - the third one for Alice, the tortoiseshell cat who lives in Bethnal Green with my friend Chris. Chris was away this Xmas seeing his family, so I agreed to go across on Boxing Day and make sure she was properly fed. Although I didn't see much of her that day - she's still very much a scaredeycat and hides herself behind the sofa whenever I call - I made sure her bowls were full so that she wouldn't hungry in the two days before Chris got back. I refilled her water and before I went I left behind the tuna, parcelled up in wrapping paper with Alice written on it in small letters.

Too small, as it transpired. I saw Chris last week, and he thanked me for the "pilchards" (as he put it) that I'd given him for Xmas. They'd been great.

January 08, 2005

Poet days

Towards the end of 1997 I appeared as a guest on a couple of late-night sports programmes on TV, notably a show on Channel Four hosted by Danny Kelly. It's one of my Claims to Fame - along with my mention in Fever Pitch - not least because two of the other three guests on Mr Kelly's sofa were Sharron Davies and Bruce Grobbelaar.

I was on there to promote a book I had written, Moving The Goalposts. I think this was supposed to be the beginning of my brilliant career. I should have known better. The portents weren't that good. Not so much the Channel Five phone-in where only one person phoned in all programme, but the fact that, if I remember the chronology correctly, I was made redundant from my job the day after the book was published. It might have been the day before, come to think of it. It's not important. It wasn't even all that important at the time, or wouldn't have been had I managed to make any money from the book. I got a part-time job at a university library, which I liked very much, and I thought I would be able to sustain myself from that and from the proceeds of my writing. I was very wrong.

I had no idea how little you got paid for writing a book, or, put another way, how few copies most books manage to sell. My only previous experience was of being a contributor to a book called My Favourite Year, which I knew had sold tens of thousands of copies. I wasn't stupid, or so I thought. I didn't expect to sell tens of thousands. I did, perhaps, hope to sell a few thousand.

I didn't expect to make forty thousand pounds or something. But, having had an advance of £3250, and my only prior experience being that the advance was far from the only payment you received, I thought I might make ten thousand overall. Or even five thousand. Not enough to make it a full-time living or anything. But enough to make a start, enough to work part-time and write part-time, with perhaps some newspaper and magazine work happening, perhaps the advances becoming a bit larger each time, my reputation hopefully increasing, my readership increasing likewise. Moving into different areas (since although I used to write about football, it was never really football, as such, of which I was writing) . Attracting notice. Establishing a back catalogue. Becoming known.

How well-thought out it all was, and what nonsense it turned out to be. The book sold around five hundred copies, which appears to be about what hardbacks normally sell. I never saw another penny from it or, indeed, came within a thousand miles of doing so. The publishers never put out a paperback or anything. They gave me another contract - for less money - to write another book, but I was never able to start it, let alone finish it or have it published. I don't write about football any more. I don't really write about anything any more, this blog apart.

Had I known, I would, I think, have done things differently. I would have tried to increase my hours at the library as close to full-time as I could, and tried to write in my spare time - a perfectly viable thing to do provided you don't expect to write, say, more than one book every two years or so. That would have been all right. It would have been holiday money, luxury money, rather than my income as such. It would have been OK. I could still have written the occasional article for magazines rather than having to scrabble desperately for work as freelances have to do. Most of all, my expectations would have been very different. I would have known what was coming. I probably wouldn't have been so desperately disappointed. And a lot of things might have turned out very differently than they actually did.

What if, what if. It doesn't matter now, except to me, and then occasionally. But last night I was watching Newsnight Review on BBC2, with Kirsty Wark, Rosie Boycott and Tom Paulin. And I remembered that there was a fourth person on that sofa back in 1997, a bloke called Ian McMillan who had recently, in a somewhat original appointment, been made Poet in Residence at Barnsley Football Club. Last night they had a new and unfamiliar name on the panel and it wasn't until they introduced him, as the Poet in Residence at Barnsley Football Club that I realised who he was.

I don't know exactly what I thought. It's that bloke that I was on the telly with, I thought. And I suppose that, looking at it rationally, just because I was sitting on a sofa with Bruce Grobbelaar doesn't mean that I could ever have kept goal for Liverpool. So I don't know that I thought, that could have been me. I don't think I really thought anything as unlikely as that. But you can't think nothing. And I looked at him and I thought, it's funny how things turn out.

January 05, 2005

State of shock

I am, I think, suffering from shock. I am not a doctor, of course, and although I work in a medical library, one of the consequences has been that I have been unable to get into work, hence preventing me from looking it up as easily as I might. I've had it explained to me before now, though, but I can't remember exactly how it went. I am, I think, suffering from shock.

I do remember the first time I suffered from it. I had mowed my mother's front lawn with a rotary blade, and, reaching down to clean the blade with one hand, I accidentally turned it back on with the other. I got away with a chipped thumbnail that was bruised for several weeks, whereas I suppose I could have lost the thumb itself. It wasn't painful as such, but when I had gone inside and checked it out and had time to sit down and start thinking about it, then the shock began. I felt myself panic - perhaps, at the thought of what might have happened - and shook a bit and felt a general inability to just calm down, until I had had a cup of tea with several sugars in it. Which is apparently precisely what you're not supposed to do.

I think the body floods itself with something or other (there must be people better equipped than I to work in a medical library!) which numbs you, in order to prevent a more painful reaction. That would make sense, I suppose. I had some devastating news last night, and as often happens on such occasions, when it had sunk in a little I found myself shuddering as if some force were taking hold of me and saying this isn't happening, this isn't happening. A sort of panic attack.

Not a major one, just one that involved having to lie down on the bed and close my eyes and not be able to do anything for a few hours. As opposed to something involving fits and breathlessness and the possible calling of ambulances. I've had them in the past, during the course of a massive breakdown some six years ago. After a few of them I reneged on all my previous declarations against antidepressants, went straight to the doctor and demanded he supply me with some.

The effect was immediate and striking: the next attack was cut short like a tethered dog trying to outrun the extent of its rope. Swiftly, suddenly, effectively. But not wiped out so much as assimilated - numbed. I wasn't free to go about my business. I was just tranquillised. I had to lie down and wait for it to pass.

Shock seems to have the same effect. Like some sort of natural tranquillising process. That would make sense. It might also explain why my fingers tingle as they might if I had accidentally fallen asleep with my head on my hands, cutting off the circulation. They feel as if something was passing through them, as if somebody had injected me with a tranquillising agent and I was feeling it passing through my body. Well, let is pass. But what worries me is - if this is what is happening, what happens when the shock, the tranquilliser, wears off?

January 02, 2005

Second test

This is the only story I know that belongs to the second of January, and the only story I know that still moves me to tears. I no longer read fiction. I no longer respond to it, so what's the point? But the passage from Jonathan Coe's What A Carve-Up!, in which, in the early hours of the second of January 1991, Michael speaks to an unconscious (and, quite probably, already dead) Fiona in the hospital, is a peculiar and particular exception.

It's hard to explain why. Not in detail, and detail is what I do not want to give. But a couple of years ago something unspeakably stupid and unnecessary - and at the same time entirely inevitable - happened to me. The effect was not what I had expected: instead of disintegrating, an unwanted but lifelong habit, I just found myself numbed. Truncated, I suppose. Out of petrol. Whatever metaphor seems to fit. I just didn't want to know any more. If I did want anything, it was to keep away from people, except those people whom I already knew well and trusted entirely. It happens. Sometimes it happens for while, and sometimes it happens for good.

There is that. There is also a sense I have had for years, of having gone missing, of having gone to war and not having come back whole. By which I mean my mind being permanently elsewhere. Preoccupied with other things, distracted, unable properly to respond. Except to this particular passage, in this particular book.

Rereading the passage, I realise how many reasons I have to find the passage moving. The tone of it, so close to the tone in which I think and write. The way it is framed, with the narrator, Michael, becoming detached from himself, seeing himself from outside himself - having gone missing. The setting, in an intensive care ward, which picks away at me because I was once in an intensive care ward and - having been unconscious throughout the experience - I have always been bothered by it. Always bothered by the fact that I did not see myself there. The experience, this crucial experience in my life, was, and is, forever hidden from me.

There is something, too about the way which Michael first speaks to Fiona:
I suppose now you're going to die on me
which has a familiar sense of resignedness. Of resignedness to inevitability. Of realising that this is what was always going to happen. Then there is the content of his speech - families and their betrayals, and the secrets and lies that are concomitant to those betrayals. The anger that arises from betrayals, an anger beyond healing. The anger at fathers, an anger beyond all expression, an anger without resolution. The details are almost entirely different, but the anger is the same.

And then - I hadn't realised this before I began to write - there is this. Michael is saying the things he always wanted to say, the things he always needed to say, and it is too late, because there is nobody left to listen. And it doesn't matter whether it's his fault or not, whether he made a mess of it or whether he never had a chance. It doesn't matter. Nothing really matters when you think about it. Because either it didn't have to turn out this way, in which case it is awful that it has. Or there was nothing to be done, because it was always going to turn out this way. And that is awful too.
There was still this woman, Fiona, lying there surrounded by tubes and gadgets and drips. She was staring straight ahead, motionless. And sitting next to her was Michael, her lover or friend or whatever he liked to call himself. He was holding her hand. Neither of them said anything for a long time.

Then he said: 'I suppose now you're going to die on me.'

He said this very quietly. In fact I'm not sure that he said it at all. It seems a strange thing to say, in any case.

There was another long silence. I began to get a bit fidgety in my seat. I hoped this wasn't going to be too boring. I don't like death-bed scenes, as a rule.

Then he said: 'Can you hear me?'

Another pause.

Then he said: 'I suppose thank you is the most important thing I've got to say. You were so kind to me.' There was some fairly sentimental stuff after this. His voice was shaking and he started to get incoherent. There was a lot I couldn't understand, and then he stared alluding to some secret he'd been keeping from her, some story to do with a Chinese restaurant he'd never explained to her properly.

He said: 'It isn't too late to tell you now, is it? You're still interested?'

Personally, I don't think she could hear him by this stage. That's my theory. But he carried on anyway. He was the persistent sort.

He said: 'It was a Friday night. We'd booked a table for two, for eight o'clock. Mum had come down about five. I thought she seemed a bit edgy, for some reason. I mean, she'd just had a long drive and everything, but it was more than that. So I asked her if there was anything the matter, and she said yes, she'd got something to tell me, some news, and she wasn't sure how I was going to take it. I asked her what it was and she said it was probably best to wait till we got to the restaurant. So that's what we did.

'Well, you know how busy the Mandarin gets, especially on a Friday night. It was pretty full. The food was a long time coming but she insisted on waiting for the main courses before saying whatever it was she had to say. She was getting very nervous. I was getting nervous, too. Finally she took a breath and told me that there was something I had to know about my father. Something she'd been meaning to tell me ever since he died, but had never had the nerve because she knew how much I worshipped him - how he'd always been my favourite, out of the two of them. Of course I denied this at the time, but it was true. He used to write me these letters when I was little. Made-up letters, full of all these silly jokes. They were the first letters I ever got. My mother would never have done anything like that. So, yes, it was true: he was my favourite. Always had been.

'And then she started telling me about how they'd met, how they'd both belonged to the same badminton club, and how he'd courted her for months and kept asking her to marry him and she'd kept refusing. I knew most of this already. But what I didn't know was the reason she finally accepted, which was that she was pregnant. Pregnant by another man. She was three or four months pregnant by then and she asked him if he would marry her and help her to bring the baby up and he said yes he would.

'So I said: Are you telling me that the person I called my father all those years wasn't my father at all? That he had nothing to do with me?

'And she said: Yes.

'So I said: Who knew about this? Did everybody know? Did his parents know? Is that why they never wanted to speak to us?

'And she said: Yes, everybody knew, and yes, that was why his parents had never wanted to speak to us.

'We'd both stopped eating by now, as you might have guessed. My mother was crying. I was beginning to raise my voice. I don't know why I was starting to feel angry: maybe it was just because anger was so much easier to deal with than the emotions I should have been feeling. Anyway, I asked her, in that case, could she possibly see her way clear to telling me who my real father was, if it wasn't too much to ask. And she said his name was Jim Fenchurch, and she'd met him twice, once at her mother's house in Northfield and once again about ten years later. He was a salesman. She'd been on her own in her mother's house and he'd come round to sell her a vacuum cleaner and after a while they'd gone upstairs and that was when it had happened.'

The nurse came back at this point. She tapped Michael on the shoulder and put a cup of coffee on the table next to the bed, but he didn't seem to notice, and carried on talking in this low, murmurous monotone. He was gripping Fiona's hand quite hard by now. The nurse didn't leave, she just stepped back a few paces and stood in the shadows, watching.

'So then I started losing my temper. Then I started thumping the table and sent a couple of chopsticks flying, and I said: You went to bed with a
salesman? You went to bed with a man who came to sell you a vacuum cleaner? Why did you do it? Why? And she said she didn't know, he was so charming, and so nice to her, and he was handsome, too. He had lovely eyes. Like your eyes, she said. And I just couldn't stand it when she said that. I shouted; I do not! I don't have his eyes! I have my father's eyes! And she said: Yes, that's exactly it, you've got your father's eyes. And that was when I got up and walked out, only you know how close together the tables are in the Mandarin, I was so angry and I was in such a hurry, I bumped into this couple's table and knocked their teapot over and I didn't even stop or anything. I just walked straight out into the street and didn't look to see if my mother was following. I walked straight out into the street and didn't go back to the flat for hours, not till some time after midnight. And my mother was gone by then. Her car was gone and she left a note for me which I never read and a few weeks later she sent a letter which I never opened and I've never heard from her since. After that night I just stayed in my flat and didn't really go out or speak to anyone for two, maybe three years.'

He paused. Then his voice was even quieter. 'Till you came along.'

And then, quieter still: 'So now you know.'

Then the nurse stepped forward and put her hand on his shoulder. She whispered, 'She's gone, I'm afraid,' and Michael nodded, and bowed his head, curling in upon himself. He might have been crying, but I think he was just very very tired.
Afterwards I really didn't go out or speak to anyone for two, maybe three years. Maybe never will.

January 01, 2005

Happiness is a team called Hamlet

People - football people - who don't watch non-league football never understand people who do. They assume that it's the same but worse, an inferior product, just two teams of eleven but worse players than you'd see if you were watching professionals in the League (if that last term still means anything). The crowds seem inferior too. Smaller. More sparse. Less passionate. Listening to the radio as often as not. If they aren't taking as much interest in the game as the crowd would at a proper match, what am I doing taking an interest?

I can answer that those are the very reasons why I want to be at a non-league match in the first place. It's no good. It's like trying to explain cats to a dog-lover. Or explain cricket to the world in general. What they do not like is what I like about it: they more they describe its faults, the more I admire them as virtues. And vice versa, too: the things they want me to see are the things I do not want. I do not want to see superstars playing in front of enormous crowds: superstars are not what I am interested in and crowds are what I want to get away from.

I do not want to pay the ticket prices, sure. I would have gone to see West Ham on Boxing Day: I found out (not to my surprise) that it was thirty quid. I am not paying that. Rather than pay that I would rather give twenty pounds to the first stranger in the street I met and keep the tenner for myself. Today I thought about watching Fulham play Crystal Palace. The cheapest ticket I could have hoped to get cost twenty-eight. I'd rather pay seven and go to Dulwich Hamlet.

So Dulwich Hamlet is where I went. I went there twice over the holiday: I expect to go maybe four times a season, nothing excessive. Nothing excessive is the reason that I go. No excessive numbers. No excessive passion. Nothing to excess. I want to be unhurried, left alone, not bothered, able to walk into the ground unnoticed, able to get a drink at the bar before the game and after it and during the half-time break. I want to be able to walk all around the ground if it should be my fancy. I do not want the passion of the crowd. I do not want the passion and I do not want the crowd.

What I want is the kids playing on the terraces and the bloke walking his dog around the ground. We had both today. A man brought his dog into the bar before the game and they went and watched the match together. A boy and his mates brought a ball into the ground and when they started getting bored, they started kicking the ball around instead. They had to be warned twice by the announcer to desist, the second time with the threat that the ball would be taken away if they continued. We were all rather disappointed when they stopped, as we were looking forward to the anticipated chase. You will not get that at the Boleyn Ground for all your thirty quid.

This is what I want. I want it because it's human. It isn't a watered-down version of a real thing, an inferior copy that I take because it's cheap. Non-league has a humanity that professional football lacks. It has an awareness of its own humanity. It understands that it is not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be. It is not all that dramatic or all that important or all that skilful or all that overwhelming. It takes itself seriously but it does not pretend. It is not the greatest team the world has ever seen. It is only human. Humanity is not the overcoming of other people. It is the understanding of your own weakness and the understanding that you share that weakness with everybody else. Non-league is human. I like non-league for that.

I bought a Golden Goal ticket in the clubhouse before the game. For a quid you get a ticket with a time written on it. Mine said:

Goal Time:

If the first goal of the game is scored at the time which, according to the announcer, matches that on your ticket, you win £25. The first goal of the game was scored by Dulwich off a goalkeeping error very early on. No need to throw away the ticket like a betting slip, because you can also win a fiver if the last goal of the game is scored at your time instead.

So I was still in the hunt when Dulwich led 2-1 with ten minutes remaining and Horsham were on the attack. My stopwatch was showing a little over thirty-six minutes of the half gone when a gap – one of several thousand to appear during the game – opened up in front of goal and a Horsham player stepped into the gap with the ball at his feet. Disloyally, I mentally cheered him on, and as he deposited the ball in the net I looked forward to the five pounds being similarly deposited in my wallet.

I was not counting chickens. I was not sure I had ever won a raffle and I was not sure I had ever seen Dulwich hold out under pressure. I wouldn’t, I said at the time, mind so much if Dulwich were to take my fiver off me, but I would not be at all happy if Horsham were to walk off with both my fiver and the points.

Hope springs eternal in the human breast, but it is so often disappointed. And yet I was not entirely disappointed when, two minutes into injury time, a Dulwich player in line with me on the opposite side of the pitch – allowing me to see that he was at least a yard and a half offside – was permitted by the linesman and referee to play on when put clear down the right, cut in to the area and, with a degree of aplomb entirely absent from anything else I had seen Dulwich do all day, buried the ball in the far corner and won the match for Hamlet. I have to admit I laughed. I have never before seen Dulwich Hamlet score an inevitable goal. I got up and went up the stairs to the clubhouse to buy a couple of pints with the beer money I had no longer won.