11.12.14

Fulham away

If you make a habit of going to football matches over a period of many years, you will note that there are some games (quite a few of them, in fact) that do not linger in the memory. You know you went to them (perhaps because you’ve kept the programme or the ticket), but you can’t for the life of you say with much certainty what happened, or even who played. All those damp nil-nil draws and scratchy defeats have a habit of merging into one over time.

Surely this phenomenon is not confined to Watford fans alone.

Then there are the games that stick in the memory. These tend, in my experience, to be either away games, big games (cup semi-finals, etc) or the ones where something truly memorable happened on the pitch.

Away games can be memorable because of the journey there, and the fact that they offer a chance to visit parts of the country you otherwise wouldn’t go to; in my particular case, the cities of Birmingham, Cardiff and Sheffield are places that I have only been to for football-watching reasons. They’re also memorable because, well, away fans always seem to be having more fun. There are less of them, so they feel obliged to make more noise.

The famous games, of course, are the ones where you remember most of the action (usually, but not always, because your team not only wins, but wins well) and can, years later, be proud to say “I was there”.

Sometimes a game sticks in the memory because it is both a famous result and an away fixture.

Last week, I went to such a game.

Earlier this season, Dad and I agreed that we’d go to an away game. The options were, for the sake of convenience, quickly reduced to the London clubs in the Championship. Of these, I ruled out Brentford and Milwall on the grounds that I’ve already been to those two. Charlton Athletic was ruled out because, by the time we’d agreed to do an away game, that one had already taken place. That left Fulham, to be held on the first Saturday in December. Or, after Sky Sports had decided to televise it, the first Friday evening in December.

To be honest, I was not optimistic. Fulham, so I learned from the BBC Sport website, had a pretty good home record and, having previously seen a very lacklustre Watford get beaten at home by Derby County, I reckoned we’d do well to get a consolation goal.

Our journey to Craven Cottage was by Tube. As we got nearer to our destination, we started to notice more and more people who were clearly heading in the same direction; a couple of lads in Fulham tracksuit tops who took note of me in my yellow, black and red scarf and paid me no further attention; as we alighted at Putney Bridge, one of them commented to the other about the large number of Watford fans who’d evidently turned out for the game. As the relative silence of a large number of people filing through a Tube station was broken by a chant of “YOU ’ORRRRNS!”, it was fairly obvious who was going to be the louder contingent.

We made it into the ground a minute or so before kick-off; unusual for us, but such is the price of a second pint in the pub before heading out to the game (thankfully, the designated away stand, the Putney End, is the one closest to the afore-mentioned Tube station). Already, the away contingent was in the mood for a party. Whatever else happened, we were going to do our best to enjoy ourselves.

The usual chants of lacklustre home support are always a popular away fan target; the Fulham contingent, among whom empty seats were conspicuous, were the target of such ditties as “You’re supposed to be at home” (to the tune of ‘Bread of Heaven’) and “Your ground’s too big for you” (to the tune of the Italian national anthem).

Located right next to the River, Craven Cottage has something of an old-fashioned air, what with the triangular gable atop the Johnny Haynes Stand (itself one of the oldest remaining stands in the League) and the continued presence of what looks like an actual cottage in one of the corners – it’s called the Cottage Pavilion and houses the players’ changing rooms. A reminder of how football grounds used to be as so many of them – Vicarage Road included – continue to be redeveloped.


But never mind what was happening in the stands, or even the aesthetic quality of said stands; what about on the pitch? Contrary to my expectations, Watford were all over the home team. Three corners in the first ten minutes – surely it was only a matter of time before we scored?

Things happened quickly from thereon after – football matches can be like that, long and drawn out if dull, over too quickly if exciting. Watford score from an Almen Abdi free kick, and minutes later we got a penalty when Matej Vydra was bundled over by their goalie – who got sent off for his troubles. Captain  Troy Deeney scored from the spot, and Watford were 2-0 up within the first 20 minutes. We away fans changed our tune, the tune of the Beach Boys’ 1966 hit ‘Sloop John  B’ in fact:
                We’re winning away,
                We’re winning awa-a-ay,
                How shit must you be?
                We’re winning away!

Watford remained in firm control, with Deeney getting a second. He’s had quite the career, what with having done time for affray before becoming the first Watford player since Luther Blissett back in the Eighties to score more than 20 goals in two consecutive seasons (he was our Player of the Season for 2013-14).

As the players trooped off, Dad and I realised that we hadn’t made use of our seats; like everyone else in the away end, we’d been on our feet for the whole half. We’d be on our feet for the whole of the second half too. The last time I stood for an entire game, it was due to terracing.

For the second half, Watford were attacking in the direction of the away end and a mere five minutes passed before the goal of the night – Abdi again, the man who originally came to Vicarage Road on loan from our sister-club Udinese, with a stunning shot from outside the box. The (substitute) goalie didn’t even move. 4-0. Dreamland. Especially if you’re away from home.

Watford remained on top, with chances from Deeney and Fernando Forestieri (another one from Udinese!) going begging. Fulham had the odd shot on goal but their hearts weren’t in it.

Towards the end, the chants in the Putney End became more varied and took on a decidedly retro quality as we extolled the virtues of Elton John’s Taylor-made army, Luther (no surname required), Steve Palmer (who, so we used to allege, only smoked marijuana), Micah Hyde (he was here, he was there, he was every-f***ing-where) and Tommy Smith (he got the ball, he scored them all). All the while, the team were stringing together moves of over a dozen passes before an utterly demoralised home team. How long ago that Derby game seemed now!

Then, after the fourth official had announced how many extra minutes would be played, the passes moved forward, and suddenly Deeney was through with only the goalie to beat. He didn’t mess around, and the Putney End erupted once again. If you want to know what that sounded like, you can listen here.

On the walk back from a truly memorable evening, I found that ninety-odd minutes of continuous shouting had given me a sore throat – something that hasn’t happened in a footballing context for quite some time. I had also thoroughly enjoyed myself – and it’s not every game for which a Watford fan can say that. Away games: I should go to these more often.

4.12.14

P.D. James

Authors have a habit of living on through their works long after they’ve died. The likes of Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming (to say nothing of Jane Austin, Charles Dickens, etc) still adorn the shelves of bookshops the world over, acquiring new readers long after their literary output has ceased. Like their living counterparts, some are defined by the genre in which they wrote, others less so.

P.D. James, who died last week at the age of 94, will be best remembered for her crime novels but she was always more than a crime writer. To her, it was perfectly possible to write good fiction that happened to come under the heading of ‘crime’. There are people who look down on crime writers and indeed crime fiction as a genre (those people don’t know what they’re missing, if you ask me), but from a literary perspective one really couldn’t look down on a writer as erudite as P.D. James.

Indeed, some of her books – always a treat to read – transcended the murder mystery genre; Innocent Blood dealt with a girl who finds out that her parents were murderers (James was not the sort of author to neglect looking at what effect the act of murder would have on ordinary people caught up in the story), while The Children of Men is best described as dystopian science-fiction.

But it was her other interests as well that made her more than a crime writer. P.D. James, who worked for the NHS and later the Home Office for many years, was also a Booker Prize judge (hardly a position one would usually associate with a crime novelist), a BBC governor and a Tory peer (she sat in the House of Lords as Baroness James of Holland Park). Five years ago she grilled the Director-General of the BBC on the Today programme, and earlier this year she was one of 200 public figures who signed a letter to the Guardian opposing Scottish independence. She was also a committed Anglican, which explains the church-related theme running through several of her works, and not just relating to her principal detective being the son of a rector – for example, the two bodies (one an MP, the other a tramp) at the start of A Taste for Death are found in a church vestry, while Death in Holy Orders is mainly set in a theological college in rural East Anglia – a location also used for Devices and Desires (the title of which was derived from a passage in the Book of Common Prayer; James, apparently, was rather put out when hardly anyone picked up on this after the book’s publication).

Similarly, her main protagonist, Adam Dalgliesh of New Scotland Yard, was somehow more than just a detective – he was also a published poet and, being a cerebral type, was often compared to Inspector Morse (and like Morse’s creator, Colin Dexter, P.D. James was never a one-novel-a-year author; her 19-novel output was spread between 1962 and 2011).

P.D. James always had a lot to say in her books about human experiences – even minor characters had interesting backgrounds, and to her mysteries were all about clues rather than coincidences. There was a great quote from her in an article in the Globe & Mail written just after her death by a reporter who’d interviewed her on more than one occasion, and it sums up her approach not just to her novels but to life in general: “The underlying message [of mysteries] is that no matter how difficult problems are in life – in your own life or in the life of a country or society – in the end they can always be solved, not by divine intervention or good luck, but by human intelligence, human courage, human perseverance.”

19.10.14

Canadian pie



Last weekend was Canadian Thanksgiving (which is more a celebration of the harvest than its American equivalent), and in accordance with tradition we had some relatives over for a turkey dinner followed by pumpkin pie.

Allison had to specially order a turkey breast from the butcher – it’s not something they usually sell in October, although as we’ve ordered from the same butcher for several years now, they are well aware that any order for turkey at this time of year will probably come from Canadians! I made the pie.

The recipe I used was originally clipped from one of Allison’s Canadian cookery magazines – from an advert for Robin Hood flour to be precise. This meant that the recipe for the crust simply called for Robin Hood Flaky Pie Crust Mix; without this to hand, I just used the short crust pastry recipe from my Mum’s old lemon meringue pie recipe. This meant that I was seriously mixing my weights and measures, as the pie crust recipe (being a British recipe) calls for the ingredients to be measured by weight, while the rest of the pumpkin pie recipe (being Canadian) has the measurements by volume (even for the butter). As I have learned from previous recipes, a cup in Canadian baking terms is a specific measurement (250 ml) – you can’t just use any mug to measure things out. This is a mistake most people only make once.

I also found that I didn’t have to blind-bake the pie crust (as I would’ve done for the lemon meringue pie), as the filling itself needs to get baked before the topping is added.

Ah, the filling. Just about everyone who makes pumpkin pie uses tinned pumpkin purée, mainly for the sake of convenience (apparently it takes many hours to render the raw ingredient down to the required consistency). However, there are two types of tinned pumpkin in Canadian supermarkets, pumpkin pie filler and pumpkin purée. Filler is the ready-made stuff that you pour straight from the tin onto the pie crust and bake, while purée is the one you have to mix with other things to make the pie filling.

I’ve been told that no self-respecting Canadian uses the pre-mixed filler, so I combined the puree with a few extra ingredients – brown sugar, evaporated milk, eggs, vanilla extract, cinnamon, ground ginger, nutmeg and salt – before pouring it over the crust and sticking it in the oven (15 minutes at 220°C, then 45 minutes at 180).







The topping, which also needed to be mixed, was a combination of oats, brown sugar, chopped pecan nuts, flour, cinnamon and melted butter. With the topping added, the pie is baked for a further 20 minutes. 


We served it up with whipped cream that had had some icing sugar mixed in.

Pumpkin pie: our annual autumnal treat!

18.10.14

England, England...



Last week I went to Wembley – not for the first time, but this was my first full England international.

I have been to games at Old Wembley (most memorably, Watford’s 1999 play-off triumph) and this wasn’t even my first experience of New Wembley (I’ve seen Saracens play there a couple of times). In terms of England, I’d previously seen schoolboy and under-21 internationals, and I have of course seen the England cricket team in action many times. But the full, senior-level England football team? This was a first.

The opposition was the not-so-mighty San Marino, a minnow side ranked joint 208th (ie. joint last) in the FIFA rankings. England, by the way, are 18th. The domestic equivalent (based on league positions at the time of the match) would be Newcastle United playing Harpenden Town. The final result could not possibly be in doubt; just about everyone going to the game did not merely expect that England would win, they knew it (an unusual experience for me to say the least; you just don’t get this sort of feeling on the way to Watford games).

The question, therefore, was not would England win but by how many goals, and whether San Marino might manage to defy expectations and get a consolation one for themselves. This, after all, has happened before – back in 1993, they scored after just eight seconds; what everyone forgets is the seven England went on to score, not that any of it mattered as we failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup.

Not that qualification for the 2016 European Championship is going to be problematic, for the tournament has expanded to 24 places, presumably to ensure that none of the big teams can ever fail to qualify. England have been given the easiest of groups, from which qualification would be nigh-on impossible to screw up – even for a side that did as badly as England did in the World Cup this summer. In other words, my first England experience would be the most predictable game in a predictable qualification group.

On the international stage, minnow teams like San Marino seem to serve no discernible purpose other than to remind people of the variety of countries that exist in this crazy world (FIFA, by the way, has more members than the United Nations). Also, they can form the basis for humorous travelogues like Charlie Connelly’s Stamping Grounds and Tony Hawks’s Playing the Moldovans at Tennis (quite why no-one’s done this with San Marino yet is a mystery to me). It must, though, be pretty cool to be Sanmarinese, if only because (as I mused in the pub before the game), the country has such a small population that any man between the ages of 16 and 40 who’s half-decent at football would be in with a shout of playing for the national team. This is the sort of national team that is an argument in favour of some sort of pre-qualifying round for the Euros and the World Cup.

Alighting at Wembley Park station, there were a few desultory England chants, many kids excited at being taken to see England (despite the following day being a school day) and the odd sight of people draped in the light blue and white flag of the opposition. Among the usual array of items on sale along Wembley Way – scarves, badges, poorly-printed tee-shirts – were half-scarves. These are scarves in the colours of both teams playing; half in the white and navy (and red trim) of England, half in the blue and white of San Marino. They also carried such important information as the venue (“Wembley – The Home of Football”) and the date of the encounter. Something of a one-off souvenir, then. They were, from what I could hear from the retailers, going for £10 each.

I don’t get half-scarves. Why would anyone at a football match want to wear something that includes the opposition’s colours? When, exactly, did they become a feature of big games? And who buys them – neutrals who can’t decide which team to support (unlikely), or people who want a souvenir of that particular game? Is this the sort of thing that gets given to the people in the corporate boxes along with the complimentary programme? Do people collect half-scarves from the matches they’ve been to in the same way that people collect programmes?

Getting into the ground itself – a vast improvement on the crumbling old edifice it replaced, it must be said – the atmosphere felt strangely flat, and that wasn’t just because the bars in the stadium were not serving alcohol due to a UEFA rule of some sort.

That’s right – there was no beer.

Usually, for football matches in England there is a ruling about the sale of alcoholic beverages which would strike many attendees of other spectator sports (or of football matches in other countries) as odd. This rule states that you cannot consume your booze within view of the pitch – you have to consume it while standing in the crowd by the bar, which isn’t great (I have on occasions flouted this rule by bringing a hip-flask with me, which also breaks the rule about smuggling booze into the ground). Also, it is a proven fact beer sold inside sports venues is hideously over-priced. Even so, not serving beer at all strikes me as somehow wrong.

This being 2014, I complained about this on Twitter. To my surprise, someone I’ve never met ‘favourited’ my tweet. Note to self: Using hashtags on Twitter really does work.

Rather surprisingly, the ground itself was more than half-full; a total of 55,900 people had come to see the match. It didn’t feel like that, though. I cannot help but think that this was the sort of game that would have been better held at a smaller venue; there are, of course, numerous arguments for having England games at various venues throughout the country, and I think that would be a very good idea, but this notion is of course trumped by the fact that the FA is still paying off the money it blew on rebuilding Wembley. Money comes first.

Being behind one of the goals, I and my fellow-England fans each had a small, plain white banner tied to our seats with an elastic band. These, we were informed, were to be held up when the band (one of the Guards regiments, no less) played the National Anthem so that our end of the ground would look like a giant Cross of St George. This would inspire the team and look good on the telly. It might’ve worked, too, had the band not played a setting of the National Anthem that was almost unrecognisable. We in the stands didn’t even realise they were playing God Save the Queen until about half-way through!

The atmosphere struggled to get going as England made a few desultory efforts against San Marino’s defence-heavy outfit (this is a team that, having only scored 19 goals in their 24-year existence, has largely forsaken attack in favour of as many defenders as possible; a legacy of their having to play every game against teams hoping to score seven or eight times). Down to our right, a middle-aged bald man shed his shirt and tried his best to gee everyone up with a couple of repetitive chants. Some joined in, others made adverse comments about the size of his beergut. Still, his rendition of God Save the Queen was more in tune than that of the Guards band.

The deadlock was finally broken after 25 minutes, and from thereon it really was a question of how many goals would England score (five, in the end). That said, one (the first) was scored after their goalie got bundled over (I’ve seen goals disallowed for less), another was a penalty and one of the ones in the second half was an own goal. England, of course, dominated play but I reckoned the best player out there was the busiest; the San Marino goalie, an accountant called Aldo Simoncini. But for him, they goal tally could’ve been in double figures.

Maybe it was the predictability of the encounter, but I found it hard to motivate myself to cheer on the team. I could understand why some supporters opted to ironically cheer the rare San Marino expedition into England’s half of the pitch, and cheer loudly whenever Joe Hart got the ball (he, apparently, won the online vote for man of the match, receiving 63% of the vote; Jack Wilshere, who was declared man of the match by the ITV commentators, got 11% in the same poll, in which one presumably could not vote for opposition players). At one point there was more interest in the obligatory Mexican wave (which went round the ground three times) than in the events on the pitch. A few blokes even stood up to applaud when a Sanmarinese player got substituted late in the game; I don’t recall that happening with the England substitutions.

Despite the large crowd (not large by Wembley standards, of course, but at 55,990 it was still more than the capacity of most Premier League grounds), the atmosphere felt flat. We’d expected England to win, and we’d got that. But I couldn’t help but think that there was something missing. Evidently, I prefer football matches where I can’t comfortably predict the outcome in advance.

As I queued for some post-match chips on Wembley Way while everyone else streamed towards the Tube station, I heard the guys selling the half-scarves trying to flog them at half-price. There were few takers.

2.10.14

Swimming with a loon

The air was warm, the sky blue, the water refreshingly cold. Not the coldest Canadian lake I’ve swum in, but my third of the summer. We were at Lake Rosseau on a glorious autumnal day with, interspersed among the evergreens, The Colours running riot – glorious riot; thousands of maple leaves turning yellow, then amber, then as red as the one on the Canadian flag – by the shoreline. This is the heart of Cottage Country, and we were staying with Allison’s aunt and uncle who own a cottage mere yards from the shore of the lake. Before we’d headed north, I’d declared that I would swim in every lake we stayed by, and by diving into Lake Rosseau I’d made it three out of a possible three.


I swam out from the dock with a powerful front-crawl, which quickly turned into a leisurely front-crawl as my generally sedentary lifestyle kicked in. I switched to back-stroke, my strongest stroke, and then the breast-stroke, my weakest. I tried to see how long I could hold my breath under water, and lasted around five seconds at a generous estimate. I was on holiday – swimming in a lake somewhere in Ontario, without a care in the world.

As I made my way back to the dock, I could vaguely make out the shapes of Allison and Uncle Bill standing on the dock. I assumed that they were watching me, the only one who’d wanted to swim in the lake in late September. I was wrong.

Allison called out: “Nick, there’s a loon!”

I know, I thought. We’d seen two of them, one in striking summer plumage with black head, striped neck and chequered back, the other in drab winter dark grey and white. Probably a pair, given that, like swans, loons mate for life. They were a hundred or so yards away from us as I’d taken a running dive off the dock. It may have been autumn, but these summer visitors were going nowhere fast; loons are among the last birds to fly south for the winter. “There’s two loons out on the lake,” Uncle Bill had quipped, “and a third one’s about to join them.”

While I tried to splutter a response, Allison called out again: “He’s right behind you!”

Eh?

Turning around, I beheld through my myopia a dark-coloured, duck-like object heading straight for me. As it came closer, its dagger-like beak and large head identified itself to me as one of the loons; the winter-plumaged one, who’d evidently decided to see who else was swimming in the lake.



There I was. Getting very close to nature – just a few feet from one of the great symbols of the Canadian wilderness. Swimming alongside a bird for whom swimming is a way of life.




It didn’t end there. As I got out of the lake, the loon continued along by the side of the dock. Mike, Uncle Bill’s neighbour, caught sight of him as he sauntered over to wish us good morning. He too was taken aback.

“What’s this? You got a pet loon now, Bill?”

His surprise was understandable. Most birds, and this includes loons, have a healthy wariness of people, an ancestral memory that even from a distance these are predators, to be avoided at all costs. This loon, however, didn’t seem that bothered. He (or she) continued to swim around in the shallows for a few minutes before doing the unthinkable. It got out of the water.


Collectively, we gasped.
                                                                                                                                    
Unless they’re nesting (and even then they’re very close to the water’s edge), the only time loons get out of the water is when they’re taking off. They don’t wander onto the land – their legs are so far back that they can only walk with difficulty; indeed, the bird’s very name is a reference to this fact. Yet here was a loon getting out of the water, and in very close proximity to four people. Two of whom have spent many summers by the shores of Canadian lakes and seen countless loons, but never out of the water.

We concluded that it had to be ill, but close-up it looked fairly alert, shuffling itself around so it could face the water as the rest of the family came out to have a look while Uncle Bill went to report a sick loon to the animal protection people.




The loon, who in close proximity appeared to be going through the moulting process, was still there, not minding the cars whizzing past on the nearby road, when we went out for a boat-ride several hours later. When we came back, though, it had gone – according to Mike, the animal protection people had not showed up, so it must have simply swum away.