Writing Portfolio

29.7.16

Football and nostalgia

This Saturday, it will be fifty years since England won the World Cup. Funny really; that final took place just over 12 years before I was born but I can tell you more about it than a lot of games that I’ve actually seen. Odd, too, that so much attention is being devoted to looking fifty years back into the past at a time when our present-day national side has been doing so monumentally badly. But maybe that’s the point; if dwelling on the present – or rather, the recent past given that that infamous defeat at the hands of Iceland was over a month ago – is just depressing, why not opt for wallowing in history, or rather history as remembered in the warm fuzzy glow of nostalgia?

Why do we English (and I include myself in this, for the only England football shirt I own is a replica of the red, heavy cotton one as worn for that game) look back so fondly to 1966? Simple – it is the only time our national side won, well, anything of note, and football fans are a notoriously nostalgic lot. It’s ubiquitous at club level; every club has its own specific time-period that its supporters fondly look back upon – there’s a whole sub-culture that includes but is by no means limited to retro shirts, long-retired pros revered by grown men who saw them play years ago and various publications (of which more shortly). Internationally I suppose that it is the same with other countries. I have, for example, met Hungarians who’ve been more than happy to remind me about what happened when Puskas and co. turned up at Wembley in ’53.

With unusually good timing, I have recently been reading a book called 4-2 by the film critic David Thomson; published in 1996, it is to all intents and purposes a blow-by-blow account of that famous final, interspersed with various diversion which touch on snippets of autobiography and the exploration of themes such as the nature of football fandom, the tradition of the English as ‘good losers’ and the contrast between living in a (football-induced) dream and getting on with life – shades, perhaps, of Fever Pitch here which is somewhat appropriate as it came out at the height of the mid-Nineties football literature boom. It’s an engrossing read, with the best part (in my opinion) being the seven-page chapter on Geoff Hurst’s second goal – you know the one I mean, don’t you?

4-2 was originally published to coincide with the thirtieth anniversary of that World Cup win, meaning that it first hit the bookshops just before Euro 96 started. There was plenty of nostalgia about 1966 back then, and there is now a growing sense of football-related nostalgia about 1996. What with England having only ever won one major international football tournament, failed campaigns – not the bad ones like Euro 2016 and the World Cup two years ago, but the ones where England were genuinely in with a shout of getting to the final – are also being celebrated. Earlier this year, a book called When Football Came Home by Michael Gibbons was published; it tells the story (with the benefit of twenty years-worth of hindsight) of Euro 96; it’s a fascinating read even for those of us who think we remember it all (we don’t; memory can play strange tricks, sometimes) although the title, a play on the chant from the Baddiel & Skinner song, is hardly original (Des Lynam used it for a BBC doco on the tournament several months after it took place).

Gibbons resolutely refuses to buy into the rose-tinted view that England were brilliant – they weren’t; a few sublime moments (the bits everyone remembers) obscured what was basically an OK side that had the benefit of home advantage. The high point, the 4-1 win over the Netherlands – a match that was analysed in some detail in Jonathan Wilson’s superb book The Anatomy of England six years ago – is summarised thus: “In football the result is sacrosanct, and can drench any performance with a tin of industrial gloss. The received wisdom that has developed since the 4-1 – that England battered the Netherlands in open play – is spurious … the Netherlands had enjoyed more shots, more corners and more possession than their opponents … England didn’t outplay the Dutch, but they did outscore them.” Overall, Gibbons has done a great job in a book which doesn’t flinch from portraying the tournament as the mediocre, poorly-attended (Wembley aside) affair that it really was; even the ugly side of Euro 96, such as the accompanying violence and the ever-odious behaviour of Piers Morgan, gets an airing here.


As if there wasn’t enough footballing nostalgia in the air already, I have contributed something to it myself – although my latest published article is not about 1966 or even 1996, and it doesn’t concern England. There is a link with the 1966 World Cup, but only in passing – Eusebio, the highest scorer in that tournament, features in this story. It is the story of how the unfancied Toronto Metros-Croatia managed, against the odds, to win the North American Soccer League forty years ago this summer. My interest in football on the other side of the Atlantic was aroused when I found out that Toronto has its own MLS team, and I was intrigued to find that Toronto’s footballing history goes back way before Toronto FC joined said league in 2007. My retelling of the story of Toronto’s forgotten footballing triumph – and it’s a fascinating underdog story involving an ageing star, a player walk-out and a training-ground bust-up among other things – can be read in the latest edition of the retro football magazine Backpass. No prizes for guessing what the main focus is in the rest of the magazine...


15.7.16

Of palaces and castles

What with being the capital city, London has a lot of palaces and castles but there is more to them than present-day Royal residences (although admittedly that does factor in quite a bit); there are also long-gone medieval fortifications and Tudor palaces, a Georgian folly and even a pub (of London’s many pubs and former pubs with the word ‘castle’ in their names, one made it onto the list). But how did they get their names? I looked into this for Londonist, and found that the answers are varied; as well as English place-names, London’s various castles and palaces owe their names to a Danish princess, French and Scottish nobility, an Indian fortress, the Latin language, a rebel leader and even one of the Disciples. Here’s the link:

9.7.16

Upstart Crow

I’ve really enjoyed watching the new sitcom Upstart Crow on the BBC iPlayer recently. It’s written by Ben Elton, a man who, although he’s been responsible for some remarkably bad sitcoms (and, let’s be honest, some pretty ropey stand-up as well), has always had one redeeming feature – the fact, back in the Eighties, that he co-wrote Blackadder with Richard Curtis. He’s (finally) returned to Blackadder territory for his new one, which has been done as part of the BBC’s desire to commemorate the quadricentenary (I think that’s the right word) of William Shakespeare’s death. Set in the 1590s, Upstart Crow depicts William Shakespeare as a writer on the cusp of fame – he’s made a bit of a name for himself with some long-winded plays about Henry VI and some poetry – who’s struggling to balance his professional life in London with his home life back in Stratford. He’s played – in a brilliant piece of casting – by David Mitchell. The Bard of Stratford in the style of Mark from Peep Show? Oh yes – and it really works.

Will, as he is called here, is a genius who’s conscious of his humble origins as he tries to break into a profession in which most people went to university. He’s struggling with the first draft of his teenage romance, particularly the meaning of the word ‘wherefore’ when it’s used in the balcony scene, and toys with the idea of killing the main characters off rather than letting them live happily ever after (which is how everyone assumes it’s going to end). This leads into a running gag where his landlady’s daughter keeps badgering him to let her play the female lead, in breach of the laws of the time which only allowed men on the stage (“you know very well that it is illegal for girls to do anything interesting”). It came as no surprise to this Blackadder fan that said landlady’s daughter is called Kate, for this is the name of the young lady who pretends to be a boy in order to get gainful employment under the pseudonym ‘Bob’ in both the Elizabethan and First World War incarnations of that sitcom; brilliantly, Gabrielle Glaister, the actress who played Kate/Bob in Blackadder, makes a brief appearance in Upstart Crow as a judge called ‘Robert Roberts’ who turns out to be a woman.

Like Edmund Blackadder, the Will of Upstart Crow is a man with upward ambition surrounded by fools and enemies. His servant, Bottom, may be a bit smarter than Baldrick but Brian from Spaced goes full panto-villain as the Lord Melchett equivalent Robert Greene – a real person, best known today for his pamphlet in which he complained about an actor from the provinces who thought he could write just as well as the university-educated playwrights (widely perceived as an attack on Shakespeare himself, this is where the phrase ‘upstart crow’ comes from); as with all the best British sitcoms, there’s class conflict and snobbery a-plenty here. Over at the theatre, there’s an actor whose lines all point to a send-up of Ricky Gervais that eventually gets a bit tiresome (how, one wonders, has he offended Mr Elton?). There’s a good turn from Tim Downie as Will’s better-connected and slightly Flashheart-esque friend Kit Marlowe, while Liza Tarbuck and Harry Enfield are on top supporting form as Will’s wife and father back in Stratford (Will’s constantly travelling back and forth between London and his home town; the sixteenth-century spin on commuting jokes does wear a bit thin by the fourth or fifth episode).

There’s so much Shakespeare-related stuff that gets touched on given that this is a six-part series. Did people at the time find those laboured jokes funny? Apparently not (“don’t do comedy, it’s not your strong point”), and they’re not keen on the overly flowery language either. An actor who does the female parts complains about the lack of good lines for men who play women. If you’ve ever wondered, as many an English Lit student probably has, what Shakespeare’s wife thought of all those sonnets which were lovingly dedicated to either another woman or a man, or whether people at the time might have wondered about Shakespeare’s sexual orientation due to the latter (“God’s naughty etchings! Why does everyone presume that just because I wrote 126 love poems to an attractive boy that I must be some kind of bechambered hugger-tugger?”), we have a scenario where this plays out; the same episode has a lovely gag in which it is predicted that, in the future, hardly anyone’s going to bother reading the sonnets in their entirety anyway, although one of them could be popular at weddings.

Cleverly, each episode title is a quote from a Shakespeare play or poem, and each episode ends with Mr and Mrs Shakespeare discussing the events that have just occurred and wondering about whether the sometimes ridiculous scenarios in which Will found himself (writing a play to catch someone’s conscience, getting tricked into wearing silly hose with cross-garters, etc) can be used for future plays. There are Shakespeare-style asides to the audience (although this is only really done to good effect in the later episodes). Elsewhere, the usually ludicrous ‘Shakespeare authorship’ question, always deserving of a good take-down (see Bill Bryson’s book Shakespeare for a good one), gets wonderfully turned on its head – for here, Will is secretly writing his mate Kit’s plays for him on the side as well as his own.


There may be a few bits that need ironing out (a couple of running gags that go on for too long, mainly), but for the most part there is much to like about Upstart Crow. Apparently there’s to be a second series. Hooray!

8.7.16

The European Championship: A potted history (part two)

Before we continue with something that probably should have been finished before the current tournament started, let’s have a peek at the European Championship trophy. Its official name is the Henri Delaunay Trophy, named for the first General Secretary of UEFA who came up with the idea for the tournament (in the Twenties) but died five years before the first one. Delaunay had been a referee prior to being a football administrator, but gave up on refereeing after an incident in which he was struck in the face by the ball; he broke two teeth and swallowed his whistle as a result. The current version of the trophy is the second one – the original was considered to be too small in comparison with other trophies like the European Cup. The new one, which has been used since 2008, is 24 inches tall, weighs 18 lbs and is made of sterling silver.

Anyway, on with the story, picking up from where the first part ended in the Nineties. When England successfully bid to host the 1996 European Championship, the assumption was that there would be eight teams as in previous tournaments. However, a sharp rise in the number of UEFA members (caused by the break-ups of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia) prompted a rethink and the tournament was doubled to sixteen teams; four groups of four followed by the knockout stage. Euro 96 (slogan: ‘Football Comes Home’) was also the first time that a tournament was referred to by the word ‘Euro’ followed by the year – this has been done with tournaments ever since and has even been applied retrospectively to previous tournaments. Four countries – Bulgaria, Switzerland, Turkey and newly-independent Croatia – qualified for the European Championship for the first time, while the Czech Republic (not Czechoslovakia) and Russia (not the Soviet Union) also made the trip to England.

The first round saw one of England’s finest performances – a 4-1 win over the Netherlands (that one Dutch goal would ensure that they would also get through to the next stage, eliminating Scotland on goal difference). Elsewhere, the Czech Republic beat Italy (who were knocked out in the group stage two years after reaching the World Cup final) while reigning champions Denmark went home early as Portugal and Croatia made it through. The knockout stage would see the first use of the golden goal rule (if it goes to extra time, next goal wins) at an international tournament. As it happened, two of the quarter-finals (Spain-England, France-Netherlands) and both semi-finals (France-Czech Republic, Germany-England) were decided on penalties, following which Germany beat the Czech Republic in the final by way of a golden goal. This marked Germany’s first international trophy as a unified country.

Four years later, the European Championship experimented with joint hosts – Belgium and the Netherlands – for the first time (appropriately, the tournament slogan was: ‘Football Without Frontiers’). There were two first-time qualifiers, Norway and Slovenia. Portugal were the big surprise of the group stage, winning their group (which included England and Germany, both of which crashed out in the group stage – historically, more of a  shock for the latter at the Euros). Elsewhere, Turkey progressed at the expense of hosts Belgium who became the first hosts to be eliminated in the first round. The quarter-finals saw the Netherlands thrash Yugoslavia (as Serbia & Montenegro were then called) 6-1. In the semi-finals, France beat Portugal 2-1 on the golden goal rule – and they would beat Italy in the final by the same scoreline and method to win their second European Championship, becoming in the process the second country (West Germany having been the first, back in the Seventies) to be the World and European Champions at the same time.

For 2004, the format stayed the same although the golden goal rule was replaced by the silver goal for the knockouts – in extra time, if a team were to be ahead after the first period they would be declared the winner. This would be the only time this rule was used at an international tournament – widely perceived as a failed experiment (it and its predecessor had been intended to produce more attacking play in extra time, which hadn’t really happened), it was dropped after Euro 2004, and thereafter the pre-1996 extra time format (15 minutes each way, regardless of how many goals scored) was reinstated.

Greece had hitherto not distinguished themselves in major international tournaments; a draw against West Germany in the 1980 European Championship had long been overshadowed by a disastrous performance at the 1994 World Cup (played three, lost three, scored none, conceded ten). In 2004, they went to Portugal as 150-1 outsiders (only Latvia, playing at a major tournament for the first time, had worse odds). Surprisingly, they beat the hosts in the opening game although they only managed to get out of the group on goal difference. In a tournament full of surprises, Germany, Italy and Spain all went out in the group stage. Elsewhere, England came second in their group, only to lose to Portugal on a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final. Meanwhile, Greece beat France and then triumphed over the Czech Republic in extra time to set up a final that was the same fixture as the opening game – Portugal v Greece (the first time this had ever happened at a major international tournament). In an underdog triumph to rival Denmark’s 1992 win, Greece won.

The reigning European champions have always had to qualify for the next tournament (they’ve usually managed to do so, France’s non-appearance in 1988 being the exception) – unlike the hosts, and by co-hosting the 2008 tournament (with Switzerland), Austria made its first appearance at a European Championship (slogan: ‘Expect Emotions’). Neither host nation was expected to get out of the group stage, and that is what happened (for the first time at a European Championship). Also appearing at the Euros for the first time was Poland (who were also eliminated in the group stage). Turkey were something of a surprise package, making it out of their group after a last-gasp winner over the Czech Republic (in a match that had seen the Turkish goalkeeper sent off). Meanwhile, Croatia, the Netherlands and Spain won all of their group games, while France crashed out with one point (which was one better than Greece). In the knockouts, Turkey beat Croatia on penalties, Spain saw off Italy in a similar manner and Russia knocked out the Netherlands with two extra-time goals. Turkey’s bid for glory failed with a semi-final defeat to Germany, although the last-minute winning goal wasn’t seen by many due to the transmission being interrupted by a thunderstorm at the TV broadcasting relay station. Spain, meanwhile, thrashed Russia to earn their first appearance at a major final since 1984. They beat Germany 1-0 to win their first major trophy since 1964, and added the World Cup to their trophy cabinet two years later.

Four years later, Poland and Ukraine co-hosted Euro 2012 (‘Creating History Together’), the last tournament to use the 16-team format. Ukraine were the only first-time participants, with Poland and Ireland both taking part in the Euros for the second time. Once again, both hosts failed to get out of the group stage. The Czech Republic became the first team to win a group with a negative goal difference (a heavy defeat to Russia followed by one-goal wins over Greece and Poland), the Netherlands lost all three of their games (drawn into the ‘group of death’, in which all four teams were in the top ten of the FIFA rankings, they lost to Denmark, Germany and Portugal), Ireland equalled the worst-ever performance by any country at a European Championship (no points and a goal difference of minus 8, the same as Yugoslavia in 1984, Denmark in 2000 and Bulgaria in 2004) and England topped their group for the first time since 1996. A familiar story followed in the quarter-finals, though, as they went out on penalties for the third time at the Euros (and the sixth time in their history) – to Italy, this time. Italy went on to reach the final thanks to a 2-1 win over Germany, while Spain reached the final by way of wins over France and Portugal (on penalties, that last one). Could the reigning World and European Champions become the first-ever country to retain the European Championship? Yes they could – by thrashing Italy 4-0 in Kiev.

7.7.16

How did London's squares get their names?

Well, how did they? London has had squares since the mid-17th century, when a piazza was laid out in Covent Garden in imitation of the Italians. Grand garden squares and public squares followed over the next few centuries, and the name origins of them include aristocratic families, a Latin phrase, a hunting-call, the word for a castrated horse and a famous naval battle! This I (now) know because I’ve written a piece on the name origins of London’s squares for Londonist. The article, which includes a fantastic photograph of Trafalgar Square taken by Allison (I can take the credit for the ones of Bloomsbury Square, Golden Square, Paternoster Square and Soho Square), can be found via the following link: