Writing Portfolio

17.6.16

Walking the Greenway

Waste is a feature of the Greenway, that straight(ish) raised 4½-mile path between Beckton and Hackney. It runs above a major sewer which carried much of London’s waste to the sewage works at Beckton; points of interest include the very impressive Abbey Mills pumping station and an artificial hill that started out as a toxic refuse heap (the ironically named Beckton Alps, which was a dry ski-slope in the Nineties although the name apparently pre-dates this) as well as the Olympic Park.

The full write-up can be found on Londonist:


10.6.16

The European Championship: A potted history (part one)

The European Nations Cup, as it was originally called, began in 1960 although for that first tournament several countries, notably England, Italy and West Germany, refused to take part. After qualification by way of a knock-out tournament, the four-team finals tournament was held in France and was won by the Soviet Union. For the next tournament, 29 countries entered the knockout qualification competition (up from 17 the previous time, although Greece withdrew after being drawn against Albania) which began in the summer of 1962 and was played in home-and-away legs until the semi-finals, which were held in Spain in 1964; thus, only the semi-finalists were deemed to have ‘qualified’ – a bit harsh on Luxembourg, who’d made it to the quarter-finals. From the four semi-finalists, Spain was chosen to be the host nation and went on to win it by defeating the Soviet Union in the final.

For 1968, the tournament had a new name – the European Championship – and a new method of qualification – a group stage, followed by a two-leg quarter-finals round with the winners going through to the finals with one of those winners being chosen as the hosts. For the first and only time, the results of two years of the Home International Championship – that annual four-way tussle between the Home Nations – served as one of the qualifying groups. England made it to the finals tournament for the first time, and lost the semi-final to Yugoslavia; hosts Italy, who had beaten the Soviet Union in the other semi-final by way of a coin-toss after the match finished goal-less after extra time, beat Yugoslavia in the final. England won the third-place play-off.

Four years later in Belgium, West Germany won the European Championship for the first time, and would go on to become the first European Champions to also hold the World Cup when they won the latter two years later. In Yugoslavia in 1976, they made it to the final again – only to lose to Czechoslovakia on penalties, the first time an international final was decided in this way (and also the only time the Germans have ever lost on a penalty shoot-out).

As of 1980, the European Championship was expanded so that the finals tournament had eight teams, and this also marked the first time that the host nation – Italy in this instance – was chosen in advance and so didn’t have to qualify. The first round now consisted of two four-team groups, the winners of which went straight through to the final while the runners-up got to contest the third-place play-off. That last one, between Czechoslovakia and Italy, went to a penalty shoot-out and was only decided in favour of the Czechs after someone finally missed the 18th penalty; perhaps unsurprisingly, the third-place play-off was scrapped for future tournaments. England, who’d qualified for the first time since 1968, failed to get out of the group stage with a draw, a defeat and a win (perhaps the most interesting thing to happen to them was when play was held up in their match against Belgium after the police had to use tear-gas on the crowd). West Germany became the first country to win it for the second time.

Semi-finals were introduced for the 1984 tournament which was hosted by France (the flawless organisation of this tournament would play a key role in that country’s successful bid to host the 1998 World Cup). Thanks to nine goals by Michel Platini (including two hat-tricks), the hosts won – beating Spain 2-0 in the final. This was to be the last time to date that the tournament was won by the host nation. The 1988 tournament in West Germany was notable for there being no goal-less draws, sendings-off or extra time, and it was won by the Netherlands (long regarded by the Germans, who they beat in the semi-final, as their biggest rivals on the football pitch) in emphatic style. England, by contrast, lost all of the their games – a surprise defeat to Ireland followed by thrashings at the hands of the Dutch (courtesy of a Marco Van Basten hat-trick) and the Soviet Union (who would go on to be the losing finalists).

The 1992 European Championship (official slogan: ‘Small is Beautiful’) was won by a country that hadn’t actually qualified. Denmark had lost out to Yugoslavia in the qualification stage, but found themselves in the tournament 11 days before it started after Yugoslavia was banned from appearing due to the break-up of that country. After drawing their first game against England, the Danes lost to hosts Sweden and then beat France to get through to the semi-finals, where they beat reigning European Champions the Netherlands on a penalty-shoot out before beating World Champions Germany 2-0 in the final. England, meanwhile, managed two draws and a defeat; in the other group, Scotland (who’d qualified for the Euros for the first time) were beaten twice but did manage a win against a transitional ex-Soviet Union side playing under the provisional name of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

26.5.16

Pierogis, and other aspects of Polish London

During my travels through Eastern Europe ten years ago, I found myself having a fairly random conversation with some fellow-backpackers in a hostel kitchen in Warsaw. We were sampling a bottle of the local vodka which someone had bought in a nearby shop, and when the subject of food came up one of the Americans said she was excited to be in Poland because she really wanted to see if Polish pierogis were as good as the ones back home. My reply, something along the lines of ‘what are pierogis?’, met with disbelief from the (mainly) North American contingent who were most surprised to meet someone who had never heard of them!

Back then, of course, Polish cuisine in Britain was little known outside the Polish community, but a decade later things have changed to the point where you can get pierogis in supermarkets and at street-food stalls as well as in Polish shops and restaurants.

My first article for the London foodie magazine Jellied Eel is about how pierogis are making themselves known in the capital – it has origins in a piece I wrote for The Archer last year about a lady in East Finchley who provided home-made pierogis for a local Polish deli (she now supplies them to the ever-superb Tony’s Continental).


Also of a Polish theme is my latest piece for Londonist, ‘Where To Find Bits of Poland In London’, which explores London’s historical links with Poland – including the wartime Free Poles, Chopin and the story behind how Poland Street got its name.

20.5.16

Walking along the New River

My latest (sub)urban wanderings took me along the New River (which, by the way, is in fact neither new nor a river), following it for 7½ miles from Enfield to Alexandra Palace. The full write-up can be found on Londonist – just click on the following link:

Birdwatching highlights included some swifts – the first ones of the year for me – and plenty of evidence of waterfowl, most notably a super-cute mallard family and a coot which had made a nest on a partially-submerged shopping-trolley!



Which, I suppose, goes to show that nature will always find a way…

16.5.16

Football reading

Football literature can be a bit hit-and-miss sometimes, but there are some good books on the game out there. Here are a few that I’ve read recently…

How Soccer Explains the World by Franklin Foer
I’m using this book’s American title (it was, of course, published in Britain as How Football Explains the World) because this is the version that I happened to pick up in a (London) charity shop. Personally, I’m fed up with the whole thing about how some people get into a tizzy when other people call football soccer – for me, the tipping point came when I realised that Why England Lose had been published elsewhere as Soccernomics which is, quite frankly, a much better title (that book, after all, was basically a football version of Freakonomics). I have decided the football/soccer thing is something about which I no longer care; let people call it what they will, and enjoy the game. Back to the book: Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, it doesn’t really explain how football (or soccer) explains the world – a title like that may be eye-catching, but you’re setting yourself up to fail (rather like Ed Smith with his book What Sport Tells Us About Life which was more about how things that happen in sport can (funnily enough) relate to real life, as opposed to explaining them). Here, Foer is looking at football phenomena and trying to put them into a wider, non-footballing context – the focus is on globalisation but it’s more about how that has affected football rather than the other way round. He is, I think, trying very hard to write a modern-day version of that Nineties classic Football Against the Enemy by Simon Kuper (also published as … you get the idea) and he falls into a man-trap over impartiality, especially when he turns his attention to the Old Firm derby in Glasgow. He also allows his love of Barcelona to take over what could have been an interesting chapter on football and its appeal to the middle classes, the result being that he loses his way somewhat. Shame, as he may be onto something when he uses football as a prism to look at how globalisation (Nigerians playing professionally in Ukraine!) hasn’t done much to reduce local or even tribal rivalries and hatreds.

The Game of Our Lives by David Goldblatt
Now this is the good stuff – a very informative, warts-and-all book about modern English professional football and its impact on modern society, and how the game has gone from an unfashionable and in some cases embarrassing fringe event to being a key part of the entertainment industry. Goldblatt, who won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year for this, sets out to put the modern game in its social and historical context and he’s done a fine job. The chapter on how the match-day experience has changed since the forming of the Premier League – commemorative statues, Pukka Pies, poor-quality programmes, loud PA systems – is particularly good, as is the chapter on football and racism (this book, written in advance of the last World Cup – a popular time for publishers to bring out football books – was published before the Malky Mackay email scandal) and the part where he looks at what’s happened city by city, right down to the smaller clubs whose woes rarely reach the attention of the Premier League-obsessed national press. This well-written book has been impressively researched (we’re even told what team the Queen supports!) and deserves to be read by anyone who’s ever wanted to know more about how football came to occupy such a central place in modern English society.

Who Invented the Stepover? by Paul Simpson & Uli Hesse
I must admit to being a bit of a fan of those New Scientist books like Why Don’t Penguins’ Feet Freeze? where answers are provided to off-the-wall questions. This book is to all intents and purposes a football version of that (the authors even acknowledge this in the introduction) and it sheds some light on football’s origins, development and culture. Why do games last for 90 minutes? Has any footballer ever played two matches on the same day? What’s the point of dugouts? These and more questions are answered within the pages of this book, in which you will find out about the ref who once added 45 minutes to a schoolboy fixture, the non-league player who was banned for two years, the original ending of Escape to Victory (to which PelĂ© and Bobby Moore both objected) and the time a group of professionals took on an elephant in a penalty shoot-out. It’s fascinating stuff, but there are a few errors. The pictures are accompanied by the odd basic typo that anyone with even a vague knowledge of footballing history will be able to spot; for example, Brazil are at one point named as the winners of the 1954 World Cup. There’s the odd omission too – in establishing the most brutal game of football ever played, the authors go over the World Cup games that, due to their excessive on-field violence, have been unofficially designated as ‘battles’, only to miss out the most recent (it happened in 2006 and the book was published in 2013). Despite these errors, the book is a good read that can be dipped into at leisure, and should be enough to keep fans entertained.

Whatever Happened to Billy Parks? by Gareth R. Roberts
Novels about football don’t have a good reputation, mainly because what happens on the pitch in real life can be strange enough (tellingly, after making his name with Fever Pitch – a memoir, not a novel – Nick Hornby didn’t try his hand at a football novel). For me, the best of a poor bunch was Simon Cheetham’s gloriously bonkers Gladys Protheroe: Football Genius which was a footballing take on the old ‘insert a fictional character into real-life events’ trick, with plenty of chaos alongside a lot of references to Watford. I mention this because Whatever Happened to Billy Parks? does a similar thing (albeit without the stuff about Watford); the titular character is a washed-up star from the Seventies – West Ham, Spurs and a couple of England caps – who has been deserted by his family and is reduced to telling stories about his career in return for drinks in pubs. At this low and rather pathetic ebb, he’s offered the chance to go back in time and redeem himself by rewriting history – well, see if he can score against Poland in the infamous Tomaszewski Game of 1973 (the one where England failed to qualify for the 1974 World Cup). He is summoned to appear before the Council of Football Immortals (five legendary managers seemingly trapped for eternity in a series of committee rooms) while he looks back at his life via a series of chapters based on matches he played in – at times, it felt genuinely autobiographical! This goes to show how well Roberts researched this, and how good a job he did at creating the realistically flawed character that is Billy Parks. The writing, needless to say, is excellent. All football fans should read this if they haven’t already done so. I, meanwhile, will be on the look-out for more of this author’s work.