Writing Portfolio


An unfinished work, and some literary reassurance

Last weekend Allison and I undertook the mammoth task of sorting out our shelving unit, a task we’d been meaning to do for a while. When it came to the books, they’d clearly outgrown the space we’d designated for them and needed sorting out. Of mine, I was not exactly surprised to find that I am in possession of nine books that I have not yet read; after all, I own a lot of books. Of the ones that I have read, I managed to purge about a dozen or so that I do not intend to revisit, and when I put the survivors back I made sure that the ones I hadn’t read were at the front where I can see them. The intention is to actually read them before I buy any new books.

Among them is the one book currently in my possession that I started reading but never finished. It’s T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which I bought several years ago in a second-hand bookshop while holidaying in Devon. I vaguely knew of the ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ story from the movie and a few TV documentaries so I figured it was a book that I should read at some point. After much procrastination (and many other books), I started reading it a couple of summers ago; I got about half-way through before giving up, having found this magnum opus about the Arab Revolt to be very heavy going. I put it back on the shelf and forgot about it.

Until last weekend.

I couldn’t bring myself to throw it out as I had never finished what I am reliably informed is an important book. Although it does happen occasionally, I do not like to give up on a book as I feel it would be a waste of the time already spent reading it.

Thus, Seven Pillars of Wisdom is now on the front row with the unread books, an old Tube ticket poking reproachfully out of its pages at around the half-way mark. Which in a sense is appropriate, given that Lawrence himself is said to have lost the original manuscript on a train.

My sense of literary guilt at not having finished what is supposed to be a masterpiece has been assuaged by an unlikely saviour. The late Norman Lewis is one of those travel writers who I’ve always intended to read more of but have never quite got round to doing so. Well, at the moment I am reading his autobiographical work The World The World on my daily commute, and in between enjoying his accounts of the countries he visited and the interesting people he encountered I was very much reassured by what he said about Seven Pillars of Wisdom (he may have met a lot of people but he never met Lawrence – he just happened to have the same publisher).

Here’s what he had to say: “It runs to 672 pages on excellent paper, is poetical and sometimes biblical in style … a suspicion remains that few readers soldiered on to the end of the recital of the minutiae of a military campaign in the desert. Borrowing a copy recently I found that, characteristically, many pages had been left uncut.”

So it seems that I am not one frustrated reader but one of many frustrated readers. As a result of this revelation, giving up on T.E. Lawrence half-way through doesn’t seem so bad. But I’m not going to get rid of my copy just yet.


A day at the Test match

The last day of a Test match is always a tempting proposition if the weather is nice and there’s the prospect of an exciting day’s play. Earlier this week, the Test match at Lord’s between England and South Africa went to the fifth day and that was not a prospect that I – or my Dad or my brother Alex for that matter – could turn down.

Sorting my things out for a day at Lord’s, I pack a sunhat and an umbrella along with my lunch. It’s an all-day event and you never know what’s going to happen weather-wise at a cricket match!

Making my way to the ground, I pass a bookie’s on Camden High Street. Out of curiosity, I pop in and ask what the odds are on England winning the Test. The man behind the counter checks his computer and quotes me odds of 20/1. I decide to put a couple of quid on England.

One bus ride to St John’s Wood later, I have no problem getting a ticket – as no-one knows before the game whether it will last for five days, the fifth day tickets are hardly ever sold in advance. Everyone’s excited, and there are more than a few people here who really should be at work. But no-one’s telling on anyone here. More than a few men in suits can be seen wearing the distinctive MCC tie, while others are more casual in an array of brightly-coloured t-shirts. Unlike at a football match, English and South African fans mix freely and exchange much banter. Everyone’s happy to be here.

Contrary to expectations, the sky looks very grey – so grey, in fact, that the floodlights are on as the players come out. Once inside the ground, we have some tea or coffee and decide that the Edrich stand (opposite the Pavilion) is the place to be. We have a panoramic view of the ground, and on the outfield we can see where the stands had been placed for the Olympic archery events which were held here. The groundstaff have done a fantastic job to get the place ready for a Test match so soon after that.

As the groundstaff prepare the pitch, and we use our binoculars to spot famous ex-players who are now part of various commentary teams, everyone’s talking about what looks like being an exciting day’s play. But just how long are we actually going to be here? England are over 300 runs short of the target with eight wickets left – the match can only end in a result by them scoring all those runs or (more likely) losing all their wickets in the process. They could be all out before lunch, although most people are estimating that the end will come between lunch and tea. Either way, we’ll get to see something.

As play starts, spectators continue to flood in, and when the stewards open up a whole section of the seats that had previous been reserved (we know not who for), everyone moves across. Although most of the fans in our area are English, we’re now in front of a family of South Africans who become increasingly vocal with the fall of each English wicket. In front of me, a middle-aged man dressed in a white linen suit, dark shirt and an MCC tie takes a seat. Why, I wonder to myself, isn’t he sitting in the Pavilion with the other MCC members?

It is now declared to be beer o’clock, and Dad heads down to the bar to get the first round.

By the time lunch comes around (after two hours of play), the sun is breaking through the clouds and I have taken off my jacket and donned my sunglasses and sun-hat. Cricket must be a unique sport in having intervals between periods of play that are named after meals. Why is this? It must be something to do with the fact that the game lasts all day, and tradition dictates that the players are actually given something to eat during the intervals. Plus, the spectators need to eat at some point as well. We tuck into our sandwiches, and I head down to the bar to get three more pints of beer.

Someone wonders out loud why this famous old ground is called Lord’s (with the apostrophe). Alex is on hand to explain that it’s named after Thomas Lord, an eighteenth-century cricketer who helped the Marylebone Cricket Club to acquire a suitable playing venue when they were formed in 1787, although not at the current site. The ground continues to be owned by the MCC (to all intents and purposes still very much a private club) to this day – something of an anachronism in the modern age.

By now, the sun is shining and the man in front has shed not only his jacket and tie but also his shirt, as well as rolling his trouser-legs up to his knees. I wonder if he really is an MCC member.

England may be staring defeat in the face but they’re not dead yet. Our batsmen – by now we’re down to Matt Prior and Stuart Broad, capable enough with the bat – continue to chip away at the total. Up in the Edrich stand, we’re cheering each run that is scored; for the most part, the crowd is gloriously partisan.

As the afternoon wears on, a Mexican wave goes round the ground, several times. As has become customary at Lord’s over the past decade, the MCC members in the Pavilion – sticklers for tradition – do not take part, and are loudly booed by everyone else.

With less than ten minutes to go to tea, another wicket falls. The new man in is Graeme Swann – a favourite of England followers thanks to his deadly off-spin, his attacking style with the bat, the fact that he’s one of the funnier sports stars who has a Twitter account and his hilarious video diary of the 2010-11 Ashes series. It’s safe to say that England fans love Swanny, and we love him even more when he dispatches the second ball he faces to the boundary with an unconventional reverse sweep. By the time tea comes along, he’s already got 12 runs.

Most of the spectators opt for something a bit stronger than tea, and Alex heads down to get three more pints while the talk is of whether England can actually win this. The target has shrunk to 120, and the English fans, who had previously been talking of our team pulling off a miraculous victory in order to wind up the South Africans, are now starting to talk seriously about it.

As play resumes, it’s clear that Prior and Swann don’t think it’s a hopeless cause – between them, they hit 60 runs in the next half-hour. The crowd goes wild. ENG-LAND, ENG-LAND is the chant. As the target continues to lower, the smiles broaden and we start to hope that, despite it all, we can win this. After all, cricket’s a funny old game and stranger things have happened. I wonder how long that bookie’s is going to be open for this evening.

But the run-rush can’t last, can it? Swann perishes on a suicidal run-out, and minutes later Prior is given out caught – only for the big screen to show that he was out to a no-ball. Prior, who’s walking back to the Pavilion, is reprived! England are 60-odd runs short, but we’re still in the game! The crowd are loving this.

But then, Prior’s out – for real, this time. The next man in is also the last man, Steve Finn. In the papers this morning, he was quoted as saying that he believed England could win this. But he’s out first ball.

And that’s it. The South Africans behind us pop open a bottle of Veuve Clicquot that they’ve smuggled into the ground for this moment. We all stand and applaud before making our way to the exit.

Were we sad that England lost? A bit, but it has to be said South Africa did deserve to win as they were the better team. Did we enjoy ourselves anyway? Of course! As Allison pointed out afterwards, the men of the Young family ALWAYS have fun at Lord’s!


A walk on the wild side (of North London)

Even though I have lived in London for all my life, I am still finding out things about it that I never knew.

Some time ago, I can across a book in my local library by a man called Hunter Davies. He is perhaps best known for his works on football and the Beatles, but it turns out that in his time he has written on rather a lot of subjects. The book that caught my eye was called A Walk Along the Tracks, in which he goes for a series of walks along the routes of disused railway lines in various parts of Britain (and, thanks largely to Dr Beeching, there are a lot of disused railway lines in Britain).

It so happens that one of the disused lines Hunter chose for his book was part of the Edgware, Highgate & London Railway, which ran between Finsbury Park and Edgware, with branch lines to Alexandra Palace and High Barnet. Today, parts of this are still operational as the Northern Line, but the bits that interested Hunter for his book were the bits between Finsbury Park and Highgate, and the branch to Ally Pally.

Writing in the early 1980s, he described the route as something of an urban wasteland. However, not long after his book was published the old route was significantly cleaned up, renamed the Parkland Walk and declared to be a nature reserve. I promised myself I’d pay the place a visit, and when I found myself with the day off work and the sun shining in the sky that is exactly what I did.

My walk started at Finsbury Park Tube Station, from where I made my way past a man selling clothes out of a suitcase underneath the railway bridge, several buses and a run-down pub to get to the south gate of Finsbury Park itself. Once in the park, I found a footbridge over the railway lines to the Parkland Walk entrance.

For the most part, and as you’d probably expect from a nature reserve laid out along the route of a disused railway line in the middle of an urban area, the path has housing on either side for much of its length, and the walker has an elevated view into many back gardens. That said, it is amazing how much overhanging trees and birdsong can do to block out the noise of the metropolis. For a few minutes, it almost felt as though I was going for a walk in the country – an experience quite unlike the one that Hunter described when he covered this very same ground over thirty years ago.

That said, I wasn’t the only one going out for a walk. I was passed by a few teenagers on their mountain bikes (well, it is the school holidays), some shoppers taking a short cut, young mothers out with their kids and a few joggers who may or may not have been inspired to get running by Mo Farah. An elderly couple out blackberrying were having some sort of domestic, while the sight of a young girl carrying a lead with a staffie on the end of it prompted me to wonder who exactly was taking who for a walk.

The walk continued, crossing quiet back-streets on bridges built for the railway. Of course, this wouldn’t be a disused railway line without a disused railway station, and the Parkland Walk has the remains of Crouch End Station. The tracks are of course long gone, but the platforms are still there, as are bits of the old station building on Crouch End Hill. It’s an odd feeling, walking along a platform that hasn’t been used in decades.

Since I was walking through a nature reserve, I had brought my binoculars with me in the hope of seeing some birds. It may have been the presence of so many people, the fact that it was midday, the fact that there are a lot of leaves on the trees at this time of year or a combination of all of those three, but I did not have much luck. I looked up in the hope of seeing something but I did not get to see very much. A woodpigeon, a great tit, a couple of blackbirds and a solitary crow were all I managed.

The Parkland Walk is split into two parts; the first ends just before Highgate Station where there are a couple of tunnels that led to the original station (which is on ground level, directly above the current one and as such not accessible to the public). The tunnels were fenced off – I remembered from Hunter’s book that he’d been able to walk the length of them – but the amount of rubbish inside them indicated that someone, somehow had managed to sneak in.

My walk now ceased to follow the route of the line itself, taking instead a detour through Queen’s Wood and Highgate Wood (remnants of the ancient Forest of Middlesex which once covered most of what’s now North London) to rejoin the line further up the Muswell Hill Road. I knew that Highgate Wood is regarded as very good bird-watching venue in this part of the world and was keen to add some more bird sightings to my rather pathetic list, but alas it just wasn’t my day. I did, however, find an old drinking-fountain erected in 1888 as ‘the gift of a few friends’, and on such a hot day I was thankful for the foresight of those Victorian friends.

Back on the route of the line, it wasn’t long before I noticed that I was level with the roofs of the houses on either side. Although I hadn’t realised it, I’d followed the line onto a viaduct on the south-eastern side of Muswell Hill. As the street of houses on my right ended, my reward for sticking with the walk this far became apparent – a wonderful panoramic view across East London and parts of the City. Even without the binoculars, I could see the Olympic Park, Canary Wharf, the Gherkin and the Shard.

It turns out that Hunter’s recommendation was a good one, though I don’t recall that he mentioned the view (not that any of the buildings I’ve mentioned existed when he did it). Pleased with having found a different aspect to London, I walked home.