Writing Portfolio


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.


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…


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 (Americans and Canadians, mostly) call football soccer – for me, the tipping point came when I realised that Why England Lose by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski 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 fails badly on impartiality, especially when he turns his attention to the Old Firm derby in Glasgow (could he have at least tried to have included a view or two from the Rangers/Protestant perspective to balance out the obvious Celtic/Catholic bias?). 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, glossy programmes with poor-quality content, overly 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 apparently 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 Pelé 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, so no excuses there). 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 (perhaps unsurprisingly, it had a very niche appeal, and were it not for the fact that I support Watford I would probably never have heard of it, let alone read it). 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.


Secrets under the streets of London

Secret London. Underground London (other than the Tube). Sounds exciting, right? I’ve been looking into the secret bunkers that exist below our city’s streets – stuff from the Second World War (it was never just the Cabinet War Rooms) and the Cold War. Quite a few of them are under Whitehall as one might expect, but there are some that involve Tube stations and a few out in the suburbs. I had no idea there was one in Mill Hill! Anyway, the resulting article is now available to read on Londonist…


Birdwatching in (and out of) Toronto

One of the many thing I like about going to Canada is the chance to see birds I wouldn't see at home. A glance outside can be rewarded not by Blue Tits and Blackbirds but by Cardinals, House Finches and American Robins. Those last ones, by the way, are different from Robins back home in that they are in fact thrushes which are so named on account of their red breasts. Similar, but different.

I was in Toronto very recently, and one day while I was there I went for a walk through parks and along a stream that winds its way between the back gardens of Toronto's western suburbs - just to see what I could see (much like going for a walk in a London park). Bird life was pleasingly abundant - mainly in the form of those American Robins. Also spotted were Black-capped Chickadees, Common Grackles, House Sparrows (the same as the ones back home, this species having been introduced to North America in the nineteenth century), Yellow-rumped Warblers and the unmistakeable Cardinals.

On a lake in one of the parks, I spotted Mallards and smaller black-and-white diving ducks that I initially took to be Tufted Ducks although they were in fact Ring-necked Ducks (although not unheard-of in North America, Tufted Ducks are very rare over here, unlike Mallards which were introduced from Europe and are very common) - similar, but different. Beside the lake were more American Robins, some Red-winged Blackbirds and some small thrushes with red-ish tails (idenitified as Hermit Thrushes which, like the Ring-necked Ducks, were a 'first' for me). There were also some thrush-like birds which I couldn't for the life of me identify, until I re-checked my field guide and realised that they were female Red-winged Blackbirds.

A few days later, I went to High Park where I've had some good sightings on previous trips. In the wooded ravine on the western side, I quickly notched up not one but two species of woodpecker - the Hairy Woodpecker and its smaller Downy cousin. There were more American Robins, Red-winged Blackbirds, Hermit Thrushes and House Sparrows (which are really common in Toronto - more so than in London, I reckon), as well as White-throated Sparrows and bright yellow American Goldfinches.

On Grenadier Pond (so-called, apparently, because a group of British Grenadiers from the garrison at Fort York fell through thin ice while crossing the pond to fight the Americans in the War of 1812) I saw several types of ducks, including the Mallards and Shovelers that we get in Britain as well as the colourful Wood Duck; a Great Egret was spotted waiting silently for fish, while a Double-Breasted Cormorant flew overhead.

Not far from the café, I spotted a third species of woodpecker although this one wasn't black and white - it had brown and black wings, a beige tummy with black spots and a black 'bib'. It acted a lot like the Green Woodpecker, on checking the field guide I noted that I had seen my first Northern Flicker. Overhead I saw a Red-tailed Hawk.

As I walked on the park's eastern side I was accosted by a jogger who, presumably because I was carrying binoculars, deduced that I was a birdwatcher. "There's a pair of blah-blah-blah over there, by that yellow tree", he said, indicating a tree some fifty yards away. "I saw them there the other day." I thanked him and walked over to where he'd indicated, realising as I did so that I had no idea what bird he had mentioned. The tree in question had a hole some thirty feet up, which I suppose may have been a woodpecker nest, but I didn't see anything there.

After seeing a few Tree Swallows catching flies over a pond in the park's south-eastern corner, I left the park and headed for the shoreline of Lake Ontario, where I was rewarded by two more species of duck, neither of which I'd seen before; the Long-tailed Duck and the impressive-looking Bufflehead.

The most impressive sighting of the trip, though, didn't occur in Toronto and nor did it concern a bird I'd never seen before. By the shores of Lake Simcoe, we spotted an Osprey hunting for fish. Now I've seen an Osprey before - over twenty years ago, when we visited the RSPB reserve at Loch Garten on a family holiday in Scotland. But that was different - Loch Garten, after all, exists as a reserve because of the Ospreys and when people go there they're disappointed if they don't see them. While staying with family friends in Orillia, I did get to see plenty of bird activity on the garden bird-feeder (plus a Northern Flicker in said garden, along with plenty of American Robins) but we hadn't expected to see an Osprey. Yet there we were, treated to the sight of one hovering over the lake, gradually dropping down ("looks like he's seen something...") and then splashing into the lake, to emerge carrying a large fish.


Psychogeography, traffic lights and sweat

An auspicious week – my review of three books about London cycle couriers can be seen in the travel section (page 28) of the latest edition of the Times Literary Supplement.