I don’t go to many football (soccer) games these days. Only been to two this year so far: in July, I saw an MLS game between Toronto FC and FC Dallas, and on Wednesday, I saw the FA Youth Cup third round tie between Arsenal and Derby County. Youth, in the context of the Football Association means under eighteen years of age. Arsenal’s youth team play their games at Underhill Stadium in Barnet at the northern edge of Greater London. Handily, the stadium is about a cigarette’s length from my mate John’s house. Which is very handy for him, being an Arsenal fan. It was just £3 to get in. There aren’t many spectators at that level of football. Only one stand was open, and a significant amount of the seats were taken up by squad members of both sides. John pointed out that former youth players, current first team squad members, Emmanuel Frimpong and Ignasi Miquel, were in attendance. For me, as a Liverpool fan, I was more interested in the fact that former Liverpool player, current Derby County manager, and son of Brian, Nigel Clough, was there. After the last few years primarily watching baseball, it doesn’t really feel natural any more to be watching football. The 45 minute halves go by really quickly. A crappy hot dog and crappy hot chocolate at half time. But it was enjoyable, despite the cold weather. It was 0-0 at full time, so our cold toes were subjected to 30 minutes of extra time. Derby scored midway through the first period of extra time. And players were hobbling around; it seemed like half of them had cramp. If finished 1-0 to Derby, another quick cigarette, and we were home, toes slowly warming.
Last weekend, I met up with my friends Ian and Andy in a pub in Bethnal Green, in the east end of London. An aborted attempt to meet up earlier turned out well: he had a spare ticket for Saint Etienne’s Christmas party thingy, at the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club. Should you not be British or not know what a working men’s club is: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Working_men’s_club. Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club was a lot nicer than the one pictured on Wikipedia. We put our coats in the cloakroom (I wonder what percentage of items placed in a cloakroom are actually cloaks these days? Gotta be less than 0.001%, I’d say). There was a brass plaque on the wall in memory of some man whose name I forget, and whose exact role at the Working Men’s Club I also forget. But it was nice to see. Up some stairs, and into a decent-sized room. Probably a couple of hundred people in there. Ian got us all in with his magical piece of paper with some stuff written on it. Our names were checked off a list, and we were all handed a compact disc (St. Etienne’s “Xmas ’11 EP,” which, as I’m sure you will have already guessed is a limited edition thingy, only given to people in attendance at the event), a poster (that I gave to Ian to do with as he please; it would never survive un-fucked up in my backpack), and a raffle ticket (mine was number 202). The event was not a live show, but Saint Etienne were DJ-ing, playing their 100 favourite songs. Which I was kind of glad about. I like some of Saint Etienne’s music – “Avenue” is a wonderful song, and Good Humor was a decent album – but on the whole, I don’t really think they are a good as their own idea of what the band should be is. And Sarah Cracknell’s voice annoys me after more than a handful of songs. They do have good taste in music, though. When we arrived they were already well into their list. 10CC’s “Rubber Bullets.” A belter of a song. New Order’s “Ceremony” was next. It would be a good night if that quality continued. And it did. Bowie, Gainsbourg, Gentry, Wonder, Whitney Houston (“It’s Not Right, But It’s OK” is fantastic, but sadly, I was downstairs in the room with a pool table and a ping pong table having a fag at the time). One lovely thing about the night was the age of the people there. My guess would be the average age was definitely mid-thirties. Plenty of folks my age, too. It felt nice to be amongst people in the same age group. There was a pleasantness to the evening which was partly due to that, and partly due to the people who would be Saint Etienne fans. Whilst smoking, strangers would invariably end up chatting. At the bar, there was none of the usual scramble to be served first. Plenty of “you first.” And back to the chatting I mentioned the other day: it was just lovely to have a good natter with people. Spent a while talking to a couple of Ian’s friends who’d had pretty interesting lives, had a wee chat with a girl at the bar. She had lovely cheekbones. All interspersed with plenty of abrupt pauses when a new song came on: Oooh, “Porpoise Song”! T-Rex “Get it On,” Barry White “I’m Gonna Love You Just a Little Bit More,” My Bloody Valentine “Soon,” Frankie Knuckles “Your Love.” After a handful of Newcastle Brown Ales (a beer I’ve not drank for many, many years), it was time to start glancing at my watch. Being the 24 hour city that it is, I knew I’d have to be leaving around 11pm to get the last Tube train home. Number 13 on Saint Etienne’s top 100 was “Sons of the Stage” by World of Twist. An absolutely wonderful song. But it would have to be my last. Time to say goodbye to a lovely night out, say goodbye to my lovely friends, say goodbye to lovely new people I didn’t know a few hours before. I found out from Saint Etienne’s Twitter feed that “Rock On” by David Essex was their number one. If you scroll down to the tweets they sent on 11th of December, you’ll see the whole list.
I had a few hours to kill on Thursday afternoon. I had a wander around central London, kinda pretending to be a proper tourist. I had a Marks and Spencer Christmas sandwich (turkey, stuffing, bacon, and cranberry jam-type stuff). It was lovely. Better than the Pret a Manger Christmas sandwich I had a couple of days ago. I will be trying to eat as many different sandwich shops’ Christmas offerings as possible. I sat down to eat that on one of the stone benches in Trafalgar Square, staring at the rather-underwhelming Christmas tree, the illuminated-by-different-coloured-lights fountains, and a big ugly thing that’s counting down to the London Olympics. Apparently, the London Olympics is two hundred and twentzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz, oh I don’t care how many days it is until it starts… I went into Sister Ray, a record shop on Berwick Street that was previously the location of Selectadisc. Still kinda looks the same inside. And still smells like a proper record shop, it smells of protective plastic sleeves and cardboard record sleeves. It’s a nice smell, an evocative smell. But, sadly, I have lost the skills needed to browse in a record shop. It’s been too long since I last did it. I flick though the D section, looking for the recent Baxter Dury album. It’s not there. I half-heartedly look at other sections, but I just don’t have that desire in me any more. Which isn’t a nice thing to realise. For most of my life, I’ve adored record shops, I’ve adored buying things that I knew nothing about, just because the record was on a good label and the sleeve was nice. CDs started the rot, but iTunes has completely ruined it for me. Damn you, Apple.
I went to get a coffee, not because I wanted one, really: mostly because I wanted to use some free Wi-Fi, to check email on my iPod. Just wandering around, doing nothing. Checking my watch. To the New Era shop to see if they had a baseball cap that I would like. They didn’t, and I had enough restraint to not just buy another for the hell of it. Back to Trafalgar Square to have a mooch around at the National Gallery. I’ve only ever been inside there once to properly look around. I think the great thing about that place, though, apart from the fact that the collection is owned by British public, is it’s a good place to go if you’ve got half an hour to spare. I’ve been in there plenty of times to do just that. It’s just a nice place to be. The wooden floors are nice, the different-sized rooms, the layout which means you can kinda lose yourself, but not enough to be lost. And it’s a fabulous collection. And if you go again and again, you can bypass the famous pieces with small crowds around them and check out paintings you’ve not really noticed before.
I walked through Charing Cross station. There’s things about daily life in London that I’d forgotten I used to do. Waiting in the concourse of a train station, looking up at the big boards to see which platform my train would be at is one of those things. But yesterday, I wasn’t doing that. I just walked past the hundreds of people doing what I did pretty much every week day for four years. I walked down the passage that runs along side the train tracks, over the footbridge across the Thames. It’s a beautiful view at night. The South Bank Centre loos great, the skyline to the east is pretty, lights reflecting off the river, and big red buses going across Waterloo Bridge. I sat by the river for a while, resting my feet, listening to podcasts about baseball. Had a wander down past the London Eye, had a good long look at the House of Parliament, up along Whitehall, and over to Covent Garden, to a Canadian-themed pub called the Maple Leaf. Felt a bit funny to be in a bar with Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Blue Jays jerseys on the wall having so recently been in Canada, and never seeing a pub like that. I met my mates Mark and John, and we got a wee bit drunk, chatting the night away. We saw Mike Leigh and Tim Roth coming out of a building, moments after Mark had wondered what it would be like to live in that building (it was squeezed between two pubs). Drinking and chatting and laughing. On the Tube home, a couple of girls sharing one pair of headphones sat down opposite us. They seemed to be having a fun night. One was Spanish, the other Hungarian. The Spanish girl was harassing the guy sat next to her. She kept talking to him, put her legs on his knee. All the time, he took it in his stride, never once taking his white earbuds out. He was a good sport. John and I said goodbye to Mark. We kept on chatting all the way home, where I plonked myself on the sofa, watched a bit of Bullseye on one of those channels that shows old stuff, just trying to drift off to sleep because my head was spinning a bit.