Forget Hooray Henrys. We love SW3 for its diversity and its vitality, says Charlie Methven
Forget Hooray Henrys. We love SW3 for its diversity and its vitality, says Charlie Methven
The naked animosity displayed to Chelsea Football Club by fans of lesser teams this season has come as no great surprise to those of us who live in the royal borough. Sneers - in no particular order - about "money corrupting", a lack of local roots, of being Flash Harrys with no concern for those less fortunate. We locals have heard it all before - and worse.
When I started my first job, as a trainee horseracing reporter on the old Sporting Life, I was accosted by a senior journalist, a man on at least five times my salary at that time. "Where do you live, then?" he demanded, his lip curling as he spied my custard-coloured socks. "Chelsea," I answered. "Yeah, that figures," he spat back nastily, before turning on his heel and stalking off home to his £1m, five-bedroom house in the upmarket north London suburb of Highgate.
So what is it about this small patch of west London real estate that - while getting half a mile up the nostrils of the rest of the country - makes those of us who live here love it so much?
It's hardly the architecture. For sure, there is the Georgian splendour of St Leonard's Terrace, where a blue plaque marks the house in which Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, once lived. But there are also concrete monstrosities such as the King's College accommodation block and the infamous Lots Road Power Station, about which the less said, the better.
Nor is it culture. We have the Chelsea Arts Club in Old Church Street, yes, and the Royal Court Theatre at Sloane Square, but otherwise the Fulham Road multiscreen cinema is about as lofty an artistic institution as most of us residents can manage.
Restaurants? Well, Gordon Ramsay's place on Royal Hospital Road caters mostly for the tourist crowd, and the rest of us find ourselves paying over the odds for so-so Italian food in joints that last saw a refurb in the early 1980s. And even the curry houses don't come cheap: Chelsea boasts one of London's most expensive Indian restaurants - Chutney Mary, about 200 yards from Stamford Bridge.
Unlike our neighbours in rich and rare Kensington, we don't even have Hyde Park - or any park, for that matter - to boast about. The gardens of St Luke's Church (a mile or so from Stamford Bridge) are nice enough, but they aren't a patch even on what most provincial cities have to offer, let alone Hampstead Heath. All of which leaves us, more or less, with our fellow residents: the other intrepid souls who have braved the inevitable "Hooray Henry" barbs of their friends and colleagues to come and live in SW3.
For it goes without saying that, as with its football team, few Chelsea residents come from these parts originally. There are those, like Bernie Ecclestone, who are from other areas of London. Others, like George Best, are from other parts of the UK and others still, like Boris Becker, come from other parts of the world. Far from being a bad thing, though, the diverse backgrounds of so many Chelsea folk is the main strength of the area. Unlike in - to take one example - Liverpool, no one looks down their nose at you because your great-grandfather didn't use the same pint glass in the same pub in the same street that you're now living in. It may surprise some, but down here you are judged on who you are, not on where you came from.
The second night after I moved to Chelsea, I ended up playing pool alongside Hugh Grant in the bar above the Goat in Boots on Fulham Road. The following evening, I happened by the Phene Arms, just off Oakley Street, and found myself propping up the bar next to George Best (though by this stage of proceedings, the bar was probably propping up George, rather than vice versa).
This easygoing attitude comes from the fact that no matter how rich or famous you are, there's probably someone even richer and more famous a few yards away. Putting on attitude of the kind displayed by rich types in provincial towns will generally elicit only a raised eyebrow and a turned back on the King's Road.
Foreign footballers have long understood the lifestyle benefits of living among their neighbours in Chelsea, rather than in gated compounds in the North-west. Well before Roman Abramovich's Russian revolution at Stamford Bridge, the likes of Marcel Desailly, Frank Leboeuf, Gianluca Vialli and Ruud Gullit had all turned down (at that stage) bigger clubs elsewhere in Britain to live among more interesting, better educated people in Chelsea.
It follows that this mix of newcomers - often young, energetic and ambitious - imparts a very different atmosphere to that found in the grander environs of Belgravia, Knightsbridge and Kensington. Walk past a café or pub in the afternoon, and rather than seeing a few sad, old men whiling away their afternoon alone, you'll find a crowd of 20 and 30-somethings discussing the next big deal.
This spirit of energy and adventure is what led Vivienne Westwood to open her first shop here in the punk days of the late 1970s. It's why Peaches Geldof - a Chelsea girl through and through - has already become the voice of her generation, at the precocious age of 16.
It also why Jose Mourinho, Chelsea FC's iconoclastic Portuguese coach, isn't just tolerated, as he may have been elsewhere, but adored. His ego and tantrums make him an irresistibly colourful part of the most vivid tapestry in the country.
So my final message to the thousands of Scousers who will descend on our neighbourhood this evening is this. As far as I'm concerned, you can loathe Chelsea all you like. I love it - and I've got a funny feeling that a few of your team tonight will find it agreeable enough to start thinking about moving down here.
Painters, politicians and punk rock
* Kensington was given the status of a royal borough by Edward VII, and it was joined with Chelsea in 1965
* Sites of interest in Chelsea include the 17th-century Physic Garden and Thomas Carlyle's house at 24 Cheyne Row
* The average house price in Kensington and Chelsea is £649,409. Average household income is £31,408
* Kensington and Chelsea's electoral candidates are Catherine Atkinson, Labour; Jennifer Kingsley, Liberal Democrats; and Malcom Rifkind, the former Conservative foreign secretary. Michael Portillo, who is standing down, won for the Tory stronghold in 2001 with a majority of 8,771
* Chelsea FC, founded 1915 (and formerly known as the Pensioners), have been League champions once, won three FA Cups, two League Cups and five European cups
* The old "Shed" end was once home to some of the nastiest fans in the country. As ticket prices soar, Stamford Bridge has seen increasing numbers of the local moneyed classes coming through its turnstiles to watch the "Chelski" revolution under new Russian owner Roman Abramovich
* Famous fans include Sebastian Coe, John Major, David Mellor and Alec Stewart
* Chelsea was the home of the painter James McNeil Whistler, who lived in Cheyne Walk. Other Cheyne Walk residents have included Elizabeth Gaskell (born at No 93), Joseph Mallord William Turner (died at No 119), and David Lloyd George who lived, appropriately, at No 10
* The Chelsea Arts Club was founded at the suggestion of Whistler in 1891
The Capital of Culture 2008 is miles in front. But, says Brian Viner, it's the Scouse wit that is key
The people of Liverpool have been profoundly affected by the city's designation as European Capital of Culture 2008. A man I know who spent last Wednesday evening in a pub in Toxteth came out to find his car standing on four encyclopedias.
OK, so that's a gag; but it's a gag doing the rounds not along Doughty Street, home of Merseyside's least-favourite magazine The Spectator - which accused Liverpudlians of wallowing in mawkish self-pity - but along the banks of the Mersey.
It demonstrates Liverpool's capacity to laugh at itself. To laugh, moreover, at the biggest honour that the European Council of Ministers can bestow. Proud as Liverpudlians are with this accolade, they know they don't need it to prove the city's cultural worth. Indeed, if tonight's Champions' League clash between Chelsea and Liverpool were a match to decide cultural - rather than footballing - pre-eminence, it would be no contest.
After all, Chelsea might be synonymous with glamour, but Liverpool is synonymous with things that matter infinitely more in life: community spirit, warmth, wit, chip butties and great music.
Even in the 1960s, when the King's Road staked a reputation as Britain's grooviest thoroughfare, everyone knew the centre of the universe was Mathew Street, home of the Cavern Club, birthplace of the Beatles. Another Liverpool nightclub, Cream, later spearheaded Britain's dance movement.
But plainly, any appreciation of Liverpool as a cultural force has to begin with John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. That said, you could cheerfully leave out the Beatles and still write a decent history of British pop music based purely on Liverpool bands, from the Fourmost and Scaffold to the Coral and the Zutons, by way of Frankie Goes To Hollywood, the Teardrop Explodes and Orchestral Manoeuvres in The Dark. And let's not forget Ken Dodd singing "Tears". Oh all right then, let's.
Nor is it remotely coincidental that music and humour are (apart from football) what Liverpool is best known for: the sing-song accent, influenced by generations of Irish immigration, is at the heart of both. And both perhaps had their supreme manifestation in the person of John Lennon. That he also bequeathed his name to the city's airport shows that whatever Liverpool lacks in political or economic significance, it makes up for culturally.
Lennon did not, however, provide my favourite example of a Liverpool musician's wit. Years ago, the Queen visited the city, arriving at Lime Street on the royal train. During her visit she was introduced to local celebrities, including Gerry and the Pacemakers. She expressed a (doubtless insincere) desire to hear them play, so Gerry Marsden invited her to a gig that very night at the Liverpool Empire. Her Majesty smiled sweetly. "I'm so sorry," she said. "My train has to leave at six o'clock."
One of the Pacemakers leant forward. "That's all right, love," he said. "You can always catch the 10 past 11."
You can't get away from humour in an essay about Liverpool - but then you can't get away from it in Liverpool. And on the football terraces, of course, it is rampant. I once went with a friend, Chris Barry, to see our beloved Everton play Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. The only tickets we could get placed us among some alarmingly tough-looking Chelsea fans, so we kept our celebrations quiet when Everton went one-nil up with 10 minutes to go. But with just two minutes left, Chris could no longer keep his emotions under wraps. "Come on ref, blow the bloody whistle," he cried, in an accent made in Aintree.
Thirty large Chelsea fans turned menacingly towards us. Chris didn't miss a beat. "Before them Scouse barstards score anavver," he added, even louder.
The same beguiling wit - sometimes cheerful, sometimes mordant, always lightning - is there too in the poems of Roger McGough, and in the plays and screenplays of Jimmy McGovern, Willy Russell, and above all Alan Bleasdale.
Remember Yosser Hughes? Remember his lament to the social worker? "Dan, I'm desperate. I'm desperate, Dan." Bleasdale also wrote the wonderful drama about a family's torment, Jake's Progress, and delights in telling of how a drunken stranger lurched up to him at a wedding and said, "You wrote that Jacob's Creek, didn't you? It's shite."
Liverpool does self-deprecation better than anywhere else, even though you can choose any cultural medium you like and you will find a Liverpudlian in its top tier. Again, this is no geographical accident. Rather, it is the product of centuries of the cultural vibrancy that permeates and shapes all important ports, but perhaps Liverpool above all.
Not, of course, that it is the important port it once was. Last Saturday I took my son Joe and his friend Harry to the Liverpool Maritime Museum at the brilliantly refurbished Albert Dock. The museum is not only a fantastic institution, and free, but also shows poignantly how the city suffered in the 20th century. We learnt that three-quarters of all Allied merchant navy tonnage sunk during World War Two came from Liverpool. Imagine that. As a child in the 1960s, I remember being driven along the Dock Road by my father, gazing in awe at the dozens of vast cargo ships and the forests of cranes. It's not like that now.
But then cities, like people, prove themselves in adversity. That Liverpool has emerged from such hardship with its spirit intact and its cultural glow undiminished, shows the greatness of the place. It is the greatest of cities, with the greatest of football clubs.
And in fairness, the lot who play at Anfield aren't bad, either.
Concerts, cathedrals and the Cavern
* Liverpool is European Capital of Culture 2008, and has world heritage status from Unesco. Liverpool also has a district called Kensington.
* The city is home to Tate Liverpool, the classic Victorian splendour of St George's Hall, the Cavern Club, where the Beatles were discovered, the Royal Court Theatre and the Philharmonic Hall, home of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Liverpool's Anglican cathedral is the largest in Britain.
* House prices rose by 22 per cent in 2004, compared to a national average of 9 per cent. The average property price is £136,262. Average household income is £22,511.
* Liverpool Walton contains some of the poorest wards in the country. It also contains the second highest percentage of terraced housing - 59.5 per cent, much of it run down.
* The prospective candidates for the Liverpool Walton seat are Peter Kilfoyle for Labour, Sharon Buckle for the Conservatives and Kiron Reid for the Liberal Democrats. Mr Kilfoyle had a 17,996 majority at the election in 2001.
* Liverpool FC, founded in 1892, have been League champions 18 times, won six FA Cups, seven League Cups and 12 European cups.
* Purists say you won't hear a Scouse accent at Anfield because Liverpool fans are bused in from across Britain. Real Liverpudlians, it is said, support Everton.
* Liverpool's cultural heritage includes the Beatles, the Mersey Sound poets, Cilla Black, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, John Peel, Alan Bleasdale and Brookside. It is also the birthplace of the 19-century prime minister William Gladstone and the painter George StubbsReuse content