There was much to commend Tom Peck’s elegiac portrayal of the last days of West Ham’s Boleyn Ground in this newspaper on Saturday, not least the evocative sense of place and time and the fear that crowds us when change is nigh.
There was humour, too, which put me in mind of my own experience of London’s cultural mores as they pertain to football when I touched down in the great metropolis from the northern wastes of Manchester too many years ago.
Football gave me connectivity to an alien place. There was little to set the pulse racing in the north London outpost of Palmers Green in the early Eighties.
The journey, two buses via Wood Green to the philosophy faculty at Middlesex Poly, seemed to take me away from something rather than to a destination, further from home perhaps, and towards uncertainty.
I was grateful then to come across Mark Forsyth, a Gooner whose family was rooted in the Islington hinterland from which Arsenal historically drew support.
Mark’s old man, Bill, had a grocer’s shop in St Peter’s Street, just off Upper Street. In those days you wouldn’t cross the border into Hoxton after dark. I think they call it ‘Hoxtown’ now and sell it as a place to eat, drink and sleep. Better than Hoxton Village, I suppose.
West Ham potential arrivals and exits - July
West Ham potential arrivals and exits - July
1/4 ARRIVALS: Javier Hernandez (Manchester United)
The Hammers have been linked with an £8million bid for the Mexican striker, which would represent a great coup. However, there are range of European clubs vying for his signature.
2/4 Alex Song (Barcelona)
Spent the season on loan at West Ham but a potential deal could be put on standby with news that the midfielder needs surgery. The deal could change to another year’s loan, after they had reportedly agreed personal terms.
3/4 Mattia Destro (Roma)
The Italian striker’s agent has apparently been in London to finalise a move to the Hammers. Arsenal and Chelsea were both previously said to be interested in the player.
4/4 Charlie Austin (QPR)
Newcastle are also linked with the striker who almost single-handedly kept QPR in the Premier League with his goals last season - will cost around £12m.
This was a time when Islington still housed residents born in the borough. Across the street from the grocery shop where Mark grew up was an ironmonger’s owned by ex-boxer Jackie Powell.
I recall Jackie standing in the door of his shop wearing a string vest, nose all over his face and his unfeasibly black hair slicked back with Brylcreem like a Fifties Teddy boy. Good as gold apparently, but scared the poop out of me.
Bill was an Arsenal season-ticket holder, had been for years. He was at Highbury for the last visit of the Busby Babes before they jetted off to Belgrade for a European Cup tie that would end so tragically on a Munich runway. He talked romantically about Duncan Edwards, “what a player he was”. Eddie Colman took his eye, too. And, of course, 10 years later he loved “Georgie” Best.
I intercepted Bill as he neared retirement. There was, I sensed, a degree of fatigue settling on his Arsenal infatuation, a frustration perhaps at the failure of Charlie Nicholas to live up to heroes past and fulfil the promise of his big-money arrival from Celtic.
In his piece Peck drew attention to the difficulty some older West Ham supporters had in pronouncing the names of today’s cosmopolitan players. Bobby Zamanosa and Yossinov Benidorm made me chuckle.
Bill thought “them” Man United wingers Gordon Strachland (Strachan) and Jasper Oslo (Jesper Olsen) would cut you to shreds. That’s what he liked about United: “They love their wingers up there.”
When I last heard from Mark he was working as a metals broker in Switzerland. His parents have long since left us after following their daughter up the A10 to Broxbourne in Hertfordshire, as so many north Londoners of that generation did.
Football, the umbilical link to my past, was also the thing that facilitated my entry into a new life, allowed me to manage what was a huge change in circumstance and experience. So don’t worry, all you Hammers pining for the Boleyn Ground. You will learn to love the new place, at least the younger ones among you will. There aren’t many Gooners who would return to Highbury. And the football is a million times more interesting .
There is inevitably a rose-tinted quality to the retrospective view, a yearning for a past that existed only as an idealised utopia. In reality it was always something different. As a visiting supporter from a distant precinct I never felt the nuanced warmth of the West Ham welcome as Tom understands it. Rather, I recall exiting the Tube station with knees knocking and a keen sense of my own mortality, which might at any moment acquire a literal quality were my allegiance to be discovered by some kind soul, inked from head to toe in Irons topiary, making a casual inquiry about the time.
It wasn’t just the West Ham hardcore who had a psychotic interest in extinguishing northern football life. I do believe I set a land speed record in making my escape from the Den when confronted by a skinhead in a Fred Perry jumper. In ignorance of the local geography I had made a wrong turn at the wrong time, making obvious my otherness.
I suspect I am not alone among the away support in counting down the days until Upton Park is erased from the football map and turned into Boleyn Village, home to some Hoxton émigrés seeking renewal in London’s ever-evolving East End.Reuse content