Extra time in Arsenal
Sue Wheat goes on location for the real story behind her film debut in `Fever Pitch'
Saturday 05 April 1997
Camden Passage is basically a huge antiques market. Confusingly, it is in Islington, lurking behind Upper Street - the district's main street, packed with eateries where real-life Friends scenarios seem to be in continuous play. To be honest, Chapel Market, opposite Angel station, is more my thing, where I am happy to buy vegetables as well as a selection of tacky birthday cards that play tunes when you open them.
Most of the action in Fever Pitch is located at Highbury. Or rather, it isn't. The soccer highlights were filmed miles away at Fulham FC's Craven Cottage ground, because the Arsenal ve has become an all-seater and hence is now unsuitable for the Eighties terrace action required for the film. But the true fan will overlook this detail and head for Arsenal's home at Highbury, just north of Islington.
More confused geography. The Arsenal ground is called Highbury, although it is in fact in Arsenal. OK, so a lot of people know that, but I didn't. Just outside Highbury Tube station, I was halted by the lure of a bacon butty at the Seven Steps cafe (est 1922) on Highbury Place. With its orange- and-brown wallpaper, "No Hawkers" and "No Toilets" signs, this is a caff with an extra helping of don't-mess-with-me character. Yet it faces one of the most desirable areas of London, Highbury Fields.
In the film, Paul and Sarah go house-hunting, and Paul chooses an abode just a corner kick away from the Arsenal FC. Sarah gives it the proverbial yellow card. Now I realise why. Highbury Fields with its wonderful, four- storey Victorian houses, wrought iron railings and antique street lamps,is definitely more her style. Walking up Highbury Place and through Highbury Fields (which aren't really fields, more of a common) you see only happy, beautiful people with cute children.
I carried on through Highbury Barn, a mini-Hampstead-style village with overflowing recycling bins, Continental delis, cheese shops , and cosy knick-knack stores selling brightly-coloured wooden toys at mortgage prices. Even the kebab shop was posh. Sarah would love this, I thought. Paul would be more sceptical. A scene in the film came to mind, where he picks an ethnic figure off Sarah's mantelpiece, looks bemused and asks "What's this for?" "It's not for anything," she responds. "It just looks nice."
The transition from Highbury to Arsenal is gradual. The frequency of restaurants painted in rustic colours diminishes as you walk down Blackstock Road, past places such as Arsenal's Fish Bar, with plastic chairs screwed to the floor. When I reached a pub called The Gunners, I knew I must be getting warm. This is a shrine, with framed programmes and Arsenal strips. "Twenty minutes before the match, you can't move in here," the barman told me proudly.
He pointed me towards the ground. As I got closer, the ratio of boarded- up houses to inhabited ones increased. Those that were lived in invariably had lager-can gardens and red Arsenal scarves across the windows. This was Paul's territory.
Then I saw it. A huge cream building stretching up the road. A sign said: "Museum open Fridays. pounds 2. Wait here, gates opened every 15 minutes." It was Friday. I waited. The road was deserted, then I heard singing; it was a young postman pushing a post trolley. As he passed the ground he sang at the top of his voice "Arsenal, Arsenal. We're top of the league, Arsenal, Arsenal ..." It was almost a religious moment.
I was joined at the gates by a thirty-something fan in an Arsenal coat. He looked me up and down and I came clean. I'd seen the film; I didn't know anything about football; would he show me round the museum? Miles, it turned out, was a Zimbabwean Arsenal pilgrim. His dad, a Londoner, had made him listen to Arsenal matches on the radio in Zimbabwe from the time he was six, and now he comes here every few years to watch his team. "It's fantastic, when it gets into your blood that's it," he said with a big sigh, adding, "I've only seen them lose once." The similarity between him and Paul, and Sarah and me, was spooky. Yes, he'd read Fever Pitch. "No one who loves football could not relate to it."
So Miles and I went round the museum, and he was very patient, listening to my inane questions. Who's the most famous player? "They're all famous!" "Isn't it funny that the Manager of Arsenal is called Arsene?" He smiled, and looked as if he really hoped the other two fans in the museum hadn't heard.
The atmosphere was like the hush in a church as the men moved from relic to relic. To me it was just lots of pictures of men with their arms folded in different-style shorts at different times in history. But when we watched Arsenal: The Story So Far in the museum cinema, presented by Bob Wilson, and the men sat absorbed, whoah-ing, puffing and shaking their heads with admiration as goal after goal went into the net, I realised I was privy to a major life experience. I only just managed to stop myself shouting "Harsenal", Eric Morecambe style, when somebody farted.
I sent myself off, leaving the boys to commune on their own. I didn't belong, and didn't really understand what made Miles and his fellow fans so obsessed with Arsenal. But I did realise Fever Pitch was real-life stuff.
Fever Pitch (15) is on general release. Camden Passage: shops Tues-Sat, 10am-5pm; stalls Wed 7am-2pm, Sat 9am-3.30pm. Chapel Market, Chapel Street, Islington: daily except Mon, 10am-2pm. Arsenal Museum (0171-704 4000): Fri 9.30am-4pm, daily for pre-arranged stadium tours, match days two-and- a-half hours before kick-off. Adults pounds 2, under-16s pounds 1.
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