The lost lunchtime when even Matisse was an also-ran

Cahal Milmo
Friday 31 January 2014 05:09

At 1.14PM Gonul Bahar was staring forlornly at her deserted souvenir stall on Oxford Circus. "Even the tourists have vanished," she said. "Everything has stopped. All I can hear is the roar coming up the road.''

The 25-year-old postcards-and-Union-flag entrepreneur had been doing a roaring trade in England shirts and World Cup scarves until just a few minutes before the 12.30pm kick-off. And then nothing.

As the jubilant crescendo from the nearest pub subsided in the wake of Beckham's penalty, it was clear that London's busiest shopping thoroughfare was an also-ran in the race for the nation's attention.

From Selfridges to the Virgin Megastore, shops normally teeming with Friday shoppers were quiet. Even the Big Issue seller outside Liberty had abandoned his pitch to sit down and listen to the unfolding events from Japan on his radio.

Dave Watson, 42, a newspaper seller occupying his regular pitch outside Niketown on Oxford Street, reported a serious dent in sales. He said: "I haven't seen it this quiet on a weekday, probably ever. This time yesterday you wouldn't have been able to get past here. Today you could pitch a tent and nobody would notice.''

But the capital was not as deserted as most had expected. The buses still ran, traffic jams choked the City with their usual monotony and queues still formed for London's hottest non-footballing tickets.

By kick-off time, the line for the Tate Modern's Matisse-Picasso exhibition was filled with the few who were blissfully unaware of the day's main fixture and others who were deliberately avoiding it. Vic Kempner, 56, a healthcare consultant from St Leonard's-On-Sea, near Hastings, declared himself unmoved. "It just doesn't interest me," he said. "Maybe if it came down to a penalty shootout I'd watch but I couldn't take any more than that.''

The Tate Modern confirmed queues were considerably down. A spokesman said: "Normally the queue would be huge. Art and football don't seem to mix on days like this.''

Nor, it seemed, did haute cuisine. The 90 minutes in Sapporo turned out to be a rare chance to grab a last-minute table at the capital's top restaurants. Le Caprice, one of London's high temples to expense-account dining, had tables for 12.30pm and 1.45pm. As one maître d' put it: "You're very lucky. We rarely have much room on a Friday.''

The tools-down atmosphere even applied to more shady fraternities. Scotland Yard said it had received about 15 per cent fewer 999 calls than in the same period a fortnight ago.

As the final whistle brought fanfares of spontaneous horn-blasts and, in Soho, games of street football, to the suddenly reoccupied streets even Ms Bahar admitted hope was springing anew. "If anything it means we'll sell more football gear," she said. "The only problem is that all we'll have left soon is Brazil scarves.''

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