I was trying to describe a funny kind of mental gloom that can befall the best of us for a magazine interview last week, and I was struggling to think of an example, even though I was clear (but inarticulate) about the nature of the gloom. There was a newspaper open in front of me and I was idly looking at football results as I spoke on the phone. This is a Leven Technique. If a telephone interview starts to become boring, have something in front of you, not to read, so much as just look at – football results are great – ‘oh, so Carlisle won after all, and they were 2-0 down at halftime’..Diehard football fans, that was a poor example – Carlisle could NEVER come back from 2-0 down – sorry. I suddenly found myself looking at the Queens Park Rangers result. For those of you who live in Panama, Queen’s Park Rangers (QPR) are a second division London football team which may be about to return to the Premiership (1st Division). Suddenly my example came to me – for many years I was a QPR fan, going to lots of their home games, and I remembered a syndrome which was a common experience in those days for QPR fans. Probably still is. The Gloom arises thus:
It’s a lovely warm Saturday morning in Spring – you’ve had some breakfast at a cafe in Church Street market, just off Edgware Road, then you make your way on the Hammersmith Tube line to Shepherd’s Bush where you get off and walk for about a mile along Uxbridge Road, past all the fast food outlets and textile selling shops, to meet your friends in one of the QPR supporters’ pubs. You’ve got there a bit early so you can get a seat and talk lots of rubbish about everything with your pals and slowly but surely drink four pints of London Pride. The pub has filled up with other supporters a bit more hard core than yourselves, and it’s fascinating to watch them building themselves up into a bit of state about the game. Eventually it’s time to get some fish and chips as you walk back to the Loftus Road end of the football stadium. You have to weave through the police horses and you can hear the already excited hubbub from inside the ground. You go through the turnstile, up the stairs, and then that wonderful moment, when you come over the crest and the whole stadium is laid out before you; just for a moment, it is there for you and you alone. It’s always an exhilarating feeling, you and your mates have a big smile and make your way to your place, still talking and listening to the daftness of ordinary folk talking bollocks about particular players.
Suddenly the teams are on the pitch, the crowd goes nuts (or, this being QPR, feebly starts muttering ‘C’mon Rangers’). The QPR goalkeeper waves warmly to us all stood behind his goal – we shout ‘ray!’, the mid afternoon sun beats on our faces, a plane idles through the sky on its way home from Canada, and although the game has started, you’re listening intently to something one of your mates is saying about an unexpected twist in a novel he’s reading, so you’re not actually watching the game quite at that moment. Suddenly there is a huge roar of triumph from the other end of the ground where the opposing teams’ supporters are going off their heads – you look down toward the QPR goalie who is dejectedly walking to pick the ball up out of his own net, the neon sign is winking ‘G-O-A-L’ and the man on the speaker system mumbles ‘Goal, for Leighton Dipstick of Bolton Wanderers’. The game is two minutes old, QPR are already a goal behind, a goal you didn’t even see because you were talking shite with your pals, and already something about the pulse of the day tells you and the whole Rangers crowd that the rest of the match will be an utter bore, it’ll start raining in a while, the score will stay at 1-0 for Bolton Wanderers and you’ve got the beginnings of an unpleasant London Pride hangover. This Is The Gloom Of Which I Speak. You have desperate thoughts of escape – just leave the ground, although it’s actually quite hard to get out of a football ground at this point in proceedings, plus people will jeer at you for not being able to take it, and when you do get outside, what then? The streets are empty, there is no possibility of any other similar communal warmth, just married-alive couples looking in shop windows at cakes, the pubs have only the dregs of society in them, people like you, half heartedly watching a telly with the sound off and a barely started packet of salt ‘n vinegar crisps in front of them. No, you’ve got to stay and watch the rest of this dross to the bitter end, get soaked by a dramatic shower at half time, then decide not to go for a curry after all because you and your pals are suddenly ‘not in the mood’ – oh, and Chelsea have won...god how I miss those days.....
Well, yes I do. When I lived in London I would often go to see Rangers on my own if none of my pals fancied going. This never struck me as strange – a hell of a lot of people went to matches on their own in those days (I wonder if they still do?) and in fact, speaking for myself, that’s the way I always wanted to keep it. Sitting in a pub having a drink before the game, gangs of lads would sometimes want to befriend you and take you into their cultural bosom. Or even worse, other loners start talking to you and in no time at all are offering you the chance of going round to see their frogs in a flat on the other side of London – ‘xpect my mum would make us some chips if we take her a bottle of cream sherry’....The trouble with deciding to hang out with a group of lads who seem reasonable when not too drunk and playing darts in the pub before the game, is that they will insist that you go on with them after the game to whatever it is that they have got in mind for the evening – which in my experience can be something like suddenly charging unexpectedly into a hitherto unobserved pub and starting a ferocious fight with a bunch of Fulham supporters. Oft times one of the surprised Fulham supporters will make good his escape, at which point your new friends look at you and start screaming ‘go on Jack! – kill the bastard!’ When this actually happened to me once, I ran out of the pub as if in hot pursuit – once I was twenty yards down the road, the escaping Fulham supporter stopped running, turned round to face me and made it clear he reckoned he could take me in a fair fight. I just kept running past him and said ‘I’m not with those mental bastards – I’m off for a kebab then going home’.
‘Good idea’ said the Fulham supporter and sprinted alongside me until we were well away from the flashpoint, felt able to slow down, and mosey into a kebab shop, order, shake hands, and be on our separate ways.
This reminds me of a wonderful institution on the Uxbridge Road which I noticed recently, on my way to a meeting with my record company, is, very sadly, no longer there. The House of Pies was exactly that – a fast food outlet that specialised in pies. Not exotic ones, although there was admittedly a wide choice of workaday pies. I think the House Of Pies was run by Iranians – anyway, there was a lot of them clustered behind the counter, many of whom didn’t appear to do much besides give you suspicious looks. The Unique Selling Point of the House Of Pies was a wonderful big black felt tip hand written sign which was inside the shop and proclaimed: ‘YOU MAY PICK ANY PIE YOU WANT, BUT IT IS FORBIDDEN TO POINT AT A PARTICULAR PIE’. Somehow you just knew that a committee of geezers had sat around in a room for about three nights arguing to the point of tears about what the sign should say, with a heap of discarded, rejected, signs up against the wall. If you could have had access to that pile of rejected signs you’d have the basis for winning the Turner Prize. Most customers dumbly accepted, if they actually noticed, this peculiar instruction, and would just say ‘chicken and bacon pie and chips please’. However, me and my two Hungarian Jewish mates, Billy and Alex, brought a mild devilment to the scene. The pies were in perpendicular ranks according to pie type behind glass in a typical baker’s hot tray scenario. There was always a pie type which was quite low in numbers, usually kidney and asparagus, and this would be the pie that we’d target.
I’d go first, walk up to the counter – the serving man always said ‘yes my friend’, presumably to make you feel valued and tense at the same time. I’d point at one of the kidney etc pies and say ‘can I have that pie right there please?’ This set the Iranians off into a frenzy – ‘No no my friend!’, (pointing at explanatory sign) – ‘you can choose any pie you want, but it is FORBIDDEN to point at a PARTICULAR PIE!’ Intense mumble of agreement from everyone else behind the counter. I’d then look slowly and stupidly at the sign as if I’d only just become aware of its existence, then look back to the counter – ‘I don’t understand – why can’t I have THAT pie?’ – pointing again.
‘Because it is FORBIDDEN TO POINT AT A PARTICULAR PIE’ the man would yell, pointing out the words individually on the sign. It was impossible to imagine what trauma had led these poor bastards to such a pass – ‘we just CAN’T have ANY MORE of this pie pointing!’
‘I agree with Abdul – it’s getting out of hand’...
Back in the shop, I’d shrug my shoulders and say, ‘well, okay – a kidney and asparagus pie please’. You’d then be served your pie with a hostile flourish – ‘CHIPS?’
Billy and Alex would then buy the same kind of pie so that, with luck, Alex had actually bought the very pie I’d pointed at.
As Alex moved away from the counter I’d say in a loud voice: ‘Alex! – that pie you’ve got’ (pointing at his pie) – ‘it’s the one I wanted – can I have it please?’
Alex would then nod and we’d swap pies.
When this happened the Iranians were scandalized and would give us teeth gnashing looks of hurt, betrayal and despair, but they also didn’t cross the line, knowing that now we’d bought the pies, they were out of their jurisdiction, and, galling as it was, we were free to swap pies if we wanted, although it would have been much more decent if we’d waited until we’d left the shop to flaunt our pie-swapping ways.
Over the course of a football season we could pull this stunt up to four times and the Iranians never seemed to notice that it was the same bunch of blokes with the same routine. I guess we all look the same to them...I contend that it’s these little moments that make life worth living.
But, as I say, the House Of Pies has gone now and I don’t go to football matches at all any more, not even on my own. I still sit avidly for hours watching the football results on a Saturday afternoon and love to feel like part of the crowd, hanging on other teams’ results – did Carlisle manage to turn around that 2-0 down at half time? (No, they didn’t).