Greek generals waiting in the wings?

32 years on I arrive once again at Santander on a ferry from Plymouth. This  time alone and on foot. I am picking up again my journey following in the footsteps of Laurie Lee who walked through Spain in 1935 , unaware that the country was already irrevocably set on a momentous civil war that would change it and Europe for ever.

Last month I travelled to Vigo where Lee landed in Spain. This time I am traveling to Orense in Galicia to walk south, along the Via De La Plata, towards Zamora. I lived in Santander for  two years in the 1980s with my first love and where I took my wife, not  the same person, two years ago for a short holiday.

A year ago my wife, out of the blue, decided to divorce me. I stand outside  C/Santa Lucia 15, and gaze  up at the 3rd floor balcony. Behind the shuttered window ,  I am lying with my first love. She pronounces sadly but definitively that I will not be the father of any child that she might have. We do not part for several months, years even, but that was the beginning of the end.

I wonder alone around old haunts but this visit I  am accompanied by the ghosts of two former lovers. There weren’t the signs in the bars of “crisis menus” that I had seen in Vigo, Valladolid and Madrid one month earlier. Santander was always more prosperous and protected from the economic storms of the rest of the peninsular.

I search for an old friend, not seen for 25 years. He has left the family travel agency business. He was the boss. Something feels wrong. Somebody else looking at a second chance in life?

I track down  the red-haired vivacious M who had fallen head over heels for  L, way back in the distant past, a “bombonero” man, in my previous life in Santander. L, in his vivid orange overalls,  would effortlessly sling a couple of heavy metal gas canisters on his shoulders and race up the stairs of the city’s flats. He was all rippling muscle and entirely defenseless against M’s Scottish charms. L would fly those steps. At the thought I recall Cortezar’s description of the uniqueness of a stair which perhaps put into words the thought process of an Egyptian pyramid architect or an Aztec master craftsman). L’ s life was unencumbered by such thoughts, mine dominated by them. Cortezar said…
No one will have failed to observe that frequently the floor bends in such a way that one part rises at a right angle to the plane formed by the floor and then the following section arranges itself parallel to the flatness, so as to provide a step to a new perpendicular, a process which is repeated in a spiral or in a broken line to highly variable elevations. 

Ducking down and placing the left hand on one of the vertical parts and right hand upon the the corresponding horizontal, one is in momentary possession of a step or stair. 

Each one of these steps, formed as we have seen by two elements, is situated somewhat higher and further than the one prior, a principle which gives the idea of a staircase, while whatever other combination, producing perhaps more beautiful or picturesque shapes, would surely be incapable of translating one from the ground floor to the first floor.

I had stayed recently in a hotel in Madrid on the Gran Via, Hotel de las Letras, in which the public and bedroom walls were not decorated with pictures, but with quotes from , mainly Spanish and Latin  American, writers. At the foot of the stairs was the quote from Julio Cortazar. It resonates as my personal emotional journey is a steep climb with many false steps and stumbles along the way.

As I make my way through Spain,I am reading the “Snow Leopard” about the quest in Nepal , by the writer, of a glimpse of the unattainable mythical creature . The process of the journey applies balm over raw grief, a product of a lost soulmate. A beautiful tale punctuated by devastating insights into the inner turmoil of a man’s loss. The book was a tip from Emily Barr , the writer, as a good read to take on a personal journey of discovery . I am not searching for an elusive snow leopard but I am seeking something as I retrace the footsteps of Laurie lee through Spain. Peter Matthiessen, the author, is grieving for his wife, and embarks on a journey through Nepal in search of a glimpse of the creature, real enough but rendered mythical  by dint of its invisibility to the human eye when in its native surroundings. Subtly interwoven into the story of his journey are slender threads of insights into his  buried feelings. These observations snag on the weft of the tale,momentarily, but are soon unpicked and the pattern continues to unfold. Matthiessen, at the start of his journey, talks of “Knowing that at the bottom of each breath there was a hollow space that needed to be filled.”

My hotel in Santander is on C/ General Mola, named after one of  Franco’s fellow rebel conspirators, reminding me of the city’s affiliations and my ex landlord, one of the conspirators who threw his weight behind the infamous  Lieutenant General Tejero, he of the handlebar moustache , who held the Spanish Parliament hostage on that infamous  day of 23 Feb 1981. The king, Juan Carlos, according to the accepted narrative, intervened decisively and ordered the rebels to go back to their barracks. Another version has the king, the figurehead of the old order and establishment, losing his nerve at the moment of truth, and betraying his fellow conspirators. Take your choice.

I recall the controversy in the 1980s  in Santander, when Franco’s statue, in a main square, had to be removed in order to build a car park. It never returned but I muse that perhaps it is there waiting in the wings for a dramatic return when, as some diehards of the right would no doubt like to think, the inevitable failure of democracy leads to a return of the old values … Over in Greece, I can see the old Generals dusting themselves down too, waiting for their moment.

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Why do all goalkeepers cheat at penalties?

“All that I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football.”- Albert Camus.

Ok, the gloves are off!

I have been writing this blog for six months and I have avoided the subject of football throughout this time (more or less) and I have not ranted. I am about to do both so look away now if you might be distressed by this.

Incidentally, I can be calm and rational, I really can. How do I know? Because The Guardian says so today in the paper and online.  

I am writing this wearing my favourite Philosophy Football T-Shirt bearing the above quote from Albert Camus. He was a half decent French/African writer but crucially also played football as a goalkeeper for Algeria.

Yes, so this is a blog about having a second chance in life as a writer so what’s that got to do with football I hear you say. Well I would put forward in my defence, Nick Hornby, John Crace, Emily Barr (come back to her), Colin Shindler (for Jim and Rhianna).

So back to Emily. She is a successful writer who used to write a column for Guardian Sport.She spoke as an MA Guest Speaker at University College Falmouth recently and admitted that the column about a young women living with a football obsessed partner was fictitious. It got me thinking though and I realised that I could well have been that person.

Who else would be so preoccupied with the fact that goalies cheat every week with millions watching on Match Of The Day, Sky Sports( and the odd few on ITV) and NOBODY notices except for me… and that’s the problem, I feel more and more that it’s just me. It’s affecting me, my writing, it’s a conspiracy. I need to get it sorted!

To get technical for a moment- and no I am not going to touch on the current offside law(but I could do because it is an abomination)-if a side is awarded a penalty, the goalkeeper must stay on their line until the penalty is kicked. But they don’t, every week they jump forward a split second before the kick, narrow the angle, and more and more kicks are saved illegally.

Gary and the boys scratch their heads about why more and more penalty kicks are missed BUT they know, all the players, referees, linesmen, commentators know but nobody says anything. Now, Albert Camus knew all about conspiracies and feeling like an outsider and he played football for Algeria as a goalkeeper. He would sort it out, but he can’t, he’s dead. So I have to!

I have had letters published on this issue by the Guardian and the Observer ( though David James wouldn’t discuss the issue!), I have tweeted on the subject with @thesecretfootballer, who admitted the whole thing.But the cover up goes on. The popular You Are the Ref strip discusses ball-to-groin outrage,huge punts and metal toecaps but it doesn’t go near the penalty scandal. Why? Someone put me out of my misery please?

Ok, so does this one obsession make me a total football nerd, perhaps not, but I have previous. Consider the following:

  • Supporting a team for 50 years whose last major success came in 1963 when he was eight..
  • Forcing a non- football loving girlfriend to listen to the crackly BBC World Service and keep a written detailed record, minute by minute, of the first half of the 1981 cup final.I arrived home in time for the second half. She left me a year later
  • Buying his six year old daughter a Goal Net for her birthday and made her stand in it for hours on end in the wind and rain while he scored goal after goal.
  • Purchasing a ticket for a Spurs game in Madrid knowing that it coincided with a holiday break in Edinburgh with his mother and wife. Despite having the full backing of a certain Alistair Campbell to go to the game (Long story but I was his chauffeur on a charity gig that he did and we spent all day talking football-he’s a Burnley nut- and discussed amongst other things Tony Blair’s alleged sighting of Jacky Milburn playing  for Newcastle. “Seize the moment” he said but I bottled it. We lost 4-0 and my wife divorced me 6 months later anyway. Alistair, by the way, was amazing on the day and is a brilliant ambassador for Mind.
  •  Considering a tattoo having noticed It seems to be the fashion amongst his younger writing student colleagues. Ankles, shoulders and just above the groin seem to be the preferred locations of choice.  A Tottenham Hotspur Cockerel would be the only possible design choice! Could be another ball-to-groin-outrage!

So, football nerd or not, I will leave that to others to decide, I will conclude this rant by making a simple request.

Watch football today, live,  or on the telly ( listening on the radio or following online is no good) and decide for yourself how many goalies cheat on St Patrick’s Day 2012 and tweet me about it on @hotspurman.

Should a referee, two linesmen, a fourth official( plus two more in European games) spot this cheating if you and I can with our naked eye? I think so but will Gary, Alan, Lee, Mark, Alan or Adrian, Gareth, Andy refer to it. I don’t think so, they will be too busy looking at borderline offsides or shirt pulling.

Perhaps their editors should ask them?

Good, glad I got that off my chest. Now, what’s the team news for today’s big match.

Incidentally, I can be calm and rational, I really can. How do I know? Because The Guardian says so today in the paper and online.  

PS  Happy 25th Birthday to that six year old daughter for yesterday! She has escaped to Milan, sadly not to see a football match.

Love comes in all shapes and sizes (and typefaces)

I was brought up in a god fearing, Sunday Express reading, London suburb home. At the age of 18 I escaped to the flesh pots of Portsmouth to study and fell head over heels with an alluring Daily Mail. It was a heady affair but all too soon I was seduced by The Times, with a cut price deal for students, and I proceeded to flirt madly with the aristocratic lady of Fleet Street.

As I write this on Valentine Day 2012, my first for nearly 20 years as a single man(well, almost, the decree absolute will be dropping on my mat any day soon), my thoughts drift towards my one rock solid love affair with my one true soul mate, The Guardian. We met, funnily enough, in Spain. I was homesick for news of home as I spent a year in romantic Moorish Granada. A student of life and not much else, I imbibed the local culture, in the main, through my bloodstream. The international edition of The Guardian proved to be no holiday romance and the paper and I are still together.

Last Thursday was, however, a landmark in the relationship. For the first time I met a real life ex Guardian journalist, Emily Barr. Emily, now a best- selling fiction writer, came to speak about her professional life to a group of MA Professional Writing students at University College Falmouth. I am one of those students, having a second chance in life, training to be a writer.

I first became aware of Emily, as The Other Half, the writer of a 90s Guardian Sports Column about the travails of living with a football obsessed partner. I felt like I was that man (the other big love affair of my life being Tottenham Hotspur). Sadly, Emily confessed last week, that the column was entirely made up, that she knew little of football and male colleagues had helped her out with the offside law.It was her first entry into the world of fiction and the inspiration for her future career as a fiction writer.

I recently read a book that further cemented my affinity with The Guardian. John Crace, the author of the Digested Read G2 column in the Guardian, recently releasedVertigo. This is an account of his family life as seen through the prism of an enduring, mainly unrequited, love affair with his mistress, Tottenham Hotspur. John and I share many similarities (talented and successful writer and journalist not being one.) Apart from football and Spurs, we are of a similar age, we have both suffered from depression at times and both have spouses and a daughter who refuse to embrace the one passionate and constant element of our fragile lives. This latter point possibly explaining, in my case, the waiting for that solicitor’s letter to drop through the letter box

Perhaps it was John who Emily consulted about the offside law, the reality of life as a football fan and its impact on the other half?  

PS For those who also share a passion for the Guardian see The Guardian Open Weekend on 24/25 March 2012 for an opportunity for a weekend away with Polly, Charlie, Simon, Marina and Alan and others. Unfortunately I am otherwise engaged with a visit to the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival, at which John Crace is appearing (at the same time as I have to be at another reading….)

Emily, meanwhile, is appearing at Chiplitfest 20-22 April, despite the name, an apparently very respectable literary festival in Chipping Norton in the Cotswolds. She is bringing her characters to life at a workshop on Saturday 21 April. Catch her if you can.