Wednesday 29 May 2013

Goodbye Fergie 7: Perch Life 1976-1981

Gary Birtles

Knocking Liverpool off their perch was to be Alex Ferguson's task. Liverpool had occupied that perch for close on twenty-five years. Liverpool's rise was Manchester United's fall, and though United spent only one year in Division Two, and came back a rejuvenated force, there would be no disturbing Liverpool's long domination.

United went twenty-six years without winning the title. There were exciting teams now and then: the one that finished third and lost in the Cup Final to Southampton in 1976,  Names: Albiston, Buchan, Coppell, Daly, Forsyth, Brian Greenhoff (elder brother Jimmy was to come) Houston, Macari, McCreery, McIlroy, Pearson, Stepney - and Gordon Hill, the kind of self-obsessed winger United have always fallen in love with, who preferred to be known as Merlin, and who could put on the occasional magical performance, but not quite often enough. But when he was good he was very very good. Albiston was just starting a long career, Coppell was as exciting as Hill on the other wing, but more direct, less showy, the goalscorer was increasingly Stuart Pearson, a buy from Hull.

The following year Jimmy Grenhoff arrived and we won the FA Cup beating Liverpoo inthe final by a deflected Jimmy Greenhoff goal but the league position dropped to sixth, but then Tommy Doc humped the physio's wife so he had to go. There followed Dave Sexton, then Ron Atkinson, Atkinson being rather more fun than Sexton, and several years of worthy but dull attempts to finish higher than fourth. In the early eighties we managed third twice followed by fourth three times and were fourth in Atkinson's last year. Years of half-decent experiments with killer centre forwards like Garry Birtles, Peter Davenport, Frank Stapleton and Joe Jordan; one or two class midfielders like Ray Wilkins, and flying wingers like Mickey Thomas. Peter  Much the most exciting thing was the arrival Brian Robson in 1981 a proper genius who carried the team, and the introuction of Norman Whiteside, a kind of Rooney without the hair-transplant.


The Robson era deserves a post. The years until his arrival were the years of my earliest books, Faber Introduction 4, The Slant Door (1979) - which was joint winner, with Hugo Williams, of the Faber Prize)  and November and May (1981). I spent the six years, from 1975 to 1981 as head of art in a comprehensive girls' school that used to be a grammar school and still yearned to be one.

I couldn't get used to being called Sir or Mr Szirtes. I could never quite feel official and still can't. On the other hand I was actually official and had to realise that to be able to work at all. One must get used to slapping on the badge of authority on entering and the throwing it off when leaving. But it was very hard work doing so.

Clarissa's bow tie and the magic piano

Occasionally one could put the badge aside, when for example I played kick-about football in a free period with the young German conversation teacher from whom I learned a grammatical tense I didn't know existed.

Conversation eventually turned, as it was bound to, to the 1966 World Cup Final when England's third goal bounced off the bar and over the line (if you were English) or on the line (if you were German). I frankly didn't know and couldn't tell whether the ball crossed the line or not and said as much to Wolfgang (that being his name), adding that it didn't much matter now because the referee descided it was a goal. Wolfgang's reply was: 'Yes but I do not want it to have been a goal.' It was, in its way, a perfect Teutonic construction, a declaration that the present could change the past through a triumph of the will. That is unfair, I know. Nor did I feel any less friendly to Wolfgang after that, but so much of normal conversation is forgotten and this remains absolutely clear. I can see where he is sitting in the empty corner of the staff room and where I am sitting. I remember what he looked like. I remember his voice. I remember the light. It was 1975.

My mother died in 1975, having taken her own life. Helen was born five months later. Clarissa had to go into hospital in 1978 but came out safely. My father remarried in 1977, after two years of taped converstions, tapes I later transcribed, that are of huge personal value in terms of historical moments and incidents but not precise enough for historical documentation. - I must do something with them. They weigh on me like unfinished business,

Football was a welcome distracting noise but not much more. The heart had too much else to attend to, and the aspirations of a good but never great team lurching around the fringes of glory was simply background music, a sub- or pre-punk noise of the mind, the soundtrack to a sense of things falling apart. Rising football violence was the product, it seemed to me, of ever increasing anxiety and anger, of the awareness that we were at the cliff-edge of industrial decline, of an intense inarticulate tension at the core of the social fabric. It was the inward collapse of the post-imperial sense of stability and privilege.

Rotting rubbish in Finsbury Park

The 'winter of discontent', when it arrived, was a vivid set of images of dirty hospital laundry, of unburied corpses, of great piles of unemptied bins, symptoms of a mad scramble towards a political moment that I didn't understand at the time. Or maybe I did understand it and that is what frightened me. I can't really tell now.

We had little money and were lucky to be living in low rent accommodation. The Slant Door appeared while the TLS was off the street because of the printers strike and was eventually covered in two sentences in an article that tried to catch up with everything much later.

When I think back now those poems of fragile domestic security, and of the minor disasters and sinister alleys of art seem to fall naturally, not only in terms of contemporary events, but in the histories that led up to them.

Monday 27 May 2013

Goodbye Fergie 6: Relegation

Manchester United were relegated to the then Second Division in 1974. This followed a few seasons of steep decline after Matt Busby, Sir Matt Busby as he was by then, retired. In 1968-69 United came second to Manchester City, just two point behind them, with Georgie Best getting the goals but most of the great mid-Sixties team was beginning to fade. The following year United slipped to 11th, though Best was still scoring. It was at that point Busby retired and handed over to the young Wilf McGuinness, a decent United player whose career was ended by a bad injury in 1960.

It didn't work. United finished eighth and began the next season poorly, so that was the end of McGuinness and Busby returned.  It made no difference, the team finished eighth again. Transition was going badly. Busby bowed out and Frank O'Farrell, the Leicester manager came next. George Best was playing brilliantly but going off the rails. Knives were being thrown at Old Trafford. It was the beginning of the Seventies. Eighth again. Next season was even worse. United went the first nine games without winning. O' Farrell was gone in December. United ended the season in 18th place. Best went missing, didn't turn up for training and played his last game for United the next January, by which time Tommy Docherty, a hard man known as The Doc had taken over. By the end of the 1973-74 season United were relegated, next to bottom of the league.

What of numinous names? Stepney was still there, and Sadler and Kidd. And some younger players who were going to be all right, but not yet:  Holton (six foot two, eyes of blue / Big Jim Holton's after you), Martin Buchan, the very young Brian Greenhoff (who died a few days ago aged only sixty), Stewart Houston, Gerry Daly, Sammy McIlroy, Willie Morgan, Trevor Anderson who shone once or twice, and older players brought in to restore some order, such as George Graham, and Jim McCalliog. Lou Macari was only twenty-four but he already seemed part of the another team's past. 


The years of decline coincided precisely with my years at art college. I was at Harrow for a year from 1968, then spent three years at Leeds (at the height of Leeds United's glory), married Clarissa in the summer of 1970, then did a year at Goldsmiths. The following year, in the year of relegation, I was in my first job. Our first child, Tom, was born the day before Best played his last game.

When the work people do is associated with youth it is the youthful image we retain. I can remember the faces of the failed teams of the early seventies quite clearly. My own face was still young. For most of 1974 I was just twenty-five. The art college had been a great part of my life. I exhibited at the Lane Gallery with others at the end of my first year, got married, received a travelling scholarship the next year that Clarissa and I spent in Italy falling in love with Giotto, then won the art history prize and finished Fine Art with a First. On the other hand I failed to get into the Royal College and left Leeds behind for Goldsmiths. Here Clarissa suffered a miscarriage shortly after moving to our London flat in New Cross, then slowly recovered. Then she was pregnant again. We moved to Hitchin and I found my first job as a fractional art teacher in a Cheshunt school.

In 1973 there was the Yom Kippur War and OPEC raised the price of crude oil. Miners went on strike - everybody went on strike - we had the three-day-week and lighting the house with candles. There were IRA bombs in London. There was the Cod War with Iceland. And United went down. 

United went down but my devotion to Manchester United continued. We had an old black and white TV that sat next to the kitchen boiler. We watched Match of the Day. I was a teacher, which was not what I had set out to be. Clarissa was far from picking up her art career and was being a mother once, then twice.

The fates of the country, of Manchester United and ourselves seemed to be running a parallel course. The country was breaking apart just like United, and would have to re-form itself, as would United. As for us, real life started here, with jobs, children and the long struggle. The Sixties was collapsing like a pack of cards. Edward Heath called the 'who governs' election and it turned out it wasn't him. There was the Guildford pub bombing and the Birmingham pub bombing. Friedrich Hayek won the Nobel Prize for economics. 

No more Beatles. It was David Bowie and the Spiders from Mars in charge now. It was Bill Shankly, Alf Ramsey's sacking, Don Revie's appointment and Brian Clough's arrival at Derby County. It was the maddest, strangest and darkest of years. It was the year the Sixties finally ended. 

But it was going to be all right somehow because it simply had to be. In 1973 I published a poem in the TLS. Next year, relegation year, I published a poem in Ambit. Straws to clutch at for the probationary art teacher. Lindsay Anderson's film,  O Lucky Man, came out. Luck would out sooner or later.

Sunday 26 May 2013

Three days in London

Anne Stevenson via 

Three London days in a row. First to the British Academy to hear Anne Stevenson with BA dinner after, sitting next to Anne on her better-hearing side. She spends her time reading books on science, geology and evolution. Far too many poets now, she says. They can't all be poets. One can't translate poetry, she says. I simply note to myself that yesterday's orthodoxies are today's heresies. I love Anne because there's no bullshit and because she is a fighter. I disagree of course, but dinner is not the place for a long discussion with a partially-hearing hero.

Clarissa and I spend the night at Tom's. Impossible not to love Tom. This is not the place to say why but we are heartbreakingly proud of him.


Next day to CLPE. Jenny meets me and introduces me to Colin who is not only a film-maker but a saxophonist. Outside they are pollarding trees so a deal has been made with the workmen for them to leave off for a certain time. Of course there are other noises: flight routes, rain, and, at one lovely point during the recording, a blackbird singing. CLPE is in an old primary school, the spaces welcoming and gentle. We talk over coffee. Jenny has chosen which poems she'd like me to read from Giants. I am seated in front of a collaborative artwork by children that includes an eagle flying off towards the top left. She is worried in case the eagle looks as though it is attached to my head, so we move slightly the other way so it is now flying from behind my right shoulder. I say a short verse I remember from my childhood in Hungary, or rather sing it as I remember it better in song form ('Volt egyszer egy kemence / Bele bujt a kis Bence...) though I have an adult Petöfi in reserve (Befordultam a koyhába /  Rágyujtottam a pipámra...) We discuss Gove and the pressure on teachers. CLPE do a lot of good work talking to teachers about teaching literature). 

Head off in the rain, on top of 45 bus to Kings Cross, over London Bridge and look, there is St Paul's in the rain!  Meet Clarissa. We are both tired. The long train ride home.


Yesterday back to London. Clarissa drives me - she prefers to drive nowadays - to Stevenage then we get the train to Kings Cross and walk over to the South Bank from Leicester Square. The streets are crowded with Borussia Dortmund supporters in their yellow and black. I wish them well against Bayern Munich but they go on to lose as we learn after the Rozewicz.

Tadeusz Rozewicz via

I am not sure why they asked me to introduce the poetry since Tom Paulin is there and he knows more than I do. I have a gift - a slightly disturbing gift as far as I am concerned - of knowing just enough while appearing to know far more. However I do know just enough to talk for ten minutes more or less of the cuff, and possibly some more. There is tension in the waiting. It's the first time Stork Press have done something like this. The Purcell Room is almost full. Sophie Mayer introduces, I do the poetry summing up, then into the performance. Tom Paulin and Katy Carr read English, the famous Polish actor Jan Peszek and his equally famous singer daughter, Maria, read in Polish. In between there are film clips of Rozewicz in old age and, lastly, a great song by Katy at the piano. She has a hell of a voice, subtly modulated. Then some chat outside. The train back packed solid with cheerfully drunk and singing rugby supporters in green. Leicester Tigers. Quite a job getting off at Stevenage.

I will get back to Goodbye Fergie later today.

Sunday 19 May 2013

Goodbye Fergie 5:
Decline and the Father

                                                I do not know which to prefer
                                                The beauty of inflections
                                                Or the beauty of innuendoes,
                                                The blackbird whistling
                                                        Or just after.

                  - Wallace Stevens, from 'Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird'

Frankly, I don't know either.  The apotheosis of the great mid-sixties team was the 1968 European Cup Final in Wembley against Benfica, a match I watched live on black and white TV. United won 4-1, which makes it sound easier than it was. The match went to extra time, the performance to catch the eye was that of an almost unknown, twenty year old John Aston, whose first and last hour of glory it was, who had the beating of the Benfica full-back and outshone Best on the night. Law was missing through injury as he was ever more to do, and the other new boys were Brian Kidd, just nineteen at the time and David Sadler, then twenty-two. It seemed like dawn, but really it was the last brilliant blaze of glory before dusk and a fast approaching night. I am including an old clip of the transmission that I actually watched full and live, with the Kenneth Wolstenholme commentary.

Looking at it again, I imagine United in the beautiful dark blue they actually adopted for the match,an even-handed necessity since normally both United and Benfica played in red, so Benfica wore white. I notice how clean the match is, that there is no rolling about pretending to be hurt. There is little cynicism at all. Great players make mistakes. Best wags his finger at a Benfica defender and the great Eusebio applauds Alex Stepney's save.

Football, like any game, thrives on anxiety and disappointment. It was tense until the third goal. The relief and overwhelming joy at the fourth is the reward for your anxiety. No anxiety: no excitement. No danger of loss: no drama.

Loss was to come. The next season was one of great disappointment. Best, Law, and Charlton had all reached their peak. Stiles and Crerand were near the end of theirs. The hoped-for youth did not mature as hoped. Brian Kidd, the greatest one available, did well enough but Best was getting bored and moving beyond control. Being spat on and kicked by the Estudiantes player in the World Club Championship, then getting sent-off for retaliating, cannot have helped, but it was just another thing. He was falling off the edge of cliff in his own spectacular fashion, brilliant as ever, but deadly bored. The team finished eleventh in the league. Thing were falling apart. Matt Busby, now Sir Matt Busby, retired at the end of the season.


Boys naturally identify with other boys, generally older boys. The great footballers of the team you support are your wonderful non-existent brothers. They complete you when you are feeling at your least complete. You need them as you struggle past your parents, especially beyond your father, who, by the time you are eighteen or nineteen, has begun to take on the appearance of an old man. He is no longer the authority he might have been when you were ten or eleven.

That is if you have a good father. Mine was very good, but neither he nor I could prevent the withering of his power, not in my imagination, nor in our family life. Such withering away may be temporary. Time, as it advances, offers a more charitable perspective. The father becomes the man and it is as if he were growing into his earlier self, assuming a diferent kind of independent stature, as mine has done.
If the successful players are your shadow brothers, the manager, especially one as venerable as Busby, is your über-shadow father. His age peaks in wisdom, and the hard lesssons of his life (a suffering you eventually recognise) offers the hope of survival and transformation.  

So with my father, so with Busby. Busby was the man who built Manchester United as the major force they had never been before the war (how hard it is to consider that possibility!) He survived Munich. He lost the best part of his team, effectively his sons, and he built again, with one surviving son, Bobby Charlton; one natural son, his fellow Scot, Denis Law; and his genius prodigal son, Georgie Best. He was "like a father to them". He had the benign fatherly look and a quiet, almost classless yet working-class Scottish intelligence and unforced authority that differentiated him from the English crowd that flowed around him. 

He was like my own father in many respects, but more competent, less nervous, less vulnerable, more effortlessly potent. He was not a grand strategist, not a technical chalk-board theorist.  He healed and encouraged - as I imagined, as we probably all imagined - by sheer presence.

I watch Charlton score the first United goal in that European Cup Final. A moment of elation but no acrobatics, no piling into a crowd, no embracing, just a turning away and withdrawing into self, into further effort. The rejection of egotism. The good son working for the good father.

But then the good father goes.

Friday 17 May 2013

Goodbye Fergie 4:
The fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth Beatle

My full adolescence coincides perfectly with Philip Larkin's Annus Mirabilis, the Beatles' first LP and the appearance of George Best. It was stiff competition for a fifteen year old, deeply insecure teenager with a big nose, always on the fringes of the school team, making the odd appearance in the First Eleven but much more likely in the Second. The England dream had long gone. I was fast (I got to run for the county, once) but I was short-sighted, lacked that 'vital first touch' and, had I been observing myself play, I would generally have awarded myself 6 out of 10). My actual position was out on the right-wing. I had no functioning left foot. I was OK at best.

Nor did I lead the social life of the other footballing boys. No girlfriends until I was seventeen and always awkward, not only with girls but with other boys, in fact with pretty well everybody. I know every teenage boy feels this, but factor in the foreigness that never quite went away and you get some idea.

Then came the great mid-Sixties team who were a glory to my imagination. Numinous names doesn't cover it! Stepney, Brennan, Dunne, Crerand, Foulkes, Stiles, Best, Charlton, Sadler, Aston, Cantwell, Herd and Connelly. In compiling that list I am aware that it fades a little after Aston, but the light doesn't altogether go. I have clear memories of Herd and Connelly. This was the miracle team,  that played thrilling, dynamic football. It was the first triumph of hope.

What do I mean by dynamic, thrilling football? I must try to write a little about that for those who are indifferent to the game and will do so later. For now I mean that the ball moved fast and accurately from player to player. That defenders tried to make thoughtful passes, that Stepney behind that defence was reliable and more, that Foulkes was a rock, that Stiles, unlikely as he looked (he resembled an electrician my dad knew, little, with glasses, in Stiles's case off the field of course) was fierce and capable of dealing with some of the best forwards in the world. But above all, there was Charlton cruising the midfield, Law appearing here and there, sharp, brilliant, deadly, magnificent as a bird in flight, and, above all, Best, who was something else altogether, a small, willowy, handsome wizard such as wingers are dreamt to be, spinning, slipping by people, turning at impossible angles, clearly a world star.

And that is what he was. The Fifth Beatle as the foreign press labelled him. I now think he was Ryan Giggs, born into a football version of the Restoration. Best was a Restoration rake in what had been a Puritan game in England. And the team too had something of the flamboyant rake about it. They were what one could aspire to in late adolescence.

Denis Law in flight

It was beautiful football. Not all the time, not in every game, but at its high-points it had what commentators now occasionally call poetry. Poetry was what I needed, though I didn't know that at the time. Football didn't save my life, but it offered somewhere for my imagined life to be.

And behind them all stood Matt Busby, the manager, of whom more next time.

Wednesday 15 May 2013

Goodbye Fergie 3:
Albert Quixall days

Albert Quixall

I am writing this from Budapest at the flat of a friend, but want to continue the series as a lead-up to the Fergie High Plateau, an eminence I hadn't ever thought to reach.

The long romance was only five years old and I was fourteen when the sixties team began to climb to its first peak since 1958. It started with the FA Cup Final on 25 May 1963, almost exactly fifty years ago to the day as I write. Bobby Charlton was in place, Denis Law had arrived but Georgie Best was not yet ready. His first appearance was to be in the November of that year.

I mentioned names before. The numinous ones here are Gaskell, Dunne, Cantwell, Crerand, Foulkes, Setters, Giles, Quixall, Herd, Law, Charlton. Leicester had Ken Keyworth, Mike Stringfellow, Colin Appleton and Frank McLintock. Names like Keyworth and Stringfellow seemed the epitome of England to my forming verbal imagination. A man worth a key and a fellow that looked like string.


I had to look the United team up to check those numinous names, but with a little thought I would have got them all. All except one: Albert Quixall.  It is as if Quixall were a time visitor from a previous era, a childhood figure mixed up with teenage dreams; a Victorian among the Moderns. Albert Quixall - a record buy from Sheffield Wednesday for £45,000  - was a quick-heal straight after the Munich disaster. Quixall the Quickheal.

He was a boy with a blond quiff, and unusual in being called Albert. Not many boys of his age were, and, if they were, they tended to shorten it to Bert, or possibly Al. Albert was the Victorian part of him. He was gone by the end of 1963 so his brief blond comet trail only entered my consciousness as it was leaving it. Quixall looked as though he might have been part of a backing band on a rock 'n roll gig. He had a boyish face, still a little plump in the cheeks. To me he will forever represent the pre-Beatles and Philip Larkin pre-sexual intercourse days.  Those were my impressionable days too of course, between the ages of ten and fourteen.

Boys like Quixall were my elders at co-ed state grammar school. They were glamorous, slightly threatening semi-adults, whose magnetism preceded the magnetism of girls by a year or two, maybe less. They were a possible realm of being. They might appear in the school football team or be found hanging around the corridors. Some would be smoking down by the bike-shed. Some might have transcended class barriers or have been born into the lower middle class. Some became engineers, some doctors. Other would work in garages, offices or shops.

My own ambitions, apart from football, were determined by the ambitions of my parents. Penniless refugees,  set up in jobs and accommodation in London with invaluable official help, they had brought their aspirational backgrounds with them. Their children's lives were to be secure and assimilated. My brother was to be a violinist (he had the talent for it) and I was to be a doctor (they thought I had the talent for it). My Hungarian school results had given them plenty of encouragement though the English results were not quite as glittering. It's the adaptation to the language, they must have thought. My personal ambitions were survival, a different face and body and a top quality bicycle to tour with, ideally a racing Raleigh with Sturmey-Archer five-speed gears. Of these, only survival was a realistic ambition. In my heart of hearts I already knew that I would fail to win an England cap at football, and that I might even struggle to make the school's under 14-team.

This was North-West London so the boys I knew supported Chelsea or Arsenal or Spurs, with the odd Watford or Brentford fan among them. I remember asking a tall thin scholarly boy what team he supported. He didn't look the football type. Chesterfield, he replied. We were nowhere near Chesterfield geographically. Chesterfield was nowhere near glamour or even hope. It was an admirable answer, like a gasp of northern wind. I like the crooked spire, he said.

The Quixalls of early teenage life were objects of envy, fear, and tenderness. It was as if I knew that their opportunities might be limited, their flowering brief. Looking back on it now I am sure there was a trace of homo-erotic love in my feelings though Eros was no conscious part of it. There was something baby-faced about them, though in certain lights there was a hint of Richard Attenborough as Pinky in Brighton Rock.

I was not of them. I was not that face. Bobby Charlton's face was the benign aspect of older boys, mostly blond, mostlly British. They nearly always came with quiffs or other not-too-tidy but fancy hairstyles. Quixall's was their passing aspect, just as he was United's.

Monday 13 May 2013

Goodbye Fergie 2
Falling in love with Bobby Charlton

You can't help but notice you are growing. Your body changes shape, you sprout hair, you are becoming a creature alien to yourself and to your parents, to the world. No wonder teenagers love scary films full of transformations and violence. The energy is there but so is the fear and you don't know what to do with it.

I think the first time I saw Manchester United in the flesh was at Fulham when Fulham had players like Jim Langley and Johnny Haynes.

Johnny Haynes

Names. Names mean nothing and everything. Decades later they toll you back into some small booth of your life, the kind of booth you used to get in record shops where you could listen to the record before you bought it. They were like phone-hoods, like the kind of hairdryer you saw in women's hairdressers.  Mention a name and a face swims up at you, or a moment of movement, or a voice echoing out of an unseen space.

In front of me on the field the Manchester United team of 1960. I look up the date now it says 26 March 1960. That seems right. I think I remember a spring day. If it is 1960 the team is: Gregg, Foulkes, Brennan, Carolan... more names, but wait. It can't be that date. It must have been 28 April 1962. In 1960 United won 5-0, and I would remember that. In 1962 Fulham won 2-0. That is less memorable.

 And now it comes back. I am very depressed by the loss. We are outside the ground and I ask my father (in English by now, Hungarian seems to have disappeared into thin air): Do you think we (gulp) will go down, dad? I am almost tearful. And he says, No.

I am consoled but my father's voice is no longer the voice of God. He can't ensure United won't go down, nor can he know that they won't. It's not in his power. His powers are limited. In fact United finish 15th and the next season is even worse: 19th. Almost down. (Manchester City and Leyton Orient go down that year.) I am squaring the tragic heroes of 1958 with the team in transition in the early Sixties. Not that I understand such terms as 'transition', not really. I understand it as danger and the hope of rescue.

Because by now it is deep within me. What is? A sort of story. It is not exactly what theorists call a discourse because there seem to be no dimensions to the story apart from the sense of anxiety and relief you process as a story that has a beginning but seems for ever to be improvising itself into a potentially tragic pattern. Loss is not only depressing: it is a form of humiliation. The heart goes into hiding. It is not from others. Others don't care. I have no sense of what it might be like to be a Fulham supporter. They are another planet, as is everyone else. The humiliation is of the loved object, and the lover is bound to feel it as his own humiliation. It is mirrorless.


The young men on the pitch are fragments of my psyche. I have fallen in love with Bobby Charlton. It is a distant romance and perfectly satisfactory in that form. He is like an older brother I will never meet, and that too is satisfactory. He glides, he swerves, he homes in, then he unleashes. These movements are metaphors as much as events in a script. Bobby Charlton is the benign worker-gentleman aspect of the nation which is, I assume, my nation. The rest of the team is vital, but there is a core to it, an embodiment. Bobby Charlton is that embodiment.

He is also, by default, my embodiment, only with a better body. What he does is not impossible. It is not inconceivable I should be able to do such things.  That's the tangible part. I must work. I must run faster. I must glide, swerve, home in, and unleash. These are beautiful things to do. They are possible. And listen! He is a survivor of the great crash. And here he is, alive and cruising. Life can be like this.

Sunday 12 May 2013

Goodbye Fergie: 1
Why football, why Manchester United

Sir Alex Ferguson' last game at Old Trafford, 11 May 2013

It has been quite a year so far in both public and private terms. The death of Margaret Thatcher, the abdication of the Pope, and now the retirement of Fergie on the one hand and our decision to make this our last year of salaried employment on the other. Time's wingéd chariot is hurrying near. Eras are ending.

I will no doubt write more about retirement plans and what retirement, in this sense at least, might mean. I'll reflect a little on the years of teaching art, history of art and poetry. But that's for later. This is a football post and anyone not interested can stop reading here.

Though you might choose to wait because this isn't so much about football as about a team and what it means in a personal life that, I suspect, might be untypical. The truth is that I feel very deeply about this team and have done for over fifty years and would quite like to explain to myself not only why but why I haven't grown out of it. It is a romance that has gone on a very long time.


I have written before about my father taking me to my first football match in 1955 or 1956, the open terraces of the Népstadion, and the faint memory of the lilac shirts of the Újpest Dózsa team that struck me as somehow romantic, all the more so because the occasion was a moment of intimacy with my father and because it was among a large and potentially frightening mass of people. There is something raw and heady about a football crowd, as there is about any great gathering intent on an occasion. Even as a child you are aware of passions that seem to exceed whatever events are happening on the field. I felt them as an aspect of adulthood.

Ujpest Dózsa

Soon after we left Hungary, came to England, found our first accommodation in London, and in all the chaos of adjustment I doubt I noticed anything much beyond the immediately personal. The big world outside, if I heard anything about it at all, was not my affair.

And then came the Munich aircrash in which  many members of a football team were killed. I hardly knew who they were but somehow I was aware that very shortly afterwards the same club, Manchester United, put out a makeshift team that succeeded in reaching the final of the FA Cup. This was the point I started following the story without knowing anything much about football. The makeshift team were defeated in that final of 1958, the United goalkeeper, Harry Gregg, being barged into the net in a way that seemed to me cruel. An aircrash and now this! I can't remember watching the match on TV. I don't know if we even had a television then, but it is as if I remembered it.

Nat Lofthouse barges Harry Gregg into the goal, FA Cup Final 1958

It was love I think, a strong sense of identification that demanded loyalty: it was the first thing in my life outside my immediate family circle that required such thoroughgoing, possibly eternal commitment. It's a commitment I have kept to this day.

The commitment wasn't related to specific acts of support, more to a web of complex feelings I didn't understand at the time,  an emotional condition with emotional triggers.

Manchester United match day programme

I actually started playing in 1959 while at primary school. I was quite solidly built for a nine year old and could run fast so the teacher in charge of the school football team picked me to play at centre forward. I don't think I had very much technical ability but I practiced hard in the playground and dreamt vainly of playing for England, vainly as I knew even then, because however good I was or could be, being born Hungarian, I was ineligible.

The school team was rather good and won a local schools cup in a final for which the teacher, a strongly religious man with a talent for  rousing public speech, psyched us up. We won 2-0 and I picked up a small medal. Not being a particularly social child, being part of a team and being awarded a medal, was my first social success. By the time primary school came to an end in 1960 I understood a little more about the game I was actually playing. I can still recall the sense of lining up on a pitch and running hard in chase of a ball. I can be that boy for a few microseconds of YouTube memory.

On 19 September 1959 my father took me to White Hart Lane to see Spurs play Preston in their change kit of dark blue and white. Spurs won 5-1. It was another moment of intimacy but less bewildering. I can see that fathers are going to be part of this.

I'll continue down this line as long as it interests me so that should take me a through a few posts.

Saturday 4 May 2013

An extraordinary week, two prizes and a gift

I haven't known a week like this, exhausting yet rewarding beyond measure. In fact it is two weeks. Cambridge reading on Tuesday 23rd,  university the next day, London the next for PBS meeting, Warwick on Friday to give brief paper at the translation conference, Saturday a full day's writing workshop at the Writers Centre, Norwich. Sunday with guests and family.

This last Monday in Brighton for reading and discussion at Sussex University with Hungarian novelist Noémi Szécsi, staying overnight to go to London. Return home. Back down next day for drinks in memory of Valerie Eliot at The London Library. The next day at university and finishing review of Imre Kertész's Dossier K for The Times. Yesterday to Oxford for marvellous reading by Gerard Woodward, and later for news of the translation prize.

It does sound a crazy time, even to me. No time to reflect now as I am due to teach a whole day here. More later.