YOKOHAMA – The crowds and the weather conspire here, and a common refrain among Londoners is how they wish they were somewhere else. "The people who can afford it stay somewhere sane," opined my friend Paddy Barclay, admittedly over pint. "But the funny thing is that the city gets under your skin, and when you're somewhere else you find yourself wondering if there isn't something better to do in London."
Well, not quite. I have a love-hate relationship with this city on the grounds that is perched on the same bit of rock where I grew up and yet not where I grew up by dint of not being nearly North enough. These things actually matter. This morning, walking through Shepherd's Bush, coal-fire was in the air, a punch to the gut. It smelled like St. Andrew's, my (late) Aunt Mary's council flat, down a close and up the stairs, where I used to hide behind the couch when Dr. Who was on. It is arguable that the only thing that could have jolted my memory more powerfully would have been the smell of an Arboath smokie, which is a bit of fish that everyone outside of Fife finds revolting. (It is, we just don't admit it.)
Memory is a funny thing. I hadn't been to Loftus Road in over 35 years. I cannot remember who QPR played back then (give me a pass, I was 9) but as soon as we alit at White City, I knew exactly where to go. Worse, when we walked down to get a meal at a greasy spoon near Shepherd's Bush Market, I kicked myself, realizing I could have just got off there, walked down the street, turned right ... and you get the drift.
Inside Loftus Road, very little has changed. The kind steward who took me up to the gantry pre-game (so I could take some video for you) said that a number of people had been going down memory lane at the grounds of late. Maybe it's the season. She then added that the club had also seized many of the long-time season ticket holders passes so we could avoid certain other memories of the ground. It was a rough stadium in a rough part of town and to this day, the fans remain overwhelmingly male and closely-cropped.
I had a similar bit of dejà-vu up in Islington, which is where Highbury is, Highbury Stadium was, and a fair bit of Arsenal-related traffic thrives. There's the Gunners hairdressers, the Emirates Kebab stand, three Arsenal-themed pubs and at least two fish and chip shops trading on the club's good name. And that's in a space of about 500 yards.
One of those pubs, the venerable The Arsenal, sits on a corner, an imposing bit of white rudely jutting into the road so cars have to jog about it. The last time I had been in the place was when Jonathan Spector was playing for Charlton Athletic and Thierry Henry still wore red. It was an utter pit that made a certain club I once played in Buffalo look good. The place in Buffalo had a hole in the floor that passed as a bathroom, so I had thought it would be pretty hard to one-up it, but I was wrong. I was quite surprised to see the old dump cleaned up - there were leather couches and the staff wasn't (visibly) drunk. Also, no one tried to stab me. They had a menu in there, and the food was superb. The people were friendly and, you know, I remained un-stabbed, so it was more than a bit heartbreaking when the Gunners lost to Manchester City on the night.
We took the Tube back up to Mayfair and met a crowd more terrifying than any I could have met at a football match. It is "Winter Wonderland" in Hyde Park, down the block from my hotel, and it apparently attracts a terrifying crowd of screaming children, screaming teenagers and beleaguered adults. The Tube exit was as packed as the corridor at Bishop's Park or the caged route to Fulham Broadway, and more terrifying. Parents, I don't know how you do it.
Tomorrow, I'm interviewing a national team player (oh, go on, guess) and then making a mad dash to Selhurst Park to see a childhood favorite of mine. Yes, I'm a Crystal Palace fan. It's my cross to bear. Until then, there are three videos that accompany this article that I hope you find illuminating. If you don't, you can always thrill to the fact that I was almost fully frozen solid. Schadenfreude, no?