Thursday, September 30, 2010

A life in Liverpool matches, 1 November 1987
Liverpool 2 Everton 0

The ‘friendly derby’ isn’t feeling too friendly today. It’s not so much what I can see from my spec in the centre of the Kop, but more what I can hear. The game isn’t due to start for an hour, but already there are shouts, sways over to the left-hand side and the roar that only comes from men in casual wear about to start hitting each other. Everton, as tradition demands, have taken the left hand third of the Kop, but today, their presence feels like an invasion – an invasion led by fat men in bad leather jackets, but an invasion nonetheless. A year before I’d have gone with the many Evertonians from my school. Today, it’s just me and my Red mate. Go with Everton to the game? Not any more.

November 1987. With the clocks going back the week previously, at 4pm Anfield is already smothered in gloom. We’re playing – and it’s something we’re increasingly getting used to – on a Sunday afternoon as the derby is being televised. Our private argument is now on show for the whole country to observe – but make no mistake, this is Our Thing. And ever since we took the double from them the year before, this Thing has started to get nasty, especially off the pitch. There are many theories as to why it’s got like this, but the truth seems obvious (to me at least) – on both sides of the divide we got bored with being nice to each other.

As a Liverpudlian growing up in the ’80s, I never realized how much our success hurt Everton fans, until 1985 when they captured league completely out of the blue. And boy, did they let us know. So, when we got our mojo back the year after, they didn’t like it one bit. Maybe it was the humiliation of the joint homecoming, when Liverpool’s trophy-laden bus glinted in the Merseyside May sunshine, while they had to make do with Southall, Ratcliffe et al waving… well, that’s it, really, waving. They were dead good at waving, were Everton.

A year after, despite the fact that striker Gary Lineker had left to join Barcelona with that other scourge of the Reds, Mark Hughes, they won the League again. Our only solace was knocking them out of the Littlewood’s Cup in the semi-final, which turned the Park End into a sprawling, jumping mass of human joy.

So, today is a big deal. The Kop is in full voice early on – a rarity, because the old terrace hasn’t had much of an atmosphere since the late 1970s. Scarves are a thing of the past – when we sing You’ll Never Walk Alone, it’s now with our hands raised – and most of the ‘interesting’ characters are near the away fans in Kemlyn Road. What makes the Kop special is no longer us, but what takes place in front of it. We’re witnessing history every week as the Barnes-Beardsley-Aldridge combination takes apart defences from Highbury to Highfield Road and all parts in between. We should smash Everton this afternoon.

Outside the ground, the atmosphere is tense. We’ve all heard tales of lads getting smacked in the Gwladys Street or the ‘half-eaten pie shower’ which is a speciality at Goodison when Liverpool score, so there’s definitely something in the air. As we queue up to get in the ground, an Evertonian in a T-shirt with a cartoon of a drunken Everton fan on it who looks just like its wearer is led away by a copper, struggling to control his charge. “Gobshites,” the Blue spits at us, “fucking murderers.” Kick-off cannot come quick enough.

The game is as frenetic as you’d expect, with Liverpool a class apart from Everton, our manager’s tactical and purchasing nous putting Colin Harvey’s in the shade. Steve McMahon, he who crossed the park (via Aston Villa) not only controlling the midfield, but scoring our first. And then Peter Beardsley steps into the frame. Words cannot truly describe how good this footballer is. A magician with the ball, who combines vision with a knack for scoring beautifully crafted goals, when he puts Liverpool two-up, it’s like a great weight has been lifted off the collective shoulders of 40,000 Reds. If we can beat Everton like this, then they might as well give us the league now.

As the game ends and the Kop empties, the previously unseen Everton mob moves to the centre of the terrace. With the sound of Tequila coming from the tannoy, a group or 50 or so stand in the middle, surveying the enemy’s territory, a look of triumph on their faces – seemingly unmoved by the result of the match. I look at them, a 16-year-old boy with pretensions at manhood, wanting, willing for someone take them on and clear these intruders from our sacred space. But no-one does. I look around at my fellow Kopites. We’re kids – without the strength, without the belief to do anything. Instead, I nod to my mate and we leave in silence, out of the Kop, into the crowded streets of Liverpool 4 and deeper into the night.

This piece appears in this month’s Well Red magazine.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Spitalfields, ephemeral and enduring

As we gear up for issue two of Umbrella’s production week, we thought we’d take a bit of time off to go and wonder at the awe-inspiring architecture of Christ Church, Spitalfieds in London’s East End. The area is now deluged by semi-irritating trendies (ie people like us who we pretend we’re not like), but still holds some of the mystery and even, malevolence from times past. Not for nothing was this where the Ripper struck.

If you want to know more about the Hawksmoor-designed Christ Church, we’d urge you to read Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell – the graphic novel crammed with folklore, psychogeography and more murder than is strictly good for your health. Until then, enjoy the pictures – we’ll be exploring more of Hawksmoor’s work in a future issue.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Liverpool, Manchester United and sick songs

This was a post on the Liverpool supporters website, the Rattle. This weekend Liverpool play United in their first Premier League meeting of the season.

I used to sing Munich songs as a kid at Liverpool games, until, at the age of 16, I saw a programme on the disaster. Its impact was immediate. I started to wonder how the relations of those who’d died were feeling while I was jumping up and down singing about their demise with my mates in the Kop. What had they ever done to me? And yet, there I was laughing about the death of someone – a father, a son, a brother – close to them.

Then I found myself at Hillsborough on the Leppings Lane Terrace in April, 1989. The next time we went to Old Trafford for an away match the Munich stuff was nowhere to be heard. Death at football had come to us at Liverpool – how could we laugh at Munich now? They sang “Where’s your famous Munich song?” because it made us feel ashamed about what we’d said to them in the past.

Refusing to sing Munich songs isn’t about being “soft” on United fans. It’s about standards, but it’s also about Hillsborough. When you're battling for justice, you need to be whiter than white. Every time a Munich song is chanted by our fans and it goes online or is heard on telly, someone who may have had sympathy for us writes us off. It makes us easier to ignore.

Them singing “murderers” doesn’t hurt us, it makes us feel ashamed because of our part in the Heysel disaster. If they sing their Hillsborough chants, that destroys us, especially if you were on that terrace like so many of us were in ’89.

Whatever someone like me says online will have no affect on what either set of fans do on Sunday. But singing, celebrating even, the death of innocents, no matter who they are is wrong, and ultimately, indefensible.

Monday, September 13, 2010

How to write a decent groom’s speech

Originally in You and Your Wedding. I do a speech writing service using these principles for Olivia Soleto Weddings.

DO start with a compliment
“Your wife is the star of the show today, so it’s right that you start by outlining just how wonderful she looks and how lucky you are to be her husband. Describing her as ‘my wife’ is an easy way to get a big round of applause. Describing in fine detail the actual cost of the wedding isn’t”

DON’T try to wing it.

“Some people can do an-off-the-cuff speech. These people are called stand-up comedians. Instead, you should type out your speech in full, then read, re-read and edit it until you’re happy with it. Forget memory cards, print the speech off and read directly from it – that’s what the pros do. A tip: Increase the font size and separate your paragraphs so the speech is easier to scan, and underline your gags so you know exactly what to emphasize.”

DO keep the bridesmaids onside

“While you and your idiot mates have been in the boozer since 11am, your wife’s been squeezing into The Dress, worrying over flowers and breaking down in tears for no apparent reason. It’s only her bridesmaids that have kept her going. Thank them, because let’s face it, after six pints of Stella you’ll be in no position to offer any sensible advice should she get weepy again.”

DON’T let sentiment turn into schmaltz
“Obviously you want to tell everyone how much you adore your wife, but if your speech starts resembling the inside of a cheap Valentine’s card, then it won’t just be the prawn starter that’s making everyone throw up. Rib her a bit, it’s fine – but be careful. Mention her driving: laughs. Mention her weight: instant divorce.”

DO name names

“Thank your parents, her parents, the venue and the guests for all their help in making the wedding special, but keep it brief. No one wants to hear you waxing on about how the day wouldn’t have been the same without the bloke who delivered the sausage rolls.”

DON’T repeat what her dad said
“Your father-in-law will be making the hardest speech of his life, finally letting go of His Little Girl. Him reminiscing about her falling off her bike or her seventh birthday is a way of reminding you that he’ll happily break your legs if you even look at another woman. If he cries, everyone will understand. If you cry, it’ll look as though you’re sleeping with someone else.”

DON’T bang on about the stag night
“Everyone knows you’ll have been a bit naughty, so keep it vague. A long treatise about the qualities of Tallinn’s brothels will mean your wedding night will be colder than an Estonian prison cell. Something you’re probably familiar with.”

DO make sure jokes are actually funny
“Jokes work by taking people down one road, then pulling them in another direction, so bear that in mind. If you’re really stuck, you can take gags off the internet, but tailor them to your circumstances, don’t just copy and paste, especially as often they’re written for an American audience. Finally, remember not to swear and don’t acutely embarrass anyone. Those wedding day cheques won’t have cleared yet.”

DON’T go on too long

“No matter how funny you think you are don’t let your speech go over eight minutes. You’re not Barack Obama. And if you are, why are you reading this? You married Michelle years ago.”

DO finish with a compliment

“It’s the one part of the speech where you’re expected to be romantic, so let your wife know how wonderful she is. But again, don’t go on for more than a couple of sentences – you don’t want to start sounding like Barbara Cartland.”

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Rally Driving in Gran Canaria with Kris Meeke

This piece was originally in Esquire.

So this is where I’m going to die.

It’s 9pm, somewhere off the GC 2 coastal road on Gran Canaria. This deathly quiet mountain pass, with a sheer drop of hundreds (and hundreds) of feet on one side, is the sort of road that can turn a coach-load of pensioners into a crumpled tin of corned beef with just one careless slip of the accelerator pedal.

And tomorrow, I’m going to be travelling around it at over 100mph.

The reason for this act of masochism is to profile rally driver Kris Meeke, the Ulsterman whose daredevil expertise in his Peugeout 207 S2000 has made him the current champion of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge. This week, the IRC is in Gran Canaria – and while we’re still days away from the rally itself, Kris and his Irish co-driver Paul Nagle will be testing the car to its absolute limits around this lonely stretch of road all day tomorrow. As a special treat – and remember I’m terrified of both speed heights – I’ll be accompanying the 30-year-old Ulsterman on one circuit.

“This would be a great place to shoot,” says Tom, Esquire’s photographer, clambering up the rocks and gazing into the void.

I peer over the edge. “Yeah, great,” I say, visualizing a shot of a souped-up Peugeot captured forever as it defies gravity for a second or two before plunging into the misty depths below. “Spectacular.”

There’s no alarm clock better than fear. At 5.30am, I’m awake, the warm, damp air of my ’70s-era hotel room adding to my discomfort.

I put away a huge breakfast/last meal of eggs, bacon, sausages and salty-potato-meat things, have a quick walk around the Gran Canaria’s Beirut-a-like capital Las Palmas, before being taken to the test track. In the makeshift ‘pits’, I’m introduced to Marc van Dalen, the head of Kronos Racing, who runs the team on behalf of Peugeot, then Kris’ co-driver Paul Nagle, all friendly handshakes, laughs and southern Irish charm. Finally, I meet Kris, who’s quieter and a little more serious than Paul, but just as friendly. The relationship between these two Irishmen is key to their success.

A few days before the stage, Paul and Kris drive around the course three times, making ‘pace notes’ on the speed and angle of every corner. In the race itself, it’s Paul who’ll be reading them out – and any mistake can lead to disaster. I ask Kris if this danger bothers him.

“No. I only think about the road. Nothing else matters.”

This morning, the duo have been around the test stage 10 times, so Kris knows the course well enough to go round it without his co-driver. In Paul’s place is someone with a brain that never gets out of first gear: me.

I’m given a slightly sweaty racing suit, before Paul’s helmet is placed on my head, complete with intercom. I get in the car, the bare interior of which is criss-crossed by a cage of protective tubing, and get strapped into the bucket seat.

“You OK?” says Kris.
“Fine,” I say. “Fine.”

Kris turns the motor on, a deep, growling roar emitting from underneath us and we creep onto a public road, which we’ll stay on until we reach the turning for the test stage. At 20mph, the effect is similar to keeping control of a rabid pitbull with a tissue paper leash.

We’re soon at the turn and drive past a particularly officious member of the local plod, obviously annoyed that he’s having to sit here all day when he could be handing out parking tickets in Las Palmas.

The moment we’re on the closed-off road and on our way to the start line, Kris increases the speed and throws the car from one side of the road to the other, warming the tyres up so they’re firmly “planted” onto the tarmac. Round a few corners – the Void of Death an ever-present on my right side – and we’re at the start. A marshal signals at Kris to stop the car, listens into his radio and then, after a minute nods at us. It’s time to go.

“Five, four, three, two, one,” intones Kris. We’re off.

The speed is immediate, every gear change hitting me like a punch in the stomach, but there’s no time to be scared. Kris, now silent, takes us through the first corner like it’s not there, while I grab glances at the cliffs to my left, the sea in the distance and the hundreds of fans who, bare-chested, are waving their T-shirts at us. “¡Vamos!” they yell. “¡Vamos!

Before we set off, Kris had mentioned how the spectators can drive him to push his car ever faster. As I see them, I start waving back, shaking my fist, utterly alive with the sheer madness of it all. The screaming noise of the engine, the inches between spectator and speeding car, make this a sport that’s every bit as intense to watch as it is to take part in. As Kris had said before we got in the car, “For me, 50 per cent of the guy standing by the side’s experience watching is the sound.” And what a sound it is.

Every few seconds, the car snarls in anger and fear rises from my stomach, but I suppress it with both pure exhilaration and a concept that’s familiar to anyone who’s ever meditated – that of just living in the moment. Corners, which last night, had me thinking of a trip back to Britain in coffin class, are now effortlessly conquered. There’s nothing I can do but live this second, this turn, this straight. This now.

We scream through mountain passes tunnelled into the rock, sound bouncing off the cliffs and back into the car as Kris takes us way past 100mph. Before each corner, he reduces his speed, then accelerates out again as we power into the straights. The experience is halfway between rollercoaster and video game, but there’s always that punch in the stomach when the car accelerates again. Wommm!

Soon, all too soon, two laps are completed. It’s taken all of five minutes. Past the finish, we lose the speed and trundle back into the pits. I can’t see myself, but I know there’s a mile-wide grin splitting my face in two. As I get out, there’s handshakes, hugs, photos, “how-was-its?” and pats on back. Kris, meanwhile, is in discussion with the mechanics, already focused on the next outing.

I go up to him and shake his hand.

“I get it, now” I say, “I get what drives you.”
“To be honest,” he tells me, “I love the pure satisfaction that comes from making everything perfect and being quicker than anyone else. And when you do that you get a pure adrenaline buzz – and nothing, nothing, comes close.”

I know exactly what he means.

The Peugeot 207 Super 2000

The engine
The naturally aspirated 2.0 litre engine boasts an output of 280 brake horsepower at 8,500 rpm

The Super 20000 has a sequential six-speed gearbox, with the gearstick located by the steering wheel. The clutch is only used to get out of first gear

Steering wheel
Hydraulically assisted steering wheel, used in conjunction with the four-wheel drive

Roll cage
The roll bars not only provide protection against crashes, but also strengthen the car against the strain that rallying puts it under. The S2000 has 47m of tubing

The front and rear suspension consists of McPherson struts with coil springs controlled by adjustable Peugeot damper units

The car weighs 1200kg