Archive | August, 2008

Great Olympics Commentary

Posted on 19 August 2008 by JamesHamilton

These Olympics get even better when you consider the medal table from the point of view of the erstwhile British Empire. And not just because you have to shift some medals across to account for Hong Kong: there’s Empire swimming star Michael Phelps and Empire runner Usain Bolt to enjoy too. And our victorious Empire team in the mens’ eights.

But the highlight, surely, has been Dan Topolski’s heart-and-lungs-on-sleeve commentary in the rowing. Feliks’ son has done his country proud.

He’s quite irresistable, and this, I think, reaches levels of voice-breaking enthusiasm that were beyond him even in 2004. Shout at your television! (Link may not work outside the UK).

UPDATE: Courtesy of Mr Euginedes, that corrected Olympic medal table is here.

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John Terry Rudely Interrupts the Olympics

Posted on 19 August 2008 by JamesHamilton

Football always comes back like a bull in a china shop, but this year, with those marvellous Olympics still going on, it has returned with all the grace and timing of rubbish thrown over the fence. The news that John Terry has retained the England captaincy only reinforces the hunch that we are going through dark days in our national sport.

But there was no other realistic decision. Here’s what Terry is reported to have said about his success:

“It is a great achievement for me. I am very proud. My target now is to qualify [for the World Cup]. I think I am a role model on and off the field. (Ed: my emphasis!) I do a lot, I wear my heart on my sleeve and do everything I can do.

“It makes me proud to think managers like Capello, Mourinho and Scolari have given it to me. It makes me feel very special. With the players I was competing with, it is extra special. I am absolutely delighted and we have got to make the most of it.”

Terry is also reported to have described his response to the Champions League Final defeat as being evidence of his big character. In fact, it’s all evidence for something quite different, pointing towards the situation Capello would have faced had he made any different decision. Were Rio Ferdinand appointed, the story would not have been about his achievement, but about Terry’s failure. I believe, as do some commentators here, that a reverse over the captaincy would have been too much for Terry to bear.

In 1990 and 1996, Chris Waddle, Stuart Pearce and Gareth Southgate all missed crucial penalties in games of far greater importance for English football than the 2008 Champions League Final. All of them were distraught at the time. Amid comparable hysteria to 2008’s, Waddle kept his counsel, and had his best ever season for Marseille immediately afterwards, narrowly missing out on the European Player of the Year award. Likewise Stuart Pearce, who took Nottingham Forest to an FA Cup Final a year later, and then waited six years before doing his talking about “that” penalty on the pitch. Southgate did a self-denigrating pizza advert. The contrast with Terry is telling.

John Terry’s next game after the missed penalty was an England international, and he scored in it, against the United States, no longer minor opposition. After the game, he said:

“The manager gave me a huge boost when he told me I was going to be captain and, hopefully, I’ve repaid him. I’ve shown that I’m a big man. I take full responsibility for what happened in Moscow but I’m a man for the big games and I’ve shown that.”

At least he admits that he missed the penalty before he fell over. But does this sound to you, in all honesty, like someone who is ready to relinquish the captaincy and then give all for club and country? I know what it sounds like to me.

Clearly Capello is ready to trust Rio Ferdinand to do just that, after months in which the Manchester United man was allowed to see himself as the favourite for the role. The England manager would have known what was being reported, and what was reaching the players. His decision speaks volumes for whom he considers to have the strongest character. Terry is captain to keep him onside, and to prevent a press autopsy. Beyond that, recent events have shown him to be only one of a number of fairly unremarkable candidates.

At the same time come comments about how little has changed since Steve McClaren was sacked. The same players, although – in my opinion – a decided improvement in midfield, England’s weakest area.

These comments are unfair both on McClaren – who did, after all, come up with the Barry-Gerrard midfield in the first place – and on Capello. It’s obvious to any serious observer that until the U21s have another season or two’s experience, the Ericksson/McClaren squad is all we have to go on. Put up against our Olympians, they look pretty poor stuff, I agree.

It’s our best serious Olympics ever – and an object lesson about what can be achieved when xenophobia and bigotry between English, Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish are put to bed. Did anyone spot the face in the crowd – the one English football thought it could well do without?

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Steve McClaren Settles In

Posted on 15 August 2008 by JamesHamilton

I really, really don’t know what to make of this. What do you think? (ht the Graun, obviously)


(Using Dutch syntax in English as part of an attempt to learn Dutch? No easy language, after all…)

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The 20s and 30s in Colour

Posted on 10 August 2008 by JamesHamilton

Long-term readers will know that I’ve been searching for pre-War colour photography of English football. So far, I’ve found almost none. That “almost” refers to the Friese-Greene trip to Cardiff in 1924, which took in a visit to Fratton Park, where the Cardiff City captain was filmed standing motionless in the stands. The skipper’s baby son was filmed playing football, badly and unhappily, and that remains the earliest British colour footage of the game. I haven’t come across any autochrome or prewar Kodachrome, Agfacolor etc. stills at all.

So I wasn’t expecting any great football revelations from the BBC series “The Thirties in Colour.” Nor were there any, although what there was was quite jaw-dropping enough for anybody. Spoiled, yes, by the excessive use of talking heads, and spoiled too by the shrewish, nagging voiceover which couldn’t contain itself about the ineradicable wealthiness of the filmmakers, or about said filmmakers’ inexplicable inability to make Marxist forecasts about the future.

The first episode featured the (excellent) work of a woman who happened to be an aristocrat – colour film was expensive technology at that time – and in the first half of the programme, covering the late 1930s, she could do no right: “failing” to see that her world was about to fall apart, “not registering” the drums of war, to say nothing about all the usual guff about dilletantes and snobs and so forth.

When war does break out, our dilletante immediately seeks to put herself at the service of the country, and the country decides that the best thing she can do is use her skills with colour photography to record what is happening. She spends the Blitz wherever the danger was greatest. Those oft-repeated colour clips of blazing warehouses and offices that you’ve seen are all hers. Of this undoubted courage and determination the voiceover says nothing. Nor does it reflect that there may be something wrong with its earlier assessment of her as a Wodehouse female in an ivory tower. A shameful performance, and a tone that occurs in almost every part of every programme. Buy the DVD, but watch it with the sound off.

Despite all this, the series has helped me in forming some ideas about why there appears to be no colour footage of prewar football.

  • Purpose I was confused initially by the fact that monochrome film cameras had found there way into football grounds in a big way within months of cinema’s invention. The first film of football dates from 1897, certainly no later than 1898 when the first documented match was filmed (Blackburn v WBA). Mitchell and Kenyon turned their lenses onto literally hundreds of Edwardian games. So why, when colour cinema came into existence, didn’t this happen again? I think part of the answer lies in what the pioneers in each case were looking for. Remember that stills film capable of capturing fast movement appeared at the same time, give a year or two, as cinema. What the cine pioneers wanted, above all, was movement, action. Only five years earlier, they’d have wanted the opposite: stillness and time to make an exposure. Now, suddenly, they needed crowds, bustle, speed – and that meant cities and it meant street scenes and factory gates and it meant football, as novel and as unknown as cinematography itself. But when colour photography and film arrived, the novelty was in getting away from monochrome. Colour itself was what you wanted, and that meant nature, native costume, blue skies and crystal seas.
  • Professionalism Most of that Victorian and Edwardian monochrome football footage was made by the people who were in the process of creating what by the mid-twenties had become the cinema industry. All of those Mitchell and Kenyon matches were merely part of the nascent industry finding its way, finding its audience. By the time colour arrived, the industry and the audience were mature; as with the arrival of sound, the new technology could join an existing stream. Most of the radical exploration of the new genre’s possibilities would be done either by wealthy amateurs – who would seek out colourful, rather than movement-filled, scenes – or by young filmmakers at the start of their careers, the likes of Jack Cardiff, who’d go on to work with Powell and Pressburger.
  • Cinema By the 1920s, football film coverage had found its level, at least for the pre-television time being. The likes of British Pathe would work a soccer clip into a cinema news bulletin. These clips were throwaway stuff in the sense that, although archived by the company, it was forseen that they’d be good only for one viewing. No more money would be spent on it than necessary – and these films would remain monochrome into the 1960s.

In short, football was an obvious target for film when both football and film itself were brand new. Latterly, it’s been an obvious target because the cine camera has been compressed into mobile phones. But colour film’s area of experiment wasn’t movement and action, as was the case with the Lumieres, Edison, or Mitchell and Kenyon. It was colour itself – and, regrettably, that meant going not to interesting places like the Chapman/Allison Highbury or Jimmy Hogan’s Aston Villa, but the hackneyed predictable tedium of India or Vesuvius erupting.

The maturity of the film industry of the 1930s put the job of random experimentation with colour film into the hands of the wealthy or the ambitious, which means that we have colour footage of polo – not a bad game, just an expensive one – but not soccer. Perhaps things would have been different if our major team sports had been more college-based as in the USA, where colour footage of college football goes back to 1940. But by the 1930s, British football had turned itself into a ghetto entertainment, run by the industrial lower middle classes at the expense of working men and women: the novelty and glamour that might have drawn the curious with colour film was long over.

When Alastair Cooke first went to America, he colour-filmed the place into the ground. Surely an American Alastair Cooke, over here, would have done the same, and he’d have had to have gone to a match. US troops in England during the Second World War certainly did: if any footage at all survives of the soccer of this period, I suspect it’s in the basement of a US Army officer’s great-grandchildren. I hope they don’t just throw it away.

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THAT Beijing Opening Ceremony

Posted on 09 August 2008 by JamesHamilton

London is waking slowly this morning to clear skies, fresh air, minimal traffic and a sinking feeling that there’s just no way we’ll be able to match that in 2012. Four years away, and municipal humiliation looks unavoidable already.

Like everyone else, I think that that was the very best opening ceremony I have ever seen, ever, for anything. The hard thing that the Chinese somehow pulled off without warning was to combine the spectacular and the gigantic with the beautiful, and, hardest of all, the tasteful. How frightening to be that ancient athlete, yanked hundreds of feet into the air in order to singe his moustache in that thoroughly-dangerous-looking final lighting of the torch – but how moving and thrilling it was to watch him from the safety of Kensal Green.

London can compete only by going for the complete opposite. Get everyone into the stadium, have a brass band play “Colonel Bogey”, “Jerusalem” and that one by Eric Coates, then straight into the athletics without further ado.

Because Beijing’s very impressiveness was its weakness too:

  • there was something frenziedly gauche about it all, the feeling that someone was trying just a little too hard to impress the West
  • and, under the bonnet, the hint of fascism: the drilled, smiling masses, the streets swept clean of beggars, itinerants and the mentally ill, the countless thousands chucked out of work for the duration just to clean the air, the round-up of the usual political suspects and heaven knows what in Tibet. Hard not to be reminded of all that by the ceremony’s basic nature.

They tended to forget, too, that it’s not China’s Olympics, but Beijing’s. No excuse needed to remember Szechuan, of course. But the presentation of 54 jolly, happy ethnic communities all living merrily together under a flag that looks like something the infant Scargill designed on Fuzzy Felt has what, exactly, to do with Peking, the history of Peking or the make-up of Peking?

All is not lost, therefore, for 2012. But what ought we to do? Ideas, please. Here are some of mine:

  • Just have the Queen cut the tape and then cut to the sport. The “John Smiths” approach.
  • A “Jack the Ripper” theme: the murders are reenacted in a reconstructed Whitechapel in the stadium, and the killer, played by his close relative, the Prince of Wales, escapes through the crowd.
  • Or go for the Blitz: bomb out the trams and buses on the day of the opening ceremony, then have what Spitfires and Hurricanes remain battle it out with Heinkels and Messerschidts over the stadium whilst inside in amongst sandbags, ack-ack guns and Anderson shelters WAAFs hand out builders’ tea and hang men in nuns’ costumes from makeshift gallows
  • Deliberately misconstrue the stadium’s location and make the audience sit through “Titus Andronicus”.
  • Oh, I don’t know. I’m feeling uninspired this morning. Let’s just do what we did last time:




Hitlers do it,
Stalins do it,
Even Kim-il-Jongs and Maos do it,
Let’s do it,
Let us form an enormous polyhedron made out of six hundred people wearing folk costumes with neon buttons!

George Szirtes

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2008-9: What Will Happen, and What I Want to Happen

Posted on 06 August 2008 by JamesHamilton

I can remember finding 1985 too modern-sounding a year for me to be alive in it. 23 years on…

What would you have predicted about the next quarter-century of football, given 1985 as a starting point? The big theme of the year was hooliganism, even before Heysel. No one at the time had any clear idea of how to deal with it, let alone end it altogether. So, I’d have predicted a growing maelstrom of violence around the game. Another theme was bankruptcy. It was a period where many clubs were flirting with financial disaster, when crowds were declining and other sports were beginning to erode football’s TV dominance. 1985’s top sporting TV occasion was the Snooker World Final. I’d have expected the League to contract quite dramatically as large numbers of smaller clubs went to the wall. In the event, only Aldershot did, and look who’s back this season.. And at the top of the tree, one saw the scene going on identically forever: Liverpool the top club, and everyone else just circling helplessly in their wake.

Nor would I have forseen the massacre of the second-raters in the First Division of 1985. Gone Southampton, QPR, Ipswich, Coventry, Norwich. I was 16 in 1985, and these clubs seemed to have been around forever.

So when I turn to the season ahead, I’ve no confidence at all in any of what follows. Except in one thing. At the end of last season, “my team”, who I started supporting because I accidentally turned on the telly in 1976 and found them losing a match, won the Champions League and the Premiership. How much less that sounds to my ears than Liverpool’s First Division title and European Cup of 1977, yet how much harder it is to achieve. I found myself not caring one way or another last season. When Euro 2008 turned out to be one of the best tournaments of all time, I remember thinking “I used to enjoy this game, and this was why.”

In my twenties and early thirties, when change happened, it was easy to see it as necessary modernisation or long-delayed reform. But then at about age 37/8 the world seems to “set” in the mind, and further alteration feels more and more like mere vandalism. Luckily for me, I’ve seen this change coming and know it for what it is. So when I learn that MUFC have bought a pair of Brazilian twins, I know not to trust all of the inward sagging I experience. And I cast my mind back to the time when all of the modern stadia and all of the greatest players were in Spain, Italy and the Bundesliga. The Premiership threatens to turn Barca into a last-payday club.

The Premiership Title

My heart says Arsenal. After their grand efforts last season, I do hope so. But it’s hard for a club that is actually planning ten years ahead and is going through a necessarily parismonious phase of its development. A feature of football life since the ’60s has been the way West Ham consistently develop the best young players, but then lose them just when the reward seems nigh. This isn’t quite the Arsenal picture at the moment – Wenger has had his most successful close season in many years – but while the stadium remains a financial drain, and not the cash cow it will eventually become, the comparison is there.

Chelsea have the squad to succeed, but not the structure as things are. A change in attitude from Abramovich would be a great help. The Scolari appointment was hugely risky, and my hunch is that it’s going to be no more successful than Avram Grant’s (new definition of unsuccessful there, by the way..). But what it does do is provide a clean page for the club. They have to come back after an absolute Leeds of a season, and a new and self-assured manager can only help with that.

Courtesy of the Ronaldo transfer target, I am so deeply tired with my own team just now. Isn’t everyone? I almost look forward to post-Ferguson decline. If Rooney is played in a consistent position I might change my mind. Is that what bringing in the unheroic Berbatov is all about?

Liverpool’s close-season transfers remind me of mid-80s Manchester United in so many ways. For Barry – if it happens, and I hope it doesn’t because O’Neill is a man you play under, not leave – and Keane read Gary Birtles and Peter Davenport. Does anyone feel any taste of narrative about Liverpool at the moment, any sense of a strategy being executed, an empire being built? I just don’t feel any interest at all from Benitez in catching the top three – plenty in crafting a way once more through the Champions League, of course, but not in taking a Premiership title. Perhaps it’s mere realism, the knowledge that before the new stadium is built, that just can’t be achieved.


As last year, the real stories are going to come from the middle of the table. Hull and Stoke would do well to soak up as much cash this year as they can, and buy for a promotion charge next season. The third relegation spot is a cursed and dismal place and can speak for itself in nine month’s time. And when it does speak for itself, I expect it’ll say “Blackburn.”

No, the real battle of 2008-9 is between Portsmouth, Manchester City, Sunderland and Everton for the title of most promising side to win nothing. Four British managers, one near the end of his career, one just setting out but doing well, one in a club he’s rebuilt from near-ruin and Mark Hughes. It’s actually interesting, and very hard indeed to call. Sunderland are probably a season behind the others in terms of development, but there is actual development going on, which is more than can be said for e.g. Liverpool. Portsmouth have a new and hugely enthusiastic forward pairing of Crouch and Defoe, which must, surely, be capable of 30-40 goals, and there’s a really solid side behind them already familiar with itself and full of confidence. Everton have had a difficult preseason, but there are some good youth players ready to come forward, and David Moyes has a track record of overcoming lack of money and talent that’s truly second to none in the League. The best use-what-you’ve got boss in the division. And Mark Hughes, at the drama club with its own Abramovich: Ericksson’s left him a transformed team, and if – big if – he can survive his boss, then a cup is not out of the question. Personally, I don’t think it was a wise move for him – if there was ever a time to take a leaf out of the Martin O’Neill book, that was the time. Ambitious young managers need a Derby, a Forest, an Ipswich – a place to rule – not footballing madhouses like City. At least he’ll have one of the best fanbases behind him.

(UPDATE: Hughes’s problems might be about to multiply.)

And the rest..

As for the FA Cup, another like last year, please. It’s significant that when MUFC lost their treble chance in that bizarre semi-final against Portsmouth, the season actually became more, not less, interesting. A recap, then, everything that made last season worthwhile:



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The 1957 FA Cup Final On Film

Posted on 05 August 2008 by JamesHamilton

I’ve now the greatest respect for those people on the Guardian or at the BBC who do those minute-by-minute text updates of matches: I tried to do the same thing with the DVD of the 1957 FA Cup Final and simply couldn’t keep up.

So this isn’t a liveblogging of the 51 year old game, just thoughts.

Peter McParland can have had no idea of the significance his shoulder-charge of Manchester United keeper Ray Wood would have for future generations. As Ken Wolstenholme noted at the time, the Villa man’s charge was perfectly within the rules, for all that it looks like plain assault to modern eyes. Wood’s injury means that we only have about six minutes of film of the Busby Babes playing at their height against English opposition. For the rest of the game, they were effectively a man down, and we are denied a “typical” Babes performance (if such a thing could be seen at a Cup Final with all that was at stake, of course).

Furthermore the Babes responded to Wood’s withdrawal by pulling Duncan Edwards back into the centre of defence. This had the effect of taking Edwards out of reach of the camera for long periods. It goes without saying that this is another significant loss: Edwards – along with about half of his colleagues from the ’57 Final – would be dead within a year.

For those first six minutes, however, Manchester United were quite astonishingly good. They attacked with the ball kept on the ground, through the middle, and Villa scarcely touched the ball. Indeed, had Tommy Taylor, 25 at this point, and Bobby Charlton, a coltish 19, had a better mutual understanding, United would have scored twice in the opening period.

Charlton was bubbly, fast, able to beat men for speed, but seemed unaware of his colleague’s movement around him. My notes of the match contain two phrases which repeat themselves over and over: “Charlton loses possession” is one of them. I’ll come to the other later.

The first few minutes took place in what comes across as a marvellous, safe, friendly, fun atmosphere. No chanting, no banners, no football shirts on men old enough to know better. Just 100,000 people having a good day out. There was football-related violence in the 1950s, of course, but nothing on the scale that would come with the 1960s and 1970s. Most of it took place on trains, which could be stripped out by a contingent of fans then as now. In among the pleasant hum of conversation, the odd bell or rattle could be heard.

1957 Wembley was as neat as a pin. A picket fence ringed the pitch; when the ball went out of play, ball-boys got it back with an alacrity now more typical of Wimbledon. Throw-ins and free kicks were taken immediately – play hardly paused – and the defending team passed the ball to their opposition politely rather than using modern delaying tactics.

By comparison, the modern Wembley looks like the set of Bladerunner.

In 1957, there was no dissent shown to the referee.

After Ray Wood had been stretchered off, Bill Foulkes of United went on a one-man mission to exact revenge. The other comment that gets repeated in my notes is “Foulkes flattens Villa player” – usually McParland. Simple, straightforward, deliberate and repeated violence of the kind shown by Foulkes is gone, by and large, from the modern game, or at any rate its perpetrator doesn’t stay on the pitch for very long.

On the day, McParland was the difference between the two sides. Even with United down to ten men, Villa found it hard to impose themselves. United had the ability to move players around total-football style, so that, for instance, Whelan and Coleman could take turns at the heavy lifting in central midfield, whilst never offering Villa the same problem twice. Likewise, David Pegg and Johnny Berry would swap wings.

So McParland’s fantastic header in the second half was crucial to the result. United slumped quite clearly for about five minutes afterwards. At the end of those five, McParland scored again, and only then did United pull themselves together.

The catalyst for their revival was Ray Wood, who proved that Manchester United’s goalkeeper, given a broken jaw, was a perfectly adequate inside forward, once Busby allowed him back on in the second half. At one point late on he executed a mirror-image near facsimile of the Ricky Villa goal from 1982, except of course in the essential point of scoring.

And, yes, famously so, Jackie Blanchflower was quite superb in goal. Wood went back between the sticks late on, allowing a relatively fresh Blanchflower to run at Aston Villa. Tommy Taylor’s late looping header, an unsatisfactory and weak kind of goal, was followed by a siege on Villa’s goal, but to no avail.

Two things about the end of the game. One: McParland and Wood shook hands and went off together. Two: the United players applauded Villa off. No Chelsea-style Champions League Final antics for them.

I consider Villa’s victory to be fortunate in the extreme – apart from their goalscoring spell, they were always very much second best to a United side perhaps young enough to run off the one-man disadvantage. United’s close control – with the exception of Roger Byrne – was always superior.

But Wood was luckier than Villa. Lucky in that he only broke his jaw. Had his been a neck injury, the treatment he received on the pitch in 1957 might well have crippled or killed him, as Trautmann’s so nearly had a year earlier.

The sadness is that there were so many players on the pitch that day that you’d want to see in full cry. Taylor, Colman, Edwards.. We get to see plenty of David Pegg, of Liam Whelan and Roger Byrne, which is something.

Overall, I’d rate the United side of 1957, on the inadequate basis of six minutes at the start of a cup final, as very similar in ability to the Keane-Giggs-Scholes-Beckham side of the late ’90s. Neither of those teams had quite the attack that the 65-9 United had with Law, Charlton and Best. But the ’57 team were three or four years away from their peak. I shudder to think what George Best might have won in the 1960s with colleagues of the ’57 calibre.

Ken Wolstenholme complained in his commentary that the Wood injury would bring the whole substitution thing back onto the agenda. He wasn’t wrong, was he?

Video Footage

The complete match I’ve watched is in monochrome. Here’s a Pathe News excerpt in colour:


and, with sound, in monochrome:


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Leaving Home

Posted on 04 August 2008 by JamesHamilton

The journey to Edinburgh concertinas down into a short and minor series of motoring vignettes. Crowded Brum at 7a.m., the world weaving from lane to lane without lights. A stop for horrid coffee and a dreadful burger in a cafe at Knutsford Services. The mines of Wigan, the machine shops of Preston. Lakes, then a delightful winding road through Biggar. No traffic: village nameplates and signs thanking me for driving carefully flash by seconds apart. Then jerking awake as the car parks itself in a quiet side-street near Leith.

Midday heat and humidity wrenches my door open and pulls me to my feet. The sun is like a hot, wet hand on my bald head as I stagger, too demoralised to try buses, into the centre of town. I buy a street atlas at the Waterstones opposite the castle, then fall into a dark pub in Shandwick Place. My pint of lager sweats at me, and I sweat back.

Edinburgh is the colour of moonrock.

I have what’s left of today, tomorrow, and Friday to find us somewhere to live. I have a list of agency addresses and phone numbers. I even have my phone.

But it’s all leaving home, and I don’t want to. After ten years stuck in a malicious, violent, miserable and passive-aggressive part of South London, I’ve had six months back in Zone 2. The best months of my life, and I want to be back in them. Back in the Prince Regent on a sunny afternoon waiting for K or H; back shortcutting through cobbled mews full of wisteria on my way to work; back in Black and Blue listening to rain lash against the window; back in the back room in lazy sunshine with the cat asleep on my chest.

Just living somewhere where you are like most other people and can vanish into the background is a blessing, but here I am plotting to put all that behind me already: it feels far, far too soon.

And yet: Tim Newman has to cope with bloody Sakhalin, a place so remote that they imprisoned Erich von Stalhein there. Remember, James, you’re British. And a Britisher is worth two _______, four _________, and a dozen ________. So pull yourself together! I think of K in three years time, in doctoral robes, the reason we’re doing this, and surge with anticipatory pride and love and pleasure. Get on with it: you’ve less than three days.

In the event, the job takes me two hours, and I make it to my guesthouse five minutes before the deadliine for check in. My room is a mildewing garrett – the last room in the city with the Festival pending. I have a shower smaller than my wardrobe, a kettle wired directly into the wall, a map chest and, high up on a shelf, a large 1970s television with a tuning dial.

Mine host tells me that I can eat either out of what he calls the “ned-haunted Paki shop” opposite, or I can follow his directions to “a good curry house” nearby. Edinburgh, he tells me, has the “best standard of living in the UK.” I opt for the curry, and although I fail to find the place, it takes me into Leith.

Leith, they say, has come up in the world. What on earth was it like before? The new blocks look like cheap glass coffee tables knocked onto their sides. The dust from fresh building sites puffs rudely into the faces of dirty, neglected sixties tenements. Men with nineteenth century faces smoke outside battered pubs.

Tired woman corral children at the bus stop I wait at to escape back to the city centre. They do it kindly, not with the slapping and screeching of south London. Our bus will indeed get us to Prince’s Street, but first the suburbs. Depressing, creepy almost. It’s like Oxford here, isn’t it – a glorious, world-famous centre, surrounded by mile upon mile of middle-class ideas about working class housing, which, oops! didn’t quite come off. Never mind: the contract paid well, and now I’ve got this Queen Anne house with its pretty unexpected patch of vivid garden..

I eat alone in Cafe Rouge. They treat me well. Edinburgh is being dug up for trams. This gives certain streets a peculiar backwards-Blitz air, in which the bombers have smashed the road completely but left the surrounding houses untouched. I am told that the Fire Brigade is having trouble navigating its way around all of this. The trams will be ready in 2011, but bus routes to the suburbs are being cut back for lack of funds. And the vanished routes don’t follow the proposed tram routes. They’ll just have to club together for a cab. Won’t they?

I do not spend the evening with Oxford friend Z and girlfriend W in that authentic drinker’s bar in the docks with its piano and ceilidh, and while I’m not there, I don’t meet advocate F and go back with her to guitarist X’s flat and drink whisky till dawn. Instead of these things I choose to shoulder my way into the “ned-haunted” shop, which is manned by an intelligent and utterly miserable Sikh, and purchase four cans of Lech lager to carry me through a long evening alone.

Later, I watch the shop from high up behind my Velux window. Groups of teenagers take it in turn to surround the door and shout insults. One brave soul will dart inside, and bounce out waving a trophy – a bottle of wine, a loaf of bread – and issue challenges: come and get me, call the police. A group of girls arrive and the taunts turn sexual. This must be it every night: my instinct is to go down and give them some back up, but my sense is that I’ll just make things worse. They bring the shutters down at eleven. Quiet descends.

Edinburgh, then, has the highest standard of living in the UK. Who for, exactly?

The next day is too hot to do anything sane. “A hearty Scottish breakfast” I’m told “will set you up for the day.” What’s Scottish about it is that it includes haggis.

Why not add whisky, while you’re about it? The breakfast sits uncomfortably on top of the memory of cheap Polish beer. I take in a gallery, then buy a book about World War II and read it in a Rose Street pub. In the evening, I go back to the ned-haunted place and buy a steak pie, a steak pasty, a mince and potato pasty and more beer. Rain gives the shop respite for the evening.

Twelve hours later, I’m in De Hems on Shaftesbury Avenue with human rights lawyer M.

I hate the West End. We decamp to the cooler, fresher climes of Lambs Conduit Street. M is in Edinburgh a lot; loves it. We can meet up, he says; do Kay’s Bar and Bell’s Diner. These are good things: and there’ll be Waitrose just around the corner, and Inverleith and the Botanical Garden and coffee with poet J at Florentin and the family reunion in October and the sound of tyres on cobbles and Valvona and the agony of hail on my bald patch.

Like it or not, we go in the first week of September. Berlin by Christmas; hah. We came out here for a job. Here’s Christmas by Berlin:


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