Western Road Brighton – a city’s lost decade and a council’s public shame

Western Road Brighton South Side with boarded up shops and restaurants and the Georgian mock-Pavilion architecture above them.

It’s an embarrassment! Two boarded shops on a central thoroughfare in a tourist town – architectural delights above.

What happened to Western Road? The housing in central Brighton is some of the country’s most expensive outside desirable London; it’s a central thoroughfare between major parts of one of the best-known cities in England; it has architecture to be proud of as long as you keep your head high and yet the locale remains at best a desert, at worst a temple to the low cultural horizons of the twenty-first century British seaside.

Some hint at the city’s former ambitions can be seen if, rather than scampering past the boarded up shops, homeless ghettos and everything’s-a-quid arcades, you look up at the higher floors of the buildings. A walk from the Clock Tower to Palmeira Square offers a number of listed buildings, porticoed and enlarged between 1910 and 1930, designed to rejuvenate and make grand the thoroughfare of wealthy Brighton at the wane of Empire.

A hundred years on and the same buildings are home to only a few stores that aim for that same grand statement or nurture the promise that shopping is a world of elevated feeling, pampering and pleasure and honest satisfaction.  The upper storeys frown down now on a grubbier collection of high-street staples with their plastic signage.  Little testaments to the heightened possibility of the British high street experience exist here still – C&H, Kobar, Burts, Taj, and further towards the Hove border, the marvellous Cutter and Grinder. Back opposite Waitrose, the newly vanished Verano Lounge, once Loch Fyne and then a bar and billiard hall, is now another boarded-up frontage, joining its long-term derelict neighbour, once the site of video-shop Blockbuster. Look up and there are the towers and turrets of a mini Brighton Pavilion to enjoy, but no-one looks up.

Iron frame being erected, British Home Stores building under construction 1931 (later Primark)

British Home Stores building under construction 1931 (later Primark) From Peter Groves’ website

The 1870s took the ‘West Laine’ as it was from a thread of residential housing to a shopping street as it became the main route to the Brunswick Estate – now Brunswick Square and environs.  The Council pre World War One took action to acquire leases in order eventually to standardise the road’s width and bring some elements of planning to the district.

Through the 1920s and 30s the department store boom saw Boots, British Home Stores and Wades along with Woolworths and Marks and Spencers in 1932. A road of accessible and monumental shops, each with a brief to look as impressive as their products. Mitre House (one of the few buildings to have smartened itself in the past decade) also survives from this era. It seems woeful to point to the historic interest that elements of the street have.  Peter Groves speaks neutrally of the development which allowed only “remnants of old residential properties to remain” and points to Codrington Mansion, on the North Side, built in about 1830 and once the home of Admiral Sir Edward Codrington, who captained HMS Orion in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.  The plaque can be seen above a very ordinary row of shops. A plaque which has yet to be put in place further East might reference the Wisden family’s role in building the original terraces that lead up from Western Road. John Wisden (of the yellow cricket Almanac fame) was born and lived in a house on Crown Street again in the 1830s. By the 1930s big business was making the street grand, Seventy years later the grandeur was all but gone.

A comment on the mybrightonandhove site adds:

I remember as a little girl in the 50s going to a big shop called Plummer Roddis. My grandmother used to take me there and we’d have lunch. It was very posh, but not as posh as Hills of Hove! I also remember Wades, and Vokins down North Street and Hanningtons. What a shame we dont have such good stores nowadays. shops are full of cheap rubbish! Or am I just getting old?  By Lyn Horsburgh nee Waller (of the H A Waller & Sons family) (24/03/2013)

Those who mourn the demise of Hannigtons and welcome the John Lewis promises of a development on North Street might well see Western Road as a particularly desperate case in the annals of British high street history.

Despite the success of North Laine, Jubilee Square and the revitalisation of the seafront since the mid-nineties, many visitors to Brighton see only dirt and depression. This aspect lay in the background of the Guardian’s article on the British Airways i360, as Brighton’s “lost decade.” Western Road couldn’t have been more lost. In a part of England where two bedrooms will cost half a million pounds plus, and which, via Preston Street, could well form part of a tourist walk from the new seafront development by West Pier back to the station, in this bit of town, 10% of shop windows are boarded up, 20% are pop-up or bargain retail, the rest speak to a world of perfunctory everyday and recessional shopping that are part of no tourist itinerary. Primark is a top-end shop on this strip and despite some hot-headedness with planned delivery vehicles, their development did renovate the 1920s West-facing wall and keeps the imposing look that its 1930’s forerunner BHS had planned. It’s sad that the rag-bag of dismal shops here aren’t forced to smarten up to Primark’s example.

Western Road from the i360 at full height

Western Road from the i360 – the tops of the buildings occupied by MacDonald’s and Poundland

While you are advised to look up when heading along Western Road and catch the architecture, rather than the bog-standard corporate hoardings, there is now, of course, a chance to look down on some of these same streets. Three cheers then for the British Airways i360.  Have a glance from the top of the i360 and you see some of what you can so easily miss at ground level, the fact that many of the buildings of Western Road are fascinating and lovely. Above McDonald’s and Argus is a portico that could grace a Greek temple. Beside that are the 1930s department store developments that once sought to inject grandure into Western Road and did so with some style and some longevity.

Yes, at last, following walkouts by Ghery and others, Brighton has a new construction, one designed to bring tourists to spend money, enjoy the seafront – not to mention the lofty view of the sea and countryside – and recommend the place to their hoards of culture hungry friends. Surely the city will prosper, will be famous for something other than the rough-stuff of Cuffs and Peter James – we may even find Brighton is a destination of choice for those who fly to London and seek their day out from among the provincial towns – Oxford, Windsor etc. –  or the quirky interesting features of North Laine will flourish and spread. Or is this thought too genteel and gentrified a prospect.

Brighton can surely compete if we can get our visitors to the Georgian squares at Brunswick and Palmeira and back safely to the station.  However it’s far too easy as a tourist to come down, wander down Queens Parade, West Street, Western Road and then head home wondering what’s so special about this so-called tourist town. What indeed? The lucky ones turn from the station and go through the buzz of North Laine and onto the Lanes and find refuge on the much improved seafront, but it’s easy to miss, or easy to see kiss-me-quick Brighton as the only aspect, an overspill from the 1960s cliche of the dirty weekend resort.

Poundland, Western Road, Brighton

Poundland are allowed a window display of stickers in a conservation area and on a GII listed building

Too few tourists head for the sweeping Regency Brighton of the squares. Even fewer know the sloping, winding streets that make up Clifton Montpellier conservation area. Yet the conservation area touches Western Road, and includes the streets that rise up the hill from it. Heritage protection of all the houses mean most properties need planning permission to change their front doors, must paint facades every two years and can only have bona fide wooden bow sash windows. Yet the Western Road shops seem to get away with atrocities. The council have let Poundland stick their national standard product stickers in the conservation zone on a listed building. At one stage the shop even got away with a giant exposed satellite dish on the East wall. Brand icons proliferate unchecked on tawdry scraps of industrial plastic.  A blue Greggs sign vanishes alongside a range of temporary plaques that offer homage to the low-cost, short-lifespan end of shopping, while banners for closing down sales vie against the stack-em-high sell-em-cheap fly-by-nighters and the insidious brown chipboard that covers so many windows in the area.

Boarded up shop front on Western Road, Brighton

Site of former Jamie Oliver Recipease, closed in 2014. The legacy of the failed venture is a boarded up shop front two years on.

Jamie Oliver’s Recipease moved in, did okay, did a revamp and then shipped out. It’s remained boarded up ever since, with locals looking for who’s to blame and gathering that either the council have failed to control the area or some phantom pension fund have taken the upper hand. Someone must accept responsibility for unaffordable rents, unclean frontages, unmanaged and possibly by now unmanageable degradation. Yet the users, the inhabitants and the range of visitors seem too mixed to produce any positive push on a direction for this place. The percentage of houses owned by those who do not live in central Brighton is huge with smaller properties being prime pickings for landlords and buy-to-lets. In terms of ownership central Brighton regularly tops the most-expensive-places-to-live-outside-London charts. It’s even more of a force in the charts that show the gap between average earnings and average house prices. Few people who can afford central Brighton housing actually work in Brighton – it’s a commuter hot spot, too. By the looks of Western Road even fewer people who can afford central Brighton housing actually shop in central Brighton and at some stage perhaps even this trade will stop.  Boarded out shops cater for no-one.

Yet with the new i360 promising to show us new views of the fifth elevation across Brighton and offering a draw on tourists to the South of the country, there is perhaps some hope. The opportunity is there to make Brighton’s central areas a place of delight and charm for all users, whether passing through, shopping or living. Just get it cleaned up!

When do you throw the books away?

Three things happened recently, all of which conspired to remind me – not that I needed reminding – of an old story my father enjoys telling.

The three things were: my youngest son’s book exchange day at school; managing the house shelving around some long-mooted building work; and getting increasingly joyful about the practicalities of Kindle.

Worn spines on old books next to ipad showing online version of Book of KellsMy father’s story, one of many that have given good service over the years, hinges on his sense of early poverty. It’s in some ways a proud sense of early poverty as it gives plenty of scope for the making-good bits of the life story that can come after. It’s not only financial poverty either. He’s particularly conscious at the lack of intellectual stimulation given to youngsters  in the Yorkshire mining communities of the thirties, of which he has rather astringent memories.

His story has plenty to interest anyone who likes a proto-Dickensian vision of such troubled environments. His story revolves around The Book. They only had one – or at most three, the story can be adapted to suit the credulity of the latest audience. If they were lucky, the eldest two children, having finished their Sunday bread and dripping tea and having scoured their hands with carbolic, would be allowed to take a seat and look at The Book. It was placed on their knees. They could only turn the pages under supervision. The Book was a handsome Wonderbook of Wholesome Knowledge for Pre-war Boys and Girls, at least in the version I tell my own children now. It must have seemed a marvel.

There came a time though when the book disappeared. It was given away to some passing junk collector. My father, bereft, asked where The Book had gone. His mother replied, ‘well, you’d read it.’

This story has come in various ways over the years and the one here is my own edit, one that serves the purpose of some other thoughts at the moment. My own children have hundreds of books. We’re proud to be the sort of family that has books and has them out and visible. Not in a neat display either, but in double-stacked shelves and piles of things that are being read or meant to be being read or just nice reminders that they’re there. We have books with multi-cracked spines and sunlotion stained pages, others that spent months in a rucksack, some that are pristine, one or two that are signed and were expensive. The kids have books from childhoods that weren’t their own, preserved and handed down whether they want it or not, Ladybirds, Blytons and all. They’re all precious. We can’t throw a single one away.

I’ve tried. I’ve made a pile of things I haven’t read or won’t read again or didn’t like in the first place and had the whole lot ready for the Heart Foundation deposit. Then I remember how I came by this book or that, or I see a scrawl in the cover, or know that I own it because of a promise to read, or a longed-for connectivity, or a memory of whens and what-ifs. They’re impossible to get rid of, even the paperback 1950s versions of obscure Restoration dramas I’ve not mustered an interest in for twenty years – the fact is I own them because of a promise to engage and I don’t feel I can back out of the deal so uncouthly.

Back to my son’s book exchange day. He was told they could bring books into school to swap. He very cheerily pops upstairs and comes down with the full set of David Walliams novels which he got at Christmas and simply loved. As parents we entered a state halfway between anger and disbelief. These are new books – by which we mean bought within the last two years. You can’t give those away.

‘Yes, but I’ve read them.’ Says my son.

Ah, so what we’ve got is a clash of values. The youth of today perhaps have new systems of possession, gifting, storing, keeping and disposing that are entirely at odds with even my own upbringing, let alone that of my father. Books are now to be read, enjoyed as texts and then their physical husks to be parted with. This is something alien to me and my cherishing, hoarding sense of the holistic literary experience, one which has its bibliophile clutter of firsts and proofs and trade-editions, where a book once loved is soon to be re-read, where each dog-ear and underlining is a friend, where a stain on a page from some once-upon-a-time coffee will usher a memory of when and where and can bring an explosion in the mind of sensations otherwise inaccessible through age.

Yes it’s all different now. I am deeply enamoured of my Kindle which, bought in 2014 after a bit of tentative deliberation, has never failed to amaze me. Dozens of books in one handheld pack. Online shares of quotes and favourite passages. Dictionaries and vocab-builders – particularly useful in French so that I can instantly forget new vocabulary and feel guilty. Page memory across different devices. What’s not to like, as the saying goes. Even the constant hectoring by Amazon’s tag-based marketing has a sort of desperate charm, like sitting with a permanent personal Willy Loman or Gill off the Simpsons.

But can Kindle provide the necessary therapy for my generation of bibliophiles and its indigestible clutter? Can it ease that belief that material goods are something to cling to, at least for those of us whose parents had nothing. Is an aversion to patina something the next generation will grow up with, happy with only those fine editions that they chose to have on shelves, unread because all reading is done on screen? Perhaps there will be no books on shelves for the future-home’s white-cube rooms. Perhaps blocks of bound paper will be saved only to refurb Olde Worlde pubs. Or, perhaps, there’ll be one or two people that feel some deeper atavistic need, and who choose to find and preserve their grandfather’s Wonderbook.

 

 

Academic Profiles – top tips and seven common faults – how to improve

Surprisingly, given the common sense of most business practice, universities are often less than excellent in communicating their greatest asset.

What most people want from university is to engage with staff, staff who will help make an experience for us, who will transfer to us their interests, wisdom, contacts, scope, skills, enthusiasm and brilliance. We come, whether as students, collaborators, employers or employees, looking for intellectual and professional charisma and while we may find it when we get there, it’s not always evident in the preliminary online offering.

There are two main online access routes through to the university world. One is the academic product itself, traditionally in the form of arcane texts but increasingly evident in films, sound files, activities or interventions. The other is the digital marketing brochure, rich in smiley seminar sessions, well-sampled sound bites and buildings forever washed in sunlight.

There’s an opportunity however to develop better practice in what lies between these, to show a broad, non-specialist but intelligent readership what differences the university system makes to the world and what part its individual staff members provide.

This is not an altogether straightforward task. To begin with there’s a slippery tightrope between the many audiences, which range from prospective students to prospective peer reviewers. There’s also a far too easy slide into the dry, mechanical horrors of a CV listing, jammed unreadably with ISSN numbers, colons and a subtitular warren of similar-sounding publications and conferences.

As a best aim, an academic profile should demonstrate how staff members engage with enquiring minds at all levels, giving a true sense of scholarly achievement and its wider beneficiaries, while at the same time showing you as an individual to be a model of intellectual agility, enthusiasm and scholarly generosity.

Or at least it should be something that you, as an academic, spend time on and take pride in. As a check list or an initial push towards improvement, here are a few common failings observed ‘in the field’, including one or two tips, quick wins and seven deadly and all too familiar profiling sins:

1 – The Corpse – profiles that are not up-to-date

There are plenty of dead profiles in the digital world, often because the academic has moved on and institutional systems can’t cope with absences. It can also be caused by a failure of ownership in institutions where academics have either no direct governance or are not encouraged to feel that the institutional representation is also a personal one.

Sometimes profiles are just a victim of general busyness, most evident in those that have been overworked at one moment in time with no ongoing regular commitment – “My current research will be presented at the state of the future conference in 2010…” etc.

It is good practice to make sure that any profiles that are created link back to something that is regularly updated. Try to avoid building just for the here and now; be careful with “in progress”, “going to”, “soon”, “this summer”, “current”, and so on unless you need to use them because, one, you know you have an audience that will be regularly checking back and, two, you are personally committed to efficient updating. Otherwise, be as time neutral as possible and do enough basic gardening to make your plot looked lived in.

2 – The Invertebrate – profiles with no spine

It’s common to describe airy activities without showing actual scholarly substance, even more common to assume that the audience will grasp the substance from bald specialist reference points.

Somewhere, the description of your work needs to have convincing and accessible evidence of originality, rigour and significance. Not just what activities have been undertaken, but what effects you have had. Test what you’ve put on the page against basic questions: What have you changed? What have you created or developed? Who has benefitted? How great is your reach?

Beware of just listing titles for a start. That’s not to say the CV of papers, books and conferences doesn’t go up there somewhere, but apart from the length of the list, what’s being demonstrated to those who haven’t read the papers themselves?Spare a thought for the visitor to your pages, the audience that comes from outside your specialism. Be very clear as to the basics of research activity: What are the questions your research is trying to answer – why is it important to answer them – what contribution are you making to a step change in the debate?

Imagery, moving image or sound should function as part of the delivery of this. When using audio-visual material, check how it contributes to the audience’s understanding of what your contribution is to a scholarly or research base. If an image is viewed as merely decorative then does it need to be there at all.

Originality. Rigour. Significance.

Share the passion… with evidence

3 – The Ivory Tower – academic profiles with no teaching

This principle isn’t just for research. In teaching, what originality and rigour do you bring? What evidence of classroom impact do you have? Or outside the institution, what professional bodies or communities benefit from your work?

Profiles tend to be driven by research, partly for institutional and partly for personal reasons. Traditionally, universities were proud not to teach as such. Learned doyens expatiated to attentive listeners who then taught themselves through scholarly diligence. New university structures, methods and institutions now have professionalised teaching at the core of a modern university experience and uni teachers are expected to be more than just experts on their pet subjects.

Acronymous titles of seminar-series, lists of modules developed, or dry reflections on the patterns of pedagogy in the tutorial environment are less engaging than something that really demonstrates teacherly skill. Videos, audio recordings or just plain text, whatever the method, show that passionate, inspiring, effective teaching is part of your academic communication.

4 – The Lionskin – profiles with bold claims

Not many academics are great spin-jockeys. In a profession built around truth-seekers it’s usually unwise to resort to buzz-words, fudging or lies. “The prodigious twenty-year-old’s internationally-renowned, world-leading, paradigm-shifting debut essay due out next month…” etc

“World-leading”, “international”, “influential”, “ground-breaking” are phrases to use sparingly and advisedly, especially about yourself or your project, especially when unsubstantiated. It sounds obvious, but there are plenty of suspect claims of stardom out there. A download from Fiji does not make work “internationally acclaimed”. A unique niche topic does not of itself make the investigator a “world leader”. Leadership implies followers and breaking ground implies that others will be building on it. Everyone who counts is likely to already know you’re world-leading if you really are; if they don’t but they should, try showing rather than telling.

Calmly excellent is what an academic profile should be – quieter confidence beats bombast and hyperbole in most rigorous research circles. Let others judge and let them judge by the evidence you give.

5 – The Shaggy Dog – overly chronological tales

There’s often a fair few paragraphs of early career development to get through before you make it to the meat of a profile. “Having won the handwriting prize in my first year at St Hildegard’s I took a keen and early interest in mathematics especially subtraction…” etc.

Yes, the profile is a narrative of sorts. It’s worth reflecting however on the journalistic trend that produced the inverted pyramid of “best stuff at the top”. Your audience isn’t captive so don’t waste time gradually working a narrative that builds towards that late career professorship and Nobel prize.

Whatever is best about your career to date, put a couple of neat references to it at the top.

6 – The repeat groove – failure to edit …

The trouble with being an expert is you’ll be called upon to repeat your best stuff at many a live interaction. Chances are a developing essay has five conference presentations around the same issues. Consultants will be consulting regularly on what they’re known for.

The quick fix for an academic profile is a CV-style list, often chronologically delivered, and similar work comes up again and again in a range of forms. Many profiles – as with many CVs [resumes] – seem expecting to be judged by their length rather than their clarity or quality. Beware of padding out with minor activities, especially in early career. Try to think who will be trying to read the page, how you might help them through with digestible parcels of information, and what impression of quality and significance they might be carrying away with them.

A strong recommendation is to have clear titles, bullets where necessary, structured themes and an excellent summary first sentence for each section.

7 – The open-mic of Euphues – profiles of inappropriate tone

Originality, significance and rigour should be shown as though writing for an intelligent but non-specialist audience. This is true of any communication of academic work outside the peer group. Strange that it is not in more evidence on university websites given that funding bids and conference places and publishing deals require exactly this.

The most extreme problems are either that the tone of a profile replicates a job application, through which professional restraint and bland adherence to protocol are thought optimal tactics, or it replicates a half-remembered philosophy lecture with a fuzz of large and very woolly words.

What tone to employ, what style, what rhetorical devices? Well, there’s plain English and there’s English so plain it fails to function. There’s academic phrasing and there’s obstructive pedantry. Yet, between the Sestos and Abydos of the tonal spectrum, between pleonastic Heroes and the off-duty parataxis drivers, there’s ample space to sound scholarly without sounding an arse.

Your style will be your own but there are basic rules: try not to repeat phrases especially not at the beginning of every sentence, (Dr X wrote this, Dr X then wrote that); try to avoid vocabulary that ties you to a bygone era or excessive lucubration; and never, ever try to sound cooler than your undergrads.

Your academic profile – concluding notes

Profiles come in many guises, from those that are out-of-date copies of a CV to those that throb with un-evidenced marketing spin. In between are some that are confident, informative and interesting.

Most include the right basic material but many are incomplete, poorly ordered or poorly edited. If you’re responsible for a profile then give it a health check. Have you got, for example:

  • A short, effective opening statement showing excellence and compelling further engagement
  • A brief, engaging and focussed overview of your career
  • A statement of research interests appreciable to a non-expert
  • A means to make immediate contact
  • A set of premium, recent research achievements, suitably delivered and connected to further reading and contact
  • A sample of how you use your teaching skills to communicate your expert knowledge
  • Evidence of the esteem in which your research is held beyond the institution
  • Evidence of the (potential) value of your research to those outside the direct scholarly circle
  • Clicks outward from well-edited lists of outputs that allow for download or further information.

Unfortunately the academic profile is the last thing on many people’s lists of things to get right and the institutions that require them often provide little direct help.

Some academics have no profile at all, which seems slightly neglectful, if not ungrateful. Others have a fat paperback’s-worth of information that may prove undigestible for human beings.

Maybe the world-wide few who can fully appreciate your scholarly work will not be judging you by your academia.edu, Linkedin.com or institutional page. However you may be able to make the most of your next circle of influence and, in between the PhD studentship and the Nobel Prize, there is a ladder of recognition that might be easier to climb by avoiding one or two of the most common errors.

Do make time to do something – and a bit more time to do something good.

Sport and narrative: living through 2013/14 as a Liverpool fan

An old wise-woman, questioned at the gate to the ancient olive grove on the route to Olympia, is thought to have said that a life well-lived needs three things: self-worth, the knowledge that we are loved, and the potential to crap on our opponents at sport.

And it’s the need for sport, particularly the need to support sport, that makes me wonder how much of sport is the same set of interests as that of story… particularly this football season when I’ve personally gone through a narrative arc of chunderous highs and lows, cliff hangers, hope-against-hopes and oh-so-nearlys.

Sport takes many forms – and bear in mind that ‘sport’ here is about the aims and activities of conquest and conflict rather than its more participatory, health-inducing meanings or its balletic, dispassionate grace.  We seek, in all kinds of places, domination as an ending and the fulfilment we hope it will bring. Catch the competitive mums at drop-off and there’s competition masquerading as everything from art to chit-chat to good-parenting – the sport of oneupmanship – so which little girl is reading the fattest book and which little boy took the class teddy to Fiji? Down the pub for a quiet drink and there’s everything from who’s got the poshest watch to who’s had the best weekend… and of course whose team has won. At the heart of this is a competition over who’s having the best experience, who’s having an enviable high. In other words, whose individual narrative has been the best to live through.

Oh, yes we are narrative and the narrative journey needs its sport. We lust for narrative that puts ourselves in the role of protagonist (whether active or simply suffering the slings and arrows); we lust for that sense of an arc that takes us towards satisfactory ends; and of course, with wonderful Peter Brook-style psychology, we both hunger for the ending and ache to delay it, trading the demise and the reslolution into nothingness against the active time-thread that keeps us going, keeps us wanting and keeps us hoping for the end.

Any narrative needs its twists.  We need our high, high stakes: we need to imagine the best possible ending and we need to know that it’s  both essential and that  failure will be agonising. We need have our hopes raised then snatched away.We need the heroes and the villains. We need the adrenaline of love and hate. We need to associate ourselves with our representatives within the story and disassociate ourselves from the centre of evil.

Narrative is one of the ways we best combine emotion with intellect. While there are different balances between these two depending on taste, when fully satisfied, narrative allows our thoughts and feelings to work in harmony.

Life itself is undertaken as narrative and  we have our strongest experiences by creating threads of narrative sense from the tumbling rubberband ball of chaos.

At its best sport provides this. We know it can and those who follow a football team through a season are embarking on an embedded narrative, embedded within the wider scope of their fandom.

Of course when we pay for narrative, when we cough up for our books and ebooks and cinema tickets and Playstation games and TV licences, we expect to be teased, tantalised and rewarded without it ever being obvious that the entertainment has been designed to do this.

When we follow sport we hope we’ll get this, but the knowledge that we largely don’t is part of the fun (and part of the perversity as Nick Hornby says at length in Fever Pitch).

So, Liverpool Football Club 2013/14

Oh what a season. Especially for the world weary fans who’ve been there for 24 years without a first division win; especially for those who’ve suffered the Red Devils menacing the upper echelons for most of those years, especially for those who were crushed by the oh-so-close-but-no-cup in 2008 and 2002, especially for those who remember the good-old-days, those who have told their own tales to their children of when we had Stevie Highway on the wing.

For me it goes back to 76 with a fondness for Kevin Keegan and then 77 and the signing of Dalglish and the TV showing, as one of its very few live games, a European Cup win that I stayed up late for and saw as suitably heroic. Add to that the playground and being in with those celebrating the victory, collecting the Panini stickers and putting stars around the margins of the Liverpool FC page while drawing beards and glasses on the Man U team . Suddenly the football isn’t just TV and isn’t just the stadium, it’s part of what makes you happy and makes you liked and gives you conversation.

Sport embeds itself. It’s not just the team doing its stuff and us tagging along. It’s part of the fan’s own life-narrative and the narrative potential is enormous with opportunities for both ecstasy and agony.  As far as watching these heroes on TV as a six or seven year old, was I even conscious that they had their own reality elsewhere? I took my six year-old to Anfield this year and he didn’t seem to quite understand that these people he’d been watching on TV and whose posters were on his wall – of course I’ve shamelessly indoctrinated both my sons – these were the real people standing down there, yes, that’s the real Steven Gerrard, the Real Louis Suarez.  For an imaginative, TV-watching child maybe the football on the box was seen in the same way as the drama – probably made up and possibly even created through CGI. Their importance is not in themselves as such, it is in the rewards they give us through the narrative possibility.

And now we wait for the season to go through its final twists. Liverpool were behind then they were ahead. Then it was all thrown away on a slip that was mercilessly mocked by Man U and Man City and Chelsea fans and now…. now we sing about the golden light at the end of the storm and we wait.

Liverpool FC the backstory and setting for 2013/14

The LFC backstory for the 2013 season has its own tangles. The team could be a cast to suit Kurasawa. In Suarez there’s the vilified anti-hero made good; in Gerrard there’s the old stalwart leading the team as the opportunity to live the dream of a Premiership gradually dwindles and retirement approaches. In Mignolet there’s the new keeper following from an old favourite. Sterling is the young buck playing his part, Tore the clownish geriatric who maybe shouldn’t have been in the pose to begin with.

There’s the fact that Liverpool were the team of the 80s and then seemed to lose their touch. The despised win-everything outfit who suddenly dropped to second fiddle, eventually playing more of the gutsy under-dog role in games throughout the 2004/5 Champions’ Leauge and winning more fond respect for trying than awe-struck loathing for their winning streaks.

Three or four very, very poor seasons, since 2008. Changes of manager and the very real sense that another season in 7th will mean an exodus of those heavyweights who can save the squad. For a while we teetered on the brink, expecting to lose the only man who was scoring and to fail to attract any new blood of any quality. One more step towards the brink and we’re the new Leeds, bombing down the division and maybe even slipping to the one below. It’s a real possibility as Hornby points out too – look at Wolves fans who, when Fever Pitch came out in 1991 as the authors example of a club who’d won loads for a while then nothing for thirty years… well now it’s fifty years and Wolves still haven’t pulled it back.

Everything is set for drama and when new hero Sturridge was scoring and taking Liverpool to an early topping of the Prem, Suarez was still banned from playing and only just reconsidering a stay at the club. Some very deep breaths in the early months and a few pundits wondering how the two would play together.

So the narrative elements are all there. Underdogs, inner conflicts and trouble among the stalwarts. High stakes – Gerrard has said he wants the Premiership title more than anything and his time is running out. A sudden surge of hope with early lead and suitable jockying until Christmas. Still top and then the super villans – rich, rich clubs and ( in Premierleague football terms at least) Liverpool can even adopt the image of impoverished D’Artagnons cocking a snook at the corrupt and  wealthy blues as they do battle. And as every reader knows, the impoverished underdog always has the moral appeal and our support in the face of the wealthy and the powerful.

Towards the end

They couldn’t have wanted more from the drama. Liverpool vs Man City – both needing only to win their remaining matches. A draw lets Chelsea in. Two nil up, then two-two… remember the Swansea game when we needed the winner in the last 15 minutes at 3-3, remember hanging on with the nose in front against Sunderland and West Ham… remember scraping the winner against Fulham – then suddenly it’s a 3-2 winner and all looks good… only to have it wrenched away at home to Chelsea when the cloven-hoofed Portugese beats his chest and renegade angel Fernando Torres chases down the pitch subtly allowing someone else to complete the dirty work – and all for a single slip, Gerrard missing his touch on the ball, then missing his footing… Oh woe and surely it’s been thrown away in the most sickening set of circumstances. Or is it just that this is perfect narrative, if we’d won then it would be all over and there would be none of that last minute just-in-time jubilation that Nick Horby felt in 1989 at the expense of Liverpool fans around the globe. (He writes wonderfully about this moment being the best any life could have been offered, suddenness, community-elation, never to be repeated etc all make it better than sex.)

But back to the Liverpool season, there’s then  the most dismal sacrifice of a three goal lead at Crystal Palace with fifteen minutes to go. How did that happen unless the narrative destiny wanted to tease us to the very end. There was a chance for Villa to help about but no… and then it comes down to the last game of the season and there’s still a chance. As an extra twist to the narrative as we want it, West Ham, Man City’s opponents for the last day have a bunch of ex-LFC players. Surely this is part of some great narrative destiny, part heroism, part grotesque destiny, a twist which shows that powerful super-managers have had it all in their sights for years. Of course that’s why Andy Carroll was the most expensive dud player in the universe, a depreciation of 30m on his fees etc. It was all part of a master plan that looked to plant him in the West Ham team ready to score the winner in that game… you can almost see him ripping off his Hammers shirt to reveal the liverbird beneath… a cross from Downing, Joe Cole heads forward and…

…and then it doesn’t happen and instead of the narrative unfolding into that sweet ending as it obviously would have done if I’d been allowed to write it instead of watching sport and chance and combat take their course, instead we have a flat end a woeful interview or two, positives to take away and – what every fan both says and hates to hear – we’d have been very happy with second at the beginning of the year.

This is where sport has to let us down, narrative-wise. Only very, very occasionally does the narrative work out and we feel the full satisfaction of the scripted, planned well-crafted story. Istanbul was like that in 2005 and now there’s a special room at the club museum where you can go and get a powerful filmic reminder that brings back the whole thing, the dip of the hero’s near-death experience, the seizing of the sword and the conquering of an enemy that had spent their column in La Gazetta boasting they’d crush us…

No, usually there’s something flat, disappointing, deflating, something unpelasant. We don’t have endings such as narratives would give us in fiction. There’s very few successful stories have a damp squib, oh-well-so-what ending. If there’s tragedy its grim, catastrophic and brings about both permanent change and an awaking of prime values in the audience. There’s no tragic flaw. What could it possibly be… we came second because of hubris or avarice or parsimony or false idols. No. There’s no reason save not being quite good enough where it mattered. And we think back, West Brom,  Southampton at home, Hull away, Cardiff away… and all we can do is hope for the transfer season and for August to come round again with optimism.

So why? Why the wrong ending? And this is where the harsh reality of sport engineers its own sense of what narrative is and how it interplays with expectation and desire. Red Smith wrote in the New York Herald Tribune on the occasion of the national sharing by radio of what seemed the ultimate last moment winning hit of the baseball season:

Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again. [4 October 1951]

And that’s when it did all come together in an amazing shared moment, triumph and disaster shared. The perfection has brought self-annihilation. We almost fail to deserve the “right” ending. This is not scripted and has to reflect our failings in the real world. We are left looking back on those moments of slight chance, Gerrard letting a pass slip under his foot for the first time anyone can remember… it falling to Chelsea, his scrabble to regain it, his slip… The premiership hung for a moment, it seemed, on that tiny event. We are powerless. We are swallowed by fate. Narrative, in the way that it is belief and a sense of justice, direction and deserving, narrative itself seems to fail us.

 

 

MJ Wilson is author of prize-winning short story “Almost Steven Gerrard”. Read ‘Almost Steven Gerrard’ online