One Of Us Speaks: More Important than Life or Death
Big Al’s here with his food for thought this morning…
I haven’t been past the Coronet cinema in Well Hall for about a year. As a small kid I watched a bunch of comedies there in the late-80s and early-90s – Steve Martin, John Candy and Tom Hanks, that kind of thing. I performed action scenes on its forecourt with my older brother. Last time I saw it, it was still boarded up. The marquee’s paint was peeling and the many small window panes of its high bay facade had been smashed deliberately, one by one, by patient vandals.
It’s been well over a decade since families and horny teenagers went there. It’s listed, so couldn’t be pulled down either – a 30s art deco masterpiece dying next to a traffic-clogged roundabout in southeast London. The cinema was stuck with two screens, one huge, the other poky. It was a fair walk from the nearest train station in a down-at-heel area. It never stood a chance when the multiplexes came along.
A couple of minutes away was my mate’s house – he had a SNES and a Mega Drive when we were kids. There was a pet shop just along the parade leading up to the Coronet, where I adopted a succession of small companions.
And across the roundabout, on the right side of a road lined with plane trees sits the memorial stone for Stephen Lawrence.
1993 was the year I became Arsenal conscious. Within a year I’d see my first match, in the Makita Cup against Napoli. But until then I had to be happy with the new away strip – yellow with the three blue diagonal stripes. The night I got it I wore it to bed, even though that polyester collar has now been proved the itchiest thing ever made.
Obviously it’s incongruous that a place that holds so many happy childhood memories could be the scene of a crime that shook the country. I won’t speak for the residents back then or now, but the event has soaked into the brickwork, and makes the paving slabs seem somehow greyer.
There’s a jarring sensation that catches you off guard from time to time – I’m from there; those boys went to our schools, they drank at the same pubs and hung out where my brothers and friends played pool on Eltham High Street. It happened there.
Whatever your thoughts on the murder, and, just as importantly, the aftermath, chances are you found out something about yourself when you reflected on it. I didn’t realise as a child, but it made me wonder who I was, and who I wanted to be. A lot later I found out what I could and couldn’t change about myself.
I’ve been trying to work out what’s so disturbing about the recent race rows in football. And I think I might have finally put my finger on it. Football is an escape, or at least it should be, from a more serious life. It’s not better than real life, just simpler.
Because it’s so black and white – the heroes play for your team, and the villains play for theirs. You’ve got the freedom to be as irrational, vindictive and partisan as you like without having to feel guilty about it.
Apart from freak incidents, in the football world the worse thing that can happen is defeat or seeing one of your players suffer a nasty injury. It can make you angry, and you’ll empathise with a stricken footballer, but you can still move on.
The pain is only secondhand but the joy is real, like on Monday night when Henry scored. It’s just as visceral and ecstatic as in the real world, especially when you can share it with thousands of other people.
I think this football fantasy world has been confused with real life. We’re seeing battle lines over affairs as serious as racial prejudice demarcated by team loyalty. It’s a crazy place already, where players can expect to be abused for switching clubs. If we are going to act like nutters, let’s at least keep it about sport.
Maybe it’s because times are hard – there are troubles mounting in the background every day. They may not affect us all directly at the moment, but we all dread them and can forget about them by watching young millionaires do what we dreamed of doing when we were kids.
I saw online that the Coronet cinema is finally under redevelopment. It was as if some force were waiting for the trial to come before letting Well Hall move on. The cinema was left to rot long before it closed its doors, like a monument to the area’s humiliation; now it will house an auditorium for Greenwich University, as well as shops, flats and student housing.
Deal with matters like racism in your own way; assign as much or as little importance to them as you like, but try not to confront them as a football fan, because we’re a one-eyed lot by definition and can’t be trusted. These aren’t topics to be chewed over in the sports pages, which on the whole are only equipped to deal in football’s tawdry circus. Take your time. Keep your dignity.
It’s probably what Liverpool should have done when they were smarting from what they thought was an unjust charge. European qualification is at stake, and with it millions of pounds and the short-term future of their club. But all that gate revenue, and all that potential TV money comes from the pockets of people who live vicariously through the team. When the charge is racism, preserve the fantasy. It may be a cliché, but discretion is the better part of valour.
As it was, their statement sobered a lot of people up. It’s still a game, and we should realise when the ball’s out of play.
Don’t forget to check out Arsenal On This Day, this time 1979. ’til Tomorrow.