Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Chapter Ten of Hampton from the Halfway Line

If this isn't everyone's favorite chapter, then I'm Herve Revelli.


The City, London

“You might want to take this outside,” Peter McMahon’s secretary whispered, holding out to him a mobile phone. “It’s your wife. She sounds upset.”
Mischa had crept into the conference room where Peter was in the midst of meeting with one of his groups of direct reports, a team of hotshot young bankers champing at the bit for new clients. Champing, even pretending to champ, was not something Peter ever did back in the 80s. Just as then, he looked upon such boys and girls – barely older than his own son – with the sort of amusement that one might regard a cartoon. On the other hand, their vigor helped keep him in the seat of a smart Saab Saloon.
He asked one of the junior partners present to carry on with the pinstriped gauchos of capital, excused himself and walked down the hall to his office.
“Rosalie?” he said, not sounding too terribly alarmed.
“Peter, oh my god. You must come immediately.” She spoke with an impressively controlled franticness.
“What? Where are you? What’s happened?”
“Tesco. Fucking Tesco. Why did I come to fucking Tesco?”
“You’re at Tesco? Which one? Round from our place?”
“Yes. No. Yes. I was. Now I’m at the police station next door.”
“What? Why? What police station? Are you hurt? What is happening?
“Oh, Peter. Come to the police station next door to Tesco on Shepherd’s Bush Road and get me out of here. These stupid, stupid bastards. Fucking Tesco.”
While remaining on the line with Rosalie, he buzzed for Mischa to arrange for a black cab to pick him up in front of the bank and zip him as quickly as possible to W6. As he had one more vital face-to-face before leaving for the day, Peter asked Mischa to rearrange for the meeting via phone. Once he was able to stabilize whatever Rosalie’s predicament was, he would carry on with his bank’s business, while possibly switching back and forth between soothing his wife and soothing a strategic partner. Peter McMahon was well experienced in such doings.
Rosalie never once stopped talking. She was still talking as Peter punched her mobile number into his mobile. As he hung up his office phone, explaining to her that she should hang up so that the new call could reach her and they could carry on talking, still she talked. If he’d been less distracted, he could have had Mischa connect Rosalie directly to his mobile without her having to hang up. He tried connecting as he walked to the elevator and down to Gresham Street where he would be met by one of London’s finest – the black cabbie.
A ride in a black cab, second only in expense to a Hong Kong cab, is normally worth every shilling, though the cabbies are not as smartly dressed as in the past. Black cab drivers, as most British and many people around the world know, spend considerable time and expense – often up to three years – gathering what is known as “The Knowledge,” the hands-on expert ability to navigate the Byzantine streets of London. Of course, “The Knowledge” has been referred to by some as a form of euthanasia.
Page One. Run One.  Manor House Station to Gibson Square. Not that anyone has ever wanted to go from Manor House to Gibson Square, it has been noted, but every black cab driver must know how to do it and four hundred and sixty-seven other runs while commanding more than 15,000 streets to memory.
Peter’s initial call back to Rosalie went straight to her recorded voice. So did his second attempt. He could only assume that her attention had been diverted by something happening in the police station, or she was still speaking to Peter’s office line, or she had already received another call, or she had moved on from her husband by phoning someone else. His experience with this woman was that any of the four were a distinct possibility. Finally, after about thirty seconds, they were reconnected.
“Why did you hang up on me?” she asked, genuinely in distress. “I was in the middle of telling you what happened. I’m in a police station. Did you not hear?”
“Never mind. I’m here now,” Peter knew better than to bother explaining the sequence of administrative events involving the simple change of phones. “Tell me you’re not hurt.”
“Not … hurt.”
“All right, I’m just getting into a cab. I’m thinking that when I say, ‘Police station. Step on it!’ I’ll make quite the impression on the driver.”
“That’s not funny. This is not the time for you to be in your parallel universe of humor. Listen to me. Can you listen to me and not make your jokes?”
“I can try. What’s happened? And don’t start at the beginning. Go to the end first.”
“I thought you always say, ‘Foundation first.’”
“That’s different. Were you robbed?”
“I’m not hurt. I was not robbed. I … can I just say that … mm … soon, very soon I hope, you’re going to see this as … well … maybe funny.”
“Do they think you stole something?”
Peter was recalling past misunderstandings in shops throughout Europe, America and the various souqs of Northern Africa.
“Why would you say such a thing? Do I look like a thief?”
“I think thieves come in all guises, to be honest. But, no, off the top of my head, I do not look at you and think, ‘Well, there’s a common brigand.’
“Thank you. The manager at Tesco is not so sure. But that’s OK, because the police are with you on this one. Well, not at first.”
“And, I assume your answer to my next question, ‘Why does Tesco believe you to be a robber?’ will help bring me up to speed.”
Peter settled into the back seat of one of the new TX4 taxis, faithful to the iconic original but with upgraded modern conveniences making them the best and most advanced hackney carriages in the world.
“Where to, guv?”
“Police Station. Shepherd’s Bush Road. This is an emergency.”
The cab driver looked twice at Peter who, having spent most weekdays of his adult life around Threadneedle Street and Paternoster Square, had no difficulty looking suitably grave. The banker turned back to his mobile and to Rosalie. “Yes, that was quite satisfying. I suspected it would be.”
The driver was a young, white and most likely heavily-tattooed south Londoner from Lewisham. He went straight past the Guildhall, instead of bearing left onto King Street toward the river, clearly with an eye toward St. Martin’s le Grand. Perhaps he knew something Peter didn’t about real-time street closing or congestion.
“I don’t think this will make any sense if I work backward.” Rosalie paced the halls and foyer of the police building.
“You could at least tell me why Tesco thinks you stole. Did something fall into that ridiculous purse of yours? Did you just merrily push your cart full of groceries out the door while talking to Kay on the phone?”
“Actually, in hindsight, I suppose one could assert that I knowingly participated in an armed robbery.”
Peter laughed. “Seriously, Rosalie.”
“Well, of course I didn’t. Not really. But I can see how it might have looked.”
“Rosalie …” It took a lot for Peter’s mind to spin when it came to his wife. This time, however, she had flipped the switch in the carnival ride section of his brain.
“I’m innocent.”
“Should I phone Martin?” The pragmatic money man emerged. “Was this your one call?”
“Oh, for christ’s sake, I’m not being detained … exactly. Are you almost here?”
“Almost there?” he blurted. He continued to be surprised by her lack of sense when it came to the relation of space and time. “We’ve only just … hold on. He’s heading to Holborn Viaduct. Excuse me. Where are we going? Is this a detour? You know it’s Hammersmith, right?”
“Yessir. Avoidin-a-traffic.”
“By what route?”
“Gray’s Inn, Euston, Marylebone, Westway, West Cross Route, Shepherd’s Bush Green. S’a winner s’time of day, guv. Embankment’s a mess.”
“Why don’t we just go dead east while we’re at it?” Peter suggested sarcastically. “Pass through Whitechapel, grab a curry, catch some skuzz rock, pray to Mecca. We could get on the north circular and make a night of it. I have a maiden aunt in Muswell Hill who’d love the company.”
“Nah. Gray’s Inn Road is right …”
“Are you mad? It’s in the opposite direction, first of all. That’s my point. I could get out and run and be at King’s Cross before you.”
“Not so sure about that.” The driver appeared to give Peter’s challenge serious thought.
“I don’t want to do that,” Peter leaned forward for emphasis.
“And s’far s’opposite direction goes … for me, s’matter of half-step back and then, fwack. Release the arrow. It’s like shooting the taxi out of a cannon. You’ll see. Just relax, sir.”
“Peter. Peter. So I’m standing in the checkout line and …”
“Hold on a minute sweetheart. Excuse me. Billy … I believe is your name?”
“I’m afraid I’m not comfortable with the proposed itinerary. Doff of the cap to ‘The Knowledge’ and all that, but … uh … I’ve been going back and forth between Brook Green and the City for twenty-five years and, as tempting as the Westway and the prospect of the three-lane dual carriageway at Royal Oak may seem in theory, frankly, I see it as a devious route. Again, no offense.”
“Please adjust. We’re not far enough north for the Marylebone option to make any sense.”
“Just trying to save you time and money, sir. You did say it was an emergency.”
Billy quickly turned left on Old Bailey toward the river. Thank goodness, Peter thought. Euston Road. What a pillock. Did he buy the coveted green badge on eBay?
The driver thought, ‘Don’t he just take the biscuit.’
“Sorry, darling. Go ahead. You poor thing.”
“Please tell me if I’m disturbing your little battle strategy campaign,” Rosalie offered wearily. “It’s not Dunkerque, Peter. It’s a ride in a taxi.”
“Sorry.” Come to think of it, he had always imagined himself as Major General Johnny Frost as portrayed by Anthony Hopkins.
“As I was saying, I was in the queue putting my groceries on the conveyor thingy, and there was a young man -  a bit scruffy -- paying for his groceries in front of me. Spot of bother, his bankcard wasn’t working when he swiped it. You could see he was at that point, you know, when you can’t handle one more bad thing happening to you. End of his rope, sort of thing. Well, he starts in getting agitated at the female clerk and began swearing and blaming his girlfriend -- who wasn’t there – because the bank account was empty or maybe it was the store’s fault or the bank had made a mistake and he’s getting really, really cross.”
“Wasn’t anyone seeing it? What was the checkout woman doing?”
“Dropping the ball. She was moaning that he should see the manager so she could move on to the other customers. So I figured I would just pay for his beer and crisps and nappies and whatever and hopefully that would quiet him down and perhaps turn his day round.”
“That’s sensible. So what happened? He took his bags and ran?”
“If only. No, he pulled out a gun and started hyperventilating and ranting and waving it at everyone. Positively barking.”
“Oh, bugger.”
“Yes, I nearly soiled myself.”
“No, I mean this sodding cab driver. One second, Rosalie. He’s done it again. Hang on, Billy. You’ve gone past New Bridge Street. That was our left turn back there, son. You’re headed for The Strand.”
“Please, sir. First and foremost, wif all due respect, there’s very lit-tle between taking the Strand or the Embankment goin’ west-iss time-a-day. Six of one, half dozen of the other.”
“Well, I know of one difference. If you drive down the Strand, I will jump from the cab without paying. If, however, you sensibly divert to the Embankment, I will continue as your passenger and pay you in full upon arrival in Hammersmith. That’s the difference. Now, if you please.”
“We’d be alfway to Not-ting Hill by now,” Billy muttered.
“Peter, let the man drive. Listen to me. I could have been killed.”
Left on Bouverie to Temple Avenue. Finally, the open-air relative glory of the Victoria Embankment.
“Sorry, darling. I just hate when these black cab drivers go off the reservation. Christ, a gun? You must have been in shock.”
“I haven’t been that shocked since Nicholas came home from school and asked me what beef curtains were.”
“I still don’t see how you could possibly have been implicated. Did he get away with money or just his items?”
“Mm, both. Peter, just listen to me. So I went bang into survival mode, because if the gun goes off any one of us could have been hit. My first thought was to go back the way I came. But there was a little Japanese woman blocking my escape with her pushcart, and she was petrified. I said, ‘Go back!’ She just stood there like an idiot, and I’m thinking, ‘I am not going to be killed in a fucking Tesco, leaving my children without a mother, because some Asian who doesn’t speak the language won’t move her little Chinese arse out of my bloody way. So I kept turning, looking for a way out. The checkout woman to my left … well, to my left when I was facing the frozen Asian on a stick but to my right when I was looking at the gunman … she was standing with her mouth all slack like every other ineffectual sod in sight while this maniac ponders assassinating us all. Her till was open, so …”
“God no!” Peter exclaimed.
“What’s happened now? Has he driven off Waterloo Bridge?”
“Tell me you didn’t …”
“Yes. I reached in, grabbed a considerable fistful of notes, thrust them at the robber – who wasn’t actually very good at robbing -- and yelled, Run!!”
Peter no longer cared whether or not Billy turned right on Northumberland just under the Hungerford Bridge or whether he continued along the Embankment all the way to Chelsea -- which would, of course, be sensible later at night. He had no difficulty transporting his mind to imagining the wild scene at Tesco involving his wife. No difficulty whatsoever.
“Well, someone had to do something. Someone had to act. The whole Tesco had gone Madame bloody Tussaud’s. The employees at the registers should be expected to hand over a few flipping pounds during an armed robbery. This was an armed robbery. I was just helping them do their jobs. I believe I saved lives. That’s what I was trying to explain to the manager. That officious little shit.”
“Oh, I suppose you would have engaged the criminal in a discussion of fluctuations in the exchange value of sterling.”
“Couldn’t you have just gotten out of the way somehow?”
As they say at Wimbledon, ‘Fault!’
“Oh, blame the victims to make yourself feel more safe and secure about how you would have reacted in an emergency. That couldn’t possibly happen to me, could it? Everyone thinks they know what to do in a pinch until they’re actually in it. Well, I don’t wait around for other people to get me killed. And where the hell are you?”
Peter had developed a lot of skills over the years when it came to handling Rosalie. Some came naturally over time; others were the result of determined industry. Just now though he had been closely following the narrative of her most recent escapade, genuinely concerned for her well-being in the face of an armed and stressed-out Londoner. Oh, for the days of an unarmed populace. In the midst of his concentration, Rosalie had challenged his personal ethics regarding the means by which we judge how others handle instantaneous crises. Naturally, he began to ponder his own potential response to a similar event. Now she expected him to suddenly break away and pinpoint for her his location and anticipated arrival. Peter, quite understandably required those couple of seconds that would inevitably irritate Rosalie. And she was in no mood to be patient with anyone.
“Pretty simple question, darling. Can you see out the window of the taxi? Do you recognize any famous landmarks? If you say Stonehenge, I’ll be quite disappointed.”
“Sorry. Erm … just passed the … Wellington Arch, and we appear to be bypassing the relative mayhem of Knightsbridge in favor of Grosvenor Crescent and most likely Belgrave Square.” Peter was temporarily back on solid footing. “Very nice.”
“If overly fiddly.” Rosalie quite liked Knightsbridge. Of course, she very rarely was the driver. Still, she couldn’t help weighing in.
“So I anticipate Beauchamp. As long as traffic round the Museums isn’t too bad, I’m thinking … five kilometers? Ten minutes?”
“Wonderful. Don’t be surprised if I’m drawn and quartered by the time you arrive. But do take your time.”
Rosalie spent a couple of minutes detailing the chaotic moments leading up to her detention and questioning at the hands of the Tesco manager before Peter’s voice interrupted her gripping narrative.
“Well in, Billy. There you are, mate.” Peter congratulated the young cabbie on a deft maneuver where Thurloe Place forked west away from the Brompton Road. He had curled niftily around a double-decker bus to beat a red light just in front of that Scandinavian furniture shop where Peter’s sister had bought the McMahons that ridiculous Aspland airbench with the holes in it that small things always fell through when spiders weren’t spinning webs.
“Will Billy be joining us for dinner?”
“Billy’s a mixed bag,” Peter whispered. “But if he keeps his head up he might be a half-decent cabbie someday.”
“So Fela shouldn’t set an extra plate.”
“I think she need not. I must say you’re sounding rather upbeat for someone who’s been banged up. Seriously, what are you still doing at the police station?”
“I don’t have a car. Kay dropped me off and was supposed to be right back, but she’s had some kind of trouble with Reg’s mother. So I thought of you. Aren’t you glad?”
“You were coming this way anyway, weren’t you?”
Peter did arrive, eventually, and spoke to the police before ushering away the self-proclaimed hero. They were quite impressed, were the more creative problem solvers of the Hammersmith police, by Rosalie’s quick thinking and – no getting around it – bravery. She wouldn’t be surprised to see her name in either Brook Green Magazine or West London Today.
The couple drove back to Tesco to retrieve Rosalie’s groceries that had, thankfully, not been returned to the shelves and refrigerated sections to be reselected but generously put aside at the customer service desk. Generously because Rosalie had been suspected by some at the store as being part of a rather clever and professional heist outfit. A fair cop, they thought. Several employees were mesmerized by Rosalie’s return to the scene.
By the time the couple returned to Sterndale Road, Peter was quite in the mood for some peace after his workweek had ended so tumultuously.
“All right, sweetheart,” Rosalie said. “We’ll get these groceries put away. You start the vegetables for grilling, and I’ll make the dough. Leave out everything we’ll need.”
“Grilled vegetables?” He had been just about set to check his e-mail before walking the dog in the park then settling in to watch the weekend’s match preview on Arsenal TV.  “Everything we’ll need for what?”
“Are you joking? I’ve only told you every day this week. We’re making pizzas for a dozen boys and girls. Lauren and Dani’s friends. You pay absolutely no attention to me,” she pouted, giving him a nice kiss on the lips. “I’m positively bereft.”
Peter opened his mouth to speak but nothing came. How could I pay no attention, he wondered, to a woman who does such a bang up job of making herself downright conspicuous? He loosened his tie, opened the cutlery drawer and reached for his grilling skewers.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Chapter Nine of Hampton from the Halfway Line


South Derry, Vermont

“Has anyone shown you the chickens?” Marianne Papineau asked her esteemed guest as they crunched along the cedar walkway covered with a new fallen inch of icy snow.
It was nine in the morning. The plan for the day was to go to the ski mountain. The Papineau holdings lay in the midst of three resorts:  one big; one small; one smaller. The smallest had lifts that sometimes stopped working. The largest could sometimes feel snotty, if you let it get to you. The Papineau party, which included Novak, would go to Stratton, the large mountain. When we say large, remember this is Vermont, not Utah or Colorado. Stratton, for example, has about one-fifth the terrain acreage of Park City, one-tenth that of Vail.
Ben Hampton was wearing one of the fleece-lined field coats the family kept on hand for visitors. He might choose to stay behind with Marianne and her mother, Joanna. Not because of any alpine fear or bias against spoiled brats from New Jersey demanding $200 gloves from parents who came to ski and drink (not spend time with the kids); but because he had detoured from his January book tour to meet and interview Marianne Papineau. He came to soak up some of what Novak had been unable to avoid mentioning in their many hours together in the Cotswolds, Maidenhead and London during December. He wanted to understand Marianne’s allure and to gain a more immediate sense of any possible effect she’d had on the choices Novak had made throughout his adult life.
Ben Hampton’s pact with Rosalie McMahon, Jonathan James and the Julius Novak book was limping toward a pronounced inevitability.
“You can see for yourself where the fresh egg portion of that bistro-quality breakfast came from,” she said, with a miniscule hint of having spoken primarily French since her teen years. “We had a little help from the girls.
“When it’s warm out, we might gather ten eggs a day from them,” she explained as they approached the white house with the red barn door and metal roof painted Essex green like the historically-correct homes in the village. The Taj Mahal, as they called it, possessed sixty-four square feet of interior space for a dozen lucky Araucano hens. Its back door opened onto a large coop built into the hillside.
“Now, the days are short and it’s freezing, so we’re lucky if we see half-a-dozen eggs a week, even with their red heat lamp.”
Sometimes, the Papineaus would see no eggs for days. Marianne’s father, Roger shoveled a little path, between the walkway and the Taj, for both humans and dogs and on the chance the chickens might venture out and walk around.
“These ladies aren’t crazy about the snow, though. Too cold for their feet, I guess. I’ve seen other breeds walk around all day in the snow.”
The top-half of the door remains open throughout the sunny days so the hens can look around the yard from a perch and at least consider a ramble. Not much fun, though, exploring the property if they can’t scratch up some leaves and eat a little grass and find seeds and other specks to peck at like they do when there’s no snow and the ground is soft.
“But don’t you love the silence from the snow?” she asked. “It’s like a muffler.”
The eighth-of-a-mile driveway through the trees and the fact of the surrounding forest on the hillside gave the Papineaus a welcome privacy.
“We’ve talked a lot about how important seclusion has been to all of us,” she said, sounding like a visitor’s guide to an art exhibit. “My stuff has always varied depending on where I am when I create a piece. Even my drawings are notably more serene when I’m in a rural kind of … idyll, I suppose. If you gathered all my work and separated it between city-produced sculpture and country sculpture, then you would see, I think, two distinct camps. The urban-born stuff, even if I’ve been hanging out in le bourgeois Marais, has an edge.”
A critic in the Times agreed, as Ben had read in a review of one of her Mayfair exhibits.
“There’s a bite to these urban pieces,” the article read, “as though they reflect what’s happening in densely-populated, loud, tense, diverse, thrilling surroundings.”
“The work I’ve done outside of Paris, whether it’s the Gascogne house or Phillipe’s folks’ place or, now, here, is more … what would be the cliché?”
“Contemplative?” Ben offered.
“Yes, I think so. Those sculptures tell a more meandering story or they suggest … well, you’ll understand after you’ve been here for a few days. The country will wrap her arms around you and sing you to sleep.”
Ben looked inside the chicken house. Eight, well-appointed nesting boxes lined one of the walls. Pine shavings covered the floor. A buff-colored hen flew up with a great explosion of effort onto the half-door.
“Oh, hello sweetheart. This is Louise. Louise has always been the first one to jump up onto the door and up on the kitchen windowsill. That makes my mom happier than almost anything. Opening that double window and having them fly up to say hello. Chickens in the warm months are like being at the circus. They’re so funny to watch.
“My friends in the city ask me ‘what the hell do you do up there in the middle of nowhere?’
“They look at me like I’m mad when I say, ‘Oh, normal stuff, like spray the hose in the air so our cairn terrier can jump and try to catch the water in his mouth by biting at the air in these huge clicks that sound like castanets. Sit on the front porch and watch the moodle and the Bengal cat wrestle and stick their heads into chipmunk holes. Watch the sun dip below the ridgeline. Yes, we actually mend fences. For a variety of reasons, the picket fences lose slats every winter and the stonewalls tend to crumble. We try to get chickadees to land in our hands for black-oil seeds. We lose our minds with joy if we see a deer family in the meadow or, thrill beyond words, a mama fox and her kits. The little fox will actually play hide and seek with our cat, and the mother allows herself to be chased by Stuart, the terrier. She runs at about one-quarter speed. He couldn’t catch her in a million years. When we see the little fox family, we assume the papa has demanded everyone leave the den for a while so he can have some peace for a change. We rarely see the daddy fox. They usually stay away because of the dogs, even though the sound of the chickens lures them toward an easy meal.
“In the evenings we read and sometimes play Triolet,” she went on. “We can do that with you later. It’s kind of like Scrabble with numbers. You have to put three tiles together to make fifteen all over the board. The children can do it, and we all laugh and laugh at whichever adult is the worst. I will tell you I’ve never lost. Julius will tell you he’s never lost, and so will my father. We’re all ridiculous.
“We play belôte out on the screen porch. Julius and my father also play belôte alone together in the library. When it’s just the two of them, it’s called belôte á la decouverte.”
Ben was not immediately familiar with the game.
“You don’t know belôte? Klaverjas? The men playing cards in the Amsterdam cafes? We’ll teach you. Kind of a French pinochle.
“Also, we watch DVD movies from NetFlix. Mom and dad argue about which of their selections should be where on the queue. I’ll show you their queue online. When they are in a particular battle, sometimes the order of films to be delivered to us changes several times a day. It’s a comedy.”
And they talk. Talking is what mostly goes on. Sitting around at the Gourlie-Papineau homestead one can talk oneself in and out of fights, in and out of tears, divorces, business ventures, feuds and grudges.
“I’ve talked myself in and out of racing to Albany airport to go and face whomever and telling him what he needs to hear. You let yourself go and you feel free to … I don’t know … make each day matter. You become energized and then feel compelled to make sure that today and tomorrow mean something.
“How will I follow through today on something I vowed to change? Or, simply, what needs to happen today to go forward? You might do nothing on a certain lazy day but read a book. Suddenly, you’re engaging in a connection of some kind, a communication that you’ve been putting off. Voilá, your accomplishment. But that’s a light day. We actually do a lot here. Each has a space.
“What we don’t do, day to day, anymore is worry about what that man with his hands in his coat pockets walking toward me will do. We don’t worry that maybe someone will be sleeping in the car when we open the door or hanging on tightly to a child’s hand so she doesn’t get run down in the street. Of course we miss all the fantastic bits of the city. I don’t need to tell you. It’s just two different worlds. Now we go down to New York for our thrills. But, you know, New York is New York; Paris is Paris. And, what can you say? Chickens are chickens.”
Marianne had grown up with chickens and cows and all this beauty and peace. The village and its surrounds were far more rural back then. Ben considered it plenty rural. A mere forty-five minutes from the interstate, on a twisting, two-lane mountain road, and he believed himself in the wilderness.
“Wilderness? Welcome to Yuppyville,” she corrected him. “Oh, I shouldn’t say that. Every person I’ve bothered, or taken the time, to get to know up here, I find they’ve moved to Vermont for the best of intentions. The same way my grandparents did. It’s no different here, in that respect, than any other beautiful place on the planet. The last one to arrive wants to lock the door behind her. I’d like to think I’m not that way. But then you run into some appalling blue blood or blue-blood manqué, or someone who just got too rich too fast, who thinks every Vermonter was born to serve them. Nothing is ever good enough for them, always complaining, so very self-absorbed.
“I would say, though, that most people who move here quickly become influenced by the notion of scaling it back, getting involved in something sweet and meaningful and healthy and coming to terms with what is really important in life. I see it happening to people all the time, stepping outside of oneself. It’s beautiful and affirming to experience, and it’s never surprising because it happens so much. I would say I’ve explored that sentiment in my work.  Friends have shared that observation with me.”
The late morning was sunny. The absence of wind made it seem warmer than it was. Marianne left the chicken door open as she and Ben retraced their steps back toward the cedar walkway and up toward the old barn, recently renovated into studio space for the mother and daughter, resident artists.
“One of the things that binds us up here,” Marianne said, as she paused to point out a particularly sublime view, “whether most people know it or not, is not the liberalism.”
Kerry only got like seventy-two percent, after all.
“Our bond is that we all moved here because we wanted to be in a beautiful place. Democrat, Republican, Socialist, Libertarian, doesn’t matter. I can sit down with a conservative and talk about how pileated woodpeckers scream like jungle birds and chop like lumberjacks; and how Flood Brook or the Black River are both so high they look like you could whitewater raft them; how tough the going will be for the ski mountains if we don’t get a big dump by Christmas.
“The common denominator is the idea that we realized life is too short to exist for one more day not loving where you live, not seeing a Jiffy Lube sign every time you drive your car. That’s my icon of horror and congestion and despair – a Jiffy Lube every few miles. They’ve got some catching up to do, but soon they must overtake McDonald’s, mustn’t they? The funny thing is, I recognize what a genius company it is. Do you know about Jiffy Lube?
“When we took our daughter to school last September, I sent Julius out to get Isabel’s oil changed on her car. He went to a Jiffy Lube and spent $600.
“I said, ‘What did you do?’
“He started giggling. He knew he was the boy who bought the magic beans.”
“They were changing her oil,” he said. ‘I was in that little room watching Montel Williams and reading USA Today and eavesdropping on cell-phone conversations. And this sweet little redheaded college girl calls me out to the garage to this impressive computer terminal, and she starts talking and pulling up all these interactive screens showing the engine and all these color charts and stuff and … Isabel’s car … my God, it was like a ticking bomb.
“Her wheels were all spinning at different speeds,” he goes on. “Well, I mean, they’re supposed to, but hers were … fucked up. The fluid. Stuff in the fluid. She could have been killed. Has she ever had her tires rotated since she bought it? I said No to rotating the tires, but she needs it. Who’s your dad’s guy for that? Well, call Russ then. And one of her lights was out; that’s a must. She said the radiator cap needed to be pressure tested for leaks. I said OK to that. Any fool could see that from the color chart. The bar graph was red all over where it should have been green. Again, she’s driving these mountain roads late at night and ‘psssshhhhhhttttt!’ Forget about it. And her pan gasket was nowhere near specification. She asked me if Isabel has been idling a lot, which I found a touch personal and don’t think had anything to do with the pan gasket actually.”
“I said, ‘Six-hundred dollars, Julius? It was an oil change, for goodness’ sake.’”
“He said, ‘Did I mention she had this adorable little smudge of grease on her cheek? I think she put it there on purpose like an actress applying grease paint in the dressing room. I thought, ‘Ooh, if Isabel worked here, I would want the customer to understand what she was trying to explain. You know, these kids work so hard, and … ”
“I thought of my dad, back when I was a teenager trying to talk my way out of trouble, and said, ‘Julius! Êtes-vous tout à fait à travers?’ Which I then had to repeat in English, because his French is crap.
“I called dad and urged him to go on his E*TRADE account and, quick, buy some Jiffy Lube shares. I mean, has a McDonald’s worker ever talked some idiot into spending $600?”
Ben Hampton could not stop laughing. He imagined Novak the continental intellectual as an ordinary, born yesterday consumer. Marianne chuckled a little before pressing on. The novelist could not tell if her attitude toward Novak was benevolent or not.
“You gotta love Julius. The older he gets, the more gullible he becomes. When he was young, he was suspicious of everyone. Now he’s practically a sap.”
Marianne paused and smiled as the dogs approached her and Ben. She directed her guest’s attention down the hill toward a coppice of butternuts in the meadow.
“There’s an underground spring in the middle of the trees. The water doesn’t bubble up or anything; it flows just under the soil and rock. I imagine it meets up eventually, along with other streams, with Flood Brook. That land is very marshy. Even though it looks dry, it isn’t. A tiny bit of rain, and you’re up to your ankles. I remember the first time I saw the spring. I was probably five – 1969 or thereabouts. My brother showed me. There’s a … like, a little crevasse between the trees and shrubbery, and you can hear the water moving. And when the sun is shining in, you can actually see fish and millions of minnows or guppies or whatever they are. I used to sit out there and daydream.”
She really is intensely beautiful, Ben thought. Better than Lena Olin.
“One day, my mom and I walked down there, and she said, ‘Who piled all these stones on top of one another?’
“The ground all around the hole looked like an elaborate sculpture garden. I honestly don’t remember having done it. I told her, after a minute of staring at this methodically-arranged pile of rocks, ‘I must have done it, mama, but I don’t think I remember.’
“She’s a painter, as you’ve probably heard, a fantastic painter, so she believed me or wanted to believe me. I suppose I could have made it up to make it sound as though I’d had some divine inspiration for my Tower of Babel, or perhaps I was trying to sound artistic to be like her. You know, curious or beguiling. But it was extremely pleasant and affirming, really, to have a parent at that moment not look at me as though I were either mad or a typical little fibber. I felt like we understood each other, and that wasn’t the only time. I love her so much … and my papa too. He doesn’t seem seventy-three, does he?”
Ben hadn’t considered it. He shook his head, snapping out of the rock pile meditation through which he’d been guided.
“Roger was always afraid someone would fall in the hole or that one of our dogs would fall in. I knew that couldn’t happen. My father – Professeur Papineau. You watch. When we walk down to the village store, he’ll say, ‘Don’t get hit by a truck on 100.’”
Marianne had been a little Vermont girl in the late sixties, when Joanna referred to the rural landscape as having been a minimalist canvas as far as human movement.
“There was nobody up here.”
Nowadays, some believe one must venture up into what they call the Northeast Kingdom to experience the old Vermont. Not as mountainous though. Lots of lakes, farms, rolling hills. Places like Lake Willoughby, which looks just like some impossibly-clear, glacial fjord.
“Vermont without people,” is how Novak refers to it.
“Our guy loves the Green Mountains,” Marianne said, then sadly or spitefully, Ben was unsure. “Not enough to move here though.”
So Novak relocated to the Cotswolds a couple of years ago, claiming it felt like Vermont and other nonsense about Tuscany and the way the ochre stone shimmers at dusk.
“You can never tell with him,” she said, referring to his Gloucestershire rhapsody.
Indeed, Novak had made a point of mentioning to his “biographer” how quickly he could reach Oxford by train. Now Ben wondered whether Novak’s doing so was in partial justification of having left his old, comfortable and convenient life behind. Ben supposed, however, that one could logistically trade a north-south Cambridge/Thaxted/Bloomsbury lifestyle for an east-west Blockley/Oxford/Greater London lifestyle.
“You’ve been there?” she asked. “Did he meet you at Moreton-in-Marsh and then take you for a pint in the little town with the model of itself that you walk around? He thinks that’s so cool. He dragged Isabel there as though she were still five years old. Then he took her to the river to play. What was the pub called? Ah, yes. The Mousehole. I can hear him now and picture the earnest face.
“They say Agatha Christie stayed here quite often,” she imitated him. Then, in her own voice, “Ay-ay-ay.”
And on she plowed a rut into Novak. Try and get him out of Blockley Village now, she said. If he didn’t have a daughter abroad, no one would ever see him outside of Gloucestershire or Oxfordshire, she said. He fancies himself a local character, she said.
“What do you think about your subject?” Marianne stopped to asked. “Is he your subject, or is he just a friend now? Are you doing it or what?”
He allowed that he was doing something or other. Right now he just wanted to hear more about her and the Papineaus.
“Hm. Fantastic childhood up here. And I was away more than long enough so that I’m content to live here for a while, maybe forever. I guess it depends on what Isabel wants to do after university. I don’t know, now, if I would move back to France. My parents are getting older. Thirty years since I lived here full-time.
“And my baby’s in college. My God! I always made a priority of Isabel’s having as much as possible of what I had growing up. She and I, and sometimes Phillipe, who I was on and off with (hopefully not to Isabel’s detriment), and sometimes Julius, have spent extended periods – weeks at a time -- in Vermont at least once a year since she was a baby. She’s sort of living my life in reverse, in some respects – first Paris, now New England. I was the other way around.
“My parents met in Massachusetts in nineteen sixty … one, it would have been. My dad, fresh from Gascogne, was teaching down at Amherst. And my mom, the ski bum/painter, was down visiting a friend at Smith. A torrid love affair ensued, of which my brother was the product. They married before he was born – that’s what you did -- but didn’t always live together. That’s not what you did. So they got one of two right, which for them is all you can ask for. My mom went back and forth between here and Northampton, where dad had an apartment. I came around not long after. My grandpa, the born-again farmer, referred to my dad, to his local friends, as ‘a French, French teacher.’
“When I first explained this course of events and this lifestyle to Julius, he got this surprised look on his face and said, ‘Jesus Christ.’ Not the sort of thing he grew up with, but I could tell it turned him on.”
Joanna and the children lived in the little cottage, where Ben Hampton was now a guest, until Marianne started school in the late sixties. Then they got their own small place in the village. Joanna began teaching art class part-time at the childrens’ school and other schools nearby, in addition to giving painting lessons in the evenings and taking various classes from others. She lived the Vermont seventies life. She helped her friends who were artisans or who had small farms or who made goat cheese. Everyone, it seemed, helped one another. She contributed time to the arts council and other things. Always busy. And always there for Marianne and Danny. In case of emergency, there was always Grandma Pipps.
“When we weren’t living up here, we would stay at my dad’s apartment in Northampton. That was wonderful for my brother and me, like an adventure in a big town. We thought Northampton was a big town. It was even bigger than Brattleboro. Going there was good for my mom too, first of all for the sex and companionship. The other draw was the many galleries, a legitimate market for what she called her real paintings.”
Marianne and Ben entered the restored barn, studio space shared by painter mother and sculptor daughter. The author was about to view Joanna’s unreal period.
Marianne explained how the only work her mother could hope to sell in significant quantities up here in Vermont, before the onset of Internet distribution, had to be geared toward the tourists. But she never quite forced herself to master the style or fake the style of art that tourists would want to take home with them as a memento of what they thought New England should look like.
What the public would gladly pay for – and continue to pay for today – was, in effect, a framed picture of their quaint getaway. They wanted postcard quality:  the ubiquitous covered bridge; the manicured town green – preferably with a bandstand or some other gazebo; all the Colonial houses with Greek Revival additions done up with the correct color of shutters; the roadside produce stand; marble sidewalks and quarries; farmers wearing green-plaid, ear-flap hats pouring tins of maple sap into a steaming vat; the old barn with a gambrel roof; and lots and lots of autumn leaves – red, yellow and orange clinging to the branches, wafting along in the mountain breezes and floating on the roadside streams.
“Mom would produce these potential souvenirs,” Marianne said, as she motioned Ben toward one of the storage alcoves filled with unsold canvases stacked on their sides upon skids, leaning against walls and shelves. “You see? Scores of them.”
She painted Farmer Joe and his Jersey cows. She painted men standing in water, fly-fishing for trout wearing enough gear to … whatever. She attempted Norman Rockwell. She tried Grandma Moses. But something about her ‘art-for-tourists,’ as Ben Hampton experienced standing there, wasn’t quite on. Marianne narrated the retrospective documentary as Ben flipped through the stacks.
“The scenes she depicts look as though, and it’s all moderately subtle – or not … they look as though she’s partaking in almost a kind of mockery. The paintings and sketches have an unsettling air of … ironic detachment is the rhetorical term that comes to mind. Like she’s not just recording a pastoral landscape or a coming together of rural folk. But as if she were, at times wistfully and other times harshly, drawing attention to an absurdity or some manner of grotesque. Julius says the paintings have the same effect as ‘Eminent Victorians.’ He always has to explain what he means by that. But that wasn’t what people, who came up here with money to spend, wanted.”
Ben wanted to buy them all but feared Kate would divorce him. He could only imagine what an insurance salesman and his wife from Connecticut thought when they saw a painting at the outdoor market that showed not only leaves on the trees in the aforementioned brilliant reds, yellows and oranges but also the sky, the water, the buildings, the animals and Vermonters themselves in similar colors. So that it was difficult to tell where the autumn foliage ended and every other facet of Vermont life began.
“Her positioning of inanimate objects in relation to one another, or juxtaposed with humans or beasts, was often jarring,” explained Marianne, casually demonstrating her many years of absorbing art theory. “Look at these. Here’s a pig walking across a country club fairway. One of my favorites has maple syrup spraying out of trees. Several show clocks in the village green displaying different times of day.
“Ah, this was a disturbing period,” Marianne said, picking out several dark canvases. “I think she was depressed here and smoking a lot of weed.”
“That would explain the propensity toward … what are these exactly?” Ben asked, squinting.
“Flooded fruit cellars.”
In other macabre studies, Joanna would place apple pies unexpectedly – in graveyards or floating in rivers or being eaten by pygmy goats off of tree stumps. People dance at inappropriate times or places. Children carry things that are far too heavy for them to carry, like two little boys effortlessly transporting a walnut armoire to someone’s truck bed at an auction.
Ben held a canvas up to the light but failed to determine if the characters in it were tourists arriving or locals leaving.
“There was a suggestion,” Marianne said, “in the words of Julius, quoting one of his literary heroes, that ‘all was not right with such people about.’ Sometimes you find yourself looking for what’s strange, and you never really find it; but you just know it’s there.”
Among the Gourlie-Papineaus and their friends, but sometimes uncomfortably suggested to them in social situations, there continues an endless debate. What approximately might Joanna Papineau’s inspiration or motivation have been to comment in such a way on an otherwise quite wholesome segment of Americana?
“You know,” Marianne attempted to place her mother’s work in context, “cause we’re talking about cheddar cheese, maple syrup, the changing of the leaves, Robert Frost. It’s not like we were spouse swapping or scamming anyone or smuggling fur from Montreal or undermining society in any way.”
Various of the family had their theories. The clan hierarchy used to weigh in.
“As we speak, it remains an unsolved art crime. I don’t know how it is in Britain, but in America, at least, the market for sardonic rural art has remained relatively flat.”
As Ben flipped through the dusty work, stopping to pause in surprise, delight or awe, it became obvious that these sorts of paintings and those in other of her oblique styles didn’t exactly fly out of the state each October.
“Is this really what I think it is?” Ben asked, holding a canvas depicting well-dressed men and women at a South Derry Field Club fundraiser gala in springtime.
“I’m afraid so.”
“She intended for the sun to be shining out of everyone’s arses?”
Every once in a while, Marianne said, someone with unusual tastes from New York or Boston would buy one, and the family would end up inviting the customer home for dinner or drinks. If one appreciated Joanna’s art enough to want to own a particular piece, then that more often than not meant one would like her as well.
“I’ve always thought that was kind of cool. I’ve tried to emulate her in that way.”
Many times Marianne would fall asleep while the guests were still there. Music, laughter, dogs barking when anyone went outside or someone new drove up, glass clinking, occasional singing. These were the sounds that put her to sleep on weekends or throughout the summertime. Joanna, alone, and together with Roger Papineau, entertained a fair amount.
“That’s the other thing we do up here to fight boredom. Everyone hosts parties, and everyone goes to parties. You don’t turn down an invitation in Vermont, because soon enough you’ll stop getting them. That leads to a domino effect, the result of which is marginalized public status. Dad pushed for mixing; mom resisted it, beyond her small circle. Eventually, she won.”
The study in Ben’s cottage, where Novak liked to work when he visited, had been Marianne’s room as a toddler. Roger and Joanna, or usually just Joanna, had the bedroom overlooking the pond. Marianne’s big brother Danny had the small bedroom.
Roger had been around most often in the summers and over the holidays, except when the whole family went to France – moving there in 1978. Sometimes he went to France alone. Sometimes Biarritz or home to Bayonne, sometimes Paris, sometimes Provençe.
“I could never decide which I liked best – the city, the country or the sea. Roger would say, ‘Be sure to make a life for yourself in which you can have all three. There is no need to decide.’ Well, of course, that’s what he said.”
When Marianne was ten, her father snuck her to the bullfights in Bayonne.
“I was horrified, and I got sick where we were sitting, which, on the bright side, instantly worked to convince him that he’d made a terrible error. He seemed genuinely sorry. My mother screamed that he was an adolescent and a narcissist, and she would never forgive him or trust him. But that was almost thirty-five years ago, and here we are still arguing over belôte and NetFlix and what foods the dogs can eat.”
And, Ben thought, here they are holding each other and kissing, helping each other do their work, standing by each other and cherishing each day. Marianne scuffed some blue rock gravel back into place around a small stone garden wall and spoke to Ben without looking at him.
“So what did you come all this way to talk about?”

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Chapter Eight of Hampton from the Halfway Line

Day One of the world as we know it.


Maidenhead, Berkshire

I was a fan, first and foremost. I think it’s reasonably well known, out in the world, that I’m an Arsenal fan. A Gooner. I support England during the big competitions as well. Course that’s not nearly as appetizing or rewarding. In fact, being a supporter of our national team is one of the more dismal and unbearable pastimes imaginable – an almost unwatchable side for quite some time and now a laughingstock to boot. An overwhelming majority of us in Britain have existed under the illusion that we are a world football power; and we have had to be smacked about the head over and over and over again for forty years now to convince us that we are not. Like fans of cricket and rugby, I think more of us are getting it, finally. Kind of like our grandparents in the waning days of empire.
But back then, summer of 1990, when Novak was set to move to Arsenal, it didn’t take much on the football front to push the entire country into a xenophobic hysteria. One dominating performance, against even a serviceable side, and we could be led to believe that the matches leading up to the actual lifting of the Jules Rimet trophy were just a formality. First we sing “God Save the Queen” then watch all cower before the might that was England. All right, maybe we’re still that way. Of course now we couldn’t even dominate a Malta or an Andorra, and we actually drew at home to Macedonia and away to Israel. Can you imagine what Sir Bobby Charlton was thinking from his seat at Old Trafford for the Macedonia debacle? Macedonia. You know, first decent night since … 300 B.C.
Novak was little known in England before that World Cup. There are many reasons for that – English clubs banned from Europe for one thing. English fans had neither hosted European clubs in our cities nor traveled to watch our teams take on the continent’s best since the Heysel deaths in 1985.
Actually, before that World Cup, I don’t think many soccer fans around Europe even knew he was American. The few times he offered a rare quote to a journalist, on the air or in print, he spoke what sounded like authentic German. He’d not made himself available to his native country’s soccer federation, in the face of desperate home front badgering to do so. His name made him sound sort of pan-Slavik. If it were a Graham Greene novel, he would have been an incognito American sent by the State department to undermine our national game. Not that we weren’t perfectly capable of undermining our national game by ourselves.
He was not one of the stars but an important player nonetheless for a Wüppertal side that had climbed steadily up the Bundesliga throughout the period of the aforementioned ban. Fascinating stuff. They had been a settled, lower division club for years and had come up once or twice to the first division with only a handful of famous wins in the 70s to their name. No one really took great notice of them over here until they came out of what seemed to us to be absolutely nowhere to pip Cologne for the league title in 1989.
I, for one, certainly didn’t give a toss, because my club were in the process of winning our first championship for eighteen years. And that is the last time I’ll mention Arsenal and 1989 and beating Liverpool on the last day of the season at Anfield to win the League.
Took everyone outside of West Germany by complete surprise, did Wüppertal. But the German football public had been watching this club slowly collect useful players and gain confidence and imprint their stylized scrappiness onto the league for just about the whole decade. And they’d had some famous European nights for several seasons, by that time, in a decade well influenced by German football.
Wüppertal won the German cup for the first time during a watershed, promotion season; and over the next few years rightfully earned the reputation as a cup side. As we learned later on, I think Novak had something to do with that. Obviously, he has a hatful of cup medals and near misses to prove it. That’s really no accident. Wherever he showed up, his club became a struggle for teams to knock out of cup ties and progressed in practically every competition they entered.
Having said that, the Arsenal squad he came into were coming off that championship season from two years before, and we were not exactly strangers to cup finals. But there are those who would grudgingly allow that he solidified us in the middle of the park and showed us a thing or two about steel and dignity and calm professionalism. A real George Graham kind of player in the final analysis. Is that what was needed at the time? Debatable, leaning toward doubtful.
Of course, the first thing Novak said to me, when we met initially to flesh out this project, was to remind me that I had not included him in my All-Time Arsenal XI for an interview I gave to the Independent about five years ago. My midfield was Brady, Viera, Rocastle and Overmars.
“You’re joking, right?” he said. “Overmars? Three seasons at the club? Fine. The double. Great.”
I remember feeling slightly stupid. Not that I would ever put Novak in my all-time Arsenal midfield, but that perhaps I should give it another look without quite so much weight given to my joy at how successful the club were at the time of that interview. I’ll think about it. Another thing he said about Mark Overmars was that if I was taking into account how much money we brought in by selling him to Barcelona, then that could be a mitigating factor in his overall value to the club. I wasn’t thinking that. I was thinking about the little Dutchman tearing up the left wing and scoring against Man United to win the title and how happy that made me; and about all the relatively dodgy left wingers we’d had down the years.
But that World Cup. Many journalists and novelists and poets and supporters and people of all walks of life, in England, have written about that World Cup – many because of Gazza’s famous tears in Turin. Whole books have been dedicated to examining exactly why everything changed for football and entertainment and popular culture and priorities and values in this country at the moment our most famous and controversial star lost his rag during the semifinal loss to West Germany.
We all saw straight man Gary Lineker gesture to the bench indicating that the boy was barmy and needed looking after, but most of us ignored that. Typically, of course, Gascoigne was crying for himself (and not, specifically, for his beloved countrymen) because his yellow card, he knew, would suspend him from the final were England to advance. A lot of us knew that. Football people knew that. But even football people cried because they could not imagine England being in the final without Paul Gascoigne. He made them a real team that could stand toe-to-toe with the Germans, Italians, Argentines and Brazilians.
There were some – nearly all of them Spurs supporters -- who couldn’t appreciate England’s World Cup triumph in ’66 because the great Jimmy Greaves was left out. That’s a bit over the top, but I do understand the sentiment. Not one Arsenal player featured in Bobby Robson’s World Cup squad, and they’d won the league a season before.
Anfield. Nil-two. Injury time. Michael Thomas. Somersault. Sorry.
However, millions of Brits, in the collective hysteria that sometimes grips an otherwise intelligent people (see Diana), watched him cry and then stared in grief at the newspapers and the TVs the following day featuring stills of Gazza’s red, puffy, tear-strewn face. Since we lost the match in unbearably tragic circumstances (to which we’ve since grown accustomed), we (not me, but “We”) equated his visible, natural, poignant grief with the crushing sadness and great pride we were feeling for our country. How we had fought the great champions. How unlucky we were. How brave. It was real “we happy few” stuff.
The country’s most famous Geordie did what he could to bring us down to earth, a week later, by wearing fake tits during the team parade in London, but the damage had already been done. Perfectly sensible, middle-class Englishmen and women became football zombies ready to fork over every ‘p’ they earned to join the silly bandwagon. Football instantly became a marketable commodity that would make a lot of people very rich. And, naturally, quite a few charlatans have come on the scene to make a bogus bob or two.
Speaking of scalawags, I wrote a book about my own experiences of being a football supporter and was stunned and overjoyed by the overwhelming response – not to mention the sales that have never stopped to this day. Let’s be honest. My timing, for the first time in my life, was spot on. The reviews and the success gave me confidence in my abilities as a writer and as a literary person, and I was off to the races. I am a writer. I am a novelist. And I am proud and relieved to be able to say that. The resulting comfort allows me to afford today’s ticket prices without taking out a second mortgage.
And I do owe it to football – the pre-Gazza’s tears variety. Because what I wrote about, in my diary-style narrative in the medium of match reports, concerned mostly the agony and pathetic obsession of supporting my club, Arsenal, throughout the 70s and 80s. If you follow football at all then you might know this team today as a world brand typifying speed, style and balletic grace. But, if you read my book, “Out in the Cold,” you will discover that it was not always like that.
My book was about what makes us, as supporters, as fans, participate in an activity of this nature that brings us mostly anguish and various degrees of wet. It was about other notions of human behavior, as well, which led nicely into the writing of my first novel. Thankfully, the obsession element resonated for a lot of people – and not just soccer fans. Many women learned, for the first time, what goes on inside a man’s head. That and a couple other of my books tended to offer the fairer sex unaccustomed insight into the male psyche.
Some women felt that it was actually worse than they'd imagined.
Others commented, “I'm glad to know there's something going on in there."
You might not know this, but Arsenal won the league the year before that world cup, the 1988-89 season. Remarkably, and this is worth noting, they had not done for eighteen years. A lifetime for this damaged young fan, during which I had come to accept the fact that I would die -- a morose trainspotter’s death in a meat pie-soiled anorak -- before ever seeing an Arsenal captain lift a championship trophy.

Now pay attention, please, as I attempt, for both your benefit and mine, to tie the first of what I hope will be a tolerable number of intriguing story lines together. I’m thinking someone will edit out this background bit. For even though I’ve always believed that ‘asides,’ when used cleverly and sparingly, can have a beguiling literary effect, I’m just not sure that … well, we’ll just have to see how it goes, eh? Still early doors.
I don’t think it’s ridiculous to suggest that I was on the brink of turning a corner in my life about the time my subject was turning a corner in his. At least one corner. You don’t want to be turning too many corners at once, mind, especially not in the same direction or you end up … you know. In a perfect world, it’s ‘turn … ease off … go straight on for a bit.’ Consolidate matters. Feed the wheel! Kind of like a race car – to give the idiom a metaphorical “turn.” God.
What I mean is, not only had he and his lover of seven years split up the previous year; not only had said lover given birth to their healthy baby girl not six months after the breakup; not only had Novak finally earned his advanced degrees and been hired by Selwyn College, Cambridge; but – and this is the exciting part – he was ratcheting up his football career several teeth as well by signing with the Arse.
Honestly, who else but an Arsenal supporter would be so presumptuous to venture that a move to Highbury -- from a Bundesliga champion; two-time German Cup winner; European Cup semifinalist; UEFA Cup finalist; Cup Winners’ cup winner and Cup Winners’ cup finalist, all achieved incomprehensibly between 1983 and 1990 -- would constitute a step up? I ask you.
His life had been in revolt at the same time I was taking my first tentative steps toward producing a sustained piece of writing and finally making something of my life. I made the decision to switch from attempting radio drama to attempting straight, personal prose and chanced onto a style that suited me and would carry me forward with eventual (and much appreciated) fanfare.
Marianne Papineau is the other person in this story. The previous Christmas, she had moved with their baby back to Paris. There she would be nearer to friends and relatives and could realize her long-awaited dream of studying principally the work of Camille Claudel at the École des Beaux-Arts. Afterward she would hopefully launch her sculpture career in the Parisian art world. As a side benefit, she would succeed in putting some distance between herself and Novak after she dumped him.
Did I just say, provocatively and controversially, that “she dumped him”?
We’ll put that off to another time. Back to what’s really important here.
Most excitingly for Arsenal fans, we are now in position to determine whether or not players like Novak, between 1990 and 1995, helped pave the way for the club to turn its own corner under Arsene Wenger and arrive ripe for everything the new Premier League was about to lay on a silver platter for the big teams to gobble up.
Novak would describe his years in North London as something like bailing water while waiting to be reinforced. The night of that cup final defeat in Paris would be his Khartoum, his Alamo.
Novak around 1990 was a relatively clean slate to us, a bit under the radar. On one hand, those two wonder goals for the USA in the quarterfinal loss to the West Germans, when he was already reported in the press to have been signed by Arsenal, gave us an impression that we were getting some kind of assassin of our wildest dreams. That was false.
He wasn’t that type of player, as I will attempt to sort out for you. Not a man, if you will, for getting forward.
On the other hand, it was kind of nice to know that deep down somewhere he had that in him – goals, I mean. You don’t score two goals in the World Cup against the eventual champion and then forget how to do it. They may make it look easy on TV, but ask any professional who’s played at the highest level. It ain’t. I struggle even to get a sniff at goal against fellow, aging lager louts.
Even Novak eventually would have to come to terms with his legitimate, and no longer dormant, finishing ability. The video doesn’t lie. He knew where the net was after all. But he knew, as well, and the clubs he’s played for knew, that there were many other valuable qualities that he could bring on board to fortify a team and help them win games. For a club to forever try to position him for scoring chances, in effect putting him in the way of the more consistent scoring stars, was effectively negating those very qualities. Such attributes, in the long run, were going to deliver success to the club and extend his unlikely career.
Among those who make their living shoveling coal down in the engine room, Novak was in the upper echelon. And back then, shoveling coal and carrying water is what most British players were best at doing. He’d never been a goalscorer at Wüppertal. As he matured, he grew in class and developed an uncanny ability to do seemingly three or four different tasks at once. By the time we got him he was quite a reliable player.
He’s admitted to me that if Arsenal had tried to set him up as some sort of early-90s version of Frank Lampard, someone who could dictate play, get forward often and, most importantly bulge the bloody net; then he would immediately have been found out, caught out, dropped to the reserves and released without fanfare.
“That’s not why Graham brought me in,” he said to me at one point. “And he was astute enough to know that a couple of lucky blinders in one match (albeit a match being watched by millions all over the world) was not going to alter his plans.  He knew what I could do, and he stuck to his guns; and he stuck by me.”
And Novak will be the first to admit that Americans in that World Cup were given obscene amounts of time on the ball. The opponents figured these college kids were sure to hand it back to them soon enough without having to apply even baseline levels of pressure. That was generally true, but, as we saw, each of their opponents suffered from unforgivable lapses of concentration that led to an unheard-of number of mistakes, which the yanks were, to their credit, able to convert into really a hatful of goals.
What opponents refused to take into account, however, was that these ‘college kids’ had been recently bolstered by the Midwest-raised Novak and a couple other European-based players with dodgy American citizenship.
“The American boys were committed players. During the build-up, thankfully, those pulling the strings agreed that our only chance to avoid a cyclone of suffering was to assemble and cultivate a resilient side.”
“And crossing your fingers,” I added.
“It can be done, making yourself hard to beat. We did it at Wüppertal. Others pointed to Jack Charlton’s Ireland. Of course, you have to have the players.”
They didn’t win the group outright, as Italy took maximum points, but they scored the most goals. They put three past the Czechs in the opening draw, one in the Stadio Olimpico against the hosts in the commendable loss, then went through with an astonishing four in the second half to knock the Austrians out deservedly. It was shocking the way teams played against them with such staggering disrespect. But, you know, a very poor world cup.
West Germany? They watched, along with the rest of us, the Yanks’ unlikely progression to the quarterfinal stage – the U.S. of course having seen off a profligate and distracted Costa Rica two-nil. Still the Germans were arrogant enough and more than talented enough, I suppose, to underestimate them just as imprudently as the sides that came before them. And it very nearly led to a humiliation which could not possibly be described in words – except perhaps by one of those really long German words that sound like five words.
Eventually West Germany showed its pedigree – classic David and Goliath stuff, except Goliath won. Kind of like watching Man United home to Burton Albion or someone.
I don’t know if the Americans, with their pitiable reputation at the time, cast some kind of spell over their opponents or what. Kind of like when you’re playing chess against someone whom you know to be an inferior chess player; and then, before you know it, you’ve lost your queen and both rooks. Then you’re kicking yourself for not having paid better attention during a couple of key moments.
Everyone predicted, with good reason, that the Americans would be three games and out with most likely three heavy losses – maybe a draw to Austria given that both probably would have been eliminated by the time they met. Come the day, it was Novak and company who still clung to a lifeline.
And did any punter in the world hit the jackpot by laying money on a ‘USA-3 Czechoslovakia-3’ result? Three-nil up and coasting at halftime, the Czechs. One has to wonder just what the hell they were up to in the dressing room. Pilsner?
The final quarter of an hour was like an old second-division derby or one of those matches on the last day of the season where the loser is relegated, and so all the players run around like their shorts are on fire.
That World Cup, that tournament, was a moment in time that was, in many ways, atypical for Novak. We’ve had long conversations about it and many enjoyable pints along the way. As a journalist, you have to guard against getting too matey with your subject because your objectivity can suffer as a result. You see it happen all the time in news coverage of politicians and government officials for example, as well as less weighty issues in sport. And I’ll admit I’ve become fond of the bastard. Does that change how I write about him? Perhaps. Does it cloud my professional judgment? I certainly hope not, but I’m sure that many critics will have a go at my opinions and analysis. That’s fine. One of my favorite hobbies is having a friendly go at people myself. I welcome it as a means of advancing our understanding of a given topic. If no one were to comment or have a go, then I (not to mention the publishers) would worry.
But his, I’ve found, is a varied and multi-layered story that could be studied from several vantage points and at different depths. It’s history, after all. Sure, it’s not Julius Caesar and the course of western civilization we’re talking about. That’s my next book. But this is what we football fans talk about down the pub or at the office or on the terraces and, hell, even at funerals. We discuss and debate our own version of trends and epochs and man-made disasters. We make them sound more heroic and more important than they really are, maybe. But it’s much easier to get back to one’s real life after musing about your favorite pastime over an ESB or a glass of Montepulciano. Whatever portion of my thoughts here or whatever bits of my interviews with Julius Novak make it into print in the end, that’s basically what you’re getting – pub talk, water cooler talk, match talk … funeral talk.