Thursday, June 30, 2011

Chapter Fourteen of Hampton from the Halfway Line

One of the many images snapped by Marianne Papineau on her trips behind the iron curtain in the mid-1980s accompanying Novak's club for away cup ties.


South Derry, Vermont

“I love Julius.”
Marianne clutched an embroidered pillow and sank into one of the plush Papineau love seats, surrounded by shelves of Papineau non-fiction not having to do with Papineaus. The fireplace held the whitened remains of log and ash from the previous evening. Ben Hampton sat opposite her in mid-morning sipping a cup of Coffee People Black Tiger.
“I’ve been saying that to everyone I know more than half my life. For some of that time I’ve been overheard to say ‘I hate him.’ Eventually I came to learn and accept that the person I hated was myself for not helping him become the man I needed. I know now that a woman can do that.”
Ben nodded, acknowledging feminine power to alter the course of human events.
“Don’t get me wrong,” she quickly pointed out. “He was a shit. And I hated him. Still do sometimes.”
“Weren’t you just kids, yourselves, when you had Isabel?” he asked.
“In many ways, oh yes, absolutely. But you couldn’t tell us that then. ‘How can you call me a kid?’ I’d say to my parents – who were apart themselves once again. ‘What do you mean, we don’t know anything?’”
Ben smiled at the memory of himself in his early twenties. Not a pretty sight.
“That would be me, all indignant, to our older, wiser friends and other of my relatives. The two of us, in our minds, had every right to believe we were grownups.”
“You had careers.”
“Fabulously modern European careers. Though in my mind Julius was always uneasy about what he’d committed to do.”
“How so?”
“The spectacular, mostly brute nature of it.”
“Our hero had doubts?”
“Yes, well, whatever doubts he had certainly never swayed him from his course.”
Sitting and listening, the novelist imagined a splash of narrative.
That path he chose to follow changed him in important ways. In spite of the mundane, existentialist aspects of getting through each day, Julius and Marianne did consider themselves as elite. And the mere fact of being part of the intelligentsia meant that whatever they did -- and whatever they thought -- was deemed correct due to their sophistication and intellect and the idea that people like them were more considerate of their decisions and actions than others.
“If you’d tried to explain to me in 1988, or thereabouts,” Marianne returned to the charade of their sophistication, “about how my attitude was egotism bordering on narcissism – in other words, fucking bullshit, then you wouldn’t have gotten very far. I thought I knew everything and how I was to live and later what was the best thing for my baby. If Julius Novak wasn’t inclined to be absolutely everything I believed he should be for me, then he wasn’t going to have me. I became certain I’d gone and fallen in love with someone who wasn’t going to be there for me, like my mother seemed to have done with the likewise irresistible Roger Papineau.”
Ben had no idea. She continued.
“I didn’t appreciate showing up in third place behind his academics and his sport. In the end, being a distant third left me half-crazed with … rage and … misery.”
“You honestly felt a link between you and Julius and your mum and dad’s experience?”
“My mother and I were convenient for my dad, or so I believed. I was not going to be something similar for Mr. Renaissance Man. I told him so. He never took me seriously until it was too late. By then, I had moved on in my heart. I was not going to play his games. I was honest with him. He couldn’t even be honest with himself.”
Once more, Ben’s fiction twin shaped Marianne’s words into prose of a different color.
The repressed Midwesterner, from the family that never spoke about their problems, drained his lover of all her energy. Marianne Papineau’s happiness was gone, and her love for Novak went away. Or he kicked it away like one would welly a football away from goal. Marianne refused to tolerate one more cold shower, which her consciousness of their love had become.
“I was slightly more … demonstrative in my twenties than I am now in my … not thirties. The misogynist term, not to mention inaccurate, would be ‘hysterical.’ I was a little crazy, but it had nothing to do with lack of sex or stimulation. That was never one of our problems.”
Ben avoided her eyes, while making a mental note to look up the word ‘hysterical.’ He thought he knew it, but now he guessed not.
“By the way, Ben, unless we lay down some parameters, the others are going to keep sticking their heads in here every fifteen minutes to ask us if we’re done. I’m going to tell mom to shuttle everyone who’s interested over to Stratton. You and I’ll meet them when we meet them. That’s what cell phones are for, right?”
Ben’s thoughts shifted to the ski mountain and his failure to prepare for the likelihood of having to demonstrate machismo or even baseline coordination. What was the protocol in a place such as this filled with god knows what kind of people? He’d seen those North Face adverts with grandparents swinging from rock ledges. Does everyone go hell for leather? Are the skis just maple planks torn from the trees? Marianne detected his mood.
“Don’t worry. We have skis and gear in every size and style. And I’m a trained eye, right? I know the human form. Julius says we should hook you up with a grunge look in honor of your new novel.”
Ben laughed lightly.
“How does it feel to have a new BFF to help look out for you?” Marianne, mother of a texter, smiled. “Seriously, one of my nephews kits himself out exclusively from Syd & Dusty’s.”
“Right,” Ben said. Sidon what? “Now were I to attempt the snowboard, would this not be the ideal venue?”
“Snowboarding?” She shook her head and pursed her lips. “If you’ve never done it, then I wouldn’t. Unless you want to hobble painfully through the remainder of your book tour.”
“Must you use ‘book’ and ‘remainder’ in the same sentence?”
“Gotcha,” she laughed. “At least Julius wasn’t around.”
“Oh, Marianne. Really. That’s not cricket.”
“Sorry. Actually, he’s shown an admirable sense of humor about his little publishing setbacks. Have you ever heard him sing, “Tears of a Clown?”
Ben shook his head, blushing a bit. ‘These people,’ he thought.
“You seem to know a fair bit about the book business.”
“Those are the circles we move in, I’m afraid. And pretty exciting for you, these past few years. I think it’s brilliant. We’ve all followed your journey. It’s refreshing to see nice things happen to one of the good guys, as I think my parents made clear with their toast at dinner last night.”
“That was Julius throwing his wit around, then, when he said, ‘You must be chuffed.’”
“I would file that envious offering under the ‘more than one pint and straight into the red wine’ column. Well, where were we?”
 “Your youthful exuberance.”
“Right. Oh … my god. I have regrets about some of the ways I acted. How can I not? I imagine I was a handful.”
“I threw a few things around. It got to the point where I thought, if I stay with this man, then I’ll never have any work to sell because I’m hurling so much material against the wall and sometimes at the poor boy’s head.”
“Are we not just talking wet globs of clay?”
“Marble and bronze.”
Ben winced. “Some very expensive tantrums.”
“Not to mention painful … if the stone or metal connects with your target. Luckily, although I’m spatial as far as drawing and shaping and perspective, I have terrible aim. And he had amazing reflexes. And I knew that, so I would really fling it.
“He would jump out of the way and say, all breathless, ‘What am I going to tell my manager if you crack my head open?’
Ben shrank at the thought of this woman’s response and that she was a potentially dangerous man slaughteress.
“I would spit, ‘Tell him you’re a fucking selfish loser asshole!’ If you can picture me saying something that appalling, then please keep it to yourself. Don’t tell me.”
“I know when to keep my mouth shut.”
“Thanks, because I really don’t think I can change anymore. I was hoping just to cruise, in my current composition, right into old age.”
The sounds of a large number of people leaving the house echoed through the Frank Lloyd Wright-style chambers of Villa Papineau.
“I guess you could say I was unhealthy,” Marianne offered as an excuse. “Unhealthy is the organic, therapeutic description someone came up with back then. My friends and I have been ‘what you would call’ dining out on it ever since. So that’s what we say to excuse or explain away any bad personal behavior – whether it’s alcohol or drugs or fucking around or …”
“Any variety of unsafe practices.”
“Or shoplifting,” Marianne said, sighing.
“Vandalism. Chronic dishonesty. Leaving a dog in a hot car. Parking a Bentley in a handicapped spot.” Ben could have continued all day, particularly when it came to the discretions of Chelsea players.
“You’ve got it. Whatever kind of destructive, deceitful habits one could imagine. ‘Don’t forget, honey. You were unhealthy then,’ we still say to each other.”
“Were you a screamer – during arguments, I mean?” Ben was getting the knack of this journalistic interviewer thing.
“No, but I sobbed a great deal. You know what a heave sob is?”
“Sadly, yes.”
“Mm, well, I was a heave sobber. Not an attractive thing to witness if how I looked in the mirror afterward was any indication.”
Poor Novak, Ben thought. What did she expect? He was just a kid, after all, in spite of how together he must have seemed to everyone else and how responsible. Studies. Pressures. Scrutiny. The football. Marianne was intent on eliminating any sympathy the author might possess for his subject.
“He put his schoolwork and his researching and teaching --  then me -- to the side more and more as his team climbed the ladder. Being fit became everything to him, because his confidence in his actual ability was nonexistent. I think he was mildly psychotic about how he was viewed by others, perfect strangers. I told him that too, how his sense of self was the most important thing to him, but that his was still in a childlike state.”
“That must have been attractive,” Ben quipped, perhaps going over the line. “That must have made him want to light candles and rub you with perfumed oils.”
But Marianne had talked herself beyond dialogue.
“Over and over he said, ‘I’ve no talent and the least amount of experience. I’m American. They’re looking for any excuse to leave me out. If I can’t run my ass off for ninety-plus minutes every match, then I’m less than useless.’
“He always said he’d be on the next train to Palookaville … Palooka-berg. I would have moved to Palookaville or Palookaberg or Palookagrad with him in a minute, even if we had to live in a shed. I had absolutely no interest in football other than watching his sexy legs. He grew obsessive about his performance. I began to resent everything having to do with the obnoxious game because his involvement meant he had less time for us.
“As he’d kiss me goodbye, he’d say, ‘Gotta go, Mar. Quarterfinal. Second leg. Nil-nil.’ I didn’t even know what that meant.”
Her beautiful brown eyes misted. All she knew was they weren’t going to lie in bed and make love and read the paper and wander down the street for a coffee and browse a few shops. They weren’t going to do all the normal things she imagined young lovers did.
“I used to walk over to the studio I shared and watch all the couples holding hands, embracing, making out, walking their puppy, feeding each other little tortes. I would usually be in tears by the time I arrived at work.”
Ben shifted in his seat. Is this what it meant to do historical research for a book project? If so, he didn’t like it. Well, he liked being in a beautiful home in a beautiful part of the world with a beautiful woman.
“At least I had a kind of inspiration. My lover was cheating on me with ten other guys and 20,000 spectators. I slowly began to leave his thoughts altogether. How can you be with someone, stay with someone who never thinks about you? How can you have a lover who never considers his love for you?”
She paused. That had been a real question.
“Erm … yeah. I know … erm … y-you can’t, can you … really.”
Marianne screwed her eyes at him. She was in that middle space like when you’re at therapy and you forget why you’re there. But she forged ahead.
“He would leave my birthday till the last minute every time. He remembered Valentine’s Day probably once or twice. He was better with Christmas, I must say.”
This past Christmas Ben had bought Kate a trip to Thailand. He thought he’d really nailed it. He put all sorts of Thai things into a bloody big box. Silk scarf; some rice; sand; resort photos; a little Buddha. From her, he had received seven or eight exquisitely thoughtful and personal gifts that took forever to unwrap. Hers had been over in a moment. Afterward, and now again, he wondered if he mightn’t have done better. All he’d really done was click on a few Travelocity options and toss some rubbish in a sack.
“After a couple of years, my mother finally sat me down and told me, “It’s up to you to remind him. He’s a man. Do you want presents and flowers and poetry and a romantic dinner on your birthday, or would you rather be sad and cry and bitch at him afterward and be mad and disappointed in him all the time and have a miserable life where you never get anything you want? Would you rather be a victim or get what you want? How can we get what we want if we don’t ask for what we want?
“Of course, every few months, during our constant phone calls, I would sniffle, ‘Mommy, tell me what you said about reminding that idiot how to behave.’
“I started and stopped and started the process of improving him, but his forgetting my birthday was just one … tangible symbol of the ways Julius withheld his love. That’s what I believed he was doing. I still believe it. I forgave him long ago, but that doesn’t change the fact that he was a withholding sack of shit. He denies it in his donnish way. He still can’t face what he is.
“Now that I think about it, there were long periods where our mutual resentment and hurt feelings and anger would impact our sex life. And you know how that goes once the snowball starts rolling downhill. I was always the one who had to point it out.”
She acted out a bygone conversation for Ben.
“Do you know how many men would kill for a woman who was so willing, whenever you wanted? Have I ever once said ‘No’ in five years? Think about it. Three times a day, you should stop what you’re doing and picture yourself making love with me. If you think about it, then you’ll do it. Don’t you imagine your team winning the stupid game? Don’t you picture stealing the little ball away from … Beckenbauer? Of course you do.”
“Beckenbauer retired several years ago,” he said. “But, yes, I have imagined it.”
“So he made you laugh instead of looking at it or taking you seriously?”
“Yes, like always, and I would immediately want him again and be unable to imagine existing without him. But he could never speak honestly about intimacy. He would say what he thought I wanted to hear just to shut me up and … make it to halftime, I suppose. Jesus Christ, I’m just serving you asenine football metaphors.”
“On a gilt-edged plate. Thank you. If only all my subjects were as accommodating.”
“Why don’t we have a mid-morning tea? Julius showed us all how to do it properly.”
“Surely you already knew.” Ben was beginning to understand.
“Yes, of course, we already knew.”
So Marianne couldn’t imagine being without him. But in her opinion Novak could imagine being without her. For starters, he chose a lifestyle that effectively shut his seemingly entrancing companion out. There was football training; football matches; classes as a grad student and teaching. And don’t forget going to the library and studying and writing papers and meeting with professors and students. Where could she fit?
“The exact ratio, within his split personality, differed from year-to-year. But generally he was dividing, I would say, 90-100 hours a week between soccer and school. Let’s say sleep makes up between 40-50 hours a week. Several times we made love, and I’m not even sure if he woke up for it. That leaves between, what … 20-40 hours a week for everything else in your life that you have to take care of.”
“You’re able to recall the calculations and the itinerary.”
“I jotted them down for him from time to time. Let’s see:  grocery shopping, commuting, laundry, social obligations, leisure, Marianne Papineau. Remember her? Nice ass? Always in the mood?”
Ben laughed at the joke but stopped after a moment when he saw that Marianne girded up her jaw.
“For a few years, I couldn’t stand the sight of newspaper headlines with photos of stupid soccer. Sport stores with replica kits in the windows caused me to walk very fast. Bars or restaurants, showing a game on the television, I would avoid. I mean, it’s nothing like it is now. So they tell me. Still, it was Germany after all.”
“Adi Dassler, eh?”
“I wanted to kill him.”
Ben assumed she meant the football boot manufacturing icon but couldn’t be sure.
“As his involvement in that world grew in intensity, I have to say my grief and despair and anger became more acute. I loved him with all my heart. At the same time, I felt deceived or that I had deceived myself. I thought I’d found a handsome, funny, smart teacher or writer who loved me more completely and made me laugh more than anyone I could ever hope for. Don’t forget, I was young too … and obviously too romantic for my own good.”
“Let me get this straight,” Ben attempted some housekeeping. “He was like, ‘Oh, by the way, darling, I play at some soccer in my free time. Amateur -- like hundreds of thousands of men all through Europe every Monday night.’ Is that accurate? Did you think he played five-a-side on a tennis court with a bunch of duffers?”
“Are you purposely missing the point?”
“I’m trying to understand.”
“All right. How about this? His allegiance to his teammates and to Herr Ribbeck and to competing against all those great players swelled until it all began choking me and choking us and eventually killing what we’d meant to each other. To say it simply, as Wüppertal went up, our relationship went down.”
Ben let that sink in.
“They shocked everyone by winning their first and only league championship one day in the spring. I had shocked him the previous summer by kicking him out. We had been together five years and six months. Isabel came the following February. It’s still very crushing.”
“Do you want to stop? I wasn’t intending this … erm … not sure what I was intending, actually.”
“Not at all. Those five years were the most intensely thrilling of my life. At the same time the most miserable of my life.” Marianne rose to stretch her legs. “We were a grotesque of passion.”
A grotesque of passion. I’ll have to think about that, Ben mused. It might be nonsense.
“Any happy moments?” Ben asked, causing Marianne to laugh – finally. “Ever share a box of donuts?”
“In fact, we did. We fed each other Berliners during Carnival.”
“That could be taken a variety of ways.”
“A Berliner is a jelly donut, Ben.”
“Ich bin ein jelly donut?”
“Not exactly. Let’s see -- happy moments. Well, we used to go to the Subway Club with friends to listen to music.”
“That’s the kind of thing we want,” Ben sat up straight.
“We saw Chet Baker there many times. Julius toyed with writing a book about him and even interviewed him. You should have seen how happy … this was very early in our relationship … I would have to say he was uncharacteristically animated. He burst into my studio holding the new Elvis Costello album. ‘Chet Baker plays on one of the songs,’ he said. ‘Look. Elvis and Chet. Together at last. Let’s put it on.’ He grabbed me and kissed me and got clay dust all over his face and his blazer. I had bought him a tweed jacket with the elbow patches so he could look like a professor.
“The song was beautiful but kind of a downer, similar to the way Chet Baker was actually. Sometimes, listening to him play in the club and looking at his face and his hands and the way he sat and knowing his story, I would have Julius take me outside because the experience of the man was just too sad and overwhelming. Julius could listen to him all night.
“I made a bust of him from Maltese limestone and sold it to the owner of the Club Salt Peanuts, another of the places we heard Chet.”
Marianne began to beam.
“Back then when we were in love, he would call me ‘Kiki.’ A few people in Cologne actually knew me by that name – Kiki Papineau. Do you like it?”
“I do, very much. It fits you. I’m definitely picking up a sort of Kiki side to you.”
“Kiki was the icon of Montparnasse in the 20s – my old neighborhood. The Queen of Montparnasse. She was the artist’s model and lover of the American photographer, Man Ray.”
“OK, yeah.”
“Kiki was an independent woman who posed for Cocteau and Fujita as well. She was a nightclub singer, cabaret owner, an actress, a painter and wrote a banned autobiography. His calling me that was one of the many things that caused me to fall in love with him.”
“That’s lovely, actually.”
“After the ‘drawing class’ episode, we went through a phase of flirting. His was measured. Mine was full bore. But very soon after that, he first introduced me to someone as Kiki. They had no idea it was a joke. I couldn’t believe a boy from the Midwest would be familiar with her. He told me he heard about her through the writings of Hemingway. I supposed that was true.”
“What else attracted you to him?”
“He loved his mother and his grandmother. He spoke of them constantly. He had nothing but warm feelings for them. That, to me, made him a good man.”
“We flew to the states several times together, once all the way to St. Louis. Very exhausting. But I got to meet his mom, and I got to know his grandmother. We compared notes on how best to raise him.”
“That could be of value. Did they have any ideas?”
“Not really, but that didn’t stop them from talking a blue streak. The last time I saw them was around … well, Isabel was pre-school age. The encounter was, I felt, awkward, because, of course, Julius and I were never married. So no one from his family quite knew how to describe me.”
“I know what you mean. That’s quite important to some people.”
“Yes, well, I once heard his mother say, ‘Julius’ ex-wife,’ which, at first, pissed me off. But after I thought about it and let it sink in, I experienced a rare moment of grace and put it off to her genuine attempt to get to grips with something from outside her frame of reference and definitely lying beyond her comfort zone.
“Honestly, I had only lived in hippie Vermont, progressive Northampton, Paris and Cologne. I didn’t know for this corn belt, Ozzie and Harriet fixation -- not to mention all that frightening, Midwestern-style Catholic bosh.”
Good word, Ben thought. He wrote it down.
“They’re only OK with you when they’re drunk. Then they laugh and slap you on the back and tell you what made them so uncomfortable about you before they’d had a few and how, ‘Hell, you’re not so bad after all.’”
Ben laughed. “Did you learn how to bowl?”
“I already knew how to bowl. Thank you.”
“Cheers.” Ben raised his cup of tea. “What kind of impression did Isabel make on the Novak family?”
“Rather an out-of-world experience really. First of all, she looked just like Julius as well as the perfect double of pictures they showed me of Julius’ mum when she was a girl during the Depression. So here’s this little grown-up angel, whom they feel like they should know, in her little hat, and she speaks a mixture of English and French.”
“Heavily leaning toward the fourteenth arrondissement, I would imagine.”
“Yes, and all the way there, we told her, ‘Isabel, please, speak normal English like you do with daddy.’
“Julius’ French was rubbish, as it is today. Isabel had grown up hearing mostly French but also a lot of English from me and my mom and sometimes my dad and from my grandparents who both came to Paris pretty often for their age. Of course, Roger drilled her in proper French every possible moment and spoke predominantly French with her when they were alone like at the playground or going out for ice cream or something.”
“So what happened?”
“She was a very mature girl and sophisticated. She knew precisely what she was doing and what she sounded like and what was required in different circumstances. But, Isabel being Isabel, probably she knew she could have some fun by winding them up and making her daddy squirm by throwing around all these uniquely Montparnasse phrases that she hears in some of the grittier sections of the neighborhood.”
This is a fantastic little story, Ben thought. I wonder if it’s true?
“She held Grandma Anastasia’s broom …”
“Anastasia Kaplinka,” Marianne grinned. “How’s that for a name?”
“And she pounds the tip of the broom handle on the floor and shouts in a man’s voice, Déplacer cette merde hors de mon magasin avant j'appelle la police!
Ben was working it out but must have looked confused.
“Do you understand? Roughly translated, ‘Move this shit away from my shop before I call the cops.’
“Almost poetic,” Ben laughed. “The little minx.”
“Well, lots of nervous laughter from the Novak/Kaplinkas. None of them had any idea what to make of her. Who did Julius want to strangle? Guess.”
“Oh, well,” Ben said. “We reminisce.”

Marianne Papineau was selling her art and, through contacts, picking up outrageous commissions for public and private works. Teams of sculptors and other beaux artists created statuary and other beautifying landscape objects for parks and playgrounds and platzes all over Germany – even into East Germany as unification became a certainty. Marianne preferred likening these projects to what Rodin was doing when he created the Burghers of Calais. It helped her get through those moments when everywhere she looked she saw communist bloc high-rises or insipid steel and glass crap from the Cold War. And she wore the same shoes every day.
Novak had become respected by his peers in the most popular sport in the country. His was not the star name, but fans of German soccer were aware he existed and that he was important to a phenomenal upstart of a team, so everyone told Marianne. The couple had a bit of money so they could live normally, and they handled their money responsibly. Novak drove the same little car the whole time he lived in Germany. He even brought it to London when he moved. But he kept it up in Thaxted. He got sick of averaging ten miles per hour snaking around the capital.
“He was so proud in his car,” Marianne let slip a smile. “He put in a fantastic sound system for all his cassettes.”
“You just can’t hide these American characteristics no matter how continental you fancy yourself,” Ben said.
“It was an Opel sedan he had bought from someone we both knew from a café where I worked. A mutual friend arranged it.”
“What, Bismarck?”

The couple were marginally better off financially than many of their peers in the old Cologne neighborhood, but with their friends they were like anyone else. They were Marianne and Julius. Footballers were not the ridiculous rock stars they’ve become today. They were, to Marianne Papineau and to most Germans, men with jobs that were respectable and that provided an important outlet for people in the society. Maybe that sounds too philosophical, too socialist, but that’s how it was before 1990. From Marianne’s perspective and from that of people in her circle, professional athletes such as footballers were comparable to people who were actors in the theatre or musicians in an orchestra. We like them. We admire them if they’re good and honest and hard working, or if they have a special quality that appeals to us. But they’re not gods. The attention paid to them was not skewed out of proportion as it is now.
“Today it makes me laugh or else it makes me sick,” Marianne confided. “David Beckham? Are you kidding me? Why does anyone care? You’re going to have to explain that one to me sometime.”

“When did you feel that things began slipping away?”
“The first date.”
“I could point to dozens of possibilities,” she said. “But probably around the time when we could only travel alone in the summers and at the holidays.
“Julius’ team, starting around 1985, I think, began playing all over Europe in one of those cups. So, often I would arrange to meet him in not only the wonderful, romantic cities but also the strange and mysterious and dark and volatile and out-of-the way hornet’s nests like Tatabanya and Craiova and Tirana and …”
“But, you know, ‘Behind the Iron Curtain’ had a true meaning, almost like a different planet. Any drawings I made from some of those places were never happy images to regard. Not much came from any of those trips sculpturally. I really just wanted more time with Julius, to talk, to watch him step out of the shower, to hear him sing along with the radio, to laugh at the things he said, to rub his legs and to have him ravage me.”
The novelist and the sculptor both looked weary.
“The relationship ended. That’s all. I wanted so badly not to speak to him or see him, but the baby was ours together. So I had to immediately get over my selfishness and pain. Julius seemed brokenhearted. I moved back to Paris with Isabel. Julius’ team were winning every week. We were selfish. I was selfish. So was he. I don’t know what he’s told you.”
Ben glanced away then reconnected his gaze on Marianne before she spoke.
“What has he told you?”

Monday, June 27, 2011

Chapter Thirteen of Hampton from the Halfway Line

I was concerned about this chapter because of the intense football focus, particularly the business of football; but I find the narrative ultimately beautiful. And who doesn't love a curry?


Maidenhead, Berkshire

What can I say about George Graham that hasn’t been said? I’ll just lay it out there straightaway. I decided not to delve into Graham for this particular book project for a couple of reasons. First, from a football perspective, several books have been done about him. I wrote the introduction to quite a good one. So I didn’t want to waste priceless commercial space by being derivative. Second, for the non-football audience, particularly “stateside,” who may pick up this book – for whatever reason – the name George Graham will mean absolutely naught. And even after I had a fair go at personifying him to the world, the average reader still wouldn’t give a monkey’s.
Just ask my wife. I can find reason to drop a Graham reference into practically any conversation, so weighty a tome is this figure in my mind’s library. The unavoidable but clever line often will have to do with a person’s “defense” mechanism. Or about motivation. Or about someone who is feared, revered, or despised. Or doing something precisely because everyone says you can’t. Or every time I hear Frank Sinatra or the Gypsy Kings sing “My Way.” Or about someone who is intrinsically great without having the particular desire to be liked. Or it might have to do with “strolling.” Whenever I see a mum with a pushchair – or, now that everything’s become Americanized, stroller; I think, you know, “stroller.”
But a writer does himself no favors wasting time with obscure commentary in a book intended to attract a diverse audience – a diverse audience of soccer fans, that is. At least that’s what the editor, with whom Rosalie and I are “collaborating,” is hoping for. And the publishers. And Rosalie McMahon who sold the publishers and me (sort of) on the idea. I have my doubts, but, hey, they paid me a fair bit of bob up front. Seriously, though, it is important to me that each new book be somewhat ambitious.
Along those lines, I sometimes feel I’m taking a bigger risk with this book than I took with the novel for young readers. I know at least as much and am as passionate as anyone about this game, yet I’m becoming almost petrified at the notion of writing another word. Leave it out for now, eh?
Well, the subject of Graham came up today – how could it not? – when Novak joined me at the still sparkling Emirates Stadium for the Arsenal-Tottenham derby. A vastly superior Arsenal side prevailed, if nervously, over a ridiculous Spurs side with their snazzy and fashionable, yet (one can only believe) ultimately doomed new manager. There was, as usual, much to discuss at the interval.
And I have to say that Novak can be the most delightful of match companions when he wants to be. That, in spite of the double dose of attention we received at being seen in public together. Good Lord! When I attend the football with my mates or my wife or with some anonymous person from my professional world, rarely am I picked out. Except by familiar faces, season-ticket holders, from Highbury days gone by. Mine is a face and person that blends in to the crowd, I should think, especially at a London sporting event. I’m white, I’m bald, a bit puffy, mildly dodgy, I smoke (in between bouts of quitting), and I wear a leather jacket and blue jeans. I wouldn’t look twice at me.
I admit more people who attend football matches these days read books as well and might occasionally look in on an author event like at the astonishingly immense Apple Store on Regent Street or a signing at Waterstone’s in Piccadilly or pause for thirty seconds on one of those book channels on satellite telly. The Piccadilly Waterstone’s, by the way … the company refers to that location as their flagship. They could very easily call it a battlestar. I do believe scores of Londoners and business travelers and day trippers and tourists have wandered aimlessly in and out of that store, up and down escalators, without even knowing where they were. Brilliant for the book business, admittedly. I once became so lost in that store -- eight floors, innit? – that I nearly cried for my mum. And I was forty-three years old. I knew going in I should have held hands with a buddy.
So, all right, I suppose lots of people who don’t really even read could inadvertently have seen my face on a poster in a Waterstone’s or somewhere.
‘Buy Ben Hampton’s new novel. Lovely stuff.’
Jesus. But … erm … combine my marginal fame, such as it is, with Novak’s vague notoriety, and even the most casual follower of popular culture tends to look our way and smell a rat. A single, mildly recognizable personality in a large cosmopolitan city like London is one thing. But when you see two together you just know that both are something-like famous, because one of them might be and the other one could be and they’re … together.
D’you know what I mean? The fact that there are two of them at the same time is just … significant. Am I explaining this clearly?
It’s like, “that guy looks like familiar. And that other bloke, wasn’t he in the Guardian, something about a film? Certainly, that’s uh (snapping fingers) … he played for Arsenal when they were shit, and uh … whatcha callit … the … the “Revolutions Per Minute” guy. Football. It’s football-related. We’re sat at a match. It must be.”
Every time I looked around, I saw people poking their neighbor while looking our way. Then both of them squint at us, whisper to one another and ask yet another person for confirmation of whether or not they have indeed spotted a celebrity. Or double-spotted. My favorite is when the third person confirms in the negative and convinces his mates that we are no one. So shut up, he says, and concentrate on the queue.
One time I actually heard a woman comment (or did I just imagine it?) that I couldn’t possibly be Ben Hampton because Hugh Grant played me in a movie, and, well, come on. That hurt. And Hugh Grant did not play me in a movie. Colin Firth did. Some would say he’s even better looking than Hugh Grant. I can’t decide.
Once, in the late 90s, I went to a match at Highbury and met Novak, who was in a group of people from Cambridge. We were re-introduced by mutual acquaintances. I first had met him, peripherally, when he was at Arsenal. It was quite nice that day at the old ground and exciting. We managed to sit near to one another at matches in, I believe, ’01 and again in ’04. My new life was surreal, sitting at my beloved Highbury, in superb seats, with an ex-player whom I admired and having him treat me like I was the important one.
Sure, I admired him.
Novak had mostly stayed away since leaving at the end of that ’95 season. His last appearance for the club had been that match in Paris when Nayim chipped Seaman from the halfway line and we lost a Cup Final. Quiz time. Which chapter do I not mention Nayim? Ah, memories. A miserable season. 12th place. Graham sacked for stealing the supporters’ money before returning it. The end of an era but the cusp, if you will, of a new and glorious one in which we continue to revel and, like gluttons, demand more.
One of the only bits of humor that came out of that Cup Final inevitably involved Novak. Seaman slumped in the goal, head hanging between his legs, alone, disconsolate and, if he has any shame at all, humiliated. A keeper’s nightmare. Who appears in the television picture but his pal and teammate of five seasons. Novak placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder. The goalkeeper looked up for a moment, appeared to grin slightly, then put his head back down. Novak helped him up, and they left the pitch together.
Much later in the evening, I’m told, toward the end of the training room questioning, an alert and industrious Times reporter asked the courageous netminder, “What did Julius Novak say to you in the goal there at the end?”
A chastened Seaman chuckled, “He said, ‘Do not read the papers tomorrow.’”
Hopefully, someone offered a similar suggestion to Big Dave seven years later when Ronaldinho would chip him in the World Cup.

No. I won’t be getting much into George Graham here because the editor and publisher believe that hundreds of thousands of non-footballing book buyers around the globe will purchase and read this book and recommend it to their friends and ring up chat shows about it. And there is too much that is interesting about our main character and too many pithy words that can be written, by the can’t-miss, beloved author, about said hero and the modern culture of football vis a vis the times in which we live. Therefore, too much is at stake – so goes the thinking -- to waste even one paragraph on a run-of-the-mill, if colorfully controversial coach. I’m willing to go along with that, especially that nice bit about the author.
Watching the match before us, it was obvious just how much had changed in English football since 1995. Highbury gone, for one thing. Not one Englishman on the pitch for Arsenal, for another. By Novak’s last season at the club (which, not coincidentally, was Graham’s), foreign players were beginning to creep into the English game in increasing numbers, stamping their refined and overwhelmingly positive influence on our country’s bustling style of play.
But they had yet to be allowed to overrun all of our top English clubs. So there was still an opportunity for a significant pool of non-world-class English players to get priceless first-team experience, particularly, but not exclusively, during competition against the best European clubs. A match against England in 1995 was still a comprehensively dicey affair for any country. Of course, we were periodically shit then as well. The arrangement that is the Premiership has aided in bringing on a temporary, but deadly serious backslide of our national team. We hope it’s temporary.
The England team, from time to time, pops up in the top ten of the FIFA rankings. Realistically, many observers, myself included, put them as low as fifteenth best team in the world. Why did they fall so far? Shall I tell you something you already know? Because the people who own most of the top-flight football clubs in this country are greedy and grandiose egotists who don’t really care about the game. The individuals who have bought the top clubs outright – and those groups who assisted with the financing -- want an immediate, large, safe and perpetual return on their investment. Wouldn’t you?
And how does a big club virtually guarantee largesse for their owners and financers? By qualifying for the land of plenty, the UEFA Champions’ League – every season if possible. And sell a lot of shirts. What we know is that if a club get in to this exclusive society just once, the financial windfall is so great the club can then afford to reinvest in more international-quality players to bolster their squad, thus keeping the overwhelming majority of outsiders where they belong – on the outside. But most English clubs themselves are not getting rich and English football at the grassroots is not being strengthened because owners are still directing too many pounds to players’ salaries. Just the same way they did with the new money derived from the now-defunct idea of flotation back in the late-90s. Of course not every club that makes it to the heights stays rich for life. Can you say, Leeds United? My apologies, but that felt very good.
Now what is the most expedient way for a club in the big footballing nations of Europe (Italy, Germany, Spain, France, Portugal, Holland and, I suppose, England) to better their chances of finishing in the top three or four of their league competitions, thus qualifying for one of the sexiest and most exciting money-spinning operations on the planet? Buy the best players available, obviously. But, because satellite TV giants pay obscene amounts of money to the English Premier League and to UEFA to beam their matches everywhere in the world – even a Wigan Athletic v. Birmingham City match, English clubs can afford to pay among the highest wages in the world and attract the very best players from every footballing nation in the world.
How many Brazilians were interested in playing their club football in England before 1995? Not more than a few. Mirandinha at Newcastle, of course.
Even before the skill quotient went through the roof, surpassing Julius Novak and others in the process, English football was always the most exciting style to watch on television. Mostly because there was never a pause in the action – hammer and tongs from the off.
And for the last fifteen years, following a perfectly appropriate EU ruling, there is no limit to the number of alien workers a European football club can employ or field at any one time. Makes sense. For many years, though, European clubs could field no more than three foreign players at a time. For example, the great AC Milan teams of the late 80s featured three outstanding Dutchmen (Van Basten, Rijkaard and Gullitt) and eight Italians. Inter Milan fielded three superb Germans (Matthaeus, Brehme and Klinsmann) and eight Italians. And so on.
Remember how angry and perplexed Man United were when they had to count their Scottish, Irish and Welsh players as foreigners whenever they played in a European competition? So they had to choose three from, for example, Giggs, McLair, Irwin, Keane, Hughes, Cantona, Schmeichel and Kanchelskis to accompany the English citizens in the team. That was ridiculous, even though it made my mates and me at Arsenal quite happy at the time. United never won the Champions League until this rule was changed.
These days, English-born players who, fifteen years ago when Julius Novak played, might have found a place in the old first division (now the Premier League), must make do in what used to be called the second, third and fourth divisions.
Does Novak believe he could have played first-team football for a top club today? He absolutely does not, and I agree.
These plucky Englishmen, my countrymen, are, without ceremony, bumped down the food chain by foreign players, because the exotic imports are more technically astute, mature and accomplished, at a younger age, than many of their English counterparts.
The clubs are bound to the caprice of their owners and the expectations of financiers. They are not bound to help strengthen the national team so that we can compete with the likes of Brazil, France, Argentina, Spain, Italy and, to a lesser extent, Germany, who have suffered similarly to us. At the moment, to compare the England team with these nations, as far as football, is something more than a stretch.
And, I don’t know if I can believe this (and I honestly don’t care; it just helps make my point), but according to some Portuguese Website, Darren Bent (recently lighting it up at Charlton, now lucky to get a game at Spurs) earns nearly as much in basic wages as Real Madrid legend, Raul. If this is true, then something has gone utterly wrong. I don’t recall ever watching a Real Madrid match where Raul did not score a goal. The man has been a lion for his club, spanning something like 500 matches and has a career strike rate not dissimilar to that of Alan Shearer. Ever heard of him? Yet BSkyB smiles on the likes of Darren Bent.
Our national side’s new, legendary Italian manager, Fabio Capello will somehow have to take a feeble, ungoverned band of primadonnas and transform them into working class fighters, true lions – the England of old, who couldn’t win anything as well, to be honest.
But how about the 1982 World Cup? The year Novak visited Spain, became a Valencia supporter, stalked Marianne, sketched her nude body in an art class and was discovered by Wüppertal, we went out in the second round not having lost a match. A proud side. There’s no pride anymore. Would you pay money to watch England play today? You do; but you shouldn’t. And you immediately feel foolish for having done.
But that’s international football. This is club football we’re watching today. My club. And club football is rapturous. Club football helps shape lives. It helps us focus for a couple of hours a week on something other than the inevitability of our own mortality. Say, a different reason to be depressed.
That used to be me, in a big way, from age twelve to about age thirty-five, through to the time Novak played there. I actually daydreamed about those years whilst sitting next to the ex-midfielder in the West Stand. I glanced at Novak just before the halftime interval. The look on his face said two things to me. First:  he could look out at his former club without memories of abuse from the North London supporters. Second:  he finds the team before him in red and white unrecognizable.
“Are you enjoying it?” I asked.
When I was in my early twenties and dating a lot, I became accustomed to my companions not enjoying themselves. So I periodically check in.
“I’m enjoying the day, your company, the noise, the singing and the skill on display,” Novak answered. “I’m probably enjoying it differently than you and most of the supporters. Sorry I don’t have a ready joke.”
I truly wasn’t expecting such a sickly diplomatic answer.
“A simple ‘No’ would have done,” I said, keeping my eyes on the action. Another speculative Spurs foray thwarted in its infancy. “Oh, the doom of waking every day knowing you’re a Tottenham supporter, I can’t imagine.”
Novak laughed.
“You know what I mean,” he said, returning to my question. “I wasn’t an Arsenal supporter before I joined the club. I was an admirer. And I never hated Tottenham. But as a supporter of whatever club I enjoy watching, I’m afraid I’m fickle rather than loyal. I wasn’t born into that kind of culture.”
“I forget,” I asked. “Do you support anyone?”
“I’m kind of into Cheltenham Town these days on the domestic front.”
“Very noble of you. You’re a better man than I am. Not too familiar with Cheltenham, beyond the Gold Cup of course. I think I might have an uncle in Malvern who supports them – or maybe it’s Gloucester City.”
Robbie Keane blazes wide.
“I think you’d know,” Novak said. “There’s massive hatred from the City end. They believe it should be themselves playing Leeds and Forest. They’ve been, like, seventy years in the same league.”
“Cheltenham don’t play Leeds, surely.”
“What? You call yourself a British football writer?”
“Uh, no! As a matter of fact, I …”
“Never mind,” he cut me off, then boasted with vicarious pleasure. “Apparently, then, you missed our recent win over the very same … Leeds … United? Remember them? Champions’ League semifinalists not too long ago, if I’m not mistaken.”
“Mmm. Name sounds familiar,” I said. “Leeds, you say? Isn’t that up near Pudsey?”
“I believe it is, yes,” he played along like a true Gunner. “Also in the same league as mighty Cheltenham are the likes of Nottingham, Millwall and Swindon. Some pretty recognizable names, I think you’ll agree.”
See how fun football talk can be? We stand, and no one’s hearts are in the applause for a turgid first half.
“The old Third Division,” I said. “Pretty high up for Cheltenham.”
“Taken in context of man’s ability to walk upright, Cheltenham, you’re right; I’d call it a meteoric rise.”
“Absolutely. So you beat Leeds. You must be having rather a comfortable time of it.”
“We’re mired in the drop zone, actually,” he said, “along with poor Luton Town, recently docked ten points.”
“Oh yeah,” I remembered. “Poor Luton. Technical paperwork violations will get you every time.”
“You’d think they’d hire someone to fill out the proper forms.”
“The shame is … is Leeds, really,” he laughed.
I joined him in laughter over the fall of our old rivals. As an Arsenal supporter, I always believed it to be Leeds who were the most hated club in England, rather than us.
“Right,” I agreed. “It wasn’t the team as much as it was the fans. Filthy, they were.”
“Remember the chant?” he asked.
“Do you mean, WE ALL HATE LEEDS SCUM!”
Two men standing in the row behind us overheard our conversation.
“Leeds fans?” said one of the men, nose horribly broken, who looked a few years older than me. “Scum.”
His mate, of similar age and facial disposition, chimed in. “Two of the bastards mugged my granddad and great uncle for tickets back in ’78. Is that not fucking scum of the earth.”
Novak grinned and said, “Yeah, cheers.”
“Didn’t I hear something about your being a Valencia supporter?” I asked Novak, getting all personal on him again in an American way. On the other hand, he is the main subject of this fucking book I can’t believe I’m writing.
“That’s true,” he answered. “I far prefer them, over the long haul, to any of the other top sides in Spain. There are seasons, like recently when I enjoy watching Villareal or Sevilla or Majorca; but my heart always comes back to Los Che. I’d humbly call myself a supporter.”
“So that came about from your season playing there? The big swansong?”
“Oh, no. Remember the story of my seeing Marianne for the first time?”
“Remember it?” I said. “That’s probably going to be chapter one, mate.”
“Get outta here.”
“We’ll talk,” I gave him an assuring pat on the forearm.
     We stroll around the Club Level as replica shirt-wearing hordes queue for overpriced, but supposedly testicle-free Bockwurst. Neither of us were hungry, having shared a muttar paneer from The Standard Tandoori on Holloway Road beforehand.
“What about Valencia then?” I asked.
“I tagged along on a train trip to Spain with a couple I knew from school,” he said. “The guys my companions were meeting out in the Valencian province happened to be Valencia fans. One of their dads had quite a few tickets for a match being played while we were there. The whole family were Valencia mad.”
“Just for the record. ’82?” I inquired.
“Yeah. The superstar Mario Kempes had gone, and the club were about to enter a major downturn. But they’d won the Super Cup the previous autumn over Forest. They’d had to upgrade the Mestalla Stadium for the World Cup, however, and it went a fair distance toward breaking them.”
Once Novak began filling me in on the roots of his fandom, I recalled that Valencia had beaten my Arsenal not long before that in the Cup Winner’s Cup Final boasting the likes of Kempes and one of Novak’s heroes as a teenager, Rainer Bonhof.
“I went to the match,” he continued. “I was completely overcome by the experience, and Valencia earned a place in my heart. I don’t think I need to explain.”
“You don’t,” I said, as we settled back into our seats. “So how do you like the new ground?”
“Suppose it had to happen,” he said in that wistful way traditionalists have.
We are sitting in the kind of stadium that most of the big clubs of Europe have enjoyed for twenty years or more. Yes, I loved Highbury. It can never be replaced. I’ve written all about it. We’ve all written all about it. You know how I feel. I’m nostalgic. I’m romantic. I’m a sappy, stupid fool about Highbury and all those priceless, never-to-be-forgotten memories that began for me way back in the 1960s. But I’m fifty years old, and this place is wildly comfortable.
Hello, Emirates Stadium. Where have you been all my middle-aged life? After all, we are a ‘European Giant,’ and we will, as long as the market demands, entertain the other celestial bodies of continental football. And Chelsea. This is rarefied air we’re breathing, and we know it. We are smug and we are superior. And many of us suffered for decades to get where we are today.
Today, my euphoria is dampened but once when Novak leans over and asks, “How many British players have you got out there today?”
My answer, had I bothered, would have been zero.
“They’re not foreigners to me,” I answered with Gunner pride. “Not with that little cannon on the badge.”
He twisted the knife, jingoistically. “You do know this is the English Premier League.”
“You weren’t even born here,” is all I can think to say.
“Didn’t you and your friends used to chant that at me?”
I don’t care what he says – or anyone else for that matter. They can all go eff off, the jealous twats. This is a new Golden Age. And it started just as we said au revoir to Novak.
The club quickly built on the rock-solid core planted and harvested by George Graham over the previous eight seasons. The living-legend, Arsene Wenger followed by bringing in Viera, Petit, Anelka, Overmars, Henry, Pires, Wiltord, Kanu, Ljungberg and Sol Campbell; and we’ve never looked back. I’ve just given myself goose pimples.
Except that we do look back, don’t we? Because I’m writing about a player who came just before our current Golden Age – a player who was there at the end of the George Graham era. A period during which, I should like to point out, they were, in fact, not shit.
I admit it. I used to whistle, boo and groan during Novak’s five seasons at Highbury. And, yes, I’ve even booed my latest literary subject directly. Afterward in the pub, you’d hear punters going on about Novak, “He scores two bombs against West Germany and can’t even put away a sitter against fucking Leicester. Where does Graham find these useless muppets?”
On the days or series of matches Arsenal were shit or at least when they played absolute bollocks football, he was an easy scapegoat. Because, face it, nil-nil is not only bloody useless, unless you’re away to Sampdoria in a cup tie and up a goal on aggregate, but, much more often than not, excruciatingly dull to watch as well.
Was he wrong for the side? Yeah, I’d have to say. On balance, I don’t think he made us a better team by his presence. Arsenal are a big club – a rich club located in one of the world’s great cities. And, for me, we were a bit in the wilderness there domestically, for most of Novak’s time, when we didn’t at all have to be. We had one of the best managers in Europe at the time – George Graham – and could have attracted the kind of players we needed to contend for the league championship every year. There was really no excuse for having brought in Novak and some of these others who were nothing more than squad players in my view.
And, for me, the makeup of the squad was all down to wages. The questions are: Who was responsible? The trustees? Were they cheap or too conservative? George Graham? Did he want to show that he could win without the shameless expenditures of the other big clubs? Could he only operate with an egalitarian unit of employees loyal to his cause? Did big-money superstars irritate him to distraction? Did the board not trust him to administer their funds, the supporters’ funds, my funds? Did they trust him and he was stealing?
As Jack Nicholson wondered in Prizzi’s Honor, “Which one-uh-deez?”
Why were we never able to buy Roy Keane or Paul Gascoigne or Eric Cantona or Alan Shearer or some of the European or South American stars who chose sunny Italy or Spain? Gabriel Batistuta or Romario or Hristo Stoichkov or Gheorghe Hagi come to mind.
Why is the Premier League such a destination today for the best players in the world? Can it be anything but wages and the ability to offer top dollar to the best players? Darren Bent earning more than Raul? When Arsenal started paying the sums we could actually afford to spend, there’s been nothing to stop us. It was very frustrating from a supporter’s standpoint.
In light of that, then, you can’t really blame Novak or any of the players, really, for those seasons when we all munched on peppermint Setlers to relieve indigestion brought on by too many nil-nils. George Graham, like so much -- if not all -- of life, was indeed a mixed bag. He lifted us over the moon then steered us over the falls to our deaths.
The second half at the Emirates was excellent, miles better than the first. Berbatov equalized for Spurs. Then the substitute Bendtner sent us into rapture with the winner. I doubt seriously if Julius Novak will ever return.