Since leaving London some three years ago, I’ve fallen into the habit of going back for a visit around the time of my birthday (which already happened over a week ago, so those of you who’ve been tardy or remiss with the cards and presents had better get with it!). This year, however, I almost didn’t go. It felt like I’d been away from home too much already, to the point where spending some time in my own apartment on my own street in Brooklyn felt more attractive than gallivanting around the world or across the ocean.
But as you might have guessed from the photos, I did end up going; first of all, I had a free airline ticket, second, I had a chance to attend two Fulham matches (and both of them big ones: AS Roma and Liverpool), and I guess what finally turned the tide was the realization that Green Day would be playing some shows during the time I’d be there.
Even still, I almost ended up canceling at the last minute. I was getting dark, Harry Potter-type premonitions that evil was afoot, well, not exactly, more like one of those nagging feelings that something bad would happen if I went. Something along the lines of being run over by a bus and/or dying, or maybe getting caught up in some international intrigue and being spirited off to Guantanamo or some other nation’s equivalent. Or, you know, possibly losing my luggage.
Not to mention the fact that every time so far that I’ve gone back for a visit, I’ve wound up second-guessing myself, thinking that perhaps I shouldn’t have left, that whatever problems or dissatisfactions I had with London were all in my imagination. Even the Tube trains, with their constant stopping in tunnels for no reason and their shutting-down-at-midnight madness, suddenly seem cute again compared with the more efficient cold steel shipping containers of the New York City subway.
And the same thing happened again this time, not helped by the fact that London was enjoying beautiful, almost summery weather, making it possible to loll about in the sunshine admiring a city which to my eyes at least has seldom looked lovelier. But poignant memories and pangs of nostalgia notwithstanding, it was only a matter of days before I remembered why I’d moved to New York, before I knew (all right, at least was pretty sure) that I’d made the right decision this time.
In fact, even though I’d deliberately kept the trip short – 12 days – I was ready to come home well ahead of time. Not that I wasn’t enjoying myself – more about that in a minute – just that, well, as I already said, I’ve traveled enough this year.
I’d no sooner arrived – minus any semblance of sleep – when I had to get ready and dash off to Fulham for the Europa League match against AS Roma. Those of you who follow football will probably know about the Italian Serie A league, the one consisting of all the fancy show ponies who combine a lot of style with some substance, and who, even though they’re forever falling down and histrionically begging for free kicks and penalties, are actually pretty good footballers. Well, that’s where AS Roma come from, and most people would probably figure it’s a class beyond Fulham.
Nevertheless, we ran all over them in the first half, resulting, unfortunately, in only a 1-0 lead; in the second half, the flow was reversed and they attacked us nonstop, finally scoring an equalizer in the 93rd minute, in what was literally the last play of the game. It was as though someone had abruptly let the air out of a rollicking Craven Cottage, and instead of dashing for the exits, as people generally do after a match, nearly everyone sat there in stunned silence. It was ever so sad, except for the Romans, of course, who were jumping all over each other as if they’d just won the Champions League.
A far better result came about on my next to last day in London: Liverpool came in and ran all over us, to the point where it looked like football demigods on the rampage against a desultory pub side. Until… against the odds and the run of play, we scored, and although they equalized by the end of the first half, we came roaring out and systematically took them apart all through the second. Frustrated and bewildered, Liverpool lost their discipline, started making rash challenges (or, more to the point, started getting caught making rash challenges), and limped off the pitch with only nine men left in the side and with Fulham celebrating a well-deserved 3-1 victory.
My second day in London, and third as well, I was off to the giant O2 Arena. Some of you may remember it as New Labour’s ill-starred Millennium Dome. Designed as a monument to Britain’s supposedly renewed ascendancy – a 21st century equivalent to 1851’s Crystal Palace Exhibition – this glorified circus tent managed to consume between £700 million and £1 billion of public resources without any of the public servants who dreamed it up bothering to figure out what it might actually be good for.
So after a rather threadbare county-fair type exhibition failed to pull in the punters, the Dome sat empty for a few years while the government set about trying to sell it off to someone – anyone, really – and finally accepted a bid of £35 million, a loss of a mere 95% on its investment, which in these flush times amounts to little more than chump change, am I right? Be that as it may, it would appear that the O2 has finally come into its own as a performance arena – at least until the roof starts leaking, which, actually, I think it already did back during the government’s stewardship.
About once every 10 years I think it might be a good idea to dress up a bit for a show, wear a nice blazer, for example, and then spend the whole evening remembering why it’s not such a good idea after all. I think this latest brainstorm was inspired by seeing how nicely Green Day and their crew were attired the last time I saw them, at Madison Square Garden. What I’d failed to consider was that they have whole wardrobes with them, and attendants to look after them, and, except for those occasions when Billie, accompanied by a security detail, ventures into – or onto – the crowd, they don’t spend a lot of time in the pit.
I also might have found a more sensible – for the sake of my blazer, anyway – place to stand than crushed up against the stage barrier by the weight of several thousand fans who thought they instead of I should be standing there if I hadn’t run into a characteristically officious – spend enough time in England and you’ll know exactly what I mean – ticket taker who told me that my all access pass (what part of “all” or “access” did he not understand, I wanted to ask, but didn’t, because I’m such a nice guy) wasn’t sufficient for entrance even into the cheap seats at the back of the auditorium.
I needed some sort of wristband, he insisted, which sent me on a ludicrous quest through the labyrinthine bowels of the O2 in search of this elusive wristband, which half the people I encountered hadn’t heard of, and the other half, while in possession of a whole bagful thereof, weren’t “authorized” to issue me one. I was finally rescued by Green Day’s manager, who you might think had a few more important things to do at the moment. He rolled his eyes and pointed out that he was wearing the exact same pass as I was, sans wristband, led me into the arena by way of the stage entrance, and discharged me into the crowd just as the lights dimmed and the band took their places.
Because of my late arrival, it was all I could do to navigate myself to a good viewing spot, and totally beyond my powers to get to the other side of the stage where some people I’d met in New York were hanging out. They were part of a multi-national crew calling themselves Rocktober, referring to their intention of following (“stalking” was I think how they put it) Green Day throughout their two week tour of the UK and Ireland. They were perhaps a little more devoted than I am – as much as I love Green Day, I’m not sure I’d want to see them almost every night for a fortnight, not to mention the long bus rides, the sleeping on floors, the hours of queuing for a good spot – but I imagine that if you were going to do such a thing, there was probably no better group of people to do it with.
Anyway, the show was good – not quite up to the quality of July’s MSG outings, but close enough – my lovely new blazer got nearly demolished with sweat and the various substances, both solid and liquid, emanating from the stage, and by the time I went back to say hello to the band afterward, I looked a right mess and felt like one, too. So for the second night, I wore more suitable pit attire – raggedy old clothes and a hoodie that I could tie around my waist – and wound up spending the entire night either backstage or in a skybox with the families of some of the band members. Looking considerably grubbier than them, I might add.
After the show I got a text from one of the Rocktoberites asking me what it was like backstage. “Must be pretty wild back there” he surmised (I’m translating from British into American, since I don’t remember his exact words), “since they’ve got the day off tomorrow.”
I looked around the room, which was chockablock with children, babies, mothers, and the occasional nanny. It was about as wild as an ice cream social at your parish church, but no less pleasant for being so. Billie Joe had brought along a stock of his new favorite root beer and pressed one on me (I’m not usually much of a soda man), and we had a delightful meal of Korean barbecue prepared by one of Green Day’s security men (as much as he deserves high praise for his culinary skills, I’m not sure he’d appreciate being identified by name here; images to uphold and all that).
By that time the Jubilee Line had stopped running (delightful London tradition: leave people stranded in the middle of the night; it adds piquancy to their revelry), so I was very fortunate to be able to hitch a ride (see what I did there) back into town with the band. It took at least an hour, whereas the train could have done it in half that time, but since my only alternative was walking, which would have taken the rest of the night, I was mightily grateful.
The next day saw some more wild goings-on, as Billie, his family, and I wandered through Soho, Covent Garden, and London’s own circle of the inferno, Oxford Street on a Sunday afternoon. Then the band were off for points north, Sheffield, I believe (it’s glamorous being a rock star, don’t you know?), and I had a couple days to enjoy the fabulous weather, the spectacular autumn colors, the lively night life, etc., but instead I think I spent most of my time in my room and on the internet. Doing very little productive, as you might note from my lack of updates here on the blog.
Wednesday was my birthday and I spent the first part of it on the train out to Bristol in preparation for a West Country Walking Society redux (down to just two of us) assault on the Brecon Beacons and the Wye Valley. The Beacons expedition was an arduous one, involving a steep climb up Southern Britain’s highest peak, Pen-y-van. At 3,000 feet, it’s pretty minor stuff compared to where I used to live in Northern California, but was diabolically precipitous at times, and matters weren’t helped by the thick fog enveloping the area, which meant that not only could we not see more than a few feet in front of us, but that a wrong turn or two resulted in our having to climb the same mountain twice to get out of there.
But as if to keep us from feeling sorry for ourselves, a detachment of British troops were doing training exercises that required them to run, not walk, over some 20 or 30 miles of the same terrain while toting an 80 pound pack and a rifle. Apparently it’s considered excellent preparation for Afghanistan. We came to Bristol, covered in mud and sweat, to discover that the water had been shut off due to a power failure.
The next day more than made up for the previous day’s difficulties, however: following in the footsteps of William Wordsworth (“Tintern Abbey”), we drove past the ancient ruin and then walked along the River Wye through some of the most beautiful scenery that the WCWS has ever encountered. Never heard of Symonds Yat before? Neither had I, but it’s a lovely little village as well as a giant rock protruding from the cliffs above, and we sat there munching our sandwiches in the summerlike sun and watched the ferryman haul passengers back and forth across the river by pulling himself and his boat by hand along an overhead cable.
The following day it was up early and back to London, just in time to witness the aforementioned triumph over Liverpool, followed by a late night rendezvous with some of the old gang at the Stockpot in Old Compton Street, where my hulking skinhead buddy Paul along with a couple of his friends bemused onlookers and companions alike by repeatedly breaking into the refrain from Beyoncé’s “Sweet Dreams.”
My time in London was almost up, but there was still another day and another Green Day show, this time at Wembley Arena. London Transport (they’ve changed their name to the more spiffy, or should I say more spivvy, Transport for London, but they’re still the same old fun-loving bunch) had done themselves proud by closing not one, but two (i.e., both) of the train lines serving that part of Northwest London, leaving some 12 or 13,000 Green Day fans to find their own disparate ways to that unlovely part of town.
In a fit of dyspepsia, I decided to walk (only 2.25 hours, Google maps assured me), but ended up hopping the Number 18 bus for a good part of the way, and was so relieved when I finally got a seat (it was standing room only for the first few miles) that I rode right past the arena, had to take another bus back, and arrived about 20 minutes into Green Day’s set. I’d never been fond of Wembley, but they’ve redone it in conjunction with the building of the massive new Wembley Stadium next door, and it felt curiously intimate for a giant barn-cum-airplane hangar.
Green Day were especially good that night, throwing in songs and bits of songs that I’d rarely if ever heard before, but by the time they finished, I was quite ready to go home and get some sleep, not to mention pack my bags, since I had to fly home the following morning. But it was not to be: their alter egos the Foxboro Hot Tubs, were set to play a middle-of-the-night set at The Garage in Highbury.
Having never seen the Tubbies, as some of their fans apparently call them (note: NOT a nickname I necessarily approve of), I had to go along, and luckily was again able to get a ride with the band; otherwise I would have spent most of the night journeying down the especially unlovely Harrow Road. The show kicked off at around 1 am, and lasted until God knows when, because I didn’t quite make it to the end. I mean, I wanted to, but I wasn’t even sure how I’d get back to Bayswater, where I was staying, and by this time I was looking at about three to four hours sleep before I had to get up and start packing.
Also, I wasn’t quite as excited as the crowd were when FHT decided to play the same song (don’t get me wrong; it’s a very good song) six times, perhaps because I wasn’t consuming any of the approximately 327 cases of beer that were being handed to, thrown at, and poured over the crowd. It was a shame to have to leave without saying goodbye to anyone (except my Fulham-supporting buddy Dave and his consort, the lovely Su), but it was very nice indeed to have some sleep. It’s very rare for me to leave early from anything Green Day-related, but there you have it.
So far my trip had been outstanding; all that remained was for me to get back to Brooklyn without any of the disasters I’d been worried about befalling me. Would I die in a horrible plane crash? Lose my passport? Discover that I’d contracted some rare and incurable disease?
Well, no, everything went as smoothly as could be; I even had an extra seat next to me on the plane, allowing me to stretch out and not sleep while I watched half a dozen movies and TV shows. But I arrived home to find an email disinviting me from the wedding of one of my best friends, a disinvitation given in classically British wording that made it appear as though they were doing it for my sake – to spare me the bother of traveling, present-buying, etc. – rather than because they couldn’t bear the sight of me.
The friend in question (I’m also enormously fond of his fiancée) was in fact the founding member of the West Country Walking Society and my companion on the adventures in the Brecon Beacons and the Wye Valley. Apparently I’d displeased him, possibly by questioning his map and GPS-reading skills, possibly by the (usually) gentle bickering we’d been engaging in for the past decade and a half. As disasters go, it wasn’t quite on the level of a fiery death or solitary incarceration, but it was still a pretty bad one. Sometimes I suspect I’m not fit for human company, and apparently there are others who agree.
Well, I hate to leave you on a down note, but I’m afraid that’s all there is: I’ve been home in Brooklyn for a few days now, and very happy to be so. Whatever it is that has come between my friends and me may or may not be resolved, but if I start thinking along the lines of, “If only I hadn’t taken that trip, none of this would have happened,” I will drive myself stark staring bonkers.
Weighed against three Green Day shows, a Foxboro Hot Tubs one, two awesome Fulham matches, some spectacular hiking and mountain climbing, and a week-plus in my other favorite city in the whole wide world, you might think this upset to a long-standing friendship might not seem so dire. But you’d be wrong. I’ve lived the sort of life – moving around a lot, transmigrating through various cultures and countercultures – that has made it difficult to make and keep friends for the long haul. So I treasure the few that have stuck around, and mourn the many who haven’t.
With any luck, the misunderstanding will be patched up and I’ll have happier news to report soon, but for right now my joy at being once more safely ensconced in my beautiful Brooklyn home is tempered – tinged, even – with a sadness and melancholy that at least is wholly appropriate to the season. The last of the leaves will soon go tumbling by my window and winter’s baleful presence will unleash itself upon the unforgiving streets. But life will go on, and I suppose I will as well; I’ve got at least a million more things I haven’t even started to tell you about yet.