Farewell Boleyn

Here is a piece I wrote on the occasion of West Ham United’s final game at the Boleyn Ground in Upton Park, against Manchester United on 10 May 2016.


Childhood memory is a fickle thing. Like a cloud on a blowy day, what once looked firm and stable might another moment be transformed from castle to elephant, if not vanished altogether.

I know exactly how long I have been going to the Boleyn Ground, but what were once the excited, in-the-moment novelties of a young nine-year old boy at his first game have long been lost into some deep unplumbed cavity of the brain. Indeed, my memory told me I was 11, until I checked the records for this piece, for I can remember very well the score: 5-0 to the Hammers, and so it must have been Saturday 17 December 1960. I can, if forced, conjure up an image of a hapless fellow in old gold being passed by, and a rare corner for the visitors caused by a thumping John Bond backpass played into the North Bank hoarding for no good reason at all. That happened, I am sure, but maybe not that day.

And yet this was a day that that plays large in the creation myth I have developed for myself, and the formation of an identity that I am likely to keep to my last breath. It was about two years after the family had left London for the Sussex coast, so my father no longer had to endure a horrendous commute that started by steam train and would, on a good day, have taken three hours door-to-door each way (with in summer a 12-hour working day in between).

We travelled up to east London in a partial re-construction of that journey, and as I got older the anticipation of the return to the Boleyn would always grow as the District Line tube rattled up the steep incline out of Bow Road. Crossing the Lea, Three Mills – an ancient tidemill – and the Berk Spencer acids plant gave a beauty-and-the-beast introduction to east London, and beyond I was fascinated – perhaps not on that first visit, but on many subsequent – by the backs of terraced houses either side of the penultimate stop, Plaistow. A little older, I would wonder what would it be like to live in a house like that, quite unaware that I’d done so for my first three years.

Then, disembarking at Upton Park itself. Upton Park the place, not the stadium. Upton Park is defined by one street, Green Street, that runs north-to-south for well over a mile. It was once, indeed still was in 1960, the boundary between the County Boroughs of East Ham and West Ham. Sited on the eastern side of the road, the Boleyn Ground and hence the club itself were technically not in West Ham at all.

The walk from tube to ground, perhaps a quarter-mile, was just long enough to ramp up expectation. The old Queen’s Market, the famous dry cleaners’ clock – “Don’t kill your wife with work, let us do it” – and then magically one day a shop that advertised Chinese food. You didn’t eat it there, it wasn’t a restaurant, you took it home. Never catch on, said my dad. You learnt to walk in the street, a freedom you didn’t dare anywhere else, but one shared here with the press of the crowd.

But all of this is a patchwork, a compendium of memories stitched into one. At roughly monthly intervals, each trip would have had its own particular special-ness, thoughts of who we might be facing. And these were not just football trips; they were friends and family trips too. Sometimes, we went not by train, but were driven there by my father’s business associate (OK, fellow bookie) George Oakley, even though that meant a taxi ride along the south coast to a different bit of Sussex. My Uncle George might have met us at the ground. Then afterwards, we could see either Harry and Ann (my mum’s oldest friend) in Buckhurst Hill, or my aunt Jose plus gran, uncle Harry and cousin Malcolm in Woodford.

In doing this, we were doing nothing that other West Ham followers were not doing too. Indeed we were somewhat ahead of the curve; a half-century ago, the east London diaspora of the white working class out to south Essex, now the bedrock of support, had hardly begun. Our journey was more convoluted than Laindon to Upton Park, changing at Barking, but how many more boys (and a few girls) found their visits to nan in Plaistow bundled up with a visit to the Hammers?

Back to the football. The 60s were a great time to be inducted into West Ham, as the Ron Greenwood revolution took hold, and for perhaps the first time a team at the top level of the English game built a playing style not founded on kick-and-rush. With players of elegance headed by the sainted Bobby Moore – I once defined him as a second father, so dependable was he in a crisis – the team played football with vision and sharpness of mind.

Not perhaps power: despite the quality, a Cup win and success in Europe, the team always knew how to let you down when you least expected it. West Ham United 1, Sheffield United 2, FA Cup fifth round 1968, after wins in two tough away ties – the second, at Stoke, the first time we’d travelled. Until the hegemonies of recent times, all teams’ supporters, even the Liverpools and Arsenals, have known relative fallow periods. But there seemed to be something tightly-knit into the psyche of West Ham teams that allowed failure to be snatched from dream with a frequency that can be matched only by life itself. As a means of instruction for growing older, following West Ham gives a better foundation than even Kipling’s ‘If’.

Leaving Upton Park will mean leaving behind a view of the playing surface which has, for me, barely changed in that half-century. My father liked to buy back-row seats in the then West Stand, as high as possible, so that no one could tell him to sit down at times of passion. If my memory serves me well, the cantilever to the old roof meant that you could see little beyond the old Chicken Run, but that changed when the new stand was built.

Its more open construction gives a view well out into Essex, a link to the world of the natural support: East Ham and Barking town halls, the new tower blocks of Ilford, Hainault Forest, the high ground around Brentwood. It struck me that, in the Bobby Moore stand (south bank) for the penultimate Upton park game, we had a very different view – what was that chimney to the north, asked Adrian? Maybe the factory chimney for the old Trebor sweets factory up Katherine (proper pronunciation please – i as in eye) Road, I replied, furiously scanning for landmarks. None of this will be possible at the Olympic, a bowl with no breaks, where, as in a minster attention is focused on the altar and the cross, here one may only adore the pitch.

Except that this is football, and there are crowds. Back in those sainted 60s, with one of the most thrilling and unpredictable teams in world football, crowds in a (then) 40,000-capacity stadium averaged about 28,000, and that at a time when most supporters were truly local and ticket prices were geared to the pockets of skilled labourers; but whatever the crowd, you felt its total absorption in the game, thrown into sharp relief by north bank taunting the east side, or similar.

Nowadays, you might pay vast sums (I pay less for the opera, a place where quality is almost guaranteed) to become thoroughly depressed or gloriously ecstatic, but the ground is full week in, week out, and those side-to-side chantings live on. Key to the success of the new stadium is its ability to transport the 36,000, graft on 20,000-odd extra, and keep the passion, the noise, the sense of ownership that different groups of supporters have for ‘their’ bit of the ground. They say the new roof will contain the volume, and that groups of supporters will stay together: and well must they both.

But we will still have a song. Oh yes there are chants, for West Ham as for others – some of the best honour past players, such as Miklosko and Di Canio. But a song that has been attached to the team almost longer than a human lifespan? There is barely another. And if you can name another, is it a waltz? In what surely is a minor key? That expresses the dashing of hope? I’m forever blowing bubbles itself gives the club an identity that many, currently more famous, football ‘brands’ can never hope to match, even if they stave off relegation for a further thousand years.

And so to hear those strains echo around the new stadium, allied to the rhythm of the match – exhortation at the start, encouragement when the team needs a goal, delight as the hour of victory comes close – will be, results excepted, the sole comparator of whether the move will be worth it.

None of this quite gets to the root of why team support, for this team, is such an essential part of the make-up of so many. For me as there will have been for many others, there are clear building blocks: a big win in the first match, quality time first with my father and now my younger son Adrian, a sense of family roots – later, father and son David and Mark from my mother’s side, or our friends in the Bregman family – attractive football, a team that tasted success but could never bank on it. But not every young boy was hooked from his first game (ask my elder son Matthew), plenty of east Londoners ‘support’ other teams, and some even followed it despite a series of defeats in their first games.

There is something that seems a little intangible. It is soul. It gives rise to faith.

Except that it’s not intangible, so it’s not soul, it’s not faith. It’s the melding together of family, history, myth, emotion, song, beautiful patterns on the pitch – art – brought together in the cauldron of a stadium, and its place within its community, gripped by terraces on one side, high-rise on another, fronting one of London’s great street communities – pie & mash, rice & peas, halal butchers, phone card outlets, shops stocked with looms of sari cloth, jewellers for the Hindi community, Islamic books (its outlet bizarrely sharing a name with our captain and local boy, Mark Noble); the Tesco’s feels lost in this welter of trade.

I get a little exasperated by people of my generation on Facebook who eagerly share artefacts of their youth. Remember this hairstyle? Stingray? The Eagle? Woollies pic’n’mix? Queen Liz and her toddler prince? Yes, but that was then, and perpetually looking back is no recipe for growing older. West Ham’s task is to take that not-faith and roll it forward to a future where children as yet unborn have no more understanding of the Boleyn as I did for its predecessor, the Memorial Grounds in Canning Town. In this modern corporate world of the big football business, that’s a tremendous task to undertake, adjacent to a shopping mall and an ‘international business centre’ now in course of construction. But it can’t not be done. And so we move on.

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We missed out in the ballot for the final game at Upton Park, and this piece is written in the hours before it. We were there for its predecessor, Swansea City. We were in good form, no home League defeat since August (it is now May), sixth in the league, a good chance of stealing fourth from the two Manchester clubs, and hence a first appearance in the elite Champions League. They were lower mid-table, nothing to play for, and missing a couple of their best players.

West Ham United 1, Swansea City 4.

Many had left the ground five minutes from time, and many more when the injury-time fourth went in. I would have; Adrian made me stay, the better to imprint the ground for those unreliable memories of his future.

On the final whistle, the PA played Teenage Kicks. A few rows below us, a couple of young boys, late primary age – brothers? there were a couple of years between them – in all the West Ham kit, danced in excitement and abandon to the Undertones.

[Editor’s update – three days later, on a night of raw emotion, West Ham beat Manchester United 3-2. Adrian and I watched the match in a crowded Black Lion – almost as good as being there. The landlord told me off for climbing on the seats at the final whistle.]