Some years I was rooting around in the cellar at my mum’s house when I found a battered cardboard box full of old film reels. They were films my dad had made in the 60s and 70s. We’d never watched them.
At the time I didn’t pay the films too much attention. I had better things to do than watch old films.
But now? As I approach the middle of middle age, nostalgia is starting to tug at me. And 18 months of sitting around during the pandemic made me realise that actually I don’t have better things to do than watch a box of old films.
So I went back to my mum’s and counted up the films – there were around 50 of them in all. I took a handful home with me.
I knew the films were silent 8mm reels but I had no way to view them. I asked around and got lucky – someone on my street WhatsApp group had a vintage 1960s projector she was happy to lend me. (This is perhaps the first time a street WhatsApp group has proved useful for anything.)
I set the projector up on my bed, precariously balanced on a stack of books, and I loaded in a reel of film. I pulled the curtains closed, turned off the light and pushed the button. Magic happened.
The mechanism whirred into life and a misty image appeared on the bedroom wall. I adjusted the focus and there was my mum, in her 20s, chatting to my aunt on a beach in America. After a few minutes my dad appeared; younger than I’d expected but as bald as ever, ambling awkwardly onto screen. It was ridiculous – here were my parents as twentysomethings, striding across my wall, preserved like insects in amber. Some celluloid version of them had been hiding in the cellar all these years.
I tried recording the projections on my phone but it came out juddery and unwatchable. If I wanted to watch the films properly (and share them with my family) I’d need to get them digitally converted.
So I called my local Snappy Snaps. The good news was that they could indeed convert the films. The bad news was it would cost £40 per reel. Now, much as I wanted to see more of the films, I wasn’t willing to spend £2000 on them. I looked on eBay instead and found a man in Hull who would do it for £3.75 a reel. Take note, Snappy Snaps. Well done, eBay.
I did spend a few anxious moments worried that I had sent a box full of potentially irreplaceable memories to a random bloke in Yorkshire but a couple of days later an email appeared in my inbox with links to the first five films.
More films followed; faded, flickering messages from a disappeared world.
Some of the films were of London, viewed through the eyes of my dad, new to the city and fascinated by the peddlers of Petticoat Lane and the changing of the guard. (He infuriated me by spending ages filming random buildings or buses, before I realised that I do exactly the same.)
There were countless films of my parents in America during the year they both lived there; my mum looks stylish, sharp, a London girl in the States. My dad looks like the cat who got the cream, not quite believing his luck. It was bittersweet to see them both so young, and to realise that the story of my family (which now seems so set in stone) was once fresh and unformed.
There were also a handful of films from Argentina. Black and white scenes of long-gone relatives in Buenos Aires and family holidays in Mar del Plata. One film features my dad’s cousin Gregorio who died in his thirties (I was named after him) looking cool alongside my dad. His children, now middle-aged adults, had never seen any films of him. It must have felt like a miracle.
I don’t know why my dad stopped filming; maybe the camera broke, maybe he ran out of film, maybe he got more interested in living life and less interested in documenting it. I’m grateful he made the films at all. When the final emails from the man in Hull arrived, I felt a pang of sadness: I didn’t want it to end. I wanted to imagine another box of films, and another, and another, an endless supply of footage.
The films mean a lot to me personally, but I also feel like they also deserve a wider audience; they contain some wonderful footage of daily life across three continents.
These days we’re all used to the idea of documenting every moment in photos and videos. Millions of hours of footage are uploaded to YouTube every day; I can’t imagine how photos are uploaded to Instagram every hour. So it must seem odd to people born into a digital age that relatively little everyday footage exists of the generations before them. There is no video of my childhood. And I’m not even talking about the distant past – I was at secondary school for five years in the 1990s and there are maybe two photographs documenting that time. There are whole chunks of my pre-Internet life that only exist within my memories. I went on whole holidays without taking photos! I didn’t take a photo of the food I was eating for the entirety of the 80s and 90s! Historians will have no idea what I had for breakfast.
Over the last year I’ve become slightly obsessed with the idea of filling in some of those blanks, of finding all my lost films and photos and fitting together the jigsaw pieces of my pre-digital life. In the last six months I’ve scanned in thousands of slides and photos and loaded up old hard drives in search of photos. I suppose I’m trying to neaten up my timeline. Yes, I am quite boring.
When I think about my dad’s films, sitting for decades in a cellar, hiding in plain sight, it feels faintly miraculous. What I love most of all is the idea that across the world, in backrooms and shoeboxes, there are millions of old film reels and faded photos just waiting to be rediscovered; lost universes waiting to be brought back to life. Go find them all. Bring them back to life.
Sometimes I’m leafing through the second-hand bookshops on Avenida Corrientes or drinking cafe con leche in Las Violetas on Rivadavia. Other times I’m in my dad’s apartment on Sanchez de Loria, on the 7th floor of a brutal grey building, gazing at the sun setting over white concrete.
It is less a daydream than a longing; a yearning for another time and another place. I’ll be shuttling along on the Victoria line on a dismal London morning when my brain conjures the voiceover from an ‘80s Argentine hot dog advert and I drift away, bewitched.
Maybe I’ve reached the age where nostalgia is my drug of choice.
I first visited Buenos Aires in 1987 when I was 12 years old. We were visiting my dad’s family, most of whom I’d never met. We stayed in The Eleven Palace Hotel, a faded colonial-style hotel on the corner of the Plaza Once, a bustling local market full of Jewish pawn shops and backstreet stalls selling wholesale fabric. A dilapidated bus station brought a constant stream of shoppers in from the provinces. The hotel was nothing fancy; a neighbourhood place, chosen because it was a couple of blocks away from my father’s childhood home, where my Grandma still lived with my uncle.
I didn’t know what to expect of Buenos Aires, other than knowing that it was the mythical city where my dad had grown up. We’d been on summer holidays to Menorca and Barcelona but this was different. There were no swimming pools or beaches – there were palm trees but there wasn’t a sun lounger in sight. Instead we found ourselves in a vast concrete sprawl of heat, dust, and graffiti.
Buenos Aires was what I thought a real city should look like: skyscrapers and traffic jams and taxis with their radios blaring. It felt alive. And yet so much of the city was also a snapshot of a forgotten time; every cafe waiter was stiffly dressed in black and white, attentively serving like a British butler. The lift in the hotel had an old-style scissor door – you could stop the lift between floors by sliding it open (we did this a lot). On the street outside the hotel the cars were held together by duct tape and optimism. The pavements were broken and there seemed to be real civic commitment to keeping them that way. Haircuts were stuck in the mid ’70s – Rolling Stone mullets for all.
I met the Argentine family I’d only seen in photos. It was unsettling at first. I was a shy middle-class English adolescent raised in the suburbs. Everyone talked. Loudly. All the time. There were jokes I didn’t understand and heated discussions about politics (“Can you please stop arguing?” “What do you mean? We are just talking?!” “You’re shouting.” “This is how we talk!”) It took me a while to adjust to the volume. Nowadays I can appreciate the tactic of winning an argument simply by speaking much louder than your opponent.
Still, I loved that holiday. We discovered submarinos (a bar of chocolate left to dissolve in hot milk) and chewed Chiclets (chewing gum tablets in a distinctive cardboard box) and went to Ugi’s, a bargain basement pizza chain that only did cheese and tomato pizza. We ate sandwiches de miga with the crusts cut off, like a parody of a genteel English tea. We took the subway on Linea A, with its antique wooden carriages and ceramic lighting. We rode in colectivos, the drivers decorating their cabins with every Catholic effigy that would fit on the dashboard. We marvelled that everything we bought, from Coca-Cola to leather shoes had Industria Argentina stamped upon it. My grandma cooked us knishes and my uncle taught us to play poker, gambling for matchsticks.
Mostly, I loved that Buenos Aires belonged to us. Nowadays, it’s another big city on the global route and every half-adventurous traveller with a Lonely Planet guide has stopped off for a few days of steak and tango in San Telmo. But back then it was undiscovered. We didn’t bump into a single English-speaking tourist during that first visit. It was our own private world to escape into. It was our Narnia. It was magic.
That holiday was the last time we stayed in a hotel in Buenos Aires.
By the time of our next visit, my dad had moved back to Argentina and we stayed with him in his new apartment.
I used to say that I was half Argentine. I’m not.
I was born and raised in north London, the son of an English mother and an Argentine father. I grew up in the shadow of Alexandra Palace (I watched it burn down twice. Once, in real time from the school playground, and then later that evening on the news, excited that somewhere so near to us was on television.) I played football and Top Trumps, read The Chronicles of Narnia, Tintin and Asterix and spent the rest of my free time on my ZX Spectrum. Most Fridays we’d do a makeshift Shabbat meal, lighting the candles and saying a prayer, although neither of my parents was religious enough to keep Kosher or observe the Shabbat rules. I enjoyed a comfortable, unremarkable, middle class English childhood. I watched Grange Hill and Neighbours. I certainly wasn’t kicking a makeshift football through the dusty backstreets of Buenos Aires.
There is a way to be both English and Argentine. There are historic connections between the countries; a wave of English immigrants settled in Argentina in the 19th century and quickly rose to prominence; you see it in place names – areas called Thames and Wilde. Football clubs called Newell’s Old Boys and River Plate. My dad grew up on a street called Virrey Liniers – when it reaches Rivadavia it changes its name to Billinghurst. The connections between England and Argentina still exist in the upper-classes; in the polo and rugby set, who travel from polo matches at the Hurlingham Club in Buenos Aires to drinks in Twickenham. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone posher than upper class Argentines, whose Englishness is preserved by never actually having to live in England. But that version of English and Argentine was never for me. Those people come from a different Argentina to my father, and exist in a different England to me. They scare me.
No. I can’t claim that I’m half Argentine.
We live in an age where identity is our currency. Anyone who has spent time on social media sees how quickly we all learn to leverage our identities; we intuitively understand how to take a small element of our existence and build a personal brand around it. What in my background lends me authenticity? What gives me the moral high ground? What makes me seem less middle class – less privileged? We play up the exotic, interesting aspects of our identity and bury the private school education and a childhood in the suburbs. We are different. We are special. Our views carry real weight. It’s a game I’ve also played, but honestly – what can I do with half Argentine? It doesn’t help me at all. I don’t look Argentine. I can’t pretend to be Latino (all my ancestors were European Jews). I’ve never lived in Argentina. I’m not a citizen. I didn’t grow up listening to Argentine music or eating Argentine food. I speak passable, imperfect Spanish. I’m incredibly proud of my Argentine roots, but what connection do I have that isn’t second-hand? What right do I have to claim a country as my own? I’d feel like an imposter.
If I’m not half Argentine, what am I? The best I can say is that I am more English than anything else. I am English but not completely. I’m incompletely English and incompletely Argentine. Mostly, I’m just incomplete.
I’m also a Londoner, Jewish, middle-class, sexually indecisive and a Spurs fan. Like I said, incomplete.
I can’t write about Argentina without writing about my dad.
My dad was the funniest person I knew. The jokes were often terrible but he told them with such warmth and mischief that you had to laugh. He was an artist by calling and a shipping clerk to pay the bills. He was short, bald and paunchy (thanks for those genes, dad!). He boasted that he stored soup in his moustache. He had a thick Argentine accent and a set of catchphrases that he’d deploy whenever the conversation lulled: “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is mystery!”, “Buy now, pay tomorrow!” “Never a dull moment!”
He was born in Buenos Aires in 1936, the second of four children; two boys and two girls. His mother was either born in Argentina or arrived there when she was a toddler. His father was born in Ukraine, but fled – a combination of antisemitism and the unappetising prospect of being conscripted into the Russian Army. He arrived in Argentina aged 24, having acquired an understanding of Spanish after five years in Romania. He sold electrical goods wholesale to shops; my grandmother worked in one of the shops on his route. He asked her out and she said yes.
I get the impression that my dad had a happy childhood. Where I stayed at home reading and playing computer games, he was out on the streets, skipping classes and playing football in the barrio with his friends; I think he was more comfortable in the company of others than I ever was. Being at ease with people is an underrated life-skill.
He loved Boca Juniors and basketball (like me, he was 5’ 5” and insisted that the sport should be grouped by height, just as boxing is grouped by weight, with lower hoops for short people) but his true passion was art. He drew, painted and did woodcut prints. I don’t think he ever struggled with his art – he certainly struggled commercially, but I think he always felt a pure joy in drawing that never left him. If we went out for dinner his napkins would end up covered in doodles. He couldn’t resist. I’ve always envied him that certainty.
In the early sixties he moved to New York – partly spurred by the desire for adventure, and partly because of the political situation in Argentina. It was there that he met my mum. She was trying her luck in America and ended up working alongside my dad’s sister. Introductions were made. When my mum returned to England my father soon followed. They were married a year later.
I try to imagine what it must have been like for my dad, arriving in England in the late 1960s, having lived in Buenos Aires and New York; I picture it as The Wizard of Oz in reverse; travelling from a world of colour to a world of black and white. I recently unearthed a set of old 8mm films my dad took in the 60s: the films of New York are bathed in colour and movement. The films of London are grey and dismal; everything is steeped in tea and rain.
Buenos Aires is a geometric grid of blocks, a city built upwards not outwards. People live in apartments, not houses, with balconies rather than gardens. Everyone lives (quite literally) on top of each other. And on almost every block there’s a cafe, a panaderia and a kiosko; you can get a coffee and a medialuna without crossing a road. If I picture my dad as a young man in Buenos Aires, he’s making conversation on the stoop or waiting outside a bar or chatting on a corner. Life was lived out on the street.
London is not a grid. It’s a series of villages, flattened out over centuries until they spread into each other; it’s a patchwork of meandering roads, lined with rows of terraced houses where an Englishman can take refuge without having to actually talk to anyone. For my dad the suburbs of north London must have felt like the countryside. He considered it a scandal that he had to walk 10 minutes to a corner shop.
If my father was missing Argentina I didn’t know it. By the time my sisters and I were going to school my dad had a good job in town, the occasional exhibition of his art and plenty to keep him busy. He painted in the makeshift studio in the cellar, listening to Trevor McDonald on LBC on an old Roberts radio. On Saturday mornings he coached the school football team on the muddy playing fields of Durnsford Road. In hindsight I realise he dealt with his homesickness by pretending Argentina didn’t exist. He didn’t go back to visit and he barely spoke Spanish around the house. He blocked it out and tried to focus on his life in England. It worked, for a while.
It’s difficult to look back at the period through adult eyes, trying to remember how I experienced it as a child. I missed so much because I wasn’t looking for it. I had no reason to think anything was going wrong. He was my sweet, funny dad. Why would that change?
In April 1982 Argentine soldiers landed in the Falklands. Days later Britain and Argentina were at war.
My father’s colleagues at work were supportive, but it must have been hard not to feel unwelcome when the newspaper headlines screamed about ‘Argies’ every day for 10 weeks. He was one of the enemy. Decades later he told me that when he’d phoned his family in Buenos Aires, they insisted that Argentina was winning and that the British were retreating. Of course they did – the military dictatorship controlled the media.
The conflict may not have lasted long, but the damage was done; by the time it ended he wasn’t just on the other side of the world, he was on the other side of the war. I doubt his problems started with The Falklands, but the conflict brought it all to the surface. A seed of unhappiness had been planted, and in the years that followed it blossomed into unbridled misery. Slowly, then quickly, he fell apart.
They were long, unhappy seasons of indecision. I remember them as a pair of curtains, closed. He was desperate to return to Argentina and desperate to stay in London with us. He could not choose. He was neither here nor there. For a long time I think he was nowhere.
And then in 1988 a decision was made. He bought an apartment on the corner of Loria and Moreno, two blocks away from his mother. He moved back to Buenos Aires.
At first he visited every year and we’d have surreal intermissions of normality.
For three weeks he was back in the family home, smoking thick panatella cigars and leaving a trail of ash around the house. He’d drop me off at the bus stop for school and in the evenings we’d watch snooker and old films. Doug Mountjoy and 12 Angry Men. My most vivid memory of the time is that he made lots of salads and overused the word ‘condiments’. I have to laugh now, thinking about it.
And then he’d return to Buenos Aires. I rationalised his absence by saying that I’d rather have a happy dad on the other side of the world than a broken dad here, but it was a miserable bargain.
We visited him in Argentina the year after he moved back there. I recently rediscovered a set of old photos from the time and there is a grim, gallows humour in comparing our first and second trips to Buenos Aires. In one it’s spring and we’re all smiling, happy to discover this wondrous new city. In the other set it’s winter and we are in the sullen depths of adolescence; surly and resentful of the hand that life has dealt us. No one is smiling. The city looks suitably desolate.
It wasn’t all glum; there were advantages to having a dad on the other side of the planet. For two summers running in our mid teens my twin sister and I flew to Buenos Aires to see him. For all the family complications, it was glorious just to escape London for this other world. Arcades had sprung up all along Avenida Corrientes and we spent our afternoons giddily playing Out Run and eating churros filled with dulce de leche and chocolate. We’d play pool at The Richmond, an upmarket cafe on Calle Florida and eat cheap steak at a place on Belgrano that was overrun by flies. I was into comics, and in Argentina I acquired a taste for Fierro, a semi-pornographic anthology that introduced me to the greats of Argentine comics: Solano Lopez, Alberto Breccia, Muñoz and Sampayo. I’d disappear to browse the second hand bookshops on Corrientes, where the comics and graphic novels were piled up alongside cellophane-wrapped porn. It all felt tantalising and transgressive. I still read the comics; I still sense a faint residue of teenage anticipation.
Over time my dad visited London less often. Maybe he thought we didn’t need him as much. There was a blank three year period when we didn’t see him at all. I’d get a letter every six months, always slightly lagging behind me as he fumbled to work out who I was. He’d attach articles about pop stars I’d lost interest in years ago. I was resentful: I’d have preferred no letters to letters that reminded me how little he knew me. It didn’t really matter. By this point I was discovering girls and music and was too busy reinventing myself with a leather jacket to think about him. It’s never easy to know what to do with an absent parent. You don’t get angry at them – you get angry at the people who are left behind. (Someone once asked me how I felt about my dad, and I said: “I forgave him a long time ago, and I will never forgive him.”)
Over in Buenos Aires he was slowly putting his life back together. He taught English and Art. He did his lino cuts. My parents divorced and he remarried an Argentine woman; a sweet, much younger Italian catholic who doted and fussed on him. I liked her a lot.
We both worked hard to repair our relationship. As I got older, I visited Argentina more often. We’d see family or hang out in the centre of town or play pool in a grotty hall in Boedo. He’d show me his artwork and I’d show him my writing. We’d eat pizza and milanesas and empanadas and steak, the four basic food groups of Argentine cuisine. He’d haul me on a tour of the Boca Juniors stadium, even though I’d already been. Sometimes I’d go out drinking in Palermo or San Telmo and I’d stumble in at 4am to find him waiting up for me in the darkness; a bittersweet overcompensation for missing my teenage years.
We’d talk about the past. About the decisions he made. He always told me that he loved me and that he was proud of me. I tried to believe him. We spoke about Argentina. He insisted he wasn’t really Argentine – he was a Porteño. “What do I have in common with a man in the provinces? Or someone from Santa Fe or Tucumán?” It was true. His domain was the 40 blocks from his apartment to the centre of town. The subte from Loria to Perú. Everywhere else was another world. He was a man who made it to New York and London but spent the last 25 years of his life living two blocks from where he grew up. He couldn’t escape home.
Things improved. The Internet made the world smaller. He charmed my friends on Facebook. His artistic fortunes also changed: he had solo exhibitions in Amsterdam and London, and in 2014 he won first prize in the Salón de Artes Plásticas Manuel Belgrano, a prestigious national printmaking competition. I was proud of him.
On a dismal evening in December 2015 I was hosting a quiz in a bookshop in Wood Green. I was tipsy. The quiz had ended and we were clearing up the debris with friends. My phone rang. It was my uncle in America. He was sobbing. He asked me to sit down.
I sat down.
He told me that there had been an accident. My dad and his wife had been passengers in a car that was hit by a truck. They had both been instantly killed.
My brain kept telling me that it couldn’t be true, that it was ridiculous and unthinkable, while another part of my brain instantly knew it was utterly, irrevocably, undeniably true, as much a fact as my hands or gravity. I felt sick. I howled. Writing these words now, I feel an echo of that horror and panic. It never fully disappears.
My mother and sisters were contacted and it was agreed that I would fly to Buenos Aires the next day. We needed to hurry; Jewish law insists on a quick burial and I didn’t want to miss the funeral. That night I flitted in and out of sleep, unsure what was real. I remember feeling so hot, despite the December weather.
It was a 13 hour flight to Buenos Aires and I’ll be honest, it was wonderful. For 13 blessed hours I was on my own. No one could reach me to ask what had happened or to send their love. There was no noise. No chatter. No one wanted anything of me. I could pretend none of it had happened. I watched forgettable films and the in-flight map; I was a small dot, moving across the oceans. In some ways I wish that flight could have gone on forever; just curled up under a blanket, eating airplane food, neither here nor there but somewhere else entirely, suspended in mid air and suspended in time.
Despite everything, it felt good to be in Buenos Aires. From the depths of an English winter, I suddenly found myself surrounded by the jacaranda trees and the smell of the city in summer. It was a dream. It was impossible to feel grief; there was too much to take in. I suspect it was harder for my family back in London.
It took two days to locate someone who had keys to my father’s apartment. The same apartment he bought back in 1988 on the corner of Loria and Moreno. The apartment we’d stayed in so many times on holiday, with its wood-effect lino flooring and its fridge covered in magnets; with its view of the primary school opposite where the children played in their white school uniform coats; with the balcony on the 7th floor, where my sisters and I launched paper aeroplanes at the traffic below. With all of those things, but now without him.
We went in. The fridge was full of food in tupperware boxes; clothes were laid out on the bed, ironed and folded; a paper note was lying on the table – a reminder for later. Everything left as though they were about to return. There was something illicit and voyeuristic about it; I felt as though we were intruding on their privacy. But someone had to do it. We spent a couple of hours sorting through some of his effects, grabbing items my sisters had asked me to get. I picked up sweaters that smelled of him; one of his beloved baseball caps that made him look like an American tourist; a Boca Juniors polo top. I took an envelope of family photos and a set of his handkerchiefs. I still have them. We tried to make things as right as possible, and then we left. I planned to return when I could.
I never went back.
Two days later, on a hot, sunny afternoon in a cemetery on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, we buried my dad. I didn’t know how to feel. I still don’t. And then a car took us straight from the cemetery to the airport and I got on a flight to London.
I arrived home on Christmas Day. Feliz Navidad.
My partner often has to stop me talking to Spanish speakers in public; we’ll be having a perfectly pleasant walk in the park, and she’ll clock that I’ve overheard a couple chatting in Spanish and am lingering near them in the hope of crowbarring my way into the conversation. She’ll give me a look.
I’m getting better at walking away. On the rare occasions I stumble onto an Argentine in public, I can’t help but accost them and start talking to them; I spill out the story of my life in rusty Spanish, never quite sure what I’m hoping for. It rarely ends well: they’re just getting on with their day and I want to engage them in long, nostalgic conversations about a country that they’ve chosen to leave. I suppose I’m yearning for a connection – with my childhood, with my father, with another version of myself I lost along the way. But they can’t take me back to the excitement of 1987. They can’t make me 12 again. All they can do is make polite smalltalk and then run away screaming.
Sometimes I like to imagine an alternative Greg, who grew up in Buenos Aires but whose father lived in London. I imagine summer holidays pacing the streets of Walthamstow or Wood Green, or gazing with wide-eyed wonder at Camden Market or Oxford Street. Which parts of London would I be nostalgic for? Would I have been obsessed with Angus Steakhouses or Our Price Records? Would I yearn for The Trocadero or the jingles on Capital FM? Would I romanticise double decker buses and The Piccadilly line? Would I dream of Cadbury’s Creme Eggs and PG Tips? I know it’s all ridiculous, but no more ridiculous than my second-hand nostalgia for Buenos Aires.
For lots of us, there’s a moment. A point in late adolescence when the world magically opens up; when you’ve escaped the tyranny of school but don’t yet have the responsibilities of adulthood. It’s a moment when you feel on the verge of great discoveries: sex and music and drugs and books and ideas. You know you are on the cusp of something special; it feels like just below the surface, all life’s secrets lie shimmering, waiting for you to dive in and find them. Great glories will be revealed.
And then life happens. And most of the time it’s fine, and some of the time it’s wonderful, but it never quite matches that moment when you’re sixteen, ripe with potential, when every sunset blazes with meaning. I suspect a lot of people spend the rest of their lives in the shadow of that moment, never quite embracing the present, never quite committing to the here and now, always glancing back over their shoulder to an age when anything felt possible. It’s a trap, but it’s a very seductive one; it worms its way into you. It whispers all the things you want to hear. For me, Buenos Aires is that trap. There is a mythical Greg in Buenos Aires who still lives in the technicolor moment of a 16-year-old.
I’m aware that my vision of Buenos Aires is a mirage. I’ve spent enough time there to know of the endemic corruption, the economic instability, the poverty, the squalor, the endless bureaucracy, the constant strikes and the perennially disappointing coffee. Every time I visited the overflow of crime and rubbish from the Plaza Once crept nearer and nearer to my dad’s apartment. I know that in real life it’s a city like any other, full of joys and disappointments. It’s not Narnia – it’s just somewhere else. Another place.
It’s now five years since my father died and I’m a father myself. My life now is pacing around Walthamstow, walking my daughter to school, interminable afternoons in the park, an occasional commute into the office and even rarer trips to the pub. Argentina may as well be the moon. And yet Buenos Aires has worked its way under my skin; it seeps into my dreams. I can’t resist it. I find myself on Google Streetview, retracing journeys I made decades ago, I watch videos of bike rides around the city on YouTube. I scroll through photos of Nueve de Julio on Instagram. There is a vintage map of Buenos Aires on my bathroom wall and I stare at it endlessly; at the road where he lived; at the street where he died.
Buenos Aires is the ghost that haunts me.
There is a video of my dad in the house he grew up in. He’s giving a little guided tour, chatting to the camera in Spanish. His artwork is hanging on the walls and in the background the radio is tuned to Radio Dos Por Cuatro, playing non-stop tango. It makes my heart sing. It destroys me.
Argentina gave me my father and took him away from me. It was the country he loved and the country he chose over us. No, I am not half Argentine, but it was my father’s country and some part of it lives within me. I cannot escape that. I will return.
I have a dark confession: I was a huge fan of Lost. Where others may talk about The Sopranos or Mad Men as their entry into the ‘golden age of television’, for me it was all about Oceanic Airlines Flight 815. Yes, Lost was ludicrous, the accents were all over the place, and the showrunners and writers clearly made it up as they went along, but I found it utterly compelling. I loved the flashbacks and flashforwards and how they drove forward the plot whilst also allowing the audience to investigate each character in detail. I even quite liked the ending.
I hadn’t thought of Lost for years, but recently a friend has been rewatching it. He reached season 5, episode 3 (Jughead), when he spotted Desmond walking along a road that looked familiar. He asked on Facebook if anyone recognised the road.
The road did look familiar. The houses looked like Warner houses, which are only found scattered around Walthamstow and Leyton. I moved to Walthamstow in 2013 and for my first three years there I lived in a Warner home. The thought that Lost was filmed near me was a small but distinct thrill.
I found another photo of the scene, with a clearer view.
I did a bit of online research – there are a few websites that catalogue Lost filming locations. There were a handful of scenes filmed in central London where Alan Dale (who is still Jim Robinson from Neighbours as far as I’m concerned) was appearing in Spamalot. Aside from that it looks like the ‘London’ scenes were filmed in studio sets in America. There was certainly no mention of Walthamstow.
Then another friend chipped in to say that he thought recognised the road. It was Badlis Road in Walthamstow. That rang a bell – I had lived a few minutes away from there when I first moved into the area. However, my friend pointed out that whilst the street on the left hand side of the road was Badlis Road, the buildings on the right hand side were not. The gate and entrance don’t exist in real life. Presumably, they had been digitally added.
I looked at Badlis Road on Google Streetview and found the same angle from the Lost scene. It was almost certainly Badlis Road. The houses match up and you can identify the yellow brick building across on Forest Road.
Badlis Road, Walthamstow
I then scrolled back on Streetview to see what Badlis Road looked like in 2008 (when Google streetview started – this is a handy feature that lots of people don’t seem to know about.) The markings on the pavement on the right-hand side of the road match the markings on the road in Lost. So whatever CGI wizardry they used, they only superimposed the buildings/entrance on the right-hand side of Badlis Road – not the road itself.
And then a few weeks later I cycled up to Badlis Road to take a look myself. Could I sense some mystical Lost energy pulsating through the pavement? Was I cruelly thrust back in time? No. But it was interesting to wander the street in person and confirm that the scene was definitely filmed here. I enjoyed the small amount of detective work involved – I like that the Internet now gives you the tools to put together clues and collaborate find answers to questions, even if the questions are inconsequential. The solving of a mystery felt very Lost, even if Badlis Road is hardly The Island.
I’m still curious to know how they shot it all. There is a scene a minute or so later where you see Badlis Road from inside a house, and see traffic whizzing past. (the interior shots are inadvertently hilarious; they’ve modelled the house on a suburban American house, with large rooms and ample corridors, whereas actual Warner properties are notoriously charming but poky).
Desmond, with Badlis Road behind him.
Presumably they needed a London street and someone in a production team filmed some footage of Badlis Road, and then they weaved some CGI magic to add a gated house and Desmond. (If you happen to be a part of the Lost production team that worked on the episode and want to message me about the behind-the-scenes process, please do. I appreciate this is unlikely, but you never know).
Unrelated to Lost – Warner houses have a fascinating history. There’s a great little website telling their story and interviewing some of the original tenants. Take a look.
My dad was always more of a football fan than me; it came naturally to him – it was in his blood. He grew up playing on the streets of Buenos Aires and throughout his teens and twenties he and his brother Cacho would go to la Bombonera to watch Boca Juniors in every home game.
When he met my mum and moved to London he married into a family of Spurs fans. He kept alive his links to Argentine football by helping Spurs new-boys Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa settle in London (a story I will save for another day). Even after his marriage to my mum ended and he moved back to Buenos Aires, he would drag us on tours of La Bombonera every time we visited him. Often when I called him from London on a Sunday evening, he’d be listening to a Boca match on the radio.
Football didn’t come as naturally for me. I loved playing in the school playground and on a Saturday morning with school, but as a kid I never went to matches and I wasn’t bothered about club football; I never had that romantic scene of father and son cheering together on the terraces – I was too shy and too middle-class; I was happier tucked up in bed with a stack of comics. It was only when I started university life in Leeds in the mid 90s that I started following Spurs on a weekly basis. I began to realise that football was a way to make new friends and pad out flagging smalltalk – the cliché of football as a universal language is true.
And then over time, week after week, Spurs got under my skin. Managers came and went, we flirted with relegation and consistently underachieved. Bad results would ruin my weekends; last minute winners would have me swearing at the telly. And every so often we’d sign a Ginola or a Berbatov or a Bale and we’d behold… magic. (I should also point out that in 2003 I applied to be Spurs manager. I still have the rejection letter).
My dad was back in Buenos Aires and I was in London. For much of the last 20 years, before Facebook and Skype erased the distance, our relationship was restricted to a letter every few months, but football remained a small, tentative island of common ground. Over the years we rebuilt our relationship, and football was part of that. I remember talking excitedly to him when Spurs appointed Pochettino as manager; there was something so right about my club bringing in an Argentine, as though the stars were working for me and my dad. And Poch was great: warm, handsome, suave, clever and a brilliant manager. He made Spurs unSpursy. At least for a while.
And then in December 2015 my dad died. It was a sudden, violent death, and in that moment of trauma, everything in my life was smashed together. And in the weeks and months that followed, his death became fused with the fortunes of Spurs and Pochettino. It wasn’t quite as simple as me transferring my affections from one Argentine man to another, but it was hard not to cling onto Poch as I flailed around.
It was good timing: in the season after my dad died, Spurs threatened to win the title for the first time in 50-odd years (well, we never really looked like winning, but it was exciting to be leading the chasing pack) and when we finally blew it in the 2-2 draw with Chelsea I felt unexpectedly emotional. I hadn’t realised how much I wanted them to win it for my dad. But next season Spurs didn’t collapse. We just got better and better, and to my pleasure we added more Argentines to the squad. Here was the team that my dad and I supported (and my mum, bless her, who embodies the natural pessimism of the lifelong Spurs fan), full of Argentine players, playing magnificent football and tearing up the league. We didn’t actually win anything, but we were qualifying for the Champions League year after year and playing thrilling attacking football. We made it all the way to the Champions League final, but it wasn’t to be.
And then two days ago Pochettino was sacked. The team hadn’t played well for nearly a year, and Poch had looked irritable and distracted for some time but I was still gutted. It was the end of an era that felt like it had only just begun. And that’s a lesson life teaches you, I suppose: that the story doesn’t always work out the way it should. That you don’t always get the ending you deserve. My dad didn’t.
Spurs already have a new manager, and all eyes are on the next game. But right now, this feels less about football and more about a certain sadness. Another connection with the past is gone, and all those memories feel a little more distant.
I’m not quite sure why I’m writing this, or if anyone will care, but Twitter meant a lot to me and I feel like it’s worth writing something about my absence. It isn’t a very interesting story – more of an update than anything else.
I should point out that I didn’t mean to leave; I just thought I’d give myself the week off, and it’s turned into a very long week (my final tweet: “Twitter is no place for a human being.” wasn’t meant as a savage indictment of Twitter. It was just a slightly irritated tweet at the end of an evening).
I kept meaning to return, but as time passed, my life and Twitter headed in different directions. And when I’d peek in on Twitter, I’d see furious arguments and counter arguments about issues so microscopic that no-one I knew cared about them; whole memes and subcultures would rise and collapse in a day. It was dizzying. And the more time I spent away from Twitter the less appealing it became to have an opinion on every subject under the sun, and the more weird it felt to be some kind of Supporting Character in Twitter’s ongoing soap opera. I became increasingly uncomfortable with the idea that random strangers thought they knew me. I needed to spend more time being Greg and less time being themanwhofellasleep.
Part of the reason I stayed off Twitter was the disparity between my online life and my real life. On Twitter, I had 25,000 followers and could spend the day hob-nobbing with celebrities, but I was also a jobbing freelance copywriter barely making any money. And it became too easy to fill the long gaps between paid work by sitting around in my pants all day on Twitter. (In a parallel universe where I stayed on Twitter, maybe today I’d have a hundred thousand followers but regularly eat cold beans out of a shoe. I do like beans.)
So, what have I been up to in the meantime? I fled north London and moved in with my girlfriend in Walthamstow (yes, it’s about as close to north London as you can get whilst not actually being in an N postcode). I finally got a 9-5 job – as a copywriter in a creative agency; I have accustomed myself to a daily commute and making smalltalk in the kitchen. The job is fine, but I miss writing funny things.
It’s not all been easy. In 2015 my father and his wife were killed in a car crash in his hometown of Buenos Aires. That was hard, and I’m still dealing with it (or not dealing with it. I can’t tell). I could write hundreds of blog posts about it and probably not cover it all. It is a constantly shifting absence. On a happier note, I’m now a dad to a lovely three-year-old girl, which is as brilliant and exhausting as everyone says. In short, my life bears almost no resemblance to the life I had seven years ago.
The traditional narrative when someone leaves a social network is that they talk about how much better they feel. How their digital detox made them realise how much of real life they were missing. I don’t think that’s true for me. Or rather, it would be a gross oversimplification. In the absence of Twitter, I’ve spent much more time on Facebook, where I never quite know who I am supposed to be, and on Instagram, where I am spectacularly boring. My life is still a clutter of online personas – I’m just sticking to other social networks and keeping a more private profile.
Of course, it’s tempting to return, but when I look in on Twitter these days, it’s mostly horrible, and I don’t think my skin would be thick enough for it. I’m not going to say it’s bad for everyone – I know millions of people thrive there, but I’m not convinced it would do me any good.
Do I miss Twitter? Sometimes. I do think that I was very good at it (you are free to disagree). I’ve never found anything else in life I took to so naturally. My brain is better in short bursts than I am over long distances, and Twitter was perfect for that. My ego certainly misses Twitter; it’s very nice to spend the day bathing in the glow of retweets and praise. I miss being at the centre of things.
But In the last year or so, I’ve started writing for pleasure again; little micro-stories on my public Facebook page. Some are better than others, but there are one or two of them I’m really pleased with. At some point, I’m going to try to find some kind of hook or angle that wraps them together, and I’ll see if I can turn them into a book of very short stories. I’m still scrabbling around trying to work out what I want to say; I’m trying to be less dependent on humour and seeing what else will emerge.
I have no idea if I’ll ever return to Twitter. Maybe Twitter will change; maybe I will. I’d like to think this isn’t the end. But if it is, I’m proud of what I did with it.
I used to watch a lot of snooker. In the late eighties and early nineties, when Steve Davis and Stephen Hendry reigned supreme, and there were only four TV channels, and no Internet, I often found myself sitting in front of the TV on winter afternoon, glaring at BBC2. My dad likes snooker. When he arrived in England from Argentina, he hadn’t heard of the game, although he was obviously familiar with pool, but he grew to like it. After he moved back to Buenos Aires, he’d visit London for a month or so every couple of years and I have bittersweet memories of spending time with him, watching snooker. When I was a teenager, we would sometimes head down to a snooker hall near Wood Green; we never actually played snooker but we’d have a good few games on the pool tables. Whenever I visit him in Argentina, we wander 10 blocks from his apartment down to a dodgy little café in Boedo and play pool. It’s a typically old-school Buenos Aires café. The front room has a couple of ramshackle pool tables and the vast back room houses larger tables for pool and billiards and in between there is always a table of shabby middle-aged men playing cards. You never, ever see a woman enter the place.
I remember the first time I played snooker for real. I was at university in Leeds and there was a working men’s club a mile or so from our flat. I mostly went for the cheap beer and the occasional game of pool, but together with a flatmate I did play a few games of snooker. I was awed by the sheer size of the tables – a single frame might last an hour as we attempted to pot something; anything. Being short meant half the shots were impossible. Pool was more my style. Still, I may not have played much, but I watched a lot of snooker at university. There were fewer distractions back then. On cold, rainy Yorkshire afternoons when I had no lectures – or had skipped the lectures I was supposed to go to – I would lounge around the flat for hours, eating the crap that students eat and watching Ronnie O’Sullivan prowl around the table. Snooker took on an ambient role; always there in the background; silence punctuated by the cough of a spectator, the clunk of balls and the sensual whispering of a commentator (not John Virgo).
These days I try to watch snooker, out of a sense of duty or nostalgia, but I struggle. There are too many distractions. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, pornography, endless news sites. Certain sports seem incompatible with Internet usage; football slots in well with modern life; ninety minutes of high-tempo action can be a welcome distraction from The Internet. Even cricket works, as long as you accept that it’s a game suited to radio rather than TV. But somehow I struggle to get snooker to fit in. It’s not quite gripping enough to hold my attention and yet I find it distracting as background noise; it’s like working with the window open and being forced to overhear increasingly inane conversation. The players don’t seem as compelling either. I remember in the 1990s there was a “crisis” in snooker. There was the perception that after the heyday of the eighties, there were no longer any personalities in snooker. But I found the drab cast of Nigel Bond and Alan McManus and Stephen Hendry quite appealing; these days the game has younger, more dynamic players but I somehow find it harder to root for them.
Still, I’d always been quite tempted to watch some snooker live; but being lazy I never bothered. It was either in Sheffield (too far away) or Wembley (still too far away). So when The Masters moved to Alexandra Palace, a few minutes walk from where I grew up, I decided to seize the day and buy tickets for myself, my mum and my brother-in-law. I’ve been twice in the last two years, and it’s an odd experience. I suppose any live event, whether it’s snooker, football or a gig, is an odd event for me. I’m accustomed to watching sport on TV, where there’s an immediacy and intimacy that is (ironically) missing in live events. On TV, with its close ups and replays, there’s a sense that there’s a connection between you and the participants; that it’s just you and the “actors”. They are in your face, larger than life. Whereas watching in real life, you find yourself herded into an arena (snooker) or stadium (football) alongside a load of people you’ve got nothing in common with, watching from a distance as the drama unfolds without commentary or replays – without plot or structure or meaning. I remember going to the football for the first time as an adult, having not been for twenty-odd years and realizing that I was just watching a load of men running around, chasing a ball. On TV, every moment is captured, every second of drama paused and replayed; real life is magnified, slowed down and edited into drama. It’s a fiction, in the best sense.
I actually quite enjoyed watching the snooker live, but there was an disconcerting sense that watching it live was second-best to watching it on TV; it was just men wandering about, potting balls. It was like watching a local amateur dramatic society doing a theatre adaptation of Die Hard – I wanted the special effects and storytelling and thrills of TV, not the drab spectacle of real life. I suppose I have always secretly believed that things are only meaningful and important when they are on TV. I have a sneaky, unspoken desire to be an actor – to be onscreen, simply so that I can feel more real; more alive. I sometimes wonder if famous actors feel cheated when they watch themselves onscreen – that whilst their cinematic counterparts lap up the glory, they are still stuck in real life, having to watch from the shadows. Real life often feels like a prelude rather than the main event.
I think this stopped being about snooker some time ago. My mind wanders.
Last time I blogged it was about Harry Redknapp and whether Spurs would qualify for the Champions League. How time flies. As I write this, Spurs aren’t in the Champions League and Harry Redknapp is no longer the manager of Tottenham Hotpsur.
I’m still not sure how I feel. My last blogpost was all about Harry; about how he plays the media game, how he always looks out for number one, and always manages to shift the blame for his failures. You might think, judging by what I’d written, that I’d be happy Harry has gone. I’m not. I’m ambivalent at best. More than anything else, I feel disappointed. Disappointed because for all his faults, Redknapp was the best manager I’d seen at Spurs in a long, long time and disappointed because I think that had Redknapp and Levy both handled things differently, it could all have been avoided.
First of all, let’s take a look at some of the reasons Harry Redknapp is no longer Spurs manager. The obvious reason is that Spurs failed to qualify for the Champions League. In a normal Premier League season, finishing fourth would qualify a team for the Champions League. And at the beginning of last season, nearly every single Spurs fan would have settled for finishing fourth. But Spurs didn’t have a normal season. We spent most of the season in the top three, and for large parts of it looked like we could even challenge for the title (my apologies for using “we” for Spurs. It’s presumptuous and annoying but I do it anyway). And frustratingly, our fall out of the top three coincided with the long period of time in which Harry was blatantly touting himself for the England manager’s job – a position he clearly wanted (after leaving Spurs he admitted that had he been offered the job, he would have taken it). It became clear to all but the most blinkered pro-Redknapp fan that Harry had taken his eye of the ball. From the moment England manager Fabio Capello resigned, something wasn’t right at Spurs. In addition, it also became clear from April onwards that there was a slim but realistic possibility that Chelsea would win the Champions League and that fourth place would not be good enough. So, being charitable to Harry you could say that he took the team to fourth, which would normally qualify them for The Champions League. Being unkind, you could say that it was clear for some time that to guarantee Champions League football Spurs would have to finish third, and that Harry’s personal ambition badly hampered the team’s chances of achieving that goal. Would Levy have sacked Redknapp if the team had finished third? Judging by his quotes in the press, Harry thinks that he’d have been fired anyway, but I doubt it. It would have been Tottenham’s highest ever finish in the Premier League and Levy would have faced a revolt from the fans. And I also believe that for all Levy’s faults, he only ever does what he believes is best for Tottenham Hotspur. If he’s wrong, he’s wrong with the best of intentions.
But I suspect that the schism between Redknapp and Levy wasn’t really about the Champions League or Redknapp’s fondness for making indefensible statements to the national press. It was based on the fundamental differences in their approaches to football, which is what I’d like to focus on. Let’s take a look at Daniel Levy.
Daniel Levy is an excellent businessman, who has very sensible and progressive views on how to run a football club. He likes to balance the books and make sure the club is well run and cost effective. The club is in rude financial health, has amazing new training facilities, great sponsorship deals and is exploring a new, larger stadium. Levy has a clear long-term vision for the club.
Now, if you were a progressive young chairman like Daniel Levy, and you were in charge of a top 10 Premiership club, here are some things you might do:
You would install a young, dynamic manager (preferably one with European experience, who speaks a few languages and is committed to pretty football, rather than a horrible old English manager who likes long-ball football and drinks the wrong wines). This manager would be part of a long-term plan and would be in charge for decades. He’d leave a legacy of success. Think of Arsene Wenger when he first arrived at Arsenal.
You’d get a Director of Football. Directors of Football aren’t very popular in England, but on the continent they’re ubiquitous. They allow the manager to get on with coaching, whilst the DoF can flip through his massive rolodex and unearth hidden talent from New Zealand to Romania. No more buying overpriced players from Everton or West Ham! Now the whole world is your oyster. The Director of Football is the magical svengali who magics players out of nowhere.
You would buy young players with a high resale value, meaning that if they did leave the club, you’d have made a healthy profit.
You’d make the occasional big money marquee signing to send a message out to the big clubs that you’re a serious contender, and to reassure the fans that you’re willing to put your money where your mouth is.
You’d build a new, bigger stadium to ensure that money coming into the club through gate receipts actually covered the money the club is spending on players. The club would not be dependent on an Abramovich-style sugar daddy – it would be self-sustaining.
You’d build new, state-of-the-art training facilities so that the players were always fit and ready.
You’d invest in an academy so that rather than always having to buy expensive players, you’d have a constant supply of talented, home-grown players, proud to wear the shirt.
You would make sure that the club had strength in depth – that as well as having a strong first-team, there was a big enough squad of quality players to ensure that the team was always competitive, no matter how games and injuries took their toll.
If all that sounds familiar, it’s because – with the possible exception of the Director of Football – it’s essentially the blueprint that almost any young, ambitious chairman has when he takes over a football club. Whether it’s Newcastle, Aston Villa, Spurs, Chelsea or Liverpool, roughly the same promises are made. Even with clubs like Man City and Chelsea, who are plucked from relative mediocrity by billionaire owners, the same mantra is chanted: “Sure, we’ll invest heavily at first, but in a few years time the team will be packed with cheap, home-grown players”. Even disastrous chairmen who have led their clubs to the brink of bankruptcy (Hello Portsmouth! Hello West Ham!) start their tenures by repeating the same clichés about grass-roots investment, long-term financial stability, investment in local players and endless seasons of sunshine and happiness.
The blueprint above is brilliant. It’s full of sensible, progressive ideas that should lead to long-term success. The problem is this: the blueprint rarely works. Or rather, it works in parts, but rarely leads to the kind of success that is promised. And when it comes to Spurs, Daniel Levy has done an excellent job in reinventing the club, lifting the team out of the mire of 90s mediocrity, and making them competitive again; but the long-term stability and glory he craves still eludes him.
Let’s take a look at the managers that Daniel Levy has employed. When Levy took over at Spurs in February 2001, his first act was to get rid of George Graham. Graham was not popular with Spurs fans, but we won the League Cup under him, which should not be overlooked. But Graham had a few things working against him: He was always an Arsenal man. And he was old-school. He was never the kind of shiny, new continental manager that Levy fancied. So in late 2001 Graham was booted out and replaced by Glenn Hoddle. Hoddle was a Spurs hero and just the kind of young, progressive coach that Levy liked. He’d even played abroad! And for a short while it worked, but by September 2003 Spurs were once again in the relegation zone and Hoddle was sacked. Levy appointed David Pleat as caretaker manager for the rest of the season and set out to find a new manager who could rebuild the club from scratch.
In June 2004 Levy made his move. He installed Frank Arnesen as Director of Football (a position that was unheard of in English football) and made former French national team manager Jacques Santini his new coach. Levy’s sexy new modern Spurs were ready to roll! Spurs had money and a new continental-style set-up. What could go wrong? Everything. Santini was a disaster and left the club after just a few months. Assistant coach Martin Jol was promoted to head coach (This is important to remember. I maintain that had Jol been hired specifically to be the head coach, he’d have had more clout with the board and wouldn’t have been treated so shabbily and the end of his reign). Still, despite Santini’s departure, Spurs still had Arnesen, right? Wrong.
In June 2005 Arnesen defected to moneybags Chelsea. Levy’s grand plan for long-term success had come unstuck in little over a year. Arnesen was replaced as Director of Football by young, bespectacled Frenchman Damien Comolli. Levy continued with his vision of a Director of Football. Jol would take charge of coaching the team and Comolli would sit above him, signing and selling the players; indeed, it’s hard not to see Comolli as the personal embodiment of Levy’s dream. An articulate, intelligent, bespectacled, business-savvy, pan-European man – shave Comolli’s hair off and you’ve basically got Daniel Levy. The Comolli/Jol combination was a limited success; there were successful runs in the UEFA Cup but Spurs narrowly missed out on qualifying for the Champions League on the last day of the 2005-2006 season and never quite recovered. In addition, there were clear tensions between Jol and Comolli, with the former clearly unhappy with some of the players Comolli signed (I’m thinking of Didier Zokora here). Spurs were supposed to challenge for the Champions League in the 2007-2008 season but started badly. In October 2007 Jol was sacked, undone by the Spurs board. Comolli kept his job. Many Spurs fans felt that the wrong man went.
Still, Jol was history and it was an opportunity for Levy to indulge in his proclivity for progressive, continental coaches. The club hired Juande Ramos from Seville. Ramos, working with a Director of Football, had worked wonders for Seville. Here was a manager firmly in the Levy mould. He ticked all the boxes. How could he fail? To be fair to Ramos, he did lead Spurs to the League Cup in the 2007-2008 season but the club’s start to the 2008-2009 was disastrous. Two points after eight games looked like relegation form. So Levy did something unexpected…
In October 2008 Levy got rid of Ramos. He also got rid of Comolli, scrapping the beloved Director of Football post. He installed Harry Redknapp as manager. Redknapp was given money to spend and told to rescue Spurs. He did so. On the final day of the 2008-2009 season, Spurs finished in eighth position, just missing out on Europe.
The next season, Redknapp did even better, with Spurs finishing fourth and qualifying for the Champions League for the first time in their history. In the 2010-2011 season, Spurs defied all expectations, reaching the quarter-finals of the Champions League, beating Inter Milan and AC Milan along the way. Tottenham couldn’t quite match that form in the league, finishing fifth and missing out on another season in the Champions League. That brings us up to the 2011-2012 season, which is where we began, all those paragraphs ago.
So let’s take a look at how Harry worked during his time at Spurs, and how it contrasts with Levy’s philosophy. If Levy was always planning for the long-term, then Redknapp was always focused on the present. Redknapp was never interested in running a club; it was all about the first team.
Levy’s philosophy involved signing big names, but was really built on unearthing young gems and slowly developing them into first-team players. It was about ensuring success for the club at every level. In contrast, Redknapp appeared only really interested in players who were ready now, who could slot straight into the team. If that meant signing 32-year-old William Gallas or 40-year-old Brad Friedel, promising them huge wages and putting them straight into the team, so be it. Harry wasn’t worried about whether they’d still be around in a year or two, as long as they could do the job now. (Redknapp’s history of signing older, experienced players on huge, long-term contracts had a very unhappy ending for his former club Portsmouth. On the verge of liquidation, the club is still paying astronomical wages to players Redknapp signed. He should not be wholly blamed for this – it was the Portsmouth owners who needed to ensure the bills could be paid). Redknapp’s philosophy, certainly when it came to buying players, was always short-term. He wasn’t particularly interested in nurturing young talent or unearthing undiscovered talent. (It’s no coincidence that Tottenham’s most valuable players over the 2011-2012 season were mostly signings Redknapp had nothing to do with: Bale and Modric predate Redknapp and Van der Vaart was a deal brokered by Levy and delivered to Redknapp. Redknapp can take credit for Scott Parker, I’ll give him that).
Harry cared about winning games. He didn’t appear very interested in the youth team or the reserves (very few reserve players ever broke through to the first team and made Premier League appearances). He wasn’t interested in financial prudence. He was interested in who could slot straight into the first team and make a difference. It was an enormously short-sighted, unsustainable model. The only was problem was, largely speaking, it worked.
Conventional wisdom tells us that football clubs should build slowly, plan for the future, have stable management and invest in youth. The “Levy way”. But let’s take a look at which teams finished the 2011-2012 season with silverware. Man City won the Premiership with a team rammed full of ready-made, experienced footballers, all on huge wages. Aside from Joe Hart, the promising youth players of yesteryear were discarded. Chelsea started the season the Levy way, by hiring a promising young manager in André Villas-Boas and planning for long-term success. Then, half-way through the season Abramovich got nervous, sacked Villas-Boas, promoted Roberto di Matteo and reverted back to type. They then won the Champions League and the FA Cup with a team full of old, experienced, highly paid superstars. Chelsea and Man City didn’t win by being sensible, sticking by their managers, investing in youth and having a long-term vision; they won by spending shitloads of money on big-name players, whose egos and salaries were bigger than the manager’s. Football is a funny old game.
Redknapp’s last season with Spurs was an odd one. As I’ve said, Spurs finished fourth, which would normally constitute a success. They also finished with a hugely unbalanced squad, consisting of just one recognised striker in Jermain Defoe. (Redknapp had signed Adebayor on a one-year loan at the start of the season, had sold Roman Pavlyuchenko and replaced him with Louis Saha, also on a short-term loan deal). In addition, Redknapp’s focus on the first team meant that the rest of the squad appeared alienated and frustrated by their lack of playing time.
The bitter irony is that somewhere between Levy’s long-term planning and Harry’s understanding of what makes a good first-team squad, a good balance was achieved. Last season was the closest I’ve seen to Spurs actually winning the league. (From the very first game of the season I was thrilled to see Brad Friedel in goal – of all Redknapp’s signings, Friedel was my favourite. For the first time in years, we had a goalkeeper I totally trusted. He was a short-term solution, but he was marvellous).
Redknapp simplified Levy’s grandiose visions and delivered a winning team, and Levy kept Redknapp’s financial excesses in check and made sure the squad consisted of more than a load of pensioners. For four years, Spurs had a combination of chairman and manager that actually worked, which is why I feel so disappointed that Harry has left.
It also explains why I’m undecided about the appointment of André Villas-Boas. He ticks all the Levy boxes. He’s young, continental, progressive and has a long-term vision for the club. He’s everything that Harry isn’t. I want him to succeed. But in Hoddle, Santini and Ramos, I can’t help but think I’ve seen it all before.
As I type this, Tottenham Hotspur are fifth in the Premier League. With four games to go before the end of the season, there is a good chance that they will finish outside of the Champions League places. Indeed, it’s not impossible that Spurs will finish sixth, behind Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Newcastle and Chelsea. For a team that has spent most of this season in third place, and that was close to topping the table at times, this would a very disappointing end to the campaign. Whether Spurs finish third or sixth; whether the season is a triumph or a failure, only one man is really responsible: Harry Redknapp.
I’ve always liked Harry. Before he came to Spurs, I always admired the way his teams played football and the way he handled players, getting the most out of them. I wasn’t always fond of his wheeler-dealer schtick, but I liked his enthusiasm and irreverence. Since he’s been Spurs manager I’ve managed to take a closer look at him, and some of the shine has worn off. I still think he’s a good manager, although the last few games of this season will determine just how good.
Before I go any further, I’d like to clarify how I see the role of a football manager. It’s different overseas, where there is more of a director of football/coach set-up, but in England, as far as I am concerned, the manager is God. The whole identity of a club is determined by the manager. Obviously, a manager is limited by the finances at his disposal, but beyond that, he has complete control. The manager should be in charge of selecting which players to buy and sell, training the team (alongside coaches), selecting the tactics for each game, developing the players – both mentally and physically, man-managing each player so that they are used to their full potential, picking the team on the match-day and making tactical changes and substitutions when necessary. The manager should have a plan for the long-term, understanding their objectives for the season and how they will use their squad to realise those objectives. If that sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is. The manager has to take control. When Roberto Mancini was criticized for his handling of the Carlos Tevez affair, he found an unlikely ally in Sir Alex Ferguson, who backed the Italian and reiterated his belief that the manager remains the most important figure at a football club. Sir Alex Ferguson is a good example of how a football team is moulded in the identity of a manager. Players (and owners) come and go but every Manchester United team remains defiantly Ferguson. Even when the players aren’t great, the team still reflects Ferguson’s identity and embodies his desire for victory. Mediocre Man Utd teams regularly beat the best Spurs teams.
Harry Redknapp has been in charge of Tottenham Hotspur since October 2008. He has been in control of the team for nearly four years and has done a lot for the club. As he is fond of telling the press, when he joined Spurs they had 2 points after 8 games and were propping up the table. He has done well with the players at his disposal and has been backed in the transfer market when needed. The current Spurs squad is very much a Harry squad, composed of players he has brought into the club (Friedel, Parker, Defoe, Gallas, Adebayor, Saha) and players who were already at Spurs, but who who he has moulded into his style of play (Bale, Lennon, King, Assou-Ekotto). There remain a handful of players who Redknapp clearly doesn’t rate but who he can’t get rid of (Dos Santos, Bentley). But it is very much Harry’s team. When the team plays well, as it has done regularly over the last few years, it is due to good management by Harry, and when the team plays badly, it is because of bad management by Harry. That is how football works. Win, lose or draw, it is because of Harry.
When a team is playing badly and losing games, one of the mantras repeated by football fans and pundits is that the players have to take responsibility – that the manager can’t go out there on the pitch and play the game for them. This is a fundamentally flawed statement. Of course the players have some responsibility, but the ultimate responsibility always lies with the manager. It is his responsibility to pick the right team over the course of the season to ensure that players remain fresh, to ensure all the players understand their roles on the pitch, to motivate players and protect them from pressure, to inspire and lead them. If the players are nervous or tired or flat, this is a failure on behalf of the management.
Which brings us back to Harry Redknapp. One of the reasons I like Harry less now than when he first took over at Spurs is because I understand what motivates him. What motivates him is doing the best thing for Harry Redknapp. In many ways that is understandable, but it is an unedifying sight. I’ve watched countless post-match interviews with Harry and have come to marvel at how he deflects attention away from his own failings. When Spurs play against Man City or Chelsea Harry is quick to highlight how much money these clubs have and how Spurs can’t compete. When Spurs lose to Stoke or Norwich, Harry isn’t quite so keen to dwell on the financial disparity. When a player he brought to Spurs has done well, he will highlight how he had to persuade the chairman Daniel Levy to buy him (see Scott Parker). He ensures that when things are going well, credit goes to Harry and when things are going badly he manages to shift responsibility onto players or other figures at the club – he throws up his hands and claims that he is helpless. He has given almost no credit to Daniel Levy for ensuring that Luka Modric remained at Tottenham after the Croatian attempted to jump ship to Chelsea. In the recent slump Harry has often talked about the failings in the squad, whether it is tiredness or lack or height, as though he’s not directly responsible for those failings. He is the manager. He has been the manager for 4 years. If the players are tired or playing badly it is because he hasn’t managed them properly. If the squad is lacking depth in certain positions, it’s no one’s fault but Harry’s.
In some ways I don’t entirely blame Harry for the way he deals with the press – you don’t survive that long in football management by giving the media and fans enough rope to hang you with.
And despite Harry’s attitude irritating me, it hasn’t really upset me too much because over the last four years, what has been good for Harry Redknapp has nearly always coincided with what was good for Spurs. That all changed in February 2012. A day after Harry was cleared of two counts of cheating the public revenue, England manager Fabio Capello quit his post. Harry was instantly installed as favourite to replace him and a media campaign to appoint Redknapp as England manager sprung into action.
Of course, Harry himself refused to commit himself either way, because being Harry he wants to keep him options open. He could have issued a “come-and-get-me” plea and stated that he wanted the England position. He could have stated that he wanted to stay with Spurs. He did neither. He left as many doors open as possible. And almost immediately, Tottenham’s season turned to shit. Of course, according to Harry, the dip in Tottenham’s form has nothing to do him being linked to the England job. Because, according to Harry, none of his decisions ever have any negative impact on the team. Over and over he has stated that the players aren’t affected by the uncertainty hanging over the club, as though not knowing who the manager will be next season or whether your manager will even last until the end of the season won’t get into a player’s head. A lot of football is mental. The difference between a great player (Fernando Torres for Liverpool) and a poor player (Fernando Torres for Chelsea) is rarely physical. It’s an accumulation of doubts, fears, lack of self-belief and self-confidence. Players are affected by what goes on around them. Of course they are.
I’m not suggesting that Spurs’ recent slump is entirely down to Harry flirting with the FA. There are plenty more issues. But what unites all these issues is that as manager, Harry is responsible for all of them. As I’ve said before: this is Harry’s team.
Earlier in the season, when Spurs were 3rd and making an almost-credible push for the Premier League title, Harry Redknapp repeatedly stated that it was possible for Spurs to win the league – that the club had the players and resources to do it. I suspect, because I’ve heard it so many times before, that if Spurs do finish fifth or sixth, that Harry will swiftly rewrite history and claim that “we can’t compete with the Arsenals and Chelseas of the world” and that finishing sixth is a wonderful achievement. Because that’s what Harry does: he always paints a picture in which he is blameless.
I was thinking recently that Spurs need a leader: not a leader on the pitch, but a leader in the dug-out. Because no matter how good a manager Harry is, he isn’t a leader. Being a leader involves a certain degree of self-sacrifice. It means standing tall and taking responsibility for your actions. It’s not about being liked by the press or players. It’s not about jumping ship when an opportunity arises. It’s about committing to a cause and leading by example.
This article isn’t an attack on Harry. I still like him. I think he’s a good manager. Over the last couple of years Spurs have played some extraordinarily good football. He has done a lot for Tottenham Hotspur. But Tottenham Hotspur has also done a lot for him. Despite a potentially damaging court case hanging over him, in 2008 Daniel Levy gave him the manager’s job and the budget and support to succeed. It was this support that put Harry in the frame to be England manager. As much as Spurs owe a debt of gratitude to Harry, so he owes something to Spurs.
I hope that Spurs qualify for the Champions League. I hope that Harry Redknapp has the skill and experience to pick the right team for the remaining games, and the passion and craft to motivate and inspire the players to victory. I really do. And if he fails, I don’t want to hear his excuses.
Over the last few months, when I’ve been bored and there’s been nothing on Twitter to entertain me, I’ve drawn pictures of Spurs players. (Well, I trace photos of them, but I take enough liberties in the tracing that it doesn’t feel like total plagiarism)
I’ve been experimenting with a different style. Sharp and clean and angular, with lots of movement. I don’t know what I’ll do with them, but I enjoy them. Click on the pics for larger versions.
I have spent much of the last few months live tweeting Masterchef. This basically involves me watching a TV programme and writing a series of stupid comments. It has helped to pass the long winter evenings.
I like Masterchef. In culinary terms, it’s very much comfort food. It’s stodgy, predictable, formulaic and very enjoyable. It eschews the worst aspects of reality TV; the need to vilify ordinary people or dwell unnecessarily on mawkish backstories. Of course it’s personality-driven, but the touch is light and the focus remains as much on food as on the “journey”. It’s TV that is forgotten almost as soon as it is over, but that is no bad thing. I don’t want to lie awake at night thinking of burnt Thai fishcakes.
I don’t tweet every series of Masterchef – I only do it when I feel like it. I’m not paid to do it, so if it feels like an obligation rather than a pleasure then I don’t bother. I first started a few years ago, by accident. The show was on and I found myself tweeting about it, and realised that I enjoyed both the show and Twitter more that way. Fortunately my followers seem to agree and over the years I haven’t alienated too many followers by bombarding them with 80 tweets an hour that make absolutely no sense unless you are watching the same TV show as me.
My approach to Masterchef is to focus less on what is happening onscreen -because as I’ve said, it’s often very formulaic – and tweet my own imaginary version of events, bringing in time travel, murder, philosophy and writing my own dialogue. In doing so, I turn the contestants into caricatures. In my version of the show, the presenters, chefs and mentors are villains, heroes, sex objects, murderers, clowns and idiot savants. They are my comedy playthings and I use them as I will. In reality I know that Shelina isn’t a sex object, that Andrew isn’t a sentient field mouse and that Tom isn’t a dead-eyed psychopath.
My tweeting of Masterchef is a good example of how Twitter (or my experience of it) has changed. When I first started tweeting it, I had 1000 followers and none of the participants (other than early adopter Gregg Wallace) were on Twitter. I could tweet what I liked in the knowledge that it never got back to those involved – it was the equivalent of me sitting around in private with a group of friends, all of us watching together. But Twitter is now a part of mainstream culture, and both the presenters and half the contestants are on Twitter. When I tweet something silly or rude about one of them, it’s not uncommon that someone will retweet it and copy them in, meaning that they get to read what I am saying about them. I have no real problem with this as what I’m writing is so obviously cartoonish that I doubt it could cause any real offence. Even so, I worry about some of the tweets being taken out of context. A retweet pulls a tweet out of its natural context and places it into an environment in which it is easily misunderstood.
Still, I can’t have been too rude because I am now followed on Twitter by John Torode, one of the Masterchef presenters. This has probably softened my attitude somewhat. Nothing blunts the edge of satire like being accepted. It’s also changed my attitude in terms of how rude or cruel I am. As I’ve said, my humour tends to be cartoonish and I steer clear of direct insults, but the fact that the objects of my derision are now on Twitter is a good reminder that these are real people, with real feelings, and that there’s no excuse for being an absolute prick about them. Knowing that the contestants might well read what I am writing makes me consider what I put on Twitter and whether I want to take lazy potshots about someone’s face/hair/accent. When I see some of the hatred and vitriol heaped that is directed towards “public figures” on Twitter, it does make me question myself. Obviously, if you’re appearing regularly on TV you can expect some flack, but the levels of bile directed at some reality TV stars is horrible. They’re just people on TV. They aren’t murderers (note: I have no proof of this. Some of them may be murderers)
No mention of Masterchef can be complete without writing about the show’s lynchpin: garrulous fruit and veg man Gregg Wallace. When I first started watching Masterchef, I didn’t think much of Gregg. He was a comedy bald man, with dubious foodie qualifications, shouting a lot. But over the course of many series of Masterchef and Celebrity Masterchef and Masterchef: The Professionals, I’ve come to understand his role. He’s not there to be an expert in the traditional sense – that is why he is paired with a proper chef. He’s there as someone who knows a bit about food but is essentially an everyman and a cheerleader, there to revel in the food, dispense words of advice and occasionally utter a catchphrase. And he does it well. Many of my tweets focus on Gregg, because he’s the most obviously cartoonish person in the show, mugging up for the camera, spoon plunged deep in his mouth, eyes bulging in epicurean delight. In my parallel comedy universe Gregg is the deluded sun king, overseeing his court of follies. Of course, the reality is quite different. For the purposes of Masterchef I’ve started following him on Twitter and it turns out that he’s a normal person with the same concerns and vanities and self-awareness of anyone else. He seems to know that he’s seen as something of a loveable buffoon and accepts it as part and parcel of his job. I don’t know if I could ever be quite so relaxed about my public image, which is why I doubt I’ll ever have a career in TV.
Anyway, tonight is the final of this year’s series of Masterchef. I won’t be tweeting it as I have a prior engagement. I hope and expect Shelina to win, but I’m not too bothered anyway. My world of Masterchef isn’t really about who wins, it’s about using it as a starting point for my own imaginary ramblings. And in my imagination, I already know who the winner is.
My Masterchef tweets are all archived here. Looking back at them without the show playing at the same time, they make quite terrifying reading.
EDIT: It turns out that just before the final of Masterchef, The Times did a live webchat with the finalists in which they were asked if they read my tweets. It turns out they do. How odd. How lovely, and scary and odd.