September 16, 2005

Flow my years

I walked down to the Thames at lunch today. I was tired, tired from travelling to work, tired from looking at a screen, tired because it is Friday and my tiredness has been accumulating through the week. So I took myself across the Fulham Palace Road and picked my way though the edges of Hammersmith until I located the Thames Path and, with it, the Thames. It was a little muddier this afternoon than I expected, but it was the Thames nevertheless, carrying with it a quiet, an untroubled quiet which was what I had been looking for. The breeze was on the colder side of fresh, but there was still sufficient sun to compensate, allowing me to stay there, comfortably, admiring the Harrods Furniture Depository on the opposite bank to mine, or Hammersmith Bridge, eccentric in its park-fence green, linking the two.

Although there is traffic on the bridge, and with it the potential of speed, of rush, of reminder of the city and the world of work, it is slowed down by the bottleneck that the bridge represents - so it cannot hurry, as the river will not hurry. You feel safe there, on the bank, relaxed, released. Your eyes close and the wind laps, like the water laps against the bank, against your face. Time, and its oppression, no longer applies. People pass, but do not bother you. All is peace.

I walked back to the library a little later in a state of some bewilderment, having realised that, although I work just a few minutes' walk away, I had not been down to the river in all the time - four years in January - that I have been working here. Perhaps I had been there once, I reckoned. Certainly no more than that. Certainly not almost every day, as perhaps I should have done. I must have been sleepwalking, these past few years, to have missed it - to have not thought, often, shall I go down to the river today? Come in, go home, do the same thing in between - and then, when finally leaving, never know what manner of place it was you left. Never know the peace and quiet of the river. When you sleepwalk, you sleepwalk from restlessness. You sleepwalk because you never know the places one can rest.

How time does pass, more swiftly than the river. To the left, further down the bank, just at the furthest point still visible before the river bends away again, I could see Craven Cottage, where I first saw a match in February 1977, missing Rodney Marsh (if memory serves) because of a car crash the week before. I was there again eight years later when it was colder than I have ever been at any other football match (save one). My fingers were too cold to turn the pages of the programme: the wind that blew off the Thames that day was Arctic in its purpose, if not, quite, in its intensity. Whenever I have been to Oakwell - which is before it looked like this - it has rained directly in my face, giving me the option of either taking off my glasses and being unable to see the match, or leaving the glasses on and being unable to see the match without a set of windscreen wipers for my lenses. It is a punishment of a sort: I was there the same day as the riot in Trafalgar Square which put to death the poll tax. I must have been looking for peace and quiet back then too. I must have always been a sleepwalker. But Oakwell was just annoying. It was not perishing like Craven Cottage.

There was one colder day, I said. The Manor Ground played host once to an under-19 international between England and Denmark at a time when the clock on the Osler Road stand, obscurely, alternated between displaying the time, which we normally needed to know, and displaying the temperature, which normally we didn't. Except on this one occasion, when it showed a temperature of six degrees below freezing, that number being almost equal to the number of spectators who were able to stick it out for the whole match. They might as well have played it on the concrete floor of a warehouse used for storing frozen meat.

In professional terms, most of the players were never heard of again: it's a wonder any of us were heard again after that night. The supporters huddled: the players either shivered or ran around as frantically as they could. The clock, however, kept its normal pace, as unhurried, as measured as the Thames at Hammersmith.

It was only a couple of years later that it stopped, for reasons mechanical (and reasons financial, preventing its repair) rather than reasons climatical. By this time the football club was being run by a lawyer, who billed the club for his time, at an agreeable rate per hour, which he was able to sign off on his own recognisance. He was, therefore, in the happy position of being able to set his own rate of remuneration - and authorise his own payment - despite the fact that it was someone else's money he was spending and receiving.

I remember taking much exception to this arrangement and suggesting, at a meeting with supporters, that if he was to be paid by the hour than the payments should only be authorised provided they were measured and recorded by the long-stopped clock.


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