Monthly Archives: November 2016

Three swims

An enforced absence from swimming on the Heath coincided with a startling and prolonged plunge in temperature. While riding down Highgate West Hill day after day for a fortnight, often in chilly-lovely dawn sunshine I fretted about the effect this would have on the temperature of the water. It would be getting colder, and I would not be in it, so that when I got back into it I’d find it tough going.

So once the stitches were out the first thing I did was drive down to the pond and dive in. I knew it would hurt. It hurt. The water, which according to notices had gone down five degrees, bit hard. I must have looked like I was floundering, for the lifeguards came out for a closer look, then decided I’d make it back to the jetty in one piece even if my bodily extremities would be forever compromised. But it was done, and winter was back on, and I was free to keep going.

Four days later I returned, keen to reprise Friday mornings in the water. The run from Highgate tube up the hill to the village and then back again is sharp, and warms you just enough. This time the sun was just climbing over the trees leading down to the dog pond. The shock was less, but the raw feeling the same, and the odd sensation of being marooned in the far corner that strikes on cold days lingered. But getting out this time felt like the mental rebirth i had been looking for at the start of the week.

The following day I was back again, and feeling very much in the swing of things. The door, with MEN ONLY written on it, once again had the aura of a portal to another world, a gateway past which normal rules don’t apply. The conversation sounded like the 1950s, all quiet murmurs about literature and politics, all have-you-heard and don’t-you-think. And then in the water I was wonderfully alone, the sun higher and brighter, setting my path bright yellow, and offering fractions of warmth.

And this felt right and terrific, because from here I ran along to the cafe, to meet Imogen and Winnie, and we talked with smiles and red faces and felt fantastic, because we were here and Saturday’s should be here, and because it’s not mad if you do it because you love it and for that time you can see and hear and shout more than anyone who doesn’t.

Özil in Sofia

Sofia is the Hellenistic word and concept of wisdom. A beautiful word, it graces the embodiment of the divine on earth, Hagia Sophia in old Constantinople, and names the capital of Bulgaria. I’d never visited before, but this week was in town to watch Arsenal. That means a slightly different trip to a regular exploration: a day trip, with an early start at each end, limited time to explore, and a focus on football as well ferreting out Ottoman and Cold War era things to see and do.

I doubt Mesut Özil concerned himself much with Alexander Levsky Cathedral and Icon Exhibition in the crypt, nor pined for the forest stew cuisine and live beer on offer in a side-street mehane. But that evening in the National Stadium he pulled off something no-one there will ever forget.

A few years ago I was spellbound by Tomas Rosicky’s goal to settle a North London derby. Six seconds of sprinting from the halfway line to beat the advancing keeper. It’s my favourite Arsenal goal of recent years. But Özil eclipsed that in ten seconds of mesmerising skill, grace and magic on this night in Sofia.

The game had been exciting and still low-key in the first half. Ludogorets Razgrad, not exactly one of the great names in European football and shoed 6-0 in the reverse fixture in London had raced into a two-goal lead. Happy drunkards in the away section turned alternately angry and and then placated, yet rapidly getting cold and tired as Arsenal pulled back to 2-2 at half time.

The second half was pretty tepid, the falling temperature and mist rolling off Balkan hillsides not doing much to inspire, and we seemed to be heading for a draw.

In a flash everything changed. Mohammed Elneny’s instant pass sent Özil , not usually the player furthest forward, sprinting in on goal. The keeper came out, Özil stabbed an awkwardly bouncing ball upwards and over him, and as it spun to the ground he dropped his shoulder and nudged the ball to his left. He then feinted, accomplishing all of this in a second or two and sending two defenders to the floor, but flying in different directions. Now in space, after one more touch he swept the ball into the goal.

In the away end, a mixture of astonishment and delirium, and the moment was instantly shared with Özil who ran over to our section of the ground. A flare was set off, somehow, given the three searches carried out before coming in. I found myself yelling ‘you ***** beauty!’, standing on the back of two seats. I’m reading a book about the early history of football at the moment, which talks a lot about how football was not a passing game at first, with great skill in dribbling valued above all else. Those founding fathers, fond as they were of hacking away at each others shins, would surely have looked on in wonder that their basic game had reached the point where such a moment was possible.

Since then that goal and the moments before and after it have lodged themselves in the happy part of my brain, where they will long remain. Remembering it when getting up at 4am to catch the flight home puts as much of a spring in your step as is humanly possibly at 2am UK time.

Football, wisdom, wonder all in one moment. Simply wonderful.

Seaburn Beach

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I wanted to call this Roker Beach, but I didn’t go there. I liked the name and the connection with the old Roker Park, scene of a classic away trip in 1991. My friend Paul and I had taken the coach from London, a truly awful experience with hours of Roy Chubby Brown videos and flatulent fellow football fans, hoping to see Arsenal win the title. The match was drawn 0-0. We had stood in the tipping rain for two hours as Sunderland fans promised to tear us limb from limb outside the stadium. On the final whistle they performed a remarkable volte-face and decided instead they were our best friends. Six years later Dennis Bergkamp scored an incredible goal to settle an FA Cup replay. That rocking old ground is gone now but the name remains special.

Roker Beach wasn’t quite what I was after though. Continuing on to Seaburn I found it. A broad curve of sand reached out into a gentle sea, set on fire by the Saturday morning sun, huge and low in late October. Before arriving I’d half fretted about my bag and clothes while swimming, but the beach was so huge with only a few dog-walkers that distant fears, as usual, melt away in the moment. I strode past one walker into the sea, swam for a few minutes, mostly swimming into the golden water lit up by the sunshine, then retreated. The water was cold, but cold always passes. In fact, a couple of hours later the thermostat came on around my internal organs and I was boiling, high up in the away end at the Stadium of Light. Sunderland that morning, a town with such a beautiful name, something else for the soul.