Sunday, July 30, 2006

"We're blue without, can't do without, our dreams just won't come true without that certain thing called..."

... The Boyfriend manages both to have a most sumptuous cake, and scoff it repeatedly, in great greedy mouthfuls of fruit and sponge, dollops of chocolate and cream. Just as, though in a very different way, Clint Eastwood expertly treads that fine line between challenging genre cliches and yet indulging in them at the last as well (for example, and especially, the climactic shoot-out of Unforgiven), Ian Talbot's Regents Park Open Air Theatre production of Sandy Wilson's Fifties pastiche of Twenties musicals manages both to make fun and to joyously dive in...

The first rain of last week may have, typically, fallen just as we arrived for a pre-show picnic of Pimms and chocolate biscuits ("Skies may not always be blue..." indeed), but it held off for the performance - luckily for Summer Strallen and Michael Rouse, whose intricate, passionate and high-kicking dancing for "Won't You Charleston With Me" was one of the evening's highlights, and all the better for an unslippery stage...

The giggly girls of Madame Dubonnet's School For Young Ladies on the French Riviera, with their shrieks of flirtatious glee or comic shock-horror, had everyone grinning (well, almost everyone - Sir Trevor McDonald a few rows along looked rather serious and studious), and my three female companions delighted in mimicking the mannerisms all evening, all the way back to Euston...

And the songs, from one of the few major musicals I didn't really know much about beforehand, were just sparkling, especially the eponymous theme tune, the old lech's pleading "It's Never Too Late To Fall In Love", and the keynote "I Could Be Happy With You" (sung by clear-as-a-bell young belle Rachel Jerram as perfect Miss Polly Browne, and a less-impressive (though this may be due to the character) Joshua Dallas as her rather square-of-jaw, square-of-manner beau Tony Brockhurst.

They all play it oh-so-terribly-terribly straight - which only makes the whole show just irresistibly frivolous and arch enough - and tempting enough to ponder a repeat trip "Sur La Plage", at the Regents Park Riviera...

"Bye bye, birdie..."

So, goodbye Carrick, hello Zokora. Farewell Bunjevcevic, greetings Berbatov. So long Mido, maybe welcome back, er, Mido...?
And goodbye Chirpy - hello... Road Runner?

"Old" Chirpy was perhaps a little bland, but benign - a cheery, indeed chirpy mascot who you'd never catch brawling with rival pigs (a la Wolves' Wolfie) or snatching another mascot's oversized head and dropkicking it into the crowd (after the fashion of Swansea's infamous Cyril The Swan).

This "New" Chirpy, though, making his White Hart Lane debut for today's Tottenham triumph over the latest Italian "champions"...?

Well, he just looks rather glum and even evil...

This, however, is even more unnecessary and embarrassing. The whiff of weak lemon cordial seeps strongly from the screen...

Friday, July 28, 2006

"When the temperature goes right up, and the weather is sizzlin' hot - Mister Adam, for his madam, is not..."

'Cos it's too. Darn. Hot.

... so much so, that I merely smiled, nodded politely, then got off at the wrong stop the other evening, instead of spearing with a harpoon, plunging a wax-seal knife into the neck, rushing with a speckled swamp adder, or even simply bidding a terse "Good day to you, sir", when targeted on the Tube by an utter nutcase jabbering on about how the same man created both Sherlock Holmes... and Conan The Barbarian.

"Can't you hear me howl...? ... 'Cos I'm a damned dog..."

"Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"
- "To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."
"The dog did nothing in the night-time."
- "That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes.

(Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, "Silver Blaze")

Ah, if only.
An apology, to next-door neighbours and probably all within this particular postcode, for the nightly yelpings of family dog Franny, at half-hour intervals from dusk 'til dawn.
Even when she's been safely locked up indoors to stop her haring around the garden, she will insist on sticking her head out of the catflap and shriek away.
Can only say sorry. Certainly can't stop her, though not for the want of incessant, infuriated trying.
It's amazing there haven't been any complaints to the council. Surely it can't be too much longer until, onto the doormat, an Asbo arrives.
Yes, that would be an Anti-Social Barking Order. Again - sorry...

Monday, July 24, 2006

"Stop me, uh-uh-oh, stop me..."

Sometimes, it sits up just nicely for you. To wit, the witty opportunity to strike through the covers for four, to turn sharply and chip into the top corner from twenty yards (cf. Glenn Hoddle v Watford, 1983).

My brother and a friend were tonight discussing another, seemingly infinitely indecisive friend of their's, who was in a relentlessly on-off, on-again, off-again relationship with a girl called Carmen.

My helpful input?:
"I suppose, then, you might call him a - Carmen chameleon...?"

I'm here all week, folks.
Bring me your birthdays, barmitzvahs, huddled wedding masses...

Saturday, July 22, 2006

"Rip it up, and start again..."

I thought I'd be rather clever and "old-school" and make my new nephew a "Welcome home from hospital" poster by literally cutting and pasting together photos and bits of newspaper headlines from the day he was born.
Instead, the end result had the unfortunate effect of suggesting I'd kidnapped the baby and was now demanding a reward...

"A good walk spoiled..."

Wilde: "I wish I'd said that."
Whistler: "You will, Oscar, you will..."

It's just as much of a cliche to bemoan the ubiquity of an especially apt aphorism, as it is to simply repeat it bare, but, well, sod it - Mark Twain's verdict on golf is as oft-repeated as Tom Lehrer's on Henry Kissinger being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but sadly, simply, still it can't be bettered.

Though Brian Reade's rather more splenetic rant in the other day's Daily Mirror had its pleasures too, especially as a colleague at work appeared to be spending his whole working Thursday watching - and indeed enjoying - some hardest-core porn, such was his all-too-uncomfortably-apparent exhiliration.

Turned out it was just the BBC coverage of The Open - or as it should perhaps be termed, since it seems to irk golf experts so: The British Open.

This is perhaps the most turgid weekend of the sporting year. At least the Five Nations Championship, while a sturdily irritating rival, can't entirely overshadow the simultaneous football season to-ings and fro-ings on its five select Spring weekends.

Long, long after Twain took against golf - sadly, singularly failing to rid us, though, of this most soporofic of "sports" - Jasper Carrott righteously, rightly railed against golf on TV as "hours and hours of televised sky".

Even worse, though, is golf on radio - specifically, golf on Radio Five Live, sucking up entire daily schedules and almost - almost, almost - making you ponder whether Nicky Campbell's three daily hours of smarm are, after all, the worst torment the station's controller has to inflict upon us, dear humble listeners.

After all, it is Campbell's equal in bumption, Alan Green, who gets to call all the shots when a so-called "Major" comes crawling around. This, the man who recently, when preparing to commentate on the France-Portugal World Cup semi-fina;, snorted so contemptuously and condescendingly when a sportdesk colleague had the temerity to inform listeners of the result of a just-completed Wimbledon tennis men's quarter-final. (Though, perhaps my bias against the ever-divisive Alan was born when, as a shy student and Euro 96 volunteer at Villa Park's media centre, I stood shocked by his ferocious verbal assualt on an even more shell-shocked young reception assistant. Yes, those dread words "Do", "you", "know", "who", "I" and "am" may well have been heard. Several times...)

But golf is tedious enough in its most basic forms, regardless of wider-world coverage. I've tried progressing from the crazy (crazee?) golf circuit to the shooting range to a proper countryside course - and not-quickly-enough back again, pining - and yawning - for more worthwhile pursuits than what is, really, when you come down to it, merely a good walk sp---....

My all-voyeured-out colleague did, upon close of play the other day, what all such enthusiastic amateurs will do at least a few times every week - select an invisible club proffered by a just-as-invisible caddy, peer into middle-distance (well, past the secretary's desk and at least as far away as the ad sales department), then swing with flailing arms, pursed mouth and tunnel-vision eyes with frank disregard for the bearing and bemusement of passers-by.

Hmm. Yet with what scorn would I surely be seen, as a workshy liability, were I to waste crucial time by executing a few spectacular scissors kicks across the office, in the queue at the cafe - or by sauntering up the staircase to our department like Bobby Moore ascending Wembley's 39 old steps to collect the World Cup trophy, fists clenched in quiet triumph...?

Okay, there are times when it's hard to resist.
But I do, at least, keep my imaginary off-spin to the confines of my own home, with a wastebin as the wicket.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

"Little darlin', the smile's returning to their faces..."

You only enter this world the once, so might as well milk it...

The newest member of our humble clan finally emerged blinking into the light this evening, after 38, count'em, 38 hours of nerve-jangling and no-doubt eye-watering labour for my sister-in-law Vicky.

But eventually, she became a mother, my brother Noel a father, my parents grandparents - and myself an enraptured uncle to young master Harrison David (after my mum's maiden name and her brother, rather than Beatle George but we'll happily take that one too, 'here comes the son' and all...)

Unfortunately just as I was about to head out of the door and towards UCL Hospital to clap eyes on him for the first time, we were told all visitors were being kicked out for the evening, leaving new folks and new-born to hopefully enjoy a well-earned night's rest.

Well, that seems fair enough - I'll just have to endure what will doubtless seem a too-long day at work tomorrow first.

Hello there, Harry - the fun starts here...!

Sunday, July 16, 2006

"But the poet of them all, who will start them simply ravin', is the poet people call..."

"... the Bard of Stratford-on-Avon..."

What better way to while away a scorching hot Saturday afternoon, than in possibly London's finest park, enjoying certainly Britain's finest open air theatre - an annual birthday tradition of the family, to savour a picnic and a play amid the lushness of Regents Park.

Never mind that The Taming Of The Shrew is up there with A Midsummer Night's Dream and Twelfth Night in the trilogy of Shakespeare plays I must have seen most often - dozens and dozens of times, indeed, although maybe it just seems that way thanks to extended school and university studies of each one.

Or simply the repeated enjoyment of Kiss Me, Kate - not the middling BBC sitcom starring Caroline Quentin and the not-yet-infamous Amanda Holden and Chris Langham, but the perfect confection of Cole Porter, alongside the below-mentioned Cabaret a contender for the oh-so-prestigious "Aidan's Favourite Musical" award, time immemorial...

The Shrew is, and indeed was again today, a delight - this one set in 1930s small-village Italy, with incidental Godfather Waltz-esque music (frequent viewings and reviewings of Michael Corleone's trips to Sicily were clearly essential research for the producers), smart-casual rags, the piled coils of women's hair, and the floppy fringes of their sloppy suitors... At times it seemed this was a Shrew with the volume turned down lower than usual: Sirine Saba as Katherina was a good deal less fearsome and freakish, shrill and shriekish than in some other portrayals, even a little frumpy in comparison to winsome Sheridan Smith as Bianca - the most familiar face on stage thanks to her roles as Anthony's girlfriend in The Royle Family and less-loved central characters in Grown-Ups and Two Pints Of Lager And A Packet Of Chips. Yet though she threw in a few good facial expressions, petulant frowns here, coquettish simpering there, she was too often just too inaudible - and too bland.

Luckily John Hodgkinson as Petruchio was as dominant as an audience would want and expect. He was a brilliantly incomprehensibly army officer - among other parts - in the same stage's production of Oh! What A Lovely War a few years ago, and the stern military bearing and bravado was here again apparent. But there was a little added depth as he combined tales of his recent martial swashbuckling with a black mourning sash around his arm and moments of reserve as he noted his father's recent passing - or took sudden swigs from his hipflask before facing the shrew he was to tame, not entirely from mere drunkenness, but for strength and self-support...

I think when I discussed the play in a rambling university essay, I followed a predictably right-on student line as to the jarring sexism of the ending, yet I suspect that was merely because it felt the easiest argument to make at the time. In fact, the sheer lengthiness and over-indulgence (and self-abasement) of Katherina's "I am ashamed that women are so simple, to offer war where they should kneel for peace" speech just doesn't seem to bear much of a serious moral code when acted out in front of you. Petruchio's eventual response, "Why, there's a wench - now come on and kiss me, Kate!" suggests he is as admiring of Katherina as she at last is of him - and this production really does emphasise the affectionate, affecting love story that does develop between the pair, albeit from rickety, raucous beginnings. The simple choreography of the final moments, as they trip off to bed to the dazed wonder of the wedding party, then finally emerge above in a delicate embrace - this was love with a light and tender touch after all.

Now, where can I find me one of those myself...?

Petruchio's final sign-off line was one of many moments when, thanks to the Cole Porter play, my musical-enjoying mind was half-expecting a melodic flourish to kick in - as when Petruchio earlier declared "I've come to wive it wealthily in Padua", or the very first lines of this Christopher Sly-less production: "Signor Baptista...!" / "Gentlemen, importune me no farther,/For how I firmly am resolved you know;/That is, not bestow my youngest daughter/Before I have a husband for the elder..."

Except this time there was no sighs from Bianca of "Ah, me..." as a cue into the joyous "Tom, Dick and Harry", one of several songs from the show to have quite stunningly arch levels of filthy innuendo... Especially for a 1948 original, anyway. (See also "Brush Up Your Shakespeare", eg "If she says your behaviour is heinous, kick her right in the Coriolanus"/"If your baby is pleading for pleasure, let her sample your Measure for Measure"/and so one-track-mindedly on...)

The 1953 film version of Kiss Me, Kate - starring Howard Keel, Kathryn Grayson and Ann Miller - was ruthlessly, prudishly cut to avoid giving any offence, hacking these wonderful songs in half. I much prefer the straight-up film of the 1999 West End rival, when Rachel York in particular is frighteningly extravagant and raw, certainly so in the beautiful-melody/truly-curs'd-tongued-lyrics of "I Hate Men" ("If thou shouldst wed a businessman: be wary, oh be wary - he'll tell you he's detained in town on business necessary [derisive cackle] - his business, is the business, which he gives his sec--re--ta--ry...")

In rather stark contrast, I reviewed a semi-am-dram production at the Worthing Pavilion Theatre a few years ago which was predictably, if still disappointingly much, much inferior. It would have helped had the two female leads not been notably (or at least, apparently) about 15 years elder than their male counterparts. And had the Lilli Vanessi/Katherina character not delivered the above song as if it was titled not "I Hate Men", but "I Occasionally Feel Just The Mildest Bit Miffed By Men". Overall, for such a racy play, the stolid citizens of West Sussex produced a Kiss Me, Kate which was just "Too Darn... Tepid".

Today's show had its slight disappointments, the two female leads' mildly-underwhelming performances aside. For such a lovely setting, always an evening joy for pre-performance picnicking and post-show guttering-candlelight lingering, the matinee slot seems a more rushed affair. This meant doors to the theatre area were not opened until half-an-hour before the start, forcing all to squat with their picnics outside (albeit still, er, in the wider park, of course...) Then, no-one was allowed to stop afterwards for a coffee but be rudely, rushedly ushered out onto the streets by the stewards... Oh, and by far the most annoying were the incessant blasts of live music from an Australian festival elsewhere in the park, strangely suddenly rising and falling in volume as if someone kept on opening a door, but still causing quite an irritating intrusion into such a well-established (and expensive) fixture as the theatre... Maybe a case for at least cutting the price of matinee, as opposed to evening, tickets to take such circumstances into account...

Ah, but anyway - the on-stage vim of this Regent's Park production is a reasonable restorative, albeit without, of course, the gangsters, songs and risque lyrics. Just risque blank verse from that Bard of Stratford-on-Avon himself.

"Brush up your Shakespeare,
Start quoting him now,
Brush up your Shakespeare
And the women you will wow..."

Or else, of course, "kill a wife with kindness" - or alternatively, "curb her mad and headstrong humour".

Hmm - so...
Back to the First Folio I should go...

Thursday, July 13, 2006

"Goodness gracious..."

Laziness can sometimes, somehow, be the best policy... eventually.
A few months back, in a slough of anxious despair over my lack of progress in my trying-to-finally-be-an-adult attempt to (half-) buy my first property, I momentarily pondered going back to one of the only options on the slowly-moving list: a creepy cubbyhole across the road from the Red Lion and a meagre few millimetres upstairs from Chicken Cottage in Barnet High Street.

Such obvious poverty of prospects actually almost threw me instead into the welcoming, yet still dubious, embrace of a new development down the road - and across the North Circular - in Colindale, an admittedly-smart set of new apartments yet with the built-in disincentive of being in, well, Colindale.

Still, beggars can't be choosers, and it was still North London, within Barnet borough borders indeed, and I was tempted enough to ask about, and promise to attend, the crucial open day. Which, sadly, fell on a Saturday. Of a Spurs home match, but that rather proved beside the point since I could get along there bright and breezy and early that same Saturday morning.

Except I, obviously, didn't - a few drinks the night before making for a few extra hours in bed the next morning (and early afternoon, even, I dimly recall...)

So, Colindale went as casually wasted as myself, and so for a few more months I had to wait and wonder whether I'd frittered away one of my most likely sites. But, no, I should be wending Woodside Park way any day now.

And the smart and swanky Colindale setting...? Oh dear:

As that sage Homer once said: "Alcohol - the cause of, and solution to, all life's problems..."

"Who's gonna shoe your pretty little foot...?"

What a shame - had I learnt earlier of such a precious product, it would have shot straight to the top of my birthday wishlist, yet remains sadly stymied by the frustrating 28-day delivery longueur.

But still - do order a few yourself.

After all, if you're looking for excellent value for money, surely you can look no further than this.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

"Gluecklich zu sehen, je suis enchante..."

Timmy Mallett's wasn't the only word association game.
Ever-instinctively, there are certain phrases that, once heard uttered, I can't help but parry with a set reply.
Some are merely repetitions. Others are script-repeating hack-copies. Others are a little more lateral.
But, anyway. As I've said here before, my dad can't hear the word "puffin" without, self-indulgently, others-annoyingly, exclaiming: "One thing about the puffin, almost tickles me to death - he always is a puffin - but he's never out of breath..."
A Danny Baker show once entertained a caller who, entirely sensibly, could never hear a football commentator exclaim, "Ole Gunnar Solksjaer" without unthinkingly retorting: "Lah-di-dah Gunnar Solksjaer..."!
My brothers and I, similarly sitcom-rifling, can't hear, say, a parent suggesting "How convenient" without twisting it back, indignant Homer-esquely...
And whenever I'm at the bar, especially with ancient best buddy Nick, and what everyone might want is being asked, one of us is sure to Alan Partridge-ly ponder: "I will have... a pint of BITTER..."

Sad and unnecessary, I well well-know...

But these word-association instincts are something I've been pondering, since just about every train journey in Germany, when the overhead announcer would oh-so-politely invite the attention of: "Meine Damen und Herren..."

... and every single little time, I couldn't help but hear in my head the corollary: "... mesdames et monsieurs - ladees unt gentlemen..."


"Comment ca va? ... Do you feel good? ... Ich bin eure Konfrenzier... I yem yer host - und sagen..."

Wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome indeed. Cabaret is coming back to Britain, a West End production opens in September, and I just can't wait.

Cabaret as a musical is as different from the film as both are from the original Isherwood books - say, the infamous Sally Bowles is just a relatively-minor chapter character in Goodbye To Berlin, and a jolly hockey sticks English bloomer in the stage-play before she and her American writer counterpart swap nationalities for the iconic film... (dropping, with them, the rosy-red-cheeks golly-goshness of "Perfectly Marvellous" and "Don't Tell Mama", with its late-verse hint at the movie's risqueness with such revelations as "You can tell my uncle, here and now, 'cos he's my agent anyhow" or "You can tell my cousin, that ain't grim, 'cos if he squeals on me I'LL SQUEAL ON HIM!"...)

The movie soundtrack seems to have been a constant in my life since pre-teen years, when it was one of the cassettes on constant rotation in my parents' car - gratifyingly alongside my other future-taste-determining tapes as The Beatles' "Rock And Roll Music Volume One" - so from the age of about ten I had Cabaret almost entirely off by heart.

Yet it wasn't until, I think, the mid-twenties that I finally watched the film for the first time, even after seeing a stage version at the Chichester Festival Theatre, starring as Sally Bowles the young woman who made a sudden name for herself as the young actress who (very frequently) stood in for Martine McCutcheon in My Fair Lady.

Then, not long after, I accompanied a friend to an early-morning showing, again in Chichester, but this time in their olde-worlde cinema, albeit only after the brass tributes had been blown outside on this 2002 Remembrance Sunday.

Surely the creepiest, most spine-tingling and heart-racing of horror films can’t achieve quite so unsettling an effect as the final bars of Cabaret the movie, the slow, faint Nazi inflections suddenly somehow implicated the viewer/voyeur?

Obvious comparisons can be made with the other Fosse masterpiece, yet only recently done-for-silver-screen Chicago, an utter joy to watch yet played for laughs, whereas Cabaret seems played for leers. While Richard Gere’s lawyer is domineering presence in the latter, all swaggering and swish, Joel Grey’s Emcee seeps through the former, somehow sinister even when at his most ludicrous…

Perhaps the one complaint I have against Cabaret is that Liza Minelli is, well, just too good. Sally Bowles is, I suppose, supposed to be a bit of desperate, deluding hoofer – yet Liza just dominates, enraptures, looks every millimetre the certain star. Her Mein Herr, a top hat and chair her only accompaniments, is simply exhausting to merely watch – much like Catherine Zeta-Jones’s breathless performance in Chicago of “I Just Can’t Do It Alone”, yet somehow, unbelievably even more physical and draining…

But, while I somehow find myself improbably humming the song itself “Cabaret” in the Tesco car park, the simply spine-chilling moment of moments in the movie is “Tomorrow Belongs To Me”, that beautiful hymn of hmmmm-ness, echoing up originally from the purest of pure voices yet unfolding itself into an evilly irresistible Nazi power-anthem before you’ve yet known it…
And the most affecting face of the film? Amid the soaring, ever-for-now-believing Frauleins, and the boys playing at soldiers, and the stern-looking leaders, you the complacent many-years-on and full-of-assumptions audience gets a glimpse of an old man, putting down his mug, suddenly and utterly disgusted by this new verve yet resigning himself hopelessly to this all-changed era, out of which he hopes soon to sink…

And yet, and yet...

While in Berlin, I saw plenty of well-to-do theatres, cabaret clubs with champagne-quaffing queues outside in the sunshine for as long as they really, really could…

Yet no Kit-Kat Club. Back to the Isherwood I go. Back to the seedy CDs. Back to the bookings.

Well – after all:

“So – life is disappointing?
Forget it.
In here – life is beautiful.
Zer girls are beautiful.
Even zer orchestra – is beautiful…!”

Go ahead – ask Helga.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

My World Cup runneth over.
I'm all football-fatigued.
I feel well and truly Weltmeisterschaft-ed.

While I hope bits of "real life" have been sprinkled here and thereabouts during my last month or so of blogging, "normal service" should be resumed here shortly.

You have been warned, oh dear, dear, loyal reader(s)...
Nope, maybe I was right the first time.

"And I'll take a high dive, some day I'll never land..."

My voting slip, handed in half-an-hour before the deadline, opts for giving third place (one point) to Germany's Miroslav Klose, second place (three points) to Italy's Andrea Pirlo, and first place (five points) to Italy's Fabio Cannavaro.

That loud scratching sound you may have heard shortly before 10pm BST was caused by several hundred journalists simultaneously scoring a thick line through the words "Zinedine Zidane".

Cannavaro should now be a shoo-in, though Fifa's awards can still surprise.
A form just handed round the media centre reveals "The Most Entertaining Team award presented by Yahoo!", for the side "which has done the most to entertain the public with a positive approach to the game", goes to... Portugal.

Well, acting counts as a branch of entertainment, I suppose, but still...

"None shall sleep..."

That moment that finally made the final worthwhile.
After a disappointly mediocre match, a subdued crowd more keen on jeering than cheering, the unhappy shoot-out having to break the stalemate, and the disaster of a departing legend going loco – there’s an almighty tingle as Fabio Grosso’s ball blazes into, almost through, the back of the net and the split-second of realisation suddenly surges: the World Cup has just been won.
Abruptly, the air is filled with pumps of orchestral pomp – glitter and gunpowder shoots upwards into the Berlin sky, showers down on the German grass – darting figures leap, skip, dash and dart maniacally back and forth and nowhere and anywhere, while their lighter-shirted counterparts slump, each in their own loneliest daze – and scurrying, single-minded stewards stream from every entrance, hauling contraptions and shards of a stage, duties to perform upholstering this most emotional of performance art.
Football – the most seriously frivolous thing in town...?
Why, with all the world’s cares and crises put safely out of sight and out of mind, can instead all glorious life seem briefly to sit inside this collision of architectural form and era – the Olympian grandeur (and folly) of Hitler’s Olympic Stadium, all unnecessary columns but all-devouring stands topped off by a bathetic, plastic-looking modern rooftop, a cut-away at one end opening the monster’s mouth towards the city and civilisation beyond, an empty Olympic flame’s seat tonight successively occupied by Toni Braxton, Il Divo, some wackily-outfitted escapees from what seemed a tiresomely-gurning performing arts institute, and then Wyclef Jean and the ever-mesmeric Shakira, all melody sadly swamped within one thudding, muddy pound of artificial drums.
Well, well, why...? I dunno – but I know I didn’t want to leave, staying even for and beyond the inevitable turgid We Are The Champions, and being rewarded for such perseverance by the equally inevitable, infinitely more emotive Nessun Dorma, as player of the tournament, ultimately-vanquishing Italian lion Fabio Cannavaro could no longer keep his granite features quite so impassive anymore, and grinned, just grinned...

Right team, wrong performance. Sadly this was far from the classic final called for, these two occasionally-expressive yet more-often-impenetrable European powerhouses managing to cancel each other out, across the pitch: Gennaro Gattuso sticking close to Zinedine Zidane, or perhaps France happy to force Gattuso back not forwards; Cannavaro allowing the forlorn-in-a-French-shirt Thierry Henry no time to turn; Francesco Totti barely getting a coherent kick thanks to the French back six...
Ah, but Zidane - Zidane, Zidane, Zidane... Un plus nincompoop, ne c'est pas?

Having started the tournament so badly, then returning in such style, here he managed to end at his worst. Not just the match, or the tournament – but his great playing career.
"Outrageous" – one of those words so easily-over-used, like "fantastic", or "sensational", or "absolutely", absolutely.
But tonight, he really was. No longer simply, outrageously talented. But outrageously audacious, with the cheekiest of chipped penalties to – just about – give France an early lead. And two hours later, just outrageously stupid, to hurl the meatiest of headbutts into the chest of involved-in-everything Materazzi, finally "earning" Zizou a long-delayed red card. His final contribution on a football field – that same head that powered those two World Cup-winning headers into the St Denis net back in 1998, now making an irredeemably savage contribution to another, sadder final.
Silly boy – and, with the World Cup’s dirtiest player Henry (I’m only going by Fifa facts, honest...) having just preceded him off the pitch, albeit replaced by a substitute, France were without their two totemic playmaking presences not only for the final minutes, but also the do-or-die shoot-out. When everyone hit the target – except for David Trezeguet, golden-goal match-winner when these met in the Euro 2000 final, who this time merely hit the bar. And unlike Zidane’s earlier ‘normal’ penalty, this one would only, tantalising bounce the wrong side of the line…
So, having stood and dawdled, each alone on the pitch an hour before kick-off, those two American-comedian-(sort-of-)-resembling managers, Marcelo “Larry David” Lippi and Raymond “Eugene Levy” Domenech, again trod the turf even after their players had departed down the tunnel: Lippi no longer with hands jammed in pockets, but arms raised in triumph – Domenech standing stolid and silent, those Sam The Eagle brows barely twitching but the eyes rolling over the celebrations so nearly his own.
And so now for me, time to trudge back to boring reality – after tomorrow’s long drive back to Blighty, picking up those dull, put-off duties of moving home, hunting for a new job, and even – ulp – later this week entering the final dread year of my twenties...
But what a distraction this has been, England’s embarrassments and tonight’s mixed emotions aside...
The World Cup: it really doesn’t matter. But that just makes it matter more…
But each one must end. As a commentator once famously said, as he drew down the curtain on one more World Cup final...

... "Das Spiel ist aus!" (Well, it makes a change from the usual one...)

"On the 31st floor, your gold-plated door won't keep out the Lord's burning rain..."

"The construction of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church is making such very good progress, the ignorant populace never cease to be amazed."

How charmingly-put by architect Franz Schwechten, writing in 1894 of the stately centrepiece of a vast church-building programme, lofted in unbashful tribute to the late Kaiser Wilhelm I on the orders of his grandson Wilhelm II.

And yet, after being battered by Allied bombs in 1943, the still-just-about-standing ruins have been transformed into a symbol, not of vainglory, but of humility - a ravaged reminder of the horrors of war, set in a self-sufficient square at the tip of the department store-dominated Kurfurstendamm.

The "broken tooth", as it's now nicknamed, is quite a sight - more raggedly beautiful now than in its once-epic glory, pictured in stills which suggest a neo-romanesque masterpiece suddenly plonked in lonely yet awesome isolation on a roundabout.

Inside stands a tiny, gleaming cross gifted by the similarly ill-fated, similarly defiant Coventry Cathedral - while the same cathedral has donated a cross made of nails to the now-next-door squat, decahedronal "replacement" church - where iris-dazzling cyan streams through tiny squares of stained-glass, and a grim-eyed, golden Christ tips awkwardly above the altar.

The brief must have been: build something as different as can be, from what once stood - now totters - alongside. The effect of both is unnerving - yet touching too.

"Tonight the bottle let me down..."

Long-gone England, Brazil and Argentina seem to be represented still in Berlin only by the dregs of replica shirts and scarves left on sale in everything-for-a-euro superstores.

While I picked up a couple of tasteful(ish) WM2006 mugs, and a fascinating book (in helpful English and educative German) about East Berlin, the departed team souvenirs sat on shelves alongside bottles of wine that looked about as unappetising.

Yes, that's bottles of wine costing one solitary euro apiece - or about 70p.

Surprise surprise, I wasn't quite tempted to try - though I suppose the "wine" might at least go well on chips.

"But still the memory stays for always, my heart says danke schoen..."

Bad news from Berlin: thunderous monsoon-like downpours meant an open-air concert by musicians from 2010 hosts South Africa had to be cancelled.
Even worse – a James Blunt gig in the same city’s adidas "World Of Football" still went ahead.
But even his wailing went largely ignored as jubilant Germans seemed inclined to insist: third place is the new first.
From the Brandenburg Gate to the suburbs on the outskirts, from Saturday night’s final whistle to last night’s kick-off, this was a German party.
The stray clusters of Italian shirts or French tricoloures stood out shyly as tolerable impertinences.
Meanwhile the smoke smothering Berlin’s trendy Kurfurstendamm shopping drag wafted from makeshift fireworks.
But it seemed to have been sent all the way from Stuttgart and the ‘little-final’ third-place play-off.
Jurgen Klinsmann and his squad would follow, to lap up the rapture of 500,000 fans crowding the tumultuous "Fan Mile" this morning.
But not before Chancellor Angela Merkel, a pudgy Anne Robinson lookalike, had led that lop-sided awards ceremony in Stuttgart, a World Cup Weakest Link.
Germany - you win a set of shimmering bronze medals, a fireworks-and-lasers light fantastic, and the adulation of a nation.
Portugal – you leave with nothing. Goodbye.
Just one long month ago, the sight of swarming German flags and sound of soaring German anthems kicked off as many anguished national debates as they did backyard five-a-sides.
Yet this weekend there was no embarrassment at all as the Klinsi-inspired masses gridlocked the streets in celebration.
The odd alienated non-football fan would here and there give themselves away, by attempting a panic-stricken 27-point turn in search of a rare empty alleyway.
Strange, this European instinct to mark a footballing triumph, not by hitting the bars to get tanked up, but heading to their cars and tooting horns until tanked out.
Paris and Rome must both be on red, amber and green alert tonight, as both sets of blues duke it out here in Berlin (though France will be in white again tonight, as they have been for much of the tournament - even against port-red-clad Portugal. Surely the black-and-white-TV-viewing public isn't large and influential enough to have insisted "Allez les bleus" be replaced by "Allez les blancs"...?)
Ah, but anyway - the Germans have got in there first with the revelries.
Newspaper headlines and adverts are today proclaiming the German side Diana-sickly-style "Weltmeister unserer Herzen""World champions of our hearts".
As JFK might have said: "Wir sind alle Berliner" – and I don’t mean small, sticky doughnuts.

"And now, the end is near, and so we face the final curtain..."

Members of the media have until midnight to vote for Golden Ball winner, the best player of the tournament (in previous contests the deadline has been half-time of the final, helping Oliver Kahn grasp the Golden Ball last time more confidently than the second-half shot which he spilled into Ronaldo's grateful path...)

I think I'll wait until then before deciding between Fabio Cannavaro and Zinedine Zidane, but here - for what scintilla it's worth - is my team of the tournament (for the time being...):

Gianluigi Buffon (Italy)

Gianluca Zambrotta (Italy)
Lilian Thuram (France)
Fabio Cannavaro (Italy)
Philipp Lahm (Germany)

Maxi Rodriguez (Argentina)
Andrea Pirlo (Italy)
Zinedine Zidane (France)
Maniche (Portugal)

Miroslav Klose (Germany)
Fernando Torres (Spain)

On the bench: Ricardo (Portugal), Rafael Marquez (Mexico), Willy Sagnol (France), Javier Mascherano (Argentina), Juan Roman Riquelme (Argentina), Ze Roberto (Brazil), Thierry Henry (France).

Odd how poorly strikers have performed this tournament, with a relatively meagre haul of five looking enough to reward Klose with the Golden Boot. Perhaps less surprisingly, there has been a dearth of obvious young stand-out starlets, leading to Lukas Podolski winning the best young player prize from Gillette, despite looking very raw and ragged in Germany's first two games, opening his account against half an Ecuador team already 2-0 down, then adding two easy-ish strikes against Sweden when Klose had done all the hard work each time.

At least he proved dangerous enough times when it mattered, whereas Cristiano Ronaldo merely looked like he might just prove dangerous most of the time (when not taking a jog along his invisible springboard, of course...)

"Temperatures rise as you see the whites of their eyes..."

Among the standard pre-season friendlies against the local likes of Stevenage, and such glamorous, unusual opponents as, er, only-recently-relegated Birmingham, Spurs have lined up a foreign jaunt that may just seem tempting: an August 5 match at Borussia Dortmund.

This evening, the Olympiastadion Berlin will become the tenth of the 12 German World Cup stadia I'll have visited for a match this summer (Hamburg and Leipzig are the two missing from my collection). Berlin may change my mind, but so far by far my favourite has been Dortmund.

The official Fifa guide to the tournament describes the Westfalenstadion as "the Bundesliga's Opera House". A nice description, but not really suitable, I would say. Maybe save that one for the imperious Munich or Stuttgart.

It's funny - or not, actually - to think about how the World Cup final tonight was 'supposed' to kick off at Wembley. Six years and £757million after England’s bid was rejected, Wembley still looks little more ready to stage the Brent WI’s summer fete.

For £213million more, Germany has kitted out 12 spectacular stadia fit indeed for this wunderbar World Cup – including Hanover’s ahead of schedule. Most expensive, £193million Munich is coated in “lozenge-shaped cushions’ that appear as an extra-terrestrial landing – or a giant gift with the wrapping left on.

In stark contrast, the steep banks of the Dortmund and Cologne terraces resemble old-fashioned Subbuteo-style grandstand constructions - only with more animation in the spectators, unless, perhaps, Switzerland are playing.

Like several, Dortmund's stadium has been temporarily stripped of standing areas – reducing capacity to a mere 65,000. But those sheer inclines, the sturdy right-angled roof contours, and the proximity of pitch to seats at least suggest all prawn sandwiches should be scoffed elsewhere. An anxious goalkeeper can almost feel the fans’ hot Bratwurst-scented breath upon his shoulders.

Greece’s German coach Otto Rehhagel has rued the trend for modern stadia to all roll off the same computer programme, sacrificing unique appeal. But there are quirks here to admire – from the five-star Gelsenkirchen’s retractable roof and pitch, to the Palatinate city vistas from Kaiserslautern’s lofty setting.

Stuttgart’s Gottlieb-Daimler-Stadion – wisely renamed from the Adolf Hitler Arena – offers rounded open, crisp-bowl terraces, rolling back from a pitch-distancing athletics track – plus Europe’s largest video screens. Perhaps these widest of wide-screen TVs are a response to Frankfurt’s 30-ton video cube, now with added dent courtesy of Paul Robinson.

Argentina’s urban choir, relentlessly chanting their ‘Vamos, Vamos’ anthem while pogo-hopping and flag-twirling, could still fire the emotions on a wet Wednesday at Underhill. But these 12 German Wembleys have done their bit beautifully. As even Phil Daniels could now concede: there might just be something to your Vorsprung durch Technik, you know.

But still, Dortmund - "the Bundesliga's Opera House"?
Not quite: the Bundesliga's Bear Pit, more like.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

"Don't look at me, I'm having the time of my life - or something quite like it..."

What a difference a change of scenery makes. Returning from one great European capital to another, and struggling tno a) motivate and b) re-acclimatise myself back into the dull old rhythm of work'n'life, there has at least been the consolation of new office surroundings.
Swish'n'swanky office surroundings at that, after a move from nondescript Surrey Quays to hip and hustling and bustling Kensington, where you can't move but for tripping over the Liberty shopping bags of a flurry of ladies who lunch, or an army of revellers heading decisively, if somehow daintily, for the next trendy bar target in a seemingly never-ending soiree...
Er, okay, so my timing's been a bit off so far - namely, working the night shifts all week, so missing out on the free drinks for a 'welcome-to-the-new-place' partay, in the same way I'd been denied the hospitality of the 'goodbye-to-the-old-place' occasion...
But it will be nice to be feeling a little more integrally part of West End civilisation, an uplifting blend of greenery and glitz...
And it has been a gentle pleasure, to be getting the taxi home each night this week in the small hours, and be casting gradually-closing eyes over such homeward-bound even-in-darkness delights as Marble Arch, Hyde Park, the Royal Albert Hall and the Dorchester, St John's Wood and the Abbey Road crossing, and finally all the way along the cosily-familiar Finchley Road, than, er, the less-than-inspiring (after repeated experience, anyway) sights of the Old Street roundabout and the Holloway Road, less glass, more concrete...
Can't help but suspect I shouldn't be looking quite so scruffy myself, mind...
And in future, I'll have to keep an eye out for this:

(The earlier, less eye-catching picture is taken from this retelling of an incident from a very different-looking Kensington.)

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

"I don't believe that he's the one - but if you insist, I must be wrong, I must be wrong..."

Frank Lampard, David Beckham and Wayne Rooney could all be named on Thursday in the official ‘best squad of the tournament’.
Could be – unless Mastercard belatedly come to their senses, that is.
All three were somehow chosen by Mastercard among the finest 69 performers at this World Cup, a selection to be whittled down to 23 today.
Bolton and Mexico striker Jared Borghetti also made the list – despite missing most of the first round through injury, then heading into his own net as Mexico fell to Argentina.
Whoever makes the squad, this could be Mastercard’s last.
They are furious with Fifa over a new sponsorship deal allowing rivals Visa to become ‘official partners’.
Mastercard’s image was tarnished by the 2006 ticket system, which denied card-holders with other firms the right to book online.
The confusion hardly reflected well on Fifa either - but Mastercard could now prove a convenient, if bitter, scapegoat.
Speaking of which, that well-known winker Cristiano Ronaldo is in the running for the Mastercard squad, and the Gillette-sponsored best young player prize.
But an internet campaign is trying to skew the online vote in favour of Luis Valencia.
For all his wing trickery, had Valencia actually been able to shoot then it could have been Ecuador not England facing Ronaldo and pals last Saturday.

"You're a very nosy fellow, kitty cat..."

Tonight's been my first viewing of the BBC's World Cup coverage. Have I missed the bit where Leonardo takes offence at one of Adrian Chiles's questions and suddenly slices open the nasal Brummie's, er, nose?

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

"You've got a lot to answer for..."

Karl Wald may appear a harmless elderly gent, but he only happens to be the devilish brains behind the dreaded penalty shoot-out.
And yes, he is German.
Yet in a nation which so prides itself on penalty expertise, Karl's profile has remained about as low as a Beckham corner failing miserably to beat the first man.
It was he, then a humble Bavarian referee at a local conference in 1970, who first suggested using a shoot-out to settle drawn matches.
Bavarian officials accepted the idea, the solution soon spread across German leagues, and eventually Uefa and Fifa were persuaded.
Yet Karl’s role in footballing history – and heartbreak – has gone unnoticed.
Until now.
He has finally emerged from the shoot-out shadows after his homeland celebrated yet another spot-kick success, this time on home turf.
Karl, now 90 and a referee since 1936, is unapologetic - despite the incessant despair, and Pizza Hut adverts, he has helped inflict on the English.
He insisted: ‘I always believed I was right.
‘It’s the only way in which a result can be achieved fairly. Everything else was not really a solution.’
He may just have a point there.
The previous system, involving a tossed coin or coloured disc, left even more to chance.
A wrong call knocked Yugoslavia out of the 1968 European Championships after a semi-final stalemate against Italy.
Former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly once went typically apoplectic to discover captain Ron Yeats was denied a choice of head or tails after a Fairs Cup draw with Cologne in 1968
The referee presented a disc with Liverpool red on one side and Cologne white on the other.
Affter the spin went against his side, Shankly angrily insisted on his right to call white if he wanted – to no avail.
Of course, Liverpool went on to benefit from the spot-kick system in last year’s epic Champions League triumph over Milan.
So perhaps, rather than condemning Karl, English fans should grudgingly accept his belated moment of fame.
After all, if our cricket captains’ coin-tossing luck is anything to go by, these 40 years of footballing hurt could have been equally excruciating either way.

Of course, meine Damen und Herren, it only works if you manage to see out 120 minutes without conceding, not a mere 119...

Sunday, July 02, 2006

"It is so long a chain, and yet every link rings true..."

The Blue Carbuncle, the Engineer's Thumb, the Twisted Lip, the Yellow Face - the Red Headed League, the Reigate Squire, the Norwood Builder, the Speckled Band... these and all 51 more have all perplexed, intrigued and finally illuminated me, even as the smudge-covered, dusky-coloured hardback weighed down what should have been more dully-useful holiday luggage over the years...

... but for all my entrancement in my old-fashioned compilation of every short story, every charming pencil-black original illustration from The Strand magazine, every frustrated attempt to make progress in the impossibly-complex Spectrum 128k computer game, every visit to that famous address either in passing or in museum-exploring pilgrimage, every rippingly-antiquated shards of awkward dialogue and every seamily glamorous glimpse of London Victoriana...

... I'm ashamed to admit only just now getting around to reading my first Sherlock Holmes novel, The Hound Of The Baskervilles - and, well, enjoying the yarn - while being slightly disappointed by the actual absence of mystery. Yet even more disappointed upon reaching the end of the tale, the end of the reliable reading pleasure.

Onwards, then, to those other inexplicably-neglected long'uns: A Study In Scarlet and The Sign Of Four.
And then, to delve back again guiltlessly and gloriously, into those impeccable short forms, all 56 varieties.

Draw your chair up, and hand my me violin...

"It's not the despair. I can cope with the despair. It's the hope..."

Who said the Germans have no sense of humour?
In that fraught waiting-game between final whistle and fatal shoot-out, the speakers started blaring out “Que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be…”
Except the England fans lustily singing along surely, deep down, realised that what will be, will be yet more penalty pain.
Thankfully, the mischievous German DJs had the good grace not to follow up with Oops, I Did It Again.
For this was the most predictably depressing déjà vu – all over, all over again.
The 52,000-capacity Gelsenkirchen stadium – unofficially labelled ‘six-star’ by Sepp Blatter – had been smothered in bright English crimson rather than deep Portuguese port.
But within minutes of Ronado’s final flourish past Paul Robinson, the red swathes were breaking up into patchy seats of blue.
Some, understandably, wanted to flee the scene of the crying as soon as possible.
Others, equally so, could not bring themselves to move a muscle more than the tear ducts.
Yet some 30 minutes after the defeat, some last dregs of defiance rose from the depths to swell into a last chorus of “England! (clap-clap-clap) England! (clap-clap-clap)”.
Earlier, those same voices had been hailing that unlikely hero, “One Owen Hargreaves, there’s only one Owen Hargreaves”.
Even earlier, they had urged the ranting Luis Felipe Scolari to “sit down, shut up”, before demanding: “Who the f***ing hell are you?”
The World Cup-winning coach who holds the tournament record for consecutive wins, for a start.
The manager who embarrassed the FA by turning down England’s advances.
And the man who has now knocked England out of the last three competitions.
That’s who he is.
It was certainly a humbler, if darkly satirical, mood which was settling on England supporters as they grudgingly flew home yesterday.
One sun-braised supporter in Cologne, between mouthfuls of airport breakfast, insisted on re-enacting Wayne Rooney’s fateful stamp-and-shove routine.
Unsurprisingly, his bleary mates were reluctant to play the panto villain parts of Cristiano Ronaldo and the fertility-threatened Carvalho.
Another group steeled their stomachs for the flight by ordering a round of 5am beers.
“Klein oder gross?”, the unperturbed waiter parried.
Gross, of course.
At least absent from this airport were the fans who had inexplicably turned up to the game in shirts branded “Bin Laden 06” on the back, and Osama rubber masks on their faces.
The jubilant, jovial Germans will surely miss the (mostly) benignly rowdy England fans they have cheerily indulged.
The much-mocked team, however, will not be much-mourned.
It seemed sadly apt for England’s so-called “golden generation” to have its World Cup dreams buried in the former mining stronghold of the Ruhr.
The likes of Hargreaves, Neville and Terry – and, of course, the Coles - dug deep in adversity here.
But for too much of this campaign to convince as credible world champions, Eriksson’s England were the pits.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

"We don't need no semi-final..."

At least now Argentina are out, ex-manager Jose Pekerman can go back to his day job - feuding with Dave Gilmour over who owns Pink Floyd...

"You see, things can change - and walls can come tumbling down..."

While I’d been looking forward for ages to finally visiting Berlin – indeed, finally visiting part of the old, infamous Eastern Europe – the one thing I didn’t expect was for it to seem quite so quiet.
Especially two days from a Germany-Argentina World Cup quarter-final, but that shall be the very last mention of football. In this posting, anyway.
Every year I’ve told myself I shall finally get around to doing a bit of an Eastern European tour – starting, perhaps, from borderline Bohemia, through Hungary (Budapest, especially), Poland (Krakow, Auschwitz), Romania (er, somewhere), Estonia (Tallinn) and certainly Czech Republic (certainly Prague), in whatsoever order seems most suitable.
Except, many of these years on and the East more and more Westernised with each passing one, I still haven’t got around to it.
But now at last I’ve breached that now-invisible Iron Curtain and wandered through the Brandenburg Gate into (what was) East Berlin.
Even though passing through said Gate was a little less straightforward than you might expect nowadays, thanks to the interfering, impassable barriers and backstage area attached to some “fan fest” going on there for an obscure reason…
This was merely a minor detour, however, onto the stately Unter den Linden, lined like so much of Berlin with great bushy green trees on all sides, behind which the dusky brown buildings stand stolid and graceful – treasured by the old GDR rulers when Unter den Linden was under the East Berlin remit, despite the brutal Sixties towerblocks and graffiti-smudged warehouses and tunnels that still survive from those neglectful years.
Thankfully, Unter den Linden remains what seems to be one of the few Berlin thoroughfares untouched by the omnipresent graffiti. Yet where the aerosol artists’ “work” doesn’t seem too inappropriate, however, are those few still-standing sections of the Berlin Wall – preserved nowadays as the East Side Gallery, some 1,500 metres of brickwork, now covered in officially-approved artwork from all corners of the world, but rubbed over many more times by unofficial, unapproved scrawlers.
I walked alongside the stretch in between the Ostbahnhof and the Oberbaumbrucke, surprised at first at how tall (or not) the wall seemed, but on getting closer impressed and even a little intimidated by how its size and solid immensity seemed to swell, the nearer approached. Of course, the barbed wire has long gone, and the patrol guards, and the watchtowers – how much, then, could any visitors 17 years after the fall try to appreciate what it was, how it felt to be living on either side with such an odd but powerful obstacle?
There's the tale of one of the early men employed as border guards, patrolling the wall's ramparts as one of the forces ranged against the organised escape gangs holing up in nearby houses and intricately carving out tunnels. One day, peering over onto the western side, the guard had the sudden thought: one leap, a quick burst of pace, and he'd be over and safe, free from the known restrictions of the East and free to enjoy the unknown yet imagined pleasures of the West. And so, suddenly, he did - attracting angry bawls and catcalls from the colleagues he was leaving behind, and some confused gunfire, but managing to make it far enough in flight. He must have left loved ones behind - did he think his escape would enable him to better provide, perhaps, for them? Or did he feel guilt at his own liberation at the possible expense of others'? Such adrenaline-fuelled, emotional thrashings which seem so unimaginable here and now...
And yet, for all the evils and divisions perpretated by the all-seeing Stasi, there felt something to bleakly admire in the sheer audacity and physical presence of such an obstacle, built almost out of nothing virtually overnight – surprising almost all, save one alert and suspicious Reuters correspondent in the city who cabled his newsdesk bosses that something might be about to happen, only to be ignored because it was a weekend.
When I went through a very stoooodenty arthouse film phase – well, watching whatever they might be showing each week at the Mac (Midland Arts Centre) complex in Cannon Hill Park round the corner from me in Balsall Heath, I mean, Edbaston – one of the foreign films which struck me most was called Das Versprechen (The Promise), tracing the relationship of a pair of teenage lovers whose attempt at an underground escape from East to West Berlin in the Sixties only manages to get one of them across safe and sound.
Their parallel lives apart are then traced through the 1968 rebellions, their respective marriages and parenthood and occasional written contact through the 1970s and 1980s, culminating in the drama of the wall falling and their eventual, hesitant reunion in 1989. Perhaps revisiting it would reveal elements of corniness, but the combinations of individual human dilemmas – and ageing, and changing hopes and expectations – against such a powerful historical backdrop was so memorable, especially the exhilarating ending. Just ambling alongside one longer-lingering stretch of this inanimate structure which yet became the focus of such intense emotion, brought back some of that wonder.
And then… With no set desire to visit any other obvious landmarks – the old Checkpoint Charlie is now little more than a sign, watchtower dismantled by developers secretly six years ago – I just kept walking: over the Oberbaumbrucke, across the River Spree that curiously keeps running along mere metres behind this stretch of Mauer, houses and apartments either side peeking over at each other where once they were kept apart in spirit and subject but not in sight. Along the streets now one side of the wall and the now-invisible dividing line, now the other – so many feeling so similar, yet with those brutalist Eastern blocks occasionally rising up as stark reminders on the commercially-ever-renovating landscapes. Or certain sets of traffic lights on the eastern side retaining their old-style, alternative green and red man appearances.
On Friday morning, before heading to the both impressive and jarring Olympic Stadium – classicism-aping castle ramparts of Third Reich grandeur, now topped with a plastic-looking lid – my Dad and I took the U-Bahn to the Jewish Museum, where Daniel Libeskind’s jagged creation explores the stories of Jewish famous and until-now-anonymous since medieval times but not unexpectedly, especially from the 1930s onwards – but also forces the visitor to confront a certain upheaval of the senses. Say, with a heavy clanging door opening into a triangular, lofty but drearily dark and silent chamber, with merely one sickly shard of light from one corner, the dim vision of an unreachable ladder to an unseen roof: and just whistling echoes, grim uneasiness. Is this how it felt to be herded into the unknown, yet slowly-realising darkness of death, at Auschwitz, or Dachau, or the near-here Sachsenhausen.
Well, of course not, we were merely playing, merely attempting complacently to empathise. But emerging back out into the eerie artificial light of a recognisable, real and normal museum aisle – and then onto the same old streets again outside – felt
Suddenly sport didn’t seem quite to seriously all-consuming, after all.
Then again, within a few hours, to see and hear the outbursts of joy and fellow-feeling and sheer grinning, hooting mania of the celebrating city – it seemed worthwhile to cherish that certain special value in frivolity, too.