My friend and I arranged to meet outside the Boleyn pub, which is on the corner of Green Street and the Barking Road, 15 minutes before kick-off. I was about five minutes late and he wasn’t there.
I had both our match-day tickets, so I couldn’t go in without him. I stood in the pub doorway and waited. If he didn’t turn up soon, we’d miss the start. I should have been gutted about this, because I’d flown across Europe that morning to get there, and he’d only had to come from Clapham, but the truth was I was just happy to be there. Being part of a West Ham United football crowd has been a favourite drug since my father first introduced me to one nearly 40 years ago, when we turned right out of Upton Park underground station and were sucked into a human torrent flowing down Green Street towards the totemic floodlights. Even now, every time I walk down Green Street on match day, and smell the police-horse manure and the onions frying on the hot-dog stands, and sense the self-conscious power of an East End crowd, whether for good or ill to be arranged, I can feel that child’s heart beating in my chest.
Also, I’d been deliberately leading a life of quiet asceticism on an extinct volcano off Sicily. I’d been without conversation, newspapers, television, radio, mobile phone, music, alcohol, cigarettes, refined sugar, tea and coffee for a fortnight. All I’d done, more or less, was walk, think, read and go to bed early. What foolish idea possessed me to do this, I do not know. It was so dull I nearly went off my head. So compared to that, standing ankle-deep in crushed plastic glasses and spilled beer in the doorway of a pub before a West Ham match felt like having died and gone to heaven. Whether I got to see the actual match or not was immaterial.
At three o’clock a roar from 34,000 throats said the match had kicked off. Green Street, not five minutes ago a m