Since adulthood, finding a group of people to slot into hasn’t come easily. Probably the last time I fitted in anywhere without friction or anxiety was 41 years ago, in 1981. Nine months working nights in a vacuum flask factory, telling jokes and swapping endless stories.
In the interim, I’ve become warier, harder to please. Groups are often dominated by a handful of individuals, typically long on voice, and shorter on listening skills. I want the intimacy of good conversation, back and forth. With space for everyone.
And yet, about two weeks ago, I was happy to find myself ‘belonging’ to a very, very large and highly unsubtle gathering. Deep in the heart of London’s East End, on the evening of 17 March. The occasion was West Ham United Football Club’s most important game for many years, against Spanish side Sevilla. My first live game for over 6 years, in company with my son, Rory. And 60,000 others. Under the floodlights at the London Stadium in Stratford.
A dynamite of anticipation was in the air, poised to explode. Cockney and Thames Estuary accents resounding around the stadium bars, primed and ready for the action. A pre-match schedule of lager, lager, piss, lager.
Then up to our seats, where lone shouts and group chants of ‘aye-yans, aye-yans, aye-yans’ rung around the terraces, for the club that started life in the 19th century as Thames Ironworks FC. And is still a proper working class club, 127 years on. It’s in the air, the wit, the clothes, the body language.
The ‘Irons’. The ‘Hammers’. The ‘Claret and Blues’. Come on you Irons! COYI!
The ref blew his whistle and off we went, hurtling down a tunnel of partisan noise designed to help the Irons win the Europa League knock-out tournament.
I was born a Londoner, in Edmonton. More pertinently, my father grew up in the East End neighbourhoods of Bethnal Green and Homerton. I first joined the ‘Irons’ tribe 56 years ago. Dad took me to see West Ham play Newcastle in 1966. The noise and sights stirred something that never left me. A past blog (https://thebiscuitfactoryonline.com/2018/10/24/41-come-on-you-irons/) attempted to convey some of that.
A seam of cockney bluntness runs through most subsequent ‘Irons’ memories. A guy standing behind us epitomised it. “That fucking referee is a cunt. Nine out of every fucking ten decisions go against us. He’s a fucking twelfth man for these Spanish cunts. There he goes again….that weren’t a fucking foul. You fucking blind cunt. Ah what a fucking cunt he is. A cunt with a whistle and fuck all else. Ah it’s a fucking joke. I might as well talk to the fucking ceiling for all the good it does.”
Rory and me were grinning from ear to ear.
For over two roisterous hours, I had no need to explain myself. No need to think. I joined in the singing, and the mesmeric, thunderous clapping. Music gig meets football match for loud sex. An ear-shaking wall of noise, arcing out, wobbling, and boomeranging back, An uncensored maelstrom of one-way intent, obliterating my existence as my father’s carer.
After riotous final whistle celebrations, the feeling of bridging the years continued as Rory and I walked back to Stratford railway station, jammed in a slow-shuffling crowd. The mood was euphoric. Cries of ‘aye-ans, aye-ans, aye-ans’ cutting the night air in salute of the 2-0 win. And the progress to the tournament’s quarter finals.
A group of police walked past with a bloke in handcuffs, and the naughty boys and men around me erupted in various songs about ‘rozzers’ and ‘filth’ and ‘pigs’. Rolling back the years.
By the time we boarded a train home, post-coital calm was upon me. With each stop further out into Essex – Ilford, Seven Kings, Goodmayes, Chadwell Heath, Romford, Gidea Park, Harold Wood – the conversation quietened and I slowly returned to my usual self. Reflective, listening, distanced.
Did I rejoin my tribe for a night? It was a delicious moment. But a transient one. Tribes are 24/7 affairs.