Monday, 9 December 2013

Jules Rimet and Me

Procrastinating with Perry Iles

 We played a game, my parents and I, during the 1966 World Cup. At the start of the televised stages, my father took down an ashtray from the mantelpiece, wiped the detritus from his pipe out of it and put it on the footstool in front of his armchair. At the start of every match, the three of us each put a shilling into the ashtray and my father assigned us numbers: zero (me), one (my mother) and two (himself). If no goals were scored, I kept the three shilling kitty. Meagre as it was, it was still a chunk of money in my terms, back in 1966. If a goal was scored we each put in sixpence and the kitty passed to my mother, who won the money if there were no more goals during the match. But if a further goal was scored we added another sixpence and the pot went to my father, and subsequent goals cost us sixpence each and moved the kitty another step round our little numbered circle. I was hoping for goalless draws or results in multiples of three, but each game was rendered interesting even if we weren’t rooting for a particular side, because it didn’t matter which team scored.

We sat around our little Dynatron black and white television during July 1966, ignoring the warm summer evening sunshine, watching as the World Cup played itself out and England, mostly by virtue of being the host nation, managed to survive to the final. The opening game, England against Uruguay, was goalless and won me two shillings plus my stake, so I was bitten by the gambling bug from the start. A few days later, France beat Uruguay by two goals to one and I won a further five shillings and sixpence. 5/6d, we wrote it then, and to this day I do not know why “d” stood for “pence”; it just did, and that was good enough back then. It was probably something Latin. But five-and-six would have nearly bought a Rolling Stones single, and I’d have had change from buying a pint of mild and bitter and twenty Players’ Number Six if I’d been old enough to do such things. We sat through the games, drawing the curtains to stop the sun reflecting off the television screen, cursing the high static levels that made the picture crackle and blur and fine tuning the vertical hold when it started to jump. In Group 2, three of the six games ended 2:1, and my parents paid up with feigned ill-grace. In Group 3, four of the six games ended up 3:1 and my mother won some of her money back before scooping a fifteen shilling pot when Portugal beat North Korea 5:3. In the later stages, one of the quarter finals, both semis and the third place playoff finished 2:1 and my holiday savings started to look healthy. We even joked about the possibility of a game with six goals in it.

But our holiday was the fly in the ointment. On Friday July 29th we left the comfort of our sitting room, opened the curtains and aired the cigarette and pipe smoke from it and departed for Italy. This was quite a convoluted process back then, because we drove there. There was no Channel Tunnel, no Eurozone, no common currency and no motorways or bypasses. We left in the late afternoon when my father got back from work, we drove out of our Cambridgeshire village and crossed the Thames estuary on the Tilbury Ferry, heading down towards Dover. Crossing the channel to Ostend we dozed fitfully on hard chairs while people who’d got there before us lay down across the longer benches and slept more soundly. There seems to be a universal law of travel that says whenever you need to sit somewhere, or are faced with a delay, the seats are always taken up by unconscious gap-year students, each one lying across four seats and sleeping the sleep of those who believe the world owes them a living. The same is true today of airport departure lounges, where Sebastian and Ophelia consider themselves entitled to four seats each because they stayed in a mud hut in Nicaragua once and ate a lizard for tea. How I would love to be able to summon up the courage and strength of character to simply roll them onto the floor and sit down. But like everyone else, I tiptoe around them so as not to wake them up and smile secretly when other people’s children start striking their sleeping faces with sticky lollipops.

In the early light of dawn we drove through the flat Belgian countryside and got lost in Brussels as usual. When we eventually found the right road, we continued through hilly woodland toward Luxembourg, ate lunch under a tree in the Ardennes somewhere and pondered the football match that afternoon that we were about to miss. These days, of course, we’d have watched it on a laptop or on someone’s iPad, plugged in to the car’s cigarette lighter. Back then, this was impossible, because the car didn’t have a cigarette lighter amongst other things. So my father decided we should go and look for a café with a television, which entailed finding a city, which is how we found ourselves in Metz.

Metz was primarily red — a dusty brick red like a Midlands city. Somewhere to the east of the town, a sluggish Moselle wound its way towards the Rhine. It was hot, so hot that we’d wound the windows of the car down and the pinking of engine valves blatted back at us from the walls. It was the sort of weather when you used to drive with an elbow out of the window and a hand on the roof, fingers drumming with impatience at any minor holdup as you got yourself a cabbie’s suntan (one blackened arm, the rest a pasty and unhealthy white). You don’t get that now because of air-conditioning, which is a godsend in times of extreme heat, but I remember the days when cars were made of plastic and tin, and you couldn’t sit on the seats or touch the dashboard without incurring minor burns. But in Metz there was a pre-storm summer heat, all airless and echoey, as if someone had turned the bass up and added a touch of reverb. Sweaty and sleep-deprived, we found a bar in a rough looking area and went in, which we quickly realized might not have been a good idea. Behind the bar there was a small black and white television showing the match to a silent, concentrating crowd of locals who turned and gazed at us for a few seconds with flat, half-lidded Gallic stares before returning their attention to the match. We could perhaps have done better that to ask for tea, but sadly that’s exactly what my father did, and of course they messed it up, bringing a pot of hot-but-not-boiling water and teabags in cups. My mother went to ask for milk but my father put a hand on her arm and gave her a restraining frown. We sat at a table by the wall drinking black tea and watching the game, which by then was in the final stages of normal time. England was winning 2:1 and I was reasonably happy, mostly because it would win me more money.

But then, in the dying minutes of the game, the Germans scored and the Frenchmen in the bar went deliriously insane. 

In the fug of Gauloise smoke, the yellowed curtains shook to the sound of their roaring. Cups and glasses rattled and hobnails stamped on the floor. Our conclusion was that the French, being French and a great deal more demonstrative, had applauded the goal because it was a goal, not for any more mercenary reasons. My father had been in the war, and had done his bit for his country by helping drain the Italian national economy by spending four and a half years there as a prisoner of war. Why he wanted to go back there for his holidays is beyond me now, but at the age of eleven, mine was not to reason why. Nevertheless, I saw him and my mother exchange a worried glance as extra time started. My father could of course be forgiven for imagining that the French would have been on our side, especially because we were in the Alsace Lorraine region which we had helped liberate from the Germans a couple of decades previously. Verdun was just down the road, where nearly a million French soldiers had been killed by the German guns in World War I. The French owed us, for heaven’s sake. So when Geoff Hurst scored a dodgy goal in extra time, we expected the shouts to be even louder. Instead, Hurst’s goal was greeted with pin-drop silence, a few muted grumbles and then a rising growl of protest that the goal had been awarded despite the ball not appearing to cross the line. I rose from my chair to yell in triumph but my father’s reactions were quicker. He leapt to his feet and clapped his hand across my mouth. A dozen French faces turned to stare in a new silence, a silence that was broken only by the sound my chair made as it fell over backwards onto an uncarpeted floor. It was the sort of silence you get in Texas schoolrooms when you try to criticize creationism and you realize that Bubba and his brother Bubba are going to take you outside and beat you like a red-headed stepchild. I was eleven, tall and quite fat, but my father carried me from that French bar in Metz, walked with my mother in his wake back to our oven-like Vauxhall, where he bundled us in with an unseemly degree of haste.
“Tim, did you pay for the tea?” my mother asked him. My father said nothing, but dropped the car into first and accelerated as hard as possible along the road out of town.


Later I discovered England had won by four goals to two, and was able to collect some more winnings from my parents. I still don’t know why those Frenchmen wanted Germany to win. Why did they hate us so? What’s wrong with the perception of Britain and the British abroad? The countries of Europe are like a bunch of teenagers, lost in Europe on a long journey through time and bickering because we can’t get away from each other. We’d argued with the French for centuries because they were sitting next to us in the back seat and kept pulling faces, but when the Germans had gatecrashed the party we’d grabbed France and pulled her to safety. And now, with the fickleness of adolescence, France was going out with Germany because he was handsome and drove a Mercedes, and we were cross. There’s no telling in European relationships, and we all have really big bombs now, so the future isn’t looking too good. But for the ordinary French homme dans la rue, Germany ruled in 1966 and they’d just taken a bit of a punishment. And as far as the shifting sands of England and France’s relationship is concerned, they might think it’s all over, but it never will be; not in my lifetime and probably not in anyone’s.

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