(Don’t) label me

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I get why brands started using labels. If I’m Levi’s and you’re buying my jeans, it makes sense that I should make sure everyone else knows you’re wearing Levi’s. You’re giving me money, and now you’re giving me free advertising too. It’s win-win.

But before long, consumers started to actively desire the labels. Not the clothes; the labels. They wanted to walk around with someone else’s name written on them on giant letters.

D&G or FCUK or whoever was a shorthand symbol of style, sophistication, taste, exclusivity and also – grotesquely – how much you’ve spent. You wore it to be seen, and to be talked about, and to be photographed.

Now though, buying Lush and Patagonia and SKINS – to name just three – is still a shorthand for style and taste, but now also how much you care. You buy Toms shoes, not just because you like their products, but because they stand for something. Something above and beyond just making money. Something you admire and share. Sustainability. Ethics. Equality. Take your pick.

So how did this evolution come about? When did it stop being about money and gold and names and showing off?

It’s hard to pinpoint it to one specific confluence, but to my eyes it simply matches the way the world is going. 20, 10 or even five years ago, we all lived lives based on ‘stuff.’ You were what you owned. Success was very material.

But now, the world moves slightly differently. Our lives are much less sheltered and increasingly out in the public domain. We collect self-worth through other people’s button-presses; a ‘like’ here, a ‘share’ there, and – if we’re really lucky – a ‘heart.’

So in this environment, we share what we think our friends will best respond to. Imagine if your friend did nothing but take photos of expensive shoes, designer labels and cars? Would they still be your friend after a week of this nausea?

Instead, the way other people judge our stock is by experiences. But a true experience can’t just be captured in a photo. What does a canny snap of you bungee-jumping in New Zealand really say? Sure it’s an experience, but it essentially has the same self-involved value as vintage Hermes handbag.

No, it seems to me that an experience has to stand for something. It has to lead to your advancement, or ideally the advancement of others as well. Now our values define us, not our bank balance. Simple human values that don’t judge others based on superficial and transient qualities.

And so, like a palindrome, we find ourselves back where we began. Because I still get why brands use labels. Kenco is just a coffee brand, so why should a customer care about anything they say? They shouldn’t really. But by taking social responsibility in the areas around their growing fields in Honduras, they can sell more than just coffee. They can sell something that their consumers really do care about. Sustainability. Ethics. Equality. Take your pick.

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A brief history of catvertising

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Before there were gifs there were memes. And before there were memes there were lolcats. These were wonderfully low-fi combinations of incongruous cat imagery and often-grammatically-incorrect text that ruled the internet in the early-2000s. The name is of course a portmanteau of ‘laugh out loud’ and ‘cat’ so obvious that at no point in history has anyone ever questioned it.

Possibly because the first ‘lolcats’ can actually be traced back almost 150 years. The image atop this post is a simple portrait by photographer Harry Pointer that was created in 1870. He was the first person to realise the cultural currency attached to cats in amusing poses with something incongruous written underneath. Mr Pointer’s series of postcards was an instant hit with the local Brighton crowd, and his business went through the roof. By 1872 he’d sold more than 100 different captioned images of feline hijinks, and even attracted a series of high-profile copycats around the country.

Fast-forward to the present day and it’s no surprise to see the enduring appeal of cats of all shapes and sizes. Brands, in industries from cars to deodorants, have taken their names; athletic and fashion brands plaster them all over their labels and wares; and some of the most memorable commercials of the last decade have put them front and centre for a variety of reasons. So here, without further ado, is my official rundown (in no particular order) of the best four examples of catvertising to date.

 

‘Be More Dog’ by O2

Watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xIQV9fcUhHw

We start with an attention-grabbing spot that actually didn’t celebrate feline behaviour, but rather questioned it. Tonally I think it’s great, and its message to the audience is clear: don’t be afraid to be different, try something new and challenge your own innate nature.

 

‘Kittens’ by McVitie’s

Watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uxXZ_uEVr9c

Featuring creatures that are almost too cute to be real, this advert for biscuits uses particularly small and fluffy cats to show that sometimes, when times are tough, all you really need is a ‘chocolaty snuggle.’ Amen.

 

‘Mog’s Christmas Calamity’ by Sainsbury’s

Watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kuRn2S7iPNU

This collaboration with illustrator Judith Kerr could’ve come off as cynical or twee, but somehow it’s just perfect. Not only is Christmas a time for family, but it’s also a time of pulling together to overcome adversity. When every other supermarket seemed to be putting people at the centre of their advertising and yanking on the heartstrings, this simple tale through the eyes of a lovable cat was the one that really made me feel something.

 

‘Cats with Thumbs’ by Cravendale

Watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IdA_fLC7WIQ

Words can’t describe how much I enjoy this. It’s everything I love about the industry, and the world generally. It’s the funniest and most absurd piece of advertising I can think; but it’s not self-indulgent or just silly for the sake of it. I really wish they’d made a spin-off TV series about Bertrum Thumbcat and his lovable bunch of rogues.

 

I guess on the surface, it’s quite simple really. People chance and society evolves, but cats are always cute. It’s easy culture kudos to harness this power and attach your brand or product to a video that your audience would watch anyway. It’s advertising 101: speak your audience’s language.

The industry’s interest in cats goes deeper though I believe. And it goes back to Harry Pointer in the sense that cats embody everything a brand wants their customers to feel about them. Yes, they’re cute, but they can also be fearless explorers and reliable comforters. They have a personality that’s resolutely theirs, but are malleable enough to fit in and around anyone’s busy life. They keep you warm when you’re cold and lonely, and cool you down when you’re hot and bothered.

In truth, they’re ‘home.’ That inarticulate but effervescent sigh of satisfaction that says right now, in this moment, “I’m happy to be me, and I don’t have anything else to worry about.”

It’s no wonder that in 2016, when faced with a latent desire to create a “relaxing, fun and light-hearted” space free from commercial bombardment, the Citizens Advertising Takeover Service (CATS) decided to use photos of our feline friends to cover Clapham Common Underground station. Cats doesn’t discriminate you see; whatever your cause, they’re there for you.

It’s a feeling that this classic Ikea advert (a bonus fifth piece of catvertising) expressed in it’s purest form – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iO7CIMy5y4c. I’m sure even the Clapham CATS can’t have taken too much umbrage with that simple and pure distillation of comfort and belonging.

In this modern world of North Korean nuclear testing, political doublespeak and lone wolf terror attacks, that’s more than enough.

P.S. It should come as no surprise to anyone who’s reached the end of this article that there is in fact already a bespoke agency dedicated to servicing your unadulterated catvertising needs. When contacted for comment they simply sent this link to watch their catifesto: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IkOQw96cfyE

Things You Need (first chapter)

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Chapter 1 – Background

 It wasn’t my idea to get a proper job. I never wanted to make something of myself. I was happy just existing with Hannah, going to and from a dead-end job that required no mental engagement whatsoever.

She was my First Love – capital F, capital L – and I had a plan: earn enough money to buy a house; move in together; get married; have children; ride off into the sunset (well, Surrey).

It all seemed quite straight-forward until something changed. I don’t think it was me that changed, but maybe that was the problem.

Suddenly she wanted more; she wanted to be challenged, to try something different, to be taken out of her comfort zone. And yes, I did suggest anal.

She said she wanted to move up to London, and that I should come, maybe? But I knew she didn’t mean it, not really. She wanted to be by herself – no, she needed to be by herself – and I understood that, even though I couldn’t really remember what it was like to be by myself.

There was no big falling out, no fight, not even an exchange of non-sequitur insults. I guess that confirmed it was the right thing to do. I was almost begging for her to shout at me, to tell me I’d been wasting her time, that I was going nowhere, just to show she still felt something for me. We might as well have celebrated our break-up with a handshake.

When we got together, it was perfect for both of us; we were miserable and not having any luck with anyone else, so as a couple we could right the wrongs of The Failed Relationship and show everyone that had ever fucked us over what they were missing.

And you know what, it went pretty well for a while. Actually it went better than ‘pretty well,’ and for longer than ‘a while.’ We were the talk of the town at university; it seems grotesque to think about it in these terms now in retrospect, but we were almost local celebrities. We were inseparable and on the guest-list for anything we wanted to go to.

It seems finger-in-the-eye-clear now, but the fact that being a half-decent footballer with a fit girlfriend at university doesn’t mean shit in the real world was a shock at the time. I remember being told, in my first job post-university, that I had to feed more than 10,000 pages of A4 card into an industrial shredder. The look of shock on my face must’ve been pretty obvious because the request was quickly followed up with a smirking “if you don’t think that’s beneath you” from my it’s-not-fat-it’s-glandular whale of a supervisor.

But I did it, because at the end of the day, I just wanted to be with Hannah. But as I dedicated myself to her happiness, I just filled up with emptiness, and forgot what was most important in my life: me. James, James Spade. Pleased to meet you.

I could feel the rising tide of apathy, and I was powerless to resist. It became increasingly easy to ignore her, to make plans without her, and to find excuses to not see her for days on end.

I remember thinking at the time that I couldn’t even remember the last time we had even kissed, let alone had sex, but the worst thing about it was that I just had no interest at all. The idea of touching her scared me a little bit, and actually started to kind of repulse me a bit in a way I can’t quite articulate. I don’t have a sister, but I imagine if I did, and I caught her wearing just a blindfold, trying to pierce her own nipples, while some guy paid to watch and jerk off over webcam, I’d feel about the same as I did every time Hannah started to get undressed.

It was clear that she just didn’t want me any more either, and that hurt.

Singledom was hard to embrace, despite the fact that, contrary to popular belief, the freedom to play computer games, smoke dope and wank all day is about as good as it gets. After twelve weeks straight, punctuated only by the odd nuisance day at work, it does start to get a bit depressing though.

And of course it wasn’t long before I heard rumours that she’d already found someone else in London – fucking London – where everyone is a rich banker with model looks and a ten inch cock that couldn’t go soft, even if you’d had three pills that night, and not a lot of sleep the night before, and an essay due soon, and a football match early the next day.

So yes, I finally realised that I too needed challenging and taking out of my comfort zone and yes, I had to make something of myself. Three months too late.

It was all her fault. Her beautiful, lovely, kind, fault.

 

***

 

It didn’t take long to work out what I was good at (writing). But what I was interested in (apart from football and music and girls and drugs), and who I would like to work for were mysteries.

So with minus one thousand six hundred pounds in my bank account I moved to London to pursue The Great British Dream of changing the world by writing about…something.

It should be noted here that I think Hannah was starting to feel guilty about how things ended between us. I’d stopped calling her, partly because she’s stopped calling me, but then to over-compensate she started calling me again every single night. That was more often than when we were actually going out! And it was always about nothing in particular, just to make sure in a roundabout way that I was alright, which was kind of sweet but it made me feel like even more of a charity case than I already did.

This one specific evening though, I’m glad I answered, because if there’s one thing charity cases are good for, it’s accepting charity.

“I’ve found you a job,” she said.

“Hello to you too,” I said.
“Seriously. You’ve got an interview tomorrow morning. It’s with Jonesys’ old company.” Jonesy is the name of a girl she lived with by the way. “Advertising agency. You’d be a copywriter. I told her you like words and stuff, and she put in a good word for you. Turns out they’re desperate for someone, ideally someone young who wants to learn.”

“You mean, ideally someone cheap.”

She ignores my comment.

“This is what you want right?”

I hadn’t even thought about it.

“Yeah, but…I mean, I hadn’t…what if they? Let me start that again. Thank you. I don’t know what else to say. You didn’t have to do this you know,” I offered plaintively.

“I did.” There’s a long silence. “I want you to be ok, I want you to be happy. You’ve been sat around in London doing nothing for three weeks now. Whether you admit it or not, you need help.”

She genuinely knows me better than I know myself, and it doesn’t so much sicken me as depress me. If I couldn’t make a relationship work with her, how the hell am I meant to with someone else? Someone that doesn’t know me; know the real me; know the stupid-lazy-selfish-prick me.

She’s still talking. It suddenly hits me that going to an interview dramatically increases my chances of actually getting a job, and so far, randomly e-mailing CVs has been an adequately abstract enough job application process. I’m gonna miss watching day-time TV, inventing increasingly adventurous ways to masturbate, bidding for damaged goods on ebay, going to the gym and occasionally cooking.

Seriously, I could easily become a housewife. Maybe I should just look into finding a nice old rich gay man to take care of me?

She’s still still talking. About what I’m not quite sure, I only tune into the odd word, but her tone of voice suggests it’s confidence-building stuff about how great I am.

Thanks, but when ‘talented’ and ‘genius’ and whatever else you’re saying aren’t good enough for you, it renders it all kind of meaningless.

I snap back to something approaching consciousness and hear:

“So good luck tomorrow, I know you’re gonna be great. This could really be the start of something for you!” For some reason the way she says it, it doesn’t sound condescending. “I’m so excited! If I had a glass I’d clink, but here’s to a fresh start.”

“To a fresh start.” I pause. “I miss you.”

She paused for a bit longer than I was hoping for.

“I miss you too.” The wavering electronic drone drilled deep into my skull while my brain played catch-up and struggled to process the fact that she had hung up.

 

***

 

All I was given was a brief and two weeks preparation to secure the job.

“Plenty of time for someone with your level of experience,” they said at the end of the first interview.

Shame I’d made all that experience up.

Two weeks preparation for a hypothetical pitch, for what was my own personal most-hated low-cost airline. But the more I thought about it, the more that was actually a positive thing. If I can think of something that would convince me that Shamrock Air have changed, that they are in fact not the biggest bunch of deceitful pricks currently operating in the 30-to-35-thousand-feet-above-the-air arena, then I’m probably doing something right.

I started to devour every book, TV series and movie I could find on advertising to teach myself a trade that I’d allegedly already been doing for three years. I started to put together a scrapbook of things I liked; ads, film posters, photographs, paintings, websites, everything.

Turns out that, artistically, history has repeated itself over and over again, either that or I just like the same one thing, in several different packages.

But I don’t want to be burdened with too much knowledge, too many ‘success criteria,’ as I keep seeing them described. Social economics, market access, added value propositions, all of things mean nothing to me.

If I can make someone think, or smile – or ideally both – then I think that’s the only criterion for success I need to worry about.

If something’s simple, and speaks to a core universal human truth, then it seems to work; probably differently to every person that looks at it, but that’s kind of the point.

Of course, making it rhyme or look beautiful helps, but when push comes to punch if something’s good enough it’ll get a whole platform of tube users smiling just written in black pen on a white wall. Also, I like it when I feel like I’m in the joke.

But back to the task at hand.

After 12 days of reading and setting myself little writing tasks, I found myself with two days before the presentation and just staring at a blank pad, spinning a pen absent-mindedly in my fingers trying to work out Shamrock Air.

I fucking hate Shamrock Air. More like Sham Air, I snort to myself.

When I think about them I steam at the time they changed my flight for no reason without telling me and made me pay for another one. I fume at the time they made me go passenger-to-passenger, begging to see if I could scrounge £1.50 just to afford to go to the toilet. And I broil at the time some bitch wouldn’t let me on a flight because I hadn’t got some non-existent stamp on my passport, that isn’t even a legal requirement, or highlighted anywhere on the boarding pass, or in the airport.

Not that I hold grudges.

A spark of an idea hits me and I remember something I read a couple of days ago.

I recreate my worst possible Sham Air experience. It was like a trip through the gates of hell, a masochistic thrill, shepherded by some blond mutton-dressed-as-lamb, with hair pulled back so tight that it seemed to be the only thing holding her eyes, nose and mouth in the right place.

It made me smile and it dawned on me that, fuck, I actually really wanted this proper job after all.

 

***

“When each of you sat down in this room you might have found that the chairs were a bit close together, that the table is encroaching somewhat on your leg-room, and that, if you were lucky, someone had charitably left some gum under the rim of it for you; gum which I imagine has now genetically fused itself with the fabric of your trousers. Sorry about that.”

I make eye contact with the two agency men in the room, Matt and Alex, and try to be as sincere as possible. I’m just about to launch into rehearsed-but-not-too-rehearsed spiel, when there’s a knock on the door. A man I’ve never seen before timidly pushes his way into the room.

“Oh hi, there you are, sorry I couldn’t find you, the receptionist wasn’t at her desk,” he says, looking at Matt and Alex. He notices me standing up and whispers: “Oh sorry, have you already started? Please continue.”

Matt and Alex look at each other, confused.

He sits down and stares at me. This is weird. My concentration’s broken.

“Maybe we should just pause for a second,” Matt says, turning to half-shepherd this late arrival back up and out of the room. “We weren’t expecting you till this afternoon.”

“Please! Carry on!” the man I don’t know says, ignoring Matt.

“But,” Matt starts.

“No, just be quiet Matt, it’s ok, let him continue.”

Now they all stare at me, but I shrug and find my place again.

“Outside this room, while you were waiting – and I’m sure you don’t mind – but I had to charge you for hot drinks and the toilet, just to, you know, cover my costs. I was running late so I had to get a cab over here. Oh, that reminds me actually, would you mind having a whip-round while I think about it? One of you requested a car back to the station after we’re done, so you all owe about £5.75 each.”

The three of them look at one another and I start to sweat.

“It’s fine, we’ll do that at the end, don’t worry. Oh finally, before we get started properly, did anyone find a note on their seat?”

The guy I don’t recognise sheepishly clears his throat and half-nods at me.

“Yes, you sir, great. Would you mind reading it out loud for us all?”

“Go fuck yourself. As in, it says, go fuck yourself.”

Matt and Alex look at each other again, aghast.

“Thank you sir,” I say, smiling.

The way he stared at me while reading that gives me the terrible feeling that he might never have actually said the word ‘fuck’ out loud before.

“Maybe we should just take a break,” Matt says, turning to this third-party.

“Yes,” Alex says, standing up. “Let’s pop outside for a second.”

“No, it’s fine, I’ll stay,” the man says. “This is interesting.”

I look at my audience, sweating more but feeling good. It’s all or nothing now Spade.

“Now, what is the point of this exercise in histrionics you might well ask. Well, to be blunt, this is how Shamrock Air customers feel. Insulted, extorted, sub-human.”

The man I don’t recognise coughs pointedly. Alex and Matt both look at him again.

“Is everything alright?” I ask.

“Sure,” Matt says. “John, maybe you and I have got things to talk about elsewhere?”

“No Matt, it’s fine,” the man called John says. “Please continue,” he smiles at me.

“Ok. Well, when people think about Shamrock Air, they instantly think about Aunt Mary or Dan-from-the-office, who got charged extra for wanting to wear clothes on the plane, or whatever ridiculous story that gets passed around. Did you know that there’s actually a website called ‘Hitler owns Sham Air – yes, they call it Sham Air! – dot com?’

“You know how much people love to complain! By the thousand, they log in purely to complain about the airline; about the service, the plane conditions, the hidden prices, even one particular air stewardess’ perfume for god’s sake. There’s detailed descriptions of lawsuits that people have tried to undertake against you, and failed because of technicalities and small print – and I mean small print; the kind you need a magnifying glass to read at the bottom of a 24 page terms and conditions document. It gets literally millions of hits every month.

“From a strategic point of view this is obviously quite a big problem. A problem that I know you know you have. But now something really has to be done.

“In an increasingly competitive environment, your price is no longer a differentiating factor. Customers who want to pay as little as possible to fly don’t have to put up with these quirks – in inverted commas – anymore; that’s the harsh truth about what’s going through their minds. By my reckoning, you literally could not go down any further in the general public’s estimation.”

The-man-called-John opens his eyes as wide as they can go. He’s maybe only a year older than me but dressed like someone called Graham.

“So what do you do? What do we do?

“Show that Shamrock Air has some self-awareness, and a sense of humour. We have to show we appreciate our customers and understand them somewhat. That way, we start to own that hatred and use it as a force for good. It’s no good saying things have changed, we have to show things have changed. We have to become the low-cost airline of the people again, and we can.

“Embrace the hate.”

Silence.

“Promote it.”

More silence.

“Online and in the press, there is so much negative information about Shamrock Air, right? So let’s create a repository website for all this negative reporting, attracting people with fake headline grabbers, in press and online.

“Here we encourage people to tell us their own ‘reliable sources’ and force people to recognise their error in believing this nonsense.

“Gentlemen, allow me to introduce I hate Shamrock Air dot com.”

I turn over the board I’ve had printed with the URL on to face them.

“We run ads ridiculing the mud that gets slung, and subvert people’s expectations of the brand at the same time.

“So, here’s the first one,” I say, turning another board over. “As you can see the headline reads: Shamrock Air were responsible for you finding out that the Easter Bunny isn’t real. Sorry about that.

“And the second one: Shamrock Air are the reason Mary never went home with you that night after the Christmas party in 2002. We messed up.

“To be honest, the possibilities are virtually endless.

“At the end of each of these ads – whether they’re online, or in press, or on a billboard, whatever – we ask people to tell us what else Shamrock Air is responsible for by visiting I hate Shamrock air dot com.

“There, you’ll find articles about Shamrock Air faking the moon landings, assassinating JFK, ruining the ending of ‘Lost,’ anything you want that you think is funny, or that will resonate and get a knowing smile.

“I hope that this new campaign will succeed in hitting all the main priorities of the brief.”

I start counting them off on one hand.

“It will generate intrigue and renewed interest in Shamrock Air. It will drive people to the new website. And it is certainly challenging and thought-provoking enough to get people talking about Shamrock – not Sham – Air again.

“Thank you for your time. Now, does anyone have any questions?”

 

***

 

“You did well James, really well.”

“That’s good, because my other idea was Sham Air Max, where the planes transformed into these kind of massive great running shoes.”

This is a couple of days later by the way. I’m sat back in the offices of the fastest-growing advertising agency in London, RJF, and I’m talking to the creative director, Alex. He’s some aging lothario-type who used to write for FHM in the late-90s. He’s nice enough but dresses like his wife has just left him. His face is warm though, and a small pot-belly peeking out from in between his shirt buttons tells me that enjoys life.

His face doesn’t seem sure whether I’m joking about Sham Air Max or not, but he continues: “I liked the creative angle, I liked the vitriol, and you’ve got guts to try and pull that kind of thing off in an interview. Ripping-off that old British Rail scam was a nice touch but unfortunately we’re all long enough in the tooth to actually remember that.”

It was worth a shot I think. That was what I remembered the other day. There’s this famous apocryphal tale in the advertising world about a British Rail pitch, where the agency in question (always changes depending on who you talk to) kept three clients waiting in a dirty reception, with old newspapers, cups of coffee, cigarette butts, everywhere. For half an hour they sat there, just waiting, constantly being reassured that the agency were nearly ready for them. Just as the clients were about to leave, they were ushered upstairs, and the point was made; this is what British Rail customers go through every single day. I just loved the theatre of it all.

“A few things need working on,” he continued, “particularly from the customer’s point of view – what are we actually asking them to do off the back of seeing this campaign, make a booking? – but overall it seemed to make sense.”

“Thanks, well, glad you liked it. I enjoyed working on it to be honest, came out alright.”

“One thing though. You will have recognised Matt, Leo and myself from the first time we met, but we had a special guest with us; John Tompkins. Through a bizarre set of circumstances – confusion about when he was coming in, seeing the room we’d prepared with their logo on, that sort of thing. Well, he was an actual Shamrock Air client.”

Oh fuck, I’m thinking. His face isn’t giving anything away though.

“A junior client, but a client nonetheless.”

I’m already preparing my thank you for the opportunity speech. I cannot believe I thought writing a note saying ‘go fuck yourself’ could ever be considered a good idea.

“Thankfully he had a sense of humour. In fact, more than that, he absolutely loved your idea and has spoken to his bosses already about running it as a one-off campaign towards the end of the year!”

I certainly didn’t see that coming.

“In other words, you’ve got the job. When can you start? How much notice are you on from your current role, with, er, M & L?” He glances back up from my massively fraudulent CV.

He doesn’t know ‘M & L’ stands for Mario and Luigi.

My brain quips that the Mario Brothers probably don’t have a contractual obligation to put me on gardening leave. Shut up brain.

“Say, a week on Monday?”

That’ll give me a good 9 days to find all the remaining stars Mario Galaxy 2 and finish that eighth. Plenty of time.

“Perfect. We’ll get all your paperwork ready.”

“Excellent. Can’t wait to get started here. I’ve got a good feeling about this.”

We enthusiastically shake hands.

“Me too.”

This is good. I’m growing up.

 

The Gay Footballer (first 50 pages)

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“I didn’t choose to be gay. I just got lucky.” ― Unknown idiom  

  1. Stretching off

From someone called ‘Rainbow Robin.’ He said: “At James Spade. You’re an inspiration. You gave me strength when I thought there was none. God bless you.” And then there are four kisses at the end. Man.

This one’s from Chris Corveil. Chris says: “At James Spade. Your bravery is an example to us all. Proof that real men do still exist. Love, your number one fan.”

Oh wow, this one. I’d forgotten about this one. “At James Spade. You saved me life. I mean that literally. I had the noose around my neck but you showed me a better way.” Jesus. I mean, if that’s really true then I should feel something – happy? – right? I did a good thing. Or rather, some good came out of what I did.

Next we’ve got ‘Jane and Fortune’ – probably not her real name – who says: ‘At James Spade. Stand tall brother. The whole countries [sic] behind you. We’re PROUD to support you.” I see what you did there, Jane. Very clever.

Now, who’s this? A person going by the name ‘Alpha2Omega,’ and he says. ‘At James Spade. When I’m healed next May I’m gonna be the first trans PL star and.’ Actually wait, I’m not going to read that bit. It’s something awful about not needing testicles to have good ball control. I’m sure you can fill in the blanks.

And a guy – or at least I’m assuming it’s a guy – called ‘Mister Long Leg,’ whatever that means, just said “I love you Jam.” I think if you ever met me you’d probably feel a bit differently mate, but thanks, I guess.

And on and on and on. Blah, blah, blah.

Christ, it’s hard reading these back again. So much love and admiration and self-satisfied bullshit. A liberal wet dream.

And it’s all just a lie.

At the time I didn’t think about it too much. It honestly all just sort of happened. You know how sometimes you set something in motion and it overtakes you? Well, yeah, that’s what happened. I flicked a domino and, without knowing it, sat at the end of the chain was the launch button for an atomic bomb.

So it looks like this is my confession. I’m not sat here with a handgun and a bottle of scotch. I’m not going to kill myself at the end. I just want to set the record straight. There isn’t a real ‘why.’ I just did it.

I’m not a bad guy. I’m just a guy who was offered an opportunity to live his dream. Sure, I took advantage of some people, and yeah, maybe appropriated something quite important to a lot of people around the world, but I don’t know, no one got hurt. Not really.

My name is James Spade and I’m Europe’s first openly gay footballer. Only problem is I’m not gay.

Still, never let the truth get in the way of a good story, eh?

 

  1. The warm-up

Let’s start at the beginning then. Well, as close to the beginning as is interesting. A lot’s been made recently about my parents, and how much they really knew, and how much they were really around when I was growing up, but suffice to say they loved me and did everything they could to give me a better life than they had. They were both well educated and worked very hard, but that meant that one or both of them were often away with work.

My two main companions were the television and football, and I remember never being as happy as when these two passions met. Seeing the best players on earth weave their magic on the greatest stage of all was just mesmerising.

You know how you can sometimes chart certain feelings and events back to their precise point of origin? Well, my dream to be a footballer started on exactly May 27th, 2009 at around 10pm. I was 12 years old and I’d snuck upstairs into my friend’s flat – along with half the kids from the road – because his dad had this huge projector screen where he was showing the match.

My second favourite team in the world FC Barcelona – second behind West Ham, of course – were playing Manchester United in the Champions League final in Rome. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and my Father-Son-and-Holy-Ghost Lionel Messi dancing around the pitch as if they’d already seen it all happen before in the future. It all looked so easy, like they were simply colouring in an image of perfection that they’d already sketched out.

As Carlos Puyol lifted the enormous trophy above his head, I could feel tears trickling down my face. It was just the sheer emotion of it all; the idea that the stakes could be that high somewhere, and those guys could raise their game that much and perform when it really mattered.

That was it for me. I knew what I wanted to do and I set about making it happen. I was up before school every day lifting tiny weights to work on my strength. I did shuttle runs after school to improve my fitness. I dribbled a ball with me everywhere from then on – to and from school, around school, over the weekends to the shops, wherever. I worked on my left foot so that both my feet were as good as one another.

And soon it was summer holidays, so I made myself a chart. I knew what my end goal was, so I just needed to break it down day by day, and I knew that over 10 weeks I could get there.

I continued working on my basics, and recruited some of the lads from my road to help me with putting it into practice. There were decent players everywhere around Stratford and Leyton and Plaistow back then, so you could always find enough for a match.

I’d play 11-a-side on a full-size pitch with kids my age twice a week, and then every other day I’d be on the basketball court with the other boys, playing for nutmegs and doing skills. Goals never really counted there; you had to score with flair. Go through someone’s legs, or round their body, or humiliate them any way you could.

I swear, some of the most naturally talented players in the country used to stroll down to that basketball court and spar with each other. When I wasn’t playing, I just watched. I saw how they feinted one way and went the other. I saw how they moved the ball one way, and then quickly hooked it back in the opposite direction. And I saw how they got in each other’s heads and played games with the nonsense they used to chat.

After that Summer I got back to school with my chest properly puffed out, and couldn’t wait for our first match. I’d noticed I’d grown a bit over the break too, and suddenly I was taller, faster and stronger than everyone else.

The first game of the season was against a school in Barking and we won 9-0. I scored five goals in the first half and had to be taken off by the coach to make it fair on the opposition. I made a big deal of it at the time – acting angry and rowdy – but secretly I couldn’t have been happier.

After the game I was waiting for the bus home when someone who was dressed like a teacher, but wasn’t, came up to me and introduced himself.

“Do you follow the Irons, boy?” He said.

“West Ham? Sure I do,” I said. “Who else is there?”

“Good on you son,” he said. He paused, as if he was struggling to translate something from a foreign language he barely knew.

“I was hoping you’d come down to the youth pitches on Saturday and have a trial. I was watching you out there today. You’ve got something.”

I tried to play it cool and said “yeah, sure, why not,” as if I had something much more exciting to do on Saturday, but inside I was screaming for joy.

 

***

 

That man was Neil Campbell, and he oversaw all youth development at West Ham Football Club back then. He took a shine to me, and if I’m honest, I took a shine to him too. If my dad couldn’t be there to watch me play, I was always glad when Neil was there.

Two years on after that first trial, I was 14 playing in the under-16s. And one year later, I was the youngest player in the under-18s at just 15.

I’d never felt so good. On the pitch, it was effortless. I could see where everyone else was and exactly where the ball was going. It was like I was moving slightly faster than everyone else. I played nominally as a striker, but dropped deep to pick the ball up and create chances. I had as many assists as I had goals.

Nothing else mattered. I daydreamed my way through school during the day, and then got down to the pitches at night to train, or watch the other teams play.

My best friend Barney was a couple of years older, and lived a few doors down from me. He was a holding midfielder in the under-18s, and we had this incredible understanding. He was a master of winning a ball and then putting it into space for me to run on to.

He came from a nice family; similar to mine in a lot of ways. Both of his parents were in advertising and ran their own firm. The walls of their house were covered in art and photos and famous adverts, and Barney was obsessed with it.

We got called ‘posh’ a lot, because of how we spoke and what our parents did and where we lived. Hanging around in the car park and the dressing room with the other before and after games, we always both found it a bit hard to really engage with the other kids. For a while I told myself that we were just into different things, but when you actually asked most of the others what they liked, the answer was not-a-lot-really. I think they were just bored with life a lot of the time.

It never seemed to really bother Barney a lot, but I wanted to fit in. My accent went up and down and all over the place – and I could tell sometimes it sounded ridiculous – but I needed some common ground. Why didn’t they like me? I was the best player in the team!

I’d try to overhear films or rappers or clothes or girls that the others were talking about, and teach myself a bit about them to have a conversation, but off the pitch, still none of them were really bothered about me.

To anyone else, they’d look like a checklist of minorities, but when you’re in the middle of it and you’re the minority, it’s pretty draining. I wanted them to like me, but every time I thought like I was getting close, I’d catch one of them telling someone else that I was a ‘fag’ or a ‘rich prick’ or something.

The lads liked me more on the pitch, I guess, but probably because I made them look good. We used to win every game but still none of them really wanted anything to do with me after the match.

But Barney was enough. We shared our dreams for the future together, laughing, but at the same time, hoping that if we wanted it badly enough, it’d come true. I think for me that dream was most-definitely football, but for him, being a designer or a film director or something else creative was even more exciting.

I never really smoked, but one night after a game Barney and I shared some hash on the walk home. I remember saying to him that despite all the rubbish we’d talked over the years, I just wanted to play once for the proper team. To have my name on the back of the famous claret and blue, and walk out of the dressing room out the tunnel in front of all the fans I’d stood shoulder to shoulder with so many times already over the years. That would be enough. I wanted it so badly.

 

***

 

Our next game was against an Arsenal team with a lot of talented players. They’d clearly done their homework because wherever I went, I had one of their lads virtually inside my shirt. I still got the ball, and kept it, but every time I was getting little niggles; kicks around calf, studs on my feet, elbows in ribs, usual stuff, but it was starting to take its toll by half-time.

I was trying to stay neat and tidy and move the ball quickly onto other guys who weren’t being marked as tightly, but with my back to goal, near the left-hand touchline 35 yards out, and my shadow seemingly a yard off the pace, I couldn’t resist. I turned 180 degrees, dragging the ball under my foot as I went, dropped my shoulder left, back where I’d just come, but then played the ball off my standing foot in the opposite direction, through his legs and out into the centre of the pitch. I shouted “nuts!” before running onto the ball and curling it into the top right-hand corner of the net, away from the despairing goalkeeper.

Looking back, I shouldn’t have done it. The goal should’ve been enough. But after 40 minutes of aggravation, I had to let that guy know that I wasn’t going to stay in his pocket all match. I lost control of myself a little bit I guess.

The team celebrated, and I looked over to him and smiled. He shouted something, pointed at me and spat on the field.

As the second half started, this guy seemed to have been switched to left-back, and so I had a new marshal, second-guessing me to every ball. He was in my ear, telling me I was no good and that he was going to shag my mum, and all that other nonsense that people say on the pitch. I used to just shut it out. It washed over me. If anything, it actually helped me focus on what was actually important.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, we held out at 1-0 under severe pressure all second half, but then with five minutes left on the clock, the ball broke to me on the edge of our penalty area from one of their corners. I controlled it and moved past my man with one touch and then accelerated away with the ball. They’d been pushing for an equaliser and had left only one guy back – my friend from the first half – and he was advancing on me from the halfway line. His eyes lit up when he saw me and I still remember the look on his face. It was a grimace; almost drunken in its singularity and stupor.

As he charged towards me, I knocked the ball one way, dropped my shoulder, and then sidestepped the other side of him. Time seemed to slow down and all of a sudden it was so obvious what was going to happen. What was always going to happen. I got two strides – just far enough to feel a smile spread across my face – when I felt a messy, inaccurate collision. Just pure, undirected impact, which tangled both my legs together so far that they seemed to have swapped places. Before I knew it, I’d landed face-first on the bare, hard grass, where I lay stunned and motionless for what left like an hour. My hearing seemed to have slipped out of line because I just had this fuzzy ringing in my ears. I tried to roll over onto my back but was stabbed with so many individual pains running up with right leg that I think I lost consciousness for a second or two.

And that was it. My right shin and ankle were in pieces. Next thing I remember is the ambulance driver telling me I’d be lucky to ever walk again. Through my tears I could see the guy who did it just smirking in my general direction, but then I must’ve passed out again.

 

***

 

Artefact one. Caller on Radio 5 Live football phone-in – one day after coming out.

 

Caller [name redacted]: “I mean, look, it just comes down to this right. He’s sexually attracted to men, right. So where’s the last place you want him? In the middle of a field, surrounded by fit men, running around. How’s he supposed to concentrate?”

 

Host [name removed by request]: “(sighs) He is a professional…”

 

Caller [name redacted]: “Let me put it like this, right. Imagine if any other player was dropped onto a pitch and expected to play his best when he’s distracted by 20 lingerie models flouncing about. Any normal…”

 

Host [name removed by request]: “I’m just going to have to cut you off there I think.”

 

***

 

I think about that kid every so often. I wonder where he is now? I wonder what he thinks about me when he sees me on TV or sees me in a magazine? Maybe he doesn’t even recognise me. Maybe he’s dead.

 

***

 

This is probably a good time to mention Christine. We met pretty much the day I moved to East London, but it took me a year or two to notice her, if you know what I mean.

She was a bit of a tomboy, and me, Barney and her used to run around together whenever we could. We’d cycle around West Ham Park together, watch the football together, set off fireworks together. Usual stupid kid stuff.

Then one day she looked different. I noticed her shirt was tighter and her hair flowed down her back and she smelled like flowers, rather than mud and fried food.

All of a sudden all that fun, easy conversation just dried up and I would start to panic when I saw her. I found myself making notes at night about things I could talk to her about on the walk to school the next day. I started combing my hair.

Barney of course spotted all this and found it hilarious. He’d tease me mercilessly at football training, always telling me that she’d turned up unannounced to watch us play, then knicking the ball off me while I goofily stared off and mouthed ‘where?’

And then finally one night, swollen with desire and cheap supermarket own-brand lager, I kissed her. If it was a shot on goal, it would’ve been scuffed off my shin-pad, but as my old man used to say, they all count. She smiled and giggled and asked if she was my first kiss. I blushed and said yes, and then blushed even more at the unspoken insinuation that it wasn’t her first.

I used this to my advantage though and constantly pestered her for ‘practice,’ which she took to with similar enthusiasm. It soon became clear though that despite her head start with the opposite sex, kissing was as far as she’d gone, and we discovered the next stages of sexual adventure together.

We fell into a wonderful rhythm, and thinking back now, that was probably the time I was most happy in life. It all felt so natural; whatever I wanted, she wanted, and vice versa. We did everything together, and a few times she really did come and watch me play football.

If you thought I was insufferable on the pitch when no one I cared about was watching, then imagine how I behaved when I was trying to show off. Boys two and three years older – and nearly twice my size – got humiliated with a smile, and one youth team manager got so fed up with my antics he even tried to drop me. Problem was, we were down 2-0 at half-time and he had no choice but to throw me on and win the game.

If this all sounds arrogant, it’s because it is. But it’s that kind of game, especially when you’re that age and in London. I remember all these games and performances still through the same thought processes I had at the time, with all the heraldry and grandeur that they entailed.

When she told me she loved me, it caught me off-guard, but then I think girls always mature faster than boys. It wasn’t anything that I’d even considered, but she was already looking forward and wanted to express that she was as emotionally committed as she was physically. It meant more than I thought it would. You have to remember what it felt like to be only just 15.

We had just lost the youth FA Cup Final – unfortunately we did occasionally lose – and I’d felt like tearing the dressing room apart after the match. I was rarely that emotional about football, but it got to me that day. Weird how you can sometimes hate losing more than you actually love winning.

I felt then in that moment what I imagine a lot of other guys felt towards me later in the my career; that feeling that some people are just along for the ride, and will never be truly good enough. It was an odd emptiness that I’d spend the rest of my life trying to run away from.

When the team bus dropped us back at the training ground Christine was waiting for me, and she must’ve known something had happened. I don’t think I said a word as we trudged back home, but she invited me up into her bedroom anyway and softly whispered in my ear that no matter what happened she’d always love me. That stirred me out of my catatonia and made me realise that maybe football wasn’t the only thing worthwhile in my life.

 

***

 

But anyway, it was Christine’s face that first greeted me when I woke up in hospital about eight hours after two separate surgical procedures had repaired all the bones and muscles and nerves and ligaments below my right knee.

I think when I saw her I instantly burst into tears. Call it relief, or love, or the copious amount of painkillers coursing through my body.

I remember squeaking out quite pathetically “Am I ok?” and that was her cue to start crying. For a split-second I had to reach down and actually touch my leg because I thought that might’ve had it removed altogether.

“We’ll be ok,” she kept repeating, chanting, like a mantra. If was as much for her own benefit as mine I think.

 

***

 

Things were hard after that. The club stuck by me and paid all my bills, including full-time rehabilitative physiotherapy, but I really struggled.

The physio was an old army grunt called Marcus – never Marc – who seemed to take incredible pleasure in my agony. We’d start with a massage, which at first I thought would be nice and relaxing, but in reality it meant 30 minutes of him pummelling various parts of my body with the points of his elbows, and pulling my fingers and toes almost out of their sockets.

That was just to ‘warm up.’ After 10 minutes I could barely speak because the pain was too great. After 20 minutes I’d be drenched in sweat. After half an hour – when the actual physiotherapy on my leg began – I’d be close to tapping out.

Yet it was still downhill from there. I’d do stretches and crunches, lifts and pushes; all designed to increase strength and what he called, range of movement. It all felt so alien, like it was someone else’s shin and ankle dangling limply the other end of my knee. My shirt would already be soaking wet, but before long I realised I needed to wear a headband and sweatbands too.

I’d hobble up and down this little padded channel in the backroom of the gym while Marcy-boy screamed promotional slogans at me. I’d alternate with and without crutches, trying to hold my weight for split seconds at a time. I think I gave up every single time; not because I was weak, or because I didn’t want to get better, but simply because I had to. The body has limits. Or at least mine did.

Marc obviously took this personally – like I was giving up just to spite him and make him look bad – but really the opposite was true. At that time I would’ve done anything just to shut him up and prove that I wasn’t the pathetic weakling he seemed to think I was.

At the start of the ‘warm down,’ he always said: “finally then, let’s have some fun.” I couldn’t work out if he was being ironic or if he really meant it, but what it involved was us both putting on boxing gloves, sitting opposite each other and then just lashing out for one minute at a time. He always went first. So after almost two hours of tenderising my body, he’d finally just throw me on the grill to caramelise my skin nicely.

I remember one time leaving the centre and bumping into Neil Campbell. It was probably after only three or four sessions, when I was close to my lowest point.

“Afternoon James,” he said. “It’s great to see you up and about. On the road to recovery.”

It didn’t sound like a question, but it felt like one. I was so defensive at the time, and he represented all the bitterness and undirected rage building up inside of me.

I grunted something in reply and tried to keep on walking.

“Listen,” he said, “I’ve got a few bits of home exercise equipment for you that I found. They were my daughter’s I think. A high-tension elastic band for stretching and some Velcro weights to help build a bit of strength again. They’re yours if you want them?”

Again, I think I just grunted something negative and continued to avoid eye contact.

“Well, they’re in a bag for you anyway. Why don’t you just take them?”

I figured if I just didn’t respond or move then maybe he’d leave.

“I don’t see your parents anywhere today. I take it they’re not coming to pick you up? Can I at least give you a lift home?”

I snapped. “Look, I don’t want your pity. I don’t want your weights. I don’t want to get in your car ok. Just leave me alone, alright?”

“I’m sorry you feel that way. I was just trying to help. Maybe next time, eh?”

“Unless you can wind back time, or you’ve got a new leg for me, don’t bother, ok?”

What an awful, awful thing to say. I don’t really feel too bad about some of the people I’ve let down, or some of the things I’ve said, but that one still sticks in my throat. Sometimes when I’m trying to sleep I just find that repeated on a loop over and over again, and I can see his face fall for just a second, before he then plasters a fake smile over the top and keeps trying to cheer me up again.

Even despite this moment of callousness, and me storming off – well, hobbling off, in as dramatic and pointed a way as possible – he was kind enough to look in on me again once a month or so. He’d try and cheer me up with stories about how my team was getting on but as the weeks passed, it felt less and less like ‘my’ team and more and more like just another team. There was now the odd name I didn’t recognise, and someone new – someone younger – playing in my position and wearing my shirt number.

I was just too depressed, and the combination of hearing about what the team was up to and my post-physio exhaustion just made it worse.

 

***

 

School sent me months’ worth of work to catch up on – that while I was concentrating on my game they had turned a blind eye to – so that kept my mind relatively active. It took me a while to get back in sync with studying though; like every other muscle, the brain needs regular exercise.

My school was a funny one. Technically you had to pay, but almost everyone was there on some sort of welfare, state-supported deal. If you were smart enough – and passed the entrance exam – then you got scooped up out of the rougher, public schools and ushered into this shining beacon of light, where kids wore uniform and didn’t smoke in lessons and didn’t threaten teachers.

I liked the place, but passively rather than actively, because whenever I was there it was just the transitional times in between training and matches. Without trying too hard though I had always gotten along fine, swimming in the middle of the pack and excelling in the odd test or essay if I could really let my imagination run off somewhere.

If I’m honest with myself now, I looked down on a lot of the kids at the time, thinking that they were just stuck in the cycle of having to study to get boring jobs for the rest of their lives, while I’d be off traveling around the world, playing football on TV and winning trophies.

The second month of schoolwork was delivered to my door by a boy I recognised, but I was embarrassed to say I didn’t know his name or anything else about him. He was an African lad, and very polite. On some level I desperately wanted to invite him in and talk to him about anything; just gossip about who’s doing what with whom, even though I wouldn’t really know who he was talking about.

As he shuffled off, and called me ‘Jack’ in the process, I realised that I didn’t really have any friends apart from Barney. And if it wasn’t for him and Christine I would be almost entirely alone. I was caught between quite a few places that I didn’t really fit into – school, East London, the football team – but now I was barely even physically present in any of the spheres.

My parents made me a lot of promises when I got injured that they’d be around more. Not just to look after me, but to keep me company too. And they said they’d also make sure that some of my aunts and uncles and cousins, who lived out in Colchester and Ipswich, would come into town and stay with me when they did have to be away still. That didn’t happen though. None of it. Every weekend it was the same excuses. From my parents every meeting or trip was ‘the big one’ that they couldn’t miss, and every week was ‘the last time’ they had to be away. But even when they were home, they were writing presentations or reading. I couldn’t feel too bad though because they were barely speaking to one another, let alone to me.

I had to look to my books for comfort.

 

***

 

When you’re used to doing a lot of running and competing, you can’t just suddenly stop, because your body becomes addicted to those actions and the natural chemicals they produce. Having the rug pulled out from under me like that sent me into the kind of deep depression that I’ve only just begun to be able to recognise. My rehabilitation got my blood pumping, but it just felt like grinding the muscles down rather than opening them up. I missed the adrenaline and that feeling of the wind rushing past me.

I talked to Barney about this finally and he joked that maybe I was turning into a dog. I know he was just trying to raise my spirits, and not treat me any different than he had before, but I think I just scowled at him and told him I was tired and needed to be alone. He was virtually my only contact with the outside world; otherwise it was just the occasional meal with my parents before they had to leave again, and my bi-weekly showdown with the ex-meathead in the gym.

But then finally one day I’d had enough of the physio. I was honest with myself about what I was feeling; that I wasn’t getting anywhere, I was in constant pain and I hated everyone involved. Everyone said I had to be patient, and keep mentally strong, and yada yada yada. I knew they were right, and I would say the same thing to anyone in my situation too, but it’s different when it’s you. You hold yourself to a different set of standards and rules, and when you know deep down that you’ve made your mind up, it’s simply a matter of how long you can rail against it.

One day I simply refused to go to my session with Marc and turned my phone off in a sulk. I could picture his bulldog face turning in on itself when I didn’t show up and that made me feel better than I had done for a good few weeks. I shuffled outside to smoke a spliff in my dressing gown, and then made an enormous cup of tea and four slices of cheese on toast. I didn’t even want to get high or play computer games, but I figured that that was probably the thing he disliked the most, so it was an extra ‘up yours.’

I’d just taken a break halfway through my breakfast when I heard a rat-a-tat-tat at the door. My heart stopped. My first thought it was one of my parents, but then I realised that obviously they’d use their key. Then I guessed it must be the postman and hoped that he’d just leave whatever he was trying to deliver on the doorstep outside. Then I heard him.

“James! It’s Marcus. I know you’re in there you little toe-rag. Come here!” He could really roar.

Christ, I thought. Could I just pretend I wasn’t in? I mean, what’s the worst that could happen? He wouldn’t kick down the door would he?

“I will kick down this door! I spoke to your father and he’s given me permission to do that, and then take the cost of a replacement out of your weekly cover from West Ham.”

Oh man.

 

***

 

“Now, sit down James please. I’m happy to put this whole incident behind us, because I know this isn’t easy, but you need to start being honest with me.”

I was embarrassed and pissed off and stoned but for the first time in ages I felt properly alive, like everything was happening to me in full colour and surround sound again. It felt good to have my heart thumping again, even if it was mainly out of fear.

“Do you want to tell me why you did what you did this morning? It might seem like a small thing, but it’s thrown my whole day out of line now hasn’t it? You know I’m just trying to help you right?”

I meant to look at the floor and just shrug again, as usual, but instead I burst into uncontrollable tears.

“I’m sorry,” I remember choking out. “I’ve lost everything. It’s all fallen apart. I hate myself and these crutches and lifting weights and I wish I could just cut my stupid leg off!”

My body went limp and I found myself balled up with my head resting on his lap. His huge concrete arms were around me and I was shaking uncontrollably.

“It’s okay mate. Get it all out.”

He rubbed my back and actually made that kind of placid shushing noise you hear people cooing over babies.

“I really do know what it’s like James. Like, exactly. I suffered the same injury as you, only it wasn’t just one leg, it was both of the bastards. And it cost me my dream too; a spot in the SAS.”

I suddenly felt like the smallest, pettiest person in the world.

“We were on the base one evening, celebrating the birth of an officer’s first child, and we’d had a few drinks. It seemed like a good idea to try a bit of balls-out abseiling – don’t ask me why – so we rigged up and took it in turns to down a beer, free-wheel down a fifty-foot wall and leave it as late as possible to slam the brakes on. I went last, and all the lads down at the bottom were giving it the big ‘un. I latched in and, well, you can probably fill in the blanks.

“The point is that I know that the physical stuff is only a small part of it. You want to lash out at everyone and everything, but you have to keep it together. You have to treat it one step at a time and trust that if you think about today, then tomorrow will start to look after itself.

“I know it’s hard work. I know it doesn’t feel like you’re getting anywhere. And I know you hate me. But I also know that if I don’t push you, and don’t treat you like an arsehole sometimes, that you definitely 100% won’t ever play football again. At the moment it’s 50/50. I’d do anything for a 50/50 chance at the SAS.

“So what do you reckon? Are you with me? Are we going to get you back out there in a year’s time?”

I started to cry again.

Things were different between us after that.

 

***

 

Artefact two. Chants overheard on the terraces at Leyton Orient – two weeks after coming out.

 

“Beat by a homo, you’re getting beat by a homo, beat by a hoooooommmmoooo…”

 

——-

 

“One nil,

to the nancy boys,

one nil,

to the nancy boys…”

 

——-

 

“James Spade’ll shag your dad,

He’ll even shag you,

And he’ll maybe shag your mum,

‘Cos she’s a fella too!”

 

——-

 

“He’s here,

He’s queer,

He takes it up the rear,

James Spade,

James Spade!”

 

***

 

I started to take care of the mental side of things – I knew that for those few hours a week, I was going to have to put the work in that I’d never really had to before – but I still had quite bad physical pain most nights.

So I started smoking weed increasingly more. This made my isolation seem welcome and of my own construction, when the reality is that the few people in my life probably drifted away as much as I pushed them.

Worse though were the drugs they had prescribed me – tramadol, mainly – which had some strange side effects. My moods went up and down irrationally, I put on weight and I stopped wanting to see people. Even Christine.

She’d arrive on my doorstep and I’d want to open up to her like I had with Marcus, and just be honest and tell her I really needed help, but as soon as I saw her I clammed up.

“So, what do you want to do?” she always used to say, with a smile.

“Dunno,” was always just my shrugged answer, avoiding eye contact.

“What you thinking about?” was another of her favourites, always after I’d been quiet for longer than usual.

“Nothing,” I’d always lie, while inside half of me was screaming just tell her you’re hurting and you need help.

She’d still invite me along to stuff, but I’d always throw it back in her face and make her feel guilty.

“Come to the cinema?”

“I can’t, can I? I’ve got physio. Every Tuesday afternoon. Don’t you remember?”

“Sorry,” she said meekly. “How about tonight?”

“Well I’ll be exhausted won’t I? You know what he makes me do. Just go with someone else okay.”

And then the next week it was: “Come with me and Rach to watch Barney and the guys play?”

“What, on my crutches? It’s muddy as hell, and it’s a mile walk!”

Or another evening: “Fancy sharing this wine my dad left?”

“You know I can’t drink on my painkillers, but you go on, do whatever you want.”

I could drink on my tramadol, and I did, but just not around her. It was a pretty great feeling. This numb, tingly, euphoria that just emptied my mind of all its problems. All the little knives that barbed me were blunted slightly by the drugs. Sometimes it took one pill; sometimes a couple; sometimes a couple and a four-pack of beer and a joint.

 

***

 

Looking back now it’s clear how I pushed her away – in an oddly passive, but still forceful way – and it’s a credit to her that she actually put up with me as long as she did. I took it all out on her for some reason.

It makes no sense thinking about it now, but when my head wasn’t occupied entirely with either not passing out from trying to walk repeatedly on a shattered ankle or not buried in a textbook, it just swam with rage and resentment.

So the time came when Christine had finally had enough. It was our two-year anniversary and I could tell that she had a fresh resolve. In retrospect, I think not planning to go out or even getting dressed up to cook her a meal was my way of subtly – or maybe rather not so subtly – pushing her to do the manly thing for me.

“Hi,” she said, standing oddly on my porch, rather than just walking straight in. She hadn’t dressed up or even put any make-up on. “Can I come in?”

“Yeah of course-”

“We need to talk,” she said, striding past me to sit down in the living room.

I sat next to her and initiated physical contact for the first time in god-knows-how-long, just trying to hold her hand, but she quickly whipped it out of the trap and folded it back into her lap. She looked down, took a deep breath and then she just said it.

“We need to break up Jammy. This isn’t working anymore. I don’t even know what this! We sit in the same room as each other, out of habit more than anything, and I try to talk to you and you just grunt and then I go home and I cry. Night after night. And I started to think, ‘why am I doing this?’ Because I don’t love you anymore, not really. I’m sorry, of course. I don’t want to be blunt but I just have to say it and be honest. But the other night it dawned on me: I don’t have to do this. I’m sorry, but you’ve become…”

“A burden,” I shouted. “Is that what you were going to say? I’ve become a burden? Oh, I’m so sorry for the inconvenience, Christine. Sorry for breaking my leg and having my life ruined. That must’ve really gotten in your way. If only I didn’t have to stay virtually motionless for six months because I can’t walk or even really go anywhere because of the pain and the drugs I have to take.”

“Wait, wait, have to take? So the surgeon told you to smoke weed all day, on top of taking twice the amount of medication that he prescribed? I know, I checked. And, and, and I suppose the NHS recommends that you never get dressed or wash yourself ever, right?”

“You know what Christine, I’m glad you’ve finally told me how you really feel, because I’ve felt the same for a long time actually. Even before all this rubbish happened to me I was getting a bit fed up with you, always nagging me and just asking questions and waiting to be told what to do like some sort of pathetic lap-dog. You were good for one thing, and I should’ve just put a stop to it then.”

She just starred at me then, with her eyes dilating, and that was the worst bit.

“You’re… I mean, this isn’t you Jammy, I know it isn’t. I’m sorry this has gone the way it’s gone, but I think we’re probably both going to be better off just putting this all behind us. I’m sure if we spend a bit of time apart we’ll be able to move on. We’ll probably be laughing about all this before too long won’t we?”

“Oh yeah, great, thanks Christine. That’ll be easy won’t it? I’ll just pop out to a club and meet someone else, no worries. Yeah then we’ll get together again, won’t we, the four of us, and laugh about how you just decided to leave when I needed you the most. You might as well just go now. I’ll be fine. I never really felt that much for you anyway. Every time I said I loved you I was really just thinking that that’s what you wanted to hear before you’d open your legs for me again.”

She just shook her head and gave me a really pitying last look, before getting up and leaving and I can’t really remember what happened next in all honesty. I had felt pretty empty beforehand, so just cleaning out another corner of my life didn’t seem to make much difference to be honest. I told myself that it was on my terms; that I’d won, whatever that meant.

Despite everything I’ve done, I regret hurting her the most now. I got the chance to try and set things right again a few years later but I didn’t get quite the reaction I was hoping for. Christine, if you’re out there, I hope you don’t still hate me. The rest I can take, but not you. I wish I could be the person I was turning into when I was first with you all those years ago.

 

***

 

And so Barney remained my only connection to the outside world – to the football team, to everyone and everything – but I could see he was getting fed up with me too. It was a heavy burden for such slight shoulders.

As with Christine I think I was using provocation to try to get him to act out towards me. I needed a good shaking, and finally one night I got one.

“I’m buzzing Jam, I can’t sit still. One game of the season left and if we just get a draw against Leicester – bottom of the league, haven’t won in two months – then we’re champions. Can you believe it?”

“Huh,” I said, distracted by nothing.

“Why don’t you come along next week? Everyone would love to see you. Now I think about it, you played a good few games this season, so you deserve to celebrate.”

“Yeah, I did play a good few games didn’t I? I’m pretty sure I won quite a few good games by myself actually didn’t I? In fact, I’m amazed the rest of you have managed to not mess it all up since.”

He smiled, as I’d been joking, but we both know I wasn’t.

“Well, we’ve struggled of course, but just about stumbled along without you!”

“Who’s playing up front now? Still that Larry guy? He always was bloody useless.”

“He’s playing really well actually-”

“And who’s playing in my position?”

“I am actually, Jam-”

“You are?” I laughed. “No offence mate, but come on!”

“Things have changed James,” he said, suddenly serious. “It’s been months. What did you expect to happen? The league would just be put on hold, and our team would disband or something out of respect? Life’s moved on, man. It sucks, I know. And it’s gonna continue to do so. The world hasn’t just stopped turning because you want it to.”

I started to say something but he talked over me.

“I’m playing well. Larry’s playing well. We’re all playing well. Do you know what, we’re a better team without you. There, I said it. I didn’t want to, but it’s true. Before it was just ‘oh, give the ball to Jam and get out of the way,’ but now we can all play and express ourselves.”

“Good. Great. Do whatever you want then. Why did you even come over here then, just to gloat? Oh Barney, aren’t you so amazing. I suppose you’re starting for the First Team next weekend?”

He just sighed and sat down again. I don’t think either of us had realised that we’d both stood up and were inches away from one another.

“Jesus Jam, what’s happened to you? I thought you’d be happy for us! Where’s all this bitterness come from? It’s not our fault. It’s certainly not my fault! I’ve been here almost every day, talking at you while you stared into the middle-distance. Look around you Jam! Everyone else’s gone mate. It’s just me left, and to be honest, I’m having second thoughts as well. You should see what kind of state Christine’s in…”

“Christine! Oh I bet you know all about that, don’t you? You’ve always had a thing for her. I bet you had her right round to yours the other night. Shoulder to cry on, was it? I bet you both had a great little time telling each other what a bastard I am, how mean I’d been to you. I’ve played right into your hands here haven’t I?”

“Oh Jam shut up. Just shut up! You got hurt – that’s rubbish, I know, really bad luck – but it’s not the end of the world. You’re stronger than this. You’re still you for God’s sake. If you keep behaving like this you’re going to turn around in six months and realise you’ve got no one left. So cheer up. Calm down. And just be my friend again!”

I felt like I’d been physically slapped in the face. I’d never seen him this angry. He just stared at me, boring deeper into my being with his eyes. Finally he put his arm round me.

“Look, the guys still ask about you, and if you can get your fitness back, then we’d all love to have you in the team again. But until then, get back involved. Come watch the games, come speak to the guys. They’re much friendlier to me now. I think they always liked you too; they were a bit intimidated is all. Just be present. Show everyone you’re not giving up.”

I took a deep breath. I felt like if I shut my eyes I would sleep for the rest of the week.

“I’m going to do it, Barney. Thank you. And I know there’s nothing between you and Christine. I was just talking nonsense.”

“Come along for the Leicester game. Go on.”

Even after everything I’d done, and all the times I’d tried to slam and kick the door shut, there was still just a thin sliver of light shining out.

 

***

 

Artefact three. Excerpt from TV interview – three months after coming out.

 

Host [name removed by request]: “So the question on everyone’s lips is: is there a special someone in your life at the moment?”

 

James Spade: “(laughs) No, no. Unfortunately not!”

 

Host [name removed by request]: “By my reckoning that would make you about the country’s most eligible bachelor.”

 

James Spade: “Very kind of you to say. Given the situation though it can be hard to meet someone. Do you guys out there know anyone who might be interested?”

 

Shouts, applause and laughter from the audience.

 

Host [name removed by request]: “I think you might have a few takers! Maybe a few givers too…”

 

James Spade: “(laughs) Very good, very good.”

 

Host [name removed by request]: “(laughs) I’ve just had a thought: maybe we should set you up a Grindr account?

 

Hoots of approval from the audience.

 

James Spade: “What, right here?”

 

Host [name removed by request]: “Right now! Why not?”

 

James Spade: “(laughs) Why not indeed. Ok, let’s do it!”

 

***

 

The first time I kicked a ball was almost 12 months later, so about 18 months after my injury. I could’ve managed it earlier but if I’m honest, I was afraid. What if it felt wrong? What if I’d lost my touch for good? All of my fears and insecurities bubbled up, and I sought out any other distractions I could.

Finally I felt strong again and I felt fit, but staring at that ball on the ground, it looked huge and ominous, and delicate and elusive, all at the same time. I was sure that if I connected with it I’d shatter my leg again, or even worse, swing and miss it completely.

Barney juggled the ball nonchalantly and then rolled it my way. I took a deep breath and stuck my right leg out in an utterly alien movement to trap the ball. It stopped under the sole of my trainer and my body’s balance just felt right again. It’s hard to describe, but having a football there – the position I always used to have it on the pitch, the ideal platform for me to start moving quickly in any direction – made me feel more stable than I had for too long.

I moved the ball in all four directions, one after another, and tried to dance over and around it like I always had done. My coordination wasn’t quite normal, but my mind was ticking over almost as quickly as it used to, manoeuvring my body before I could even think where to go next. Even just moving on the spot I could feel the slight gusts of wind moving past my feet and my face and it felt incredible; even better than running at full pelt across the field to celebrate.

 

***

 

I felt on top of the world starting my first proper match back. Arsenal too; one of my real enemies. The lads gave me a fantastic welcome, and in training my game was close to being back to its best; no-one could get anywhere near me, and I was spraying the ball around the pitch with ease.

As I suited up though I felt something I hadn’t felt for probably five years: nerves. Those doubts that I’d felt touching a ball again a few weeks earlier had resurfaced, and with them came much worse feelings of embarrassing myself in front of the rest of the team, or even worse, letting them all down.

I tried to tell myself it was only natural, and that I’d always felt nervous before a game. I knew that wasn’t true though. I used to waft by on such an air of confidence that the occasion or the opposition or the crowd were irrelevant until the final whistle.

Peering outside then though and even the 10 or so guys in thick coats ringing the pitch looked intimidating. With their faces permanently set to ‘impress me,’ they were all in the business, so there purely to um and arr, and mark and judge.

We jogged out, warmed up and went through our usual rituals. The lads were joking around and I was laughing in the right places but not engaged at all.

The whistle blew and although my heart was pounding I couldn’t get my legs moving. I was rooted to the spot and the game was happening around me at a hundred miles an hour. I was just so aware of everything I was doing that I couldn’t actually do anything, if that makes sense. I could feel all my thoughts plodding along about two seconds after the ball passed me by. I’d miscontrol it, run into players on my own team, and I was so afraid of getting another bad injury that I’d panic the second an Arsenal player ran towards me.

At half-time I was substituted and I couldn’t even bear to watch the second half with the rest of the team.

***

 

I knew straight away. What happened next was merely a formality. I went in to see the boss in an odd sort of disembodied state; knowing what was going to be said before it was said, and seeing it all happen at the same time.

My contract was terminated. The boss said that they knew from the first training session that I’d lost my edge. The reason no one had tackled me was that they could see I was fragile and lacking the strength to properly compete. The Arsenal game was just that one final test, because after all I’d been through, the club didn’t want to have to make the decision.

I saw Mr Campbell on the way out and he told me to keep in touch. I said I would, but I had no intention of doing so.

 

***

 

After two years of ups and downs, this was the worst. Since I was old enough to dream, I couldn’t comprehend anything else I wanted more than to play for the Irons. Now what?

I eventually saw sense and did give Mr Campbell a call, and he came round to the flat. In what I can now see as the most fortunate meeting of my life, he came equipped with two fantastic opportunities for me; two final, final lifelines which gave my spirits the boost they desperately needed. At 17 I felt like I’d already endured enough misery and disappointment to last a lifetime.

He’d convinced one old friend of his to let me into Stratford Academy of Excellence to finish off my A-levels, and another old friend to let me try out for Leyton Orient F.C. in the summer after I’d finished my exams.

He’d been around the block had Neil Campbell. He knew everything and everyone east of Shoreditch, and had clearly put himself out there for me. It meant a lot. Not just that someone still (maybe) believed in me, but that someone would do something so generous for me, even after I’d behaved like a arse towards him more times than I care to document here.

 

***

 

A few months passed and after getting my head down properly, I’d finished my A-levels (and done alright actually; and not just alright actually for a footballer) and got myself signed by Leyton Orient.

They were my next-nearest team, with a decent, passionate fan-base. When I joined we were in League Two, having just been relegated the season before.

Everyone told me to be sensible and go to university but, hell, you can go study Ancient Greece anytime; it isn’t going anywhere is it? At 18 though, I still had a chance to play professionally and that was enough really.

After a lot of soul-searching, and playing every day after school again, I’d managed to build my confidence back up and, perhaps more importantly, stop thinking about my leg snapping in half again every time I went near another player.

I did well in my trial match at Orient, and got invited to train for the team for a week to see how I handled it. I wouldn’t say the standard was lower than what I remember from now-almost three years ago at West Ham, but it was certainly a different game. I was playing wide left, which I liked, and because I was almost as strong with both feet, I could – ahem – go both ways.

Felt

utopiates9

I

Zeth dry-swallowed the pill and shut his eyes, repeating come on, come on over and over again in his head. He hadn’t eaten for two days to make sure his stomach would process it as quickly as possible.

“You’re welcome,” the dealer, Alix, said sarcastically, fading into the background under his hood.

One of Zeth’s friends shouted something at him over the din of the music but he didn’t hear him. He didn’t even remember the guy’s name. He was already sweating, but pushed further into the furnace of the crowd and started to dance; anything to encourage it to kick in.

The music was indiscernible. He tried to focus more, pick out a groove or a tempo or anything, but couldn’t. The music was irrelevant anyway. He massaged his stomach as if somehow that would start proceedings. He suddenly wished he hadn’t had to come to a club to score. He didn’t want anything to ruin this moment.

Someone with long hair pushed themselves up against his cold, wet body and shouted: “We won it! 100 years of hurt! Never stopped believing!” right in his face, eyes slammed shut and rapturous ecstasy plastered all over his face. Zeth felt a pang of jealousy, but he had tried that one recently and it had left him apathetic. He’d never really been that much of a football fan.

No, what he’d just taken was the absolute peak. Nothing came close. But the waiting was killing him. Come on, take me up he thought. His fists were balled tightly shut and he was vibrating on the spot, out of sync with the music and the rest of the clubbers.

And then it hit him.

His eyelids slammed shut and a wave of light washed over him. He audibly moaned as his body relaxed.

He took in his new surroundings – a small, white-washed room, with a woman lying exhausted in front of him – and held his arms out. What came next he experienced as if for the first time, every time. That was what this newcotic gave you.

Into his arms was lowered a tiny lump of skin and hair, wriggling as it tried to process where it was. He felt a huge grin spread over his whole body as he slowly rocked from side to side. Tingles ran up and down his arms and spine, and tears welled in the corners of his eyes.

“She’s perfect isn’t she?” A voice cooed from the bed, just out of focus. “She’s yours, and no-one can ever take that away.”

Zeth nodded and stared into the ball of life now lying peacefully in his arms. This is just…there are no words for it, he thought. I must be glowing.

Zeth opened his eyes again and suddenly the club around him had changed. It was full of all of his best friends, rubbing him on the back and telling him how much they loved him. The walls were soft and furry and welcoming. The track pulsating out of the speaker-towers was his favourite song of all-time and he couldn’t believe they were playing it. He made eye-contact with the DJ, who winked and seemed to mouth: “This is for you Zeth. I knew you’d want to hear it.”

Bliss, he thought, I wouldn’t trade this for anything.

 

***

 

Zeth came round on the floor of his apartment, next to the bath, which seemed to be overflowing. He groaned and started to retreat into a foetal position. His entire skeleton felt uncomfortable, but that was it. He was mainly just empty. He wondered what day it was but then realised it didn’t matter. He had no desire to do anything. Well, anything other than find another score. He rolled onto his back and tried to formulate a plan.

“Call Alix,” he grunted to his grey apartment.

“Calling Alix,” came the monotone reply.

“Good afternoon, Mr Personality,” boomed through the apartment as Alix answered with a sigh. “Let me guess: you want to go for a beer this evening and talk to me about a girl you like?”

“Very funny,” Zeth said. “You know why I’m calling.”

“You need to give it a rest mate, seriously.” No reply. Alix paused. “Have you ever had a genuine feeling in your life?”

“I don’t remember.”

“You disgust me. As in, I feel disgust towards you. And pity. And sadness.”

“What’s pity?” Zeth asked.

“Nevermind.”

Silence. Not awkward, just a fact.

“Look, can you help me or not?”

Alix sighed again.

“I told you I was out last time. Then I found one more for you and we agreed that that was probably that.”

“I don’t believe you. Whatever it takes, just find me one more. Money? Power? Fame? Name your price. You know who my father is.”

Alix laughed.

“I’m not holding out on you mate. I’m telling you it isn’t possible. It doesn’t exist. I understand that no-one’s ever said ‘no’ to you before, but please, listen to the words I’m saying. It can’t be done.”

“It can always be done.”

“How about something else?

“Not this again.”

“The first man to walk on Enledadus and stare back at the solar system?”

“Snooze.”

“Or, how about headlining LiveEarth in front of three million people all screaming your name?”

Suddenly Zeth had an idea. How have I not thought of this before?

“Shut up a minute and listen. I have an idea.”

Here we go, Alix thought.

“What if I find my own host and we harvest it directly from him? There will be someone out there about to experience it for real, desperate enough to sell it to me in exchange for lifetime security.”

Alix didn’t want to think about this. He was under no illusions where the newcotics he sold originated from, but still.

“I guess.”

“Great. That’s settled then! You’ll find me an expectant father, make him an offer, and then I’ll get another hit. I’ll send one of my men to help you in case you meet any resistance.”

“I don’t need…”

Zeth hung up. He half-sat up and dragged himself into the living room, his mind starting to tick over.

“Play Her Date With a Chainsaw,” he said to the apartment. A screen lowered and showed a naked blonde girl tied to a table. She struggled, eyes darting from side to side.

Zeth turned the sound up and panic filled his apartment.

Now three masked men entered the scene. One put both of his hands around her throat, one slowly started to rape her and the third man held a running chainsaw menacingly close to one of her feet.

Who would invent such a torture device? He thought briefly, before realising he didn’t care.

PLEASE SELECT YOUR CHARACTER ZETH read the on-screen prompt, as the three men got into their stride.

Zeth stared out the window, already bored, and fell back to sleep, screams and splatter echoing all around him as the three men went to work.

 

II

 

“I ain’t hiring a fuckin’ Paki. Off you go now.”

Arshesh stared at the disgustingly overweight woman opposite him. He had expected this response, but nevertheless, it still hurt.

“Well, thank you for your time,” he said meekly.

“Fuck off,” she said, already turning away on the large swivel-chair that was also her car and her bed and her toilet.

He walked out the backdoor of the fast-food franchise and wanted to punch something, or cry, or both. He pulled out a piece of paper and slowly crossed the last name off his list.

Congratulations, he thought, you’re officially unemployable.

He started to walk home, wondering what to say to Dina. How can I be a man if I can’t even provide for my wife? He shook his head again, cursing himself. And how can I be a father if I can’t even keep a roof over the little one’s head?

 

***

 

“I could compete in the Fights?” Arshesh offered tentatively, hoping she wouldn’t think it was a good idea.

“Are you crazy? You’ll get killed! They shoot the fighters up with Allah-knows-what! Even if you somehow managed to win, I don’t want the father of my child full of the rage of a murderer!”

“Well, I’m out of options,” he said, sitting down dejected.

“Look, let me go out again and work a night or two on my back. It wasn’t so bad before.”

“Dina – my love – if you think I’m letting my pregnant wife sell her body for sex then you clearly don’t know me very well. The idea’s repulsive.”

“So’s being homeless!”

“Dina.”

“What? It’s alright for you to kill for money, but it’s not alright for me to spend five minutes staring at the ceiling, stifling a yawn? I don’t care what they do because I know why I’m there, and I know that I’m getting more from them than they’re getting from me.”

“But.” Arshesh was struggling. “But I’m the man Dina.”

“Congratulations Arshesh, and I’m the woman. But together we’re a family, and I’d do whatever it takes to provide for us.”

“What, and I wouldn’t?” He glared at her, powerless and exasperated. “I’ve tried everything! This is no country for people like us anymore. What kind of land will advertise – advertise! – for a contract killer, and then turn their nose up you for being a minority? You should’ve seen the look on this fat whale’s face earlier. She spat the word ‘Paki’ out like it was a mouthful of shit. That’s what we are to these people! We’re just trying to survive dammit.”

He didn’t realise he was crying until Dina had him in her arms.

“It’s ok husband. We’ll think of something. As long as we have each other all is not lost. Me and you against the world, remember?”

She paused, racking her brain for anything else to avoid what she was about to suggest.

“I’ll call Gorge. We don’t have any other choice.”

“But.”

“We don’t have any other choice.”

 

***

 

“And this is Arshesh. He’s a, er, friend of mine. Remember, the guy I told you about?”

A large man leaned half out of the shadows and looked Arshesh up and down.

“He’s Paki. This won’t work. You wasted my time Gorge. Again.”

“What difference does it make?” The weasely man said. “A kidney’s a kidney! No-one will know it’s from a Paki!”

“Trust me, they’ll know.”

The man started to walk off.

“Wait,” Arshesh shouted. “There must be something you want from me! Hair? Skin? Eyes?”

“Listen mate, I’m sorry but my answer’s the same.” He paused. “For the record, I’m not the one judging you. I really am sorry.”

Gorge scrambled after the man, trying to placate him, but Arshesh just stayed still and swallowed.

“What about newcotics,” he said. It wasn’t a question.

The big man stopped in his tracks and Gorge walked right into the back of him. He turned with a scowl, grabbed Gorge’s small face with one of his hands and pushed him back against the alleyway wall with enough force to knock him unconscious.

He approached Arshesh, still keeping his head concealed by shadow.

“Your mate’s a twat. You know that right?”

“He’s my wife’s cousin,” Arshesh said with a shrug. “I’m desperate.”

“I get that,” the big man. “So, what have you got for me?”

“What do you need?” Arshesh asked, already out of his depth.

“Ha! Anything and everything my friend. Variety is the spice of life, as they used to say. Any kind of contentment. Or passion. Concentration. Arousal.” He stopped mid-flow, reconsidering his surroundings. “Only, if you had any of those you probably wouldn’t be stood here would you?”

Arshesh stared at the floor, silent.

“Disgust? Jealousy? Rage? Any of these ringing any bells?”

“Well, I sure don’t like that guy lying up against that wall over there. Once he came to my house and slapped my wife in the…”

“Please,” the big man said, turning to leave again, “hate’s the only feeling anyone’s got left.”

“Great,” Arshesh shouted. “So now my son’s going to grow up without a father, in a world so corrupt and consumed with hate, that everything else is for sale!

“Or daughter,” he said, almost as an aside to himself.

“Hey, don’t put this on me!” The big man shouted over his shoulder. His voice boomed down the right alley, fired straight at Arshesh. “I didn’t…wait, say that again?”

Arshesh looked up at the man as he walked back.

“Say what again?”

“The last thing you just said.”

Arshesh racked his brain.

Or daughter,” he said tentatively.

“You don’t know?”

“Well, he hasn’t been born yet. Or she.”

“There might be some business we can do after all,” the big man replied.

A smile crested the corners of Alix’s mouth.

 

III

 

Nyomy was distracted. She’d been awake for 27 hours straight, and working for 26 and a half of them. An emergency’s an emergency, she thought, looking at her hands and trying to remember which pipette was which.

“Display,” she said to the room. “Which one is ‘progressively molested by father and uncles,’ and which one is ‘scoring the winning goal in the World Cup final?’”

Wouldn’t want to get those two mixed up, she chuckled to herself.

“Molestation is green – in your left hand – and the World Cup is aquamarine. It’s also in that beaker you spilled in the sink,” came the distant, cold reply.

“Dammit!” Nyomy said, not sure whether to try and salvage the spilling emotion or let it linger down the drain.

Leave it, she decided, World Cup Winner’s two-a-penny. She knew it was one of her company’s best-sellers, so not worth jeopardising what she was currently working on for the Police force.

A strange feeling – sadness? – came over her as she ran through the logistics of what she held distilled in her left hand. This is the story of some poor bastard’s real life. And I’m making it so that some other poor bastard will think it’s the story of his. All for what? Get him to roll over on a couple of his mates?

“Dr Grey, time for your morning meds,” chimed the room’s robotic supervisor.

She’d been taking mood-elevators and stimulants for so long in the lab that she was more disturbed by the fact that it was morning again.

But what day? She thought.

 

***

 

“Hot off the presses,” the delivery cart chirped as she signed the release form with a pin-prick of blood from her thumb. “So to speak.”

“Oh yeah,” she said. “Anything interesting?”

“Strictly top secret. European Army specifications. Freshly harvested from a host this morning.”

Nyomy flicked the cover sheet onto her lab’s display unit. It really was fresh; twenty-minutes-ago-fresh.

She was always drawn to the story behind the harvest.

A violent prisoner called Wave Gobbs was unexpectedly released last night. Wave travelled back home – predictably – to find his loving wife unaware, and apparently straddling his best friend in his favourite lounge chair. He saw them from outside, through the window, and grabbed the nearest weapon to hand; an old-fashioned garden hoe. As he was about to kick the door in and slice both their throats, the Police officers, who had of course trailed his every move since release, moved in and harvested that precise mix of rage, betrayal, confusion and suicidal self-loathing.

Lovely, she thought.

And now it was up to her to turn that potent emotional cocktail into an aerosol, ready to be released above the vanguard of the Chinese army, currently stationed just outside Zagreb.

Just another day, she sighed.

Certain compounds – narcotics and newcotics alike – were banned by the 2025 refresh of the Geneva Convention, but as ever, loopholes were found.

A whole army thinking they’ve all just found their wife sleeping with their best friend. Sheesh. They’ll wipe each other out. She paused. Saves our guys dying though.

“Crucial news update,” boomed the display unit, flicking directly over to a live news broadcast and breaking her concentration. A reporter scurried over a battlefield somewhere to a man lying prostrate on the ground. As the camera drew closer you could tell that the man’s intestines were boiling up out of a hole in his stomach.

“How do you feel, son?” The reporter asked. “Tell the people that your country is really worth dying for?”

The man reached up and started to mouth something. It might’ve been ‘help me.’

“Boring,” Nyomy said to no-one in particular, leaving the lab to go get a sandwich.

 

***

 

She saw through the slit of darkness above the toilet stall that it was night again. Longest day ever.

“Incoming call from Alix,” she heard, piped straight into her ear.

“Howdy baby bro,” she said. “What’s shaking?”

“Can you talk?” He asked quietly.

“Let me just check,” she said. “Hey, I’m out of toilet paper,” she shouted. “Can anyone help me out please?”

She waited. No response.

“All clear. What can I do you for?”

“Still want to make some serious money?” He asked, his voice huskier than she remembered.

“Yeah…I mean, of course,” she stuttered. “What do you need?”

“I’m outside your lab now. Let me in.”

Fuck, she thought. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

She flushed the toilet and went straight to the medical bay for a belt of mood stabilisers.

 

***

 

“Alix, what the fuck?” she shouted. “Who are these two knuckleheads?”

“You wanted to make some money off the books, right? Well, this is what it takes. Meet Arshesh, our host, and Zeth, our client.

She stared at a terrified-looking Asian man in clothes that were falling apart. She moved to shake his hand and he cowered back in his seat. Next to him was an unpleasant young man, covered in gold and diamonds and gaudily-labeled clothes. His hair was slicked back and he had sunglasses on. She nodded at him but he just stayed motionless. She could tell he was a husk of a human being, and that this was a very bad idea.

“Listen up people,” Alix said, clapping his hands, and momentarily jarring Zeth from his trance. “This is my sister, Dr-“

Nyomy coughed pointedly.

“Right,” Alix said, “Sorry. This is Dr, er, Spock. And she is going to be taking care of this little transaction for us. She’s done this hundreds of times before.”

Not true, Nyomy thought.

“And she really wants to help you both out as quickly and painlessly as possible.”

Half true.

Alix went over the finer points of a deal they’d clearly already discussed before arriving here tonight, and then the four of them all shook hands, in some oddly quaint ritual of trust, and presumably, sanity.

 

***

 

The actual birth was still more than a fortnight away – at least – which was plenty of time for Nyomy to ignore it, and pretend she wasn’t involved in anything untoward.

She’d never met a client before – end user, you mean – let alone an actual host. That’s because most hosts either don’t want to be a host, or don’t know they are! Christ, she thought, this is rough.

Her lab was nice and secure, and removed from the actual reality of what she did. She realised very quickly that she liked it that way.

Five million Euros is still five millions Euros though.

She wondered how much Arshesh was getting, and it didn’t take too much imagination to conclude that it was probably significantly less than that.

And he’ll instantly forget how it felt to hold his child; how it felt to form that bond; how it felt to be on top of his own private world.

Her eyes felt glassy in her head and she wondered when the last time she’d looked at herself in a mirror was.

She shook her head and turned the lab display on.

“Play Cleopatra’s Court,” she said, looking down the hall into the other labs – all seemingly deserted – before locking the door. She rifled through a drawer until she found the pill she was looking for.

She picked up the haptic headset and slid into the haptic bodysuit hanging on the back of the lab door.

She looked down at her virtual body as it sat on jewel-encrusted throne. To her left and to her right were shirtless, muscle-bound guards smiling at her.

“Your majesty,” one of them said, with a bow.

“You two,” she said, pointing at two tanned twins with shaved heads, before getting on all fours on the tiger-skin carpet in front of the throne. “At the same time.”

She sighed as they entered her prone body.

 

IV

 

“Arsh! Arsh! It’s happening! Our baby’s coming, my water just broke!” Dina screamed. “Call an ambulance!”

Arshesh called someone, but it wasn’t an ambulance.

“Dina, there’s something I need to talk to you about,” he said quietly.

 

 

***

 

Dina’s breathing was as erratic as Alix’s driving as jerked in, around and above traffic, his nitrous lateral boosters shooting them 10-feet in the air almost instantaneously when they hit a snag.

“Call Nyomy,” he said to the car.

“Little bro,” she sighed. “Calling to take me out for dinner?”

“No Nyomy. It’s happening now, get prepared.”

“Shit. Ok, ok. I’ll be ready. Bye.”

“Call Zeth,” Alix said, scanning his rear-view mirror for anyone tailing him. Can never be too careful.

“What?” Zeth sounded even further removed from reality than before.

“Charming,” Alix said. “I guess you don’t want this hit after all then?”

“No,” he panted. “Sorry. I didn’t know. Of course. Where are you? I’ll be there now.”

“Meet us at the lab Zeth. As discussed.” Alix wanted to be the one to hang up this time.

“Will he be ok?” Arshesh asked.

“I hope so. We all need to hope so.”

“What…the hell…have you got…us…into?” Dina puffed from the backseat.

Arshesh turned to look at her and all he saw was anger. He reached out to try and hold her hand but she snatched it away.

He thought, I wonder if that rage is worth anything, and then immediately felt like the scum of the Earth.

 

***

 

“Where is everyone else?” Alix asked as he wheeled a panting Dina in through the back door of the lab. “The car park’s totally empty.”

Arshesh ran along behind, struggling to keep up with Alix’s huge stride.

“I don’t know,” Nyomy said, genuinely confused. She tried to remember the last time she saw another person in the building, but couldn’t. She also tried to remember the last time she left the lab, but again, couldn’t.

Zeth arrived shortly afterwards, still wearing sunglasses. He looks terrible, Nyomy thought. Like he’s lost half in bodyweight in the last 10 days. He wore a designer leather jacket that barely bulked his now-child-like arms out.

Without saying anything he walked over to Arshesh, put a finger in the middle of his forehead and just smiled wonkily. He started to shake as Arshesh shrank.

“Let’s get this over with,” he slurred. “Open these two up so they can get out of my sight.”

“They’re not petri dishes,” Nyomy found herself saying, in a rare unconsidered and emotional response.

“Shut your cunt,” Zeth said, pulling something out of his pocket and lighting it.

Alix prickled, but thought of the money him and his sister were about to make. He shot her a look that conveyed the same. She nodded, barely-visibly, and then apologised to Zeth through gritted teeth.

“Fine. Whatever.” He exhaled some of whatever he was smoking and his head lolled forward like a string doll. “Just hurry the fuck up.”

“So,“ Nyomy said, trying to exert a bit of control over the ensuing chaos. “this is what’s going to happen. We’re going to take Dina into Lab 138, down that corridor; it’s sterile and I have all the necessary meds already prepared. Arshesh will of course join us. Zeth and Alix will wait in the Lab opposite.

“Now normally the way this would work is that we would harvest the emotion from our host, distill and refine it into a pill or a solution, but in this case, we can port it directly – from host to client, via the harvesting headsets.

“It should be the purest transmission of any newcotic in history.”

She felt a swelling of something inside her – pride? – but she dismissed it. Even she wasn’t delusional enough to think that doing something illegal for a huge pay-off could be defined as scientific advancement. Still, she thought, I should be documenting this.

“The second we capture Arshesh’s response, we move across the hall, and connect the two of you together.”

She looked over at Arshesh and felt like giving the small Pakistani man a big hug. No-one said anything and she found her mind drifting off elsewhere.

“Right,” Alix said, “best get on with it then.”

 

***

 

Dina gave birth, without complication, to a perfectly healthy baby girl, and as the robot antenatal nurse passed the child to Arshesh, he was already flooding with tears. He held the child so tightly and so closely that Nyomy started to worry that the little thing might get smothered.

Arshesh stared into her gestating eyes and smiled. The tiny girl casually stretched a hand out and gripped his thumb. Arshesh started to shake and looked up to see his wife also now in tears, but grinning at him. She mouthed “I love you.”

At that exact moment Nyomy said “now” under her breath.

Two tiny needles flew out of the sides of the headset Arshesh was wearing and injected a series of nanobots straight into the various pleasure-centres around the brain. The chemical releases, the sensory information, the memories beng written, the bloodflow patterns, the neuronal and electrical reponses – everything – were not only captured, but removed from Arshesh’s brain. He had been harvested, and in the moment that the light left his eyes, he knew something had happened. He looked down at the bundle in his arms and seemed disorientated. Before he could say anything, Nyomy intervened.

“This way please,” she said.

 

 

***

 

Zeth was lying down waiting, overburdened by so much excitement that Alix had had to restrain him.

“Do it, do it, do it,” he said, spit flying out in every direction.

Nyomy sat Arshesh down and plugged the back of his headset into the panel in between their two beds.

“Give it to me,” Zeth shouted.

“You might feel a small prick,” Nyomy said, hitting a button on the console next to her. It felt strange to not use a voice command, but needs must.

Zeth’s headset lit up and needles inserted themselves into his head. His grin overtook the bottom half of his face and he panted in what would’ve been sexual ecstasy, had he remembered what that felt like.

Nyomy hit another button, which released nanobots into Zeth’s head. She stood, not breathing and staring at the two men lying down in front of her. A minute passed and she looked at Alix. He gave her the ‘what are you doing, girl?’ look that is the stock of all brothers.

“Where is it, where is it?” Zeth muttered.

Nyomy slowly raised an iron wrench that she’d found in an old cleaning cabinet near the car park, and slammed it into the side of Zeth’s head, knocking him out cold.

Arshesh’s eyes widened and he started to shake his head from side to side.

“No, no, no, no,” he chattered.

“Oh what have you done this time sis?” Alix said.

 

 

***

 

Arshesh’s face lit up, and the tears came pouring back out as he remembered everything about his daughter’s birth, relieving it again. Like the first time, every time – exactly what the advertising would say, if it had any.

“But,” he said, “I don’t understand.”

Nyomy opened her desk drawer and handed him a stuffed envelope full of Euros.

“Something for the university fund,” she said, smiling the most involuntary smile she could remember having. “I gave you back what I’d just harvested, and instead sucked out his overwhelming excitement and anticipation.” She nodded towards the still-limp body of Zeth.

“Not quite as big a pay-day, but it should fetch a decent price,” she said to Alix. “Let me just filter it a bit.”

Alix stood motionless, trying to process what he’d just seen. He saw how happy Arshesh was as he tore the headset off and ran next-door to be with his family, and shrugged.

“We’ll be ok. I imagine a few middle-of-the-road sportsmen wouldn’t mind a hit of what he was cooking up there, get them fired up for Sunday league like it’s the FA Cup final.”

“Do you hate me?” Nyomy asked.

“Of course not.”

“Do you think he’s going to hate me?” She asked, nodding towards Zeth.

“Probably. But he should thank you! I expect that without the feeling that’s in those bots, he won’t be addicted anymore.”

“That was the idea,” she said, with a self-deprecating shrug. “But I’m not going to hold my breath.”

They stood in silence, just existing alongside one another.

“Hey!” she said. “Bated breath. You should call it Bated Breath. Could be a real big money-maker!”

“Could be,” he sighed, picking up his huge frame off the wall and getting ready to leave. “After this I’m done.”

He wondered if even he believed that.

 

 

All for one (300-word story for Shortlist magazine’s 300th issue competition)

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“Every one of us is guilty,” the man with the glasses says. “Everyone in this room. Everyone except you.”

I feel the door close behind me. The lock engages.

Eyes curb-crawl up my body. One big Lump flexes his pecks in my direction. Suddenly all I can smell is stale smoke. I need a cigarette as much as I need to stop smoking.

“He deserved it though. We all know what he did. What he was. Who was going to be next? Your kid?”

The man with the glasses points accusingly at me. I don’t have any children.

“He came here of his own free will. He came here looking for Mikey. Only Mikey didn’t exist did he?”

I look around again and see doctors and school-teachers and mechanics. I see a priest. They hold my gaze. They hold it with pride. Lump takes his hands out of his pockets and crosses his arms.

“Are you going to arrest us? Because you’ll have to arrest all of us.”

On the floor I see screwdrivers and corkscrews and potato-peelers. The tips glisten black in the fading light.

Still, I’m silent. Still, I’m trying to put the pieces together. Still, the body lies, accusingly spread-eagle. I don’t even know his name. I doubt anyone does. Not his real name anyway.

“So? What happens next?” The man with the glasses’ voice echoes.

I reach for my sock. I unsheathe the butterfly knife my Dad gave me when I was 14. I step forward through the crowd to stare at the body one more time.

Someone coughs. I hear Lump shuffle again.

I plunge my knife into the prone body’s heart. I feel cool blood limply pulse out over my knuckles. I crane my neck around, holding the knife in place.

“Now we’re all guilty.”

Vinnie Jones vs. Stone Cold vs. Good Taste

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Once upon a time Vinnie Jones ‘played’ football, but now he’s a full-time actor flogging what’s left of his ‘hardman’ persona in straight-to-DVD ‘thrillers’ stateside. Without wanting to over-simplify his body of work to date too much, and do him a massive disservice by summing it up in one sweeping statement, everything he’s done has been uniformly appalling. Guy Ritchie has a lot to answer for, but at least he seems to have taken the hint and stopped making rubbish ‘gangster’ films.

(Wow, that’s probably the most sarcastic apostrophes I’ve ever used in a single paragraph).

Never to be deterred however, our Vinnie has today caught my eye by co-staring in yet another terrible American remake of an old-and-actually-quite-good Asian movie, The Condemned. Playing second-fiddle to someone who used to in the WWF (wrestlers, not pandas) is normally a pretty big red flag, but since it’s Stone Cold Steve Austin, we’ll make an exception, because he’s pretty cool. Other great acting luminaries that show up include the girl who used to play Dee in Neighbours (remember, she had a great rack and died after marrying Toady?) and that guy who was AK in the two awful Matrix sequels…exciting, no?!?!

Anyway, Stone Cold plays JACK CONRAD (sorry but it’s a name that feels like it needs capitals) who is awaiting the death penalty in a corrupt Central American prison (obviously) when he is bought (yes, bought – this is the near-dystopian-future after all) by a wealthy TV producer and taken to mysteriously desolate and deserted island. ONLY IT ISN’T ACTUALLY DESERTED! But you probably guessed that didn’t you. Predictably, here he must fight to the death against nine other condemned killers from all corners of the world, with freedom the prize to the sole survivor. Vinnie plays the token Brit with aplomb, bouncing off the A-list cast like a natural:

Stone Cold: “Sounds like you’ve had a hard life.”

Vinnie: “Yeah.”

Stone Cold: “Good thing it’s over.”

Audience: “Whoa!!!”

Apparently however, Stone Cold and Vinnie became quite a double-act on set, often riffing and playfully challenging each other to fights when the cameras weren’t rolling. Vinnie referred to Stone Cold as “number 1,” and Stone Cold called Vinnie “number 2,” in reference to their advertised billing, but the real fun came when an impromptu prank war started. Highlights include: Stone Cold constantly leaving inflatable sex dolls in Vinnie’s trailer (presumably from his own private collection), and also wallpapering the ex-Wimbledon man’s trailer with signed photos of himself. Like I said, Stone Cold is actually pretty cool.

I guess the point of this article is basically just to urge everyone to seek out this cracking WWF Films production (hot on the heels of this equally-genre-redefining masterpiece See No Evil, starring the Undertaker’s brother Kane) and luxuriate in what is surely Vinnie’s finest on-screen performance to date. Sure, Stone Cold steals the show but what else would you expect from a man who has guest-starred in more than four episodes of Nash Bridges?

Finally, without spoiling the ‘ride,’ here are a couple more choice excerpts to whet your appetite:

The guy from the shit Matrix sequels: “What you doing in El Salvador?”

Stone Cold: “Working on my tan.”

The guy from the shit Matrix sequels: “Why did you blow that building up?”

Stone Cold: “It was blocking my sun.”

And get ready for some serious Pulitzer Prize bait:

The guy from the shit Matrix sequels: “Where you from originally?”

Stone Cold: “Alaska.”

The guy from the shit Matrix sequels: “Whereabouts in Alaska?”

Stone Cold: “A little fishing village…you probably heard of it…it’s called FUCK YO MOMA.”

Zing!

 

Does anyone else miss the Cold War?

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OK, stop me when this starts to sound familiar: weird, quasi-European accent; villainous scheme for world domination stemming from humble beginnings; a plot to kill anyone who gets in his way; exquisitely neat facial hair; a string of nameless scantily-clad beauties; numerous extortion attempts; the theft of secret technology; palatial floating lair.

I am of course describing Roman Abromovich, who seems to have massively missed the point of the last twenty-odd Bond films.

The latest two additions to his, ahem, arsenal (sorry) are the world’s largest privately-owned yacht, the M/Y Eclipse – which is currently being built under a cloud of secrecy off the Baltic coast – and, more bizarrely, the world’s largest drill, which has a frankly terrifying diameter of 19 metres. That’s bigger than any Brachiosaurus skeleton that’s been found by the way.

The M/Y Eclipse costs a modest £200million, and at 550 feet, is just about long enough to house a couple of decent par 3 golf holes. By my calculations, he will require nearly as many men to crew this yacht as the entire Irish navy.

Regular features of the Eclipse include:

  • A small hospital, staffed by his own private medical team (a good use of resources that would’ve otherwise probably just been wasted on people in Africa or something)
  • Anti-bugging windows that have flash sensors to warn of paparazzi attacks
  • A cinema, an aquarium (why, you’re already on water), a disco (presumably with a time machine to take you back to the 1970s), a sauna, a steam room, and a large outdoor ‘bathing complex’ where Roman can presumably host on of his world-famous sexy parties (cheers for the invite by the way).

Optional Bond villain extras then include:

  • Bulletproof glass
  • A surface-to-surface missile detection system
  • Two £1million helicopters in indoor hangers
  • Four detachable speedboats and 20 jet skis
  • A £2million, 12-seter, submarine (for ore-extraction and quick getaways)

We might joke, but he’s a pretty class act; you know you’re doing something right when 50 Cent wishes he rolled like you.

So, this drill then. Has Roman actually got to the stage in where he simply has too much money and just has to buy the ‘world’s largest…’ well, everything? His Moscow company Infastruktura (cool name) announced the purchase last week, but speculation is still rife as to what exactly he plans to do with it. Perhaps he took ultra-rubbish film The Core a bit too seriously and thinks a journey to the centre of the earth would make a good jolly?

One genuine suggestion is that he plans to make a Channel Tunnel-style link between Russia and America by drilling a subterranean passage across the Bering Strait between Siberia and Alaska. If so, then this would be a truly phenomenal feat of both engineering and also diplomacy, considering it wasn’t long that the two superpowers were casually aiming nuclear warheads at one another.

Further conjecture includes rumours that Frank Lampard is no longer able to get his stomach inside the Stamford Bridge canteen, so they plan to widen the entrance, and also that Roman simply intends to destablise every country-that-isn’t-called-Russia’s landmass and kill us all.

Desayuno en La Masia

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“Receive, pass, offer, receive, pass, offer.” Imagine you’re 11 years old and good enough to be invited to train at the Barcelona academy. These are the words that you will hear time and time again (in Spanish though, obviously).

When reduced to three simple imperatives, football is incredibly straight-forward. These mantras do not just appear overnight though, they are distilled and subsequently absorbed by generations of talent both on and off the field.

Many point to the mercurial Johan Cruyff and his world-beating Dutch team of the 1970s for the first true manifestation of the beautiful game in the modern era. Through The Netherlands and his club side, Barcelona, a new ethos seemed to have been born, taking the free-flowing flare of Pele’s Brazil teams and anchoring it in practical, hard-working physicality. That Cruyff would appear back at Barça in a managerial role was never in doubt, but perhaps the style with which he had his team playing was a surprise to even him. In 1992 Cruyff’s dream team included the likes of Michael Laudrup, Romario, Georghe Hagi and Hristo Stoichkov, but it was more than a sum of these prodigal parts; Cruyff and his Barça team proved that attacking intent, invention and ambition could secure football’s greatest club prize.

21 years on and the Catalan giants still live in the spirit of their former talisman. When asked the week before the 2010 Champions League final how to inspire his team, then-manager Pep Guardiola told the press: “I want the players to realise they are playing in front of the whole world. I want them to feel good, be daring and play beautiful football. I want them to show that we deserve to be European champions.” It should come as no surprise to learn that Guardiola was part of Cruyff’s 1992 European Cup winning side, and that Cruyff himself currently resides in an official ‘advisory’ role at the Nou Camp.

The fact that Barça look after their heroes has to play a part in the continuing dynasty of the Catalans. They attract and mould players in a very particular way, because in essence, their scouts are looking for their own replacements. For example, before he left Barça as a player in 2001, Guardiola had already spotted the potential of the team’s current heartbeat, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta. During Iniesta’s first training session with the first-team, he reportedly pulled Xavi to one side and told him: “You’re going to retire me – but this kid’s going to retire us all.”

When you hear stories like this it makes you wonder, where are our heroes these days? Are Ian Rush and Wrighty and Eric Cantona helping to pull the creative strings at their former Premier League clubs? Are the FA and English national team set-ups saturated by successful ex-players? It shouldn’t be dependent on abstract coaching qualifications, but just focused on keeping unique individuals, with a proper insight of the game at the highest level, involved in football.

The problem is that clubs in Britain rarely have any sense of heritage. Most owners these days have been in their position less than a decade, have little interest in football, and essentially just want big money returns as quickly as possible. Barcelona and Real Madrid on the other hand are guided by hands that take tremendous pride from their history (of both club and country), and that’s why the likes of Cruyff still have a role to play at the very best club in the world.

To put it in stark contrast, does anyone really think for one second that the sheikhs at Manchester City care about the club’s history and want the likes of Dennis Law, Mike Summerbee and Franny Lee buzzing around Eastlands telling them how to be successful?

It is unfortunately this inherent arrogance in the British game that is becoming endemic, and perhaps one of the main reasons why we consistently have clubs in the Champions League semi-finals, yet fail miserably at international level.