Sunday, 26th February, 2012, was a strange day for me. It was a day that consisted of a concoction of the most contradicting emotions and circumstances: From the depths of being plunged into deep despair and agony, to the culmination of absolute joy and satisfaction, to a deep, foreboding sense of failure. All these emotions, mixed into a tempestuous bowl of tribal, partisan flames, occurred within a mere space of ninety minutes. All these feelings came about at the mercy of a mere football match.
It was a North London derby – my beloved Arsenal, renowned for being titans, innovators and connoisseurs of modern English Football after a plethora of eloquent success during the late 90s and the early 2000s, have regressed over the years and are now in danger of being superseded by their bitter rivals, by our neighbourly enemy, Tottenham Hotspur. Let me put some context into the innate rivalry between Arsenal and Tottenham, a rivalry that is incomprehensible to most viewing it from an external spectrum.
There is a lot of back and forth banter between both sets of fans; the usual jab from Arsenal fans being the supremacy their club has enjoyed over “Spurs” for the last fifty years, whilst Tottenham fans riposte with the proclamation of Arsenal “Woolwich,” a reminder to Arsenal’s origin in Woolwich, South-East London, thus, in their perception, corroborating and reinforcing how North London really belongs to the Tottenham, not Arsenal. Like a pair of children bickering over the ownership of a toy, there’s simply room for one team, not two. The allocations of postcodes, N5 signifying Islington (Arsenal’s home) and N17 signifying Tottenham, have become something akin to geographic borders between two antagonistic nations.
The significance of Sunday’s North London derby had never been greater. Arsenal have had an abysmal season, while Tottenham, enjoying their best season in fifty years and for the first time in sixteen years, have a real chance of finishing above Arsenal in the Premier League table, as they have capitalised on our deficiencies and are now seven points ahead. Arsenal have regressed over the years, and the title-winning days are now nothing but a faint whisper in the memories (I won’t bore you with the details of our stagnation) and despite Tottenham’s steady rise and our regression over the years, we’ve always been superior. Always.
Going into last Sunday, most Arsenal fans, unlike previous derbies, were pessimistic. Spurs have been better than us the season, and having been morally, tactically and mathematically crushed and humiliated by our last two opposition teams leading up to the game, the rabble from Tottenham, the underclass we were so used to laughing at, were now revelling in our steady demise. For the first time in a London derby, odds were on Tottenham to crush us. For us Arsenal elitists, for years so accustomed to being the dictators of London, the unceremonious prospect wasn’t worth pondering. We were facing a fifth Premier League North London derby without a victory, having drawn twice and lost twice in the last four games against “the enemy” in the space of two years.
This season’s misery was compounded after thirty minutes; Tottenham were 2-0 up at our stadium, at our home. A sea of 58,000 red and white bodies was silent, while the away allocation of Tottenham fans, numbering 3,000 and sporting their traditional white hue, rocked the Emirates Stadium with their reverberating chants. At that point, the inundation of nerves and fear that had plagued me since I had awoken at five in the morning had dissipated, paving way for mute demoralisation. The so called North London “power shift” seemed to have been taking effect.
I sat watching the game in a Welsh pub with a few friends, beer untouched and eyes fixated on what seemed like a lost cause. I stress the word “seemed,” because the Arsenal players were really peeved off after Tottenham scored the second goal – it was almost as if our superiority complex, wounded and outraged by the audacity of these inferior peasants, invading our home and deposing our “rightful” ascendancy, exploded and transcended into a quick-fire reply of two goals from the men in red and white. We went into half-time at 2-2.
My celebrations were extravagant to say the least – in a pub that was populated with families enjoying a Sunday roast with a buzz of level, cordial chatter, the abrupt release of adrenaline from my brain prompted me to beat my fists against my chest while jumping, and shouting, “In your face, you fucking Tottenham degenerates!”
I couldn’t take the second half. I couldn’t watch another forty-five minutes of fluctuating entertainment. In all forms of life, when a beam of hope returns, so does the possibility of heartbreak – at when Tottenham were winning 2-0, I was resigned to losing; I was expecting our season to implode with deeper woe. Oddly enough, resignation bred peace – it acknowledged acceptance. However, with the scoreline at 2-2, the ray of hope had returned – with Tottenham shocked and the impetus now on us to win the game, with 95% of the stadium spurring us on, I ran. Like a man or woman accustomed to betrayal in a relationship, like someone who was unwilling to let a prospective significant other pierce their heart after enduring years of despair in previous commitments, I succumbed to the fear, any semblance of strength and resolve I had vanishing. I have watched Arsenal capitulate emphatically over the last few years. I’ve been hurt one too many times by our habitual demise. I was exposed. I left the pub at half-time; went for a walk, leaving behind my taunting friends.
A good friend and former girlfriend joined me. She giggled and poked fun at my emotional attachment to what was “only a game.” I and Cora are former university sweethearts – we dated for two years before the torrents of time eroded our connection and we drifted apart like the segregating landmasses that eventually formed individual continents, our differences culminating in unceremonious fashion. Only very recently, after an incident which tied us in a way neither of us could have ever foreseen, were we able to sit down and make amends.
Cora is and will always be a rarity in regards to how she perceived my thirst and love for writing. Only fellow writers have shown so much interest. At times, she acted as though she was my agent – she would continuously pester me in regards to what I was working on. With her smooth veil of long, auburn hair and that pale complexion that was speckled with a faint brush of speckles, a genetic trait from her German grandparents, her sharp nose and lips so pink it was almost as though she constantly smeared them with pomegranate hue, along with her insatiable love for tank tops, she would play the tolerant role when she invaded my dorm quarters. She would lie on the bed in my room, surfing the internet on her laptop or indulgently wreaking havoc in a fictional but accurate version of New York City in Grand Theft Auto 4, the latter evoking shrill screams and idiosyncratic, musical laughter. The chorus of rattling machine guns and terse, feminine laughs was prevented from invading my brain and jumbling my focus thanks to the chubby headphones that clung to my ears. I always listen to music when I’m writing.
Whether it was an hour or two, Cora would wait patiently as my laptop keyboard chattered incessantly. I’d often feel guilty but she was highly perceptive – she was able to distinguish obligatory attendance to genuine will.
During that afternoon of February 26th, South Wales was awash with a pre-Spring sunshine which trickled through the slits of tall, forked boughs that were bereft of their protective mane of leaves. Those branches chattered dryly as they clashed like the extension of a warrior’s arsenal, the winking, distorted corridors of light shining like colourful afterthoughts romantic poets translated into lyrics. A late winter chill still hung in the air, but the pretence of approaching warmth was testified in the blue ocean above, in the sporadic, wispy veils of scattered clouds that were often intersected by snaking contrails left behind by high-flying aircraft.
Cora and I strolled through a middle-class neighbourhood; the kind of place where the driveways were manicured with brick foundations with blades of grass growing through the slits, where two cars sat in front of a double-faced garage, where the lawns were trimmed and intersected by platoons of sprawling flowers, where the double glazed windows were flanked by oak-panels, where the only clamour emanated from the bursts of a bouncing football and the shrill screams of playing children.
With my heart still pumping and my nerves still sizzling with a sense of unknowing foreboding as I pondered what the score was (I had informed my friends at the pub not to inform me of the score via phone) Cora and I settled on a moist wooden bench next to a public park. Rolling, heather-tufted hills extended beyond us, the beige coloured sprouts occasionally shuddering in the whisper of the wind. Human cultivation sporadically intersected nature’s design, with small cottages varnished in Tudor architecture and compact blocks of farms asserting their presence. The rickety cough of a tractor could be heard in the distance, the vehicle’s form only a speckle on the bright horizon.
“You remind me of Theo Walcott at times,” Cora spoke after a moment of silence, her gaze still fixated on the beauty that lay before us.
I was perplexed by her words. Theo Walcott is a young footballer who plays for Arsenal and England. In terms of comparison, there are very little similarities between him and I; he’s from an upper class background, I’m from a lower class background, he’s rich, I’m broke, he comes from Jamaican ancestry, I come from African ancestry, he’s from the south of England, I’m from the north of England. The list is endless. It was only when Cora encroached the topic of how conspicuous my literary drought has been, I understood.
Cora’s confidence and intelligence is an innate trait; her proclamation brought me back to the night we first met, the night where her sharp perception pierced my palpable sense of apprehension. Theo Walcott is what one calls a “confidence” player – being a young English player at a time where the country is bereft of innovative youth and therefore his financial valuation immediately doubling, big expectations are nominally placed on the twenty-two-year-old’s shoulderS. He broke onto the scene at just sixteen-years-old, however, he is often maligned with bouts of inconsistency and what some describe as a lack of technical ability. To put it in short – Theo Walcott hasn’t quite fulfilled the country’s eminent expectations. He is often the recipient of abuse from his own fans who have endured years of mediocre displays and frustrating mishaps.
Theo thrives on confidence – unlike Arsenal’s captain, Robin Van Persie, a player that is widely regarded as the best striker in the world, a buoyant Dutchman whose idiosyncratic technique is second to none, Theo doesn’t seem to have the ability or better yet, the mental capacity and physical consistency to alter the dynamics of a match within a second. Unlike his fellow forward, Theo doesn’t seem to have the dexterity to dig his heels deep when the going is tough, when his team is being pressed back by the opposition and is desperately clawing for reprieve, for a moment of magic from thirty yards.
Theo is akin to a tsunami – his ability is distilled through momentum; like the choppy, frothy waves forming into fifty-feet walls of destruction, Theo has a knack for excelling when the fans are behind him, when his team dictates the impetus of the game, when every touch he makes transforms into gold, when he has a tidal wave streaming in his wake. Theo’s fragile confidence dictates the ebb and flow of the souls of his feet; it’s something of a mental barrier, one which has brazenly distorted and oppressed what could be greater. During his flashes of brilliance, something which often occurs in games of great significance, there has always been that sense of malaise within his supporters – that sense of what could be achieved if his prowess were to be exploited with maximum effect.
Cora’s comparison was apt, because as a writer and as a person, I’m Theo Walcott. I thrive on momentum – without the cycle of hissing waves writhing and crashing, I feel incompetent, powerless, inadequate. My fluctuating bouts are dictated by recent history - back at university and well into the beginning of 2011, I used to write three thousand words a day. I would be disciplined, determined and better yet, confident; on most days, I would exceed my allotted word count. The progress I made from the age of eighteen to twenty-years-one old, the consequence of three years of constant reading and writing, was considerable. I sometimes look back at the work I wrote as a fresh-faced Fresher student and I cringe – unable to comprehend that the same mind that wrote work I’m now proud of, conceived such garbage three years back.
Approaching the summer of 2011, my discipline was abruptly shattered and my determination dissipated into fragments of sporadic bursts of creativity. I wrote, but my schedules were far less frequent and far less productive. I went through months of next to zero productivity. Panic is the apt word – I’m panicking. The pressure that seems to plague Theo Walcott as he stands in front of a crowd of 60,000 watching people seems to have infiltrated me – or better yet, it seems to have exploded from a three-year slumber and like a cancerous assault, infiltrating my creativity, swathing it with its infectious grasp of negativity.
The word “progress,” something I was so proud to be synonymous with my literary lust, has become my worst enemy. Every time I fail to replicate something that once flowed seamlessly, every time I read a piece of exceptional work from an author on Booksie, it’s a constant remainder to my own inability to evolve from a Theo Walcott and into a Robin Van Persie. Cora, like many others do, tells me that I underestimate myself – that I place far too much internal pressure on myself to perform and maintain a high quality of work, that my expectations as to what I should attain and achieve act are more of a hindrance than a help. That, like with this current piece, I should just write and forget about everything else. I know she’s right – I know the various blogs I’ve read on the topic of “Writer’s Block” are true, I know the things the like of Gideon and Martine tell me can go a long way, but akin to a drug addict desperately longing to leave his tainted addiction behind, the problem isn’t knowing what to do – the problem is knowing how to do it. My problem is discarding my way of thought – my mental barrier that makes me feel that I’m not good enough, my self-persecution complex that draws comparison to those writers I strive to replicate, is destroying me from within.
Cora’s university nickname was “Ret,” short for the word “retro.” She had an insatiable love for retro music – she still does. She seemed inclined to clasp at a history of culture in which her physical being, formed in the figure of a babbling one-year-old child at the time, had been privy to without a spiritual, intellectual comprehension of the wonder that enwreathed a world that didn’t extend beyond her parents. Being something of an audiophile myself and also skating the periphery of a musical chameleon with my broad love of music from a variety of genres, Cora introduced me to a maelstrom of beauty; from the wonders of early 90s House music originating straight from the steamy, underground Chicago nightclubs with acts such as Frankie Knuckles and Mr Fingers, to late 80s hip-hop and rhythm and blues with Grandmaster Flex, Mtume and Afrika Bambataa.
During the days as two infatuated young adults, we would occasionally take to the night like phantoms – whether it was ten at night or four in the morning, Cora would drive around the City of Leeds, the twinkling lights from the tall buildings and the neon smears from the exteriors of the collection of nightclubs forming a collage of dancing incandescence on the windscreen. The car would vibrate with pounding bass from the track, “Can You Feel It,” a hypnotic 90s acid house track that suited the atmospheric essence of Leeds perfectly; a city of dark grit but yet thriving, glamorous creativity. These beautiful, atmospheric nights became something of a penchant to my literary prowess – a lot of people routinely comment on my eye for detail, on how I’m very descriptive and meticulous with imagery. These nights with Cora, with the swirl of sounds and lights, the comprehension of a breathing city, was translated into literary images on a page. These nights formed a part of me as a writer.
During the conversation with a woman I had once adored with all my heart, I remembered about my other love – Arsenal. Cora and I had been conversing for more than an hour – a half of football lasts forty-five minutes. The game was over by now. The walk back to the pub was nervy to say the least - I felt like a child again, slowly walking towards the headmaster’s office after yet another misdemeanour.
Irony struck me with great effect when I stood in the pub amidst the grins of friends, staring at the screen and discerning what I saw; the score-line at full-time read Arsenal five, Tottenham two. I screamed like a little girl, arms high, teeth gritted and fists clenched in euphoric victory. North London, as the customary bragging rights dictated, was coloured red. People from N5 were now calling friends from N17 and saying, “I’ll pick you up at five-to-two . . .”
My literary love merged with the match when I saw that Theo scored the fourth and fifth goals, his first goals at the Emirates Stadium since December 2010. I felt an influx of pride; my conception of Theo’s tendency to thrive on momentum seemed to be accurate after I watched reruns of his goals – a Czech player called Tomas Rosicky nabbed the third goal ten minutes into the second half. Arsenal had been dominating, the impetus on us, the crowd roaring the players on, the blood of our N17 neighbours on the menu. The momentum had been with Arsenal and Theo pounced like a predator, scoring two world-class goals and killing off the opposition, showcasing a glimpse of what he can really do.
My real problem, like the Arsenal forward, is consistency. Theo Walcott often produces his best displays against the biggest and best sides, as he did at the weekend. It’s almost as though at times, he tends to thrive on the basis of a bigger occasion – whenever I produce a piece of work I feel proud of, instead of revelling in what I have achieved, I feel like a fraud – I feel as though it’ll be difficult to replicate what I have written. Like a one-hit wonder, in the same sense the cynical mob perceive Theo Walcott after his brilliant second half performance at the weekend. The general consensus being we won’t see that version of him again for a long time.
People on Booksie often question why I don’t post frequently. It’s not that I don’t want to – it’s simply a defect of low-confidence, of internal pressure throttling my ability to say, “Screw it, I’m just going to write,” something that seemed to come to me naturally a year ago. It’s a problem of not being satisfied. It’s that mentality that makes me feel as though I’ve been regressing at a rapid rate, undoing the progress of the last three years and sliding into an abyss of uncertainty. That launches me into a state of mild panic – and thus heightens the sense of intellectual decay.
As they say, write, write and write. Heck, that’s what I’m doing right now.