July 31, 2007

Liveblogging Edwardian Football

Later today, I shall be liveblogging Edwardian football. Later today, that is, and late enough already you might think. But I have to buy the DVD first, and so right now I'm in a South West Trains window seat blinking away the unaccustomed sun, on my way to the BFI. Earlier today, my flat was valued at a sum that would have comfortably purchased Herbert Chapman's first managerial club, Northampton Town, back in 1910, and my mood is good as the train slicks past the ruins of Nine Elms.

Waterloo station is essentially 1920s in form. As I dodge my way from the concourse's crowded eastern end I reflect that the Mitchell and Kenyon films all show the world as it was in that impossible time before this enormous place looked anything like this. Waterloo's roof has been cleaned quite recently, and must look as new now as it did when it was, in part, a war memorial, in part, a recognition that the world was moving on beyond the losses of the Great War in that dumb, forgetting manner that always seems so extraordinary to veterans who can't shake the ghostly mud of war from their eyes.

We're so far beyond Mitchell and Kenyon days now that even the Shell complex of the 1930s has been hacked about, and it is no longer possible to take an elevated walkway right onto the South Bank. Mitchell and Kenyon's roads look empty to us, with the odd exception, and have people milling about on them: suddenly, you start to hope that the car won't catch on. But of course, it does and has, and brings with it more than fringe benefits, but these can seem far off when you're dodging the buses and black cabs around the Royal Festival Hall.

With the Shell Centre altered, you're now forced up and down four separate staircases before you're finally on that last strip by the river that takes you past Strada, Wagamama, Foyles et al (private secrets that have somehow turned into chains when you weren't looking) and an open-air bookstall the size of two tennis courts to the BFI.

The BFI's website made a peculiar promise: Dr Vanessa Toulmin of the University of Sheffield would write commentary to the DVD, but Adrian Chiles of Match of the Day 2 would actually read it. This, I am sure, will sound like demonic possession. Toulmin is not without a certain reflexive dislike of anyone in M&K who shows evidence of having money, and the warm, avuncular, witty Chiles is going to have to rabbit this dreary, dead-end stuff for almost two hours. I wonder if he'll have to do it whilst his beloved West Bromwich Albion are on?

If you're entering the BFI for more than just coffee, it can come across as something of a tunnel, an exorbitantly stylish version of Bank to Monument. In the earlier releases of M&K material, it's impossible to ignore the general cheerfulness abroad in Edwardian England. There are exceptions, especially where exhausted, demoralized factory workers are concerned, but overall the cynical note is absent from the scene. Absent too is the absence in modern faces so often: Waterloo station exhibits a little of this, Victoria and Charing Cross have it in spades.

Edwardians remind me of the perky interestedness of the characters in the BFI coffee shop, who, brightened by their success at finding a free table (there isn't one now), act as though life will always be this convenient, obliging and interesting now, as though they've finally come into the right room and can stay.

Perhaps it's just the presence of the camera. Literature didn't warn me that morale was quite so high then.

The new DVD is being released today, which is why I'm going out of my way to buy it. I can't really explain why I'm in such a hurry. Each film on the DVD would have been filmed and processed one Edwardian day, then shown a day or so later to a local audience, then stored. A century later, it made its way to the BFI, who conserved it and are now publishing it. One hundred years: what difference does a day make now?

On the other hand, think: apart from the film makers, and their first audience, and the conservators, and the editors, and Vanessa Toulmin, and Adrian Chiles, and preview audiences, and the possessors of early copies, I could be the first person to see this for a century. But only if I'm quick about it.

Of course, the BFI shop is at the very end of this tony underground complex. The floor under my feet now is zinc, I think, and I can't for the life of me work out what's on the walls. It isn't marble. Sunlight is coming in from somewhere, and over to my left, what looks like a razor-thin hedge conceals another, more exclusive coffee shop from the first.

Given that the DVD is being released today, I expect it to be absolutely all over the shop. But there's no sign of it at first glance - on the big screen on the wall, medieval Japanese rush each other with swords and sticks of bamboo. I am the only person present not toting a huge rucksack.

It's not on the shelves, either. I drift behind the scenes, and, there it is, a modest display on a table, it and its partner (M&K films of Ireland, interesting too in that they look to my uneducated eye like films of 1850s England, all bare feet, sideburns and lacemaking). You can buy a set of playing cards featuring Manchester United v Burnley at Edwardian Turf Moor. The quality of the original film was extremely poor, so you do need to be told what the cards are about, and I pass.

When I was a child, we owned the usual family album, begun c. 1890 and ending in the early 1950s. There's something mature, adult, about the earliest pictures. I used to feel that Edwardian group photos - so serious, so confident, so smart and tidy - looked more real than the scruffy chaos of '70s Britain. It was as though their existence was stronger than ours, had more right to life, that it had a prevailing imperative to ours, that it might return any second if only the greater strength of their reality could only be concentrated upon for a second or two.

I thought that there were answers in those old pictures to unspoken but clearly understood questions, questions which if posed to my generation and my parents' would find no justifiable answer. Now, I find myself wondering the same kind of thing about Edwardian football, whether there was something in these M&K remnants that would tell me why we are so... thick, about our national game, so prone to mourn our failures, so prone to do nothing about them, so prone to attribute what success does come to nonsensical, meaningless phrases like passion and commitment and never to skill or strategy.

We invented the game, and were probably the best at it until at least 1923, but we stopped thinking about it and developing it very early. Why? Was it just World War One? Or are we, so ready to laud our own intelligence as a nation, actually rather slow and stupid, unable to take the flint axe we've cobbled together and build it into a metal arsenal the equivalent of our opponents'?

I've bought it now, and I'm sitting in the BFI gents urgently ripping off the cellophane. Why, again, do I feel as though I'm acting against the clock? I've been asked to find out if Wolverhampton Wanderers feature: I have owned the DVD for two minutes, and now I know. I wonder what anyone listening from outside my cubicle thinks I'm doing, or does everyone unpack with this kind of mad celerity?

The booklet promises scenes of long-vanished bits of stadia: stands for 5,000 that disappeared in 190? and have previously not been seen in film or photograph. Of course, the 5,000 will actually be in these buildings, ugly as car parks most of them. And they're gone, and the stand they're in is gone. And the spreading world around them is gone, vanished by inches in untold billions of minute changes that spread themselves lazily out over a century as they rubbed out the whole familiar country.

So my haste to get to the South Bank this morning, to get my hands on this shining new release, is all for a frustratingly banal reason, really, isn't it - I'm after evidence for my own coming death and disappearance. I want to know for sure that this rumoured, incredible thing really is coming for me, and I'll know because I'll see match days full of the future dead, who, in Barthes' words, have died and are going to die. I can't help wishing it was something better, something less sixth-form, than that. But it isn't.

POSTSCRIPT: two hours of Edwardian sport is a lot of Edwardian sport. I bailed out sometime during the "Northern Union" matches. But now I know whether Edwardian football was any good or not: the newly released films are far better than the ones shown hitherto in Dan Cruickshank's series or on the previous BFI DVDs. And I think I know what happened to our national game, but that's for another time.


Gracchi said...

James this is precisely why I asked you to guest post fantastic. I often go to the BFI and your description got a rueful glance from these eyes.

What you say about the importance of death and memory is interesting- certainly I watch those films of Edwardian footabll with another sense that the great war was approaching and that many in the stands and on the field would die- and think of how fleeting life is and how quickly it can change. To me those things are signs to carpe diem because you never know what is coming next.