Wednesday, September 28, 2011

East End Animals

Years ago it was possible to say that one could see more “animals” at a West Ham home game than on a safari in the Masai Mara. That was back in the seventies, eighties and nineties. The rougher element of West Ham United Football Club’s so called supporters had a fearsome reputation as trouble makers and punch-up merchants. These days however, it must be said that a much more pleasant atmosphere prevails at their home ground in London’s East End.

I’ve been a West Ham United fan since 1966 when the club’s three star players Bobby Moore, Martin Peters and Geoff Hurst formed the backbone of England’s one and only triumphant World Cup side. That glory has faded somewhat nowadays and West Ham languish in the second tier Championship, having been relegated from the Premier League last year. Nevertheless, they remain a well supported club and last Saturday my wife and joined almost thirty thousand other fans at the Boleyn Ground in the Cockney heartland suburb of Upton Park. There were many more families, mums, dads and kids and far fewer police around than I’ve ever seen at the ground before. In fact it was only after the game had finished that we saw any coppers at all. There were two watching the good natured crowd leaving stadium and perhaps a dozen monitoring the queues to get into the tube station.

All in all it was a terrific day out with a fantastic atmosphere inside the ground, and I can thoroughly recommend a visit to any England Premier League or Championship football match. West Ham did not play well on the day as it happened, but they still won so I was happy. My wife was happy too thanks to a visit to her favourite markets – Queens Market in Green Street . It’s a big undercover conglomeration of south Asian, West Indian and British stalls where one can buy anything from saris to sugar cane and pork pies to plantains. It’s a great place to kill half an hour or so before a game. Green Street itself in fascinating. Take a stroll west from Upton Park station and you are immediately transported to Karachi or Mumbai. The further west you walk the fewer white faces you see and the shops and restaurants reflect the ethnic majority. However, walk east from the station towards the football stadium and white faces prevail, it becomes more like any other British street. It’s amazing, the transformation is so abrupt that it leaves you slightly disorientated.

The day after the game we flew to Prague. We’d both wanted to see this reputedly beautiful city for years, so we pounced on a three day window of opportunity when it appeared. We were not disappointed in the least. Our hotel was the Hotel Clement in a quiet street only a few minutes walk from the heart of the Old City. And what an Old City it is. Some of the architecture is stunning and there are numerous atmospheric squares in which to wander or to sit quietly with a cold beer and simply partake in a little people watching. There are churches and spires everywhere you look. There’s a magnificent fourteenth century bridge upon which to stroll across the Vitava River and a stunning castle and palace to explore on a hill on the other side. The food is tasty and the helpings large, though not particularly cheap. The beer is good and so is the wine.

I think it as at night that Prague really comes into its own. Many of the old buildings are spectaculary lit, especially the Church of Our Lady before Tyn which towers above the huge Staromestska Square and lends the entire medieval scene a definite fairy tale air. Please, do yourself a huge favour and visit Prague at the first opportunity. It really has to be on of Europe’s most beautiful and friendly cities.

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