The city of joy
By Jeff Dell
10.00 PM 5th May 1999. Dhaka, Bangladesh.
On the evening of the 4th I was finally able to wrestle out of my knee the head of the ten-day-old boil that had been giving me such grief. It lay like a maggot in a film of blood and fluid on a wound the size of a half-crown. I treated it with respect, like an enemy I'd grown to admire and took no relish in killing. It's a job, nothing personal - in other circumstances we could share a beer and talk about the mortgage. It was the sort of boil I'd want in the trenches with me. I put it in a tissue and flushed it down the toilet. I salute you, boil.
In the morning before setting off from Dhaka my kids and I put the finishing touches to the design of our first BWATSA T-shirts. With a bit of pilfering of ideas here and some reckless disregard for copyright laws there, we agreed on a final draft and sent if off for a test run of twenty-five. But it was Grimsby that occupied our minds. My kids have never seen a match at the Vic; the only Watford match they'd seen was this season's opening disappointment away at Cambridge, that harbinger of things not to come. But they're keen and for them the Grimsby match is the biggest thing ever in their Watford supporting lives. We agreed that the kids would get the result off the Internet on the Sunday of the big day, and that assuming I had no other way of finding out, I'd ring Dhaka from Calcutta to get the score. It's not good enough but it's what there is. Meantime we'd been so impressed by Man U's victory in Italy that we all agree that we now want them to win the treble. They were playing away at Liverpool on the 5th so it was agreed that we'd all hope for a Man U away win and a Spurs home victory. We then sent an email message to Graham Taylor and the players wishing them all the best on Sunday before the school bus came for the kids and I was off to the airport. Come on yoo-worns.
I checked into the Fairlawn Hotel at middayish and saw from the register that some of the team I was to be part of was already here. Past experience tells me that you shouldn't join a team dynamic until you're ready, and I wasn't ready. I had hair to cut and tapes to buy and I wanted a general looksee. I really enjoy Calcutta and it's great being back. I'm here as part of a team preparing for an evaluation of a failing organization but that could wait. Just after one in the afternoon I sat in the barber's chair in the Oberoi Hotel in Calcutta. The hotel is elegant, rich and exclusive - chilled air, marble and deference. A woman smoked a cigarette by the pool and was served by a penguin with a tray, a waiter invited me to eat Thai with a gentle bow, and there was an air of quiet order that made me want to clear my throat.
My hair presents me with two options. I can keep it short or I can look like a prat. It'd grown a bit in recent weeks and had reached the stage where I was in danger of Scargilitis. I'd rather writhe in a pit of my own filth than suffer this calumny and I told the disbelieving barber to cut it short. I wasn't at my best: I was packing flab and the extreme heat of a Calcuttan May afternoon had left my shirt sticking to my back. I dropped into the chair and pulled up my legs. I felt a twinge in my left knee and watched over the next twenty minutes as a stain of red blood spread over my trouser leg and a bigger patch of brown pate spread over the head of the stranger in the barber's mirror. Life is weird, strange things happen and nothing's real. But I was out of Dhaka and Watford were on the verge of the play offs.
9.AM 6th May. Calcutta, India.
Breakfast of papaya and a slice of banana and toast, fly down to 'Gossips', log on and within 53 seconds (they time you) found the Man U and Arsenal results. It's clear that Arsenal are going to win the league and while I don't doubt they deserve it, I am a little disappointed. What price Man U losing the lot? I stroll around town before the early morning briefing session. Past the Armenian Cultural Centre where, last night on the way back from dinner, an Armenian with tats and fluent English had told us how his community was hated by the Muslims and how much it hated the Azerbaijanis. I'd been offered a woman at about the same place but didn't catch what the pimp had said and had to ask him to repeat himself, causing intense embarrassment to all but him.
Calcutta doesn't get started until about ten and the street people were still washing and shaving at eight thirty. Food was being prepared in large woks of boiling oil and small groups of men sat quietly eating Chana Masala. Chai stalls were doing brisk business, some homeless people lay crashed in shop awnings, beggars sat with extended arms and a man sat unselfconsciously on the pavement doing something to his old man. I had to do a double take on this since it's unusual in my experience for someone to pull out his John Thomas in full public gaze and pay it the sort of attention this guy was giving his. So I stopped and walked back and had another look, and there it was - not unaware of the attention it was receiving - its owner picking at it on a Calcuttan pavement. Watford was never like this, even on a Saturday, though now you mention it, the Coachmakers could get pretty hairy on a Friday night.
I return to the hotel and meet up with two of my team members. We chew the fat about the imminent arrival of the fourth member of the team. I absent-mindedly pick up the Worcestershire sauce bottle and find it's a local brand, Hudson's. I am disconcerted to note that it is made in 'Hudson's Chemical Company, Calcutta' and I remind myself to use it only in moderation.
9. P.M. 6th May 1999
I'm in the hotel, wiped out after being subjected to a five-hour harangue from the deranged head of the organization we'd come to talk to. Many things were said that should only have been thought and we shall have to try to ignore it. I'd met him before and had engaged his paranoia in debate as though it was something one could talk to or demand rationality from. Discussing Proust with my boil would have been a more constructive use of time. So, determined that I would not fall into this trap again, I listened politely and jousted only gently with the monster that had taken over the man's mind while in my head I was throwing him out of his office window. Nervous tension caught up with me late in the afternoon and from then on in I drifted in and out of the debate. I tried to concentrate on the real question in hand - what am I doing here?
Calcutta never disappoints. On the drive back from the NGO in the taxi our Sikh driver crossed himself. Odd for a Sikh I thought, but not as odd as the ambulance which had provoked Mr. Singh's hedging of religious bets. Ahead of us in the traffic was a glass sided ambulance with a body lying in full view of the public on a little platform, feet and head sticking out of the two ends of his shroud. Now this is wild. What purpose does this serve? Who decided that the dead should be open to the gaze of the public? And who, I ask, is going to keep the glass clean? These things and more occupied my mind in the evening as we sat down to terrible Indian food in a restaurant off Sudder Street.
In the evening Liverpool are playing Manchester United on ESPN and I wish I hadn't found the result from the Internet. Still, I watched it until the (bitter) end, hoping that by doing so I could somehow influence the result, that with just a little more effort on my part Ince's goal wouldn't come. But it did. I do that with Gareth Southgate's' penalty too. Every time I replay it I feel just as tense as I did in real time. Gareth, for crying out loud. Concentrate. Hit the bloody thing. And every time he misses. Every bloody time.
10. P.M. 7th May 1999
The big day is getting closer. I've asked the office gofer to have my return ticket to Dhaka brought forward to Sunday so that I can be with the kids when we get the result. I'd originally planned to have a day on my own in Calcutta but I'm willing to give that up. Today I got an email from Simon the Social Worker telling me that I needed a voucher for Wembley. I'm not sure what the implications are of this but I'll email him on Sunday for clarification.
The day had not been easy. More howling outrage in an office made smaller by an Executive desk the size of Wales. The team is showing signs of unease. We need to talk together to agree a strategy of dealing with this but one of our number is already siding with the tyrant, exchanging acquiescence for peace. There is a level of insult one is not obliged to tolerate, and I realize the limit has been crossed. I re-engage, demanding explanations for the inexplicable and rationality from the verbally insane. He springs from his chair leaning towards me over the safety of his desk pointing, denouncing. He springs back, pouring water down his throat from a green plastic bottle, pressing a hidden buzzer on the table and securing the immediate attention of a bearer who is sent to bring more. He rifles through files for a letter he can't find but which will prove his point and condemn me to hell as a conspirator. He's at me again, waves his hands wildly in the air, dangerously close to the fan whirring away overhead. He splutters and coughs, takes another gulp of water and settles down in his chair. I'm not having this. I ask what I think is a sane question and he's off again, jumping from his chair, waving letters at me, shouting, gesticulating, flailing around in mental turmoil, a case history on the loose.
On the way back from this theatre of the absurd I stopped off at the Oxford bookshop in Park Street. I was after a Shakti album with, as I remember, John McLaughlin, Hariprasad Churassia and Zakir Hussain. I've been a fan of theirs for years but had never seen them as a band, although I have seen them all individually. This is a double CD taken from a live recording of last year, and the word is it's brilliant. But I couldn't find it and I settled for the World Cup 1999 Cricket computer CD for the kids.
8. A.M. 8th May 1999
All my trousers have stains on the knee and I determine to buy some more dressings today. Up late last night discussing my role in the evaluation, which will be in June. I shall be looking at 'new institutional forms in the process of indigenization' and I think that this thrills me no end, though I'm not absolutely sure. Difficult discussions over dinner about the meaning of the word 'vision', the proper response to ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and the performance on the NATO rostrum of Jamie Shea. I think the message is lousy but the delivery is excellent but my boss pours scorn on both. I cannot be in conflict with everyone and I vow to work on a strategy that will allow me to express confidently a contrary opinion without seeming to be contrary or to have an opinion at all.
3.15. P.M. 8th May 1999
The ticket has been changed and I fly tomorrow. The team is unable to agree a suitable terms of reference for the evaluation in June, and we resort to doing what evaluations teams do best, evaluating one another. We pack up at two thirty, agreeing that we couldn't agree. Thankful for this unanimity - rare among teams I should tell you - we went our separate ways, to replay and finally win the arguments in our heads that we were unable to win in the three days of meetings. And I think, if I can do it, why couldn't Gareth Southgate? In fact, if maybe we all think together powerfully enough, all at the same time, and all think the ball in the back of the net - and then all play our VCRs at the same time, maybe the penalty will have gone in.
I'm back at the hotel by three and I do a deal with Mr. Singh for a trip to the Taj Bengal at four for a spot of shopping. I'm not keen on returning to Calcutta in June but getting out of it might be more than I can wangle. The team agrees to meet at six for dinner on our last night. I think of Watford. There used to be a chippie on the corner of Market Street that I'd often pop into on the way to the ground. It was part of the ritual of a home game that I used to love and still miss. I'd take a left from the chippie, past Laver's timber yard and cross into Vicarage Road where I'd buy a programme on the corner. Magic. I think of this in my hotel room in Calcutta and picture the crowd against Grimsby on Sunday and see myself part of it. I join the crowd and walk up Vicarage Road. Come on yooooooowooooorns.
6.00 A.M. 9th May 9, 1999. The big day.
The meetings are at an end and the team flies out today. The strain has taken its toll, and one team member drinks comfort from a bottle. A row erupted in a car taking us home from our Indian colleague's house where we'd eaten together. He tell us he's angry and upset but he's wrong. He's tired and emotional, that's what he is. He wants answers. What were we going to do about the bombing? And where was the Pope in all of this? I exchange nervous glances with my French colleague. I am invited to stay up and discuss the Balkans but I can't think further than Grimsby. I decline but then give in only to suffer another hour of exasperation. Teams are supposed to bond but whatever this is, it's not bonding. Is this what burnout looks like? It's serious, but it's difficult to take seriously. My colleague and I eventually disentangle ourselves from the Balkans and retire to our room to laugh and howl and roll about until a red stain appears on the left knee of my trouser leg.
9.30 A.M. 9th May, 1999
I saw some results late last night on ESPN and notice that Man U are playing at Middlesborough on Sunday, and that it's on the tube. This means no Watford. Still, this is what I'll be doing tonight in Dhaka and I look forward to it immensely. It occurs to me that we might already be in the play-offs, depending on the results of yesterday's games but unfortunately I don't know who was playing whom or where and have forgotten the mathematics of it. So I decide I'll have to go to Gossips again and log on. I go but find nothing. Can't understand it. No first division results. Why not?
The Monsoon has arrived. Calcutta is wet from rain and the temperature has dropped from 39 to 27 degrees. Great.
5.00 P.M. 9th May, 1999. Dhaka, Bangladesh
Bangladesh is wet, it's been raining for three days and as the plane lands I see an airport surrounded by what looks like a lake. Poor old Bangladesh. When I'd left it was suffering a drought. On the drive from the airport I see that it's the lychee season. Home knackered. No sign of the t-shirts I ordered from the Great Bangladesh T-shirt Company. I'll email them. Email from Simon says the final is on the 31st May. Can't make it. A mate has just returned from England and has brought me a pile of newspapers.
My 7-year-old has written his Mum a poem:
You remind me of my country
You buy me bed sheets
I love you.
Wicked! Terrible thought - we're six hours in front of England so the kick off is at nine this evening. The problem is, we almost always have a power cut at ten which lasts for one and a half hours so I'm in danger of missing the match on TV and not being able to log on for the results. On the other hand the temperature has dropped here too, to the extent that we're not running the ACs. Now, if this is happening all over Dhaka there should be much less demand for power and if that's the case it might be OK. Check the batteries in the Roberts, just in case. Read Ig's report on BSaD. Top man, Ig, top man. Come on you golden boys. Think of my old mucker Bland le Bland - the main man - heading down from Nottingham. Think of Vicarage Road and the crowds swelling, the ground filling up, the banter, the good spirits, the excitement, eating chips out of the paper, buying the programme.... Come on yoooooowoooorrnnnnssssss.
9.11 P.M. 9th May 1999.
I made a mistake on the time difference and realized there was only five hours between London and Dhaka, not six as I'd thought. My son and I rush to the Internet - soccernet.com - and scroll down slowly, trying to make sense of the other results but not reading them, looking only for Watford. And then Yeeeeeeesssss, we've done it, we're in the play offs - and twenty thousand plus saw us get there. What I'd give, what I'd give!
And a message from the T-shirt company; they're ready to collect. It's fate. We're destined. Here we go, here we go here we go....