This morning we escaped the hellish furnace of Luton Travelodge (that’s the only Travelodge dig of the post, promise) and headed to Kenilworth Road, home of Luton Town FC. Home also, it seems, of half the neighbourhood. The ground is literally hidden behind a square of tight terraced houses, the floodlights barely visible above the rooftops and the turnstiles situated between front doors. It is genuinely quicker for these people to pop out for professional football than it is for them to pop out for milk. Indeed, everything about Luton Town is similarly, endearingly, ramshackle: the club shop is a portacabin and its reception a cave off a carpark…the seats in the main stand long ago abandoned their ambition to spell out the club’s initials, and now concentrate solely on being seats, of all different colours, shapes and styles, some without backs at all. To get a television camera onto the designated gantry you have to post it up a ladder! But what The Town lacks in finesse it more than makes up for in passion and authenticity. For, after the camera is posted up the ladder, the commentator(s) must follow suit, whether they work for Diverse FM or Sky Sports. Standing on a wooden scaffolding platform for two hours in the harshest Bedfordshire January is enough to keep anyone honest. We were shown round by lovely Jess, and pretty much given free reign of the ground (except the pitch, which we were told – in no uncertain terms – was North-Korea-levels of off limits…they have a pre-season friendly there tomorrow night, having despatched Royal Antwerp 4-0 on Saturday). I went in all 3 stands, walked down the tunnel, and sat in the dugouts, imagining a fourth official holding up my number in LED lights, checking my studless hightop boots, imagining anarchically running onto the pitch, being chased from the ground never to be allowed back. I was tempted. But I kept the lid on my idiot 7-year-old self and instead tapped into other aspects of my childhood; memories of coming here with my dad (I think I’ve seen about 10 games at Kenilworth Road) and going elsewhere to see The Hatters (my first professional football game was Luton v Notts County at Meadowlane, when I still thought I supported Man Utd, on a soaking wet Tuesday night. It was 0-0, and I distinctly remember the stadium smelling of wee. I left wondering what all the fuss was about.). But, like your mother’s love, the thick-and-thin romance of the game works its magic on you over time. David Mitchell is right, the football will never stop, because if it did, so would a nation’s Saturday afternoon plans. If there wasn’t football to talk about, then for a million men (it is mostly men) there would be nothing to talk about. But we’ll get there later. Jess told me that what I know as the away stand hasn’t always been the away stand, and that if my dad was coming to watch Luton in the 70s and 80s (which he was), then he’d probably have sat there. I sat there too, mentally made the shorts shorter, mentally gave everyone questionable moustaches and cigarettes that were good for you, and I was right with him. (I used to be a long distance runner, so the short shorts bit was easy.)
We left Kenilworth Road and fended off some hostile questions about our camera with the truth – ‘this isn’t an undercover documentary about the surrounding area, but a theatre show about my dad’. Mostly through confusion rather than interest, and having heard the word ‘theatre’, the man wisely backed down, fear written all over his face. The camera has two very different effects on people – some put their guard up, and put it up hard, but some are all too keen to have their turn in the limelight. The pubs were particularly funny (‘Don’t tell the wife I’m in here. If you’re filming Langford’s Most Wanted and I’m on the tele tonight then I’m fucked!’). And today, on our way to the ground, with The Who’s Baba O’Riley ringing in my ears as I retraced our exact route from where my dad always parks his car cos it’s free and he’d rather lose a limb than pay for parking…on this walk, we were chased by three very excited kids, who interrupted their game of footy to take turns at jumping in front of Oscar, one insisting that we ‘tell everyone I’m Ronaldo yeah?’. His mate told him he wasn’t and he replied ‘yes I am though, I skill you both all the time’. Oscar and I have conferred at length, and would like to announce that he is, indeed, Ronaldo. Well done him. This despite him tripping over as he ran towards us and staying on his feet, which was a troubling curveball.
We’ve been very lucky with the weather up til now, the last two days looking more like a low budget episode of Escape To The Country than two recent graduates on a hitchhike, but we knew it couldn’t last. And not just because we were no longer in the country. The heavens opened shortly after we’d replenished our depleted Sharpie supplies, so we hid in a petrol station forecourt to make our one and only sign of the day, and our longest of the entire trip. The forecourt attendant conveniently didn’t notice us – or decided not to say anything – until I’d written all but the final ‘Y’ of ‘WELWYN GARDEN CITY’, so we packed up our hastily-assembled squat next to the pumps, and struck out toward our destination. Unfortunately, getting there involved walking through Luton city centre, a proudly culture-free zone since the dawn of time. We passed Galaxy, a multiplex cinema and bowling emporium; the unhappiest arranged marriage in entertainment history. We passed a ‘car trap’, a bin with a cock drawn on it, an abandoned shop window advertising coma sessions (which seem frankly surplus to requirements in Luton), and a pub admirably admitting its faults in a kind of anti-advert on a chalkboard outside. Despite our transparent commitment to (good-naturedly) taking the piss out of almost everything, we only took photos of less than half of these things, so desperate were we to leave.
The road to Welwyn was a busy, winding, glorified country lane, with fields or dry stone walls on both sides and absolutely nowhere to safely walk or pull over; cars, vans and lorries speeding by at 50+mph. With each passing vehicle came another tsunami of oily water and the very real danger of being run over. But at least we were no longer in Luton. Just as the water had fundamentally breached my shoes (by this point Oscar was long gone; more rain and dirt than man), Nick pulled over in his people carrier, really annoying all the less generous motorists behind him, the value of whose cars decreased with each second they were within 10 metres of hitchhikers. Nick’s car was the colour of a baby bird’s sick, but it didn’t matter because its driver was nice, it was heading loosely in the right direction, and we were inside it, where we wouldn’t have to look at it anymore. He dumped us halfway between Luton and Welwyn, in a village whose name we don’t know – not because we’ve forgotten it but because it’s so insignificant that its inhabitants appear not to have named it – and we trudged onwards, buoyed by a tentatively re-emerging sun, and being yet further away from Luton. We stopped for a now institutional wee-and-Oreo break, and I had barely buttoned up my jeans when Dylan & Mitch pulled over in their white van. Oscar made himself right at home in the windowless back, getting cosy with the home-counties’ widest range of miscellaneous electrical equipment. I told Dylan about the purpose of the trip, in a spiel I’ve now streamlined to about 30 seconds, and he told me that he’s been to Nottingham once but he can’t remember anything other than that he woke up in a park over the road from his hotel. Close. If getting to bed was a game of golf then he was definitely on the green, and would’ve elicited at least tepid applause from the crowd.
Dylan & Mitch were kind enough to drop us right at our Premier Inn, kind enough even to let Oscar out the back, like a dangerous dog finally sufficiently far away from children and the elderly to be allowed a quick run around. We permitted ourselves the small indulgence of a cup of tea and the rest of our Oreos, but NOT a change of socks…there were still a couple of significant visits to make before we could shower and get into dry clothes. My dad and his family lived in Welwyn from when he was 4 to when he was 13 or 14, and quite a few of his cousins remain here. We popped in to talk to Beryl, my dad’s aunt by marriage (i.e. my nan’s sister-in-law). I decided not to ask her why Welwyn Garden City was founded on a web of lies – a city not of gardens at all but, disappointingly, of houses – and instead asked her about my dad’s time in Welwyn House-and-Garden City. She was funny, warm and generous, and very self-aware. It’s hard to describe other people’s feelings, she said. In the case of my dad’s side of the family, it’s hard to describe your own. Beryl’s lively chatter was peppered with quiet poignancy. She fell out with Rose over some trivial miscommunication, and both are too stubborn to patch it up. They used to write to each other all the time, but now haven’t spoken for 5 years, which seems such a shame given how many times I’ve listened to my nan tell me she’s lonely (my granddad Bill passed away in 2004) and given how readily Beryl told me about her own loneliness in our conversation today (her husband Reub, Rose’s brother, passed away the year before Bill). I promised her I would try and persuade Rose to pick up the phone when I next saw her. Only if you want to, Beryl said. I do. She packed us off with the warning that if we left it any later then we wouldn’t catch my dad’s cousin David (her son) before he went to bed, because he’s leaving early tomorrow morning to watch Chelsea play in Holland. It was 7pm and still broad daylight, so I privately thought we’d be alright, but who was I to disagree! When we posed for a photo, she took my arm as if we last saw each other only yesterday rather than 10 or so years ago, as if she’d recognise me in the street and not need reminding who I was.
David took a while to respond to my knocking, and only then stuck a hostile head out the bathroom window to ask what I wanted. I’m Ray’s son, I said, and started to explain the idea behind the trip and the show beyond it. Whose son?, he asked. Ray’s, I responded, and in an unnaturally short amount of time the front door was flung open to reveal a considerably less hostile David, bald, tanned, shirtless and smiling, looking like the spit of my dad on one of the rare occasions that he drops his guard and really lets himself smile. We talked a lot. David and dad’s families grew up together, moving from London to Welwyn together after Bill got Reub a job fixing typewriters with him in the area, David and dad going to Monkswalk comprehensive together and watching football together. They’d watch a lot of it on tele, David told me, but never go to the same games because he was a Chelsea fan and my dad a Spurs man. SORRY WHAT?! Bombshell. Apparently, my dad supported Tottenham before he moved to Breachwood Green and started following Luton. This was something I had absolutely no idea about, because dad had never mentioned it. Oscar and I won’t go to White Hart Lane on this trip because 1) these sorts of things have to be comprehensively risk assessed, and 2), moreover, the very fact I knew nothing about dad’s sordid Spurs secret tells you everything you need to know; it formed nothing of our relationship at any point, and consequently holds no sentimental value for us as a father-son duo. I then asked Dave what dad was like as a boy. Whether, as Beryl testified, he was a quiet and sad child. Not really, said David, I always quite liked him, as if it’s impossible to like someone who’s quiet and sad. Halfway through telling me about games of monopoly and chess, and first cigarettes in the park, Dave’s wife Gill came home. She was surprised to have visitors, particularly ones on such a strange mission, but really invested in the idea after we told her what the hell we were doing in her lounge. We got to talking about talking. About why my dad just doesn’t do it, and why Dave – said Gill – doesn’t either. Unless it’s about Chelsea, in which case he won’t stop. The few times in my life that my dad has wanted to talk to me, he’s managed to do so only in spite of himself, palpably battling his way through some self-imposed emotional barricade, like storming a private Bastille. Each time he’s wanted a hug, Paris has had to burn inside him. We talked, mostly to Gill at this point, about why men of my dad’s and David’s generation don’t tend to talk, while many younger men do. Is it that talking is no longer considered effeminate? The women stay at home and natter away, while the men work and drink? Is it hard to fit feelings, let alone the space to air them, between a full time job, the callused skin of male pride, and the pub? I don’t know, David didn’t say too much on that.
I’ve been in a state of meditative calm since those two encounters; not just because we had our first brew with real milk in ages – instead of the uht sachets of plastic compromise you get in cheap hotels – but because we got some full fat confidences too. To Jess at Luton Town, Nick, Dylan & Mitch on the road, and Beryl, David & Gill in their own front rooms, thank you. Next stop Wembley, because – as David already told you – the football will never stop.