Lost in Brussels

AL Kennedy on the perils of visiting Brussels, how to spot the British amidst a foreign crowd and on

Sadly, I missed getting hit on the head by police batons at the anti-Bush protests. (Why is it - and I’m asking seriously – that police are so very suggestible ? Dress them in riot gear and they do like to bust things up. Mix them with US enforcement and they get all Vietnam on your ass.) And, as we know, the police usually try to bully crowds if they are not composed of football supporters and then get pre-emptively tense about the consequences of their own actions. Inflicting head wounds with metal bars isn’t what I’d call an appropriate response to a peaceful demonstration, but then what do I know about democracy…? Depressing.

Why wasn’t I in London being prevented from walking up Whitehall in a perfectly legal manner ? Because I was working. (Ish) I had to go to Europe – by train. (Indulging my own irrational fears without hitting anyone at all.) So, up at the crack of dawn, down to London, through the Chunnel – a huge undersea chimney within which I could sample the delights of being drowned, crushed and incinerated, perhaps simultaneously. And yet I doze peacefully through it - perhaps due to lack of oxygen: many others seem to doze, too – and am relaxed as a drugged puppy. Then on to Cologne and on even further by car to Bitberg which is in Eifel, which has its own international literary prize. (Imagine Berwick having its own international literary prize, or Kettering – we just don’t do culture, do we ?)

The journey out wasn’t quite as smooth as I’d anticipated. First I had to negotiate the mingled British and non-British crowds at St Pancras – duly noting that the two groups were instantly recognisable – the non-Brits weren’t pissed, tense, whining and hitting their toddlers with shoes. Then I had to negotiate Brussels Midi, not the world’s easiest or loveliest railway station. Many of its platforms are ridiculously long and curved which means you (or indeed I) could be waiting docilely on the correct platform while a train sneaks in invisibly around the curve, hides and sneaks out again without you. (Or indeed me.) Having missed my first train, I then descended to the ticket office, where you have to take a ticket to stand in the queue for a ticket, then conduct extensive negotiations to have your ticket – the first ticket – turned extremely slowly into your third ticket, before running up to the platform in order to miss another secretive train and repeat as necessary. There was a point at which I believed that a) I would never leave Brussels again and/or b) I had died and would never leave Brussels again and/or c) I was taking part in some kind of perverse psychological experiment and would begin stress-induced gnawing at my own limbs within minutes.

But – on the bright side – Bitberg was friendly, The folks were delightful and gave me their International Prize in return for making a small speech, while lavishing me with free food, much of it asparagus-based. (It is the season for it.) The only blot on the landscape was provided by the German football team who have managed to qualify for something or other – this causing me to have to converse about football in German, when I cannot do so in English and lack essential vocabulary like goal, nippy winger and I’d rather pluck out my own eyes and throw them in a blender. That’s a fib, actually – I know how to say the last one in many languages, because it comes up so often.

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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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