Still haunted by the ghosts of '66

That World Cup win and that swinging summer created a benchmark against which we will always be meas

I shall never forget the damp, cold night in February 1993 when I heard that Bobby Moore had died. My father was born in Upton Park, in the East End of London, not far from the home stadium of West Ham United, for whom Moore played for more than two decades, and I grew up in a household in the nowhere zone of the Essex-Hertfordshire borderlands in which Moore was a revered and iconic presence. And why not? He was, after all, a stalwart captain of West Ham and England, and the only Briton ever to hold aloft the Jules Rimet trophy. (One of my father's happiest anecdotes was how he had once spent a long flight back from Hong Kong with Moore and his then wife, Tina. Acting as cocktail-fixer in the upper-deck bar of a jumbo jet, Moore had repeatedly got my father's name wrong, calling him "Tel" instead of Tony. This, for some reason, amused my father enormously.)

The night after the day Bobby Moore died, I drove out to the East End and mingled with thousands of people as they laid scarves and floral tributes to him outside the gates of Upton Park stadium - in its way, this event was a smaller, more local precursor of the spontaneous mourning that followed the death of Princess Diana. There were photographs and posters pinned to the gates of Upton Park that night in which a young, blond-haired, red-shirted Moore was shown receiving the World Cup from the Queen, on that July day in 1966, a day that for ever now seems to be scorched into our national consciousness, even for those, like me, who weren't born or were mere babies when England won the World Cup for the first and only time.

My father had died, suddenly, two years earlier and, that night in Upton Park, his and Moore's death seemed somehow inextricably linked in my mind - the end of two lives, yes, but something more than that, too: something to do with the 1960s themselves, when, as my father once told me, everything in the country seemed bright and new and young; when Mary Quant, the Beatles, the miniskirt, the pill, the World Cup, Carnaby Street fashions and the beginnings of a mass consumer culture transformed Britain into a place to get excited about.

Nowadays, there is much bluster about how a "new" Britain has been modernised and remade by a "new" Labour Party; but Britain doesn't really feel like a new country. In fact, it feels old, haunted, hag-ridden by the past. It feels like a country that wants to look back, not forward - and, in particular, to 1966, when everything was bathed in that authentic glow of cool: swinging London, the swinging Sixties, and all that jazz. After all, it was on 15 April 1966 that Time magazine published its famous cover story on London and announced that, "in this century, every decade has its city . . . and for the Sixties that city is London." A few months later, the World Cup was won, an act setting a kind of standard, the benchmark against which the England football team would ever after be measured and found sadly wanting.

Today, the lingering myths of '66 have conspired to create an entire culture of self-savouring romanticism, as exemplified by the popularity of Baddiel and Skinner's football song "Three Lions", with its fey nostalgia and chorus of "30 years of hurt" (cannily appropriated by Tony Blair before the last election); and by the way in which Kenneth Wolstenholme's brilliant line of commentary - "Some people are on the pitch/They think it's all over/It is now" - has entered the language as definitively as any line from Shakespeare. It doesn't even seem to matter much that, under close inspection, the myths of '66, as is the way of such things, begin to crumble. For instance, it is often remarked that Harold Wilson's landslide victory of that year was achieved against the general euphoria of the World Cup win. In fact, the election was held before the World Cup, in March of that year. It is worth recalling, too, that 1966 may have been the high point of "Swinging London" but it was also the year of the Aberfan slag-heap disaster and of the sentencing of the Moors murderers (a terminal violation of England's innocence, if ever there was one).

As a child growing up in a suburban new town in the dull and economically depressed 1970s, in the era of power cuts and the three-day week, I could never understand how anyone could think that England had once been an exciting place in which to live. For a start, we never seemed to win or excel at anything - and football, through which people found a vicarious expression of wounded nationalism, was dangerously violent. (The first time my father took me to a match, there was a huge fight on the terraces.) The emergence of punk rock, with its stylised disaffection, seemed an authentic response to the mediocrity, boredom and failure I saw around me, manifested in the squalor and bad architecture of the public spaces through which I moved, the charmlessness of the people I met, the appalling food served to me at school and our repeated national failures at sport. (Having won the World Cup in 1966 and impressed at Mexico 1970, we failed to qualify in 1974 and 1978.)

I never met Bobby Moore, although I did once have a long conversation with him. He rang the local paper on which I briefly worked after leaving university to speak to a colleague, Sue Thearle, who now works for the BBC. I happened to answer her phone when she was out on assignment, and, seizing an opportunity, promptly asked Moore his views on the England team and related matters. Later that afternoon, I sold his burnished quotes to a national tabloid - an act for which I thereafter became bizarrely known in the office as the "freelance thief".

Not long after, Thearle met Moore in the press box at an England match, and was shocked by what she saw. For, by this time, he was ashen and weak through cancer. Within a matter of months, he would be dead at the age of 51. In the weeks after his death, as old footage of him lifting the World Cup was repeatedly replayed, the beginnings of a cult of Bobby Moore and, more generally, of the summer of 1966 began to take shape; and this cult continues mysteriously to deepen and intensify each time the England football team fail at a major tournament, having set off not so much in hope as in expectation of . . . well, victory. "We have the quality to win this tournament," Kevin Keegan said at the beginning of Euro 2000, thus repeating the self-delusive mantra spoken by all his predecessors since Alf Ramsay stepped down, defeated and bewildered after England failed to qualify for the 1974 World Cup in West Germany.

When Moore retired from football, after playing more than 1,000 games at senior level, he seemed to have everything he wanted - wealth, good looks and a sackful of the best contacts. He was expected to prosper in management, in business or as a freelance talking head. It never happened. The trajectory of his decline seemed powerfully to parallel that of the team he once captained so confidently. His only attempts at management were humblingly parochial, with non-league Oxford City, from 1979 to 1981, and then with Southend United from 1983 to 1986. And the last phase of his life, when he spent three years as sports editor of the repulsive Sunday Sport and as a fast-talking summariser on Capital Gold, had a peculiar melancholy of its own. So in the end, perhaps, he had nothing left but the memory of his talent to sustain him - and the pictures he carried in his head of that afternoon in July 1966, when it must have seemed as if the whole world was watching and admiring him.

In his own way, then, Bobby Moore was as much a victim as the rest of us of the myths of the summer of 1966: that thin-spun summer when class boundaries seemed to dissolve and the country floated on an invisible cloud of self-celebration. Nothing would be as good again, certainly not for Moore, nor for the rest of the players who have long since remained imprisoned by their achievement. Nor for the country, either, which, for all Blair's bluster about modernity and renewal, remains haunted by an inexplicable sense of loss; not of present loss, but of something bound up with feelings that the best has gone - and it will never be so good again. That is, until we stop dreaming of 1966, stop reflecting on those "30 years of hurt", and learn instead to accept, as Troilus does in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, that the "will is infinite and the execution confused/that the desire is boundless and the act a slave to limit".

So the summer of '66 is dead; long live the summer of '66.

Jason Cowley's first novel, Unknown Pleasures, is published by Faber & Faber (£9.99)