George Alagiah interviews us on the BBC
Sunday 29 April 2007
Owen Powell - 29th April 2007
We've had an amazing response to our article in thelondonpaper, which came out on Wednesday 25th April. To everyone who has emailed so far, thanks so much for your comments and suggestions and offers. We're slightly overwhelmed by how many people want to meet up with us and tell us how they came to London, but keep an eye on your inboxes - we'll be contacting you within days to arrange a meeting. If we manage to see everyone who has shown an interest, I think we'll be up to somewhere in the 90s, which is getting on for half-way to the grand total! Given that the article came out the day after our six-month anniversary, that seems to be appropriate.
What's really nice is the way that many people are suggesting work colleagues, or neighbours, or even people they chat to on the bus - the excitement of being in a genuinely global city is palpable in lots of your messages, and it's inspired us again to get as close as we can to finishing. We think it can be done.
Please do keep reading the blog, we know that sometimes we get a bit behind, but bear with us - the next month in particular should see new stories going up almost daily. And do get in contact as well - the best way is by email on firstname.lastname@example.org, but you can also leave comments on any page of the blog itself. (We know we've got some already which we haven't replied to. We're doing our research and will post something soon ...)
Finally, and once again, a big big thank you to everyone who's contacted us. It's good to know that you all think it's a nice idea, and we're very much enjoying meeting all these amazing people. Still searching for that elusive Comorian, though ...
Tuesday 24 April 2007
Some Facts And Figures About The World, Its Countries And Their Cities That We Have Discovered Since Commencing The Project
Alex Horne – 12th March 2007
What is a country?
An independent ‘country’ (or state) must adhere to the following eight criteria to legitimately earn its title. It must:
1. Have space or territory which has internationally recognized boundaries.
2. Have people who live there on an ongoing basis.
3. Have economic activity and an organized economy.
4. Have the power of social engineering, such as education.
5. Have a transportation system for moving goods and people.
6. Have a government which provides public services and police power.
7. Have sovereignty. No other State should have power over the country's territory.
8. Have external recognition by other countries.
'Nations’ are culturally homogeneous groups of people, larger than a single tribe or community, which share a common language, institutions, religion, and historical experience.
When a nation of people have a country of their own, it is called a nation-state. Places like France, Egypt, Germany, Japan, and New Zealand are excellent examples of nation-states.
There are some countries which have two nations, such as Canada and Belgium.
There are some nations, such as the Kurds, who do not have their own countries.
The Vatican City does count as a country according to the rules stated above, however it has chosen not to become a member of the U.N. The United States’ State Department recognizes The Vatican City as a country.
It does not, however, recognize Taiwan, which was a member of the United Nations (and even the Security Council) until 1971, when mainland China replaced Taiwan in the organization. Taiwan is therefore not officially a country and while it continues to press for full recognition by other countries, to become "part of the club" and fully recognized worldwide, China claims that Taiwan is simply a province of China.
There are dozens of territories and colonies that are sometimes erroneously called ‘countries’ but don't count at all because they're governed by other countries. Places commonly confused as being countries include Puerto Rico, Bermuda, Greenland, Palestine, Western Sahara, Hong Kong, and the components of the United Kingdom (such as Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England).
How many countries are there?
There are 193 countries in the world, 192 of which are in the U.N.
North America contains just three (or 1.5%) of the world’s countries: Canada, Mexico and the United States of America.
Africa has over a quarter of all the countries in the world with 53. Not one is a veto wielding state at the UN. Similarly, Japan contributes to the regular UN budget more than UK, France, Russia and China combined yet has no veto.
The five permanent members of the UN Security Council (who are, in effect, in charge of the world) are the UK, the USA, France, Russia and China. These were also the leading countries amongst the allies who won World War II. There is no coincidence. The world is more or less governed by a system of ‘winner-stays-on’.
The islands of the Caribbean can be divided into 26 regions – 13 are independent countries, while 13 are territories with euphemistic names (dependencies, overseas collectives and commonwealths) that are controlled by the UK, France, the Netherlands or the USA.
How do old countries become new countries?
Basutoland: Lesotho's name prior to 1966.
Bengal: An independent kingdom from 1338-1539, now part of Bangladesh and India.
Burma: Burma officially changed its name to Myanmar in 1989 but many countries still aren't recognizing the change, such as the United States.
Corsica: This Mediterranean island was ruled by various nations over the course of history but had several brief periods of independence.
Hawaii: Though a kingdom for hundreds of years, Hawaii wasn't recognized as an independent country until the 1840s. The country was annexed to the U.S. in 1898.
Prussia: Became a kingdom in 1660, at greatest extent it included the northern two-thirds of Germany and western Poland. Prussia, by World War II a federal unit of Germany, was fully disbanded at the end of World War II.
Rhodesia: Zimbabwe was known as Rhodesia (named after British diplomat Cecil Rhodes) prior to 1980.
Siam: Changed its name to Thailand in 1939.
Southwest Africa: Gained independence and became Namibia in
Tanganyika and Zanzibar: These two African countries united in 1964 to form Tanzania.
Tibet: A kingdom established in the 7th century, Tibet was invaded by China in 1950 and has since been known as the Xizang Autonomous Region of China.
Western Samoa: Changed its name to Samoa in 1998.
Yugoslavia: The original Yugoslavia divided up into Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro, and Slovenia in the early 1990s.
Zaire: Changed its name to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1997.
32 new countries have been created since 1990. Fifteen became independent with the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. Yugoslavia dissolved in the early 1990s into five independent countries. Nine others became independent through a variety of different causes. The youngest countries in the world are Serbia and Montenegro. (The “and” in the previous sentence used to be part of the whole country’s name, but is now just a word linking two individual countries). Montenegro and Serbia have only existed since June 2006. Kosovo may become independent of Serbia during the course of our project, which would be lovely for Kosovars, but more work for us.
The ten smallest countries:
1. Vatican City - 0.2 square miles - The world's smallest state, the Vatican has a population of 770, none of whom are permanent residents.
2. Monaco - 0.7 square miles - An impressive 32,000 people live in this state known for its Monte Carlo casinos and Princess Grace. It has been independent off-and-on since the 13th century.
3. Nauru - 8.5 square miles - The 13,000 residents of the Pacific island Nauru rely on diminishing phosphate deposits. The state became independent in 1968 and was formerly known as Pleasant Island.
4. Tuvalu - 9 square miles - Tuvalu is composed of 9 coral atolls along a 360 mile chain in Polynesia. They gained independence in 1978. The former Ellice Islands are home to 12,000.
5. San Marino - 24 square miles - Located on Mt. Titano in north central Italy, San Marino has 29,000 residents. The country claims to be the oldest state in Europe, having been founded in the fourth century.
6. Liechtenstein - 62 square miles - This microstate of 34,000 is located on the Rhine River between Switzerland and Austria in the Alps.
7. Marshall Islands - 70 square miles - The atolls (including the world's largest, Kwajalein), reefs, and 34 islands (population 58,000) gained independence in 1986; they were formerly part of the Trust Territory of Pacific Islands (and administered by the United States).
8. Saint Kitts and Nevis - 104 square miles - This Caribbean country of 39,000 gained independence in 1983. Nevis is the smaller island of the two and is guaranteed the right to secede.
9. Seychelles - 107 square miles - The 81,000 residents of this Indian Ocean island group have been independent of the United Kingdom since 1976.
10. Maldives - 115 square miles - Only 200 of the 2000 Indian Ocean islands which make up this country are occupied by 340,000 residents. The islands gained independence from the U.K. in 1965.
Seven surprisingly large countries, with their ranking in the overall list:
9th largest: Kazakhstan: 2,717,300 km2 (1,048,877 mi2)
10th largest: Sudan: 2,505,810 km2 (967,243 mi2)
11th largest:Algeria: 2,381,740 km2 (919,352 mi2)
12th largest: Congo, Democratic Republic of the: 2,345,410 km2 (905,328 mi2)
15th largest: Indonesia: 1,919,440 km2 (740,904 mi2)
16th largest: Libya: 1,759,540 km2 (679,182 mi2)
17th largest: Iran: 1,648,000 km2 (636,128 mi2)
Twenty Four Cities that have all claimed to be the ‘Most Cosmopolitan City in the World’: (according to Google)
2. NEW YORK
6. HONG KONG
7. LOS ANGELES
15. GENEVA (for its size)
16. CONSTANTINOPLE (in the 6th century)
17. XIAN (in the 8th century)
18. BAGHDAD (in the 11th century)
19. HANGZHOU (in the 13th century)
20. GOA (in the 16th century)
21. VIENNA (in Freud’s time)
22. NEW ORLEANS (in the 19th century)
23. ALEXANDRIA (in the colonial era)
24. PARIS (early 20th century)
Some of the methods adopted so far by Alex and Owen to prove that London is currently the ‘Most Cosmopolitan City in the World’:
1. We knocked on every door of Alex’s street and met many neighbours for the first time including a gentleman from India.
2. We accepted flyers from flyerers on Oxford Circus and ended up meeting a tennis-loving Hare Krishna devotee from Croatia, a Bangladeshi Pizza Hut publicist and a Mauritian assistant in an English Language School.
3. We were guided through Peckham by our Ghanaian representative who introduced us to people from Afghanistan and Kurdistan (which, unfortunately, we cannot accept as a country).
4. We attended the third Russian Winter Festival in Trafalgar Square and the forty first Superbowl in London’s Hard Rock Café.
5. We ate at least one meal a month in exotic restaurants and convinced the self-appointed Cape Verdean ambassador to organize an international barbecue.
6. We approached every person in Charing Cross Station, the epicentre of London, and met a girl from Poland selling flowers and a boy from Israel selling hand-warmers.
7. We watched a lot of international sporting fixtures.
8. We spoke up in a silent tube train and asked if anyone was from Comoros. We did not meet anyone from Comoros.
Wednesday 18 April 2007
Not Even Half a Handful
Alex Horne – 18th April 2007
Despite being some thirty countries behind schedule we set off with high hopes on this particular Wednesday, pleased to have at last found a day on which neither Owen nor I had anything much on. We’re trying to squeeze this project around our normal London lives, it’s not our job and, unfortunately, it can’t always be our number one priority and for the last few weeks it’s had to take something of a back seat as we’ve done other time-consuming things like ‘Easter in Ireland’, ‘preparations for the Edinburgh Festival’ and ‘a gig in East Grinstead Sports Centre’.
Now, however, the day stretched before us like a long hot summer holiday (until 5pm when I had a meeting over in Ladbroke Grove) so after eating a brief and efficient breakfast in The Breakfast Club we set off on the dot of 11am (Owen had already had a meeting on Liverpool Street at 10am) determined to end the day with at least one handful of foreigners, maybe even two, or perhaps one handful and a couple of fingers – either way, five at the bare minimum.
First stop, the Piccadilly Circus end of Regent Street where a month earlier I’d bought some black material (fabric, not risky jokes about plane crashes) for my own Edinburgh show from a man who happened to mention he was from Malta during the transaction. Yes, Malta: eleventh smallest country in the world and therefore an enormous one for us.
On re-entering the establishment I immediately recognised the suave shopkeeper behind the counter, tape measure draped casually but deliberately over his shoulders and set about reminding him of my previous purchase. Thankfully, he remembered me. This was going well. I felt a surge of pride and was glad Owen was on hand to witness the fact that I had recently made quite an impression on a Maltese tailor.
I went on to excitedly explain why I was back, that I’d remembered his nationality and would love him to join our project. He continued to smile. But then he started shaking his head. What? No! Yes – he was saying no!
And then, to make matters worse, he suddenly gestured to another a man at another counter and said, ‘we’ve been here too long’. The other man turned round – it was the first man’s twin brother! An identical twin! And he was shaking his head too! Neither of them would help!
I was feeling fairly desperate and confused so begged briefly but this only increased the intensity of their identical head sways. ‘Oh no, we’ve been here more than fifty years’, they said, ‘we can’t really help’. Yes you can, I cried, you’re perfect. And you’re twins! We haven’t got Maltese people or twin people! ‘No we can’t’, they replied, ‘and I don’t think you’ll find any other people from Malta in London. There really aren’t very many’. No. No. No! Well, Ok. Thank you. Goodbye.
I regained my composure and hustled Owen out of the shop. A difficult start. A couple of Malteasers. We marched in silence to the nearest tube.
Piccadilly Circus, I think, is quite a fun tube station. One of the few that is actually entirely underground, once you’ve descended into the earth you can walk in a complete circle around the barriers and get your keys cut, shoes cleaned or buy a samosa from the miniature shops on the outer ring. It’s pretty much exactly like a real circus.
Pulling ourselves together after the Maltese Disaster we decided that now would be a good time to get the London Underground’s multicultural staff on our side. We sidled up to one friendly looking employee and told him what we tell everyone. He sounded interested but said we needed to speak to his Supervisor who, he was pretty sure, would say no. Still, we thought it was worth a try and set off in search of this apparently negative man. We’d already Oystered ourselves through the barriers at this point but our amicable L.U. employee agreed to swipe us out again and told us how to find his boss’s office in the middle of the Circus. This was now officially an adventure.
When we finally penetrated the station’s inner sanctum, where shadowy figures stared at London’s commuters on a bank of TV screens in true Big Brother/James Bond style, the Supervisor/Main Baddy (a surly and very English bloke) greeted us grimly but said that yes, we could ask his workers if we could interview them. But that they would then say no. They definitely wouldn’t do it. Fine. Ok. We smiled, said thanks and both thought he was sending out mixed messages but went back to our friendlier man and told him his Supervisor had said that we could ask him questions but that in all likelihood he wouldn’t answer them. Flouting this prediction our man gleefully said he would answer them. So we asked him where he was from. And he said he was from Suffolk.
He then mustered his fellow on-duty colleagues (all three of them), each of whom revealed that they were born in and around London. One added that he was half-German but when pressed, crumbled and said he wasn’t sure if he was really. We then had more problems Oystering ourselves back through the gates and eventually scuttled down the escalator admitting a second humiliating defeat.
The first person we met on Electric Avenue (out of Brixton tube, turn left, then left again) had a much simpler and more positive attitude to our project. He was called Kelly and came from Kashmir which, like Kurdistan, Bermuda, Montserrat, Palestine and Wales, is a place that people have told us they’re from but which isn’t a member of the UN (according to their and our arbitrary rules, he’s actually from Pakistan. I for one find this confusing and am constantly worried about making offensive political blunders but we’re definitely going to try to keep track of ALL nations, regions, ‘countries’, tribes or realms we meet, whether they’re in the magic 192 or not). He was selling batteries.
‘You’ve come to the right place’, he cried, gesturing down the stall-laden street and grinning. ‘There are people from at least five hundred countries here!’ As I said, we’re keen to meet people from everywhere so an extra five hundred nationalities on one street would be a real help.
As it was, after a slightly incoherent chat with Kelly about the world in general and Duracell in particular, we strolled down the Avenue asking each stall holder where they were from and did indeed encounter people from all over the planet; blokes from Brazil, Poland, Australia and Lithuania offering shoes, household goods, cheese and pens respectively, two guys from Jamaica and one from Nigeria selling music by playing it very loud and dancing a bit, men from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Ghana and Bolivia chopping up lots of different meat, girls from Malaysia and China vending various herbal remedies, a Frenchman with a flag stall and even an English girl selling tea. Unfortunately, we’d got all them already and, as far as we can tell, there’s no-one out there with whom we can do any Panini-sticker-album-style swaps.
In one of the covered market areas we found a guy called Amin from Guyana who was studiously poring through a medical textbook while not selling any of the fabrics in his shop. He told us his dad would be ideal for us and promised to phone or email us later that week. We’re still waiting.
A few shops down we stumbled across something called The Sierra Leone Shop, outside which three lively ladies were dancing to music whilst sweeping the shop front. Again we asked them to help us. ‘We’re too busy!’ came the implausible but by now predictable reply. Round the corner we entered somewhere promising us ‘Religious Artefacts from Haiti and USA’ whose Haitian employee, we were told, had all moved on the previous month. It was becoming a frustrating day.
We did have some joy. Just before leaving Electric Avenue we finally persuaded our Eritrean to become our 60th ambassador before a kind lady in Brixton’s Registry Office patiently told us when would be the best time to come to one of their weekly citizenship ceremonies (we’d missed today’s one by about an hour and a half).
But even when we travelled North West for a quick raid on Ladbroke Grove before my meeting, we couldn’t shake off this run of bad luck. The receptionists in the Serbian Community Centre on Lancaster Road wouldn’t let us into their building, all the butchers on Portobello Road were from Afghanistan or Pakistan (both already found) and the Singaporean chef in the healthy but trendy ‘Grain Shop’ couldn’t remember his myspace address and has since failed to find ours. After over five hours of searching we’d dug up just one new nationality and now decided that a new approach was needed.
Tired and discouraged we retreated into a café under the railway bridge to drink coffee and hatch a new plan.
I think we just assumed the guy making our drinks was Italian. If not Italy, definitely from some other country we’d already come across. Probably a rare one like Cape Verde, knowing our luck.
After almost six months of searching, however, Owen and I had grown into two nationality-seeking ninjas, ready to ask someone where they’re from at the merest hint of foreignness (without almost all the politically correct qualms we had back in October). So when we’d instinctively churned out our story and our barista invited us to guess his homeland we jumped at the challenge.
‘Erm, you’re not from England are you?’ I ventured, not wanting to fall foul of some ingenious double bluff. ‘No’, he smiled, with just a hint of a Mediterranean accent. ‘Ah! Spain?’ tried Owen. ‘No’, said the man. ‘Italy?’ ‘No.’ ‘Malta?!’ ‘Oh no… there’s a clue here’, he grinned, ‘look around you’. We both glanced around the cosy café. It was called Pitta The Great. ‘Greece!’ we cried. ‘No!’ he replied. ‘Tunisia?’ ‘No.’ ‘Portugal?’ ‘No.’ ‘Russia?’ ‘No.’ ‘Somethingystan?’ ‘No. Have a look at the menu…’
Ah. There we are. Felafel! ‘Israel!’ (I think I got it in the end) ‘Yes!’ All three of us cheered. And while our initial assumption was actually true – we had met a young man from Israel selling handwarmers on a stand next to Iwona’s in Charing Cross Station a few months ago, he’d failed to show for a future interview so we still needed Israel!
This playful start to the encounter went on to characterise the whole meeting. After thinking carefully he decided that he wouldn’t tell us his real name: ‘You can call me Pitta. That’s what most people here do’. And the rest of Pitta’s story we had to tease out of him as he painstakingly ground some of the finest coffee I’ve ever drunk in London.
Ironically, perhaps, his journey to London was one of the most straightforward and logical we’ve come across. Twenty five years ago he came for a conference in a hotel about hotels and was offered a job in a hotel. When his visa ran out he lived in Switzerland for a while until he was granted another UK work permit. He then came back to England thinking he’d stay for a couple of years. Thirty years later and he’s still here. ‘Well’, he said by way of explanation, ‘London is very welcoming in a cosmopolitan way. And my family are here now, I have two kids – we’re British citizens!’
After he had his work permit approved four times he applied for citizenship, became a temporary resident, kept four more successive work permits, became a permanent resident and was, indeed, nationalized. ‘It’s fairly uncomplicated’, said Pitta.*
Back in Israel he’d worked in the hotel industry and up until 1980 was employed by the Hilton chain over here. For the next few years, until 1987, he enigmatically told us he worked on various other ‘projects’, before, twenty years ago, he found himself in the ‘coffee game’. He’s sold hot drinks and falafel on Portobello Road ever since.
‘Am I here for good? I expect so but I can’t say for sure. I enjoy it all – except that it’s so loud and expensive’, he told us. Leaning forward he continued, ‘also, my mother is getting on now. She’s 92 years old. My father died fifteen years ago, my sister’s in L.A so she’s the only one left in Israel. Maybe I’ll get her over here, maybe I’ll go back there – I just don’t know’.
It’s clearly something that’s been troubling Pitta. He described how his mother fled Frankfurt and Hitler in 1936 at the age of 11. Pitta was born in 1950 and they survived ‘a couple of wars’ in the mid fifties. ‘But we lived in the middle of the country – you won’t have heard of the town (I’m becoming used to that normally true supposition) so we weren’t affected. To be honest, when I did leave it was by accident. It wasn’t for any religious or political reasons. I just got a job over here’.
He told us more about his shop; how his was the first espresso café on Portobello Road – ‘then Starbucks came along’; how his seven foot wide bar, The Coffee Stop, was featured in Notting Hill – ‘you can just see the end of it when Hugh buys his oranges’; and how we should definitely come back at the weekend – ‘there’s no place like this when the market’s on…’
Our faith restored in our original and fairly haphazard search method, we might just do that. Especially if we don’t come up with any better ideas first.
*Although I can see why so many immigrants took to the streets on the May Bank Holiday, calling for an amnesty for illegal immigrants in what was called the ‘Strangers Into Citizens Campaign’.
Shine a Light
Owen Powell - 18th April 2007
Electric Avenue in Brixton – so named because it was the first shopping street in London to have electric lights installed – hosts a famously multi-cultural, multi-national market. Where better to find the 20 or so different nationalities we needed to get our search back on track? (With 192 to find in a year, it’s exactly 16 a month, or one every couple of days, a rate we haven’t quite managed to keep up with so far). As it turned out, our two hours in south London weren’t particularly fruitful in terms of finding new nationalities, and our tried-and-tested tactic of asking shopkeepers, market-stall-holders and restaurateurs might have outlived its usefulness.
As Alex describes elsewhere, we were given an enigmatic, Greek-chorus style introduction to the charms and chaos of Brixton Market by Kelly, from Kashmir, but after an hour or so of searching, we had no new nationalities to report. Just as we were thinking of giving up and trying our luck elsewhere, we approached a nervous-looking man running a stall selling children’s clothes. Rather wearily, perhaps, we explained the project. “Yeah, ok, you can speak to me,” he said. “I’m from Eritrea. What do you want to know?”
It’s hard to know how much of a genuine cross-section of London’s non-indigenous population we’re actually managing to meet. The people we have interviewed so far have either approached us, keen to share their stories, or have been approached by us in a public place, and have been neither too shy nor too suspicious to talk to us. But it’s clear that for many people, coming to London wasn’t about travel and excitement, but about danger and separation and fear. I would imagine that we will never hear some of the most remarkable stories, because – almost by definition – we will never be able to meet the people who lived them: the refugees who speak no English, people fleeing regimes who do not want their presence in London publicised, people who for religious, cultural or political reasons would not want to answer questions posed by two nosey, curious, middle-class white boys. There is also an element of fear or embarrassment on our part, meaning that (to pick a clichéd but visible example) it is highly unlikely that Alex or I would ever have the gumption to instigate a conversation with a woman wearing a niqab, worrying that we might be crossing a line somewhere that shouldn’t be crossed (and also aware that many niqab-wearers are second or third generation British Asians, reacting against the perceived laxness of their parents or grandparents). The result of all this is that the general tone of this whole project is perhaps a little brighter, a little more positive than the “average” experience of the “average” world citizen who arrives to make their home in London. In our defence, we are concentrating on the hopeful stories and the ones with happier outcomes because those are the ones people want to tell us. But that doesn’t mean that from time to time we won’t meet people whose experience of London is a bit more mixed, a bit more like the story that Key from Eritrea told us.
He had been in London for 14 years. How has your time here been, we asked him. “Rough,” was the succinct answer. “I came here with big hopes, but you need a lot of strength to survive.” He had struggled for many years, with a succession of different jobs, from a motor mechanic to working in restaurants as a kitchen porter. “When you first arrive, it’s tough,” he went on. “You have no friends, no family, no money, no language. You don’t even recognise the weather. It’s hard to settle. And it’s hard for everyone, so no-one gives you much help and advice, they’re all going through the same things. Everyone has their own attitudes, their own stubborn ways. You know, you try for jobs, but if you don’t have the experience – people don’t want to know.” Trying to make ends meet on the market was also proving difficult. Key paid £20 for his slot on half-days, and £30 at weekends, sometimes not selling enough to cover the costs. But he hadn’t given up just yet. “I’m doing now what I should have done 14 years ago,” he said, waving an application form at us. “I’m applying for a new job.” We wished him luck.
Thursday 5 April 2007
Tall Enough For Basketball
Owen Powell – 5th April 2007
One of the most pleasing aspects of this project has been the wholly unexpected way that little networks and chains of people have become part of the story. I think that we perhaps both thought that we would find (for example) a Colombian and then that would be it, then a little later we’d find a Bulgarian somewhere else, and they wouldn’t know anyone except other Bulgarians, and that would be that as well. In fact, it was of course Ligia who introduced us to Milena, who in turn introduced us to Alejandro, our Mexican. At the first of Alejandro’s gigs that I saw, Milena mentioned that his percussionist was Spanish, but it wasn’t until the third time I saw them play (at an arts and music event held at the Bulgarian embassy) that we had a chance to chat.
In the manner of men the world over, we had established which football teams we each supported before we had swapped names, and to our surprise we realised that they would be playing each other in the UEFA Cup quarter-finals the following week. Bingo, the date was set for a proper interview, in a pub in Finsbury Park with Sevilla playing Spurs on the big screen. We exchanged mobile numbers, and, finally, names. “I’m Israel,” said Israel. I looked baffled. He looked like a man who’d seen people look baffled before. “I’ll explain next week ...” he said.
And so, I found myself in the Twelve Pins in Finsbury Park a week later, sipping slowly at my lager and waiting for Israel to arrive. The Twelve Pins is a huge, barn-like, old-school Irish boozer, and I had walked through its doors holding a notebook and wearing a pale blue cashmere scarf. It’s about twenty-five yards from the Arsenal World of Sport, as well, so I was going to have to be very cautious about over-celebrating any Spurs goals this evening. I’m not saying I felt like an unwanted outsider here, that would be a vastly misplaced analogy, but I felt like it wasn’t somewhere I would normally go to have a good time. But that was before Israel arrived, and I had one of my best pub nights out in London for a long time.
I have to be honest here, and say that my notes from the meeting do rather tail off and become illegible towards the end of the evening. One of the last ones I can read simply states: “9.05pm. Quite pissed now.” But we had started with the best of intentions. Over the first pint, we talked mainly about music, as the pre-match build up began. When Israel plays with Alejandro, it’s mainly on the Cajon, a Peruvian instrument that’s sometimes known as the ‘Flamenco box’. It literally is a box, big enough to sit on and tap, hit and beat. It’s a great sound, almost melodic, and it complements Alejandro’s rhythmic acoustic guitar playing exceptionally well. Israel has been playing for three years, and used to accompany a Spanish flamenco singer who had a regular gig performing in a chain of bars around London. Unfortunately, after a particularly drunken night the singer got in a bit of a messy situation with the owner of the bars, and they were banned from playing ever again.
The game kicked off. I was at the bar buying the second round when Robbie Keane skipped through the Sevilla defence, got a lucky deflection, and slotted home. There was only a minute gone on the clock. I had terrifying visions of Spurs winning 8-0 and Israel not speaking to me and then me being outed as a Spurs fan (how could I not celebrate 8-0?) and all the Arsenal fans (the rest of the pub, it seemed) tying me to a bus and driving me off down the Seven Sisters Road. I brought the beers back to the table with an apologetic look on my face. “It’s a long game,” said Israel, and we both took a large swig of lager.
“I remember exactly the day I came to London. It was the fifteenth of November, 2005. I remember also the cost of my ticket. I paid only 15 Euros for the flight. Even now I remember exactly this. I had come to join my girlfriend. She was studying here, and she said I should come over too, try to study, try to get a job as well. Uh-oh.”
It looked like the Spurs goalkeeper Paul Robinson had just brought down Correia. We studied the replay – it was a blatant dive. Israel shrugged. “That was bad. That should not have been given. We are not even playing that well. Kerzhakhov is doing nothing.”
Our conversation ceased somewhat as we waited for the penalty. Ex-Spurs player Fredi Kanoute banged it in. Within minutes there was trouble on the terraces. The cameras zoomed in. It was one of those pubs where they keep the jukebox going rather than having the match commentary, so the scenes of black-clad riot police swarming into Spurs fans, batons swinging, was accompanied by Bjork’s ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’.
“The Sevilla police,” said Israel, shaking his head. “They are crazy. Look at them. I know them. They will be on coke, on hash. So violent. Anyway, so, now I have this day job, working for a promotions company, distributing the London Lite. It’s ok work, not so bad. I started off doing the City AM, I had to hand out 500 copies a day. With that paper, you see the same faces day after day. I would get regular customers. Some of them even bought me Christmas presents.” Israel watched a Sevilla move unfold. “Agh! What is Kerzhakov doing? He is no good. I don’t know why he is on the pitch. Another pint?”
Israel got to the bar and back without any incident in the game, but shortly after sitting down again, Sevilla scored again, and a player with a familiar-looking Russian name on his back wheeled away in celebration.
“See? What did I tell you?” said Israel, smiling. “Kerzhakov! He is our best player! So – where was I? Yes, after City AM, I got moved to London Lite and Victoria station. Man, that was tough. They had me on 800 copies a day, every evening, but I wasn’t there for long and it’s got a little easier now. My girlfriend is about to get promoted. She works in the McDonalds on Leicester Square, it is the busiest branch in London, and they might make her assistant manager. There are people in there from all over the world. I think some of them think I work there as well. I go in to see her a lot, I’m sitting in the staff room, they wonder who I am.”
Ah. That reminded me. The name. Was Israel a common Spanish name, I wondered?
“In Spain, we are still a very Catholic country. Your names, they have to come from the Bible. My parents have six kids. I am the fifth, the third son. When I was born, my father looked through the Bible, perhaps he had chosen his favourite names already, but, you know ... I got called Israel. I like it! It is a good name.”
Half-time. I got another pint to see us through until the game restarted. It’s usually at about this point in an evening that I forget I haven’t really had any dinner, and try to console myself with the thought that all of those calories in beer sort of count as food.
We mainly talked about sport in the second half. Israel said he’d played a lot of American sports when he was younger – baseball and basketball. “Basketball?” I remember saying, incredulous. ‘But you’re ... you’re ... stand up!” We both stood up. “You’re as tall as me! How did you play basketball?” Israel explained he played as a centre, where it doesn’t matter if you’re short, as long as you can pass well. I think the sport conversation got quite involved. We bemoaned our national football sides. I recollected my love affair with the Real Madrid side of the late eighties, Butragueno and Hugo Sanchez et al. One of my notes reads: “The sport is the thing that keeps us n hxx”. I wish I could work out what it says, it sounds like it was going to be quite profound. Then the evening just became a general fairly drunk evening in the pub. I mean, I could try to reconstruct the conversation or the thought process that inspired me to make the note “No Latin in schools”, but I can’t really claim I remember what we were talking about at that point. Similarly, there’s a whole story hidden behind the terse phrases half-way down one of my notebook pages: “Very poor. Stole ring. Very rich.”
The game dwindled through a goalless second half to a conclusion of sorts. The second leg was a week away, and Israel was up for going to White Hart Lane to see it, but I couldn’t help thinking that the night would end badly for one of us. We did, however, decide to watch the final together if one of our teams made it. I’ve got a sneaking suspicion it won’t be mine ...