Friday, June 28, 2013

A new day

It is the first National Innuendo Day - apparently. Unfortunately, I am too busy to give you one.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

A tale of two Brians

...and a bit of analysis.

If there is anyone in the UK with a posher accent than Brian Sewell then I have never heard them speak. He makes the Queen sound like a cockney. It is a splendid voice to be rude and irritating in, which he usually is. However, I found myself agreeing with him in this conversation about the formulaic and content-light nature of documentaries on the BBC, something I have commented on before. And he went up a notch in my estimation when he said this:
I taught history of art in Brixton jail for 10 years and one lesson I learnt very quickly is never talk down to people. If you treat them as equals, you've got them, they're with you. But talk down, they smell it a mile off and hate it. That's what the BBC does all the time.
He is dead right. There is a difference between avoiding incomprehensible jargon and omitting any meaningful content.

His complaint about the "patronising rubbish" of the travelogue formula that focuses more on the presenter than the content would have had a little more purchase if he hadn't made a few bob from Channel 5 of all people making exactly the same type of series. Nevertheless, the point about not trusting the intelligence of the audience is sound.

Funnily, it reminded me of a famous interview in a different time and a radically different context. This was the moment when the then manager of Nottingham Forest, Brian Clough, demolished the commentator, John Motson, with some withering put-downs. His complaint was the same. Stop patronising football fans. It is a masterpiece.

I was going to leave it there, but then this neat piece of analysis was posted by Martin Robbins about the absence of scientists, or anyone who actually knows something about the topics being discussed, on the BBC debate programme, Question Time. It has become dismal and I rarely watch it. Politicians use it to rehearse set scripts and it has become utterly predictable. To liven it up, they bring on guests from outside the main parties, but who are they?
Since the last general election 13 comedians have appeared on Question Time, and Russell Brand will make it 14 next week. The ubiquitous Nigel Farage, leader of a protest party with zero MPs and a manifesto comprised entirely of bits of old Jeremy Clarkson jokes, has been on 8 times. The 'dragons' of Dragon's Den have appeared 4 times between them. Scientists have appeared just twice. Katie Hopkins from The Apprentice has been on as many times as all scientists or science writers put together.
He continues:
Literary performance artist James Delingpole is more likely to appear than any meteorologist. Peter Hitchens is far more likely to appear than any expert on drugs or addiction ... 
Question Time is, in short, a pretty miserable failure when it comes to informed debate. The bulk of panellists are drawn from the same upper-middle-class, upper-middle-aged pot of journalists, lawyers and politicians, and are often profoundly ignorant on topics outside of that narrow culture. Science, sex, the internet... attempts to tackle anything outside their world result in bewildering exchanges that confuse more often than they inform.
An art historian, a football manager and a scientist all saying the same thing; the people that run broadcasting do not respect their audience. They underestimate the intelligence of people and, as a result of their desperate attempts to entertain, produce some extremely dull television.

Thanks to Paulie for the Clough interview

Monday, June 17, 2013

And the band played on

The ERT Symphony Orchestra and chorus, all sacked overnight, continue to perform in protest.

Hat tip to J and J

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Under the radar

Choose your enemies carefully. Immigrants, criminals, lawyers? You should be on safe ground. Justice, liberty and equality before the law? Then you could be in trouble. The problem is, they are all intrinsically linked. The government hopes that people will notice the former, but not the latter as it pushes through changes in legal aid. Maybe that is why they have escaped too much media attention.

Here are two excellent short articles from Nick Cohen and Francis FitzGibbon. Both highlight that one of the main consequence of the changes will be to protect government actions from legal scrutiny and redress. Cohen puts it succinctly,
If Britain had a liberal constitution, or any kind of constitution, the proposals would be seen for what they are: an assault on fundamental rights that shifts power from the individual to the state.
FitzGibbon highlights some of the proposed changes. Rather than bringing "price competition into the criminal legal aid market," they are proposing a bidding process for local monopolies that deprive clients of any choice.
There are currently about 1600 solicitors’ firms in England and Wales accredited by the government to do legal aid work. That number will drop to 400, each of which will be assigned a geographical area; big firms will be allowed to bid for multiple contracts. Contracts will be awarded to the lowest bidder, with the ceiling for bids set at 17.5 per cent below current rates. The winners will be allocated all the work, or a guaranteed proportion of it, in their area. A client will not be able to choose who represents him, but Grayling doesn’t think this matters since ‘I don’t believe that most people who find themselves in our criminal justice system are great connoisseurs of legal skills.’ Fees will be paid per case (at the moment lawyers are paid according to how long they spend on a particular case), making it financially unviable to spend the necessary time to prepare more complicated cases properly. The sensible thing would be to increase turnover by advising a rapid guilty plea.
It is a recipe for miscarriages of justice.

The proposals feature three common themes that run through much government policy making.

1. They privilege anecdote over evidence and ignore research.

2. They provide opportunities for private corporations to be given a monopoly, enabling them to make risk-free money from government contracts rather than entrepreneurial activity. (Eddie Stobart, the road haulage firm, intends to bid!).

3. The losers are the poor.

And we are seeing a slow, incremental centralisation of power in the hands of ministers who are not overly keen on criticism of their brilliant new ideas.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Vampire-free zone

Who could resist two strings of plump fresh garlic from the back of a hawker's van for five euros?

Only one thing to do. Make skordalia. Pungent and spectacularly anti-social unless shared.

Skordalia with Potato


7-8 garlic cloves
1 pound of potatoes
1 cup olive oil
Red wine vinegar (or lemon juice)


1. Peel the potatoes cut in cubes and boil in water until soft.
2. Once boiled, strain and mix with a hand mixer until smooth.
3. In a food processor process the garlic cloves with a bit of salt until it is a paste.
4. Add ½ of the olive oil in the food processor and continue mixing.
5. Add the garlic paste to the potato and mix with a wooden spoon.
6. Add the rest of the olive oil gradually, 1 tablespoon at a time, mixing until oil is absorbed.
7. Add a bit of red wine vinegar for taste, mix well.

Skordalia with Bread

Follow the same recipe but instead of using potatoes, use 10 ounces of stale bread (without the crust) soaked in water and vinegar. Squeeze well and then mix and work the mixture with the garlic paste with a fork or with your hands until it is well combined. Than add the olive oil gradually.

Skordalia with Walnuts


4-5 garlic cloves
2 ½ ounces of walnuts
1 large slice stale bread
¾ cup olive oil
Red wine vinegar (or lemon juice)


1.  Grind the walnuts.
2.  In a food processor process the garlic cloves with a bit of salt until it is a paste.
3.  Add the walnuts to the garlic paste and mix well.
4.  Soak the bread (without the crust in water and vinegar) and then squeeze well.
5.  Mix the bread with the walnuts and garlic mixture. Mix until smooth.
6.  Add olive oil gradually until olive oil is absorbed.
7.  Add a bit of red wine vinegar for taste.

From here.

And the traditional method:

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Though this be madness ...

... yet ... no, it is still madness.

I am back in Greece. The rain has poured down. The news gets more curious by the day. Let's get this right. It began with the exposure of basic and serious errors in one of the intellectual foundations of debt reduction through austerity and then was followed by the IMF's mea culpa about getting serious elements of the policy wrong. The EU and the ECB dispute this and everybody keeps on doing the same thing. The Greek government, desperate to find more cuts, closes down ERT (the Greek public broadcaster, the equivalent of the BBC) immediately, promising to open up a new organisation later in the year. There is a general strike in response (yes, another one) and the Horton Village Choir join the protests by singing "Over the Rainbow" outside the ERT radio offices in Volos.

If you are looking for sanity, the Horton Village Choir are probably your best bet - idiosyncratic sanity, but sane none the less. As for the rest ... pass.


Monday, June 10, 2013

In praise of relevance

If there is one group of people who have never stood up in front of a group of craft apprentices and try to interest them in something that they had no desire to know and saw no need to know, it is the the one that argues against the concept of 'relevance' in education. Howard Jacobson has just added an elegant contribution to the genre.
I remember where I was when “relevance” entered the education debate. I remember where I was standing, what window I was looking out of, what bleak landscape I surveyed. That it would come to no good – that it demeaned those it pretended to help by assuming limits to their curiosity; that it denied those it offered to empower, cutting off their access to “irrelevant” intellectual pleasure and enlightenment; that it was in every essential philistine in that it narrowed the definition of learning to the chance precincts of an individual’s class or upbringing – I was certain. The education system I benefited from assumed an equality of eagerness for knowledge, and an equality of right to acquire it. “Relevance”, as the Children’s Laureate’s urgency to promote a lost literacy proves, has benefited no one.
The problem with the debate is that it confuses definitions of what is meant by 'relevance'. Jacobson assumes that 'relevance' is a process of exclusion. It labels and limits. Students are ghettoised by gender, ethnicity and class, being taught only what is deemed appropriate to them. Utterly patronising, it reflects the world of the eleven plus exam where children were divided and segregated according to supposed aptitudes and their life chances determined by external authorities. They are denied the deep pleasures of education that the elite take for granted. I have every sympathy with his revulsion. Only this is not what it means.

Rather than exclusion, 'relevance' is a process of inclusion, of broadening the curriculum not segmenting it. In my own discipline of history, those specialists beavering away in working class, women's and black history have broadened our understanding of the past. History is the better for it. My forthcoming book (shameless, utterly shameless) is another example, arguing for the need to include a range of neglected thinkers in the intellectual history of the 19th century radical milieu. Every curriculum is of necessity a selection. All the advocates of 'relevance' are saying is that the selection that underpinned the traditional curriculum WAS a process of exclusion and that we need to include the histories that were rejected and marginalised as well. We need Nelson, Wilberforce AND Mary Seacole, not one or the other.

If this process gives students someone they can identify with all well and good, but here I echo one of Jacobson's main points:
I certainly see the argument for schoolchildren to be introduced early to the great issues that bear on racism – the Holocaust and slavery, for example – but that’s not because of the special relevance they have for Jews and black people. It’s because knowing about them matters to everyone.
 Precisely. Inclusion matters to us all.

But there is one other point that the critics miss. Their assumption is that a 'relevant' curriculum is fixed and static. In reality, a curriculum only maps out what can become an open-ended journey and what matters is the starting point. If people are going to set out on that journey, then they need to be able to take that first step. This means that you have to start from where the students are. 'Relevance' is only one tool in making learning accessible and interesting. And it is only the beginning. Once people are engaged then everything opens out, not simply the 'relevant'. I could fill this blog with anecdotes about how people have started with a narrow 'relevant' focus and ended up with much wider horizons (my favourite is story is that of a woman I worked with in HE who began her journey into education by doing an evening course in belly dancing). I sometimes wonder if, without that start, they would ever have made it.

Jacobson concludes,
The answer to a history course that doesn’t interest children is not more digestible history; it’s better history teaching.
This is a cop out. Clearly curriculum plays a role in deciding whether someone enjoys something or not. There are bits of history that leave me completely cold, no one could interest me in them. Yet there are others that have caught me by surprise and turned into enthusiasms. There will always be students who are not interested in history. That is because they are not interested in history. Learning cannot be forced. But it is a lot more likely to happen if a student thinks that there is some point to it. And there is always the chance that some can be enticed in if the door is open and inviting. The idea of 'relevance' is simply to make that door open a little wider.

Jacobson is a lovely writer, but his rhetorical flourishes don't convince here. For example, what on earth does "It’s not history’s job to be relevant to us; it’s our job to be relevant to history" mean? Then again, analogy is the last refuge of a dodgy argument and this one is a pearler:  "A person who has trouble learning to drive isn’t advantaged by being taught only how to crash". Eh?  To me the problem is that education is an ideological battlefield, especially history for some unfathomable reason. These ideological wars are often fought with confused concepts and can be far removed from the reality faced by the poor bloody infantry. It is tough enough on the front line without the determined attempt by the inexpert to remove one item from their armoury.

Sunday, June 09, 2013


The death has been announced of the wonderful comic novelist, Tom Sharpe. He is one of the few writers who made me laugh out loud and, despite the darkly murderous and sexually explicit absurdities he weaved his characters into, he remained a liberal moralist.

Charles Nevin uses his death to locate him within the campus novel genre. This is a little unfair as much of his work is not set on any campus at all and his greatest educational comic creation, Henry Wilt, worked in the less rarefied setting of a technical college, teaching liberal studies. Boy, was that a thankless job. My stint doing it at what was then the Manchester College of Building was mercifully brief. I had fun with the bricklayers, who wound up an observer by playing a Derek and Clive tape, but Carpenters and Joiners Three on the Friday afternoon on the final day of their block release is seared into my brain. The asphalters were legendary, but no novice would be let anywhere near them. Sharpe's Oxbridge novel, Porterhouse Blue, is a hoot. But it is Wilt that is the ultimate in capturing the despair and the ideals of someone caught up by an insane system and beaten into submission by Meat One.

Nevin's piece is good though and I liked this observation made by David Lodge:
"Universities became more and more dominated by a management culture which became less and less tolerant of eccentric behaviour. It became puritanical in a way. I was quite relieved to leave the university [Lodge retired from teaching at Birmingham University in 1987] … My impression is that now it's not so much fun."
It has to be said that some of the behaviour that was tolerated, should never have been. It was rank bad practice. But he is right that the fun has gone. Maybe I am looking back at fond memories of my younger self, but if Universities were fun adult education was a riot. It was very serious, but also sociable, inclusive and emotionally engaging. It was a heady mix of a personal lifeline and thrilling new opportunity. And some of my students certainly knew how to party.

Adult education was always an anomaly, but it became a sea of laughter and enjoyment in an increasingly utilitarian desert. I remember one hideously tortuous faculty away-day when, after our Centre's presentation, I heard someone mutter, "I had heard that they are rather strange in that department". Yes, it has become puritanical.

The word "strange" was completely wrong. Instead, I would have used a memorable phrase coined by Tom Sharpe in his second Wilt book, The Wilt Alternative. What we were was "idiosyncratically sane," as indeed was Tom Sharpe. Both he and the wonderfully ill-disciplined and anarchic world of adult education will be sorely missed.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

History lessons

I don't like historical analogies. Events are never analogous and by using an analogy to explain them you can get things badly wrong. Most analogies are rhetorical tools, often used to create guilt by association - nazis, apartheid, etc., etc - without doing anything for our understanding of reality. Except...

This impassioned plea for action makes a comparison between the Syrian and Spanish civil wars. And it holds together. Of course the causes and the protagonists are completely different. Spain in the thirties tells you nothing about the Middle East today. The analogy is not about the war itself, but about the international response. In Spain the democracies cobbled together a non-intervention pact that all nations signed up to, even Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. It was only the democracies that abided by it. The Axis powers armed Franco, provided transport, sent planes and troops to swing the balance in Franco's favour. The British and French scrupulously embargoed arms to the Republican side. The vacuum was filled by Stalin, who used the opportunity to liquidate his enemies, even at the expense of fighting the war. It was the intervention from hell.

So what is happening in Syria? Russia is arming Assad to the teeth. Iran is deeply involved. Hezbollah militias have crossed the border to fight for Assad and may have turned the tide in his favour. The rebels are relying on support that is coming in from Sunni nations and going to Islamist groups. The west is doing little or nothing. Another intervention from hell.

The specifics are different, but the pattern of behaviour is the same. Democrats are left weakened and the contest begins to evolve into one between two sides, neither of whom you would want to win. In the meantime, civil society is destroyed, crimes against humanity are rife, ordinary people are subjected to the most appalling atrocities.

What this is showing once again is that non-intervention has profound consequences. It is not a neutral act. Proposals for peace conferences that will not be respected, even if they take place at all, are merely a fig leaf to cover the embarrassment of the poorly endowed. And so, when discussing the worth or otherwise of any international conflict, it is not enough to point out what went wrong. It is also important to consider the consequences of doing nothing and to see that inaction is rarely cost-free.

What took them so long?

The IMF has admitted that there were serious mistakes in the the bailout programmes imposed on Greece. I and many, many others could have told them that years ago. Never mind, the first stage in adjusting policy to match reality is to admit error, even if it is hedged round with justifications and many of the underlying assumptions are unchanged.

The report holds its hands up to admit that:
Market confidence was not restored, the banking system lost 30 percent of its deposits, and the economy encountered a much deeper-than-expected recession with exceptionally high unemployment. Public debt remained too high and eventually had to be restructured, with collateral damage for bank balance sheets that were also weakened by the recession. Competitiveness improved somewhat on the back of falling wages, but structural reforms stalled and productivity gains proved elusive.
The human and political cost? Can't find much about that. But maybe, just maybe, this is the beginning of an acknowledgement that there needs to be a policy change. Though how long this may take ...

A splendid editorial here

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Mills and Boon

1. The Spirit of '69

I don't know when the word 'relationship' began to be used. It seems such a technical, dispassionate term. Maybe it was part of the political revision of language that was meant to remove emotion. Seeing as the predominant associated sentiment was hate, there was a point to it. But for love? Other words are redolent with breathless tension – 'affairs', 'flings' and 'liaisons'. There is the naughty wink implied by the not so innocent 'hanky-panky' and 'carrying on'. In contrast, we have the coyness of 'courting'. Then there is the depth of feeling seeping through 'desire', 'passion' and 'romance'. And if there was one word I wouldn't use about supporting a football team, it is 'relationship'.

Yes, this post is about football.

I was inspired to write this by a lovely series of posts from George Szirtes about the role of Manchester United in his life (starting here). In an act of spectacular unoriginality, shameless copying or hero worship (you can decide George), I have decided to do the same about my experience.

If Barbara Cartland had not been obsessed by winsome, virtuous women meeting square-jawed, though tender hearted, alpha males, she could have turned out potboilers about true love instead; the passion of the football fan. George would fit in well with both. Lean, intelligent, with a fearsome work ethic, he is also, of course, a poet and so would make a marvellous romantic hero. His great virtue is constancy. I, on the other hand, am certainly not lean, love my sleep and am a master of prevarication. And when it comes to football, I have wavered. Mine is a more complicated story.

It goes back to 1964. I grew up in the suburbs of South London and the father of a school friend took me to my first football match, Crystal Palace against Charlton Athletic. Palace won 3-1. I still have the programme. We sat in the old stand and at the end of the game we clambered over a low partition to reach the exit quickly. Tubby and hesitant, I lingered at the top only to be given a helping hand by an impatient fan who pushed me off. Nobody was concerned with my sense of indignity. I was ten days past my twelfth birthday.

Most children's football education comes from their families; they inherit their teams. My father had been a top class amateur footballer but had died when I was four. I had no knowledge of his allegiance other than the fact that he had played for Clapton when they won the FA Amateur Cup in 1924 and 1925.

I was interested, uneducated in the game and had a free choice. It was another friend, then a Manchester United fan, who went with me to a handful of matches. We saw Palace again against Coventry City in 1967 when they were on the verge of promotion under Jimmy Hill and went to a match at Tottenham. Then, in 1968, he was given tickets for Fulham against Manchester United and asked me along. It was a different experience; a packed ground was overrun with United supporters as they won 4-0 on the way to the European Cup. George Best scored twice, one a fierce shot at the near post. I remember waiting in long queues at the underground station whilst a police horse lazily nibbled my friend's new, trendy hairstyle. That didn't do it either, but a lingering affection for two clubs was eating away at me.

It was in the tail end of the 1967-68 season that I became a fully-fledged fan. And I chose Palace. It was a non-descript season for them and, in some perverse way, that attracted me more than the allure of the soon to be European champions. Palace finished eleventh in the second division. I also continued to watch United whenever they were in London, but I gave my heart to Crystal Palace. Both my two friends came to the matches with me and in time the United fan was converted to become a zealous Palace supporter.

Romantic attachment is indefinable. There were two rivals for my heart. Manchester United, exciting, glamorous offering the promise of eternal bliss (though none of us knew then that we would have to wait twenty-five years for consummation) and Palace, offering moments of hope and then never failing to disappoint, a floosy in a scruffy ground with open terracing and grass banking. Selhurst Park or Old Trafford? It was no contest. I chose Selhurst. And then the miracle happened.

1968-69 season started with three wins, but after a few setbacks it became clear that we were promotion contenders. The first division beckoned and Leeds United were sensationally defeated in the League Cup. Promotion was sealed in a tremendous final home game. 2-0 down at halftime to Fulham, Palace fought back to win 3-2 and finish second in the table behind Brian Clough's Derby County. We three friends were part of the crowd that invaded the pitch as the team appeared in the directors' box, stripped off their shirts and threw them to the crowd. Then they threw their socks and had to be restrained from removing their shorts.

We made our way back elated. Even at sixteen I was acutely aware of mortality, so I screwed up my eyes and hoped that I would not die before I saw Palace play in the first division.

When the fixture list came out, the first game was at home to Manchester United. There was something odd about the way the two clubs were to be entangled in more than my life.

2. Boom and Bust

The 2-2 draw with United in Palace's first game in the top division remained the highlight of a season that was one long struggle against relegation. In the final fixture of the season, an agonising 1-0 victory over Manchester City gave Palace a chance of staying up depending on the results of relegation rivals Sheffield Wednesday's final two games, played the following weeks. Sheffield needed three points to send us down in their place. The first was, inevitably, at Manchester United. And, to my horror, United failed to keep Palace up as Wednesday forced a 2-2 draw at Old Trafford. It was down to the last match against Manchester City, a win would have been enough. The news came through on the radio. City had won 2-1 and Palace were saved.

This triumph only opened the way to more suffering. Two more seasons of struggle and dramatic escapes culminated in the appointment of Malcolm Allison as manager. He took Palace down two divisions. They were relegated to division three in the same season United went down to division two.

But then the revival began. The start of it was the cup run of 1976. Palace went all the way to the semi-final as a third division club before the fans' hearts were broken as the team froze and lost to second division Southampton. But stunning away wins at Leeds, Sunderland and Chelsea are etched in my memory, just as I am etched on YouTube. Shortly after Palace's second goal I am there in the crowd, celebrating. There is a screen grab below.

Allison had another influence. He admired Milan and when he was at Manchester City used their red and black stripes as City's away kit. He did a similar thing at Palace. Out went the traditional claret and blue and in came red and dark blue stripes, together with a new crest and nickname of eagles. It is a change I have never wholly reconciled myself with.

We three friends all still went to matches together when we could, but we were young, wanted more from life, and everything was changing. One had moved away to live in the countryside and in September of 1976 I moved to Manchester.

3. Manchester

Manchester saw a change in my attendance patterns. I went to most United home games and Palace away games in the north. I was still a Palace fan but saw more of United. And the centrality of football in my life was fading. I had taken redundancy, studied at evening classes and entered the University of Salford. I was on my way to becoming an adult education lecturer and academic. Saturday afternoons were now reserved for essay writing with the football commentary on the radio. The year I left work, Palace had been promoted to division two. At the end of my first year at university they had won the second division championship under Terry Venables. Their young side had such a bright future they were dubbed 'the team of the eighties'. The year I graduated they finished bottom of the first division and had been relegated again.

Something else was happening too. My old life was slipping away. The three friends who had shared school, football and youth had drifted apart. We lost contact and though United were beginning to win more of my affection, I had started to fall out of love with football.

The eighties were heartless years and the football matched. Ruthlessly pragmatic, the pace had quickened and skill declined as two sides packed midfield and played high offside traps denying the space and time given to the longhaired artists of the sixties and seventies. But it was events off the pitch that got to me.

We should not romanticise the stadia of my youth. The crowd violence was real and ever-present. But the hard work, investment, social engagement and rebuilding that was necessary to confront the problem was entirely absent. Instead, club chairman competed with each other in savagery. One talked of birching hooligans on the pitch, another of turning flamethrowers on them. It was if the boardrooms of our football clubs were inhabited by the Taliban. These were the only businesses I knew of that wished to inflict brutal violence on their customers. It was only rhetoric, but what they were allowed to do was contemptuous of the ordinary fan, punished them for their loyalty and, it can be argued, was an act of class hatred.

Whilst those who could afford it sat in the stands with good views and relatively civilised conditions, the rest were physically caged on the terraces behind spiked steel fences. The grounds were crumbling, toilets were disgusting and I got tired of being crushed at inadequate entrances and exits and having my view obscured by fencing. The violence struck first. When I saw corpses being carried out of Heysel, I thought, "It's not worth it. I don't want to go any more". And all the time I was certain that there would be more deaths. I was convinced that one day those bloody fences would kill a lot of decent working class people. They did. Ninety-six of them.

In the meantime I had discovered a fresh love. I was taken to rugby league and fell for it both on and off the pitch. Here was a sport with a deep working-class ethic, demanding extraordinary levels of skill and courage, which was wonderfully entertaining. Off the pitch, there was no fencing, no segregation and, despite a large proportion of the crowd being pissed, no violence – just witty and abusive banter. Living within easy travelling distance of greats like Wigan or St Helens, who did I choose? Swinton. Another floosy. Another abusive affair. Over the years Swinton has provided a constant source of disappointment sprinkled with the odd moment of hope, just to keep you hooked. It was a new Crystal Palace. This time, there was no alternative temptation winking at me in the corner. I have stayed true and blue.

4. Eric

In the meantime, Palace had revived with a new young manager, Steve Coppell, who had played on the wing for Manchester United. And they reached the FA Cup Final; their opponents were, of course, Manchester United. The semi-final against Liverpool was televised live, but was on the same day as Swinton were playing at Huddersfield. I stood in front of the TV, ready to jump in the car the moment the match ended, expecting a heavy defeat. Instead it went to extra time and Palace won 4-3. We sped to Huddersfield and got there seconds before the kick off. I was wearing a Palace scarf to go with my Swinton one.

The final marked a turning point for me. A dramatic and dazzlingly entertaining draw at Wembley was followed by a replay in those days before things were settled by penalties. This time Palace decided to try and win by kicking the opposition off the pitch. It was a horrible, negative performance and they went down to a deserved 1-0 defeat. Later, with allegations of racism in the boardroom, it was hard to sustain affection. And then came Eric.

Romantic novels are not complete without a strong, dark, temperamental and, preferably, foreign hero who sweeps the heroine off her feet. United signed Cantona. There he was, Heathcliff and Rochester rolled into one. I saw his first game at Old Trafford. I was expecting fancy footwork. Instead, he played deeper and ran the game. The skill was there but so was the strength. He was utterly dominant. I had a new boyhood hero in my forties.

Cantona was the catalyst that opened up an unbelievable chapter in the history of United and I became a Cantona fan, probably more so than a United fan. His weakness lay in his fierce temper, a product of his pride and intelligence. He did not suffer fools gladly, once calling his national team manager a "shitbag". As a result, his greatest moment of fame was to attack an abusive spectator, leaping into the crowd with a kung-fu kick, at, where else, Crystal Palace.

Though never quite the same when he retired, I continued to follow United, seeing some wonderful football and enjoying the success of the season of the treble. The joy was palpable, but restrained by something inside. Was it just because I was older, or was it the nagging guilt of infidelity? And once again I was losing my love of football.

The game itself was better, but the economics of it caused me moral unease. It was not just the obscene amounts of money, nor even the greed of the Premier League; it was what was happening to fans. In the eighties the issue of football violence had been dealt with by punishment, now the tactic was more profitable, exclusion by price - gentrification. I and many others began to be priced out, even though I was in a comfortable middle class profession. Corporate guests got the best seats as stadia were redeveloped. And as football gentrified, it became fashionable. Politicians adopted unconvincing allegiances to appear as ordinary guys. Ownership changed. Plutocrats came in. I didn't like it and the contrast with Rugby League was striking. I stopped going and became an armchair fan. In the meantime, Palace went into administration and nearly ceased to exist. So did Swinton.

5. Reunited

Crystal Palace were receding from my life. I still looked out for scores, though even forgot to do that at times. I watched United on TV and followed Swinton home and away, going to exotic places such as Dewsbury and Barrow. Even that became more truncated as I got my house in Greece and Rugby League became a summer sport. Then, something else happened. I got an email out of the blue from an old friend who I hadn't been in contact with for more than thirty years. It could never have happened without the Internet. This set in train a series of conversations about "whatever happened to …". A bit of Googling and we found out. Those three schoolboys who stood on the Holmesdale Road End, who ran on to the pitch in 1969 and who suffered the agonies of the 1976 cup run, were back in touch.

We were radically different people from the ones who drifted apart. I was an academic on the verge of publishing my first book, another was an entertainer and disc jockey who lived in Spain, the third was a playwright living on an organic farm. We decided to meet and where else could we go but to a Palace match.

Reunions are difficult, something that Milan Kundera depicted in his post-communist novel, Ignorance, where he built his narrative on a reunion between one person who escaped and his old comrades who remained trapped in Stalinist Czechoslovakia. For a time the past holds, but there is a void, those years without conversations, those life experiences about which they were mutually ignorant. It could only end in disappointment and distance. This is also the case with an old football team. Some players were unknown, even the supporters' chants were different; everyone was talking of matches you hadn't seen. There was an ache of regret at the missing years. But the bond was there, Palace won, the joy was deep and the shared weekend was alcoholically magic.

Yet friendships cannot solely rest on a shared past. They have to have a present and build a future. And that future will, inevitably, be centred around football. An era has come to an end at United with the retirement of Ferguson. A new one is beginning at Palace with sanity returning to the boardroom and a dramatic promotion to the Premiership by winning the play-off final at Wembley. It hurt not being there. My first love had stirred. The texts from the friend who went flowed. Emails buzzed over to Spain.

The star of the play-offs was Wilfried Zaha. Twenty-years-old, extravagantly talented, but very raw, he showed something else in those games, strength and courage. He has the makings of a very great player indeed. But he too is off. To Manchester United. In interviews he showed himself to be articulate and determined to leave a legacy at the club that had nurtured him for ten years. Even if he goes on to be a United great, you get the feeling that he will never lose his affection for his first team. I can identify with that. Crystal Palace are back in my life, but I also might just become a Zaha fan.

The power of first love is part of the armoury of cliché that the romantic novelist carries into battle. The best subvert the genre; others embellish it with purple prose. But there is an alternative literary device, a cyclical view of life. Though our physical lives are unavoidably linear, our destinies are linked to our pasts. Circles are closing; old ties are proving stronger than I thought. And you know what? It feels good.