The Lost Doctorate
Theft, drugs and using the World Cup as a form of therapy
By the time 2006 got a whole lot worse, it was already going pretty badly. Very badly, in fact, although the truth of those days has remained largely obscure to me until quite recently. If anything, they were at their most opaque while being directly lived, despite the habit of memory not to elucidate but to erase and overwrite and transfigure, to turn the past into a story more easily palatable – more easily liveable – in the present.
Wherever I was when I woke up on New Year’s Day – and given the indulgences (or coping mechanisms, if you prefer) of that not so belle époque, it could well have been January 2 – I had nine months remaining of a writing-up period already extended by one year in which to finish my doctoral thesis, time enough for an embryo to become a baby, so certainly enough time, you would think (as did I, once upon a time), for an unemployed fellow to write a minimum of 80,000 words, particularly with around 20,000 in the bag. It worked out at 6,666 words per month, or a mere 220 per day – the same as the length of this piece by the time you reach the end of this paragraph. Pretty straightforward, right? Hardly any call for all-nighters and stimulants. Aside from recreationally, anyway.
However, by the afternoon of June 8, the eve of the World Cup, I was still writing the theory chapter – effectively an introduction – which was by then 65,000 words long. (This wasn’t necessarily because I was chronically dilatory, but because, it began to occur to me 11 years later, prompted by someone who knew what she was talking about, and knew me very well, that I might have had undiagnosed Attenton Deficit Disorder – ADD – all these years.) Given that it was supposed to be one of six chapters, with an overall word limit of 100,000 – with a 20 percent margin either end – you begin to see my problem. It was getting a little top-heavy.
My thesis bore the title Capturing the Imagination: Peronism and the Micropolitics of Desire (it was without a movie option at this stage), and was an application of the ideas of the French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari to the period of Argentinian history – from 1930 to 1976 – dominated by Juan Domingo Perón, a novel angle on what was the third most commonly researched topic in Latin American Studies after Cuban cinema and Brazilian popular music. And Deleuze and Guattari were certainly different. The basic problematic of their first book, Anti-Oedipus – the idea that seduced me during my MA, the one that ought to have formed the simply expressed core of a slimline and proportionate theory chapter – concerned how and why people came to act manifestly counter to what their objective interests ought to have led them to do, came to support – and passionately invest – the very structures that dominate them, came to desire their own oppression. It was also a book about fascist desire, argued Michel Foucault in the Preface, one bent on “tracking down of all varieties of fascism, from the enormous ones that surround and crush us to the petty ones that constitute the tyrannical bitterness of our everyday lives”.
It was the sort of book that required you to read other books before reading it, and other books while reading it, presenting a whole slew of strange concepts – “the body-without-organs (BwO)”, “the fascist-paranoid pole of libidinal social production”, “schizoanalysis”, “the socius” as a “surface of inscription”, “molar social aggregates”, “molecular desiring-production”, “deterritorialisation” and so on – that my specific brain configuration wouldn’t allow me either to gloss without fully understanding, nor to keep the various moving parts and offshoots and fragments and conceptual genealogies still enough for long enough to be adequately synthesised, and this despite being repeatedly advised by tenured staff that it was just about getting a qualification, jumping through an institutional hoop. How could I just bang out 15,000 words, collect the war medal and move on when they might grill me in the viva about that footnote discussing the proposition that “the socius is not a projection of the BwO; rather, the BwO is the limit of the socius, its tangent of deterritorialisation, the ultimate residue of a deterritorialised socius” and I risk coming across as a fraud?
These were profound, all-consuming doubts and so I grew detached and isolated – they do say that by the end of a PhD there are probably only five people in the world you can talk to about it. I certainly felt unable or ill-equipped to do any of the normal, CV-building, career development things a postgrad would ordinarily do, such as giving seminar papers or attending conferences or even writing papers, and so instead I chased Moby-Dick further and further across the high seas, painstakingly, and with grim tenacity, chiselling out the sentences, writing with a pair of tweezers and a scalpel. Meanwhile, in from the horizon blew our unmissable quadrennial orgy of football, my chances of watching which seeming completely screwed.
So this is where I was on that sweltering June afternoon the day before the World Cup when things got a whole lot worse: in something of a pickle. Up to my neck in it. Sixty-five thousand leagues up Pickle Creek without a paddle. (I was also more or less off-grid as far as my supervisor was concerned for some time, having grown ashamed of the number of genuinely made yet hopelessly ambitious promises that “I’ll definitely have it done by the end of the week”.) As the WAGs eyed up the boutiques of Baden-Baden, Sven-Göran Eriksson expertly managed expectations and my friends grappled with how England were going to accommodate both Lampard and Gerrard in midfield, I was grappling with how to write five chapters in three months – with a World Cup on! – and before doing that, how to row back (down Pickle Creek) from my Sagrada Família of a theory chapter and the existential can of worms it had jimmied open, the central question of which was: What the fuck are you doing? You don’t know what you’re doing; you don’t know what you’re doing…
And this didn’t even exhaust my problems. There were other anxieties, other nuisances. For one, because my first, unfunded “thesis-pending” year had spilled over into a second, unfunded year – largely on account of this “writing-up” period also being a “reading-up” period – and because the unfundedness of these months had obliged me to claim Job Seeker’s Allowance and Housing Benefit, I had now been signing on for 18 months – which is to say, pretending to look for work for 18 months – which meant that my case had been referred to JobClub, where you are assigned an agent who takes a hands-on role in guiding you back in to work, offering hot, specialist advice on how to make phone calls to prospective employers, how to write spec letters, how to put together a CV. Of course, I couldn’t confess to Sean, my agent – who wasn’t aware I was writing up a PhD thesis – that I was in a double-bind: getting a job would drastically erode the available writing time without necessarily improving my financial situation, since, to make it worthwhile, I would need to work enough hours to cover the JSA and Housing Benefit. So, having faked job-seeking for 18 months at the pre-Orwellian DSS, I now had to fake it under the more rigorous if benign scrutiny of Sean – Sean who felt that England would be best served either with a 4-1-4-1 formation, Owen Hargreaves sitting, Wayne Rooney up top, Lampard and Gerrard breaking forward when they could, or playing Gerrard as a rampaging number 10, a somewhat prescient view given his later partnership with Fernando Torres; Sean who sat patiently and earnestly through my fortnightly performances, all the while appearing somewhat perplexed that a person with a Master’s degree couldn’t find bar work, a profession it seemed I had previously agreed would be an acceptable option (my subsequent backtracking from which largely involved the fake depression diagnosis I had wangled to get my first writing-up extension).
So things were going pretty badly, and in amongst this tangled web I also had a relationship hit the skids, although it was later rekindled, and again hit the skids, but not before she had suggested I might have ADD, by which time she was an academic psychologist at University of Nottingham. When we first met in 2005, not long after the double-whammy euphoria of Istanbul and the Ashes, she was a neurologically functional first-class Oxford graduate demonstrating exactly how a PhD could be done – i.e. hypothetically possible to complete between World Cups, not across a period spanning three – and although not yet properly conversant with my idiosyncratic bonce mechanics, quickly becoming bewildered by how sketchy everything had become under the load of these heavy pressures, and perhaps also by my foolish and self-deceiving attempts to stir the creative juices with jazz cigarettes, hoping, for once, that the initial flurry of inspiration might somehow prolong itself into an extended period of productive work even though what happened with the sort of mounting regularity from which a statistically-minded scientist would have felt confident drawing solid conclusions was that after thirty minutes’ or so light-headed pleasure the underlying anxiety re-appeared more insistently and viciously than ever, and I would swerve into a hydroponic hell of palpitations and paranoia and gurgling panic, during which my long-suffering supervisor’s face would appear as a censorious superego, reproachful and disappointed, and if I wasn’t riding that hamster wheel I was on the other, unable to decide which details and tangents to exclude (a habit, I’m pleased to report, I am now fully over), and so as the spring of 2006 rolled round I was still on the fucking theory chapter, and no, darling, I really can’t make it out tonight, again, and yes I’ll get a replacement for the phone soon and I’m sorry to keep cancelling on you but I’ll be terrible company and I’ll probably almost definitely have this finished in a couple more days and I know I keep saying that, and that I’ve been saying it for about six months now, but I really believe I’m nearly there now – and I really did believe it! – and I think I can get it all done by September 30. It’ll be tight, but it’s do-able. But by March or April I knew that it wasn’t, that I wouldn’t, and that I couldn’t give her any more time – and that if I did I would resent it and would probably want to be working, and if not that, then working on working, and if not fretfully procrastinating, then perhaps even meta-procrastinating: working on working on working. So I did the decent thing and broke things off. Never has the phrase “it’s not a good time for me right now” been said with greater sincerity.
And that’s where I was on that June 8 afternoon, sitting in my stuffy, angular attic room, gazing forlornly at the speckled psychedelic acne of the sky blue wood chip wallpaper, a legacy of when it was a prayer room and the house was used “for religious purposes” – at least, it was for council purposes, because this meant Council Tax exemption, which in turn allowed Mr Hussein to set our monthly rent at the 1970s rate of £125 – although it was hard to feel anything particularly spiritual amid the paint-flecked mirror and MDF chest of drawers and reclaimed shit-brown armchair I’d pulled in from the street one afternoon in some fevered reverie of late-night Rive Gauche reading sessions in my special seat. “Rigsbyville”, a friend visiting from back home – from an older sitcom era – had called it.
And that’s where I was not long before things got a whole lot worse: in Rigsbyville, sweating like the proverbial, not looking forward to not looking forward to the World Cup, blanking out the colossal amounts of self-imposed shit I was in, thinking of jobs I could convincingly fail to land, hoping my ex was doing ok, wondering whether Sven would plump for JT or Sol, and, in this pre-Dropbox era, diligently backing up three copies of my thesis – on flash drive, CD and USB floppy disc – after which, around 7pm, I decided to take a siesta – the timing of which indicated how out of kilter my body clock was – opening the dormer window to let the coming evening’s breeze stir the heavy air. I awoke around 9pm to the hum of the city at witching hour, and tumbled downstairs for a thirst quencher and whatever meal corresponded to where my body clock was at, and before I knew it found myself watching a World Cup preview, soothed by Sven’s platitudes yet mainly sad that my predicament almost certainly meant that I would barely be able to watch any of the football – oh alright then, maybe the England games and the latter stages, the quarters, say, but definitely no booze (or stronger intoxicants) and then straight back to it. Toot sweet.
Around 11pm I trudged back upstairs for the nightshift – which could feasibly have ended at almost any time, even as late as 7 or 8 in the morning – steeling myself to plough on with the seemingly pointless mission. Upon reaching my room – now bathed in darkness – and switching on the light, I immediately noticed something was missing from the space on the desk where there was supposed to be a laptop. Specifically, there was no laptop in The Space On My Desk Where There Was Supposed To Be A Laptop, which was obviously something of a shock. Not only that, but in the Space On My Desk Where There Was Supposed To Be A Laptop there were also none of the three devices onto which I had backed up the thesis just a few hours earlier.
No. No, no, no, no, no. No! Oh fuck, no.
By now I am scrambling around on the floor, on the desk, looking for the memory stick (though, oddly, not as quickly as I might have done, in order to keep alive some hope). Don’t tell me I left it in the fucking computer. But it had gone. All three of them had gone. Fifteen month’s work. Sixty-five thousand words. Gone.
Fuck! Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. Reeling, nauseous, I looked out of the window and then down at the amber lights and the shadows below, Britain’s most burgled street of 1994 – Kimbolton Avenue, where Andy Cole’s mum lived – the next one down the hill, and I realised what this open window and unlit room must have looked like from down there: a gilt-edged opportunity for a crackhead with debts to pay or gear to buy, an open goal, the sort Andy Cole wouldn’t have missed in his “IFK Helsinki made a bid for Andy Cole but backed out ‘cos his Finnish was no good” period. All that work vanished for a quick score, a cheap and cheerless high. You absolute fucking cunts. You total fucking wankers. By now I’m slumped on the floor. Broken. What the fuck am I going to do now?
And then: Maybe I can go round the pubs – the Peacock, the Gregory, the Wheatsheaf – go deep undercover and find the guy and even pay for his score just to get the computer back. Yes, I’ll go and sit in the Wheatsheaf. And that’s what I did. I bought a beer and sat in the Wheatsheaf and waited for the thief to walk in, bearing the stolen goods. Sometime later, as I looked out of a window bedecked in desultory World Cup bunting, it dawned on me that this stakeout was preposterous and so I went home.
I’m not gonna lie: it was something of a low point (mind you, some friends with a taste for intrigue, friends who had previously mocked me for how long it was all taking, suggested that it was, when you thought about it, serendipitous, even insinuating conspiratorially that it might be a ‘false flag’ designed to buy me more time). Darkness washed over the Dude, darker than a black steer’s tuchus on a moonless prairie night. I had, it seemed, raced through the first three of the Five Stages of Grief – Denial, Anger, Bargaining – and was now ready for an extended stay at stage four: Depression.
Still, every cloud. My world had caved in, my cup did not runneth over, but there was a World Cup starting the next day. Football could be my therapy. My tranquilliser. I could numb myself – heal myself – with football! With football and weed.
And so Friday afternoon I called a guy and bought a stash of non-Fifa reefer. I also bought a paper with a snazzy wall chart – filled out fastidiously, with a black fine line permanent marker made by Staedtler: German engineering – and blue-tacked it to the kitchen cupboards, allowing me to peruse the next day’s footballing menu for potential upsets and classics and grudge-match shithousery. I was going to watch the whole damn thing – 64 matches, one for every thousand words stolen – with the exceptions of parallel pool matches or whenever JobClub and cricket commitments interrupted. A continuous diet of football – which from one perspective looks a little samey, but from another like all the wonderful ways bread and cheese can be combined – was the only thing that could take my mind off exactly how terrible an already terrible situation had become. That and the weed. Or so I hoped, because it’s obviously a knife-edge: for those of a certain disposition, a one-way ticket to Introspectionville (which is past Proudsville, through Rigsbyville, at the start of an unpleasant branch line). I had never really taken to weed – another ADD trait is preferring lucidity when it comes to narcotics – yet maybe without the thesis to worry about – not as an insistent, gnawing presence, anyway, if still as a distant though inevitable reality to deal with, something in the post, like death – and thus without the attendant guilt and panic that would subsume any stoner pseudo-pleasure, perhaps I wouldn’t feel the edginess. Perhaps I’d enjoy the fog. Perhaps I had no choice.
The other thing that stopped me dwelling on my misfortune and succumbing to self-pity was my 6 feet 9 inch Aussie housemate, Grant, who drank tea from a pint glass. He wasn’t particularly into football – in fact, he insisted footie was a different sport; actually, two different sports – but with him being a couch potato and me having pulled rank on the TV, mobilising the trauma angle with the other two housemates, he had little choice but to make like Nathan Barley: “Let’s get into this, yeah?” And so in an attempt to get into it, he started to ask questions, most pretty basic, which gave me a distraction and re-awakened the dusty pedagogical instinct of the first three years of my PhD, working through Peruvian modernist poetry with people who were going into marketing. So I held forth. Post-traumatic punditry. Stoned stream-of-consciousness.
Obviously it’s difficult to remember exactly what I said, being half-cooked, but I imagine it would have gone something like: Spain always flatter to deceive, despite an abundance of technicians, and they probably aren’t cut out for team success because of the animosity embedded via the clásico; no, the Socceroos aren’t going to make “finals”; Croatia and the Czechs look decent outside bets; Zidane is washed up and should have stayed at home; never bet against the Germans, particularly at home...
The day after my Götterdämmerung, a spliff or two to the good, we sat down to Germany’s thrilling 4-2 curtain-raising win over Costa Rica, settled with a Torsten Frings screamer, before Poland, surprisingly, lost 2-0 to Ecuador. The next day, Saturday, I was playing cricket, but England’s unconvincing win over Paraguay and a dull 0-0 between Trinidad and Tobago and Sweden were no great miss, while a DNB in an easy win got me home for the match between Côte d’Ivoire and Argentina – on account of the PhD research, my second team, although admitting it in the local boozer might have had me bumped off. (A few days later we watched them balkanise Serbia and Montenegro 6-0 with one of the all-time great team goals, twenty-odd passes finished off with a thrusting one-two between Cambiasso and Crespo’s back-heel. A young lad called Lionel Messi nipped in for the sixth, and I informed Grant that he was promising, but the wunderkind really to keep an eye on was England’s left-field selection, Theo Walcott.)
The games came thick and fast, at times with the kind of percussive and perhaps pornographic joylessness of the medical attaché’s “entertainment cartridges” in Infinite Jest. Serbia and Montenegro 0 Netherlands 1, Mexico 3 Iran 1, Angola 0 Portugal 1 (does anyone fancy nipping to the shops for some chocolate?); Australia 3 Japan 1, USA 0 Czech Republic 3, Italy 2 Ghana 0 (Steph, do you mind if I have this last muffin?); South Korea 2 Togo 1, France 0 Switzerland 0 (shall we call Dev and get something a bit stronger in?), Brazil 1 Croatia 0; Spain 4 Ukraine 0, Tunisia 2 Saudi Arabia 2, then re-load and – phone for pizza would you, Grant – go again, with Germany 1 Poland 0…
It was around this point – footigue setting in and the frankly spineless temptation to watch just one game per day while guiltily catching highlights of the others creeping up on us – that I decided I needed to contact my supervisor, Dr S, and tell him what had happened with the laptop. He was sympathetic, but also said that an opportunist crackhead climbing through an open window in order to nick something to settle a debt wasn’t on the list of valid reasons for receiving an extension – “They’ll say: ‘you ought to have had it buried in a box in the garden, or in the Bank of England’” – which could only be granted for “exceptional personal circumstances (e.g. illness, hospitalisation, accident) if significantly impacting upon the writing-up process; maternity; paternity; death of close relative, or illness of close relative where student is the carer; illness or death of partner; prolonged jury service; expeditions for sport of national significance; military service”. Not a lot of room for manoeuvre. In fact, one option:
I’d have to go down the depression route again – route one – as I had first time round, 12 months earlier, when I consulted informally with a psychiatrist friend who gave me a list of symptoms and assured me that if I reeled all that off the GP would zone out and be writing me a prescription for anti-depressants within five minutes, which is exactly what happened (the Fluoxetine and Prozac prescriptions I picked up to maintain the façade remained untouched). This time it would be easier, given that I was feeling depressed for real – although when I thought back to 12 months earlier maybe I was feeling it then, too, and maybe that faking was fake. As my former seminar students would know, “The poet is a feigner / So completely does he feign / That he ends up feigning as pain / The pain that he really feels”.
Quite apart from all that, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to go on. I’d had enough. Watching football and getting high every day seemed, at that point, an infinitely better existence than the last several months had been: the daily struggle for motivation, the white lies to my supervisor, the off-white lies to Sean at JobClub. Dr S’s assumption that I’d jump right back on the horse was like asking a boxer who’s just been knocked unconscious where he wants the training camp for his next fight to be. I was in between-fights Ricky Hatton mode, gorging on football, mood temporarily elevated by Joe Cole’s impudent wonder goal against Sweden and by frivolous, peripheral things like the USA fans chanting “one superpower, there’s only one superpower” to the tune of Guantanamera, which means ‘The Girl from Guantánamo’: it was indeed an extraordinary rendition.
I mulled things over as the group stage played itself out, unable, no matter how stoned I got, to rid myself of the sense of dread foreboding: What am I going to do? What the fuck am I going to do? Let’s watch Ukraine vs Tunisia and mull it over some more. Besides, it wasn’t at all obvious that I could swing another extension. The decision might have been out of my hands. Did I want to finish or was that just the old sunken cost fallacy? Did I need to? Who wanted me to? Was I doing it to please other people? It started to feel like an unwinnable war. If I didn’t resume the writing-up – which I was certainly in a better position to tackle – then, after the World Cup had finished, I would have to get a job (which at least might have given Sean at JobClub something of a thrill). It was right about then, out of the blue, that a job offer came up. Kind of.
During Australia’s nailbiting do-or-die 2-2 draw with Croatia, during which Graham Poll gave three yellow cards to Josip Šimunić and which, to the delight of Grant, saw Australia squeak through to the knockout stages, I got a phone call from my best mate Steve, asking how I was getting on after the “whole burglary thing”. He’d just started a new job – no salary, 25% commission only – selling advertising on the website of property-themed satellite TV channel, a decent brand, for which his employers, a marketing company, were providing a directory of services: agents, developers, lawyers, interior designers, management companies and so forth. He’d been zigzagging around the UK and the following week had appointments in Nottingham and asked if he could crash. The next day he made £800 off two sales and then said he was heading to the Canary Islands as the directory was going international – essentially, anywhere Brits were buying second homes abroad.
By the time he got back, the World Cup had finished and, resolving to get back on the horse, I had submitted my PhD extension request along with a supportive note from a psychiatrist. Steve called again to say he was off to Turkey for a couple of weeks and if I liked I could go with him and he’d show me the ropes: if I could do it, maybe I could earn a few quid. If not, he said, it was a free holiday on him and I could relax while he went to work: “You can be Mummy and I can be Daddy”. I took Anti-Oedipus with me on the trip, hedging.
Despite Steve splitting up with his girlfriend, extremely acrimoniously, on the eve of departure, which impacted somewhat upon the quality of my ‘training’ – four half-days: familiarising myself with the website, shadowing him in meetings, memorising the pitch, leading a presentation with him supervising – it was a highly successful trip for both of us. This was pre-Crash and Altinkum was a boom town – 30 real estate firms five years before we got there, around 750 in 2006 – and Steve made over £8000 in ten days, as well as haggling a brand new duplex apartment for us to stay in, very much an upgrade from the Seabird Hotel that came with our Thomas Cook package. We even had to leave town because we were signing up too many companies.
It was, after months and months of drudgery, a great adventure. My first solo appointment was with O Yes Turkish Homes, the very one from the haystack of 750 that two or three of the companies we’d met during my ‘training’ told us were Kurdish mafia. Oh yes. I did the deal, but when I went to pick up the cheque a few days later there were fifteen old guys sitting round while young gophers brought them coffee and I did have qualms about Doris from Dunstable investing her nest egg with such folk. Anyway, I ended up making £3750 in eight days – a considerable leap from 20 months at £55 a week on JSA. The trip finished with a hot, busy and food-free day schlepping from meeting to meeting around the city of Kuşadası, at the end of which, while winding down in the office of Yavuz, a playboy hotel heir who’d put us up gratis in one of his apartment complexes in exchange for a discount on a deal that Steve was thrashing out, I knocked back two colossal whiskey cokes with a couple tokes on a pure grass spliff that Yavuz insisted I took, a few short and hazy minutes after which, in the middle of my first ever telephone conversation with my new boss, I threw a whitey, fainting on the pavement and then, still prone, puking up not especially discreetly – not a strong (or, I dare say, professional) look on the main shopping street of a Turkish city at 6pm.
The thrill of the wheeling and dealing – seeking stimulation being another ADD trait – but mainly the cash meant that returning to the PhD coalface had lost its appeal, so when I got back I emailed Dr S to say that I’d be deferring my extended writing-up period by a year. A few weeks later I was on the road to Cyprus, Crete, Rhodes, Kos, Sofia and Varna, before subsequent trips to Antigua and St Kitts, the French Riviera, Costa de la Luz, Menorca and Morocco, as well as planning outings to Dominican Republic, Miami, Sharm-el-Sheik, Dubai and Corfu that were ultimately nixed by my mendacious boss, whose greed and scattergun short-sightedness milked a potential cash cow dry.
But that was all terra incognita as the knockout stages arrived, the business end, which I hoped would finally flush out my psychic anguish. Certainly, the schadenfreude I mainlined when Totti’s 95th-minute penalty sunk the Socceroos and savagely wounded Grant – with whom I’d reprised some pantomime Ashes bantipathy for the tournament – was a major tonic. The day before, in the game the Dutch know as the Slag van Neurenberg, the Netherlands and Portugal duked out one of the World Cup’s tetchiest ever encounters, a game of football barely breaking out around the 16 cards shown by Valentin Ivanov, including reds to Costinha, Deco, Giovanni van Bronckhorst and Khalid Boulahrouz. And the day before that, Maxi Rodríguez thundered in goal of the tournament against Mexico as Argentina scrambled into the quarter-final, where they would lose on penalties to Germany, Jens Lehmann spooking the Argentinian penalty takers by ostentatiously pulling a crib-sheet out of his sock before each kick. The tournament was alive! I was alive!
In-ger-lund had stunk it out, though, scraping past Ecuador before exiting on penalties to Portugal after a winking Cristiano Ronaldo threw a spanner in the works of his burgeoning bromance with Wazza Rooney. Sven’s dogmatic Nordic 4-4-2 was as rigid as an IKEA flatpack and made the nation as morose as a light-deprived, Lapland-dwelling, suicide-contemplating Ingmar Bergman protagonist. The Golden Generation’s noir bleakness would no doubt have contributed to my own obstinate melancholy and self-flagellation – as indeed it does for so many pride-and-passion-mongers whose mood and identity seems much too intimately bound up with the country’s fickle footballing fortunes – had Deleuze and Guattari not taught me so well that the nation is an artifice, an “an oedipalised territoriality” designed to capture the imagination (in a bad way). Still, a run to the semis would have been a hoot.
Looking back on it now, though, the most depressing thing about the 2006 World Cup wasn’t England’s abject performance. No, the most depressing thing about how depressing the 2006 World Cup was that it wasn’t the most depressing World Cup I’ve had. That was probably 2010, by which time I still hadn’t finished the PhD.
The first obstacle was de-motivation. The stimulation of life as a globetrotting salesman made the return to civilian life and the daily slog of writing up tough (and if at this stage you’re thinking, “If it was so fucking hard for you, why on earth did you do it in the first place?” then you would be reiterating the question I was asking myself every single day). Around this time Mr Hussein re-purposed the burglary hotspot-cum-pseudo ‘place of worship’ at Derby Grove and I moved in temporarily with housemates-turned-lovers in a more salubrious part of town.
The principal obstacle here was that Rich, who worked away during the week doing something IT-y for a German bank, kept a litre of ketamine in the fridge and ran a mi keta, su keta policy, which for a short time was surprisingly compatible with the day job. For one, despite being the maddest ride in the theme park, there was next to no hangover or comedown; for two, much like a football match, the whole thing is done and dusted in 90 minutes or so. The potent nightly hallucinations certainly helped break up the monotony of the doctoral research, although you start to wonder whether it’ll break up your mind, too. Even without k-holes, mornings already felt like waking up in a room full of scattered and swirling papers that you’d left tidy overnight.
In early 2008 Steph and Rich wanted more privacy. Around then, the cricket club for whom I’d played between 1987 and 2005 called and offered me a small stipend to return to skipper the 1st XI, on the proviso that I went back to live in Staffordshire. They’d had two relegation near-misses, but had re-signed Imran Tahir as pro and somehow we mounted a title challenge and were top of the league two-thirds of the way in, when Imran was signed by Hampshire. This seemed to be the end of the dream, but he made himself available whenever he could and we hung on to win the league on the final day, picking up the five bonus points we needed, thanks in part to my undiagnosed ADD and the ‘hyperfocus’ you sometimes get under pressure as we had collapsed to 22 for 5 when I walked in and played the best innings of my life – nice one, bonce! – preventing a disappointment as vast as the laptop larceny by scoring 71 to get us to 125 off our overs, exactly what we need for three points, and we picked up the four wickets we wanted for the title.
This provided some existential succour for a while, but the sense of obligation I felt – which carried over to the following, unstipended season, when I seemed to spend all week on the phone looking for sub pros to replace Rangana Herath, who’d been called up for Sri Lanka – again interrupted the work flow, and the fact that I’d had to move in with my parents after accommodation fell through was also not ideal. Around this time I got a taste for Tramadol – initially taken for back pain, although later for work-assisting lo-fi buzz (Frankie Boyle was right) – and then my mother grew ill and bedridden with cirrhosis, which forced me to become chief cook and cleaner, again time-consuming and stressful. She received a life-saving transplant in late 2009, by which time I moved in with Steve – himself not in the purplest of patches – into the terraced house he’d bought in Stoke when briefly married to a Welsh girl he met in Nepal while working for the UN, which is where things went downhill quicker than a Gloucestershire cheese.
Our neighbours were a pair of alcoholic sixty-something bachelors housed by social services: Brian and Dave. Both were thin as pipe cleaners, and with about as many aspects to their personalities. Drink had reduced them to emaciated, befuddled shells, a permanently bickering Vladimir and Estragon, all audible through walls as thin as French pastry. The only time they would venture out from the murky shelter of their booze cave was when DTs forced them to procure more bottles of White Lightning, sending them shakily up the street like a pair of stick insects learning how to roller-skate. They were not particularly house-proud people, either: once, they couldn’t summon the energy to remove a fist-sized dog turd that had found its way onto their front doorstep, so it sat there for a whole month, drying out and eventually turning to dust. We never did invite them round for tea.
They were joined in early summer by a weaselly little heroin dealer named ‘Cookie’ – presumably an old prison compadre, with his 4am clientele throwing stones against the upstairs window next to mine, and occasionally getting the wrong house number (“yeah, it’s the one with the dog shit on the doorstep” he ought to have said, “can’t miss it”) – and then by a man with a large pseudo-tribal tattoo covering half his face. One night, when Cookie had apologised after we had been round to complain about the stadium rave making our furniture bounce around the floor, Tattoo Man had bellowed: “Tell them to f**k off or I’ll come through their door with an axe,” which, truth be told, made it rather difficult to concentrate fully on the subjugated-group fantasy in Peronism’s becoming fascist.
Much as international football federations tend to work on four-year cycles, building up for the World Cup, so too, it seemed, did my mental health, and by the time South Africa rolled around things weren’t particularly tickety-boo. Unlike the anguish of 2006, which was the consequence of a single devastating event, this was more your common-or-garden generalised ambience of free-floating asphyxiating misery, compounded by the perceived cricket obligations and the by now psychological impossibility of donning the captain’s mask and giving a convincing team-talk. When not sobbing on the toilet, pleading for the fates to intervene, I was often feeding the geese in the park. That summer, the local Sainsbury’s had a two-for-one Häagen-Dazs offer on, which became my drug for the tournament, my Partridgean Toblerone period. Strawberry cheesecake flavour was the one.
To tell you the truth, I don’t remember a whole lot about the 2010 tournament – that is, apart from how extraordinarily ordinary England were again (although, of course, the lack of goal-line technology gave us a convenient scapegoat and stopped us from examining our systemic and cultural failings, much as “Brussels” would six years later) – but I’m sure I would have felt a deep glow of vindication for my long-held belief that the technical proficiency of Spanish football would eventually translate into success on the grandest stage of all.
And it was Spain that provided the spark for the player who dominated the knockout stages of the 2006 World Cup, giving it its sol y sombra. After two under-par seasons at Real Madrid, Zidane had announced he was to retire from all football at the end of tournament and if the Spanish fans jeering throughout the Marseillaise inspired him is a matter of debate, he certainly took umbrage at the Marca headline announcing “We are going to retire Zidane!” Seeming to grasp that he was less a footballer than a great tragic hero, it was here, against Spain, with even his own country’s press doubting whether he ought to be in the team, that the maestro finally threw off his early-tournament torpor, completely running the game and sealing victory with an injury-time goal. To summon such a performance in the midst of universal doubt was hugely inspirational.
Against Brazil in the quarter-final, Zidane was simply majestic, a player whose virtuoso contribution far transcended statistical reductionism, bending and warping the opposition’s shape by his very presence (and, of course, his considerable ability to receive passes of mediocre direction and ill-judged pace with chameleon-tongued control, drawing in defenders like wary gamekeepers around a not fully stunned rhino). In the semi-final, it was our narrow-eyed spaghetti western gunslinger who, with typical sangfroid, despatched the 32nd minute penalty that proved enough to see off the Portuguese, Zidane showing a young Cristiano who was boss.
The other semi-final had given us unquestionably the game of the tournament – 120 minutes of super-taut plotting and character development, a Fellini masterpiece unravelled at the end by Fabio Grosso’s Tardelli homage and Alessandro Del Piero’s coup de grâce – and so we had made it to the final, the end of my program of therapy, no less – a nervy affair culminating in one of those “where were you when...?” moments (the answer for me being: not 100% sure, but almost certainly stoned on one of the three fold-out arabesque-upholstered sofas in a terribly decorated lounge room at 60 Derby Grove).
By the time Zidane headbutted Materazzi in Berlin – the final bow, indeed – I had finally moved into the fifth stage of my grief: acceptance.