Guest Post

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Guest Post by Southeast Ham

My youngest stepchild is endlessly enthusiastic about sport – any sport – so really, he didn’t stand a chance. I had big plans: shortly after Hugo arrived from Canada with his four elder siblings (yes…I suddenly became a full-time stepfather to five Canadian, home schooled, vegetarian children…and have thus far lived to tell the tale), I was going to take him to a West Ham game. But Covid put paid to that plan.

The kids and their mum landed at Heathrow mid-May, mid-lockdown. Two weeks later I gave Hugo a West Ham t-shirt and a goal net for his 8th birthday – not quite a trip to the stadium, but he was happy nonetheless, understanding instinctively that in cheering for this team, he and I would have a bond.

I used all the tools at my disposal, showing him videos of the West Ham songs and chants, goals by Paolo di Canio and Andy Carroll. I wooed him with a West Ham pencil case and backpack as the kids got ready for their first ever school year in a new country. What better time to introduce Hugo to the “Academy of Football”?

I make no apologies for my tactics: this was a kid who, after all, started skating at age four and was playing elite ice hockey by age seven (in Canada they have elite hockey for seven year olds; Hugo was on the ice for six or seven hours a week). The Canadian passion for their favourite sport rivals India’s passion for cricket, and (just to add to the emotional intensity) playing hockey was my stepchildren’s surest way to get time and attention from their father. So in classic Canadian style, they were coached by their dad and played together on their backyard rink.

“Oliver, why did you pick West Ham?”

Ah. Well.

I was born near Frankfurt to an English mother and German father; I was five when he died and my mother moved us back to Southeast London, to Sidcup, where she’d grown up. While I learned the language quickly enough, I think I always felt a bit like an outsider.

When I was about eight, I sensed that it was time for me to pick my team; my younger brother picked Liverpool (everyone was picking Liverpool). When I found out that my stepfather’s dad was born in West Ham, the choice felt obvious. I remember, later, seeing the man’s birth certificate, worn and yellowed, with the name “West Ham” printed in old typeface. Particularly given that the only other local choices were Millwall or Charlton, an East London team seemed like the perfect choice for a Southeast London man.

My first child – a son — was born into my second marriage; the subsequent divorce led to a long custody dispute. I did my best to make the most of my son’s visits, especially after his mother took him north and I saw him less and less. He couldn’t have been more than eleven when, at a game in the new stadium, fellow Hammers roaring a rousing rendition of “Bubbles” after beating Chelsea in the cup, he turned to me, beaming, and shouted, “I’m a West Ham fan, Dad!” Only two months later, on our way to another game, I asked him if he was looking forward to the match.

“Not really. I’m not a West Ham fan anymore.”

“Oh? Why not?”

“I don’t have to do things just to make you happy.”

I never had a clear picture of what his life was like when he wasn’t with me.

One doesn’t need to be a lifelong fan – or even a fan at all, or even British — to understand football’s place in the British soul. My eldest stepchild, aged fifteen, can play every ice hockey position (including referee), but he came back from school one day and told us – with some irony — that he’d experienced “his most English moment yet” playing football. So many of his PE classmates were home self-isolating that his teacher simply brought the remaining students outside for some footy. Blazers tossed onto the ground for goals, ties flapping about, the only thing missing, my stepson said, was some rain.

But for me, being a lifelong fan has, in retrospect, been a way to articulate my place in the world – specifically, my belief that I needed to work that much harder to belong.

Hugo is trying to learn “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.” It’s not an easy melody to catch hold of, but he keeps working on it. The logic, however, escapes him: he’s far too young to understand why a team song would celebrate perpetual hope despite a history of perpetual loss. Why would anyone get excited about new dreams coming in the morning if their hopes are always fading and dying?

No matter how the club does on the pitch (success is fleeting, failure is to be expected), “Bubbles” always signifies West Ham’s melancholic celebration of the reality that life and loss walk in lockstep. But we keep hoping anyway.

Some years have more loss than others: this New Year’s Eve was particularly loaded with the desire to leave an annus horribilis behind and start fresh, our hopes pinned on the promise of new vaccinations and a return to “normal” life.

This great reckoning we’ve been going through has led many of us to ask questions about sport – questions we’ve never asked before, at a time when gathering to play a game of footy is actually unsafe. Do we really care about grown men chasing a ball around a field when the world is falling apart? Borders are closing, industries are being wiped out, hospitals are overrun, thousands are dying, and yet…chasing a ball? Really?

But that is, in the end, the whole point: we are taken from places we love; we lose the people we love most; we recover as best we can, and we find new places and new people. We love the constants in our lives – the traditions and rituals — and hold onto them, even if they clarify and often remind us of what we’ve lost. We don’t forget about the hopes that have died, but we keep chasing the ball.

And this is how I came to find myself striding full force, with maximum optimism, into my third attempt at family. With five children who were all raised playing ice hockey.

“We won again, Hugo. Against Everton.”

“Yes! When do we play next?”