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The World Cup, Bobby Robson and Proust

I wrote this in 2009, following the death of Bobby Robson. As manager of England, he had taken his team to two World Cups, and is best remembered for steering them to the semi-finals in 1990. But when I heard the news, it was visions of the 1986 tournament that came flooding back to me in vivid detail. I might as well have been tucking into a madeleine...

Memory works in odd ways. I have a very good memory for things that happened before I was four (playing with red ants, fishing frogs out of a creek, climbing a crab apple tree), but a very poor memory of what happened from the ages of five to, say, nine. I think this is because those earlier events are ring-fenced by the fact that they happened in America, before Dad (a USAF Master Sergeant) was stationed in England. Similarly, extraordinary events can make particular far-off days stand out more vividly than others that are much more recent. There is one whole day in the summer of 1986 (when I was 15) that I remember with crystal clarity from beginning to end. In the morning, I pushed a lancet into my finger to draw blood in a Biology class, promptly fainted, and fell from the high laboratory stool. I struck my head twice—first on the edge of the work bench, and then on the floor. When I woke up (and after I’d been given a cup of sugary coffee, which I immediately vomited back up), I was taken by my form teacher to A&E at Banbury's Horton General Hospital, and was admitted for observation with suspected concussion. What a glorious day that was. No more school, a book to read (Bob Hope's memoir, I Owe Russia $1,200 - I really did read anything), and a great night's telly to watch on the wards. Top of the Pops featured that song by Robert Palmer with that video. It’s possible I’d seen it before, but I only remember watching it then, with my two fellow inmates: a lad a couple of years older than me in all kinds of traction, and an old man who complained about the ‘jungle music’. By the time A Very Peculiar Practice came on, and the leading lady went topless (all leading ladies when topless as soon as the watershed was crossed), the old man was asleep, and it was left to the boy to wonder whether it was fit viewing for someone my age... But what I remember most from that night’s telly is the football match. England vs Poland. Mexico, 1986. England had been rubbish till then, but all that was about to change. A hat trick from Gary Lineker, who went on to win the Golden Boot. Faith was restored. And—despite Maradona’s or God’s hand—the road was opened up for a glorious journey in the next World Cup. I have a problem about feeling grief over the death of someone I only really know as a flickering image and a mediated voice. I’m too aware that I don't know these people in any way that really counts. I felt completely out of kilter with the country after Diana's death. But sorrow is sorrow, even if is felt for the passing of a familiar image and a familiar set of sounds, and of all the joys associated with them. I felt that sorrow today on hearing of the death of Bobby Robson. He was integral to the most enjoyable experiences I’ve ever had as a football fan. And it has to be said that those images and sounds that were transmitted through the TV screen did convince me that he was a passionate and compassionate man. But it’s still true that I didn’t know him at all... I don’t feel like spoiling my sentimental mood I'm in right now, though. Another of the vivid memories from that night on the wards is hearing final item (because it was Number 1) on Top of the Pops. It was Doctor and the Medics, singing their only hit: Going on up to the spirit in the sky,/ That’s where I’m going when I die./When I die and they lay me to rest,/ Going to the place that’s the best.

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