Writing Portfolio


What are those things that are given to Olympic medallists?

While enjoying watching the Olympics, a thought crossed my mind during one of the medal presentations; one of the cycling ones to be precise. The British had won the gold but my attention was drawn to the Canadians receiving the bronze, who appeared to be having a conversation among themselves along the lines of ‘what’s this?’ when they were presented with that colourful paperweight-like object that they got with their medals.

Along with questions like ‘why are all those seats empty?’, ‘why has the diving pool turned green?’ and ‘who comes up with the ideas for some of these events?’ (admittedly a question at every Olympics, that last one), this has puzzled me no end. Frankly, I’m surprised that the BBC hasn’t educated/informed us as to what these objects are, or maybe I missed that amid the celebration of all things Team GB.

In search of enlightenment, I turned to the Internet. It turns out that the little figurines are in fact 3-D representations of the Olympic logo – which for this games shows three human-like figures linked together to look like the Sugarloaf Mountain (or maybe spell out the word ‘Rio’; perhaps both). It’s the first time an Olympic logo has been done in 3-D form, apparently.

There’s also a reason why they are being presented to the medallists, and it ties in very neatly with the idea of this being a sustainable Olympics – as also seen with the smaller-than-usual flame and indeed the medals themselves; the gold ones are made from gold extracted without the use of mercury, while the ribbons are apparently made from recycled plastic bottles. In previous years, those athletes who’ve made it to the podium have received a bunch of flowers as well as their medals; the flowers usually get thrown away but the figurines – which some sources say can be used as holders for the medals – are of a more permanent nature.  

Now that I’ve learned this, I can’t help but wonder how soon it will be before some of the figurines start to appear on eBay.


What the Romans left in Nîmes

A short visit to the southern French city of Nîmes, located in Languedoc just to the west of the Rhône (“lazy, laid-back … a little bit Provençal but with a soul as Languedocien as cassoulet”, according to our guidebook) could not, I felt, pass without visits to the various Roman landmarks that have survived to the present day; the city was founded (under the name of Nemausus) by the Emperor Augustus and there are some very good Roman buildings that the modern-day tourist can visit.

First up was the hilltop Tour Magne, part of the Roman ramparts that surrounded the city; this is reached via an uphill walk through the Jardin de la Fontaine which stands on the site of a spring (the Romans, who loved that sort of thing, built a temple and some baths there). From the outside the tower looks like a ruin, but on the inside there’s a spiral staircase that was built in the nineteenth century to allow visitors to walk up in safety.


Now I have hardly ever encountered a tower I didn’t want to climb and this one was no exception. So I waited my turn in the heat – it being the height of the holiday season, there were plenty of other tourists and as the spiral staircase is rather narrow a ‘one in, one out’ policy was in operation – before ascending for a panoramic view of Nîmes. My ticket, by the way, was a bit of a bargain; for €12, I got a combination one that covered not just the Tour Magne but two other big Roman attractions in Nîmes – the Maison Carée and Les Arènes (had I paid at each of these individually, it would’ve cost €19.50).

Back on ground level and inside the (mostly) pedestrianised old city, I visited the Maison Carée which dates back to around 5 AD and is one of the best-preserved Roman temples in the world. This truly impressive building, fronted by six columns, looks imposing from close up but is surprisingly small on the inside, which nowadays consists of a small cinema which shows a short film every half-hour about Nîmes’s Roman history.

The last and most impressive of Nîmes’s Roman remains was Les Arènes, the amphitheatre around which everything in the city revolves. It’s not just one of the world’s best-preserved Roman amphitheatres, though – it’s still in use, with a capacity of just over 16,000, as a venue for concerts and bullfights (and it’s not the only one, for the slightly less-well-preserved Roman amphitheatre at Arles is also still in use as a venue for similar events). This is why the lower tiers, and some of the higher ones for that matter, are covered with wooden seating – as used by spectators – and accompanying scaffolding. The amphitheatre hasn’t been in continuous use as an entertainment-venue since Roman times, mind you – over the centuries it has seen use as a fortification and it even had a small neighbourhood within its confines (rather like Diocletian’s Palace in Split, I suppose, but on a smaller scale) although that was cleared away in the eighteenth century.

I was highly impressed by the fact that the amphitheatre at Nîmes is still in use (how many Roman buildings are still used for something fairly close to the purpose for which they were originally built?), and I was also impressed by the fact that my combination ticket meant that I could jump the queue. What really impressed me, though, was that unlike (say) the Colosseum in Rome, visitors can explore most of Les Arènes. When it’s open to the public, you can even wander out onto the arena itself (which is lower than street level) as well as climbing the various stone staircases to the top of the highest tier (where there are signs saying that you’re not allowed to walk along the edge, which isn’t fenced off).

I rather like old ruins where you can explore to your heart’s content, and I spent over an hour wandering all over Les Arènes, walking out of the tunnel into the arena and covering the four different tiers of seating (which each have their own systems of exits – vomitoria, the Romans called them – so that the patricians who got to sit at the front didn’t have to rub shoulders with the plebs in the cheap seats higher up), often turning up or down a stone staircase on nothing more than curiosity about which part of the amphitheatre it would lead to.

There’s nothing like a bit of history while on holiday.


The Docks

What with one thing and another, I’ve found myself exploring some of London’s docks of late. Last year, my ongoing Capital Ring saga took me along the Royal Albert Dock. Earlier this year, more walking – for Londonist, this time – saw me visit Limehouse (it’s at the end of the Regent’s Canal) and what remains of the East India Dock (it’s near the mouth of the River Lea); I liked the nature reserve there so much that I went there for another look, and did a write-up about it for the Wildlife Articles website. I’ve even been to Rotherhithe for a walk around, but that’s a story for another time (believe it or not, it concerns a film adaptation of a Daphne du Maurier novel which also took me to a field outside Rickmansworth).

I’ve also been working on a number of articles relating to the etymology (name origins) of various things in London in recent months – sporting venues, castles and palace – and for my next subject, I thought: why not the docks? The stories behind the names are, as they usually are, varied – there are saints, royals and places in London as well as locations around the world. The finished article can be seen here:


The Capital Ring: Balham to Wimbledon

A short one, this, completing Section 5 of the Capital Ring prior to the long stage across Wimbledon Common and Richmond Park which will follow in due course. After getting the Northern Line straight down to Balham, I took a side-street past the Art Deco block of flats that is Du Cane Court to Wandsworth Common, passing through the ticket office of said station before crossing the common itself. This has some boardwalks by the ponds where I lingered to look for birds; alongside the usual Mallards, Coots and Moorhens I spotted a Grey Heron fishing and, in the trees overheard, a male Blackcap.

After Wandsworth Common, I passed along a side-street called Alma Terrace (a fairly common street-name, this, referring to the battle in the Crimean War; what, I wonder, is the battle with the most streets in London named after it? Something Victorian would be my guess) before turning along a road that ran next to the bleak-looking Wandsworth Prison. There followed a very straight road which ran for three-quarters of a mile alongside Wandsworth Cemetery to get me to Earlsfield.

There, I crossed over the River Wandle, one of the fastest-flowing of London’s rivers; this has its own accompanying footpath, the Wandle Trail, which briefly meets with the Capital Ring at Earlsfield station on its way from Croydon to (almost) the point where the Wandle flows into the Thames at Wandsworth (which gets its name from the river); a future walk, perhaps. Continuing along the Captial Ring, I passed through several back-streets and a small park before crossing the main road by Wimbledon Mosque and then turning up Arthur Road to get to Wimbledon Park station on the District Line.


Football and nostalgia

This Saturday, it will be fifty years since England won the World Cup. Funny really; that final took place just over 12 years before I was born but I can tell you more about it than a lot of games that I’ve actually seen. Odd, too, that so much attention is being devoted to looking fifty years back into the past at a time when our present-day national side has been doing so monumentally badly. But maybe that’s the point; if dwelling on the present – or rather, the recent past given that that infamous defeat at the hands of Iceland was over a month ago – is just depressing, why not opt for wallowing in history, or rather history as remembered in the warm fuzzy glow of nostalgia?

Why do we English (and I include myself in this, for the only England football shirt I own is a replica of the red, heavy cotton one as worn for that game) look back so fondly to 1966? Simple – it is the only time our national side won, well, anything of note, and football fans are a notoriously nostalgic lot. It’s ubiquitous at club level; every club has its own specific time-period that its supporters fondly look back upon – there’s a whole sub-culture that includes but is by no means limited to retro shirts, long-retired pros revered by grown men who saw them play years ago and various publications (of which more shortly). Internationally I suppose that it is the same with other countries. I have, for example, met Hungarians who’ve been more than happy to remind me about what happened when Puskas and co. turned up at Wembley in ’53.

With unusually good timing, I have recently been reading a book called 4-2 by the film critic David Thomson; published in 1996, it is to all intents and purposes a blow-by-blow account of that famous final, interspersed with various diversion which touch on snippets of autobiography and the exploration of themes such as the nature of football fandom, the tradition of the English as ‘good losers’ and the contrast between living in a (football-induced) dream and getting on with life – shades, perhaps, of Fever Pitch here which is somewhat appropriate as it came out at the height of the mid-Nineties football literature boom. It’s an engrossing read, with the best part (in my opinion) being the seven-page chapter on Geoff Hurst’s second goal – you know the one I mean, don’t you?

4-2 was originally published to coincide with the thirtieth anniversary of that World Cup win, meaning that it first hit the bookshops just before Euro 96 started. There was plenty of nostalgia about 1966 back then, and there is now a growing sense of football-related nostalgia about 1996. What with England having only ever won one major international football tournament, failed campaigns – not the bad ones like Euro 2016 and the World Cup two years ago, but the ones where England were genuinely in with a shout of getting to the final – are also being celebrated. Earlier this year, a book called When Football Came Home by Michael Gibbons was published; it tells the story (with the benefit of twenty years-worth of hindsight) of Euro 96; it’s a fascinating read even for those of us who think we remember it all (we don’t; memory can play strange tricks, sometimes) although the title, a play on the chant from the Baddiel & Skinner song, is hardly original (Des Lynam used it for a BBC doco on the tournament several months after it took place).

Gibbons resolutely refuses to buy into the rose-tinted view that England were brilliant – they weren’t; a few sublime moments (the bits everyone remembers) obscured what was basically an OK side that had the benefit of home advantage. The high point, the 4-1 win over the Netherlands – a match that was analysed in some detail in Jonathan Wilson’s superb book The Anatomy of England six years ago – is summarised thus: “In football the result is sacrosanct, and can drench any performance with a tin of industrial gloss. The received wisdom that has developed since the 4-1 – that England battered the Netherlands in open play – is spurious … the Netherlands had enjoyed more shots, more corners and more possession than their opponents … England didn’t outplay the Dutch, but they did outscore them.” Overall, Gibbons has done a great job in a book which doesn’t flinch from portraying the tournament as the mediocre, poorly-attended (Wembley aside) affair that it really was; even the ugly side of Euro 96, such as the accompanying violence and the ever-odious behaviour of Piers Morgan, gets an airing here.

As if there wasn’t enough footballing nostalgia in the air already, I have contributed something to it myself – although my latest published article is not about 1966 or even 1996, and it doesn’t concern England. There is a link with the 1966 World Cup, but only in passing – Eusebio, the highest scorer in that tournament, features in this story. It is the story of how the unfancied Toronto Metros-Croatia managed, against the odds, to win the North American Soccer League forty years ago this summer. My interest in football on the other side of the Atlantic was aroused when I found out that Toronto has its own MLS team, and I was intrigued to find that Toronto’s footballing history goes back way before Toronto FC joined said league in 2007. My retelling of the story of Toronto’s forgotten footballing triumph – and it’s a fascinating underdog story involving an ageing star, a player walk-out and a training-ground bust-up among other things – can be read in the latest edition of the retro football magazine Backpass. No prizes for guessing what the main focus is in the rest of the magazine...