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What Made Grandma Grandma? ‘Kantika’ Deploys Clever, Analytic Tool: Fiction

Book Review

There is historical fiction. There are the literary cousins of memoir and family history. Then there is the canny, lyric hybrid Elizabeth Graver deploys in Kantika, the 2023 novel that tracks her own family’s 20th-century journey from Constantinople to America, by way of Barcelona and Havana. Don’t worry: Ellis Island and its many overworked tropes do not figure here. Those are generally reserved for Eastern Europeans and Ashkenazi Jews. Graver’s people are the decidedly Mediterranean, metropolitan and mercantile Sephardic Jews, first invited to the Ottoman capital by Sultan Bayezid II, in 1492, following the Christian Reconquista of Spain.

Four centuries on, the author introduces her great grandfather, the cultured, haute bourgeoisie owner of a textile concern, until he isn’t. After retooling his factory during The Great War, to produce military uniforms, the new Turkish government absconds with it. Or so Alberto Cohen tells his wife and children. Did Ataturk really take their livelihoods and social standing by eminent domain? Or did this charming-but-passive sensualist fritter or perhaps gamble it away instead? Such questions are rarely meted out for certain, not in real life, not within families, certainly not looking back across generations. Graver is unflinching in her fleshing and framing of such consequential gossip, yet the novelist can also absolve or blame or leave ambiguous all the saucy or ambivalent bits, pretty much at her whim. To the narrative’s great benefit.

And so Rebecca — our protagonist, the author’s maternal grandmother — decamps with her penniless relations for Barcelona, just as she comes of age. There she marries a largely absent dullard because four centuries on, in what would shortly become Franco’s Spain, Sephardic men are hard to find. She builds a business and bears two children, only to be widowed at 30. Her older sister, already emigrated to the U.S., makes her a speculative, trans-Atlantic match with another widower, Sam Levy, whom Rebecca meets in Havana. As a test. Twenty-four lusty hours later, they are married and aboard a boat bound for New York City.

Stories of American immigration tend to concentrate less on the old country, the conditions that obliged one to light out for the territory in the first place. I am grateful that more than half of Kantika is set abroad. Not everyone in a family might choose to emigrate, or is allowed to. Rebecca waits two years for her boys to join her in America, for example; her aged parents expire before their papers & passages are secured. What’s more, the ones who do manage to leave tend to self-select according to their strength of self, adventure and determination. To some extent, these metrics account for the can-do immigrant spirit that has, in large part, made the U.S. what it is. After the same fashion, it enabled and informed the distinct culture of the American West. In short, the sad sacks tend to stay home. The same goes for those immigrants who get dragged to a new world and never leave the old neighborhood. (In Greater Boston, where I grew up, they have a name for those folks: The Lace-Curtain Irish.)

There are plenty of sad sacks in the Cohen family, in any family, and this story does not ignore or pigeon-hole them. But Rebecca is determinedly bound not necessarily for bigger things but the next thing, all the while singing and cajoling, striving and faltering, dusting herself off and risking it all again. America and its celebrated dreams do not magically lift her blended family out of working-class hardship. In several not-insignificant respects, she was sold a bill of goods (by her sister!). Yet Graver still depicts Depression-era Queens and this new, extended family with a clear-eyed, richly detailed generosity, which feels deserved.

The Cohens and Levys will never be confused with the high society Sephardim of Steven Birmingham’s esteemed 1971 history, The Grandees. But neither did he create characters as earthy and captivating as Rebecca. Working in non-fiction, he didn’t create them at all. The humans who populate Kantika, while technically the fabrications of a novelist, nevertheless feel markedly genuine — because, in these pages, the reader recognizes them as actual historical figures, relatives and literary characters all at once. This genre Graver cleverly contrives here: It can’t be her own invention, can it? Either way, her sketches of fin de siècle life by the Bosphorus, the portraits of her great grandparents in particular, and the language of those newly arrived in Barcelona, then the boroughs of Gotham, all ring very true. As do the black & white photographs that headline the chapters. I took the time to study each one, delighting in my recognition of these blood relations we’ve come to know via the unfolding drama. These components and others all deliver such splendid narrative impact because, it seems to me, they strike the reader as more authentic and intimate than mere details in a work of fiction, while never succumbing to the gloss of memoir or family history. Because the author is clearly moved by the epic sweep of this tale, so are we.

The word “kantika” means “song” in the old Judeo-Spanish language of Ladino, the accent of which Rebecca never shakes. One imagines that Graver herself — a Boston College professor whose 2013 novel, The End of the Point, was long-listed for the National Book Award — was enthralled by her grandmother growing up. And perhaps a bit intimidated by such a robust, borderline domineering, still-rather-foreign figure. Graver and I attended Wesleyan University together in the mid-1980s; we didn’t really know each other, but we did share several English classes. Perhaps the cynical, white-bread nature of the New England small college initially led her to dismiss as mere mythos her grandmother’s literary potential. Credit the free-thinking Jesuits in Chestnut Hill and maybe a tenure track for leading her back to subject matter, a legit heroine’s journey, that was there all along.

Professor Nat Greene: Come on Down!

The inimitable Bob Barker, flanked by “Price is Right” eye candy Janice Pennington (left) and Anitra Ford.

As yours probably does, my alma mater hits me all too frequently with some manner of e-newsletter cum fund-raising communiqué. One can hardly escape the memories stirred/jarred by all this WesContact, which is surely the way they want it. In any case, a recent MailChimp morsel revealed, among other things, that three Wesleyan faculty had received The Binswanger Prize for Excellence in Teaching. While this particular tidbit proved interesting enough to peruse, I’m only now addressing the nostalgia it prompted — immersed as I am, third party, in the college experience of both my kids.

The first thing to say is that my cohort and I attended Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., alongside an actual Binswanger — Benjamin Pennypacker Binswanger to be exact. Never knew him but my housemates and I made note of his titanically pretentious name the first week of school freshman year and never forgot it. Never tired of mocking it, either. Always wondered if he was related to Princeton’s Jay Binswanger, winner of the first Heisman Trophy…

Wesleyan Professor Nat Greene

More to the point, Nat Greene was one of these recent Binswanger honorees. I took a couple classes with him but the first was a survey of European history 1815-1945, and I remember it best because it was the only class I ever took with my housemate Dennis Carboni, an art history major whose course load never again overlapped with mine (classical history/modern American lit).

Greene didn’t necessarily tilt the material toward “social” history, an approach then sweeping uber-liberal bastions like Wesleyan. His hewed more to the traditional “Great Men, Great Events” approach. I remember the syllabus included a book of his own scholarship, “From Versailles to Vichy: The Third French Republic, 1919–1940”, which a) struck me at the time as being pretty awesome, that this guy was teaching from his own work; and b) still resides in a bookcase somewhere here in my house, for reasons completely bewildering to my wife. An entertaining lecturer and no-nonsense grader of essays (all testing was conducted via manic, long-hand scribbling in those little blue booklets), Greene was a fine professor, the sort I hope Silas and Clara will experience at some point in their academic careers.

But here’s what I remember most from my class with Nat Greene: It ran from 10 to 10:50 on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings in the old PAC building — a few steps from the manhole where we often plunged down into Wesleyan’s famous tunnel system, the subject of another remembrance perhaps. If Dennis and I didn’t dawdle after class, we could race home to my off-campus apartment and catch The Price Is Right at 11 a.m.

Yes, The Price Is Right. It became a sort of ironic obsession for me but something more than that for Dennis, as many things did. It gave me great pleasure to watch him obsessively game this once-seminal game show.

I’m not sure that college kids go in for this sort of thing today, awash as they are in video content and on-demand entertainment delivery choices. However, during the early 1980s, TV was a sort of novel diversion for college kids. We had grown up with it, of course, but had virtually no access to it at school. And so, great delight was taken in the ironic devotion to retrograde programming like soap operas in dorm lounges and late-night reruns of shows like the Rockford Files and Star Trek — things we would never bother watching when home with our families. My sophomore year, my housemate and I came by a tiny black-and-white TV that I’m pretty sure we carried with us the next three years, to three different houses, deploying along the way a staggering array of make-shift aerials including one that involved a pumpkin wrapped in aluminum foil.

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Welsh golf exceeds the hype, in unexpected ways
The 11th at Royal St. David's (photo courtesy of Brandon Tucker/

Welsh golf exceeds the hype, in unexpected ways

Royal St. David’s Golf Club and its singular Welsh backdrop, Harlech Castle


The British Open is nearly underway, and naturally there are myriad reasons to visit the U.K. with your golf clubs and, well, none of them have much to do with the British Open or any of the courses that host the Open Championship. Look at Wales, which is right next door to Birkdale (to all of England, to be honest) and the Open has never been held there. Yet the golf up and down the northwestern Welsh coast is outstanding. What’s more, when you venture into this section of the British Isles, you enter a region so remote, so removed from modern resort and tournament conventions, that a golf journey there feels almost, well… Arthurian.

Indeed, a hefty chunk of the King Arthur legend is Welsh, drawn from early poetic sources such as Y Gododdin that are, like the Welsh language itself, pre-Christian. The Druids, the priestly class of the class, considered the Welsh island of Anglesey sacred, and this ancient, mystical feeling still pervades the country’s dark hollows, its untamed coastline, even its trees (The Celts thought them sacred, you know).

Here’s an example of how this world and the modern golfing world can interact:

About 15 years ago my girlfriend, Sharon, who would later become my wife, and I went to visit friends in Market Drayton, Shropshire, just over the Welsh border, in England, and not far from Birmingham. In fact, I was there on assignment, writing a travel piece re. where to play in the Midlands while attending the 1995 Ryder Cup (and we can see what sort of promotional effect that story had; when was the last time you heard of anyone visiting Edgbaston, Beau Desert or Hawkstone Park?).

Anyway, we decided to head west a couple hours, over the Welsh border to seaside Harlech, home to Royal St. David’s Golf Club. I had written a letter to the club secretary requesting the courtesy of the club (remember letters?), and he had kindly obliged. Still, we arrived in coat and tie, ready for an audience and perhaps a drink in the bar before teeing off.

Now, Sharon was a pretty rank novice at this stage. She had her own clubs and arrived at the club looking pretty darned smart in a turtleneck and one of my vintage sport jackets with the sleeves rolled up (remember the ‘90s?). Still, the club secretary was dubious. I don’t know whether he suspected her inexperience (none of us had handicap cards), or he was merely a mild sexist when it came to sheilas playing the course. Whatever the case, he followed us to the first tee to witness our inaugural drives. I’m not sure who was made more nervous by this, Sharon or myself, but she drilled one right down the middle about 230 yards and off we went. Come to think of it, that may have been the day I decided she was the one…

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Historical Fact & Fiction: Reviewing a Review from 1994

Historical Fact & Fiction: Reviewing a Review from 1994

 Gore Vidal during a Los Angeles interview in 1974.



Ambition as a Historical Catalyst:
Burr, Lincoln, 1876, Empire, Hollywood, and Washington D.C.
by Gore Vidal.
Ballantine Press, $5.95 ea.

By all rights, Aaron Burr should have been the third president of the United States. If not the third, then certainly the fourth. When he and Thomas Jefferson secured the identical number of electoral votes following the election of 1800, Burr stood aside, accepted the vice presidency, and bided his time. The presidency would certainly be his eventually. Hadn’t John Adams set the executive precedent by accepting the second spot, then ascending in due course? Hadn’t Jefferson promised his support when the time came? But Jefferson would prove unfailingly vague when it came to political commitments. He was wary of Burr and isolated the vice president within his Cabinet. Jefferson wouldn’t allow Burr to resign with honor — until, that is, Burr hadn’t the time to organize a credible campaign for 1804. Jefferson then framed Burr for treason, tried him and while he couldn’t prove the trumped-up charges, the president had by then effectively obliterated Burr’s political viability, thus securing his own and, by naming James Madison vice president, a Virginian ascension.

At least, that’s Burr’s version of events.

Or rather, that’s the version laid out by Gore Vidal’s title character in “Burr,” the first of six historical novels comprising the author’s American Chronicle, which I started in August and have finally finished. By tracking Aaron Burr and his descendants through the nation’s first 150 years, Vidal illustrates how ambition and decidedly unenlightened political scheming shaped and sustained the world’s first modern democracy. At the same time Vidal weaves an enormously intricate, believable tapestry where historic figures full of life mingle with the fascinating Burr and his equally engaging but fictional offspring. Vidal has clearly done a vast amount of homework. Yet while his narrative has an authority born of journals, letters and historical canon, Vidal’s real characters — like Jefferson and William Seward, Lincoln’s ambitious secretary of state — are unfailingly funny, sullen, outrageous, randy, paranoid and sometimes insane. In a word, human. Indeed, they take on the qualities of fictional characters because they’re depicted with such depth, wit and humanity. On scholarly grounds, historians wouldn’t dare recreate dialogue as Vidal has done. Besides, most historians couldn’t do it; they haven’t his skills as a novelist. Vidal can convincingly mimic Henry Adams and Mrs. John Jacob Astor, with equal parts style and integrity, because he’s a novelist with a supreme command of the subject matter.

When Vidal intersperses these historical figures with fictional characters (believably placed in the maelstrom of actual events), it’s hard to remember who’s real and who’s not. The author does his level best to remove any distinction.

Young Charles Schermerhorn Schuyler, a fictional law clerk and budding journalist, tells the story of “Burr”. Schuyler works for the title character and convinces the old man to dictate his fascinating memoir. This Burr does, in part. The bits and pieces of his amazing life — the raid on Quebec with Benedict Arnold, candid Burr-centric portrayals of all the founding fathers, his aborted conquest of Mexico, his many wives, his mysterious relationship with Martin van Buren, rumored to be Burr’s bastard son — are never published as memoir, per se, only as flashbacks set against Burr and Schuyler’s “contemporary” story, set in the 1830s. The young protégé is mesmerized by this window on the nation’s founding moments and men, but he is fairly well knocked to the floor when, upon the old man’s death, Schuyler learns that he, too, is Burr’s illegitimate son.

In “Lincoln,” volume II in the series, Schuyler disappears and Vidal centers the novel around two historical figures: the president and his young secretary, John Hay, who narrates. Schuyler reappears very late in “Lincoln” before resuming his narrative in the third volume, “1876.” Here Schuyler and his daughter hitch their political wagons to the shoo-in presidential candidate, Samuel Tilden, and their social fortunes to New York’s budding Astor-based society. At the beginning of “Empire,” Hay, now President McKinley’s secretary of state, returns as one of Vidal’s central characters, alongside Schuyler’s two grandchildren, Caroline and Blaise Sanford. Secretary Hay becomes Teddy Roosevelt’s vice president upon McKinley’s assassination. Blaise becomes William Randolph Hearst’s dilettante protégé, while sister Caroline — a former schoolmate of Eleanor Roosevelt in England — buys the fictional Washington Tribune, where she out-tabloids both Hearst and her jealous brother. “Hollywood” follows Caroline to California, where she helps pioneer the movie industry (with Hearst). Blaise buys the Tribune and remains in D.C. to savage President Wilson — and back the serenely dim, Republican hopeful, Warren Harding. In the closing novel, “Washington, D.C.,” Blaise is an aging, would-be kingmaker frustrated by FDR’s stranglehold on the body politic. The nation’s capital — a malaria-ravaged swampland in “Burr”; a provincial seat of government in “1876”; now, in 1945, nerve center of the world’s first superpower — has changed, but it still provides a fascinating backdrop for Vidal’s horde of schemers and climbers; all the folks who have made this country what it is today.

Imbued, as I am, with the arrogant notion that scholarly history is interesting enough (blame the Wesleyan history department), I’ve never been a fan of historical novels. Though I’ve always liked Mary Renault (“The Persian Boy”, “Mask of Apollo”), the genre allows too many liberties. Basically, it’s cheating.

But Vidal changed my mind. Well, he didn’t change it… Vidal proves it can be done well, even raised to high art. But good luck finding another author so capable.


Ed. So, I found this piece in an online issue of the Harold Herald, the proto-blog I published via Pagemaker, a Xerox MFM and the U.S. Postal Service in 1994. Disappointed I can’t find the ancient “print” version, as I recall spending a lot of time laying it out to make it look exactly like a NYTimes Book Review page. In any case, it remains an odd mix of fascination and dread to read oneself from 20 years ago, especially as I happen to be rereading “1876” right now. I back most everything I wrote here, save the last bit. I have, in the ensuing decades, found several historical novelists the equal of Vidal, but only in certain respects. Bernard Cornwell — he of the Sharpe’s Rifles series, set in Napoleonic times; an Arthurian trilogy of the highest quality; and several more multiple-volume depictions (of England in the of time Alfred, France in the middle ages, and even America during the Civil War) — is a thoroughly trustworthy historian and expert yarn-spinner. But he cannot write like Vidal. Few can. Renault is fabulous, but Vidal’s “Julian”, which I read after tapping out the above review, beats Mary in her own classical backyard. Hilary Mantel’s 21st Century series starring Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII (“Wolf Hall” and “Bring up the Bodies” are to be capped by a soon-to-be-released third book) is superb — but she needs a few more under her belt, ideally something from a completely different era, to hang with Vidal.

The best moments in any good historical novel are when the author introduces and puts to lengthy narrative use juicy historical characters — their rendering and their interaction with fictional characters, when done well, can be thrilling. This might happen a half dozen times in any Cornwell novel. In “1876”, it happens every 15 pages: Grant, Mark Twain, Maine’s own James Blaine, James Garfield, an array of New York newspaper editors and publishers, The Astors, Samuel Tilden, even Chester A. Arthur for chrissakes. The density of these non-fictional characters in the narrative is dizzying, and Vidal delights in painting familiar icons in ways that deconstruct our preconceptions while remaining entirely plausible, not to mention historically accurate. This is some of what makes Mantel such a formidable player in the genre: She similarly packs her novels with historical figures, fascinatingly rendered, something her relatively modern subject matter (and our familiarity with many of her non-fiction characters) allows.

The piece de resistance of any historical novel, I’ve learned, is the author’s note at book’s close. Not all of these are handled the same way, but here, typically, the author details the liberties he/she may or may not have taken with historical events and personages. Invariably, they are minimal; it’s in the author’s interest to give that impression, of course. Oftentimes they’ll get into their sourcing, their bibliography, for the same reasons. Either way, it’s clear that extraordinary grounding in a subject is required, alongside and integrated with their abilities as storytellers. I remember when I first read the author’s note for Burr: Vidal basically says, “Everything depicted here is historically accurate; everything the non-fictional characters are quoted to have said was taken directly from primary sources, i.e. their letters, correspondence and memoirs.” I just skipped ahead last night to the Author’s Note for “1876”. It’s similarly brief. Vidal was obliged to move up Twain’s publication of “Huckleberry Finn” so it might be discussed during the author’s dinner at Delmonico’s with Schuyler in June 1876. Similarly, the massacre at Little Bighorn happened in July, but word of it didn’t reach back East for several weeks. Vidal wanted it in the air at the Republican convention in July, so he took that liberty. But that’s it. Everything else fits together like a sprawling Roman floor mosaic, the sweep of history accented here and there by bits of fictional color.

 What I didn’t know in 1994 was that Vidal wrote these books out of order, as it were. “Washington D.C” came first (published in 1967), followed by “Burr”, “1876”, “Lincoln”, “Empire” and “Hollywood”. What I couldn’t have known back then was that he would add a seventh volume, “The Golden Age”, that chronicles America during the Cold War. In this coda, Vidal takes us right up to the year 2000 (the year it was published), by which time the original thesis laid out in the very first book and supported throughout the series — that America’s republic, always built on the not particularly reliable or durable foundations of corruption, ambition and privilege, had, with the close of WWII, finally given way to outright empire — had indeed come to pass. “The Golden Age” features the broad cast of historical characters any reader of the Chronicle might expect, plus one that comes as a mind-bending but pleasant surprise: Gore Vidal himself. 

 Vidal never cottoned to calling this series his American Chronicle. That came from the publisher apparently. He preferred Narratives of Empire, and one can see why.


Of Hillsborough, Heysel & Stamford Bridge: Backstories amplify documentary of tragedy

Of Hillsborough, Heysel & Stamford Bridge: Backstories amplify documentary of tragedy


This post was excerpted and adapted from, Generation Zero: Founding Fathers, Hidden Histories & The Making of Soccer in America (Dickinson-Moses Press, 2022).

In joining the wide chorus of praise for director Daniel Gordon’s superb “30 for 30” documentary on the Hillsborough soccer disaster, we should be reminded of two things: First, the state of British football fandom in the mid- to late-1980s was legitimately menacing and pervasive; and second, the 1985 Heysel Stadium disaster, where 39 died in a similar crush of humanity, should hang over the Hillsborough proceedings with a pall all its own.

That Gordon never found space in his film for Heysel, nor Britain’s genuine and warranted cultural worry over hooliganism (and Liverpool’s connection thereto) is somewhat startling.

Gordon was clearly at pains to accentuate the unfair and, some would argue, criminal treatment that Liverpool fans received in the wake of Hillsborough. It’s a fair and important point, and the facts here have been too long obscured. However, the context Gordon seeks — namely, that Liverpool’s reputation for hooligan behavior contributed to the way the disaster was investigated — surely cannot be summoned without a discussion of Heysel, which colored everything that came afterward and certainly fixed uncomfortable attention on a club and fan base that played central roles in both tragedies.

Liverpool FC was indeed front and center on May 29, 1985, when the Reds met Juventus of Turin in the European Cup Final, forebear to today’s Champions League Final. Thirty-nine predominantly Italian fans perished that night in Brussels, where Liverpool fans stormed a purportedly neutral area inside the gates but outside the stadium itself. Juventus supporters fled the threat, into the stadium, toward a concrete retaining wall. Fans already seated there were crushed by the onslaught of humanity — then the wall collapsed.

Unlike the Hillsborough narrative, very little of the above account is disputed, by Liverpool supporters or anyone else. Six hundred more were injured at Heysel that night and, as a result, English clubs were banned from all European competitions for five years. Liverpool was banned for 10, but was allowed back after 7 years served.

Gordon makes the important point that, rightly or wrongly, the fear of untoward supporter behavior tragically influenced police actions before, during and after the tragic 1989 FA Cup semifinal. The presumption that drunken fan violence had played a role ultimately moved the English Football Association (FA) to an appalling continuum of cynical posturing. That same presumption influenced media coverage of the event for years to come.

As such, it’s vital to understand the climate in which that semifinal, and so many other matches were routinely played during this period.

The police, the FA and the media behaved abominably post-Hillsborough. Full stop.

However, they were not behaving in a vacuum. The mid- to late-1980s were rife with soccer hooliganism. I was there, in London, for most of 1984-85 season. No one should require my eyewitness accounts, gathered from four separate city grounds, but serious alcohol consumption routinely played a role in the violence.

And yet Gordon touches on this broader cultural phenomenon very little.

Hey, it’s a big subject — probably too big to address fully/fairly in a 120-minute documentary on Hillsborough. But again, methinks Gordon soft-pedaled it because undo context here would tend to explain, if not justify, the behavior/presumptions of police, the FA and media in relation to Hillsborough.

Gordon does make it clear that police, the FA and England’s tabloid culture took this fear of hooliganism — born of Heysel and myriad other incidents involving dozens of clubs — and manipulated it in disgraceful fashion. However, menacing fan behavior was no figment of the FA’s nor Rupert Murdoch’s imagination.

It was all too real and totally out of control in many cases, as I witnessed first hand.


It can be argued that the spring of 1985 represented the nadir of British football hooliganism, as Heysel had not yet gone down and English supporters still traveled to away grounds, foreign and domestic, with impunity. As it happened, this low point coincided with the semester I spent at the University of London, on loan, as it were, from my American college. I traveled all over the city that winter and spring, taking in a dozen matches at three separate grounds.

My maiden voyage, however, would prove the ultimate eye-opener.

I had two English roommates at the Westfield College, University of London; both were rugby fans and sarcastically dismissed football as a meaningless diversion for working class oiks. Accordingly, when Barry — a fellow American and Sheffield Wednesday fan (thanks to several summers spent in South Yorkshire with his cousins) — suggested we and I take in the Chelsea-Wednesday match one early February night at Stamford Bridge, I didn’t even mention it to my roommates. Off Barry and I went.

The word “hooligan” has always been loaded with questionable motivation, but there is no doubt that English soccer in the mid-1980s was then developing, in earnest, its notorious reputation for what has since become known, in a blanket fashion, as “hooliganism”, whereby traveling supporters of certain clubs would clash with home-standing counterparts before, during and after matches in miniature manifestations of England’s particular brand of xenophobia. People always harp upon English hatred of the French, and they do hate them (who wouldn’t). But in truth, the English aren’t particularly fond of anyone in Europe. Indeed, people from the South of England belittle people from the North, and vice versa; residents of Shropshire deride their neighbors in Worcestershire, and vice versa; even neighboring towns have managed to work up healthy mutual hatreds over the course of centuries.

As a consequence, “support” for football clubs routinely takes on a tribal, fever pitch (to borrow a phrase) the likes of which we really cannot imagine here in the States. There is no cultural equivalent that even begins to fit.

The year before, after Liverpool had defeated Roma in the 1984 European Cup Final, bands of Italian toughs on scooters had apparently attacked celebrating British fans as they danced in the Eternal City’s many fountains. Hit and run, or hit and scoot, apparently. This sort of behavior didn’t sit well with the English, as it probably wouldn’t with anyone. A year later, at Heysel, it was payback time.

Yet fan violence wasn’t reserved for internationals. English fans — not all fans, but relatively small subgroups of young toughs — routinely practiced their sordid craft at domestic matches, where rivalries were arguably more heated. Familiarity and contempt, don’t you know. This was the backdrop, only a few months pre-Heysel, as Barry and I left Westfield College, in the north London borough of Hampstead, for south London.

The tableau in and around Stamford Bridge that night was truly surreal. We came up and out of the Fulham Broadway Tube station and immediately walked past a pub that had been thoroughly gutted, all its windows shattered following a punch-up late that afternoon apparently; police and angry masses milled about everywhere.

Picture the scene from Apocalypse Now where Martin Sheen and the boys reach that bridge, the one a few clicks beyond which lies Cambodia and certain peril, the one eerily bejeweled with hanging lights and flairs, where a night-time firefight rages and chaos reigns. I love that scene, and that’s what it was like in and around Stamford Bridge that night, minus (ironically) the illuminated bridge. It was an atmosphere only enhanced by the fact that the river of supporters streaming toward the ground was continually fed by tributaries emanating from local pubs. Plus, I’d gotten well and duly stoned before leaving Hampstead. I was effectively channeling Timothy Bottom’s surfer dude character, Lance, who was transfixed but not effectively warned by the spectacle.

Following Barry’s lead we entered the stadium through a portal reserved for visiting fans alongside a gaggle of Wednesday supporters. The terrace (no seats) set aside for visitors at Stamford Bridge was located behind the North goal. To our left there was nothing — just a sunken access road, well below us, that led to the field. Indeed, 30 feet of open space separated us from the main stand along the touchline.

To our right was an unoccupied terrace guarded on either side by 15-foot, wrought-iron fencing punctuated at foot-long intervals by sharp spikes. Beyond that was the remainder of Stamford Bridge’s North Terrace, occupied by thousands of Chelsea fans, clearly hammered and beside themselves with venom, all of it aimed at — us.

I had been utterly naïve about this excursion. I would soon learn what I should have known beforehand — what my roommates would have readily told me — namely, that Chelsea supporters, back then anyway, were among the “hardest” and most hostile in London, rivaled only by Millwall’s and West Ham’s. Put the money of Russian oligarch ownership out of your mind. This was not the posh club it is today. Chelsea was a hardscrabble, working class club in 1985, with fans to match.

Today, as home to one of the world football’s richest clubs, Stamford Bridge is a jewel (I’ve heard some older fans deride it as a bleedin’ galleria). In 1985, it was no such thing. Picture a dingy, no-frills ground very much like the Hillsborough we see in Gordon’s documentary.


Inside the ground, the Wednesday fans (along with at least one woefully underprepared, somewhat stoned Yank), occupied a pen current observers might also recognize from the “Hillsborough” documentary. No seats. Completely enclosed. But that February evening in 1985, we were but a few hundred traveling supporters from Sheffield. There was no crush of fans clamoring to enter all at once. There was plenty of room to move about freely, though we instead huddled together — to guard against the cold and various projectiles.

From the outset and this considerable distance — the full width of the open terrace, maybe 25 yards — the Chelsea faithful pelted us with AAA batteries and pound coins. However, to be honest, it wasn’t all that threatening. It was a bit of a laugh at that stage. What a good and practical idea, I remember thinking, to leave that section open, as a buffer.

The game? Well, at times it seemed almost secondary to our homestanding neighbors a section removed. Chelsea scored first, through Kerry Dixon, and Sheffield managed to equalize just before halftime.

About then, to our horror, the empty section that separated the home crowd from ours was opened up, practical caution apparently giving way to the reality of ticket sales.

What ensued was a jailbreak. There’s no other way to describe it, and it lends insight to the rush/crush of fans that took place at Heysel and Hillsborough. The Chelsea throng poured over (!) and around this huge, spear-tipped fence like a horde of rabid 11th century Danes, and made a beeline for the lone wrought-iron barrier now separating us. Soon they were pressed up against it, screaming obscenities and taunting us, their arms reaching through the fence like desperate, famished prisoners. We all instinctively moved away from the fence, gathering at the far edge of the terrace and pulling our jackets up around our heads so as not to take a AAA in the ear. Let me tell you: It was fucking scary. I remember turning to Barry and saying, “I should NOT have gotten stoned.”

This was not some frenzied spasm of menace that faded with time. The Chelsea fans were on us the whole time, the entire second half, bombarding us with all manner of pocket-sized ammo. Thank god no human could spit that far.

There was no police presence in the terrace, only a smattering along the access/egress concourse that ran along the back of all three sections, behind the north goal. While the Chelsea horde had scaled one wrought-iron fence, an identical fence continued to separate them from us. The only thing stopping them from invading our space was, well… I don’t know. The fact that police were watching from above and perhaps an obscure, deep-seated tenet of British restraint?

Fortunately Chelsea scored in the final 10 minutes to secure a 2-1 victory. I don’t want to think about how things might have played out if Wednesday leveled things, or managed to win the game. As a player myself (at the time), I remember considering the prospect later that night: Did the Wednesday players, for example, recognize what victory might mean for the 800 or so supporters who’ve traveled down from Sheffield? Can one try to win with all the same commitment, knowing that a goal or victory — or perhaps a goal celebration taken a bit too far — might well bring a battery down on someone’s head, to say nothing of what might happen afterwards, outside the stadium?

Today, in the more refined Premiership era, visiting players score and make beelines to visiting fan sections, where much fist pumping and bellowing is enjoyed by the merry bands of traveling supporters. English football comportment was generally far less exhibitionist during the 1980s (so few of the games were televised). But visiting goal celebrations were relatively muted, in part, so as not to put traveling supporters in unnecessary danger inside and outside the ground.

As it was, when the final whistle blew and the referee pointed to the spot, the home supporters spent a few minutes hugging each other and chanting before they turned back to us and emptied their pockets one last time.

The trip out of the stadium was more frightening still. We Wednesday supporters exited first — and now there were several dozen policemen to help us execute this delicate task. The entire stadium was sealed but for our Bobby-lined egress route, which, of course, passed right behind our neighboring terrace, where the horde reached out to us one last time through the fence. They let us have it again, but I didn’t see any of this spectacle. I had my coat up over my head.

Outside the stadium there were two long lines of police on horseback; we walked between them the three city blocks back to the Tube station, where a special train was waiting for us. We piled on, the doors closed, and, as we slowly pulled away, a group of Chelsea fans burst down onto the platform, half of them singing “We love you Chelsea/Oh yes we do-oo…”, while the other half reiterated the epithets to which we had become accustomed inside the Bridge.

The context is important: Wednesday was and remains no particular rival of Chelsea’s. This was a run-of-the-mill, February match between a pair of mid-table sides, with nothing special to play for. And yet the atmosphere between the two sets of supporters was dire — and routine. That everyday menace like this, and incidents like Heysel, did nothing to move the FA toward meaningful institutional reform and stadium renovation, is a bit mystifying 30 years on. That it took Hillsborough to make that happen, finally, is tragic.

Back at Westfield, just off the Finchley Road, I found my roommates at home and started to regale them with tales of my nerve-rattling introduction to top-flight English football. Yet I’d hardly begun when Trevor interrupted. “Hang on, mate. You sat with the away supporters?” As indicated, Trev was no football fan back then, but he knew enough to throw a disbelieving glance at Adrian, before turning back to me. “That was fucking stupid.”