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Heaven knows we’re Les Miserables now

03/06/2016

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People often remark that I have a decent memory for dates. I’m not convinced about that but what I do know is that, after years of football match going following Manchester United and now FC United of Manchester home and away, I find that I often connect events in my day to day life to particular football matches or even events off the pitch. For instance, discussing Al Pacino recently with someone at work one of his films that got mentioned was Scent of a Woman for which he won an Oscar. “What year was that?” pondered my colleague. In the blink of an eye I knew it was 1993. Not because I have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the films of Al Pacino but purely because I remember going to see it at the cinema on that golden afternoon that Oldham beat Aston Villa and United were crowned champions for the first time in twenty six years.

Sometimes the links are more tenuous. Like the year of a family trip to Blackpool illuminations recalled purely because of a midweek European match. Driving home from the seaside I remember we had night time Radio Two crackling away on the car wireless, keeping an ear out for the score in United’s UEFA Cup first leg match at PSV Eindhoven. It was 1984. Around that time I had a notebook in which I used to keep a record of all United’s games, the teams, the scorers, attendances etc and sometimes I wrote a mini match report. I was a right laugh as a teenager me but the legacy is an ability to recall the dates of often obscure fixtures.

images-53Anyway, I was reminded of such football trivia on a recent trip to the theatre. On my last week in my old job a group of us went to watch Les Miserables in the West End. We’d been meaning to go to the theatre for a while and, as I was leaving, I got to choose what we saw. The Phantom Of The Opera was mooted but, let’s be frank here, I’d rather stick pins in my eyes than give a single penny of my hard earned to the loathsome Andrew Lloyd Webber, a multi-millionaire Tory peer who flew back from New York last October to vote in the House of Lords in favour of cuts to tax credits for some of the poorest people in the country. Instead, I plumped for “Les Miz” as it’s one of the longest running shows in the West End (selling itself as “the world’s most popular musical”), and because everyone I know who has seen it, and some have seen it multiple times, said unfailingly that they enjoyed it immensely and invariably added “you should go and see it”. Oh and it’s got a bit of politics in it set as it is in post-revolutionary France and culminating in the Paris Uprising of 1832. I’m always a sucker for a red flag or two. So, as Stuart Maconie would say, what’s not to like?

It was, I think, only the fourth musical that I’ve seen since we moved down to London nearly eight years ago, and one of those, Wicked, was because my partner got some freebie tickets through work. Strange really as both my parents love musicals and I grew up in a town where going to see one of the big shows was the centrepiece of most peoples’ occasional trips to the big smoke. It was almost a case of, well, why else would you possibly want to visit London? It still makes me smile when I see coaches from the likes of Mansfield and Chesterfield lined up along the Embankment on weekend afternoons, bored drivers waiting for matinees to end before collecting their punters for the journey back north.

But after sitting through two hours and fifty minutes of what is widely acknowledged to be one of the finest musicals of all time, I have to conclude that it’s an art form that I just don’t “get”. And I’m not convinced I ever will. It’s not that I disliked Les Miz but simply that it just didn’t get my juices flowing. For starters I didn’t recognise any of the songs. Not one. Which isn’t really a good start with a musical. My workmates looked askance. Surely you must have heard this one? Or this one? But, no, none, zilch. Apparently Susan Boyle sang “I Dreamed A Dream” on Britain’s Got Talent a few years back and it went viral on YouTube. But like most of what happens on reality television it completely passed me by.

Unknown-43Perhaps what is far worse though than all of this is that my abiding memory of Les Miserables will remain an inevitably football related one from a Sunday night in April 1992. That afternoon United had lost 2-0 away at Liverpool to complete a thoroughly miserable week of football (three defeats in seven days) that had seen us blow, quite spectacularly, the chance of actually winning the league for the first time in a quarter of a century. A footballing capitulation of almost Devon Loch proportions. Back then I was too young to remember United ever being champions and on the journey home I seriously questioned whether I would in fact ever see them lift the league title in my lifetime. Would we ever get a better chance than in 1992? I was living and working in Cambridge at the time and due to various Sunday railway engineering shenanigans I was travelling back via London with a mate who lived in Essex. It was a solemn journey of few words.

After what felt like several hours we eventually disembarked at Euston and as we shuffled along the platform towards the station concourse my eyes were drawn to a series of large adverts to our left which featured the word “miserable” repeated over and over in large letters. A few years earlier in my first term at university a group of psychology students had invited some of us to take part in a study which involved sitting in a darkened room and looking at a computer screen on which were flashed random words, sometimes several at the same time, for about thirty seconds. The exercise was repeated three or four times with different sets of words and at the end of each round we were asked to spend a couple of minutes jotting down the words that we could remember seeing.

We must have seen hundreds of words on each occasion but I was only able to write perhaps a dozen down each time. And after the second round I noticed a bit of a pattern developing as I scribbled down words like “sad”, “lonely’, “unhappy” and “dejected”. Of all the hundreds of words that were being thrown at me there appeared to be a theme to my choices. It wasn’t surprising in many respects as someone who has always found it difficult to make friends I was struggling hopelessly to adjust to student life, my lonely evenings of Pot Noodles and crap television not quite living up to the promised hedonistic nights of drinking, drugs and girls. I was, in many respects, perfect for this spot of amateur psychology.

tumblr_nafoucO8yL1tqoj4vo1_500On seeing the word “miserable” plastered across Euston station it briefly crossed my mind that the psychology project was being repeated. Miserable was how we undoubtedly felt so, amidst all the adverts at one of London’s biggest railway stations, miserable was what we saw. The adverts were in fact for the musical Les Miserables which had left the West End to go on tour and, at that point, was being played out at the Palace Theatre in Manchester. Hence the big advertising campaign at Euston aimed squarely at passengers clambering aboard trains to Manchester who might be unaware of their destination’s cultural offerings.

It’s an image that has seared itself into my brain to such an extent that twenty four years later whenever Les Miserables is mentioned, and even after having seen the show now, I instinctively think, not of the musical itself, but of Euston station in April 1992 and the miserable events that preceded it that day. Instead of recalling the heroic Jean Valjean, little Cosette, I Dreamed A Dream and a lovely evening out with cherished work colleagues, images of Liverpool’s beanpole striker Ian Rush scoring the first goal flicker in my mind’s eye. Ian bastard Rush who up until that point had failed to score against United in more than twenty games. And these scenes are soundtracked by songs of Scouse joy, utterly jubilant that they should be the ones that denied us the championship for another year. Les Miserables? You bet we were.

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From → Culture, London, Sport

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