Estimated reading time:7 minutes, 21 seconds
Everyone has a story. West Ham author, blogger and football writer, Pete May, moved to the heart of Arsenal country in 1993. While living in Islington he’s written four books about West Ham United. Here’s how living so close to Highbury and the Emirates inspires him. Interview by Nicola Baird (btw reader, I married him).
Q: You’re a West Ham fan, so how come you’ve lived in Arsenal country since 1993?
“It’s because I was dating you – and you had a flat! I had a short-life housing association flat in Elephant and Castle, and had just received an eviction notice so to have a girlfriend in Highbury with a flat was a right result. Although the candle shops on Upper Street did take some getting used to after down-to-earth Elephant & Castle…”
Q: Have you ever seen Arsenal play?
“Yes, lots of times even though I’m a West Ham fan. One of the first games I ever saw was Arsenal v West Ham. It was nil-nil on a midweek night in the early ’70s and I remember the Daily Telegraph writing that “football was the winner” because it was a really good game. I also remember the 1975 FA Cup tie when Alan Taylor scored twice and took West Ham into the semi-finals of the FA Cup. I was also at the Emirates for their first ever defeat in 2007 (one-nil to West Ham. Robert Green had the game of his life and Zamora scored).”
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Q: When Arsenal play at home do you like the atmosphere?
“Yeah. Even though I’m not an Arsenal fan I like the atmosphere of all football games with the burger stalls and the singing and general air of excitement.”
Q: Is it hard writing about West Ham when you live in such an Arsenal borough?
“No, because I’ve lived all over London. I’ve lived in Millwall country, Chelsea country, QPR country and now Arsenal. I think it is nice to be slightly different and not support the same team that all my neighbours do. And actually I know two West Ham supporters on Plimsoll Road.”
Places Pete May likes in Islington
- My favourite coffee places are Wittles in Blackstock Road, Park Theatre and The Deli at 80 on Stroud Green Road.
- I enjoy the hippy bread made at Blighty Café, on Blackstock Road, N4.
- The Faltering Fullback at 19 Perth Road, N4 has a great pub quiz on Monday nights where I play for the Beta Males. We sometimes win… but not that often. I also like the Compton Arms at Highbury. It’s lovely to think that George Orwell used to drink there.
- Park Theatre has been a fantastic addition to Finsbury Park life. I’ve really enjoyed seeing Bomber’s Moon, and during 2016 the Roundabout and The Trial of Jane Fonda. I’m looking forward to seeing the Screwtape Letters in December.
- In Finsbury Park Arsenal Food & Wine, 68b Blackstock Road is great for newspapers and Tiptree marmalade from Essex. I enjoy searching for bargains at Lidl. Fish & Cook, 3 Blackstock Road is fantastic for stationery.
Q: What made you support West Ham?
“I grew up in Essex and I toured a lot of London teams with my dad. Eventually we chose West Ham because it was the closest team to Brentwood.”
Q: How did you get our daughters to support your team?
“I took them to kids for a quid games at West Ham from the age of four and luckily Lola and Nell enjoyed all the forbidden food at Ken’s Café and the match day atmosphere. It also helped that Lola had a West Ham supporting teacher at Drayton Park Primary School, Miss Denton.”
Q: You’ve written 14 books. What’s your most recent one about?
“Goodbye to Boleyn is a diary of West Ham’s final season at the Boleyn ground (otherwise known as Upton Park). And it also covers the first few games at the London Stadium in the Olympic Park. It’s very much written from a fan’s viewpoint. It’s not just about matches, it’s more about pre and post match rituals – food, drinking, lucky shirts, football trivia, banter and the whole strange world of being a football fan.”
Q: West Ham moved grounds this season. Have you found it helpful living so close to Arsenal and seeing how fans adjusted from Highbury to the Emirates?
“Yes, I think it gives West Ham some hope. It’s quite a similar bowl shape to the Emirates and knowing that Arsenal fans have adjusted makes me hope that West Ham can get over the teething problems at the new stadium too. West Ham’s new stadium has 57,000 fans which is similar in size to the Emirates now. It’s nice to see so many fans in one place. And it’s also much easier to get to Hackney Wick from Highbury and Islington than it was to get to Upton Park – although I don’t think the new stadium will be as intimate as the old ground.”
Q: Of the Arsenal players that have moved to West Ham who do you rate?
“Not too many ex Arsenal players have done well at West Ham. Liam Brady was popular because he was still a very skilful player. And we had Nigel Winterburn, who was very professional and worked really hard. But we also had a number of flops like John Radford who failed to score in a whole season, and Stewart Robson who was a good player but very injury prone. Carl Jenkinson played on loan for two seasons for West Ham recently and he was a decent right back. I was sad to see him return to the Emirates.”
Q: Tell me about the books you’ve written while you’ve been living in Islington.
“All my books have been written since I moved here in 1996 – 14 in 20 years. There’s A Hippo in My Cistern is the story of my relationship with you, so a lot of that takes place in Aubert Park, then Whistler Street, then Finsbury Park. There is a lot about my houses and the children’s schools, the chickens in our garden, local pubs and our battles with subsidence in Rent Boy – there are whole chapters on Highbury and Finsbury Park. And then there’s my love affair with Essex.”
Q: Do you think of yourself as West Ham’s Nick Hornby?
“I’m not sure I dare to put myself in such exalted company, but if anyone said that of me I’d be very honoured. I have twice been asked for my autograph at West Ham games, so perhaps I will be played by Colin Firth in a film…”
- Goodbye to Boleyn: West Ham’s final season at Upton Park and the big kick-off at Stratford came out on 15 November 2016. It’s published by Biteback, £12.99.
- Also see Pete May’s blog Hammers in the Heart http://hammersintheheart.blogspot.co.uk
- You can find all Pete May’s books on Amazon.
Over to you
If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via nicolabaird.green at gmail.com. Thank you.