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Monday, 22 October 2007

Red Action...

The popular masses are like water, and the army is like a fish. How then can it be said that when there is water, a fish will have difficulty in preserving its existence? An army which fails to maintain good discipline gets into opposition with the popular masses, and thus by its own action dries up the water.

Mao Tse-Tung

There's something simultaneously seedy and respectable about a walk along the Holloway Road. The gentility and decency provided by the presence of the North London Buddhist Centre, the Richmond Fellowship and Islington's Central Library is somewhat undermined by sauce-mongering emporia like 'Showgirls' and the upmarket fetishists' paradise, 'Fettered Pleasures'.

So it's appropriate that I should take that route from Highbury and Islington tube for today's special assignment. I'm on my way to infiltrate a small, subversive group within our own august establishment, you see. This fifth column in the Gunners' ranks meets in dingy, smoke filled rooms (well, they would be filled with smoke if it wasn't for the smoking ban, obviously...) There in the seditious gloom, they plot and scheme and organise their rank and file. They sing their songs of war poking fun at some pitiable rival faction up the road who just can't seem to get their act together. The trusty stalwarts of previous campaigns teach these broadsides to the recent convert and the young alike; handed down like the details of a family feud, these rebel songs of ours will never die!

Leaflets are handed out, speeches are made, motions are carried and today this ragged band of the committed is going to march with pride, our arms and our defiant banners held aloft. We will punch the air and chant our slogans, urge the uncommitted loafers on the corners of our streets to join the passionate and purposeful throng as we march upon the Emirates itself. Our objectives, our demands? Simple; we'd ...erm...quite like things to stay pretty much as they are, thanks very much...if that's all the same with you.

Red Action has planned a march ahead of the game with Bolton Wanderers to show support for the current board and as a demonstration for our antipathy towards any prospective buyers of the club, in particular, Alisher Usmanov. Well, I say 'we'. Even if I'm not a member of any of the supporters groups, they seem to speak for the majority of fans who are concerned by the thought of Usmanov laundering his dirty money by buying up our club and making a mint out of the team that is our passion. So 'we' it is, and we meet up in the Rocket on Holloway Road ahead of the deputation.

It's not actually a pub as I'd expected, but the Union bar of London Metropolitan University which becomes the home of the Red Action group on matchdays. There's an old Grammar School look to the building itself, made to look all the more down-at-heel by the shiny, Daniel Libeskind extension at its side; a sort of 3-D attempt at the 2012 Olympics logo that's got a bit out of hand, collapsed and fallen on its side. It feels a bit like going back to junior school when you pass through the Assembly hall panelling of the entrance. Once inside the dark, boxy bar itself there are a couple of long banners draped on the floor that take me back to all those student demos of my college days. Then there's the velcro stickiness of the carpet of spilt beer you negotiate as you head towards the bar, familiar to anyone who's been inside a university that has ever been silly enough put together a rugby XV and allow them anywhere near the bar after a game. Once at the taps, you wait for what seems like an eternity to be served because it seems that it is being staffed by primary school children who have yet to be introduced to the concepts of addition and subtraction. But then they do serve Staropramen, so it's just about worth the wait.

It's a pleasant enough atmosphere though. There's an open mic spot where chants and songs old and new are put before the entertainments committee. The overriding atmosphere may be that of a Student Union bar, but there are also elements of the fringe meeting, the working man's club and even a bit of music hall thrown in. Someone from the Supporters' Trust gives us a de-briefing on the Arsenal AGM. There's a raffle, the winning ticket of which is picked out by the oh-so accurately monickered Fat Ashley Cole. Then someone sings one of the lovely old Irish songs that was probably sung at Highbury from the first season the club played there, if not before that, way back in the days of the Woolwich and Royal Arsenals. If the leaflets and the proselytising about keeping the fat ugly capitalist's hands off our club don't bring the Islington of George Orwell to mind, then this song wouldn't have been out of place being crooned by some prole washer-woman in 1984:

Jesus, said Paddy,
I'll sing it again,
Again and again and again and again...

It's good news that our learned comrade brings back from the Annual General Meeting though. The board has announced an extension of the previously agreed 'lockdown' that binds the majority shareholders to a commitment not to sell their shares to undesirable buyers for another five years. That is good news, and as we watch the second half of the Everton v. Liverpool game on what must surely be the Film Society's big screen, the assembled Gooners are consequently in good voice. The best of the many Ashley Cole songs that do the rounds reaches its triumphant detumescence to the tune of 'One Man Went to Mow':

Ten men,
Nine men,
Eight men,
Seven men,
Six men,
Five men,
Four men,
Three men,
Two men,
One man and his mobile phone -
Went to bed with Ashley!

There's an announcement that the march will start when the final whistle blows in the Merseyside derby but, as it goes, we don't even have to wait that long. Phil Neville's goal-line handball and the resulting penalty from which Kuyt secures the game for Liverpool is the only cue we need to take to the street.

I emerge blinking out on to the pavement to find that the banners have already started to make their way up Holloway Road. I edge a bit closer to the front of the procession as we pause to have a snap taken by one of the key conspirators on his mobile phone. We run through our repertoire of agit. prop: "Hello, hello - we are the Arsenal boys"..."Arsene Wenger's red and white army (who hate Tottenham)"..."We love you Arsenal, we do" and I'm becoming giddy with the thrill of it all. It feels more like we are away fans showing off our colours and proving the spirit of our support on someone else's patch than a group of supporters going to a home game. Maybe, in a weird way, that's sort of what we are...

A young chap ahead of me picks up a yellow traffic cone and uses it as a megaphone. It barely amplifies his voice, merely giving it a hollow smarty tube ring as he sings our own defiant Internationale, but it's a real hoot all the same:

The Wanky Tottenham Hotspurs went to Rome to see the Pope,
The Wanky Tottenham Hotspurs went to Rome to see the Pope'
The Wanky Tottenham Hotspurs went to Rome to see the Pope -
And this is what he said ("FUCK OFF!")

Who's that team they call the Arsenal?
Who's that team we all adore?
We're the ones in red and white,
And we're fucking dynamite,
And Martin Jol's mother is a whooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooore...

"She's a bloody whore", someone Lydons over the dissonace of our gloriously protracted roar of that final Om-like 'whore'. We're picking up stragglers now, people really are coming off street corners to join our passionate and purposeful throng. "Red Army, Red Army, Red Army, Red Army" we chorus, call and response style and there must be some strange gestalt thing going on here, because I'm starting to think about a different Red Army and another band of bandits in another century who stormed a palace and seized control when someone starts to sing a Moscow song:

Roll away,
Roll away.
Roll away to Moscow,
Roll away.
I don't know how I'll get there,
But I'll get there all the same,
So roll away to Moscow,
Roll away...

I may have misremembered some of the words, and not be perfect with the tune but it doesn't matter because it's now become my song; my secret, something that cannot mean the same to anyone but me. I'll sing it when my book seems to be going nowhere, or the team has hit a rut. A song to keep me going through the cold winter ahead and all bad times; again and again and again and again:

Roll away,
Roll away.
Roll away to Moscow,
Roll away.

We reach the steps of the Emirates and the crowd are cheering and clapping us and the banners that we march behind. In all of the excitement, I couldn't even tell you what was on them as I can only see their blank backs. There's a faded mirror image Usmanov, and that's about all I can make out. But sometimes unity itself is more important than the causes that unite. As the crowd around us cheers and claps, we quietly disperse. Banners down, our gallant regiment disbands and we move off into an ocean of people, like fish darting through water.

L.U.V. on y'all,


Hear Bob read extracts from his diary of the 2007-08 season, "The Road to Moscow"!!

Bobcasts now available at iTunes!!

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