Well, the annual excursion to Merseyside had a very different feel to it this year. I should have known it was going to be something different when my matchday sidekick, my nine-year-old son, requested ‘a big game.’
‘Right so!’ I said.
He’d been warned by local Evertonians on each of the last couple of years – when Villa were nudged pathetically over in 4-0 victory two years ago and when Bournemouth were eventually put away 6-3 in last year’s epic encounter. ‘It’s not like this every week, kid!’ they warned him, almost winking. Preparing him for the lifelong reality of being a Toffee.
But a big game is what he said he wanted and a big game he got – Man City, two games out from the title, breaking every statistic imaginable.
Being a big game, of course, it got moved for TV. This too changed everything. The later kick-off meant we had to stay overnight.
So we got out of bed at four a.m., stood in the rain waiting for the Aircoach for twenty minutes, and shivered our way to the airport on Saturday morning. At the airport we went in search of HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, the last remaining book in the series that my sidekick had not read.
But it was not in the airport book shop.
Heads went down. The rain, the literary disappointment. The day was stacking up badly.
And then the plane took-off late. The outlook was bleak.
But somehow, through some miracle of flight, the same Ryanair flight that left fifteen or so minutes late arrived in Liverpool John Lennon Airport five minutes early! Either Ryanair gave themselves a fat old window or the pilot that day was on top of his game.
No matter, it felt like our luck had changed. Although neither of us had yet been willing to bring luck so early into the equation.
At the airport we picked up a cab easily enough and with the fleet-footed flight-time still in mind, not even the unusually gruff demeanour of our cab driver rattled our burgeoning optimism. The good people at the Crowne Plaza John Lennon Airport Hotel greeted us with what we have always been met with on our trips to Liverpool – warmth, hospitality, wit and decency.
Normal service resumed.
But it was eight o’clock in the morning, or just after, and even early check-in to the room was still a few hours away.
‘Go down for breakfast,’ we were told. ‘And I’ll come and get you as soon as the room is ready.’
So down for breakfast we went. A muffin and some bacon and two helpings of apple juice for the little fella was enough to elicit, ‘Great trip so far!’ And quickly followed by, ‘Can you send Mum a photo?’
‘The wonderful optimism of him!’ I thought. And sure we sent off not just a photo but a quick video as well.
On the back of this optimism I set myself the task of resolving the HARRY POTTER quandary. We had two hours before check-in to our room, at least, and he had no book and I was halfway through Bill Browder’s RED NOTICE and eager to put a meaningful dent in it over the course of our twenty-four hours in Liverpool.
‘Let’s Google it,’ I said to him. ‘Nearest book shop to the Crowne Plaza.’
Answer: just over 450 metres away. 1 minute walk. WHSmith.
But also trepidation. Too good to be true, surely. As we approached WHSmith it looked like about the best Easons you could imagine – a load of stationary, a pile of cook books and celebrity biographies and a scattering of other random titles. But nothing you might actually want to read.
No sooner had our hearts begun to collectively sink than I spotted the HARRY POTTER shrine along the side wall. We rushed over. There were multiple copies of them all – each of the instalments with a variety of cover art; cloth editions; paperbacks editions; all sorts.
Except for THE DEATHLY HALLOWS.
There’s just one, final copy of the very one he’s after. I see it and point at it and he snatches it up.
I quickly look around to see is there any chance there’s a nice hardback edition – happy to shell out because, after all and thank the cosmos, he’s a reader and they’re a species worth investing in, aren’t they?
But there isn’t. I hesitate. Momentarily disappointed. ‘If only,’ I say.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ he says, resting his hand on my arm. Beaming. Delighted. In thrall to the very cover of the book before a single sentence has been read.
We buy the book and make our way back to hotel, his feet already soaked and the day only started. ‘That was lucky,’ he says, as he leaps over another puddle. ‘But we better save the rest of our luck for the game.’
My heart sinks. I feel a little fissure of guilt or regret, an emotional tear to the muscle of the soul.
‘That’s me talking,’ it occurs to me. ‘Not him.’ That’s my fear, my pessimism, my instinct to protect and close-off. In some small but profound way I’ve infected him with my fear.
But he’s better than that, I think. He’s his mother’s son. And so I rally. I intervene.
‘Luck is like money,’ I say to him. ‘The more you have the more you can make. What you need to do is reinvest.’
He likes that and he smiles, and we skip back to the Crowne Plaza, our respective books calling out to us.
Back at the hotel we sit in two tub chairs in the empty bar, his wet socks dangling from the side of a table, my phone charging in a nearby socket, and we read. For two and a half hours we are both lost to our respective literary worlds – HARRY POTTER and RED NOTICE. The only interruption to this is when we are brought complimentary refreshments and he is presented with an Easter Egg by the lovely woman at reception.
He can’t believe how the day is going. ‘Reinvesting, Dad,’ he says. ‘I think we’re going to win.’
By eleven we’re in our room. He wants more photographs for Mum and the younger two back home. The whole staying in a hotel aspect of this trip is new to us but as we settle down to read for another two hours I suspect we’re both secretly thinking, ‘It would be nice to just stay here, in this room, and read our books.’
By this stage I’m just arriving at the awful, horrific and inhumane treatment of Sergei Magnitsky in Russian custody. The story has me where it wants me: Browder’s account pushes me to the brink of tears several times over the course of the next twelve hours, as I dip in and out of it. The corruption and the brutality of Putin and the regime around him is flabbergasting. Flabbergasting! A word I thought I’d probably not ever have cause to use, to be honest. But the extent of the fraud and the inhumanity and the cynicism of these events, and in particular what happens to Sergei Magnitsky, is beyond appalling.
Towards the end of the book, Browder, on the subject of why he has decided not to back down in the face of Putin and Russian mafia threats, writes: “So if you sympathize with this search for justice, or with Sergei’s tragic fate, please share this story with as many people as you can.”
I read that and I thought, as I had on numerous occasions before as I was reading RED NOTICE, I must write about this. If even a handful of people read my blog and decide to go and read RED NOTICE or find out about the story through a Google search or through Browder’s YouTube films, then that’ll be something. Books like this make you wonder why we bother with fiction. They make me think about Arthur Miller thought about the story behind A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE, that the story was enough in itself. It didn’t need to be adorned or dressed-up because the events themselves were so shocking and so compelling that you can’t but listen.
RED NOTICE was given to me by my brother-in-law. Once upon a time the same brother-in-law also gave me Nelson Mandella’s THE LONG WALK TO FREEDOM. That’s some strike rate. If he was in the hedge fund game, he’d be working for Bill Browder and ten bagging it all the way.
As regards the game of football, well, one of the best books I’ve read in a long while was juxtaposed with probably the worst Everton performance I’ve seen in the flesh. I could dissect it but I think I’ll just leave it at this:
"Really? They’re going with two in the middle of the park? And one of them is Rooney?”