The Arena

February 23, 2011

Yes, yes, so Hackney marsh is famous for football matches. They come here in droves on Saturdays and Sundays and kick balls in a maelstrom of cockney natter and REF-A-FUCKING-REE’s. There must more than fifty pitches tessellated across the arena.

Look up anything about Hackney Marshes. Google it. You’ll always get some boring tidbit about it being a record breaking amount of football pitches in one area. Whoopy do.

What’s weird about the marsh is that it’s all pitch and nothing else. No stands, no stadiums, no pathways. This is an imaginary arena where humans chalk out their own arbitrary perameters.

The only demarcation between one pitch and another is a white line. These are painted by Nazcar men in tiny, teeny, eeny weeny vans. They criss-cross the field on Monday to Friday, deciding the boundaries.

They’re the auteurs of the marsh. They tell you what’s a pitch , what’s not a pitch and what’s in between the pitch. This awesome power bores them to tears. It’s a weeklong job. First they scoop up the discarded water bottles from Sunday’s matches. Next they fix the wheres and whatfors of the lines with little pegs. Then they tootle down the line in their vans, often chased by barking dogs and crows.

Sometimes you see a rogue painter, going off message. I came across one such Nascar man who’d driven his cart into the Vale of Plastic Trees. He was reading Think and Grow Rich. You could tell his heart wasn’t in his job. He was dreaming of a world outside the white lines. He was thinking outside the box.

The arena is not just for football gladiators. When the matches aren’t on you can catch a host of alternative activities:

Model plane flying – almost ALWAYS man with son. Man hogging the controls. Son bored.

Model car racing – I refer to the petrol powered cars that pump out fumes and sound like giant wasps. In these cases it’s NEVER man with son. It’s usually two geeks in their 40s surrounded by younger awestruck geeks to be. Or a bunch of hooded tracksuits shifting nervously, as if they’re about to leg it at the first site of a tiny model police car heading their way.

Kite flying – seems strangely joyless when you see it practised in a large empty field, shouldn’t they be running through hilly parks , laughing? Instead they stand staring at a flag on a string in a bitter wind.

Kite surfing – this makes more sense. One end is a kite, the other end is a sort of skateboard, in between is a young man who wishes he lived in California, a gust of wind, and off he skitters, usually very quickly. On windless days it’s a different story. He moves a metre, slowly, checks his equipment as if blaming it, tries again. He can talk half an hour to inch across the marsh this way. There’s something heroically persistent about him.

Running and Jumping – this is the most traditional of all outdoor activities, practised usually by 5 year olds across the country. Here in the Arena it’s adult occupation. Orthodox Jews tend to avoid ball games and sports and instead get their kicks out of random running. I’ve seen whole school classes darting about like fleas in a jar, the teacher racing after the children, his cloak flowing.

The first time I came to the marsh it was a spring morning. The marsh was empty. The only movement was a black figure racing across the grass, leaping up to touch goal posts, pirouetting, dancing, twirling. It was a young skinny Jewish lad, dressed up to the nines in his black finery, sensible shoes and wide-brimmed hat. I watched him zigzag and leap for minute. Then he raced into the distance and was swallowed up by the trees.

Doing something strange with a parachute – one day I approached the marshes from the filter beds and saw a woman with a parachute in the arena. She was wearing a helmet and goggles. The parachute billowed out behind her but I’d seen no parachute falling. It didn’t look like she’d landed because she suddenly started running again. Then slowed. Then stopped. She tugged at the ropes and tried to run once more but a gust of wind stopped her in her tracks.

I wondered, was she trying to take off? Did she think it worked like a kite? I looked around to see if she was waiting to be pulled behind a car or if there was anyone else in the field with a parachute.


Now, let me tell you a few things about myself. I’m not an inquisitive person. The world is a mystery to me and I enjoy it that way. And as a rule I don’t tend to start conversations with people wearing helmets.

So instead of staying to find out what was going on I walked away. Left her waddling around the marsh in her parachute. At the time I reasoned that some things are best left unexplained. And besides, saying “What are you doing?” to someone wearing a crash helmet and carrying a parachute smacks of stupidity.

But two years on I still think about her. I wish I’d asked what the hell she thought she was up to.

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