Amid all the furor of the move and the trip to Italy, I had two new publications come out in anthologies over the last two months.
My story “Three Matches and the Unlit Fuse” appeared in The Librarian Card Catalogue, a beautiful anthology in the form of stories printed on card catalogs. (My children are scratching their heads at the words “card” and “catalog” used together.) This was my first solicited story and one heavily inspired by the last few years of living in Britain. The anthology is a limited edition, and it’s so pretty.
The second story is not actually a story at all. It’s a poem. Except, it was a story, originally. “A Particle Accelerator Love Song” is a scientifically accurate* poem / romance featured in Qualia Nous: Vol. 2.
I’m proud of this story. It’s been on a journey to find its way to print. I wrote it years ago, and while my faith in it wavered as the rejections piled up, I never truly gave up hope.
It’s a story that I thought was an excellent concept and that I sent out 20+ times, trying to find it a home. After it had been through every market I could find, I let it sit a while. As in “years.” When I came back and re-read it, I saw what was missing: shape. The words are nearly identical to the original prose, but it’s been reshaped to enhance the rhythm and the visual layout.
This is far from my first anthology appearance, but it is my first time being pulished in the same table of contents as Steven King. And Chuck Palahniuk. So that’s fun.
I have another story that’s been rejected a few times, has something to say that I think the world should hear, and will likely get a similar treatment. It’s been a long time since I wrote poetry, and I’m finding that it scratches a different itch than my usual prose.
We’ve just come home from our last big European family trip for the foreseeable future. We visited Rome, Florence, and Venice over the course of a week. It wasn’t enough time in any one place to do it justice, but it was enough to visit the belly of the Roman Empire, the heart of Renaissance Italy, and that canal city that the eldest child has been dying to visit ever since she saw an episode of Wonder Pets about Venice when she was four.
My travels over the last five years have taken me to a number of the big European capitals. Paris, Madrid, Lisbon, Dublin, and of course London. Rome, I dare say, outshines them all. It is a city built by emperors to impress the barbarians. The emperors succeeded, and the Italians that followed them have added to the grandeur. You cannot turn a corner without running into a temple, a cathedral, or a statue-limned fountain. It is not hard for me to imagine the kings of England and France sitting in their squalid barbarian villages out there on the edge of what was once a mighty empire and gazing towards Rome with hearts full of envy. They have tried to build their own imperial monuments, but they were merely children wearing their father’s clothes. And I say that as someone who has loved my years in London.
The Vatican tour was worth doing if you’re ever in the area. The guided tour was okay. The best part was probably seeing the Sistine Chapel, which I found to be more impressive than I expected. It’s a chapel, not a cathedral, but it’s still a pretty big chapel. The guided tour also had the benefit of giving us a shortcut from the Sistine Chapel to St. Peter’s Basilica. St. Pete’s was impressive in scale and grandeur, and seeing Michaelangelo’s Pieta in person was a highlight.
Trevi Fountain, the Spanish steps, and Piazza Navona were fine. Complete tourist traps, and we strolled through them, took photos, and moved on. I don’t regret seeing them, but I’m in no hurry to see them again. The Foro Romano, on the other hand, I’d love to revisit and spend a few hours.
Food in Rome is like food in most European capitals. You can hit a homerun with one meal (that’s like hitting a six, cricket fans) and strike out the next. We had some wonderful meals at Da Enzo al 29 and Pasta E Vino in the Trastevere area. If I were to return to Rome, I’d look to stay in Trastevere for the sheer quantity of amazing food within a five minute walk. We also had some amazing gelato at Otaleg in Trastevere and at Fatamorgana in Centro. While I loved the gelato, I honestly think Midwestern frozen custard compares well. The dish that really impressed me was the tiramisu. The four of us split a tiramisu at pretty much every dinner. They were all good, though the presentation at Pasta E Vino won for having a birthday sparkler in it.
We took the train from Rome to Florence. My fellow Americans, you don’t know what you’re missing out on when it comes to high speed rail. The train was running at 150 miles an hour, and it took us from city center to city center in about two hours. We walked to the hotel in Florence and immediately went exploring. We only had prebooked tickets for one museum, which in retrospect was a mistake. I wish we had been able to see the Uffizi Gallery in addition to the Firenze Museum. I booked the Firenze Museum mostly to see David. The statue of David was, like much of the rest of Italy, huge and impressive. Those Italians really understood how to impress barbarians.
We had dinner at Osteria Vecchio. It was superlative. The restaurant was a 15 minute walk from the middle of Florence, but I think that worked in its favor. My new hypothesis is that if your restaurant or food truck is within view of a queue at a major attraction, it’s probably an over-priced tourist trap. Going a few blocks away from the Colosseum or Trevi Fountain or–in the case of Florence–the Duomo can make a huge difference in quality and/or price.
One night in Florence was not remotely enough. I’d love to spend a few days and go out to some of the surrounding countryside, too.
Venice itself is surreal. Being there felt like being in a city from a fantasy novel. They really don’t have cars. They really do get around with boats. There are so many little islands (and so many little bridges).
Dinner was at La Colombina, which is seafood-oriented, but has some non-seafood dishes, too. It was another homerun. Every dish was excellent, but I’ll give a particular shoutout to the six piece appetizer selection for having a variety of vegetable and seafood-forward things whose names I don’t remember, but were all delicious. Carissa wants to give a special shoutout to the scallops, too.
Months ago I asked the girls what they wanted to do on this trip. There was one clear and obvious winner: gondola ride. We did one. It was good. I’d do it again, especially if it wasn’t cold and rainy.
It was a wonderful trip. My only regret is that I would have liked to do a few more things. When we moved to London, it was with trips like this in mind. We managed three big European adventures to Paris, Santorini, and Italy during our five years. We’ve also had some smaller adventures to Dublin, Inverness, and a few cities in the UK. This trip marked the turning of a page in the Baldwin family story. Tomorrow morning we fly back to the United States for good to start a new chapter in our lives. We’re sad to be leaving London, the United Kingdom, and Europe, but we’re excited about seeing more of our family back home and the opportunities in the States.
Dave the Terrible never wanted the unholy scepter, but you couldn’t refuse your mother’s dying wish. He hefted the gilt scepter from his nightstand each morning and used it to gaze upon the past and the present and sometimes even the future. It had come with a mist-cloaked fortress in the mountains that had a stone fireplace and a cozy library, so things weren’t all bad.
Dave the Terrible
This was a difficult one, both thematically and in terms of craft. It deals with grief and depression as seen through a fantasy lens. Getting the balance right between fantasy and reality was a challenge.
We seldom call Fezzik by his name. (Aela is always “Aela” except when she’s “Doofenshmirtz.”) He’s usually Fezzio or Fezzi. When we brought him home, I had high hopes that he would, like his namesake, grow into a big bruiser who would outshine Piper at terrorizing the neighborhood cats. It didn’t turn out that way. He’s much more “smol boi” than “heckin’ chonker.” Most of Fezzi’s life has been dominated by the dog. Fezzi eats, he sleeps, and he harasses the dog. He clearly loves food more than anything else in life, but the dog isn’t too far behind. That might sound stereotypically cat, but I would hazard to say that he’s only marginally a cat. What kind of proper cat lets humans pick it up and cuddle it like a baby doll? What kind of proper cat sleeps in a toy baby carriage? What kind of proper at lets humans rub its belly? It’s something like 51% dog, 29% stuffed animal, 20% cat.
Fezzi is strictly an indoor cat. In the US, this might sound normal, but over here we have no air conditioning and no screens on the windows or doors. It’s hard to keep a cat inside in England. He does occasionally wander into the garden to hide under the bushes or sun himself on the patio, but that is the exception rather than the norm. Fezzi has been with us for 17 months, and while he’s had those afternoons in the garden, he has little experience beyond the safety of home. Until last week, when, in a moment of feline hubris, he went adventuring.
He was last seen around 23:00, pouncing my feet. I sent him out of the bedroom and went to sleep. Sometime around 05:00, Carissa woke up and noticed that he wasn’t in his usual places at the top of the stairs or in her office. In a panic, she woke the rest of the house, who had absolutely no interest in searching for a cat at five o’clock in the morning. We did end up searching the house a bit later, but we didn’t find him. A search party was organized and sent out to roam the neighborhood before school. Still no sign of him. Signs were printed and hung from lamp posts. More searching was conducted, including along the roof and over the fences of the adjacent gardens. No sign of Fezzi.
A late afternoon rain shower dampened spirits and the neighborhood.
By early evening the tears were flowing faster than the rain. Another search party was organized. Doors were knocked. Flyers were shoved through mail slots. Still, no sign of Fezzi.
Shortly after dark (which is nearly 10:00 PM this time of year), I offered to go for one last search. Carissa and I gathered shoes and headed for the door. Before we could go out, inspiration struck. I ran back into the kitchen and found a metal cup. We added some cat food to it. Equipped with my newly-invented, state-of-the-art Cat Attractor ™, we ventured forth. And immediately saw our neighbors arriving home. They offered to let us look in their garden. Carissa went to look. I took the Cat Attractor ™ for its first operational testing on a stroll around the neighborhood.
Fezzi? Shake shake shake. Fezzi, where are you, you little knucklehead? Shake shake shake.
A cat emerged from the shadows. Too big to be Fezzi, but intrigued by the Cat Attractor.
I kept searching. Shake shake shake. Fezzi? Shake shake shake.
A second cat emerged. Still not Fezzi.
You might think I was losing heart, but indeed it was quite the opposite. The Cat Attractor was undeniably effective. I needed only to attract the right cat. After circling the houses immediately around us, my thought was to try the adjacent streets, but I wanted to let Carissa know the plan before I wandered off into the dark. The neighbors’ front door was still open, and Carissa was still there chatting with them, sans cat. We wished the neighbors well and exited into their front garden, where I demonstrated the cat attractor. Carissa looked over and gasped.
Fezzi was on the waist-high wall between our neighbors’ garden and their neighbors on the other side of them. “There he is.” She rushed for him.
But he was slow. Carissa ran around to the next house and cut him off. I corralled him toward her. Within moments he was in her grasp, only to wriggle out and force us to corral him again. The second time she made sure he couldn’t get away.
The joy was boundless.
He was damp from the rain, and he was clearly shaken by his experiences in the Great Outdoors of Suburban London, but he was alive and well. Carissa took him in for a bath because crimes deserve punishment (and he smelled like pee). I went to the computer and started adding things to my Amazon cart. And that, dear reader, is why Fezzi now has a collar with a bell and an AirTag attached to it. He can run, but he cannot hide.
Aela is alive and well. She has, blessedly, chilled out a bit for values of “chilled out” that include “border collie.” She will spend hours a day lounging in the kitchen while I work, followed by hours of dropping a tennis ball into our laps in the unwavering hope that someone will throw it for her. This is a huge improvement over where we were this time last year, which was basically “chew anything that doesn’t move and some things that do (like Fezzi).” There were long months where I clung to the hope that someday I could take her jogging to burn off some of her energy. That hope has at last started to turn into reality, aided by One Weird Trick.
The plan was to let her get to about 1 year old so we didn’t harm her joints with running. That would have been last November, but after the marathon in October, I was only prepared to do small amounts of running in the rain and gloom of another English winter. That should have eased up in early spring, but I was confounded by two things. The first was Aela herself. When I say “chilled out a bit” I mean relative to where she was before, which was basically 40 pounds of hydrazine in a fur coat. Back in the early spring, she was still all hydrazine, all the time. Taking her for a jog was a CHORE, mostly of her trying to drag me as fast as possible to the park so I could throw the tennis ball for her. We joked about getting roller skates so she could pull us along, but I couldn’t afford the sheer number of speeding tickets that would have caused. (Or the hospital bills, you might think, but we don’t have hospital bills in the UK.) The other issue was some health-related stuff that kept me from running for a while. I was able to work through the health things, and at the same time, we discovered the greatest collie-related invention on Dog’s Green Earth.
The Gentle Leader.
That’s a brand name. You can look it up. It’s a halter that looks sort of like a muzzle, and the key thing is that it loops around the dog’s snout and makes it uncomfortable for them to pull on the lead. Aela *hates* it. She tries to rip it off for the first half mile of every walk. Sometimes she succeeds. One time she succeeded in half-tearing off her dewclaw (again!) and bleeding all over the pavement. Mostly she tries to pull it off, I call her names (Doofenshmirtz), and she stops.
We recently went on the best dad/dog run we’ve ever had. Three miles of easy jogging with the dog at my side and a comfortable amount of slack on the lead. I’m not taking her on every run (I need to relax sometimes, too), but at least I can see a future where she’s actually a Good Dog and not just a meme.
As mentioned earlier, Fezzi has an AirTag. Aela doesn’t. Aela does not need an AirTag. We joke that if we took Aela to Wales and dropped her off where we first met her, she’d beat us back to the house and have a tennis ball waiting. She’s a good dog. Sometimes.
On the human front, things are fine. We’re doing some university tours this summer and thinking about the future. We may see you soon, but if we don’t, I’m sorry you missed me.
My story “First Sergeant Xelos Nesteroy’s Christmas List, care of Admiral Almay, Seventh Fleet, Interstellar Navy” is available now in the Dread Space 2 anthology.
Dread Space 2 is an anthology of dark military science fiction stories. Within these pages are soldiers doing their best to stay alive against otherworldly odds and unimaginable terrors. Twenty-two dark flash fiction stories from Wendy Nikel, Robert Bagnall, Liam Hogan, Dawn Vogel, Jonathan Ficke & many others! [editor note: Including ME!]
Why, yes, I do enjoy giving tiny stories enormous titles.
I’m right chuffed to be appearing in my first-ever “Best of” anthology: “Best of British Science Fiction.” I’m not British, but I live in the UK and I pay UK taxes, so they’ve let me in on a technicality.
My story “Retirement Options for (Too) Successful Space Entrepreneurs” originally appeared in Analog SF, and it’s out for a second printing this summer. You can preorder the anthology now.
This is another very personal story. It reflects the years of my early adulthood playing World of Warcraft, my sometimes fraught relationship with my parents, and my own personal journey through parenthood. It’s a story of loneliness and worry, but also of friendship. It also includes a few of my favorite lines.
Missiles carved trails through the smoke that fogged the valley. Hot brass fell like summer hail. … For 15 glorious seconds, mechs — friendly and enemy alike — shed limbs like dandelions shed seeds, until nothing moved in the valley but the parachutes of the surviving enemy pilots.
Self From Self – Me
The opening of this came easily. The ending took a fair bit of revision to excavate. The title took days of searching until I finally broke out the Shakespeare search engine and went hunting. I’m not sure how I found the passage from The Two Gentlemen of Verona, but it seemed like it fit.
And why not death, rather than living torment? To die is to be banished from myself, And Silvia is myself. Banished from her Is self from self: a deadly banishment.
February in England is a month of gloom, of clouds, of a damp chill that settles into the marrow of your bones that no amount of tea will dispel. Add to that the commercialized celebration of the birth of a saint, who–admit it–you couldn’t even tell me the century he was born in, and it really rubs me the wrong way. This year I jokingly suggested that the children should make dinner for their parents for Valentine’s Day. It was not a serious suggestion. To my surprise, they agreed.
The cooking started around 3:00, and the adults were banished from the kitchen. Around 5:00 there was a last-minute trip to Waitrose. Around 7:00 I was getting hungry. Somewhere around 7:45, we were summoned to dinner. Rose petals covered the table. The plates were arranged with heart-shaped piles of spaghetti and heart-shaped meatballs. Chocolate-dipped strawberries waited for dessert. There was even a tray of freshly baked garlic bread.
I tried the first bite. Two things were immediately apparent. 1) the pasta and meatballs were stone cold. 2) the sauce and meatballs were LADEN with garlic. I turned to the older child and said, “do you understand the difference between a clove of garlic and a bulb of garlic?’ Reader, she did not. The younger child piped up with, “I thought that was A LOT of garlic to chop.” Indeed, it was—something like three entire bulbs of it. The meatballs, I’m pretty sure, were 50% garlic by volume.
I ate everything on my plate. I even went back for more meatballs and was pleasantly surprised that the ones on the stove were still warm. It was an eminently teachable moment, plus I can confirm that our house was entirely preserved from vampires for the day.
Apart from cooking, we have been up to our usual activities. The elder child is trying to go to as many concerts as she can fit into her social calendar, prepping for the SAT, pondering which continent she wants to live on for college, and generally being a teenager. She had a birthday in February, and we took her and some of her friends out for Korean BBQ. Due to train issues, we couldn’t go to New Malden, so we ended up at a place in Clapham. It was fine. A touch disappointing, to be honest. The girls all had a nice time, though.
The younger child is building the greatest farm Stardew Valley has ever seen, complaining about school, and generally being a teenager. I’ve been trying to convince her to pursue a career in data science. She’s skeptical. We’ll see how things go over the next few years of school.
Carissa managed a quick trip back to the States to see family for a week. While she was there, the girls and I went into central London for a daddy/daughter day. We hit up a couple of bookstores, a lovely Chinese restaurant, and some convenience stores in Chinatown. The younger child likes to collect unusual beverage cans (aka rubbish), so she was excited about the opportunities in Chinatown. I let her get a half-dozen new drinks from two different shops, and we went on our way. After hiking all over central, we walked back to Waterloo and caught the train home. I looked across at the child and informed her that I was thirsty and she was going to have to pay the Dad tax and sacrifice one of her drinks. She didn’t love the idea, but she went along and pointed to a random can. I cracked it open, took a sip, and announced that something was wrong with the drink. The child tried it, scrunched her nose, and said, “does that contain alcohol?” Indeed, it did! Unbeknownst to me, I was drinking a can of makgeolli, a Korean rice wine. I was expecting a peach soda, but instead, I had what was basically a peach malt beer. The can even listed that it was 4% alcohol, but only in the fine print. I drank it because I was thirsty, and we all learned a valuable lesson: the dudes running the convenience stores in Chinatown will sell to anyone, apparently including a 13-year-old.
I have been working, writing, traveling a bit, and occasionally running, though I have to admit that my motivation to run in the cold, the dark, and the rain is at an all-time low. Work travels have taken me to Madrid and to Leeds in the last few weeks. While I had Spanish food in both cities (there’s a very decent tapas place in Leeds, believe it or not), I enjoyed the sun in Madrid a touch more than the clouds in Leeds. It was nice to see the office in Madrid for the first time and spend a couple of days with my colleagues there.
We have birthdays coming in March and April, so there will surely be more adventures as the weather turns warmer and the days get longer. I’ve been writing this post while cooking another batch of the Dishoom Chicken Ruby, and the food is nearly finished. Take care, friends. Be safe.
When I was a young warthog, in the ancient days following the 2010 World Cup, I emerged from the tournament with a conviction to start watching soccer again. At the time, that meant the odd televised MLS match or Saturday mornings with the English Premier League. I was quickly entranced by the skill and pace of the Premier League. The lack of commercial breaks certainly helped. Since then I’ve continued following football, moved to England, and been to (nearly) every professional football ground in London. If you’ve just finished watching the 2022 World Cup and you’re looking for a league or a club to follow, let me introduce you to the Premier League.
First up: you know about relegation, right? The bottom three clubs from the Premier League get relegated to the next division down (charmingly called the Championship) while the best three clubs from the Championship are promoted to the Premier League (technically the best two clubs with the third coming up as the winner of a playoff between teams in third through sixth). While there’s certainly good football played in the Championship, it’s the money that’s the big difference. Premier League clubs make 10x the television revenue (or more) than clubs in the Championship, which can be life-changing for a smaller club that joins the top division, or devastating for a Premier League club that is relegated and suddenly loses most of its revenue.
Fun facts: London-based Arsenal moved from Woolwich in the southeastern part of the city to north London in 1913, to the intense frustration of the existing clubs in the region. After a backroom deal saw Arsenal promoted to the new First Division (despite only finishing fifth in the old Second Division) at the expense of neighboring Tottenham Hotspur, a 100+ year rivalry was fully cemented. Arsenal saw a leap in popularity in the early 2000s with their French coach Arsene Wenger bringing an attacking style of football that caught the eye, proved immensely successful, and captured the imaginations of the kind of people who think a knock-off handbag with a continental designer’s name on it means you’re posh.
Cheer for Arsenal if: you think Benedict Arnold was a good lad and you like a bit of peace and quiet at your football matches
Fun Facts: Villa is based in the midlands (the hollowed-out former industrial region of England that’s basically English Ohio) city of Birmingham (basically Cleveland). Argentina’s penalty shootout hero and all-around madman, Emi Martinez, is Villa’s keeper, so while the football may be stodgy, the penalties will be entertaining.
Cheer for Villa if: you’re from Birmingham.
Fun facts: The beach in Bournemouth has sand, which is not true of most beaches in this country. Bournemouth, as a football club, are almost certainly playing in a division too difficult for them, which means they’ll end up relegated, but only after beating your favorite club. That relegation will likely be confirmed with a few games to spare, which will be convenient because the players will be able to nip out early for the nearby beaches. (jk jk. They’ll be off to Marbella and Mallorca.)
Cheer for Bournemouth if: you follow the Championship and have a way to watch Bournemouth in it next season
Fun facts: Despite being founded in 1889, Brentford Football Club are named after me. The club’s owner is a childhood Brentford supporter who bought the club after making a moderate-sized fortune in the gambling industry. He brought his data analysis background to the club and has helped them achieve promotion from League One to the Championship and from the Championship to the Premier League. The club have found their recent success by being cleverer than most of the clubs around them. Unfortunately, after gambling and analytics carried them to success, they are about to lose their star striker, Ivan Toney, for a year+ due to… gambling on football. (Bit of a double-standard, innit?)
Cheer for Brentford if: you play Football Manager or FIFA Career mode and you want to support the real-life moneyball team of the Premier League and aren’t secretly worried about them being relegated after they lose Toney
Fun facts: Remember how in the Brentford section I mentioned that their owner made his money in gambling? He got his start in the industry by working for Brighton’s owner, and their parting of ways left a certain amount of bad blood between them. The city of Brighton is on the south coast, but the pebble beaches are categorically inferior to those at Bournemouth. As a football club, Brighton are unobjectionable. Canny ownership, a good manager, good football. Basically Brentford, but harder for me to personally reach.
Cheer for Brighton if: you want an underdog who plays good football and is probably safe from relegation
Fun facts: Chelsea aren’t even based in the village of Chelsea; they’re in Fulham but couldn’t use the name because Fulham FC got there first. Previously owned by a Russian oligarch, Chelsea blazed the trail for the sportswashing we just saw at the World Cup. Their owner used the wealth of the Russian people to buy some of the best players in the world and win multiple Premier League and Champions League titles. To make it worse, the club have America’s best player, Cristian Pulisic, on the books, but have been criminally underutilizing him and are likely to sell him in the summer.
Cheer for Chelsea if: you like kicking puppies
Fun facts: Crystal Palace are based in the south London village of Crystal Palace, which is named after a structure originally erected in Hyde Park (further north) for the Great Exhibition of 1851. The cast iron and glass edifice was moved in 1854 where it stood until it burned to the ground in 1936. The football club’s mascot is an eagle, and for a while, a local wildlife foundation would bring a living bald eagle to matches and let it fly around the stadium pre-match. Sadly, that ended in 2020 when the eagle had a heart attack and passed. 2020 was a rough year, okay.
Cheer for Crystal Palace if: you’ve ever lived in Croydon
Fun facts: Carissa’s cousin married an Irishman, and he’s a massive Everton supporter. That poor man. Everton are a middling Premier League club who have long been overshadowed by Stanley Park neighbors Liverpool FC. I’d feel bad for them, but I’d probably get punched in the teeth for saying it.
Cheer for Everton if: you’re willing to suffer
Fun facts: Fulham are in southwest London in the village of Fulham, which wouldn’t be notable, except Chelsea FC are just down the way and their owner backed the club with a billion pounds of blood money, and Fulham’s owner built a statue of–checks notes–Michael Jackson out front. On the plus side, Fulham have historically given us Yanks a place to ply our trade, and their current squad includes Missouri native and US National Team central defender Tim Ream plus surprisingly-good-for-a-Yank leftback Antonee Robinson.
Cheer for Fulham if: you don’t mind bouncing between the Premier League and the Championship, you want to support good-but-not-amazing Yanks, and you fancy a trip to one of the nicest parts of London to watch your football
Fun facts: The English have a phrase: “doing a Leeds” to describe gross financial mismanagement, poor squad building, successive relegations, and the near-destruction of a once-proud football club. After a decade in the lower leagues, Leeds returned to the Championship and managed to hire another Argentinian madman–Marcelo Bielsa–who helped them back to the Premier League. These days they’re managed by American Jesse Marsch and sport a midfield including Americans Tyler Adams and Brendan Aaronson. I don’t have the multi-generational knowledge of English football that the locals do, but Leeds were historically one of the universally-hated clubs in the country, though that seems to have mellowed after their near-destruction.
Cheer for Leeds if: you want to support the largest concentration of Americans in the Premier League
Fun facts: Leicester City won the Premier League in 2016 and it was such a surprise that not even a screenwriter could have written the script and had it be believable. Several of the players from that title-winning side promptly left the club, but ownership has done a good job of spending the money and solidified them as a top-half (but still mid-table) side. If you want a wild story that encapsulates modern England, read the Wagatha Christie saga sometime; one of the main characters is married to a Leicester City player.
Cheer for Leicester: if you want to be 7 years late in cheering for the underdog, but also don’t want the stress of annual relegation battles
Fun facts: Liverpool are a historic powerhouse of English football, but had a rough time out of the spotlight through the 90s and 2000s. They returned in the teens after their American owners (who also own the Red Sox) quietly embraced analytics and had the money to buy Very Good players, including Mohammed “Mo” Salah. A study in 2019 found that Mo’s presence in the Champions League-winning Liverpool side contributed to an 18.9% reduction in Islamophobia in the Liverpool area. Liverpool’s 2020 Premier League win was their first in nearly 30 years and cemented their place as one of the top English teams of the last decade.
Cheer for Liverpool if: you want to jump on a massive bandwagon, but don’t want to support Manchester City
Fun facts: The club were massively overshadowed by Manchester United for most of their existence until Abu Dhabi decided that the Chelsea sportswashing experiment could be done bigger and better and conclusively proved that money can buy championships.
Cheer for Manchester City if: you want to win at any cost and don’t mind blood on your hands
Fun facts: Manchester United were THE team of the 90s and early 00s until the (American) Glazer family purchased the club in a leveraged buy-out and drove it into the ground with poor management and a decade+ of wealth extraction. It would be sad if it weren’t so funny (as an outsider). Bloody Americans, amirite. (More like “bloody capitalism,” tbf.)
Cheer for Manchester United if: you care about The Brand more than actual success on the pitch.
Fun facts: I was at the pub a couple of months ago with some local friends. One of the guys there was “Geordie Bryan.” (A Geordie is someone from Newcastle.) He was wearing a black and white Newcastle top. One of the other guys said, “Bryan, show the Yank your badge,” and Geordie Bryan lifted his top to show me the Newcastle badge tattooed on his left tit exactly where the badge was on his shirt. Geordie Bryan is the Ur-Geordie. Possibly the Ur-Englishman. In other news, the Saudis bought the club last year to see if they can pull off another sportswashing “miracle.”
Cheer for Newcastle if: you’re from Newcastle OR you want a healthy dollop of fossil-fuel-driven global warming with your inevitable on-the-pitch success
Fun facts: Carissa and I saw them play an FA Cup match at Arsenal a couple of years ago. Their mascot, a cartoonish Sheriff of Nottingham, took the lead in a pre-match penalty shootout against Goonersaurus and still managed to lose. That’s how you know he’s English. Their owner is a Greek shipping magnate who totally wasn’t match-fixing or drug trafficking, I promise, guys.
Cheer for Nottingham Forest if: you totally didn’t threaten to murder that referee and the FA totally ignored it and let you buy a football club, anyway
Fun facts: Southampton are another south coast city with a moderately successful football club. They’ve historically had a great academy (for youth player development) and been a club who have recruited well, turned decent players into good players, and sold them on to larger clubs for a profit. If I lived in Southampton, I’d be a satisfied season ticket holder. I do not, however, live anywhere near Southampton, so whatever.
Cheer for Southampton if: you want to see your favorite players get sold to one of the top 6 clubs for tens of millions of pounds
Fun facts: After that 2010 World Cup, I spent a season watching the Premier League before choosing a club to follow more closely. At the time, I didn’t want to cheer for the English Yankees (Manchester United) or the Obviously Funded by Blood Money Club (Chelsea), but I did want to follow a team who played exciting football and would keep me entertained without feeling guilty about their off-pitch activities. It really came down to a choice between fierce rivals Arsenal and Tottenham. At the time, Tottenham had Luca Modric and Gareth Bale, who were both young, massively talented players. They both quickly forced their way out of the club to join Real Madrid and win multiple La Liga and Champions League trophies. Spurs re-invested the money poorly and limped on until Harry Kane emerged from their academy and powered them to a title challenge where the club somehow came third in a two-horse race in the season when Leicester City won the league. The last twelve years have been objectively good years for the club as they’ve established themselves firmly in the top 6 places of the Premier League, have played in European cup competitions year after year, built a magnificent stadium, and generally punched well above their (financial) weight class. And still won nothing.
Cheer for Tottenham if: you don’t mind being the bridesmaid and never the bride, don’t want to support a sportswashing empire, but still want a puncher’s chance of winning something every season (and yet always fall short)
Fun facts: the Hammers play in east London in the Olympic Stadium that hosted the 2012 Olympics. It is the worst football ground I’ve ever been to, mostly because of the huge track that runs around the pitch and separates the fans from the action. The West Ham supporters think that Tottenham are their rivals, and the Tottenham supporters mostly forget that West Ham exists.
Cheer for West Ham if: your dad and granddad would be bitterly disappointed if you didn’t
Fun facts: In Football Manager the club have a philosophy–based on real life–that you should sign Portuguese players. I’m not sure the exact relationship between the owners and the player agents that drives this, but there’s something fishy going on here. You might expect someone to investigate, but that would assume that FIFA weren’t making money on the whole enterprise somehow. I don’t actually have anything against Wolves, but I don’t think the good times can last.
Cheer for Wolves if: you’re from Wolverhampton (or Portugal) and want to see roleplayers for the Portuguese national team ply their trade.
If you don’t have any prior allegiances, watch the rest of this season and pick a club to follow who catches your eye (and hopefully aren’t built on an empire of human rights abuses). The above list will give you a tongue-in-cheek idea about each club, but there’s also a germ of truth in most of the descriptions.
Or, and bear with me here, you can follow Spurs and learn the true meaning of pathos, the essence of human frailty, where you have the talent, you have the opportunity, but you reach for success only to fail at the last moment, falling on your own sword over and over again.
Sounds a lot like my marathon experience, actually.