Is this the year for me to learn to love football? David Bowie managed it

English captain and midfielder David Beckham (L) congratulates his teammate Michael Owen after he scored their team's second goal during the second round match Denmark/England in the 2002 FIFA World Cup in Korea and Japan
David Bowie's summer of football: England playing in the World Cup at the Niigata Big Swan Stadium in Japan in 2002 - TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP

Every couple of years, as another international football tournament looms, I go into a kind of sporting hibernation. Distractions from the national obsession have proved surprisingly easy to achieve: a long walk; a good book; or Voltaire’s remedy for perturbation by public events – cultivating one’s garden.

Yet, the successful biennial construction of my cosy, football-free zone doesn’t feel entirely like a win. For a start, my son and one of my closest friends are football-mad, and every summer the beautiful game commands their undivided attention.
If I am around when they are watching a match, I’ll join them on the sofa.

But the contrast between their passionate engagement and my sense of crushing boredom is bleak. It is as though the people I love most have gone to a place where I can’t join them, and we have lost our common language. So this year, I have a different plan.

It was Mick Brown’s recent Telegraph Magazine interview with the music PR, Alan Edwards, that inspired my change of heart.

Edwards’ erstwhile client, David Bowie, “wasn’t a football person at all”. But that changed abruptly with the advent of the 2002 World Cup, when Bowie suddenly developed “an encyclopaedic knowledge of a game he’d known nothing about the previous week”. The star’s fascination lasted as long as the tournament – “and then he never mentioned football again”.

Curiosity was the stuff that fuelled Bowie’s brief interest, and it seems a quality worth cultivating, if the world is not to become stiflingly narrow as we grow older. Luckily for me, the England manager, Gareth Southgate, provides an easy point of access for a football-averse arts-fancier.

Not only was he the inspiration for James Graham’s 2023 play, Dear England (which I saw and enjoyed when it first opened), but I’ve come to admire his thoughtful, philosophical take on football’s place in our national life, exemplified in his 2021 open letter, Dear England.

These are quite tenuous grounds on which to construct a Bowie-style passion for football. But if not now, when?

As Southgate himself observed, for England football managers the story generally ends in a victory parade in an open-top bus – or the Tower of London. The important thing, he suggested, was to know which, and not die wondering. A month hence, he will know the answer.

And so, if my newfound curiosity lasts that long, shall I.

Parakeets galore

Returning from Kent to my old home in Greenwich, I notice a startling difference in soundscape. The Kent garden was loud with the song of blackbirds and the occasional nightingale. But in SE10 there is an auditory monoculture – nothing to be heard but the raucous shrieking of ring-necked parakeets.

The UK has the largest non-native population of the parakeets in Europe, with some 12,000 pairs.

A recent survey of almost 4,000 people, published in the open-access journal NeoBiotia, and tellingly titled “Not in the countryside please!” revealed ambivalent attitudes to the birds, with city dwellers appreciating their exotic looks, while further afield people worried about their impact on less gaudy native species.

Like the pelicans of St James’s Park, the lime-green flash of a flock of parakeets against the grey London sky has become one the familiar sights of the capital. Still, nothing distills the essence of an early summer’s day like the song of a blackbird at dawn – or (if you are very lucky) a nightingale at twilight.

Culling books

My colleague Ben Lawrence wrote recently about the painful business of culling his book collection. Faced with a house move, I have just been through the same process but while Ben’s approach was reflective, mine has been purely instinctive. 
For this new stage of my life, I seem to feel the need for a mixture of very old friends and unlikely new adventures. I have kept all the books I loved as a child, but most of the modern fiction has gone – Jane Gardam is almost the lone survivor. Yet somehow, a Soviet complete works of Tolstoy in Russian remains.

In some version of my future life, I evidently envisage a world in which Old Filth, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin and Anna Karenina cheerfully cohabit on my fiercely shrunken bookshelves.