I’ve always wanted to write a book. Or perhaps, more truthfully, I’ve always wanted to say I’ve written a book.
Now I can.
It’s been fascinating. I was commissioned to write about Wembley Park, the 85 acres around Wembley Stadium, by a small design consultancy called Sutton Young. Their client, Quintain, has been responsible for the development of the place over nearly twenty years.
The idea was to capture something of the place, its transformation and glue it all together in a narrative. Twenty thousand words, three to four months in the capturing and writing and we’d all be done by January. Or at least, that was the theory.
Wembley as a place, at the end of 2018, was a marriage of a globally recognised icon and seismic new construction. I jumped at the chance. Approaching the subject through people who knew the inside stories, it was to be a fabulous, diverting education. I shared a few, initial thoughts with Sutton Young who, in turn, talked it through with those at the top of Quintain. The idea that ‘flew’ was a series of interviews where the last question would ask the interviewee to name the person who, to them, personified the true spirit of Wembley. There were no constraints. The choice could be someone living or dead, famous or not, known to them or else a complete stranger.
‘Pass It On’ was born.
On my first trip into Wembley after I’d been given the green light, I was on an 83 bus one early morning. ‘Do not spit Paan’ shouted little green signs hanging from the lamp posts on Alperton Way. An £80 fine was threatened. We trundled past the magnificent, if slightly incongruous, Shri Vallabh Nihi Mandir. A Hindu temple, its elaboration makes St Pancras look like Lego, with all its intricate details fashioned in limestone from Jaisalmer, a city in remote (ish) west Rajasthan where Clare and I rode camels during our honeymoon. In Wembley Park, it was the night after an Anthony Joshua fight and the roads were festooned with huge posters and digital screens anticipating – correctly, as it had turned out – his win.
When Quintain bought the site, with its endless, desolate car parks and worse-for-wear industrial buildings, Wembley Park had one full time resident. He was the Irish night watchman. Sadly departed, he might have raised an eyebrow at the 7,000 people who now live in the area full time in addition to the 90,000 who flow into the place on the 40 ‘event days’ each year. The scale and speed of building has been eye-watering.
I met fascinating people. They granted me loads of time and spoke freely. The upshot is a volume of slightly more than 20,000 words with accompanying photographs, somewhere between coffee table book and extended inflight magazine. Each interview was a fascinating, often funny and ceaselessly rewarding education.
Besides a fund of brilliant stories, I do now have an ISBN number to my name. I never thought I would.
Lots of people helped make it happen beyond the interviewees, particularly Mike Sutton, Charlie Byrt, James Kinsey and Michael Ibbison of Sutton Young and both James Saunders and Julian Tollast of Quintain. Industrial quantities of thank-yous are due in their direction. And writing everything down, perhaps befitting to the pitch at the epicentre of Wembley, I had an absolute ball.