Green Street blues

West Ham United's move from the Boleyn Ground to the Olympic Stadium truly marks the end of an era, writes Christopher Goff.

In my life I never thought that I would one day share something so in common with David Gold, Joint-Chairman of West Ham United. And no, it isn't the fact that we are both very well off, because I am not. Instead, what David Gold and I have in common is at some time or another we have both lived on Green Street, in East London.

David Gold was born in Stepney, in the heart of London's East End, before he and his family at some point moved to 442 Green Street, Upton Park, not far from the Boleyn Ground, and then home to the famous London football club, West Ham United. I say 'then home' because, and as many of the people reading this will no doubt know, the club is in the process of moving from its historic home on Green Street, and where it has been playing its home games since 1904, to the former Olympic Stadium at Stratford. But don't believe anyone who tries to tell you that West Ham have been playing at the Boleyn Ground continuously since 1904, because in August 1944 a German V-1 flying bomb fell on the south-west corner of the ground forcing the team to play its homes games at another venue for a while so that repairs to the pitch could be carried out. How many other clubs can make that claim?

Gold's from rags to riches story is remarkable; his brother and former business partner Ralph is also a multi-millionaire. From humble beginnings in the East End of London, David Gold is now said to be worth some £350 million. One wonders if as a young man he ever had any inkling that one day he would be rich enough to own a sizeable chunk of the football club at the end of his street?

I lived at the other end of Green Street, the Forest Gate end. You will note that Green Street is long and runs from Forest Gate in the north, down through Upton Park and past the tube station, past Queen's Market and The Queen's pub, and then past the Boleyn Ground before joining the Barking Road at its southern end. Where Green Street meets the Barking Road you will find the spectacular Boleyn Tavern public house, and also that which has become known as 'The Champions Statue' – a bronze sculpture nearly five metres high depicting West Ham's World Cup-winning trio of Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters, along with Everton's Ray Wilson.

While studying at the University of London in the 1980s, I lived in a flat on Green Street. Even in those days you would barely see a white face on the street in what was then, as it still is very much today, a fiercely communalist enclave of South Asians, comprising mostly Pakistanis, but with some Indians and Bangladeshis. More recently, huge numbers of Sub-Saharan Africans have settled in parts of East London, including both Upton Park and Forest Gate, and now Black Africans are the fastest growing ethnic group not only in Newham, but also in the neighbouring borough of Barking and Dagenham.

According to the 2011 census, the Newham Council wards of Green Street East and Green Street West had the smallest White British population of anywhere in the UK at just 4.8%, assuming that is the figures of the 2011 census are reasonably accurate because even in my day I would not have put the White British figure as quite that high. I can't remember if 'White British' was the first tick box on the 2011 census list of ethnicities, but if it was well then that might explain the 'high' figure given the fact that English isn't the first language of a great many households in the area. And then there are the illegal immigrants that no census picks up.

Against this background of extraordinarily high levels of immigration into the area, some white-run businesses have just about managed to survive around the Upton Park end of Green Street, but only, and as one might expect, on account of the presence of the West Ham ground. The closing down of the Boleyn Ground is a hammer blow for these few remaining businesses given their dependence on the Cockney Diaspora returning 'home' to Upton Park every other weekend to watch West Ham play. With the life-blood that West Ham fans provide about to evaporate, establishments like The Black Lion pub in nearby Plaistow, where West Ham players including the late-great Bobby Moore famously used to drink after home games in the Sixties, and Nathan's Pies and Eels, a traditional East End eatery on the Barking Road, face a deeply uncertain future.

That the West Ham ground was a hotbed of Nationalist activity in the Seventies and Eighties should also not be forgotten. When I used to watch West Ham play in the 1980s (I was by this time a member of the National Front after having joined sometime earlier and while still at school) there was a regular National Front News – or maybe they were members of The Flag faction of the National Front, I can't quite remember – sales-pitch at the back of the South Bank. Those guys had no trouble in shifting literally hundreds of copies of whatever NF newspaper it was they were selling, and that newspaper sales at West Ham games regularly outstripped all the other sales around the country was hardly surprising. Maybe if they had gone down to Upton Park with a load of Gadaffi's Green Books, of which I believe the National Front around that time had acquired quite a lot of, they might even have managed to sell those as well.

If the Boleyn Ground hasn't already been demolished, it will be soon. And who can blame the owners of the club for wanting to move to the Olympic Stadium when by all accounts they've been offered a 99-year lease at what seems to be an incredibly good price? But I really wouldn't want to go down as the person, or indeed the group of people to break that special link between West Ham United and the Upton Park area of East London. There's perhaps not a football club in all the land with a stronger cultural identity than West Ham United, or indeed a more special group of fans – a dying breed, some might say.

Watching West Ham play will never be the same again for thousands of fans. And, of course, it's not until the cultural identity of an institution has been lost that people begin to realize just how important that identity actually was.

Copyright © Christopher Goff
Tag: Football
Uploaded: 28 July, 2016.