Sunday, 21 April 2013

Made Of Stone

I was back in the North West last week so I took the chance to visit my old college for the first 
time in years.

It was always a quiet, leafy campus and still is with some superficial changes but essentially the spirit and essence of the place remains the same. 
I spent 1993-1996 at Warrington Padgate Campus, now part of the University of Chester, and really had the time of my life - meeting a lot of lifelong friends and setting me on the journey to becoming the person I am today and tomorrow.  But what about yesterday?

You cannot help but think back to the times past when you return to an old home or school, to the person you were and what became of you.  I wandered around the town centre too to see our old pubs closed and refurbished, shops opening and mainly closing and the vestiges of individuality of any town being eroded with another soulless identikit shopping mall.  In a house I lived in for a year, my bedroom overlooked the River Mersey floating by and I was constantly willing my future to come floating along with it. 

In the same way your experiences stay with and mark you, so you sometimes mark them. The first week of term In 1993, I engraved my name in wet cement outside the hall and 20 years later it's still there. I find this immensely comforting, that no matter what I achieve, there will always be proof of my existence here, safe from rebranding, reinvention and inevitable decline. As my body and mind break down and ultimately perish, at least I'll have a good name somewhere...

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Wedded Bliss

Last week my cousin Ross got married to Karina, his Latvian girlfriend at a small castle just south of Edinburgh, Scotland called Dalhousie.  It was the first time Vince and Stacey had been North of the border and my first time for a while too.

Rail is the most romantic of transportation, that much we know, although lugging two large suitcases onto an East Coast mainline train, trying to find your seat in a busy carriage and get a little boy settled all before you pull out of the station is a bit of a passion killer but this dissipated once we were underway and heading north. The journey itself takes in some beautiful countryside in County Durham, Northumberland and the border country including Durham Cathedral, the Angel of the North, Newcastle and Berwick themselves before running along the East Coast to Edinburgh. In a thoughtful way, the train staff did their best to acclimatize us to Scotland by leaving the air conditioning on so when we got to Edinburgh Waverley, we were literally and figuratively chilled.  Some of the other attendees had spent some time in Edinburgh itself and gone to the Zoo and other attractions but its a hilly city with no real central transport system so the only way to get around is on foot and in this arctic Spring we're having, not one for delicate Southern constitutions to bare.

My dad met us at the station and drove us south to the castle via that rare mix of great Edwardian and Victorian grand buildings and pebble-dashed grey tenament housing.  The Castle itself is set in some beautiful picture book grounds which would tick any spotters guide to Scotland - rugged landscape, wildlife, a stream, battlements.  The rest of the family arrived in dribs and drabs throughout the day and congregated in the added sun lounge which was attached to our room. As superfluous in Scotland as a screen door on a submarine you may think but as one of the few rooms with a TV, we were a destination.  This also meant going out to stock up on other Scottish curios such as Irn Bru for the kids, Sweetheart Stout, my late Nana's favourite drink and a nostalgic tipple for the older drinker and the pear cider that is now so much in vogue. It was also a chance to use up the Scottish bank notes I'd collected since we arrived. They are very colorful and more reminiscent of Euro's than traditional British notes and while they are readily accepted in the North of England, you can run into problems further south despite being perfectly legal currency. Once everybody had caught up we settled down and two became three as Vincent decided our large bed was a better proposition than his camp bed next to us.

We rose the next day to a traditional Scottish cooked breakfast of black pudding, fried mushrooms, sausage, scrambled egg and haggis. Well I did, Stacey looked on aghast as if her husband had become one of The Walking Dead.  After retiring and getting dressed in our wedding gear - simple black suit for me, lovely dress for Stacey and a little suit and shirt outfit for Vincent who spent the rest of the day proclaiming that he looked like a businessman to all and sundry. A piper heralded the couple and we followed them down the staircase into the Chapel. Pipers are one of those things that are fine in theory and far away but the closer the presence the more uncomfortable you are aurally and physically. A bit like a Tom Jones concert.  The Chapel faced the gardens through it's arched stained glass windows and a simple, efficient service was enlivened by a small snow owl flying down and bringing the wings to the best mans' glove. Fortunately he declined to leave his own good luck message on patrons and flew away home.

Everyone hung around, chatting, corralling kids and drinking until the bride and groom re-emerged, Ross now sporting a kilt but still not able to out-glam his new bride. The meal arrived which was also nice Scottish beef before we had the speeches and we had a little time before the evening festivities commenced.  Wedding discos have come on a long way in the past 10 years certainly. Now the DJ can download any track you want which makes for an eclectic playlist of modern Atlanta-based Krunk and RnB to standby wedding classics like YMCA and Karma Chameleon.  We decided to turn in about 9pm, Vince was exhausted and his mum and dad weren't far behind either.

I decided to treat myself to another Scottish staple of scrambled eggs and smoked salmon the next day, again Stacey took the safe cereal option before we drove back leisurely to enjoy what was left of the weekend and to prepare Vince for going back to school and Stacey for going back to the States at the end of the Easter break.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Mascot Memories BluRay 30 year Anniversary Edition

Events, dear boy, Events, as Churchill was want to say and he's right. I should really be blogging on the death of Margaret Thatcher but that will keep until the funeral next week. Instead, a timely remix of an earlier piece - on when I was a mascot for Middlesbrough FC.  

It was 30 years ago today...

It was 1983, I was ten years old, David Bowie was number one with “Let’s Dance”, Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray were bustin’ Ghosts at the Stockton Classic, The Minipops were blissfully entertaining dodgy middle-aged men on the fledgling Channel 4, and while ostensibly a Boro (Middlesbrough) fan, my trips to the old Ayresome Park were sporadic at best.
I mainly used to spend Saturday afternoons at my nanas inMeath Street watching Big Daddy on World of Sport while waiting for my own big daddy and medium-sized grandad to return, usually as miserable as sin.

I had been threatened by my Uncle on occasions, “If your naughty, your dad will take you to see the Boro” and working on the premise that a problem shared is a misery halved, my dad informed me that not only were we going, but that I was going to be the mascot in two weeks time! At home to a struggling Derby County on Saturday April 9th.

My first difficulty was when the club wanted some information about me for the programme. What were my interests? This was a problem. I couldn’t honestly admit in print that my interests solely consisted of eating mars bars, watching cartoons and playing Manic Miner so in a desperate attempt to please my dad I said Golf and Fishing.

A bigger problem was that I was crap at football. Not totally hopeless, I could kick a ball properly but being the owner of a robust Rochembackesque physique, not as fit as I might have been. It wasn’t critical, I wasn’t playing but I still didn’t want to make an arse of myself in the kick in when I’d have a chance to score in front of the Holgate. I had appeared as a sub in a school match earlier that year, the games teacher taking pity on me and bringing me on when we were 4-0 up with quarter of an hour to go so I could also accurately tell the programme that I played for the school team. This talent for stretching l'actualit√© would serve me well in my adult career as a spin doctor.

My biography submitted, we now had to get me a kit. This was before your chain sport stores so off to Jack Hatfield’s. It was the year after McLean Homes had pulled the plug so we had a pristine, sponsorless silky red home shirt, with authentic Addidas stripes down the sleeves. Like a footballing Starsky and Hutch design. We also wore white shorts and socks that season. It looked as distinctive as a Ford Cortina and would probably be worth a few bob if you had one now (the kit, not the Cortina).

I wasn’t allowed to wear the kit to school but still told the few Boro fans that were there that I was going to be leading the lads out on Saturday. Out of a school of 200 in Stockton, there must have been about five of us who owned up to supporting the Boro. Liverpool and Man Utd claimed the rest, even though I now run into a good proportion of these turncoats at the Riverside.

The big day dawned and I even had a shower, so important was this event. I didn’t really want to but I was assured that Heine Otto showered so that swung the deal. We got to the ground just after dinnertime and after wishing me luck my folks went off to their seats. Leaving me in the capable hands of a PR guy.

Looking back, you could see the writing was on the wall for the club because they were cutting corners everywhere. The programme was a six page newspaper that season called Boro News. It had a picture of Paul Daniels on the front proclaiming that the “Boro Bonanza was magic“. They were also scrimping on the mascots. I wasn’t the only one. I met the other lad, Vince Potter from Eston, an hour before kick off. While both disappointed we wouldn’t be the centres of attention, we decided that if we scored four or six goals, we would share the credit for them equally. You can tell we weren’t regulars in the Chicken Run.

We sat in an ante room and said hello to a frazzled-looking Mike McCullough as he was passing through. Looking back, he should have called his company Atlas because he had the world on his shoulders. We had a mini tour of the North Stand including the ill-fated Sports Centre where we were told that it would soon open to the public. 24 years and counting Charlie.
The time came for us to get ready. We changed out of our tracksuits, walked up the steps and through the tunnel and stood on the side of the threadbare pitch. It was not in the best of condition. We had our photo taken with the latest in a long line of saviours with sellotape knees – in this case, Kevin Beattie. We also got to meet Radio Tees’ rising star – a young Me Mark Page.

For reasons I still don’t fully understand, Mark was dressed as a high court judge with a black cape and white wig. We had to pose with him holding our ears. The headline in the next home programme, and I am not making this up, said “Ear, Ear says the Judge! – he gives mascots a good wigging (but it’s all in good fun)”. I still don’t get it.

We went back into the tunnel and awaited the teams. We met the ref, the wonderfully named Trelford Mills from Barnsley who resembled a young Brian Blessed. Derby came up led by a grizzled Archie Gemmell and then the Boro. I think Mick Baxter was captain that day. Trelford told us it was time to go and despite having already being out on the pitch, the nerves hit home. The empty South Stand was now full, the South East corner had a smattering of Derby fans making a noise and the Holgate, my god the Holgate, looked like a human pyramid. The noise was as loud as a jet engine and I got as far as the touchline and froze. I knew other mascots went to the goal and had a kickabout with Steve Pears but I couldn’t move. I was literally scared stiff.

I have never been able to boo Titus Bramble with any degree of conviction for precisely this reason. I’ve been there, to his world, you want your legs to move and your head to meet the ball but your body won’t do what you tell it to. It’s not nice.

I eventually regained some composure when I realised that most of the crowd hadn’t come to see me, (Uriah still hasn’t worked that out). I took a deep cleansing breath, looked towards the Holgate and thought “This is it Guy, your big moment, your big chance. You’re the Boro captain, and you’re leading us out at home. This is destiny. Let’s roll!”. I could see there was an unattended ball 20 yards away. I could run on and take it on, easily go by two uninterested defenders, draw Pearsy and slip it inside the right hand post. I could already see myself wheeling away in front of the crowd with a couple of ironic cheers reserved for when the tapped lad scored from three yards during the half-time draw.

I put one foot on the pitch about to break off to the right and fulfil the dream when a large, heavy hand clamped down on my shoulder. It was the PR guy. “Come on son, photo’s now”. I was frogmarched to the centre circle where I met Vince and posed for photos with the captains and the officials. We shook everybody’s hand and we turned to go back to the tunnel. I still harboured thoughts of a quick breakaway to score when Darren Wood I believe, ran up to it and wellied it back to the dugouts. My chance gone, I slouched back up the tunnel. I could never bring myself to warm to Darren Wood after that.

My dad met me, camera in hand, and we walked up the steps to our seats. “Why didn’t you have a shot?” he asked. I couldn’t answer him then and I can’t answer him now. If I had told him that I was scared shitless I’d have got a backhand. Where’s the justice?

We sat down just in time to see the Boro go 2-0 down fairly quickly but in the second half we pulled it back to 2-2. We put the pressure on the Derby goal and I made a mental deal with the almighty. I’d trade my goal, my moment of Ayresome glory for the greater good. A Boro winner. A draw wasn’t bad but what was the point of being a mascot if you couldn’t inspire your team to victory? We pushed forward in numbers for a corner. I could sense that this was the moment. This was the turning point, when my very presence in the ground and leading the team out was going to bring the lads victory as certain as if I headed the ball into the net myself.

The ball drifted in from the right hand side, Otto rose powerfully and directed his header downwards. The ball bounced up and against the shin of a Derby defender. He swung his boot and cleared the ball towards halfway. It was now three against three as the whites shirts swung forward, moving the ball to the other side of the pitch. Red reinforcements were still arriving as the ball was delivered into the box onto the head of the diving, Derby forward. Pearsy was a bystander as it bulleted into the East Stand net and the Derby fans roared their approval. Five minutes later, my mate Trelford blew the whistle and we had lost. 3-2.

Despite the result, we still went and had fish and chips at Rooneys on Newport Road like we usually did when we won. We weren’t going to let a little thing like losing spoil our day. I got slaughtered at school on the Monday. I thought I’d get away with it but oh no, the plastic scousers and mancs sought me out to give me the full treatment. “Loser Mascot! Loser Mascot!”. Oh that still smarts, even though they have since recanted their childhood sins and turn out at the Riverside these days. 

The season petered out, we were safe, and despite their win, Derby went down at the end of the season and celebrated their centenary in the third Division. By the time I got the boro bug full-time, three years later, we had emulated them.

Now 30 years on and I'm a father myself, doing my best to lure/bribe/threaten/cajole/emotionally blackmail/hope that Vince will join me in the East Stand to watch us huff and puff against a mid-ranking Midlands opposition and hopefully one day, they will walk out alongside Roary, Power Game blaring in their ears as they shake hands with Bryn Morris or other up and coming young gun and as they look around quizzically afterwards I hope they will remember my soft words of fatherly advice - BREAK THE BLOODY NET OR YOUR WALKING HOME!