Monday, 29 July 2013

Do You Remember The First Time?

There are certain rights of passage every young man much go through,  first day at school, first kiss, first punch (taken or thrown), and for every British boy, your first football match. 

I've been aware of the omnipotent presence of Middlesbrough FC since an early age.  My grandparents lived in Meath Street, one of the myriad two up, two down terraced streets in West Middlesbrough, a goal kick away from Ayresome Park, the Boro's former home.

As loved by Boro fans as it was feared by opposition supporters, it was nestled in the middle of these street next to the old General Hospital where several generations of fans, myself included, would spring forth. As well as the streets themselves there were numerous cut throughs and back alleys which provided many short cuts and hiding places to be wary of for opposition fans making their way back to the station at the bottom of Albert Road.

A typical North Eastern Saturday would see me and later my brother deposited into my Nana's care while the men of the family and more often than not my mum would make their way to the game. We would be entertained with a round of board games, impromptu musical performances with pans and wooden spoons serving for drums and back yard football and tennis. Once this got too much, we'd come inside to catch the wrestling on World of Sport before the classified results would tell us what sort of mood the returning heroes would be in.  Occasionally they would be back before the results if the defeat was too heavy or too dispiriting to take.

I remember walking through the huge red North Stand gates with MIDDLESBROUGH AFC emblazoned above you. The gates themselves now stand in front of the new home, the Riverside Stadium, and walking through them is something of a pre-match tradition enjoyed by a new generation.  I don't remember a whole lot about my first game other than I'd never seen so many people gathered in one place before and spent as much time watching the crowd as the game.  My only sporting recollection is that the opposition played in yellow shirts and green shorts which immediately led me to see when we played Norwich City and concluded that it was must have been them. 

In the age of social media, no such guesswork will be needed to record this weekend when I took Vince along to the Riverside to see Boro's final pre-season friendly against the French cup winners - Bordeaux. 

He'd been looking forward to it all week, mainly because his cousins Jacob and Ethan would also be going but because we pass the stadium every week on our way to the Speedway, his other sporting routine, and new that Middlesbrough played there. 

He has a Boro branded t-shirt but not a replica shirt for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I'm not paying £50 for something he'll grow out of in six months and also, actually the strongest reason, is that Middlesbrough are sponsored by Ramsdens, a pawnbrokers.  I appreciate they are not as bad as predatory payday moneylenders such as Wonga or QuickQuid but as far as I'm concerned, they are the one-haired man in the kingdom of the blind. I disapprove and won't let my son endorse them.  It's a reason I wear the classic 1970s style Boro shirts to matches myself, as well as being timeless classic and associated with a swaggering brand of football and machismo that Jack Charlton's team epitomised, they also don't have a sponsor.

I parked near the old Dockside clock and told Vincent the story about why it has three faces (the fourth one is a bricked out section that faces the docks themselves. Designed so the workers would not know how close it was to 5pm, and therefore wouldn't slack off from their duties), and walked past the giant Temenos sculpture which resembles either a huge Star-Trek style wormhole or twisted femidom depending on how charitable you are feeling.  A hop across the swing bridge to take in a downriver view of the Tees including a submerged jetty and sunken boat at low tide and to the gates to meet up with his cousins.  

Providence takes many forms the site of three handsome young Boro fans took the imagination of a local director.  He asked if he could film all three of them in cheering mode to feature in the opening titles of the matchday show this season. I happily signed the release form and am looking forward to seeing them immortalised for at least the next 24 matches, especially when the weather and probably results take a grimmer turn than today's sleepy sunshine draped Riverside. 

The boys settled down to enjoy their drinks and sweets and happily cheered a motivated Marvin Emnes scoring both goals in a 2-1 including a great top corner consolation for the visitors. Vince left with a spring in his step as we walked back down Vulcan Road, past SLP where I spent a happy summer working in the Shipyard and nailing down my claim to working class Teesside credibility.  I watched Vince running around with the happy boys, playing together, wondering if he suspected the lifetime of worry, pain, annoyance, embarrassment, confusion, anger and occasional joy I've bequeathed him through a lifetime allegiance to the forces of the Roaring Red Lion. 

As misery shared is a trouble halved but for one bright, brilliant summers day, it was a deserved dividend in happiness.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

The Party Season

So the summer party season is in full swing.  The children’s party season that is.  Vince has settled in really well at school, making a lot of new friends and getting on really well with them and his teachers.  A consequence of which is that we get invited to every single party on the calendar, boys and girls - more on which later, so barely a weekend goes by without a race to get a present and a card.   The card is trickier than it should be because some of the kids in his class are turning five, not being five already so I tend to go for a generic, boy/girl birthday card rather than a specific number based one.

Presents are even harder.  Our average spend is about £10 because I don’t know how well or not Vincent likes them.  Boys presents are easier because, well guess.    I usually go for something constructive like Lego for them to use, because everybody likes Lego, but also if they are really REALLY into Transformers, I would not like to bring them either a) Ninja Turtles or other toy that they aren’t collecting or b) one they have already got.  

Girls are harder to buy for.  I resent the implication that they will be interested in dolls or anything else pink but there is a hugely limited choice.  Books mark you out as some kind of weirdo or grand parent so I’ve been appealing to their creative side and getting some arts and crafty things like DIY Jewellery or sparkle stuff.  

Boys parties are straightforward and less taxing for the parent. They are at a soft play place or room and the kids just go off and go nuts, running around, laughing, screaming or playing tag.  Parents get the chance to sit down, relax a little from watching their child intently and catch up with one another before meal time.  A selection of crisps, cakes, chocolate, sausage rolls, sandwiches and juice comes along before the presentation of the main cake and the singing of ‘Happy Birthday’.  

Girls parties are a little more intricate.  Because Vince is popular and friendly, he gets to go to virtually all of these, which his mates don’t for several reasons.  Girl’s parties are like disco’s and haven’t changed in the intervening 30 years since I used to go to them.  The girls stand in small groups performing increasingly elaborate dance steps and moves while the boys sit around the outside of the room fiddling with their pants or moaning about being hungry. I’ve noticed it’s exactly the same for the parents too.  Some games are played and Vince is chased around by some of the girls until the food comes out, usually daintier and fancier than the boys parties, and the cake.  

They are a really good chance to meet other parents.  Vince is famous because he came from America where they call ‘lifts’ ‘elevators’ and put ‘gas’ in cars instead of ‘petrol’, so I enjoy recognition by association although I think they are all slightly disappointed that he doesn’t talk more like Mike TeeVee from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

I am really looking forward to another party next month though.  Stacey will get to come along and meet the other parents for the first time and they have also selected the best venue possible for it - a pub.  A wonderful place where the kids can see just how different their parents are.  The mums sitting or standing around in small groups, talking together, laughing, being sociable and even dancing.  The dad’s sitting around, staring into their pints, mumbling to each other, checking their watches or eyes glued to Sky Sports if there’s a screen in the vicinity. Girls grow up, boys just get bigger.

Friday, 5 July 2013

The Sleep and the Fury - An old man readies for war

So I've been 40 just over two weeks now and I only just about started smiling again.  

I don't know why, ageing has never held any genuine terrors for me before but maybe this time is different. For the first time you’re aware that the clock is on and it’s already been running for some time. You’re not the next big thing anymore, you are what you are and maybe about to step into the queue for the downhill ride of your life.

There’s also other cumulative factors too - lack of sleep, hard work, emotional stress from being apart from Stacey and looking after Vince despite my parent’s much required and admired help, bright light streaming into the room far too early and remaining far too late and maybe too much tea, which in turn allows me to eat too many bisuits.

Also gradual reassimilation into the currents and eddys of everday British life, like trying to join in a dance if you’re one step behind and need to catch-up.  One thing that has taken me by surprise, and not pleasantly, is a general hardening of attitudes and rising meanness amongst people.  I can understand why. Hard economic times mean people are uncertain and like to look around for easy solutions or scapegoats. If they are misinformed or ill informed by higher powers with agendas of their own, then you can see it play out in action.  

Immigration being a case in point.   From the rhetoric about skivers v strivers, and every sentence being peppered with adjectives such as ‘hard working’ and ‘british’, than anything falling outside that definition is easy to be viewed with suspicion and at times downright hostitlity.  Look at any coverage on migration these days and see the accompanying pictures and language used.

They won’t be of Jose Mourinho or Robin Van Persie but most likely niqab or sari wearing women pushing buggies. Look - they’re different from you, their names sound funny, they might have more kids than you (that you’ll pay for!) and you just know they’re up to no good in those funny looking temples of theirs.   Lay on a strong foundation of suspicion, mistrust and deceit and then it’s ideal to build a restrictive and discriminative platform on top.  

Minimum income requirements for anybody wanting to bring non-EU dependents to the country? Great.  £3000 bonds for visitors from certain countries to come to the UK, because lots of ‘them’ run away when they’re here? No problem. Charge non-EU visitors or residents to use the NHS? At last. Obscene official tweets and alarmist research? Gotcha.  Taken individually, the above measures, of which there are many more, and these are just aimed at immigrants. Taken individually, each one is a mean-spirited, dog-whistle low political headline grabber, but taken together, is an official assault on a group of people without the profile, voice or funds to fight back. I’m not going to address similar campaigns against the disabled and the unemployed, but you know it’s happening.

No wonder my feelings of lethargy and acceptance are rapidly being replaced with aggression and belligerence. As the country I loved and always tried to greet previous difficulties with a shrug and a smile replaces it with an officially sanctioned shove and a snarl.
Churchill, that most British of icons and symbols who was himself a product of an international relationship, with an American mother, said “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”

Maybe I’ve spent too long ducking and keeping my head down, making nice, turning the other cheek and letting it lie. All you’re doing is allowing knucklebeaks and worse to prosper by silent acquiescence.

Maybe it’s time to take two of my mentors words and act on them: ‘We can all be little Tom Paine’s. Changing a little bit of history at a time by being the first in the room to say ‘That’s not right - we’re not standing for that. So everyone else goes, their saying exactly what I was thinking.  If Tom Paine has one thing to say to us it’s: Make A Fuss’. That and woe betide any fucking moron dumb enough to start on about ‘bloody immigrants’ in my actual or virtual presence.

The 20s are about establishing an idea of the self, the 30s are about building and actualising it. Maybe the 40s are about fighting for it and defending it. The righteous sound and fury may fade, especially as I get more sleep, but as long as the fire doesn’t go out then at the very least I won’t be disappointing myself anymore. 

Time to suit up, not shut up.

Update 1 - Who's Tom Paine? Only the most influential English writer on American culture and society. Sorry Chris Hitchens.

The Mark Steel Lectures: Thomas Paine - made by the glorious Open University