Monday, 15 December 2014

Publications Update

A fairly rudimentary post to update on some of my most recent, or forthcoming, publications. Being a reader of other literary blogs (and being nosy), I like to find out where people are being published. After a spate of rejections, the old adage came true and I had six poems accepted in fairly quick succession.

My collaboration with visual artist Mike Corcoran is perhaps the one I’m most excited about. The Ofi Press featured two of my poems – ‘Spelks’ and Ballast’ – alongside Mike’s paintings in their December edition, which can be viewed online here. The project was really interesting, and we’re hoping to do more with it in 2015.

Brittle Star, a magazine I’d heard a lot of good things about, but admittedly had never actually read (I know, I’m terrible), have also just published my poem ‘21.06.72’ in their newest issue; hard copies are available here.

HARK, another excellent online journal who are hatching plans to go into print in 2015, took two of my poems for their third edition. ‘Hintertuxer Gletscher’ and ‘Bootle Organ’ can be read here.

Finally, Under the Radar, the magazine offshoot of Nine Arches Press, will be imminently publishing my ‘South Shields Snog’, which pretty much does what it says on the tin.

For a bit of a ‘beneath the bonnet’ glimpse, I should mention that using a basic spreadsheet to chronicle the journeys of all of these poems has been incredibly useful, so thanks to poet Will Stephenson for that. Seeing that a poem has been rejected 3 or 4 times, but then ultimately finding its home in a journal, is always reassuring, and reminds me of what Kim Moore has to say in her blog, 'Just One Poem', about the agonising process of sending and re-sending poems out into the midst.

In 2015, I hope to get into some of the ‘bigger’ journals. There is, of course, a snobbish-ness to that sentiment: all of these ‘smaller’ journals are just as credible, arguably more so, but there is a sense that – from my perspective at least – I’d like to crack the Rialtos, the Norths and the Poetry Londons of this world before long. We’ll see what happens when I begin sending stuff out again in the new year.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Review: Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters

I imagine that many reviews of Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters could begin thus: ‘For those disillusioned by modern football; by sky-high ticket prices, players who may as well have trained as high-divers, and boardrooms made up of foreign billionaires more interested in sponsorship deals for their dubious looking countries/gambling endeavours, Daniel Gray gives us the antidote: football as it should be, back-to-basics with shin pads held up by gaffer tape, managers whose bellowing can be heard from ten rows back, and gate fees of less than a fiver. Via weekends in Luton, Crewe and Middlesbrough, amongst others, Gray paints a picture of the true game; the one we all fell in love with as kids, with our fathers at our sides and our heads in the clouds.’

Or something like that. Which would all be fine and true, but such a review, to me, would dampen what this book – at its core – is really about: community and belonging, and the search for them amdist a hyper-globalised world of CEX second hand electronics shops and the ubiquitous, blue pasty seller we’d do well to avoid talking too much about, given both reviewer and author’s origins in the North East.

Which is where we begin. The early 90’s, outside Ayresome Park, where Gray and his accomplices, Chunky and Moustache, are queuing up for autographs from their beloved footballers. Gray, starting the book so nostalgically, risks putting us off; risks, dare I say it, excluding the readership beyond those not au fait with football that this book richly deserves. And I don’t just say that because I’m a Sunderland fan. No, the unenviable task of writing about Middlesbrough – Football Club and town – without resorting to wistful ‘oh, those were the days’, or ‘fucking Thatcher’, is a task handled beautifully by Gray. I say ‘beautifully’ because, as he points out, on the 10.30 to Nunthorpe’, ‘the theme colour is rust’, yet Gray, returning from his now-home in Scotland, is like Craig Raine’s martian, seeing the world afresh. Teesside, Gray tells us, is a  ‘giant Sci-Fi set’ which makes his ‘heart leap with joy’. There is a sentimentality to this – of course there is, Gray even admits as much – but there is also a gritty realism: an acknowledgment of stronger, more economically productive times and a scathing criticism of the damage caused to post-industrial towns like Middlesbrough by a succession of self-centred Conservatism and ill-thought out Labour dreams.

I’ve actually skipped ahead, and forgotten to summarise the introduction, which explains why Gray is back in England, and why he plans to visit these less than celebrated football towns. It’s simple: he is, at least as the book starts, on the verge of turning thirty. Based now in Scotland, the author wants to reacquaint himself with his mother land, to see if his ideas of what England is and what it has become chime with his biases. He also considers 2011 – the year the book was conceived – an important year because ‘England seemed to be repeating itself.’

During his travels through ‘England’s Football Provinces’ – Sheffield, Burnely, Newquay, all are here and more – Gray sets out to take the national pulse, and to see how he feels about it all. The results are a country gazed at through the various lenses of lower league English football. In Chester, Gray is uplifted to see the revitalised Chester FC, now owned by their fans, and, at the time of his writing, recently promoted. In Newquay, Gray pays £4 – the same price he did to see ’Boro in the 90s – to watch football at, well, England’s foot. In Ipswich, he finds a more quiet England; in Bradford a one still fraught with racial divides, but making baby steps towards solidarity; and in Meriden in the West Midlands, he watches the national side, finding that it is OK to like a club team and support the Three Lions simultaneously.

There are repeated motifs, as you would expect, but repetition does not equate to monotony. Each visit is loosely shaped around the same basic premise: arrive early, amble round town, describe its significant histories, make way to ground, comment on idiosyncrasies of club, watch match, comment on quirks of said club and fan base, leave, have dinner and beer, amble back in to town, reflect on said town’s nightlife, return to hotel, repeat. Despite how boring I’ve just managed to make that all sound, I can assure you that in Gray’s hands, it is in no way tiring. There is a misconception that football teams and matches, in fact football in general, is all the same: 22 overpaid men kicking a ball about for an hour and half, watched on by pie-scoffing, lager swilling blokes in their fifties. Gray’s encounters in the weird and wonderful places he visits attest that yes, that is true, but there are also countless other types of football, and countless other ways to watch, appreciate and talk about it. This, he ultimately posits, is a reflection of England: one which, in spite of (or even because of) its ubiquitous coffee shops and chicken restaurants, is made thrillingly, unknowingly and charmingly unique and alive.

Gray’s decision to not visit a Premier League club seems to me the only flaw to be levelled at this book. Flying over Liverpool, he spots Anfield and Goodison from the air and notes that ‘ending with a Premier League game would be like finishing a wholesome, happy marriage with a cocaine-fuelled orgy.’ Ending the book, maybe, but I personally would have enjoyed a visit to a top-flight club – somewhere less glitzy like Stoke, or Sunderland(!), would, I’m sure, have revealed just as vivid a socio-historical tapestry and just as much footballing passion for the author to comment on. Anyway, that is a small criticism, and probably more my desire to see Gray rip the piss out of the Mags (and us) while trying to float something poetic about West Bromwich, or Hull.

In the end, I have to resort to review type, singing the airs and graces of Hatters...which contains more than its asking price. For a start, this is a genuinely funny book – I laughed out loud (yes, actually LOLd) several times while reading it. I would give you examples, but the one that immediately springs to mind is only funny if you’re familiar with the Northern Rail route between Newcastle and Middlesbrough. It’s also a terrifically well-written book, which might sound daft, but Gray is both an erudite scholar and someone I’d like to have a pint with. There are few if any pretentions to his prose, and his style is chatty, humble and very northern without sounding like some twat from Manchester that everybody secretly wants to chin (apologies to anyone from Manchester – you were my go-to northern knob; next time I’ll pick Huddersfield, or Washington). Anyway, my point is that the writing never feels laboured: historical anecdotes sit perfectly against football commentary, itself handled quite unlike anything you’ve ever heard on Sky Sports, and observations of people and situations are exacting, fresh and generous. A choice quote, and there are many, describes a central midfielder thus: ‘For a period he repeatedly collects the ball from his back four and spreads it among them, one-two by one-two. His distribution is equalled and measured, a parent making sure every toddler wins at pass the parcel’. Alan Shearer this ain’t.

All told, Gray shows us that football is the type of game that we always knew it was: one that unites us more than it divides us. This is a hugely entertaining book which, if you’re reading this because you somehow think I’m a good selector of Christmas gifts, would make ideal reading for everyone from the diehard fan with his or her team’s initials tattooed on their knuckles to the Stuart Maconie or Simon Armitage fan who enjoys a bright take on this little island of ours. Buy it, read it, tell all your mates about it, then go and watch your local team kick lumps out of each other – it might just make you realise how good we’ve still got it.

Friday, 25 July 2014

A New Vocabulary

'Mussel Wreck', provenience unknown 

“For us to live and die properly, things have to be named properly. Let us reclaim our words.”
-          John Berger

Ragwort; Sorrel; Seaforth Docks; Horsetail; Sea Holly; Gatekeeper butterfly; Seaforth and Litherland; Sea Plantain; Dune Helleborine; Kirkdale; Bootle New Strand; Ainsdale; Alt; Rest Harrow; Dove’s-foot Cranesbill; Dark Green Fritillary; Ravenmeols Dunes; Myxomatosis; Sea Kale; Yellow Rattle; Ionic Star.

These are just some of the many pronouns that have been rattling around inside my head while walking between Liverpool and Southport. New words; words I’d not heard in a long, long time; words I’d never heard before.

It started on the train line: the Merseyrail from Chester to Moorfields on the Wirral Line, then on the Northern Line up to Waterloo, Hightown, Freshfield... New places; unfamiliar names. The strangeness of holding a railway line’s worth of places in your head: Hooton, Capenhurst, Rockferry. Wondering what the ‘Rake’ suffix – Eastham Rake, Bromborough Rake – means. The comparing the places to those on the Metro line: Fellgate, Pelaw, Heworth... Green Lane, Birkenhead Central, Hamilton Square; Hebburn, Jarrow, Bede. Bede so named because the famous scholar was born on the banks of the Tyne at Jarrow, or ‘Jarra’, if you’re using its colloquial name. Fellgate, because it borders Gateshead, where trees were felled to make room for new Tyneside hovels. Hebburn, misspelled, because they meant to call it ‘Heaven’, and it’s up there, opposite giant cranes and vestigial docks, above the Tyne, which has went 180, most improved river, abundant in Salmon.

But these new words, these new places, these new flowers and birds, what do they mean? A litany of names: some understood, others strange and new and spoken in an unfamiliar tongue: Scouse, that pseudo Irish lilt, a million miles from Geordie, but also not so different at the same time. Northern, warm, specific. I have friends who’ve had and/or wanted elocution lessons: to lose their regional accents. I’ve known people to vilify the Geordie and Scouse accents – and others – but what does a droll, RP monotone say of where you’re from; of what you’ve seen, known and done; of how you identify with the world and give it your own personal inflection, the idiosyncrasies of what it means to belong to where you belong?

On Ainsdale Sands

A tangent. Where was I? Sefton, with its huge horizons, its East Anglian-esque endless skies. Walking. At Ainsdale we find shipwrecks, swallowed by the shifting sands. The Ionic Star, The Pegu, The Mussel Wreck (real name unknown, identified tokenistically by its skin of shellfish). We philosophise on the gas rig and the wind farms out in the Irish Sea. Power. Fuel. Nuisance. They spoil the view of the Gormley statues but they keep the lights on, the cookers cooking, so we tolerate them, and we debate as to how green they really are, how big their footprint is, their effect on birds and fish. We discuss jetsam: the plastic bags that turtles think are jellyfish, autopsies revealing Tesco carriers in the guts of the choked beasts. Poor buggers, but we like our supermarkets. Convenience. We worry that if the high tide line is anything to go by, the rest of the sea must be a mess: plastics floating on and on; oil tankers cleaned out in the sea, so long as they’re over 12 miles off the coast, because we like oil, or oil companies like clean tankers, and we like petrol and petrochemicals, and it’s a story, and this coast is a story, but not just one: hundreds, thousands, sometimes present when a storm moves the sands the right way, sometimes hidden, forgotten.

We find Common Crabs, Sea Potatoes, Dead Men’s Fingers and Mermaid’s Purses. We find an Ocean Quahog, thought to be one of the longest living organisms on the planet. Time glacial; time the click of fingers. “You’ll carve your names into the Paupack cliffs”, wrote The Menzingers, “to read them when you get old enough to know/that happiness is just a moment.” Boom. One of the best lyrics ever written, because it’s true.

We find ancient footprints in the mud slacks. Children who played here, when this was a lagoon and you could walk to North Wales, 6,000 years ago. Prints of deer hooves. Prints of Aurochs, huge, primeval cows, thought to grow up to 11 feet high, extinct now. Gone from memory and biology but their marks remain, at low tide, when the wind is right.

At Ainsdale we pass the hollowed-out husk of the old Toad Hall nightclub: memories of fumbling in the dry ice, first pints of lager. Southport beach, made famous for its raves; its west coast sunsets; Californication with Mad-chester pill heads. Waking up in the dunes to the sound of the sea lapping at the shore. The Toxteth riots, 81’. Ten years later, Meadow Well: a North Shields council estate, the same sort of things: heat, fury, heroin; injustice, racism, resentment. We think of a few summers back: Britain baking under a July heatwave; Sports Direct looted; cars ablaze. Another story, but the wrong one, the narrative out of kilter. Nothing to hang on to, so why the fuck not?

Jetsam glove

Another walk: Whiteleas, South Shields, led by Mike Collier – turfs reversed: me back on my home soil, him away from his native Crosby – and natural historian Keith Bowey, the old Sunderland to South Shields railway bright with Rosebay Willowherb. The kids coming up to us on their bikes, screaming: “Mista, mista, there’s a dead man!” Thirty-odd, Adidas-clad, slumped on the steps from the John Reid Road down to the old railway line. Evidently been on it all day. Comatose. Proper paralytic, like, but breathing, alive, just. “Aa just wanna sleep it off” The kids’ odd delight at finding him, and finding him not deed. The sadness of the situation: wrecked at 6pm on a Wednesday. Nowt to hang on. Jobs going, unemployment rate in the North East still the highest, Thatcher’s dream, ex-industry towns’ nightmare. Lone Rangers at Tyne Dock. Meth heads and cage fighters. Winskells and The Golden Lion turned into flats. Buy-to-let. Help to buy. Credit not care. An Owen Hatherley wank fest, but there’s not much to romanticise in dog shit and fly-tipping and the terminal decline of the once common-as-muck garden Sparrow. “You know you need to worry”, says Keith, “When your common species are failing.”

Back at Southport. The sound of vacuous pop music blowing on the wind from Pontins. Gypos camped up in the carpark of The Sands pub. Full cliché tick-list: Jack Russel, shoeless kids, van advertising paving services. Then the Kingfisher, darting above the pond. A rare sight, but not impossible. Later: Emperor Dragonflies and Sand Newts; a poetry reading in the dune auditorium; more Natterjacks.

Coming in to Southport, over the salt marsh where the boardwalk lies ragged and ruined in the grasses, washed away in the storms last year. The sea is objective in its destruction, its capacity to give life. They want man-made storm defences, they want their beach back, grassed over as it’s starting to become, because it’s a cycle and this coast is always shifting. Time isn’t static, time is the slow pour of honey. But we want, and we want now. 4G. Fibre broadband. Three clicks and it’s in your basket, two days it’s on your door mat. Never leave home again: fit us to drips; suckle at the tit of late capitalism and take a selfie. Make the ‘OK’ symbol and TweetWhatsappSnappchat it. Bounce it off the satellites spinning round us. Make the world look small, finite, precious. Make yourself look huge, infinite, endless. Hang on to it, it’s a story.

Ruined boardwalk, Southport

“On Margate Sands/I can connect/nothing with nothing.” Thanks, Elliot, you wordsmith, you harbinger of how we poets feel alone on the beach trying to draw it all together, trying to find something to shore up against. But I can connect these things, tangentially. We need to have our eyes washed before we can see. Polemic much? Maybe, and to jump rather cack-handedly from poetry to psychology, here, at length, is Abraham Maslow, on ‘belongingness’ [Yes, that is a word]:

“We still underplay the deep importance of the neighbourhood, of one’s territory, of one’s clan, of one’s own ‘kind’, one’s class, one’s gang, one’s familiar working colleagues [...] I believe that the tremendous and rapid increase in [...] personal growth groups and intentional communities may in part be motivated by this unsatisfied hunger for contact, for intimacy, for belongingness and by the need to overcome the widespread feelings of alienation, aloneness, strangeness, and loneliness, which have been worsened by our mobility, by the breakdown of traditional groupings, the scattering of families, the generation gap, the steady urbanisation and disappearance of village face-to-faceness, and the resulting shallowness of American [or Western] friendship.”

A lot to digest, I do realise. Let’s thicken the broth, though. Jeppe Graugaard, writing in a similar vein to W.G. Sebald, whose seminal work, The Rings of Saturn, I have recommended to several people while walking the Sefton Coast, talks about interconnectivity; trying, to hack up an old metaphor to see the wood and the trees. He writes:

“Viewing history as an entanglement of lived experience, we might see it as an arc, without discernible beginning or end, intersecting our horizon at both corners of our eyes. A great galaxy of lines of flight shooting across the night sky. Looking at our place within this arc we would see a coalescing of lines turning round on themselves, biting their own tale off to disappear in a firework of circles, large and small, marking the death of a friend, the ending of a language, a life form, a way of being.”

A bit zany, a bit new-age, a bit ‘what the fuck does that have to do with me?’ but I think he has a point: our lives are not just a scattering of random experiences. The bloke passed out in Shields after days (weeks, months, years?) on the piss is not just another potential case for the Samaritans and other charities, stretched beyond breaking point, he is a man unmoored in his locale, devoid of hope, devoid of community, turning to the demon drink. And I know that alcoholics and vagabonds and outcasts have existed at the best and worst times in human history; I’m not claiming that he is simply a product of the post-industrial North, a casualty of austerity. To say that instances of sadness and desperation like that are solely the logical outcome of the thin edge of the wedge that is the Coalition government’s agenda is tantamount to seeing the news today that Britain’s economy is now bigger than it was before the recession started in 2008 and immediately and simply thinking that can only be a Very Good Thing. This is not a binary argument; the world is more complex. The thickets are alive with butterflies and bugs, Swallows and Swifts, but there are cans of Tuborg in the Tufted Vetch, canisters in the Codlings and Cream.

So near, so far away

But look, heavy politics isn’t why this blog started, and written as it has had to be written over two days, at two separate points in time, two different mindsets, has – I fear – weakened its denouement, which I must surely be arriving at. Sadly there are few linear narratives. I can think of inumberable brand names, but only four types of grass, and only because I was told. False Oat, Cocksfoot, Timothy, Yorkshire Fog. Tansy grows wild, is an aromatic herb used traditionally to purge scurvy. A microwave, when thrown twenty feet from a bridge, spills wires and plastics the colour of bad graffiti. Meadowseet smells like vanilla. The Ringlet butterfly, previously only found as far North as Yorkshire, has been pushed up here because of a changing climate. Heavy politics.

Place. That’s the word I want. Out walking recently, talking to the people I’ve talked to, seeing the things I’ve seen, and having spent a lot of time mulling and mulling some more, I realise that my attachment to place-based narratives isn’t simply the aesthetic choice I’d previously assumed. And of course walking four days through Sefton was always going to be different to walking two hours through Whiteleas, and so I apologise if this blog post – which for the sake of convenience on social media I will no doubt market as a specifically Sefton blog – is not what you’d expected if you’d read my first. But, like I say, the world is more complex than that, and these walks have set thoughts burning in my head, and for the first time, truly, in about two years, I’ve been utterly gripped by just writing, and thinking, and writing some more.

So, to go back to Berger and that epigraph, I am reclaiming my words. By learning about all of these strange and exotic flowers, birds and butterflies, I am reclaiming the richness of the world; a world that can seem so flat, so monotone. And I am making myself smaller, more humble. I am fitting in to my place within the arc — or trying to.

Gas rig on horizon

Walking through Whiteleas, Keith, who grew up in the area and remembers the days – not so long ago, we’re talking 40-50 years, 2 generations ago, max – when people would go out and pick blackberries, or make nettle soup from foraging trips, or build dens at those liminal edgelands, between the bottom of the garden and the start of the railway line. “All of this is so close to people”, he tells me, “but so far away.” He’s right. Yes, there’s a sentimentality to this, and at worst there might be a tendency to romanticise the past in a way that makes it more sugar-coated than it actually was. I, for one, am not suggesting a return to a forgotten halcyon age. The world has changed. But there is something sad, surely, in those lost dens; those people (me!) who would probably smirk at the idea of eating wild food; and those who walk these paths day after day with their big Bulldogs, past fly-tipped fences, not knowing, or caring, about the old railway sleepers that used to sit beneath them; or how Rosebay Willowherb came to prominence along the lines, blown along by the carriages’ wind; or how common garden birds are disappearing because the flies that were previously attracted to the cabbages that we grew at the foot of our gardens are disappearing, because it’s easier and cheaper to fly food in, laden with pesticides, from the other side of the world. And already there’s a sentimentality; a Mary Berry-endorsed faux Dig For Victory; an image of 50s postcard Britain, emerging from War, battered but not beaten.

So there are no answers. Many of us can’t, won’t or shouldn’t go back to those times, and I think that’s right, because I think a desire to do so trivialises the scale of our present situation. We can look back for advice, yes, but to want to retreat into a golden age is, to me, cowardly. It’s all gotten too polemic, this: the end is in sight and it’s a whimper, not a bang. Sorry.

I’ll be writing – have already started, in fact – new poems about both the Sefton walks and, as ever, continuing to write about the North East, Shields in particular, which, me and my mates always joke, is reassuringly shit; the permanence of that is a comfort, of sorts. And that sounds flippant (because it is), but it also says a lot about what I’m hoping to articulate: which is that we should maybe just be happy with what we’ve got, with the things on our back doors, so alien, so beautiful, so unique when we really take the time to look but which we’re so often unaware of,  because they don’t sing and dance or jump out at us from screens. Take to the beaches and the back lanes, people, the old mineral lines and the dunes: tell us what’s there, rename them, re-claim them to say what’s exceptional about them and to you and where you’re from, and sing your fucking hearts out about it. It may be our best hope.*

Dunes forming around fishing nets and other jetsam.

*I think I wrote something very similar in my teenage book of pop-punk lyrics. Some things don’t change.

Monday, 14 July 2014

The Wild Coast of Sefton

“Frying eggs smell like hope”, I wrote on Twitter, from a greasy spoon in Formby at 11 o’clock on Sunday morning, waiting to join the rest of the group for day two of Walking Through the Sands of Time, a four-day series of artist-led walks along the Sefton Coast, from Crosby – famous for Antony Gormley’s beach-men, Another Place – to Southport, some twenty miles north.

After a hiccup-free first day of travelling, taking 90 minutes from the door of my flat in Chester to the meeting point at the car park by the Marine Lake in Crosby, I was perhaps being a bit complacent thinking I could repeat the same feat of good fortune on day two. I was: Merseyrail, like many transport networks, operate less frequent services on the day of rest. I managed to get away by 9, only 15 minutes later than the previous day, but my second mistake swiftly followed, when I found myself at Kirkdale, heading towards Ormskirk, not Hightown, the day’s designated meeting point.

I hastily left the train, half-scoffed banana in hand, making a 180° trundle over the footbridge. Next train not for 17 minutes. Hmm. I was keen not to be late – or much later than I already was – so I asked a bloke in the waiting room if he had a local taxi number, in the vague hope that I could stump up a fiver and not be terminally late. “Metro Cabs are the best, mate, but I can’t remember their number. Trade-unionised, though, so you get the best rates. Sorry, pal. You from the North East are ya?” Cab was going to knock me back fifteen quid and take as long as the back-tracked train journey, so I sat, waiting for the yellow and grey carriage to roll in and get the day started, staring across the platform, cursing myself for not knowing the name of the ubiquitous lilac bushes that had followed me up the line, from Bache to Birkenhead. Buddleja, I later (re)learned.

Cue the Greasy Spoon, and directions from the weekend girl, whose instructions to “just keep going through the forest” turned out to be about as accurate as anything I’ve ever received in that department. I slurped the last dregs of tea and made my way towards Lifeboat Road, and the delayed start to the day.


There are three cities in the UK which, to my mind, are nearly one and the same: Newcastle, Liverpool and Glasgow. While all have their differences and idiosyncrasies, there are three, key shared characteristics which I think make them startlingly similar: their proud river heritage; their love of football; and most importantly, the spirit of their people. In this case, I want to think about the river: the Mersey, gushing out into the Irish Sea, bordered for much of its length by the Wirral, and famed for its ships and dockyards. When you get the train out of Moorfields on the Northern Line, you pass a landscape of old tobacco factories and grain silos; cavernous old docks are watched over by wind turbines and recycling depots. And the train speeds through Bootle New Strand and Seaforth and Litherland; and you see great Victorian pubs with weeds in their gutters; and you see rows of tumbledown houses where shipyard workers used to call home; and you see more modern social housing, with row after row of trampolines and ladder-clad Transit vans parked outside. And if you’re from Newcastle (or Glasgow), but in this case Newcastle, you feel like you’ve just got on the Metro to the Coast at Monument and whizzed through Manors; and at Byker you’re looking down at the Ouseburn and its vestigial chimneys; and at Wallsend you’re looking at the same rows of Victorian terraces, with their identikit trampolines and barbecues; and at Tynemouth you go underground again, briefly, as the train chugs by the James Knott Flats, you think of similar 30s structures at Bank Hall and Blundellsands; and depending on where you are, you either look West or East and there’s sea: thick, grey and apparently motionless; and beyond it, a Northern sky, with its clouds the colour of concrete and its punctuation marks of wind farms, or marker buoys, or cargo ships.


Sefton. 1995. Brookside Close. Jimmy Corkhill; Tin’ead; double-denim. These are the things I associate with this coast — a TV exec’s 90s pastiche of life in Liverpool. Which is to say that really, I associate nothing with this part of the world. If you’d asked me a week ago what was between Liverpool and Blackpool on the North West coast I’d have shook my head. Not a Scooby. This is why we walk: why we butter our sandwiches at 8am on a Saturday; sausages and dippy eggs for breakfast. Why we Google map the area and try on for size the place names on our tongue: Formby, Ainsdale, Southport. But none of that prepares us. Until we stand on the wild coast, sand in our shoes, sunburn on our hamstrings, we don’t really know what’s here, nor what it means, could mean.


“I’m setting out, armed with curiosity rather than expertise, to pay a different kind of attention to what I see” writes Jean Sprackland in her preface to Strands, her ‘year of discovery’ on the Sefton Coast. “I hope to cut through the blur of familiarity,” she continues, “and explore this place as if for the first time. Some of my finds may be real surprises, and others more predictable; but I shall pick them up and hold them to the light, regardless.”

Oh, Jean, what am I doing here, at half past eleven on a Sunday morning, in a sleepy commuter belt, searching for a path I don’t really know, to meet people I don’t really know, to trundle over more sand dunes that I don’t really know?

These are the questions I ask myself on Lifeboat Lane, Formby, by St Luke’s Church, which I later learn was once nearly entirely covered in sand during a particularly fearsome storm. It’s a story you’d think more than just a bit hyperbolic, until, on Ravenmeols Dunes, you see the size of these beasts. Piles of sand, netted in Marram and Sea Holly, as high as my four-storey apartment block. This is when you begin to believe the submersion of St Luke’s, drowned in sand, proper biblical.

Formby lies below sea level. It relies on mountainous dunes and rigid Pines. Formby smells of wind-whipped sand and money: Gerrard and Rooney both have houses here; Shearer lived in the area during his tenure at Blackburn Rovers. Rivers, football, people. On a lamppost, I spot a warning sign for a rogue-trader, known to have conned locals into dodgy swimming pool installation. Your average cowboy brickie, he is not. Google Earth Formby and you’ll see a lot of blue rectangles in gardens. Trampoline country this is not.


In the 1955-56 season, Manchester City beat Birmingham City in the FA Cup Final. What’s remarkable about this game is not so much the score line, but the fact that Manchester City’s goalkeeper, Bert Trautmann, played the last fifteen minutes of the game with a broken neck. Football trivia aside, what you learn at Hightown, if you’re being guided by natural historian John Dempsey, that is, is that only metres back from the high tide line of the beach, half hidden beneath Pyramidal Orchids and Sea Buckthorn, lies the remains of Fort Crosby, where Trautmann was interned as a prisoner of war during World War Two. And two or three miles north, covered in a different kind of thicket – that which comes in a mist from a paint can to expresses social discontent – is a store house for Operation Starfish, when, during the War, dummy fires would be lit in the country to resemble the shape of nearby port cities, the thinking being that enemy bombs would drop early, ideally causing plumes of sand rather than plumes of munitions, and bodies.


And you stand and watch the tide roll out, which it does quickly, the markers growing by the inch every minute, erect like giant fly swatters or cocktail sticks; and on the wind you hear the crack and whizz of bullets from the rifle range at Hightown; and at Altmouth the lazy boats slumber into marshes as the breeze strums their riggings in cowbell clatter; and a few dog walkers litter the coast, along with the rubble of blitz-bombed Liverpool and cooking oil drums chucked overboard from some distant tanker in the Atlantic; and the skyline of Liverpool, its cathedrals and Radio Tower, are silhouetted to the South as the wind makes a marathon dash for the Mersey and you think of the opening scenes of Atwood’s dystopia, Oryx and Crake, all howling winds, jetsam and distant, empty skyscrapers; and the clouds lift, the sun opening them like blinds, to show you Hoylake, Flintshire, Snowdonia. And you stand, with your face to the sea, arms at your side like the Gormleys, asking yourself what it is you’re shoring up against, out here, on the wild coast of Sefton.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Walking Through the Sands of Time

Over two weekends in July – the 12th and 13th and 19th and 20th – I will be taking part in WalkingThrough the Sands of Time, a series of artist-led walks that will help people to explore the natural beauty of the Sefton coastline, following a path of just shy of 20 miles from Waterloo, Merseyside, to the RSPB centre in Marshside, Southport.

There are still places available to join the walks, where participants will be encouraged to contribute to the resulting artworks, offering their thoughts and feelings on the route and its landscapes and what they come across. As well as being welcome to take part in the physicality of the walks, there will be opportunities to be guided in photography, sound artistry and writing about place under the tutorship of myself and the other artists and guides: Mike and Tim Collier, Rob Strachan and the local expertise of natural historian, John Dempsey.

As I take part in these walks, I will update accordingly with any writings and pictures, eventually bringing into life some new work about the area. As I’ve never been to the area, I can’t really add anything else yet, so stay tuned for my first foray into Sefton and its sands. As a Sanddancer, I’m sure I’m going to be in my element!

To book places on the walks, or for more information, please phone The Atkinson on: 01704 533333.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Butcher's Dog Issue 3 (is ACE!)

Butcher's Dog issue 3, cover art by Laura Hol.

This weekend saw me return to Newcastle for the launch of the third issue of Butcher’s Dog, which I’ve spent chunks of the past 3 months editing alongside Sophie F Baker and Amy Mackelden, two very good writer friends whom I know from what now seems like ‘my other life’ in the North East.

The launch event – at the fantastic Toffee Factory down by the Ouseburn, which, as this article suggests, has had an interesting history as a building, most pleasingly as an actual sweet factory – as well as the preceding workshop, ‘Moments of Epiphany’, in which me and Amy got our participants furiously scribbling about transformative moments in their lives, was everything a poetry event should be: full of good people reading interesting work in a relaxed setting; the formation of new friendships and connections; and, of course, the after-party, which saw several of us quaffing craft beer and local steak pies ’til dusk in Newcastle’s best pub, The Free Trade Inn.

It was a significant Butcher’s Dog event for me, having not been able to make the launches of our previous two issues, which, I’m told, were equally well put together and attended events. The Dogs, as we’ve now started calling each other, formed this magazine on the back of workshops led by Clare Pollard and facilitated by New Writing North; and at the time, while we were all keen, I don’t think any of us would have envisaged it becoming as successful as it now has. Those successes could be measured statistically – by the bums we’ve had on seats, the copies we’ve sold, the subscribers we’ve got, or even the Arts Council funding we’ve secured – but I think it’s in talking to people at these events, which are clearly very appreciated, and hearing good feedback, that I realise that what I’m a part of is something much more significant: a poetry collective, yes, we are that, but I think we are one which extends our support and encouragement outwards, and while I’m sure all collectives say that, I genuinely think that Butcher’s Dog is a force for good not just for new and established poets in the North, but for writers, artists and thinkers across the country; for people who like to be challenged, entertained and – dare I say it – sometimes even amazed by the power of good a beautiful, tactile little magazine can do.

As for the future, submissions are open for issue 4 until the 10th August, so I would encourage everyone, not just Northerners, to submit. There’s going to be a London launch on the 7th August, too, so that our many Southern friends and contributors can be part of the fold. I’ll tweet details about that as I get them. For now, if you haven’t already seen it and my naval-gazing hasn’t scared you off, I’d just prod you towards this link, where copies are available. I would say it’s worth it, but I think you probably already got that one...

The editors in the pub. L-R: Amy Mackelden, me, Sophie F Baker

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Review: 'Translations', Northern Stage, Saturday 29th March 2014

But remember that words are signals, counters. They are not immortal. And it can happen – to use an image you’ll understand – it can happen that a civilisation can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of... fact.”

Brian Friel has said that Translations is a play essentially about language, and I think he’s right to say that, but only if we accept that it is language which we primarily use to facilitate relationships — both those that we desire and those that we fear.

For those who have seen the play on stage, which I did last weekend at Northern Stage in Newcastle, you will be aware that by ‘language’, I am not simply talking about the words we speak to each other: I am thinking about the whole physical process and significance of language, and, crucially, what can happen in its absence. The character of Sarah, who might be said to embody the genius loci of the play, is seen in the opening scene being taught to say her own name by Manus, the lame scholar who fills in for his father, Hugh, head of the hedge school in fictional Baile Beag in rural North West Ireland where an intriguing mix of arithmetic and Classics is taught to an eclectic group of students.

“My… my na… my name. My name is… Sarah” we hear her exclaim to a clearly-delighted Manus, whose life is about to be shattered by words: their often simultaneous meanings and confused implications.

Captain Lancey and Lieutenant Yolland have arrived from England along with a “trained army” to conduct the first Ordnance Survey of the country, mapping six inches to the mile, for the benefit of the people of Ireland, the Empire and fair taxation. Or so tells Roland – actually Owen, Manus’s entrepreneurial brother, returning from Dublin after 6 years away – to the assembled class, where he acts as translator between his own people, fluent only in Gaelic and broken Greek and Latin, and not the King’s English being dictated to them by the arrival of the mapmakers.

If for Friel this is a play about language, for me it is a play about doubling, duality. The elephant in the room, of course, is our acceptance that we, an English audience, are watching and clearly listening to English-speaking actors pretending to speak Irish, and/or speaking an exaggerated version of King’s English, themselves failing to understand each other, even though every word in the play is intelligible. But that’s the core thematic doubling, one which is so obvious we quickly forget it. Others are more subtle. Owen – Roland – is the embodiment of how these reflections slowly manifest: a character who, when he first strides on to stage in a plush cream suit, so vivid, so clean and full of colour compared to the tatty garments the others wear, is instantly seen as a man of the ‘new’ Ireland: that of cosmopolitanism and commerce – not potatoes and pigs. And frolicking, drunk on poteen, with Yolland, casually coining new names for the places he has left behind, we might be forgiven for thinking that is all he is: someone who has ‘made it’, found a new life and wealth for himself. But, no: Owen, acting under the jurisdiction of Colonial Rule, becomes a man divided; a man who can conjure new names with the swipe of a pen, but is unable to forget the folktales and legends that are connected to the old ones. A man, therefore, quite literally caught between his past and his present – and, by association, his future.

He is, in many ways, the brother Máire – equally caught in a state of transition, or desired transition – should have been with: savvy, worldly, some might go as far as to say a ‘sell-out’, Owen has the spirit of adventure that Manus lacks. But is it Manus’s conservatism, or Máire’s ambition, that leads to their inevitable downfall? Complicatedly, it is both and neither: Máire’s desire to learn English, to begin a new life in America, where she won’t need worry about potato blights, is both a reaction to Manus’s stubborn desire to ape his father, and a consequence of a changing society more broadly – one which is literally and spiritually losing its connections to the land.

Readers familiar with my past theatre reviews will know that I am not trained in dramaturgy and such other technicalities, so my reactions to performance and the craft of staging and acting are based more on instinct that experience. One of the most intrinsically beautiful scenes in Translations occurs when Yolland and Máire flit off after the dance and attempt to show their lust to each other. And it is lust, not love: Yolland yearning for a rural quiet that his work seeks to undermine; Máire foolishly believing Yolland could whisk her away, hiccup-free, to a brave new world. In a symbolic moment of linguistic beauty, and another obvious example of doubling, they try to decode their language barriers, Máire inferring: “The grass must be wet, my feet are soaking”, to which Yolland unironically retorts: “Your feet must be wet, the grass is soaking.” This rhetorical device builds towards its conclusion, with Máire and Yolland speaking to understand, not to be heard. “Always”, they both say in their respective mother tongues, the word loaded with irony and foreshadowing.

There are many other examples throughout the play, most of them stemming from the double meanings to be found in abundance within Friel’s allusion-heavy text. Jimmy, a character who I’ve not mentioned, but who plays a key role and might be seen to represent the antithesis to the dumb Sarah, is a figure almost transcendent of the very specific time and space in which the play is set. Fluent in many languages, but more comfortable drunk on nostalgia than lucid in the present, he asks of Hugh, really of us, when contemplating his imagined wedding to the Goddess, Athene: “Is Athene sufficiently mortal or am I sufficiently Godlike for the marriage to be acceptable to her people and to my people?” It is a question which is comical in intent and execution, but one which, we must remember, he raises immediately after the far more authorial, didactic warning: “Do you know the Greek word endogamein? It means to marry within the tribe. And the word exogamein means to marry outside the tribe. And you don’t cross those borders casually – both sides get very angry.

No doubt you’ve guessed that Translations is rich in word-play and double-entendre: a text which could be the focus of many a PhD. I first read it at A-level, and first saw it performed at the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal in about 2005, at a time in my life when I was definitely more amused by Hugh’s bumbling alcoholism than by the play’s many undertones and reverberations.

Which is why I can imagine some people may have left feeling slightly cold, particularly by the ending. I came in to the play on the back of close analysis of the dialogue and allusions, and having seen it performed once before. I think, if I could level one flaw at Translations, it would be that it doesn’t wear those allusions lightly: the ambiances they create can be lost on a first watch. That is not to discredit the cast and production team: English Touring Theatre have really produced one of the most pitch-perfect pieces of theatre I have ever seen. I find it interesting – and heartening, clearly – that a play which I once merely admired has been brought headlong back into my consciousness to the point where I would recommend it to absolutely everyone and consider it a modern masterpiece.

To say the ending is oblique – much like the argument of most of this review – is not to say it is ineffective. Far from it. Personally, I love the the ambiguity of the ending, with a collapsed Hugh failing to recall another of his much-loved classical passages (in this case, Virgil’s Aeneid, which I confess, even now, I did have to Google) as the lights fade to black. I’ve noted a few reviewers who have been confused by this, and I say this not to massage my ego, but how? Yes: it isn’t the tying up of loose ends that we might expect from other narratives, especially those that centre around a love-triangle, but it is the ending Friel wrote, and it is the ending that this production has made the smart decision to keep. As the lights go down, the characters are literally and figuratively transported into a space of liminality, in which we – from a privileged place further along in this country’s complex history – know the likely outcome, we just don’t know how individual choices will shape the exact circumstances of it. It is a clear and swift move, which takes the focus off stage, back on to us, the spectators. At a time when countries continue to exhort military might on their neighbours and annexe much-argued-over regions, and at a time when – for reasons trivial and serious – our language continues to (d)evolve, artworks such as this can only hold mirrors to our faces and ask us what we might have to do with it all.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Cheesy Chips on Wembley Way

I’m nine, maybe ten years old, in the garden of our house in South Shields, in about 1997. I’m with my Dad, brother and sister, and our mate, Ali, who lives further up the road but is always round ours. We’re egging my Dad on: pleading with him to make the biggest goalkeeper kicks he can. He blasts the ball up into the air like David Seaman, or Peter Schmeichel — or Lionel Perez. It thunders into the air and arcs, disappears. Three seconds later the apple tree shivers, sending the Mitre ricocheting out like a pinball. We all laugh hysterically.

It’s the penalty shoot out next, Dad in goal. He’s just finished building a set of goal posts for us out of some wooden beams, strategically positioned them in front of a row of conifers, to prevent broken greenhouses, screaming neighbours. DIY doesn’t run strong in our family – I was known to hurl the simplest of Airfix models at the wall in a temper as a kid, and I can just about cobble together Ikea furniture these days – but those goalposts were a thing of beauty. I remember how they were painted a diaphanous, matt white; how we were forbidden from hanging on them, but did so anyway; and how, if a ball was toe-poked hard enough off their crossbar, the whole structure would come tumbling down, the unfortunate goalie running for his or her life from the felled beams.

Later that season, we’re on a family holiday in Majorca. Sunderland are playing Charlton Athletic in the Division One play-off final at Wembley. Dad’s at the bar, talking broken Spanish to the waiter, trying to get them to switch the telly on to the English Footy. The game inches by. Dad gets more drunk; we play in the pool, occasionally coming over to catch up on the score; Mam reads her book, raises her eyebrows at my Dad, propping the bar up, head in hands. It gets to penalties. We all know what happened. Michael Gray, the unfortunate sod who sent his last penalty over the bar and Charlton – not his hometown club – into the Premier League, has since said of the experience: “Looking back, I think it marked a point where I became a stronger person and it helped get me to where I got in my career.”

But we’re still there, 16 years ago, as Sunderland crash out and Dad hides himself in the toilets for the best part of an hour, leaving us to wonder how a football game can ruin a beautiful, sunny day on holiday in the Mediterranean.

We get promoted, of course, and the rivalry between Robbie and Ali, supporters of Newcastle, our arch nemesis, and myself and Emmy grows as derbies at the Stadium of Light and St James’s Park take on deeper significance and a greater reward on the taunting and craic. We get bigger, better, stronger. The homemade goal posts are no longer tall enough; the ball flies over next door’s fence every other kick.

We start playing on the streets: Ali in his Newcastle Brown Ale, me in my Lambtons or Reg Vardy. And we start playing five-a-side for Viasystems at Temple Park, and we’re shit, but the training sessions on Saturday mornings are class and we get muddy and have to walk back home looking like the dirtiest kids in Shields; and I go to the matches once every other home game because me and Emmy share a kid’s season ticket which Dad has bought us; and the seat’s in the South West corner, just opposite the away fans; and this is where I really learn to swear, and what the chants actually mean, and how, in the seconds it takes for Kevin Phillips’s 25 yard piledriver to zoom past Ed de Goey and in to the top corner, I come to know why they call this the beautiful game.

And I store the Football Echoes up in a pile every weekend after my Dad’s read them; and there’s loads of scuffed knees and bost balls and arguments about whether PES is better than FIFA; and within my first month of starting in year 7, me and my Granddad drive down to Bradford for the first away match of my life; and this is the first time I’ve seen a man spill his blood as he tumbles, pissed as a rat, down a flight of stairs at Valley Parade; and I miss our last goal because my Granddad has driven coaches all of his life and even though he’s got the car, he can’t avoid the habit of leaving on the 85th minute to get the engine started for the hoard of fans travelling back to the North East.

And we continue to play football wherever we can: in Harton Cemetry; at St Peter’s Church Hall (smashed window, us all legging it, the alarm whirring into the distance); and every now and then, in the garden still, with goalpoasts made of jumpers and garden gnomes. Emmy starts playing for the Sunderland Girls’ Youth Team, and she’s fucking good, and Robbie plays for Whitburn and Cleadon, and I play 4 unremarkable games for Whitburn School, against teams in the arse ends of County Durham and South Tyneside.

And before I know it, I haven’t been to a game in ages. I’m into punk rock music: power chords and blast beats at gigs in the basement of Newcastle University; sneaky cans of lager that I’ve nicked off my Dad with absolutely no concern for being surreptitious; clothes that stink of Morrisons vodka and stale Lynx Africa. Even in Sixth Form, in the heart of Sunderland at St. Aidan’s, I don’t really care about the lads anymore. I’m too interested in listening to the new Rise Against album on repeat, or going crackers in Ku or Pure to really bother with what Mick McCarthy’s doing – or not doing – because I’m 17, for fuck’s sake: I just want to leave this place and find my way.

So uni rolls by. Chester. 180 miles from home, where new mates from Lancashire and Cheshire are mocked for thinking they’re “Northern”. I go to the odd game, maybe once or twice a season. I have a vague memory of taking Kate to the Stadium of Light for the first time in – what was it, the 10-11 season? – to watch us play Birmingham, and I think Cattermole got sent off and we drew 2-2, but ultimately, I wasn’t interested. I’d found something else to pour my heart into at uni, besides a girlfriend and a bunch of mates from around the UK. That thing was writing.

I went on to write my MA dissertation in a very similar vein to this: wistful, nostalgic poems that looked at my childhood and recent memories of the North East. Some of those poems were about football: ill-fated trips to the Stadium of Light in the middle of winter; early memories of Roker Park, in all its shabby glory. I was back in the North East by this time, but spending nearly every day in Newcastle, where the writing community was strong and supportive, its love of drinking until well after the last Metros had departed matching mine.

But I went full-circle, getting a job at the University of Chester in November last year. Then, soon after, in January, the chance of a second trip to Old Trafford. But, before that, my first: stuffed into the back of one of my Dad’s first company vans, he drove me and Alan – Tizer – down the M62 to the Theatre of Dreams for the Semi Final of the FA Cup, where we lost 1-0 to Millwall. I remember next to nothing about it.

Which is odd, because my Dad and Robbie have an uncanny ability to synchronise places and events with football scores and sending offs. But this was 2004, and I think, looking back, 2004 must have been the year that football kicked me in the gonads. Nearly every young man – and, clearly, a lot of young women – experience the pain and embarrassment of realising that they will never make it as professional player. We all have stories of the game, or season, where we lost faith; where we knew, intrinsically, that we would never don the Three Lions at the Maracanã, or even jog onto a scabby pitch to the cheer of several thousand fans at an obscure League Two club. Mine came on a spring afternoon not long before I finished school, playing on the right wing for Whitburn against – I think – St Joseph’s from Hebburn. My recollection is that we lost 3-2, but all I really remember is spending the full game looking at the other lads thinking, “Fuck. Nearly every one of these is stronger, fitter and more skilful than me.” A similar thing happened when I was a fresher, when I went to try out for (one of) the University’s teams. I never had a hope in hell’s chance: I’d not ran for two years and some of those boys had played for Shropshire County teams. So I lost faith in myself, yes, but I also realised that I wasn’t – and was never going to be – cut out for this sport, and as I got more and more into obscure ska and punk bands and started reading poetry rather than watching Match of the Day, I lost virtually all interest in the game.

So why am I writing this? There will be football fans, not just Sunderland fans, reading this thinking “he didn’t deserve a seat at Wembley last weekend”. But actually, clichéd as it most certainly is, this game is in my blood and it’s in my family and it’s in the region I come from, so I believe I did deserve a seat at Wembley, and although we lost, and although probably everything that could or needs to be said about it has been said, I’m unbelievably pleased and proud that I was there, so I’m going to give my version of events. Because that’s what writers should do: bear witness and tell about what is significant.

Rewinding slightly, the semi final was a pretty crap game, on the whole. The penalties were abysmal, but they did the job, and while those ten thousand or so Sunderland fans who’d travelled down to Manchester on that Wednesday night in January were jubilant, it wasn’t really until they converged on the capital that it became apparent why.

I travelled down from Chester, meeting my Dad, David and Alan – Tizer (who, barring a night on the piss in Newcastle in 2010, I’d last seen in New Zealand in 2007, and before that in the back of that bloody van on our way to watch Millwall crush some dreams). Things off the pitch went the only way they could have – you don’t need a diarised description. We got pissed, we woke up, we had a full English, we went to the game, it was class. But we lost. You’ve seen the photos on your mates’ Facebook profiles: thousands of Mackems crowded in and around the pubs at Covent Garden, the bloke up the tree who refused to come down, the Conservative MP who branded our fans “hooligans” cos we interrupted his and his missus’s steak and claret. You’ve heard Poyet’s reaction to the game, and you’ve doubtless watched Borini’s goal back a few hundred times on YouTube, just to savour those moments, when Pantilimon’s net still rippled and half of Wembley Stadium went absolutely and utterly bonkers.

Sitting there, in the last 5 minutes of the game, when it was apparent we weren’t going to be taking any silverware back to Wearside, I wanted to absolutely howl at the lack of City support in London town the night before. And it’s true: the ratio of Sunderland to Manchester City Fans outside of Wembley was roughly 1,000 to 1 all weekend. Our supporters were going crackers in just about every enclave within earshot of a beer tap. In a pub between Piccadilly and Covent Garden (Lord knows where, I’d chucked at least 8 pints down my neck by this stage), a spontaneous chant started, first with a few middle aged blokes singing “Oooh, Vito Mannone!” and then 90% of the pub descending into “He’s here, he’s there, he’s every-fucking-where, Bobby Kerr!” A big Dutch bloke from Eindhoven stopped us on the way out, politely asking “Excuse me, but who is this Bobby Kerr they are singing about?” The fact that they were singing about the captain who last led us to victory 40+ years ago was not lost on this fella: he was impressed, if a little confused, that such a legacy was still being sung about.

But of course it was, because football is a legacy sport. It’s why fathers follow their father’s teams, and why sons carry on. Unless they’re my brother, Robbie, who has always supported Newcastle (after a brief spell as a Liverpool fan, aged 4); or David, who joined him as a clandestine black and whiter in the Bobby Moore Suite, courtesy of a free pair of ‘posh bastard tickets’ via one of my Dad’s main suppliers at work. And they didn’t rib us too much after the game. We’re from Shields, remember: loyalties split, quite often across families. There’s the usual banter, aye, but that’s why it’s great being from South Shields: it doesn’t matter if you’re an Indian curry chef on Ocean Road who’s been a lifelong Toon fan, or a white bloke from Westoe who’s followed the Roker Roar all his life.  

And then there was Tizer, who’d travelled from Taupo on the North Island of New Zealand just for the fixture. Bumping into random Mackems in pubs around the capital, we became convinced that nobody had travelled further than Tizer to watch this game. Lots of people I’ve spoken to have told me that he was daft to do so, especially knowing who we were up against in the final. But that misses the point entirely. Football is a sort of anchor, bringing us together, even if we are on the other side of the world. My sister, Emmy, is currently based in Switzerland, but she was texting me after the game, and I know fine well if she could have afforded the flight an could have had the time off work, she would have been there. As it was, she watched it from a bar in Zermatt, which we’ve all done before, even if we’re the only fans in and we’ve had to argue with the landlord to change the channel.

It was a glorious meeting of the old and the new, the big smoke and the city by the sea 400 miles to the north, and of course Manchester, whose fans were dignified and deserving, but no doubt include some amongst their ranks who never went to Maine Road. But that’s an easy, snide dig: City’s first two goals were world-class, and that is what big money can buy you, and so yes, they were the rightful winners. But there are things that no amount of foreign investment can buy, like that Saturday night in Covent Garden and that Sunday evening stumbling around Brick Lane, chanting chants – of players I’ve known and loved, and others who pre-date me – and being in the capital of the country, whose economy is escalating far quicker than those of the cities whose teams graced it this weekend, particularly Sunderland’s; being surrounded by friends and family and people who became friends when you were getting the rounds in because they were from Seaham and you were from Shields and who gave a toss because at the end of the day it’s about the club, its history, and most importantly those who chose to support it. That feeling, of inclusiveness, of belonging, of enjoying the moment regardless and being smashed and smiling and talking to random but very real people who make up the regions in which these clubs actually exist – that will live with me until the day I die. The day three generations of my family and some of their closest friends came from near and far, walked up Wembley Way and remembered, if for however small a period, why they first fell in love with this game in the first place.