Scribbles in the Margins: 50 Eternal Delights of Books is out now, published by Bloomsbury. To buy a signed copy with personal dedication for £10 including P&P [normal book price £9.99], click here. UK-only:
Scribbles in the Margins: 50 Eternal Delights of Books is out now, published by Bloomsbury. To buy a signed copy with personal dedication for £10 including P&P [normal book price £9.99], click here. UK-only:
My new book, with its rather lovely cover, is out now. You can buy it direct from me, signed, for a tenner including p&p by clicking here (for non-UK sales, see Shop):
Here’s the official blurb:
Overpaid players. Sunday lunchtime kick-offs. Absurd ticket prices. Non-black boots. Football’s menu of ills is long. Where has the joy gone? Why do we bother? Saturday, 3pm offers a glorious antidote. It is here to remind you that football can still sing to your heart.
Warm, heartfelt and witty, here are fifty short essays of prose poetry dedicated to what is good in the game. These are not wallowing nostalgia; they are things that remain sweet and right: seeing a ground from the train, brackets on vidiprinters, ball hitting bar, Jimmy Armfield’s voice, listening to the results in a traffic jam, football towns and autograph-hunters. This is fan culture at its finest, words to transport you somewhere else and identify with, words to hide away in a pub and luxuriate in.
Saturday, 3pm is a book of love letters to football and a clarion call, helping us find the romance in the game all over again.
Each is a precision-tooled delight… even apparently obvious subjects are described with such lyricism that the everyday is routinely transformed into the sublime… here is a book that contains nothing but pure, unadulterated joy.
When Saturday Comes magazine
Delightfully written…countless little gems of recognition and satisfaction, many of them very funny… a lovely little thing.
The Daily Telegraph
A little bagful of stardust…each chapter is a little paean of praise, almost poetic at times, waxing lyrical as evidence of what makes the heart sing. A lovely package of observation and eulogy…it deserves to be widely read.
Many of the lyrical sweet nothings Gray whispers in your ear still survive…It might be small enough in size to slip into a stocking, but there’s nothing lightweight about a book that wears such a large heart on its sleeve(s).
Scotland on Sunday, a 2016 Football Book of the Year
A wonderful book. Arguably the football book of 2016.
Off the Ball, BBC Scotland
A warm, smiling celebration of football’s quirks, and of ours. Never mind how good a writer Daniel Gray is: what an eye he’s got. You’ll never watch a game again without liking some daft little moment and wishing you could share it with him.
Michael Grant, The Times
A wonderful, wistful read.
Oliver Kay, The Times
A sonnet to football, whimsical and deeply rewarding.
Stuart Roy Clarke, Homes of Football
A real midget gem of a book that fits perfectly into a jacket pocket for reading on the way to the match, or indeed during it if you’re an England fan.
Harry Pearson, author The Far Corner
A superb book…thoughtful, moving, lyrical, joyful.
Ian McMillan, poet, writer and BBC radio presenter
Gray beautifully articulates the pleasure offered by such pursuits as jeering passes that go out of play, listening to the results in the car, and spying a ground from the train window…his prose is exquisite…a physically slim but spiritually hefty treat.
Pitch & Page, Books of the Year 2016
An elegiac, poetic tribute to what there is to love about the game…This wonderfully bijou volume serves as a description of nothing less than a way of life.
Lovingly crafted prose-poetry…a wonderful antidote to the money-sodden excesses of the modern game.
Late Tackle magazine
I love this book, I had enormous fun reading it…a great book.
Matt Williams, Simon Mayo Drivetime show, BBC Radio 2
Really nicely written. A brilliant book. Romantic, very recognisable things.
James Brown, TalkSport
The author has compiled some wonderful things about our national game…I love this book. Wonderful. A delightful book.
A loveletter to nice things about football…fifty perfect little essays. A beautiful book.
I commend this book. Two pages are worth ten cliché-ridden football books. It evokes the nodal points of football memory.
Archie McPherson, BBC Scotland
Full of eternal delight. I loved it to pieces. Hymns that evoke the essence of the game. A fantastic book.
The Anfield Wrap … More Saturday, 3pm – new book out now. Order direct here
I’m going on a mini-tour of libraries during Book Week Scotland, reading from Scribbles in the Margins:
27/11/17 1900 Selkirk Library. Details here.
28/11/17 1900 Orkney Library. Details here.
30/11/17 1800 National Library of Scotland. Details here.
02/11/17 1430 Aberdeen Central Library. Details here.
Some very short films with excerpts from Saturday, 3pm read by author Daniel Gray. Films made by Alan McCredie. Lovely wee things…
Someone asked me recently, an actual someone, not a someone created for the benefit of this opening line, why I don’t update my website more often. I didn’t have an answer, really, beyond being preoccupied with so many other things. This didn’t satisfy the person – still not made-up – so instead of content or passable prose, here is an update on those things which occupy me (apart from my child, Middlesbrough Football Club and wondering how on earth Steve from Coronation Street broke his arm).
I have written another football book with Bloomsbury, which will be published in October. I am about to submit a first draft to the same publisher, about books themselves, which is due for release next May. This has meant a lot of typing, and even more looking out of the window and getting annoyed at people for putting the wrong wheelie bins out.
Beyond that, I (oh it’s all me me me with him, isn’t it?) am writing and producing a series of whisky documentaries for the BBC. If you pass me and I give off a peaty stench, it is merely a side-effect of research.
Then some of the usual – and, frankly, bloody enjoyable – things that help keep a writer in cords and unused notebooks: presenting and chairing events, copywriting and penning the odd article, some graphic design work and selling all my winners’ medals at auction.
The future is unwritten even for a scribe, of course, but I think and hope it will bring more People’s Historian films, telly production and writing, and plenty of words.
Failing that, I will return to making-up people, like the one at the start of this piece. … More Is this thing on?
“We’ll have to pedal that bugger!” says a Lancastrian gesturing towards our compact plane as we idle in the airport gate holding pen. His phone rings. It is The Wife, as I imagine he calls her. Their septic tank is overflowing. “Well what the bloody hell do you want me to do from here?” he asks, not unreasonably.
We shuffle and fold onto the plane and pulp ourselves into our seats. Every time the plump woman in front exhales, her seat scrapes my knees. Behind me, an old lady in jogging bottoms launches into a programme of stretches aimed, I suppose, at preventing DVT. I feel like I am trapped inside an accordion.
I look around. There are pretty girls returning to Shetland with glossy carrier bags that have string handles, northern wages enjoyed on George Street. There are bulky men in fleeces with company logos on them, and a pair of polite Americans who bless a sneezer seven rows away.
This fleeting community in the clouds seems almost excited each time the air hostess reaches the space by the cockpit and draws closed her small corrugated curtain, before opening it again shortly afterwards. And for my next act…the drinks trolley. When she temporarily retires there is always the pursuit of looking beyond the droplets at what lies beneath. Sea, mainly, it turns out. We sink from the clouds and witness jaggy grey rocks, and fields and hills in Scrabble-lid green. A single road creeps around to remind us of the century.
Sumburgh Airport smells of bleach and is smattered with bored staff cackling and passing time. Our cloud community fragments into oil workers, and the rest of us. They are met by men in yet more logoed fleeces and disappear through a revolving door; we are left waiting an hour for the bus to Lerwick. I sit drinking from a metal pot of tea of the type whose lid you can manipulate with your thumb so it can talk (remember: I have an hour), and I delight in the melancholy of a rural airport. An advert on the wall reads: ‘In London they have Harrod’s. In Shetland we have Harry’s, Shetland’s Department Store’.
By the airport bus stop’s ‘No Waiting’ sign, in silent communion we board the number six. At times, the views are so ridiculously beautiful as to be obscene, all bays of drama and hills of content. At other times, two men in front of me are enthusiastically talking about Warhammer games, and a large malodorous chap in chef’s whites snores off a staff lock-in. Out of the window, Shetland winds blast hanging washing dry. When a litter of schoolchildren board, wind seems to remain in their hair, a breezy aura. We rattle through Okraquoy, Fladdabister, Quarff and Brindister. By Gulberwick, I would not be surprised should a helmeted-Viking board and ask for a single into town.
Passing King Harald Street we spin into Lerwick. On an impromptu feedback board in the bus shelter, comments include ‘shoot the bastards’ and ‘Why are elderly people waiting for buses in the lavatories?’, which sounds philosophical to me. At the harbour lollops a giant ‘boatel’ for oil workers. It is the shape of a fallen milk carton and the size of an abbey. As if it were not incongruous enough among the charming stones and colours of the bay buildings behind, the boatel is painted in black and white stripes, a dystopian CGI zebra.
The boatel means you have to put a little effort into finding a more palatable version of Lerwick. I drift among streets behind the harbour that siphon you up cobbled alleyways called Crooked Lane or Jimmy Col’s Steps. As evening drops it suits their ghostly comeliness. Sitting on a bench eating terrible fish and chips in the mist, it occurs to me that this place is a coloured-in Victorian photograph.
In a hotel bar I glance through a goldfish bowl window into the restaurant area. Thirty or so holidaying pensioners are eating. Nearly all are silent, though the smell of fish is loud. Over a pint I read about the Reverend James Ingram. He built the first Free Kirk in Shetland, I learn, and banned the playing of the fiddle on Unst, the most northerly inhabited island in Britain. In accents which are both speedy and soft, like machine guns shooting popcorn, two locals discuss the majesty of the word ‘peerie’. “It’s better than ‘wee’, and definitely better than ‘small’”, they agree.
The next day I walk to the top of the town. Displayed in a shop window are two funeral notices, for Harry Jamieson, and for Alison Margaret Thompson (Polly). I walk on and look out to sea. As I pause, an old lady very politely begs my attention. She stands while her husband sits behind on a bench. In her hand is an Orangina bottle. “Can you open this, son?”, she asks, “We can’t do it, now.” I look to the man, as if checking I am not undermining him. “Aye. Even Shetlanders go weak at the end”, he says. … More Postcard #10: Shetland
This is the original version, just for a bit of difference, of my piece on Middlesbrough Football Club and Teesside steel’s demise. It originally appeared in When Saturday Comes and on the guardian website last month:
Middlesbrough versus Leeds United, kick-off drawing close. Autumn sun rages, hope charges the Sunday air. Teesside has a cause beyond three points. The last of its steelworks, at Redcar, is threatened with closure by owners SSI, but defiance reigns. ‘SOS’ (Save Our Steel) say the t-shirts the players wear during the warm-up, and the card display and banners behind each goal.
This area’s anthem, Chris Rea’s Steel River, plays on the tannoy, sprinkling goosebumps upon thousands of us. In the days before the game, Boro’s adored chairman and owner, Steve Gibson, has issued a statement beseeching Westminster to intervene and rescue industrial Teesside’s heritage and its future. “I’ve been here 22 months,” says manager Aitor Karanka, a Basque, in his pre-match press conference, “but I know how important the industry is.” With Leeds swatted aside 3-0, Karanka dedicates victory to the steelworkers.
Twenty days on, autumn has dimmed the light and blown the air cool. Middlesbrough versus Fulham, kick-off drawing close. The Riverside’s giant screen, paid for by a pawnbroker chain, flashes with images of steelmaking through the years. Forty-or-so steelworkers walk slowly around the pitch, applauded throughout the stands like wounded soldiers returning from war. Twenty-four hours previously, a final batch of red hot coke has rolled from the Redcar blast furnace, and a final shift has been worked. They, and 1,700 others, are the last in a line stretching back 170 years. Redcar is to close. Hope is extinguishing with every furnace flame that simmers and fades.
There is a collective sense of bereavement, rawest for all match-going steelworkers and their kin, but felt across the stadium. It has afflicted Middlesbrough players too. Before the visit of Fulham, local lads Ben Gibson, the chairman’s nephew, and Stewart Downing have spoken of the area’s pain, and of having friends rendered suddenly workless.
Boro and Fulham is a stalemate. Afterwards, Steve Gibson gives a robust, impassioned interview to The Times. As is so often the case, he airs our thoughts. “Where was the government?” he asks, before labelling local Tory MP James Wharton, Northern Powerhouse minister, no less, “an absolute clown.” We have entered the anger stage of bereavement, and it will linger for years.
Feelings are particularly sharp because there is historical context and richness. Middlesbrough football and iron then steel have long been allies. Football clubs in the town arose shortly after iron ore was discovered in the Cleveland Hills in 1850. That breakthrough unleashed a boom. Middlesbrough flourished from hamlet to industrial behemoth, in Gladstone’s words ‘an Infant Hercules’. Migrant grafters flocked to the town. They needed Saturday escape. In 1876, Middlesbrough Football Club was founded, its early nickname ‘The Ironsiders’. Thirteen years on, another team came into being: the magnificently-named Middlesbrough Ironopolis.
Despite joining Division Two at the same time as Arsenal, Liverpool and Newcastle, Ironopolis slipped away, bankrupt, in 1894. Boro had the monopoly. Steelworkers flocked to Ayresome Park, light relief from their filthy, grinding work. Over the years, the foundries also provided the club with a steady harvest of players, including two of their finest, George Hardwick and Wilf Mannion. Both left steel employment to sign for Boro. As they cast their spells upon the Ayresome green, young Brian Clough knocked a ball around the steelworks pitches behind the family home.
Throughout the twentieth century, generations of those who staffed Teesside’s clanking, hissing industries pushed the turnstiles. ICI shifts were organised around home matches. When I attended my first game in 1988 – the year British Steel was privatised – works-emblazoned donkey jackets were common, if never fashionable.
In the Riverside era, save for a similar, successful SOS campaign in 2011, links between the club and steel became less tangible – indeed, as many a cynic is swift to counter, the stadium main frame was built from German steel. Yet steelworkers and their families continued to watch the team and, in this nostalgic age, most modern Teessiders can reel off their area’s greatest exports, from Sydney Harbour Bridge to the Wembley Arch. Certainly tangible is an almighty pride in what was.
At the end of October, Boro visited Old Trafford for a league cup tie they were to win on penalties. During the game, many among the 10,000 travelling fans illuminated the night air by holding aloft mobile phone torches. It was a show of support for steelworkers who had lost their jobs, an act of resilience and an assertion of continuing shared identity. Middlesbrough Football Club’s role as a beacon for the area has taken on a new level of significance. Sometimes it feels like all we have left. … More Steel river runs dry
There are stout lilac towerblocks and parades of tobacco shops and butchers with six storeys of flats above. Suckered onto the chemist is a neon green medical cross. It winks away, defiant in the afternoon sun. Every fourth or fifth premises seems to be a bar with a lone man sitting outside and a television on top of a fridge inside.
Washing dries on balconies and old ladies slowly die on street corner benches. They still have time to smile and wink at children. The Spanish always do. Here, niños are forever seen and heard, and never apologised for. They are treated as eternal flowers, there to blow a sparkle into a stranger’s eyes. Even the blind man selling lotto tickets feels it, waving his white stick in a mock shepherd manoeuvre towards a dark and gorgeous little girl with a monobrow and a pink silk dress. She convulses with laughter.
The pavements are slick and waxy as if made from the soles of bowling shoes. Your nose detects sweet fried things and bad drains in equal measure. It is intoxicating because it is alien and familiar. It doesn’t smell like home, but it reminds you of the last time you were here. All at once, Barcelona’s edges, its residues, tickle me under the arms and punch me in the face.
Beyond the taxis and the Tabac stand is our station. The clock tip-taps like a cathedral roof drip falling on a stone floor. It is the kind of clock made to remind the waiting and arriving hoards that time owns us all. The train skates in, an elegant block of lard, and we board. To our right, more towerblocks and happy little lives. To our left, sea and sky merging into a joyous wall of blue.
My daughter is five and there is only one thing better than television: peering through the gaps in-between seats at strangers on trains. Usually, they respond with stuck-out tongues and “hello beautifuls”. It is interesting when they ignore her – a difficult concept when the only people you know in the world have made you its centre.
When the train pauses – perhaps to check over its shoulder that it has definitely shaken off Barcelona – she tunes in to the clicking noises of knitting needles and moves to find out more, a cat aware of mousey scratches behind the skirting board. She finds a Peruvian woman who could be any age between 70 and 108. Though her eyes do not waver from the yarn, she tips her head gently sideways to beckon my daughter into the empty seat next to her. My daughter, and this surprises me, takes up the offer.
At first I mourn the passing of the years when she hid behind my legs. Then I look at the lady. Her crow’s feet have feet of their own, her cheeks are a spindly vine of crevices and pocks. She wears the very faintest of smiles and probably has done for a thousand years. She is restful, content. Her eyes, mahogany brown, can see through time. This lady is a story. I sit back down, elated by my daughter’s character judgement.
A couple of days on, all sated and settled and Spanish as undone shirt buttons, we walk to a beach. Sea laps, sun laughs, and African men with Mums somewhere desperately seek sales of watches and sunglasses. There is an open café towards the end of the beach, next to the promenade where British thighs pump away at the pedals of hired bikes. It is the kind of place you sit down in and decide to move abroad and become a poet or an old man. It has thin serviettes in metal holders and ketchup in plastic tomatoes.
We order chips, that pleaser of all the family. We have walked a long way and need guarantees. The proprietor, who takes our order, is deaf. Not hard of hearing. Deaf. I nominate my wife on the grounds that she speaks Spanish. “Aye, Spanish. Not Spanish sign language,” she replies. Somehow, our message is received. A plate the size of Wigan is brought to our table. When I imagine this moment again, there is a silver salver cover over it, and rays of light beam outwards as it is lifted to reveal a hillock of chips.
I don’t think I’ve eaten chips like them. I don’t think any of us have. They are crispy as winter by a lake to the bite, soothing as the sound of lemonade popping on the tongue. The sea moves in and there are two chips left. I give one each to my wife and daughter and feel as good as Jesus.
On the final day, it rains. Spain doesn’t wear rain well. It is a colour clash. Soon, we are back in Scotland, resplendent in its robe of drizzle. “Can we go for chips?” my daughter asks. … More Postcard #9: Catalonia
Click to see a short clip-based showreely video of my People’s Historian films. Or, watch via the top menu item on the right-hand side.
Very obviously, I haven’t been able to work out how to add the video link to the front page. It used to work, but now it doesn’t. I’ve tried thrashing it with a branch. … More People’s Historian – clips video
The man has a piece of paper. On it is written ‘Black Ford’ and ‘11.30am’. Up and down, up and down he paces along the footpath, glancing at cars and then at the paper. With the non-note hand, he nudges his sinking spectacles hard against the bridge of his nose, sighs and slumps against a wall. Luton Airport’s pick-up area does this to you.
He shows me the piece of paper. “Have you seen a Black Ford, mate?” I have not the heart to tell him that I couldn’t tell a Ford from a motorbike, that cars have long eluded me, but I settle for what I hope is a sympathetic shake of the head. In front of us, a man in shades performs an Irish jig around a ginger-haired bloke who looks like he wants to cry. Drivers toot and gesticulate at one another, their arms like the branches of some demented tree in the wind. My fatherly lift arrives and we leave the man looking for his Black Ford. It is way after 11.30am.
Football brings me to the Deep South. This is not just any football. This is Middlesbrough. For 27 of my 33 years they have tormented and delighted me. They are my curse and my family. If – and millions are like me here – I put the toil into another pursuit that I do following this football club, I would be useful and perhaps even beautiful. We are going to Wembley, rhythmic, magic-fuelled words when you are lost to this game like I am. Me and 40,000 others, all convincing ourselves that getting the upstairs front seat on the bus or finding 20p on the floor are lucky omens. Not only are we going to Wembley: we are going to win.
On the morning of the game, we travel to 1957. A relative has brought mementoes of his footballing career to show us. There are prim matchday programmes and newspaper clippings gone brittle. He played in the Spartan League, a fair level if you happened to be in Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire or beyond in the 1950s. In fonts that take me far away, I read about Boreham Wood and Ruislip FCs, Tring Town and Sandy Albion. ‘Brown’s Brilliant Goalkeeping Prevented an Utter Rout’, a headline shouts at me. Another tells of ‘The Massacre of Stonecross Road’ (Hatfield Town 8 v 3 Baldock Town).
Old adverts take your hand and lead you gently down the high street. J. Hartrop Tobacconist (‘Dutch and English Whiffs’), Days’ Off Licence (‘For all your drink in the home’) and Hollier’s Tuberculin Tested Milk. How about we look in on EC Careless, Ironmonger or Peter Goodfellow with his Distinctive Menswear? And let us not forget that Boreham Wood Cage Bird Society meets on the first Wednesday of every month.
I am still thinking of Bob the Barber and the Hankin Drapery as we jolt and grind through Metroland and into London. The old beast fascinates me. As ever, it is not the parts or buildings I am supposed to be interested in, but the housing estates and scruffy shop parades. All those lives, all those stories, piled together like chaotic toys on a jumble sale table.
This, though, is a football day, and therefore one for the heart rather than the head. My fellow reds swarm around King’s Cross. Half of Middlesbrough is here, the old with steel in their blood and the young who may well have to take their chances elsewhere. Work for the latter has vanished since the days when ‘Made on Teesside’ was chiselled into bridges straddling Sydney Harbour and the Tyne. Here is a town and team whose identities are interspersed. Hope is pinned on shirts with lions on the crest, and hope is important.
The escalators down into the earth are caked red too. I feel wildly, hypnotically optimistic. What is the point of going to football if you don’t? I look across the Tube carriage at my Dad. We were first here to see our team in 1990. I remember flashes of the game, and more about the riot afterwards – Police horses bolting and me picking up a Middlesbrough flag with Doc Marten prints across it, a spoil of war. I still have it. I ask him if he thinks we will win. “Of course we will.” He looks as petrified as I am beginning to feel. Somewhere between Kilburn and Dollis Hill, I am remembering that we actually have to play another team to win, and not a bad one at that. Wembley Way feels like the centre of the world. This is an occasion. We sing our way in. We are going up.
Norwich City score two early goals and the game is over, really, by half-time.
Again and again, I look around our half of the ground, up and down, up and down. We needed this. Our town needed this. All those hopes and stories turned to sadness and thoughts of work tomorrow. The final whistle goes. Other people’s joy is hell. We trudge and dredge away. “I bloody hate Wembley,” says my Dad. … More Postcard #8: Wembley