Postcard #8: Wembley

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

People’s History Show episodes 10 to 14

Despite being the very model of ruthless efficiency, I forgot to keep posting links to the People’s History Show. In all, there were fourteen episodes in the first series.

Someone must’ve been watching because I got recognised by a taxi driver and in the Gents toilets of a pub. It’s an incredibly glamourous world, That telly. We’ve filmed the first couple of Series Two already, and my own wee films are still appearing on the Fountainbridge Show too. The People’s History Show continues to be screened every Monday at 20:30 on STV Edinburgh and STV Glasgow.

It’s been a braw six months, telly-wise: from calling myself a People’s Historian by accident to co-presenting a new show with a similar title. Next stop: a long-awaited sponsorship deal with Lion’s Midget Gems. A boy can dream, can’t he?

ep 9 stillMore People’s History Show episodes 10 to 14

A film and some words about Britain’s worst rail disaster

Napoleon Bonaparte Kerr. What a name. What a man. A boy, really, like
so many of them were: 21-years-old. He´d probably rarely left
Edinburgh, his name the only piece of escapism living on Parsons Green
Terrace in Meadowbank brought.

The names get you first. Then the addresses. Then finally the ages
punch you in the stomach. Williams, Johns, Georges and Roberts.
Canongate, Commercial Street, Market Street and Leith Walk. 16s, 17s,
18s and 21s.

What could they have done, what mountains could they have conquered,
were their lives not purged by heinous fate? Gallant enough to sign up
for war in some alien hell, and so surely bold enough to make lives
worthy, and even great.

They would have become husbands and fathers, too. Loved by more people
than just the heartsore Mums and Dads and sisters they left behind.
One Mum wore black for the rest of her days, every minute and hour
itself a trawl and a trauma.

There is, too, an odd sadness that they never got to war. Afterall,
the vile odds were stacked against them – they were bound for
Gallipoli, another hellpot which killed its own generation of young
people. But they had set out with purpose and – let´s not tint this
with romance, for it is all black – to escape. These were lads who
shared beds with siblings, who scrapped for work at the docks. Food
was sometimes a privilege.

On that May day – a sunny one, and isn´t our little country the
brawest place on earth when the sun remembers to smile? – 500 of them
set out. What did they talk about aboard those old, wizened carriages?
Lassies they´d miss and bosses they wouldn´t? “Ah ken you, do I not?”
How hot will it be out there? Are you Hibs or Hearts?

The train pelted south. Imagine the countryside tripping by like a
film. Fond looks at familiar lands? Then lads laughing as wheels
bumped and jolted them. Somewhere ahead, railwaymen, railwaymen in a
casual mood, set their fate. Signals were not sent out. The troop
train struck another. An express engine clattered in.

The rest was hell and fire. Over 200 lives became names upon a list.
The parents of Napoleon Bonaparte Kerr wept rivers. It was all
Edinburgh could do.

Gretna processionMore A film and some words about Britain’s worst rail disaster

Postcard #7: Strathpeffer

The taxi driver was in the army. Eighteen years in the army. He tells me about some of the places he went to, some of the things he saw. I decide not to moan about my leaking shoes. When I mention the rain, he recalls the sound Afghan raindrops make on the roof of a British Army tent. I try to steer the conversation away from Helmand and towards the Highlands, but the driver is not for turning. “I lost my best mate out there. Blown to bits. That’ll be £7.60 please.” It’s an unconventional sign-off, I’ll give him that much.

At the hotel reception, there is a queue. Leading it is an American lady in a hotel-issue dressing gown. “Is my shower supposed to be cold, is that, like, a Scottish thing?” she asks the Spanish man behind the desk. He telephones someone called Stevie and says “the water has gone again”. I check in and squelch to my room. There is no milk for my cup of tea. I phone reception and get the Spaniard. “My apologies, sir. I’ll get  Stevie to bring you some.” Stevie never materialises. He has a lot on, I decide, and head out.


Strathpeffer has a calm beauty. It is solidly, reassuringly Victorian, all titan houses with frilly doorways fit for parasols and bulky skirts. Gardens are roomy, many with monkey puzzle trees, lush souvenirs of Victoriana. Decorative iron streetlamps line the main road, a dainty sentry guard. The Grand Spa Pavilion entices my eyes, suddenly the only girl in the room. Its crescent window is like a sad eye offering you a look into another time, but there is nothing morose about the place. It is a work of art, on the one hand evocatively Rule Britannia, on the other like a New England town hall. White and wooden, it is a portal taking the viewer somewhere pleasing. Here once tourists danced, here once locals fell in love. It was a place of learning and fiery oratory too: the walls whisper of the night Emmeline Pankhurst dropped in, of George Bernard Shaw holding court.

Strathpeffer’s setting adds to the feeling of being in another place, in another time. It sits beneath hills, onto which are lodged houses and hotels in cream and stone. It means a content feeling of being cut off from the rest of time and the world, hidden away, ghosting around. The wild west wooden shops are set back from the road and I feel cheated that they don’t have a balcony and a lone rocking chair swaying in the wind.

Inside the mini-market, a lazy store cat refuses to move away from the crisps section. Not even an ear flickers as I climb over it. Two women in their thirties are talking about a mutual acquaintance. “She gives me the boak, that woman. Ties my stomach in knots when she speaks.” The store noticeboard advertises a Snail Race.

Back outside the shop, a boy in that purgatory cusp between happy boyhood and intense teenagedom is on his bike. He is not riding anywhere, just circling, occasionally performing a wheelie. Growing up somewhere like this gives you a permanent sense of waiting for something, even if you never quite know what. In my village, it was waiting to leave. A dog tied to a lamppost looks on, an indifferent audience. It feels like both of them wish they had been raised not here but beneath the bright lights of Dingwall.

I walk down to the old railway station, last train departed 1946. Its autumn-red wooden plank walls have been kept exquisite, shops and things to look at or eat sold from within. The platform is intact too, but look down for tracks and all you see is long grass; listen out for steam rising and all you hear is a waterfall and happy birds. Occasionally railway station aromas waft by, scented ghosts hanging in the air – nothing specific, just tar or mucky steam water.  It’s all nice enough, this Little House on the Prairie end of the line, but a shame. Why not trains fizzing here from Inverness, bringing us to this glad timewarp of a town? Screw the sums and the feasibility studies. Give us life and railways.

Back by the shops, the bike boy is still prowling. My bus to Inverness pulls up 15 minutes late. The driver doesn’t take a fare, instead ushering me on. I am the only passenger and he turns up the radio during a news story about a murder in rural Scotland. I don’t know if it’s a good or a bad thing when we stop to pick up a school-age lad. Another couple of kids get on elsewhere, one carrying a trumpet. At least we can use it to bludgeon the murderous driver, I think. Somehow we arrive at Inverness unscathed. “Is this bus always free?” I ask trumpet boy. “Aye, it’s the school bus mate.” The driver gives me a friendly goodbye. … More Postcard #7: Strathpeffer

People’s History Show – trailer

Here’s the trailer for a brand new history programme I am co-presenting. The People’s History Show will be on STV Edinburgh and STV Glasgow every Monday night at 8.30. It will include my People’s Historian films about St Bernard’s FC, the Portobello Human Zoo, Edinburgh’s Closes, Edinburgh’s riots and many more (if it goes well, that is).

More People’s History Show – trailer

Postcards #6: a train south

At Barrhead, a lady in fingerless gloves gestures towards the train driver and convinces him to wait for her. She has bright red hair and milk-bottle glasses. “Ach, she’s no’ quite right” says the man in the seat behind me, before breathlessly moving to “Oh hello Sheila, hen” when she enters the carriage and he realises he knows her. “What you up to, darlin’?”

The train sounds ill. It is just after Christmas and everything has taken its toll. As it pulls into Dunlop it seems to let out a scream. Perhaps it is possessed by the Dunlop Warlock, Tam Giffen. In the 1860s Tam, say stories passed through air and time, did evil things, often with comical elements. Once, he tried to blow a roofer from the top of a house, but could blow only his wig off. In the end, Tam was killed by fairies for giving away their secrets. Shit happens, as they say. Or maybe not.


We trickle into Stewarton and I watch the breath clouds of cold people on the platform. They bellow in sequence as if rehearsing for a brass band. As the train stops an old lady appears suddenly at the window, startling me. She has lines and sadness on her face. She looks for someone or something in the carriage, her hand up against her forehead, and then walks away.

The train all but empties at Kilmarnock, spilling out lives and errands. Here is a neglected town speckled with old buildings worth caring about and thick prim houses on leafy hills.

On the spluttering train, there is no-one else around me and the Ayrshire day has decided to be beautiful. The sun does not climb beyond the blue sky’s knees, but it strains away and licks things golden. It lights bobbly countryside and low white cottages. Just as you expect to see Rabbie Burns himself emerging from such a cottage while pulling up his trousers, the 21st century slaps your chops: a road caked in lorries full of logistics; the noise of silver and bronze clinking and chinking in the pockets of the bored and fidgety train guard.

Neat, proud council estates half-mask the purging of Auchinleck, robbed blind when its mines shut. Maybe nothing seems so bad when you are but a stroll from air that smashes you in the face with its freshness. As if reacting in opposition, a man gets on with his roll-up still lit. The smell fills the carriage and feels foreign, exotic, historic even. I want him to light another.

New Cumnock and Kirkconnel are similar, though I imagine residents would not agree, and fair enough too. Stopped coal has changed lives. Two old ladies in purple get on at the former, spend their short journey talking about Eastenders, and alight at the latter. And all the while out of the window, the countryside gladdens me. It is still and spacious, an open palm as opposed to the clenched fists of the Highlands. The hills are not dramatic, but pleasing. Their outline resembles a dangerously slow heartbeat on a hospital bedside monitor.

The train heaves itself into Sanquhar. Two women with rhythmic accents which seem to jolt in places sit opposite me. One is in her twenties, the other, her Mum, in her fifties. Both have tiny tattoos of tea pots on their wrists. Mum opens a Fry’s Orange Cream and daughter takes the piece offered, which is also a tablet of permission for Mum to speak almost nonstop until Dumfries. “Ah said the wrong thing. I know I did. You cannae say anything to him. He’s obsessed with Aldi. Won’t even go in Lidl anymore.” There is brief respite when her phone rings: “Is that you Dougie? Aye, I knew `cos the wee screen said ‘Dougie’.” Then she continues. “You should see the size of the hoose. It’s too much for her. It’s even got a dining room! Ah’d love a dining room, I would.”

Dumfries station is as close as I have seen in Scotland to that of a model railway. On each side  steady Victorian redbrick buildings wear white brass shelters. I expect to see a porter clumsily rolling about a laden wooden luggage carrier with a lady in a fur coat walking ahead of him. The toots and fizzes of a steam train would fit more than the panting train I have stepped off. It seems to look onwards to Gretna and then Carlisle with dread.

An entire class of schoolchildren squeezes into the small station café. They queue in as orderly a manner as their hormones and personalities will allow them. Chips, chips and more chips are ordered. I join in. Four workmen in bright coats wedge themselves through the door and up the chip count further. I sit for an hour and watch the café empty. At 2 o’clock an ancient man shuffles in with great effort. “Portion of chips please, son” he croaks. “We’ve none left, I’m afraid,” replies the man behind the counter. The old man looks like he could cry, but he orders a toastie instead. … More Postcards #6: a train south

Postcards #5: Nairn

Their names are in a log book. Toppy, Ting-a-Ling and Whistling Dan. Dozy, Peekie Ralph and The Stoor. Big Ian, Bigger Ian and Mole Catcher. Indeed Indeed, Jimmy Two Times and Paraffin Tommy. There are hundreds more, from Browser to Watery Dan via Mad Golfer. Every one of them was a fisherman of Fishertown, Nairn. There were only a few real names to go around, so each became known by a characteristic, an incident or a misfortune. I stand in old Nairn Museum and feast upon every one of them.


“It’s ever so quiet in here,” says one museum volunteer to another, “I wish we could play music or something.” But the names and the stories are noises that speak to me. Old pieces of paper in gilded frames talk about Geordie Patience, who ‘was never known to have done a day’s work and lived entirely on his wits, and had a glib tongue and personality which made him acceptable and tolerated by everyone.’ They whisper the story of William Gordon, known as Tiptoe due to a foot injury. The injury left him crippled; he ‘spent his life fishing and rabbit trapping. He chatted to all the visitors at the harbour who would listen to his weird and imaginary tales.’ This is history by tittle-tattle and it makes for a dusty old heaven of a museum.

I walk back into town thinking about creases on sepia faces and sailors’ ganseys, each with a pattern unique to their boat. In the back room of a bakery is a café, all clinky-clanky and ‘och, I see that’s Tam Malcolm died now too’. A German couple poke at pasties with plastic forks and next to me a mother and daughter, both pensioners, chew the gristle. “It makes you go, but it doesn’t make you GO, go.” “I’ll have to try that. Sen-o-kot, did you say?”

The early evening high street is a soothing place to be. The air is crunchy and smells of young bonfires and the coming winter. This high street is sprinkled with independent shops of the sort that make standing and looking-on like watching a 1970s sitcom. Nairn: now in Technicolor. I half expect to see Frank Spencer zooming past Burnett and Forbes clothes store on rollerskates, almost knocking over an old lady leaving Clark’s of Nairn (‘Complete House Furnishers’) before smashing into the window of Pat Fraser Electrical Contractor (‘Radio, T/V, Video…Fishing and Shooting’).

Down another street is The Nairn Pet Shop, ‘Pets Birds Fish etc Upstairs’. In smalltown Scotland, the intrigue is always in the etc. Postcard adverts in the Co-op offer ‘Victorian Antique Mixer Bath Taps £10’ and ‘Victorian Style Bath Taps £15.’ There is too a mattress for sale, ‘Only used occasionally’. In Bloomers a florist neatly sets out tomorrow’s delivery on the front desk. It is four flowery letters which together read ‘GRAN’.

I cross an impolitely busy road into Fishertown. The scale changes, Duplo to Lego. Tiny adjoined cottages peck at the cheeks of thin streets which crisscross eachother. Here lived the tightest of communities, fisherfolk separate from the hoity-toity Nairn folk uphill. They built their houses side-by-side, their backs turned to the sea which gave them work and sometimes death, shunning the other world.  I walk along Society Street and see the sturdy Seaman’s Victoria Hall. In the days of Toppy and Ting-a-Ling, this hall was a social and cultural beehive for fisher families: weddings and parties, political meetings and Band of Hope classes that ended in rousing songs about the evil of drink.

Dark is falling, the glow and scent of the Friar Tuck Chippy calling. I eat my chips outside, as God intended, ambling beneath old lights which once knew only gas and gossip. I reach the harbour, and then hear sea slapping at walls, ringing last orders for the beach it will soon hide. Oil rig lights can be seen in the distance, for there are still pennies in the ocean just as Jimmy Two Times and Paraffin Tommy always said. Water that could have come from the sea or the sky lashes my face and I have never felt more awake. All I need now is a tale from Tiptoe.

I settle for the pub. “Twenty-three years I’ve been on my own now” says a lady to her gin. Two men in golf jumpers, their faces ruddy yet tanned so that they resemble the surface of Mars, talk about a bar they once went in. “Wall-to-wall homosexuals, John. I didn’t know where to look.” I make mine a half and walk back into town, finding the war memorial. Chiselled letters recall that one of many lost boys was Private George I. Wildgoose. This is a town of names and yarns. It has a glint in one eye and a tear in the other. … More Postcards #5: Nairn