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

Postcards #4: Saltcoats

The town hall clock has stopped. It hasn’t worked for years, a lady in the café tells me. She tells me this shortly after she has asked me if I know anything about Henry vacuum cleaners as hers is playing up.


The clock is one marker of decay, the sealed-off promenade area another. When the waves aren’t climbing over the wall and scratching your face, the Isle of Arran is visible from here. Then comes Ailsa Craig, a crumbly pyramid. The skies are big, the seas gloopy and tempting. I walk to Nonsuch Amusements, where a teenage boy skives school to put pence in slots. Orange and red lights flash against his pale face, his eyes besotted with apples and pears, pushes and holds. I look at him and I want to believe that one day the joke will be on the boys and girls who swotted up and studied hard, that one day he will make a home and a name but most of all dollars for himself in Las Vegas.

The high street has a sad shell but a busy heart. A church has become Best Buys (‘Everything £1’). It sits near Pound Express and the Pound Plus Mart. The pound goes far in Saltcoats, if you avoid the amusements. A shivering old man in a kilt walks by me and waves a gentle hello to a lady selling the Big Issue. “I’ll get mine the night, Magda hen” he assures her. “Give me a smile” says a graduate-voiced twenty-something in a deceptively expensive woolly hat. He has fingerless gloves and a clipboard and wants me to hear about Greenpeace. I avoid him but a second clipboard warrior is not far behind, like the mole-bashing game back at the amusement arcade. These are Direct Debit magpies, bussed into a poor area full of people with sound hearts. I stand and watch one of them nearly walk into a bloke in overalls. “Look where you’re going” he shouts, “and not at that bloody phone.”

Queues linger in Alex Bicket Quality Butcher and men sense a snifter in the Labour Club can be had before ‘she’ finishes her appointment in Salon 71, home of ‘Massage Body Treatments Cosmetic Injections Teeth Whitening Ear Piercing’. It is a busy, breathing, Usborne book of a town centre, albeit one whose pages are curling at the corners.

Beyond it, there are two grand theatres gone by, one now a Wetherspoon’s, and rows of wide streets where Victorian boarding houses have become family flats. Here streamed the Fair Fortnight Glaswegians, because after the pavement comes the beach. There is no plaque, but in one of these homes was born Otto Kiep, a man killed by the Nazi regime for plotting against Adolf Hitler. History daubs the streets as it always does in smalltown Scotland. Where there are bricks there are stories.

I walk slowly along towards the sea, looking into these houses and catching glances of lives. Three men watching daytime television and laughing. Shift workers from somewhere east? Lonely unemployed Dads finding solace in human company and property programmes? An old man on his own with an empty budgie cage. Where is the budgie? Exercising or buried in the backyard? A young Mum and a smiling bairn, both of them lost in each other’s eyes and in the exultancy of besotted, unreasoning parent-child love. A dog walker asks me if I am lost and I suppose I am, really.

Down by the harbour I stand and look outwards, to islands then…Newfoundland? The seafront stretches languidly, to Ardrossan one way and Stevenston the other, ‘The Three Towns’. I try to hear yesterday’s whispers in the wind, the bustle of holidays being had, of people rolling up and rolling up to shows at the Beach Pavilion. A gust shoves some clouds apart and ushers in the shy sun. It closes its eyes, counts to three and then lets out an almighty burst of sunrays. They skim the sea and illuminate the bricks of Saltcoats houses.

At Greggs I sit-in, underneath an old bicycle strapped to the wall, or perhaps a replica of an old bicycle made in a factory to be strapped to a wall. A daughter tells her baffled mother about graffiti: “It’s a competition thing. They have to get their Tags everywhere.” “But, why?”, pleads her Mum. I talk to a lady called Marion who moved to Saltcoats during the war when her home in Clydebank was bombed. In early peacetime, she tells me, Marion and her family hated the Germans and the Japanese. “Then you meet them, and they’re all just the same as us really, all just trying to live their lives and be happy.” She puts on her anorak. “Ach well,” says Marion, “It’s not such a bad place, this. It just needs someone to smile on it.” … More Postcards #4: Saltcoats