Dan Dare: Pilot with Two Futures


(This article was first published in Spaceship Away 29, Spring 2013, copies of which, and other back issues and subscriptions, are available via the Spaceship Away website.

Spaceship Away is published three times a year and, in addition to new strips, features and articles about the classic Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future of the much-missed Eagle comic, also features long-forgotten strips and stories starring other science-fiction heroes of the period.)

Dare the Future

Spaceship Away has always concerned itself with Frank Hampson’s Dan Dare, including the work by other hands that ended with Eagle‘s cancellation in 1969. From time to time there have been mentions of some of the later versions in 2000AD and the New Eagle, though, Keith Watson’s glorious contributions aside, I’ve tended to find that they could have been perfectly good stories if they hadn’t been saddled with Dan’s name.
But there have been two attempts to do a more mature, darker Dan Dare, a version of the character that is both true to Dan’s past but which sets that past against a much changed future, and it’s worth comparing these two stories, to see if either of them are successful.
The first of these appeared from IPC in 1991, by Grant Morrison (script) and Rian Hughes (art). The story appeared in Revolver 1-7, with the final episode appearing in Crisis 56 after Revolver‘s cancellation. It’s a brief story, eight episodes of 8 pages, and was collected in a single volume, under the name of “Dare” that is now ultra-rare.
The brevity of “Dare” does it no favours. There’s no room for subtlety, or indeed thoughtfulness, though given certain aspects of the story, it’s tempting to be thankful that Morrison – a young Scottish writer who has gone on to be phenomenally successful in the American comic book industry – wasn’t given more room to extend his travesty.
The story introduces Dan as a recluse, an invalid reliant on a cane. Mentally, he’s naïve, clinging to a simple certainty about the world that’s irrelevant to the modern day. At every moment, Dan just doesn’t understand.
He’s drawn out of seclusion to attend Professor Peabody’s funeral, Jocelyn having committed suicide, another in a series of scientists who’ve died whilst working on a food substitute programme (a nod to the Venus story). At Peabody’s funeral, Dan meets the Prime Minister, Mrs Gloria Munday.
I would describe Mrs Munday as a thinly-veiled representation of Margaret Thatcher if that did not discredit the subtleties in previous thinly-veiled representations everywhere. Munday is seeking re-election for the Unity Party and wants to use Dan, and his nostalgic appeal to older, better times, as propaganda.
Also at the funeral is Digby, but he rejects Dan’s approaches. Digby – a northerner and therefore, in this story, the soul of decency because he’s working class, see – has shunned his Colonel for years, since they put down a Treen rebellion during which Dan, following orders without thinking as he tended to do, killed women and children.
But Digby is prepared to show Dan what Munday’s Britain is really like, how the North is being beaten down, neglected, repressed. Digby persuades Dan that there’s something more behind Peabody’s suicide, that the project on which she and the other dead scientists are working has a sinister aspect. They find a tape left by Peabody, detailing that ‘Manna’ is a biomass made by breaking down the bodies of unwanted humans (northerners, of course) in league with the Treens.
Digby is killed getting Dan away, whilst Dan almost immediately loses the tape to the Government, he being an out-of-date simpleton. Mrs Munday is revealed, as if this is going to be a surprise, to be working with the Mekon. Dan mouths empty platitudes but is hauled off by the Police
But Dan Dare always saves the day. In keeping with his intellect, his knack for improvisation and his unending optimism, Dan has, as instructed by Digby, left a thermos flask in Anastasia’s cockpit. It contains a thermonuclear device powerful enough to vaporise London and all its inhabitants, including the Mekon, Mrs Thatch… Munday and Dan himself, not to mention giving Morrison the opportunity for a pretentious ending: the bomb wipes the page clean of everything but white, which dissolves into an artboard waiting for an artist to draw upon it, complete with a ‘voiceover’ from Frank Hampson at a low point in his life, wishing Dan Dare would ‘lay down and die’.
All in all, “Dare” is a pretty thorough act of arrogance and contempt towards another person’s creation, an attitude that reaches its nadir just before the end when Morrison unsubtly suggests that Dan is going to be subject to unpleasant sexual assault. But “Dare”’s biggest problem is that it’s not a Dan Dare story: Dan and his world is simply a shallow peg onto which is hung a political story whose ‘satire’ is delivered in a limp and amateurish fashion that would disgrace a student rag.
As to the art, let’s absolve Rian Hughes from responsibility. His style, based as it is in the European ligne clair tradition, doesn’t fit the world of Spacefleet at all, but he was chosen for that very reason. And, given what he’s called on to illustrate, he’s not totally unsuited for what is pretty much a cartoon story. His Dan and Digby are recognisable for who they ought to be, as is Anastasia, and I’d actually take his version of the Mekon over several of the IPC versions that have preceded it.

The image of a decent man

It’s perhaps unsurprising that there should have been no other attempts at a mature Dan Dare for a ecade-and-a-half, until the 2007/8 seven issue series from the short-lived Virgin Comics, written by Garth Ennis and drawn by Gary Erskine. With the final issue double-sized, this story ran to 176 pages, and Ennis takes full advantage of the additional space to produce a fully-rounded story in which the political points he wishes to make – more sympathetic to Dan’s worldview, and far more nuanced – can be woven into a story that’s more than just a coathanger.
Structurally there are surprising similarities between the Virgin series and “Dare”. Dan is again introduced as a reclusive exile, he is drawn back into the outside world by a Prime Minister clearly meant to represent the current incumbent and is reunited with Digby. Professor Peabody once again plays a substantial role in the story, without meeting Dan, Digby dies again, and the PM is once again in league with the Mekon. But all the relationships are very different from in “Dare” and, crucially, Ennis is not writing with contempt for Dan Dare and all that he stands for.
This came as no little surprise. Ennis, from Northern Ireland, has also enjoyed considerable success in America, primarily with the excellent Preacher, a tough, violent, irreligious and provocative piece of work. He’s an iconoclast whose instinct is to subvert heroic ideals: hardly someone you’d expect to approach Dan Dare with great respect.
And yet he does. Because Ennis also is a student of war and battle, and he has a tremendous empathy for the men who do the job, who get their hands dirty, and the camaraderie of men who fight and kill together. And Dan Dare, for all that he is foremost a pacifist, is still a military man: a commander who has seen action, who has fought for and protected his men and not spent their lives wastefully. To my surprise, Ennis ‘got’ Dan Dare, and Dan’s ideals, and he presented them with respect: yes, as something that was the product of another age, and perhaps a little simplistic, but ideals that were worth having, and that were worth fighting for, even in a compromised future that, in certain respects, was very like our own compromised age.
Dan, as before, is in exile, seemingly in an idyllic South Downs village, with cricket on the green and a friendly local, all of which is merely a holograph projection on a private base in the asteroid belt. But this exile is self-imposed: after Earth’s unity disintegrated, after China and America bombed each other into ruin, after England became master of the world by exploiting and robbing, instead of helping, the other surviving countries, Dan left Earth, unable to bear the betrayal of the former ideals of the UN and Spacefleet, all his battles rendered worthless.
But there are rumours of action by the Mekon, which is why the PM who has guided England on this path the last decade, comes to Dan to ask him to take over the Fleet and defend Earth again.
This Prime Minister is Tony Blair-manqué, a trimmer, a man without convictions, other than that he’s indispensable. It’s no surprise to quickly learn that he’s in thrall to the Mekon, and that he’s a coward who’s prepared to sacrifice all of Britain’s defences, including Dan Dare, superficially in order to minimise casualties, but primarily in order to maintain his role as ‘leader’. Even the Mekon sneers at him.
But Dan answers the call, though the PM clearly can’t understand why, especially as Dan plainly despises him. He receives an explanation he’s incapable of understanding from his Home Secretary: ten years ago, she was his Chief Science Officer and she’s still not lost the scientist’s need to know and understand, which drives her into a position of authority over the Government in the latter half of the story. She is, of course, Professor Jocelyn Peabody.
Dan prepares to take up his command in the wake of the Mekon’s first attack on the Fleet (a version of the Royal Navy, replete with all its traditions, has succeeded to the defunct Spacefleet). He’s assigned to the damaged Achilles where he meets his old friend Digby – an avuncular but sardonic friend – and his new friend, Sub-Lieutenant Christian, ranking officer in command.
Ms Christian is never given a first name, but I will go to my grave swearing that it must be Alexandra, or “Lex” Christian.
The story takes an unnecessary diversion onto a colony planet threatened by Treen-created Bug-Eyed Monsters, things unworthy of Dan’s world, and unworthy of this story. But Ennis makes use of this excursion to flesh out his Dan in splendid fashion, to introduce the Royal Marines, and to give Dan and Dig the opportunity to revive the old partnership a final time.

Old friends meet

Because, when rescue shuttles arrive from a fleet that, under Ms Christian, is defying the PM’s order to fly into an ambush, Dan and Dig get in different shuttles and are transported to different ships. Dan returns to Achilles, leading a fleet suddenly under threat from Treens, and needing minutes to escape from destruction. Those minutes are bought for everyone when Temeraire breaks formation to carry out a head-on attack. When Dan contacts the ship’s commander, we are shocked, but not surprised, to hear Digby’s voice.
Digby goes to his death honourably, in the series’ most emotional moment, saving his Colonel one final time, doing his duty to his country. Dan is shell-shocked, but conceals his pain as a man of his generation was taught to do: their farewell conversation is light and confident but no less emotional for that.
Meanwhile, on Earth, Peabody has worked out the PM’s schemes, he has fled to join his master, and Peabody becomes effectively the PM. From here on, except during the Battle for Neptune, a fight that assumes the same importance as the Battle of Britain that the PM has never heard of, she and Dan are in subspace communication, during which a complex understory can be read between the lines these two can speak to one another.
The Battle of Neptune, and Dan’s final confrontation with the Mekon, dominates the remainder of the story. Though he remains the cold dictator he has always been, the Mekon has been finally tainted with hate. Denied his chance to torture Dan into infinity, he attacks from a position of strength that is not enough. It ends with Dan running the Mekon through with a sword, in honour of Digby. Perhaps not a thing our Dan would even consider, but autre temps, autre mores. This Dan has learned that finality is necessary.
Perhaps aptly, the story ends with Peabody, awaiting news, planning to run herself for Prime Minister, determined on a platform of restoring Britain to its real greatness, in decency, fairness and honesty, not in power and deceit, a platform we would all of us love to see enacted in real life. A platform made possible by the report of victory, made possible once again by Dan Dare.
So far as the art is concerned, Gary Erskine is a typically comic-book photorealist, with a decent, if not outstanding, command of facial expressions. His figure work is sometimes stiff, but his technical art is good. His Dan has the twisted eyebrows, his Digby the white hair and the broad, open face and his Peabody is an attractive but not spectacular or sexy redhead, but except in these respects, they are not recognisable as the faces we know. Nor, in uniforms or technology, is there any continuity from Hampson’s era. Only the Mekon and the Treens are rendered faithfully.
This decision seems strange in that Erskine can draw the Dan of old, as he demonstrates in issue 3. But it’s ironic, really, that after so many visually consistent representations of Dan Dare that haven’t had an ounce of the spirit of the character, this series should ignore visual continuity yet come closer than any before to channelling the essence of the man.
And so it ended. I may be in a minority, but to me the story brought Dan into a later life, not unchanged, but still familiar. He was a Dan Dare that I could recognise and believe in, a Dan Dare, and a Professor Peabody, who still carried within them the ideals of a better, stronger time, all the hopes and dreams we had when we read the Pilot of the Future for the first time: ideals that had been betrayed and tarnished as they have been by years of Government by reference to private gain and personal power, but ideals that Ennis could put to the front of his story and hold up as things that needed to return.
And they would have done, perhaps, if Virgin Comics hadn’t collapsed and gone under. There is no permanent collection of this story*, only the individual issues for as long as they can be found, and a reportedly substandard over-sized money-grabbing hardback of issues 1-3. The hardback collection promised in September 2008, on the inside back cover of the final issue, and the new series coming in the ‘Fall’ of that year, never materialised. More’s the pity in the case of the latter.

*Not so. I subsequently discovered that Dynamite Entertainment published a paperback collection in 2009 that clearly went massively under-publicised, and which is no longer in print. Scour eBay and Amazon for copies, and keep your pocket full of money!

The (Other) Phantom Fleet


(Originally published in Spaceship Away 23, Spring 2011)

Despite the failings of Marooned on Mercury and Prisoners of Space, Dan Dare’s 1958 adventure The Phantom Fleet holds the distinction of being the most criticised story of Frank Hampson’s career. It is known mainly for being the only story where Eagle editor Marcus Morris intervened, demanding it be cut short.

But does The Phantom Fleet deserve its reputation as too slow and dull? It is certainly full of flaws, but I believe the worst of these come after the point where Morris stepped in; especially the pathetic ending. Is it possible, at this remove, to look through the story we know, and catch glimpses of the other Phantom Fleet, the story Hampson might have produced if he had been left to his own devices as usual?

Before we can do this, we need to understand the context in which the story appeared, both on and off the page.

Behind the scenes, everything appears settled. The team has been long-established at Bayford Lodge, the years of insane hours are, if not over, somewhat reduced, and Alan Stranks has been the scripter for the past four years, freeing Hampson to concentrate upon Dan Dare’s direction and future.

All is not well though. Hampson is drawing less and less personally, and wants to stop entirely, to establish himself as a director of assistants working to his requirements. The team is, after all, good enough for this. But slowly his bitterness and frustration at not being able to expand Dan Dare as he has always envisaged – into the American market, into animation – is beginning to eat at him. Only the previous year, he has submitted – and withdrawn – his resignation.

As for The Phantom Fleet itself, the story began on 25th April 1958 (Eagle volume 9 no 17) faced with an insurmountable problem, namely The Man from Nowhere Trilogy. For just short of three years, Hampson and Co had guided their audience through non-stop, high-power adventure, for great stakes: a planetary invasion to foil, the Earth to liberate from the Mekon. And suddenly, after literally longer than most of Dan’s readers could remember, they had a new story to read. A new story, with new dangers, new opponents, new problems, all of which had to be set up. The non-stop action of three whole years has, literally, had to stop.

There was another problem about The Phantom Fleet, though it’s far more apparent to us now, since it is an element that in 1958 would have exercised neither Hampson or his readers, and that is the almost total lack of continuity to the just concluded Trilogy.

True, Stripey is on hand, and Lex O’Malley, and in the first episode we see Crusoe and Friday (though they vanish completely thereafter). But Spacefleet is back up to full strength, an entire fleet of alien ships enters the Solar System unnoticed and, after ten years of devastation at the Mekon’s hands, when it is proposed that a wholly unknown alien race should colonise one of Earth’s oceans, only a single member of the World Government Cabinet seriously objects – and he is made to appear an extremist! And if that is not enough, the Treens – recent conquerors of Earth – are already allowed their own, independently controlled fleet of fighting spaceships!

But at least the story gets off to a galloping start: a sudden total breakdown of system-wide communications, spaceships in peril, Sir Hubert missing, a mysterious ship seen by Digby alone, Anastasia captured by the ‘Clustaships’ and the brainwashing of Sir Hubert who announces the intended surrender of Earth to – the Cosmobes! No complaints at the first eight episodes, surely?

Then, abruptly, the storyline changes. The Cosmobes are revealed to be small and cute, the idea that they plan to take over Earth and shape it to their needs is completely forgotten, and the newcomers just want help: a single ocean to occupy. It’s the Crypts all over again; especially once the Cosmobes reveal that they’re being pursued by a hereditary enemy, the Pescods. Even more so when we discover that the Cosmobes are not above lying and manipulating for their own benefit. Dan Dare is put into a sticky situation when, having used his influence to get the Cabinet to allow for a Cosmobe ship to descend to Spacefleet HQ for examination, the Cosmobes, having won safe passage through Earth’s defences, promptly split (literally) and invade the ocean.

All this takes place against the imminent arrival of the Pescods, the ‘real’ enemy (or so the Cosmobes maintain). The Pescods are pursuing the Cosmobes, or are they? The Pescod fleet makes its first appearance in the vicinity of Venus: did the Cosmobes sneak past Venus and out past Earth, or are the Pescods entering the Solar System from a different sector?

There is to be no time to think about that one because it is now the point at which we must address the question of when Morris ordered the story to be cut short. Sadly, no-one now recalls at what point that instruction came out, and we must rely on the story itself for any indications we can find.

For 23 episodes, Frank Hampson’s signature has appeared on page 1, just under the title, even though Don Harley is doing most of the principal drawing. Suddenly, the signature disappears on 4 October 1958 (volume 9, no 40), and so does Hampson and his team. The art is now done by Desmond Walduck. This seems to be the obvious point where Morris intervened. It’s easy to see Hampson surrendering control of the story whilst he sat down to plan the next epic adventure, and Walduck being called back to run the story down.

Given that at this point the story starts to crumble to pieces, the case seems conclusive. But there are still 13 more episodes before the story is over, and would Morris have agreed that three months was ‘cutting it short’? What’s more, four weeks later, Hampson and his team return for another three episodes before vanishing again, this time for good. Given that Hampson had to come up with something better, a six week wrap-up seems more reasonable.

Nevertheless, my instinct has always been to see Walduck’s introduction as the turning point, and the collapse of the story from this point onwards is, for me, the most important evidence. From here to the end, things are dire.

The Cosmobes come up for air, the Navy see them as cute, want to take them home as pets, and even Lex O’Malley is almost prepared to mutiny against the idea of hunting them down. Then the Pescod fleet arrives. The Pescods, being water-breathing creatures, unable to live on land, head straight for the ocean. Except for one ship, which lands in the most inimical surroundings, the desert, for no apparent reason except to make itself available to attack. As for the Cosmobes, who have publicly betrayed their word and invaded Earth, all it takes is for Professor Peabody to tell the World Government that the Cosmobes are our friends and they are immediately declared allies.

Dan’s attack on the desert ship is ineffective, so he sets out to get himself and Digby taken as captives. They’re actually making headway in disabling the vessel, but a rescue ship turns up and drags them off to the ocean. Was the point of the desert diversion to take human prisoners? If so, why are Dan and Digby left in an inadequate cell, with no guards and every possible exit opened? They escape, rendering their attempts to get captured pointless, at which point Lex chivvies everyone out of the area as the Pescods are burrowing into the base of Krakatoa. Which duly explodes, blasting the entire fleet to smithereens.

If nothing else, this ending makes The Phantom Fleet unique. It is the only story in which Dan Dare is completely ineffectual, and it makes the Pescods are the only creatures in the entire Hampson canon to be wholly without redeeming factors. Even the Space Bees of the Red Moon are allowed to be a tragic accident of nature.

We know that neither of these things had any place in Dan Dare’s universe, and in Frank Hampson’s perceptions. So can we, at this long remove, look at this disregarded story and try to see it as Frank Hampson might have done?

If we go back to the final episode before Walduck, and the Cosmobes don’t surface to look cute, what then happens? Perhaps the Cosmobes disappear into the depths, difficult to reach, but the arrival of the Pescods makes them the more pressing problem. The Cabinet agrees, reluctantly, to postpone pursuing the Cosmobe problem. Dan and Digby manage to get taken captive, which brings them before the Pescod High Command. The Pescods have no use for the surface and offer a strict non-interference agreement: humans don’t go underwater, they don’t go on land. And the Pescods will accept no interference with their vendetta against the Cosmobes.

Dan brings this ultimatum to the Cabinet, who are not prepare to accept it. As they have two invasions to face, some members suggest letting the Pescods deal with the Cosmobes for them: Dan and Sir Hubert are outraged and the Prime Minister agrees that this breaks all Earth’s fundamental principles. So what do they do?

Dan faces possible court martial for bringing the Cosmobes to Earth. He volunteers to track down their base, both to establish contact and give them chance to explain their breach of trust, and to seek aid against the Pescods. The Ultimobes explain their desperation to set up defences against the Pescods in time, and freely offer to share these with humanity. World Government agrees an alliance, and a treaty ratifying the Cosmobe presence if they can help rid the Earth of the Pecods.

Dan, however, is unhappy about plotting the genocide of the Pescod race. With Cosmobe aid he constructs a trap which, if sprung, will destroy the arrogant Pescods, but which he plans to use as a lever to force their total evacuation. The Pescod High Command is captured and required to surrender or see their entire race destroyed. They do so, reluctantly, and are forced to accept a situation where their weapons are neutralised and they are escorted out of the Solar System.

Between the need to strike a different attitude towards others now they cannot be so belligerent, and the High Command being impressed with Earth’s approach in not simply destroying them, there are grounds to hope that the Pescods will learn peace from the example of Earth.

This, I submit, is a far finer, far more Hampson-like conclusion to The Phantom Fleet. It is, impossible to suggest that this might be, in any way, what Frank Hampson had in mind when Marcus Morris told him to cut his latest story short and come up with something better. But I believe it to be far closer to the aims and purposes of Dan Dare’s creator than the illogical mess that resulted from those instructions, and I also believe that if The Phantom Fleet had taken such a course, considerably more of its audience would have enjoyed and respected it, both in 1958 and 2011.

A Tribute to Clive James on his 60th birthday


Originally published in a privately published book featuring tributes to Clive James from members of the Midnight Voices mailing list/Smash Flops web-site, dedicated to the life and works of Pete Atkin and Clive James – http://www.peteatkin.com/pa.htm

When I sat down to select a favourite Clive James lyric, I knew it wouldn’t be easy. A few seconds thought was all that was needed to have a dozen phrases ringing in my head, moments of sharp perception, elegant twists that suddenly allow you to see a commonplace situation or emotion from a reverse angle.

Some of those songs were simple love songs – or at least as simple as they get with Clive. I thought of The Flowers and the Wine, and the outward bravado of: “When you set the date for tête-à-têtes like these / what tells you that I count the days between / except my nothing-caring air of ease?”. I remembered Between us there is nothing and the constant, elegant shifts in perspective, from the proximity of the beloved – “Between us, the wristwatch comes to rest” – and the wider, uncaring world of the fantastic, yet natural: “the trainee seagulls contour-flying / through the swells long trough and crest”. I imagined Tongue-Tied, and that plea to be allowed eloquence when: “the poems that start out / by eating my heart out / are lost on the air.”

And there were the newer songs – newer to me at least – like The Magic wasn’t There and the times when “you even weep for what did not take place”, or The Standards of Today and all of those who “never had the temperament, I guess / for less”

But there were also those vistas of the fantastic, the sweeping and dramatic, or the allegorical that nevertheless fold into the intensely personal. The Rider to the Worlds End traverses “the broken bottle forests” and “the fields of ash” but their devastation is nothing beside “a suddenly relaxing set of knuckles never rapped against a door”. The Tenderfoot “moves by echoes through the cold formations”, “journey(ing) where the sky meets the sierra / that every man alive must one day cross”, but the torment is nothing beside the realisation that “his pride at never being sentimental / was just another way to be unkind”. And the magnificence of the yachts and yachtsmen, coming and going into harbour beneath The Faded Mansion on the Hill that houses “the out of date black Cadillac / with the old man crumpled in the back / that Time has not yet found the time to kill”.

And let’s not forget the stories. Those moments when a person sits and contemplates, taking in their surroundings and the circumstances that have brought them to this place and this pass, like Payday Evening (beloved of MV’s and needing no further explication here), or – a personal epiphany here – Thirty Year Man, as the veteran tinkles at the piano in the dark, aware of the moment when the glistening turns away from reflecting a devotional object and becomes “bones at the end of a cave”.

But how can I ignore Sunlight Gate? The precision, the balance, the falling away of instrumentation as the heroes ranks are winnowed, as they return, when “their faces are never the same”.

Or The Wristwatch for a Drummer and that mad, glorious piling of rhymes on top of one another until it seems impossible Pete will have the breath to sing them: “a warning bell that tells you when you’re overstaying / your tentative welcome with the paying / customers in the deep, decaying / cellar club with the stained and fraying / velvet drapes and the stooped and praying / owner”.

Or the smooth velvet of Perfect Moments, sliding by, an easy, feet-up recollection of all those things that ease our passage through the void, “Charlie Chaplin policing Easy Street / Charlie Parker playing My Old Flame” – but nothing is ever perfect except: “the perfect bitch, it doesn’t work that way”.

But I see that now I’m talking about the music. That’s alright, so I should, because these are songs, not poems. Clive knows the difference well, knows that songs are meant to be sung, would be nothing without the music, without Pete and everything he’s contributed.

So I come to the last two songs on the ‘short’ list, both from A King at Nightfall, the 1973 album championed by Noel Edmonds (a pox on his name, save for this) that first drew my ears. I was thrilled by The Last Hill that shows you all the Valley, an idealists song, written as a lament but for Pete seeing what Clive didn’t, turning it into a surge of anger, set to a marching beat. But what are those helicopters doing on the Walls of Troy?

I wanted to tape that but the last song Edmonds ever played from that album turned out to be Carnations on the Roof and I had to settle for that. Skittery, skittish in sound, disjointed, jerky, yes. But I wrote down the words and I studied them, reading a picture of an ordinary man at the end of his life.

“Though he had no great gifts of personality or mind / he was generally respected, and the proof / was a line of hired Humbers lagging quietly behind / a fat Austin Princess with carnations on the roof”.

My dad had died just a couple of years before, when I was 14. He was no-one special, except to us. Clive’s words could have been for him. I chose that they were. So many of Clive’s words, in verse or prose, move, amuse, touch, illuminate me, but they deal with things I want to understand, to know or learn about. So few of them speak to me so directly about my own life.

In the end, we choose our favourites by what they mean to us. Thank you, Clive.

The Leaving Of Manchester United


Originally published in ‘Team Talk’ issue 93, August/September 1999, an official Football Association magazine aimed at fans of non-League football.

(Unrevised, despite my desperate desire to make it much more readable.)

Even before the disgraceful decision by Manchester United to withdraw from next season’s FA Cup, I had decided that the European Champions League Final would be my last game. Instead of the polished magnificence of Old Trafford – and the football that comes with it – I would be heading into the Millenium in the much humbler surroundings of the Butchers Arms, watching Unibond League football with Droylsden.

Football fans who change their loyalties don’t usually get a good press. Your team is your team, good bad or indifferent, right? Those who trade up for something better, like our dear friend David Mellor or the amorphous mass of United’s ever-increasing non-Travelling Army, are only fit to be looked on with scorn anyway.

But at least their impulse is understandable, if regrettable. How do you account for those who trade down, who go the other way? What makes an otherwise normal-seeming fan, who has been an Old Trafford regular for nine years, give up the biggest team in the land, the winners of the Treble and a season ticket that used to be even more prized than a declaration of affection from Michelle Pfeiffer, give it all up for non-League football.

In my case, it started four years ago, before the season ticket came my way, when I decided to spend a year following Droylsden again. With Old Trafford’s capacity being cut to accommodate the construction of the massive North Stand, I figured that I wasn’t going to be getting tickets for the 1995/96 season and I shouldn’t torture myself with vain effort.

Which left me with the problem of what to do for a season.

The Bloods (as they are known) had been my team as a kid, before I discovered United when living in Nottingham during the Brain Clough One-League-Championship-and-two-European-Cups era (long story, don’t ask). I couldn’t imagine shouting for any other team, not even my ‘local’ side, Stockport County. Droylsden it was.

As it happened, I was obviously too pessimistic: I didn’t miss a game at Old Trafford and even took in the Double Double Cup Final against Liverpool. None of which prevented me from getting to more than two dozen matches with the Bloods, nor from the decision that I would carry on following Droylsden the next year, as well as the Reds.

I’m not entirely sure what prompted that decision. It wasn’t the football, not with a last day relegation on goal difference (with exactly 100 League goals conceded, that came as no surprise). Nor was it all due to the fact that I was now fulfilling the fantasy of being a sports journalist, doing match reports for not just the programme but also a local free paper – complete with ‘Press Card’.

There was just something about Droylsden which brought out a different level of commitment in me, and which provided a different kind of experience. I may be dipping into the territory of WSC cliché here, but where else could I watch a team that might dominate a game for 40 minutes, concede three penalties, save two of them and still get stuffed 4-0? (My very first away game).

Since then, I’ve been doubling up on football: a Season Ticket at United and an ever-increasing number of games with Droylsden. I became known at the Butchers Arms, so much so that when the programme editor left, I was invited to replace him: for the past two season, the Bloods Review has been my responsibility (and half the time my sole work).

But everybody knew, and everybody accepted that United came first, and that if the Reds were at home, you wouldn’t see me at Droylsden. That applied until the closing weeks of this last season.

United may have gone on to win the Treble, but they weren’t the only team chasing multiple honours. There was an FA Cup run that only ended in the Fourth Qualifying Round – and we still say that if Carl Holmes had been able to play off his suspension beforehand, Leigh RMI wouldn’t have been the ones facing Kevin Keegan and Fulham. There were two dozen Cup wins in different competitions over higher level opposition, including the winning of the Presidents Cup against Leigh, at Leigh. There was the promotion race. And there was the First Division Championship.

I was still putting United first, until it became a choice between an Old Trafford match and the game in which the Bloods could secure promotion. Contrary to every prior instinct, I found the second choice was more important so, whilst United were over-running a Sheffield Wednesday side that, apparently, would have had to have been twice as good to be a pushover, I was at Harrogate Town where only results elsewhere spoilt the party.

That might have been once, but Droylsden’s last match of the season also clashed with United, and with promotion guaranteed, this now meant the Championship. For a second time, I gave up my season Ticket, and for a second time I found I didn’t miss it.

And that was before the longest three minutes of my life, the ones where, with the Bloods having scored the necessary two goal win, I stood there on the mobile phone to our rivals Hucknall Town, sweating on whether they would score the injury time goal that would snatch the title out of our grasp. The whole ground – players, coach, manager, Committee and crowd – waited on my signal that we’d done it!

United’s season still had three games left, against Spurs at Old Trafford, against Newcastle at Wembley and against Bayern at the Nou Camp, and I was going to all of them. Three games, with three trophies riding on them, and with a decision to take over whether I would have any more afterwards.

When you follow two teams, eventually you have to choose which one claims the bigger part of your loyalty. Which one would you rather watch? Or, more importantly, which one would you rather not miss?

When one of those teams is Manchester United, the most attractive, exciting and talented team in the country, the answer should be obvious. Which is not to denigrate Droylsden, who are no run-of-the-mill kick and rush non-League outfit but a talented and football-playing team in their own right. But you can’t compare the football, can you?

You can compare what goes with the football however. The fact remains that at Old Trafford, I am a face in a crowd of 55,000, no more nor less important than anyone else. Worse however, to United, I am less than that. To United I mean the money I spend, and frankly they’d rather I sent that and didn’t turn up.

To the players as well, I’m an often irrelevant concern. When they want my support, such as big European nights when the opposition is fearsome, it’s a different story, but there are too many games when the players show no thought for me, games where they could and should be winning by six and seven goals, but in which they decide to play only as well as they need to, and if two goals are all that’s needed to win, two goals is all they’ll bother scoring. When people complain of the lack of atmosphere at Old Trafford, they rarely question the part the team plays in dampening tension.

And even before this disgusting decision to forfeit the FA Cup, there is the ongoing mess being made of the structure of football, in which United are playing a leading, television and money-drive part. How can you respect a game in which next season’s European Champions League could include a team that weren’t even good enough to be Premiership also-rans.

At Droylsden, there is none of that. Not only do the players try all the time, not only is every supporter important, but just as there’s a greater level of commitment, there’s a greater level of access. At United, I can’t travel to away games on the team coach, or hear Alex Ferguson discussing players he’s trying to sign. I don’t get to speak in the bar with Roy Keane or find out which midfield player Gary Neville hates playing behind. I can’t pick up the Premiership Trophy and kiss it. David Beckham doesn’t look up when he’s doing his pre-match exercises and notice I’m there. Nicky Butt doesn’t pretend to have a go at me because he thinks he ought to get more than a six in his match reports.

I decided that that was more important to me. It left me three games, three trophies and, the pinnacle of any fan’s career, the European Champions League Final at the very end of it. And who could have foreseen such an ending to that game? Nothing United can do next will ever equal that moment. How can it ever be better?

I don’t want to get onto the FA Cup decision, which of itself could have altered my feelings permanently. I decided to step out at the top, and I had my wish come true with a high higher than any there possibly could be, and I don’t want to cloud that memory with lows. I just want to look forward to the new highs coming at the level of the game I’ve chosen to stand.

Maybe gaining Football League status will feel like that night in the Nou Camp. Or maybe not. Now I’m more interested in finding out if Droylsden can do that than in whether United can retain the European Cup. And I’m not the only one either.