New has come out these evening that Sir Alex Ferguson has been rushed into hospital following a brain haemorrhage.

Every single one of us is in his corner. He can’t go yet. Matt Busby had to wait 26 years to see us win the League again. We have someone else to win it for.


Two Cheers for Accrington Stanley

This is now a League One ground

The fact – the idea! – of Accrington Stanley achieving their first ever League promotion, in the fiftieth year since they reformed, would normally be cause for joy and celebration. The only club to ever fold during a league season, to have their results and records expunged, the club that started again from the utmost bottom, in the days before the Pyramid and an organised route to rise again, the club that became a national byword for failure and ignominy thanks to a callous reference in an Eighties Milk commercial, the club that operates on the lowest of budgets in the entire League, will play next season in League One: the third tier.

It’s the epitome of what we oldies still recognise as the romance of football, as heart-warming a triumph as Leicester’s 2016 Premiership title. It’s got to be good. But I have mixed feelings.

Though there’s no connection between Stanley and the Accrington FC who were founder members of the Football League in 1887, this club is effectively on its third life. Accrington FC lasted five years, enough time for the League to add a Second Division, and resign rather than accept relegation to it. Three years later, it folded mid-season.

What had been Stanley Villa, from playing on Stanley Street, adopted the town name. They were brought into the Football league in 1921, as one of twenty clubs from various regional leagues across the North of England, to provide geographic balance after the League created a Third Division by absorbing entire the Southern League First Division. The new Division became Third Division North.

Accrington Stanley were a nothing team, achieving nothing but existing. In 1958, they finished in the top half of Third Division North, which meant that, when the two Regional Divisions were merged to create a Third and Fourth, Stanley landed/stayed in the Third Division. But after their second season, they were relegated to the Fourth Division and, in 1962, the Club’s financial difficulties forced it to resign from the League, with a quarter of their fixtures unmet.

In 1966, after four seasons in the Lancashire Combination, including the Club’s only ever promotion, into Division One, they disbanded.

The present club, officially Accrington Stanley 1968, was formed in 1968, at its current ground. They started at the very bottom, (re-)entering the Lancashire Combination in 1970. They progressed to the newly-formed Cheshire League Division 2, the North West Counties League and the Northern Premier League, before winning the Premier Division title and joining the Football Conference.

The club’s current success is usually credited to a massive financial windfall: the club sold a player to Blackpool with a sell-on clause of 25% of any subsequent fee: when he was signed by Blackburn for £2,000,000, Stanley netted a cool half million.

They completed their return to the Football League in 2006 by winning the Conference.

Already, this is a massive vindication for all such clubs who reform. Whatever the circumstances, however remote the possibilities, everybody dreams, no, longs, for the moment when that once important status is attained. And now Stanley have won their first ever League promotion.

It’s everything the story could be. The Club that came back, the minnows who are punching massively above their weight, and a Lancashire team to boot. What’s not to like. Unfortunately, my feelings a re mixed. You see, I’ve been to Accrington Stanley.

All told, I made, I think, four visits during my Droylsden years. On my first visit, I was fed a completely specious line of bullshit by our manager’s father, about forthcoming scientific disaster, arriving within the next eighteen months (this was 1996).

That’s not Stanley’s fault, but the treatment I received on my last visit was.

There’s a strike against the Cub in that their management team, then and now, is the combination of John Coleman and Jimmy Bell, who I first encountered as player/manager/coach at Ashton United. Let’s just say there was more than a mere local rivalry there.

But by the time of that last visit, I was a long-established match reporter for, first, the freesheet Tameside Advertiser and then the paid-press Tameside Reporter. And I occasionally supplied match reports to the Manchester Evening News when their non-League staffer, Tony Glennon, was elsewhere.

As a match reporter, I got a Press Card, entitling me to free access to the ground. The first time I had presented it, away to Barrow, I’d been a bit nervous about it being accepted and having to explain myself, but there and everywhere I was just waved through. Until Accrington.

I wasn’t expecting any trouble. I’d been using my card for about five years by now, without the slightest murmur, and suddenly I was being confronted, with an undertone of anger, at the turnstile. Where had I got this from? Taken aback, I explained my ‘status’, including that I happened to be doing the Evening News that day. This was also denied: I couldn’t be, I wasn’t Tony Glennon.

This was rapidly getting serious. I was being treated as a criminal, trying to scam my way in, and I wasn’t getting my Card back. Instead, I got taken to the Secretary’s Office, where I went through the whole thing again.

Eventually, Barney Quinn off our Committee was called through, and vouched for me on the spot. With very bad grace, I had my Card returned to me, and was allowed to go in, but I also got told that if I wanted a Press Card I should have got one from them. Why, when mine had been good enough for years, everywhere? Because they were Accrington Stanley.

It left a very bad taste. Later that season, the word went round that Stanley had refused the Burscough kitman access to the ground, even though he had all the Burscough team’s kit!

One of the joys of non-League football is how friendly it is. We support our terms but we’re all in this together, and we recognise each other as the enthusiasts we are. Some places are less pleasant than others: the worst I ever went to was Farsley Celtic, in North Leeds, where the whole afternoon had a nasty atmosphere I never encountered elsewhere, though Bradford PA’s crowd could be a bit hostile. But we accepted each other as equals.

Not so Accrington Stanley. They weren’t the only former League club I visited: I’ve already mentioned Barrow, and I also went to Workington Town, and they weren’t up themselves the way Accrington were. We are Accrington Stanley, and the unspoken part was that they didn’t see why they should have to put up with the likes of us.

I haven’t been back in a decade, and it may be that they’re not like that any more, but then again they are now and for the last decade have been where they believe they belong so there’s no grounds for the attitude.

But it prejudiced me against Stanley. So with one hand I can congratulate them, and admire their success, but I can’t celebrate it because my lasting impression of them is as… well, let’s not use the word, but you can choose your own.

Stephen Bocchco R.I.P.

What always impressed me was the low-key, piano-based theme music, calm and quiet. The show as always much more chaotic, the first of the great ensemble shows to hit American TV, resisted desperately by the Networks, but ultimately, and even in its own decade, a game-changer.

I picked up Hill St Blues thanks to word in the comics from America. Between the first and second seasons, there were two ninety minute long specials, usually added to the First season DVDs. Hill Street Precinct, in the downmarket end of a major American city, never named but more or less universally recognised to be Chicago.

It was a Police procedural with one essentially simple twist, mixing in soap opera. There was a cast of thirteen in the First, thirteen episode season, and every member of that cast was an equal. Throughout the staff of this gang-ridden precinct, stories would flow in endless combination, three, sometimes four at a time, of differing lengths featuring differing combinations of captaincy, Detection, and Patrolhood.

It was co-created by Michael Kozoll, who left the series after two seasons, out of ideas, and Stephen Bocchco, who was forced out after five, to the show’s ultimate detraction, and who has died aged 74.

Bocchco went on to create LA Law, and NYPD Blue, and Murder One, which proved to be too far ahead of its time. He also flopped at least as often, not least with the epic disaster that was Cop Rock. But he was a fund of TV concepts, and he co-created Hill St Blues, without which such things as E.R., The Wire and Lost could not have happened, which is more than enough to ask of one guy in one lifetime.

But Hill Street Blues… Furillo and Joyce Davenport, “Let’s be careful out there!” “You want a ruptured spleen, hairball?” LaRue’s inviolate sleaziness, Renko’s redneck temper, Lucy Bates and Joe Coffey, Los Diablos: Bocchco and Kozoll put a world onscreen, in all its messiness, and we loved it.

May the little cat mew over you forever.


This house has been far out at sea all night,
The woods crashing through darkness, the booming hills,
Winds stampeding the fields under the window
Floundering black astride and blinding wet

Till day rose; then under an orange sky
The hills had new places, and wind wielded
Blade-light, luminous black and emerald,
Flexing like the lens of a mad eye.

At noon I scaled along the house-side as far as
The coal-house door. Once I looked up –
Through the brunt wind that dented the balls of my eyes
The tent of the hills drummed and strained its guyrope,

The fields quivering, the skyline a grimace,
At any second to bang and vanish with a flap:
The wind flung a magpie away and a black-
Back gull bent like an iron bar slowly. The house

Rang like some fine green goblet in the note
That any second would shatter it. Now deep
In chairs, in front of the great fire, we grip
Our hearts and cannot entertain book, thought,

Or each other. We watch the fire blazing,
And feel the roots of the house move, but sit on,
Seeing the window tremble to come in,
Hearing the stones cry out under the horizons.

(c) Ted Hughes


This is what it sounds like tonight

In the Shadow of Black Banner: Geoffrey Trease’s ‘The Gates of Bannerdale’

Malcolm Saville gradually aged the Lone Piners, over the last half dozen books, until the series ended with Peter’s coming of age, at eighteen. The last Bannerdale book, The Gates of Bannerdale, takes a leap forward over its first quarter, which disguises the fact that, by the time Bill Melbury and Penny Morchard embark on the story that will, subtly, between the lines, determine their future, our friends will no longer be children, but adults: young adults, responsible for themselves.
And though it might be seen as a retrograde step for the series to end as it began, with the discovery of treasure hidden centuries ago, I agree entirely with Jim MacKenzie’s argument that it is not the silver and plate that is the treasure, but the truth and the honesty that it brings to both Bill and his unlikely partner, the initially unscrupulous Snaith.
The Gates of Bannerdale is the fulfilment of Bill’s ambition to go to Oxford University (Geoffrey Trease’s alma mater) for which he will need to qualify for the Scholarship without which the cost will be way beyond him. Tim has joined the Police Cadets, Sue is engaged to Johnny Nelson, but Penny arrives at the station when Bill leaves for Oxford and his examination, with a sprig of white heather for luck. She claims to be collecting a parcel for her father, and it’s all a coincidence, and Bill is still so obtuse that he believes this.
The first section of the book deals with Bill’s first visit to Oxford, to sit for the Scholarship (in Classics). He finds himself opposite Gardiner (later to be named Paul), an amiable young man whose background couldn’t be grander, a family steeped in theatre and diplomacy, a major Public School, but who couldn’t be more straightforward, unlike other representatives of such class.
Bill does have to go through things like examinations, and an awkward interview with the Warden et al of Hereford College, his choice of destination, but apart from that, this part of the story is just a love letter to Oxford, so much so that even someone like me, with a lifelong inexplicable preference for Cambridge, drinks in everything of which Trease delights with a sense of the devotion he feels. How this would have gone down with me as a youngster, I have no idea: I suspect I would have been bored to death!
It’s a Schol. or nothing (Bill could not afford Oxford on any kind of fee-paying basis). Bill expects it to be nothing, but the glad tidings are announced to him by Mr Kingsford, in Assembly, before the whole school, and with the whole school’s cheers (and these are not only for the half-day holiday Bill has won for them!).
Relief follows, though Oxford is as yet a long way off, with the rest of the year to go through, and then two years of National Service (this last book was still only published in 1956). But first, there’s an unusual scene, one of those few ones that Bill is not privy to, between Penny and Miss Florey. On the surface, it’s a conversation between a Head and her pupil who has declared an ambition as to her academic future: Penny wants to try for Oxford herself, and is ready to put in whatever effort is required.
The subtlety is that Bill is not present, and the larger context of the book makes it plain to us that Penny has not revealed all this to him at the time, nor has Miss Florey spoken of it then, for it is entirely private. Only when we start to ask ourselves just when, and why, Miss Florey would have related this to Bill, do we begin to see an underlying structure to the book that Trease never brings to the surface.
This is where that National Service plays a valuable role. Bill and Penny are of different ages – seventeen months separate them – and in different years. The era in which young British males had to go through National Service slows Bill down enough for he and Penny to go up together. In the meantime, throughout his posting overseas, he and Penny trade regular letters and his fellow servicemen refer to her as his girlfriend, but even then Bill can’t see it. In fact, he can’t see it as being anything but ridiculous that the free-spirited and independent Penny would be a ‘girl-friend’. Sometimes, you do rather want to slap him around the head!
Once Bill and Penny are both in Oxford, they’re immediately separated: Penny’s College is in North Oxford, well away from Bill at Hereford, and the press of settling in and getting to grips with their respective courses allows them little time to get together. Bill is delighted to discover himself opposite Gardiner again (though he doesn’t learn his new friend’s first name until Penny uses it), and his first renewed contact with Penny is via a fortuitous encounter with her new friend, Carolyn Staveley, a robust and attractive blonde with those really old-style glasses with little horn-wings that can’t help but conjure up an appearance both neutral and silly.
Bill spends a surprising amount of time with Carolyn for the duration of the book whilst, being Bill to the hilt, never once thinking of her as a girlfriend or in any romantic light whatsoever. And he barely sees anything of Penny, who sees rather more of Paul than Bill. Of course, the theatrical connection to Gardiner’s family underpins Bill’s response to that, but his description of their relationship does sound like boyfriend and girlfriend. Then, so would Bill and Carolyn’s if we weren’t seeing that through Bill’s eyes.
It does make you wonder just how Carolyn feels about the friendship, but Bill’s reticence on such subjects means that that book will remain forever firmly shut!
However, there is a significant exchange that those who are used to reading between Bill’s lines will seize upon. With the traditional First of May looming, Bill proposes hiring a punt and making up a foursome with the girls. Casually, he leaves it to Paul to speak to the girls, but, much as he likes the idea, he’s oddly reluctant to do so. Indeed, without explaining why, he’s insistent that the suggestion would come better from Bill, at least, so far as Penny is concerned… It seems that Paul is aware of something that Bill isn’t, something to do with Penny.
Indeed, Carolyn is Bill’s ‘partner-in-crime’, so to speak. Whilst Trease continues to be thoroughly lyrical about Oxford at every turn, in a way that he has never extended to his fictional version of West Cumberland, he does introduce a mystery for Bill, on behalf of the old gang, to resolve.
Surprisingly, and disappointingly for some, it’s a reversion, or maybe a regression, to the first book: a lost Treasure, to be discovered. Trease approaches it as a different tack, making it a mystery to be solved, with the slow uncovering of clues that eventually point to the hiding place from which the silver and plate of Hereford Collage is re-found after three hundred years.
The impetus for this is a book. Through Paul Gardiner, Bill meets Snaith (whose first name, Roland, is not revealed until the penultimate chapter). Snaith is the epitome of a whiz-kid, a self-promoting, witty, intelligent but cynical man on campus, an instinctive controversialist. Snaith plans to write a book, to coincide with his graduation, a biography, of Richard Talbot, former Master of Hereford, Master during the Civil War when the College silver went missing, presumably captured by the Roundheads and melted down.
Snaith sees Talbot as a rogue, trying to play both sides off to his own advantage, and plans a cynical, debunking biography. Bill disagrees, partly out of College loyalty, but largely because he cannot see anything but intelligence and integrity in the former Master’s portrait. The two enter into a rivalry over their respective interpretations.
What makes the book succeed over its mundane notion is that the evidence Bill first uncovers supports Snaith’s theory but that, after an initial prompting from Carolyn, he accepts that integrity, and a loyalty to the truth, demand he make it available to Snaith.
And whilst Snaith initially doesn’t seem to be the sort to reciprocate, he too is a man of integrity, and when the evidence begins to swing in Bill’s favour, he’s unhesitating in bringing it forward. From rivalry, the pair become effectively research partners, leading to the astonishing realisation that the silver may still be hidden, and the discovery of clues that suggest its hiding place.
This is where both strands merge. The presumed hiding place is behind the panelling in the current Warden’s rooms, but the Warden, Mr Withers (based on an actual Don Trease had to work under in his days at Oxford), is obstructive and dry.
As well as his studies and his detections, Bill has joined the Dramatic Society, and is to play Ariel in an open-air production of The Tempest, whose finale ingeniously uses the College Lake to create the effect of a galleon, ‘sailing’ away with Prospero et al on board, whilst Bill as Arial, runs out across the water (boards placed a couple of inches under the surface) to make a mute, unavailing appeal for his master’s return. Trease makes it sound wonderful, and the effect on the audience is exactly as you’d expect, but its point for the story is that Paul has arranged a small but significant role for Penny, of all people, as a living figurehead to the ‘galleon’. It calls for no acting, merely maintaining a fixed position, but when Bill expresses his surprise, Paul has to remind him, with justifiable tartness, that ‘Penny is one of the most striking girls in Oxford’.
It’s a reminder that Bill needs, and during the first performance, he admits that the sight of Penny is so astonishing that he is grateful not to have to speak the next line, because it would have been driven out of his head.
It’s about time that he realised what the rest of us have already worked out, but being Bill, it has to be virtually rubbed in his face, and acknowledged without acknowledging it openly.
Penny’s appearance brings Bill to something of his senses about her. Typically, his approach is almost accusatory, asking why she’s been avoiding him all year. It’s a stupid, short-sighted and hurtful thing to say, and Penny is nearly in tears explaining that she has been obeying what he wanted.
Penny came to Oxford to be with Bill, yet on their first proper social meeting, she and Carolyn invited to tea with Bill and Paul, the latter expounds on treating University as an opportunity to grow, to meet new friends, have new experiences, and Bill takes this up, enthusiastically, and naively, going to the lengths of saying that, no matter how important they may once have been, you can grow out of friends.
Poor Penny, hit by that, has kept her distance in obedience to Bill’s wishes. Only when she is forced to explain this to the dear old fathead, and he hears how close it comes to bringing her – Penny! – to tears, does he finally realise everything. And though he isn’t going to put it into words, it is, finally, everything.
But there’s a resolution to be reached, and for it the old gang and the new gang (with the sad exception of Cadet PC Darren, T.) have to band together. Bill invites his mother and Susan, plus the Drakes down to Oxford, to see the city, to see the final performance of the play. Bill takes his family punting, feeling good and relaxed and happy, and not only because he has finished his exams, and they are there…
Tea for all, with Paul and Carolyn, is interrupted by Snaith with the final evidence that the missing silver is walled up in Withers’ rooms. How to get at it? It’s the girls who plot, relying on Withers’ one known human interest/weakness: he is a fan of dowsing.
So he’s eager to admit a professional dowser (Mr Drake, playing his role superbly) to his rooms, where the hazel wand finds more than the gold watch planted for the demonstration. Of course, Withers is too smart not to realise there’s been a deception involved, but the rediscovery of the long lost silver prompts him to forget that side of the matter.
The treasure is found, but most importantly, so is the truth about Talbot.
The title of the book comes from a new geographic feature Trease has never previously mentioned, which he openly admits has been pinched from real-life. The famous Jaws of Borrowdale refers to a point just south of the head of Derwentwater, where the valley narrows, between Castle Crag and King’s How, until there is almost no room to get through. Trease imports this to the mouth of Bannerdale, where it stands as a symbol. Gates open to let people in, and they close to keep them there, but gates also open to let people out, and it is time for Bill and Penny to go out into the world. Just as, in the closing chapter, it is Sue and Johnny Nelson’s exit from their old lives, when they marry.
And the old quartet are there at the end, as they should be. Bill to give his sister away, in the place of their forever absent father, Penny to be her bridesmaid and Tim to be Johnny’s best man, for the symmetry of it (Johnny’s elder brother, who didn’t return to Black Banner Tarn Farm, doesn’t get a look in). The most overt moment of the book comes when Tim complains about the obligation to kiss the bridesmaid, and Bill smoothly offers to take his place… We assume, from the look he gives Miss Morchard as the story and the series ends, that it wouldn’t be their first.
A wonderfully naturalistic series, that leaves readers wanting there to have been more books, rather than wishing that not quite so many had been written.

Roll on Xmas Day

We’re rolling onwards towards Xmas Day, and I’m looking forward to my usual peace and quiet-ful Xmas alone. It’s eight years since I last shared Xmas Day with other people, and that was in a homeless shelter, eating an unexpected traditional Xmas roast, drinking non-alcoholic lager and enjoying a surprising camaraderie with a bunch of strangers.

Ever since then, I’ve done Xmas day in solitude, and I’m looking forward to that again this year. I am prepared: there’s no-one to buy me presents so I have accumulated a pile which I shall unwrap on the day, unwrap here being a word that means tear off the Amazon and eBay packaging.

I have a turkey in the freezer which, on the day, I will cook (having defrosted it for the required period), sticking it in the oven somewhere between 12.00 and 2.00pm, with the aim of eating at about 6.00pm, back-scheduling all the necessary steps with that time in mind.

I currently have the booze in the fridge and the imperishables bought, except for the jam sponge pudding and custard I intend to have for dessert (can’t eat Xmas Pudding/Cake, just can’t stomach it) which I will buy tomorrow, leaving the carrots, brussells, potatoes, bacon (for the turkey breast) and sausages until next Saturday.

Like last year, I will be working Xmas Eve, technically until 9.00pm, even though this is a Sunday, though I expect/anticipate/hope we’ll get out about 7.00pm, or at least whilst the busses are still running.

But once I shut the flat door behind me, whatever time I arrive on Xmas Eve, I go into a pleasurable purdah, undisturbed by other people. I am responsible to no-one, beholden to no-one, able to relax completely and do my own thing. And I like it that way.

Between the closing of that door behind me on Xmas Eve, to the moment on Boxing Day when I decide to go out and buy that day’s Guardian, I will not see nor speak to any other person. On the Day itself, I will probably browse my regular sites and forums, and may make a couple of indolent posts if anyone is about.

But aside from that, this is the extreme of me-time, and I look forward to it.

It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed Xmas days in company in the past. A couple of them stick out in my memory. My Mother’s last Xmas Day, only four days before she died, when we were invited to my brother-in-law’s parents, which I recall with pleasure at my gradual realisation that everyone was looking forward to the premiere of the first Michael Keaton Batman film in the evening, the one with Jack Nicholson as the Joker, and that they all thought to was going to be an Adam West/Burt Ward, Biff, Bam, Pow affair and watching all their faces as the truth slowly dawned on them.

Or a few years later, invited to friends for the Day, and in the afternoon playing either Risk or that other strategy game that isn’t called Risk, getting knocked out fairly early on, starting to assist their younger son and helping him to Complete World Domination, with his ex-Army father complaining this was the first time he’d ever lost.

And then the big film was Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves, which I am here to tell you is the very best film to watch on Xmas Day when you are halfway pissed and cannot take it remotely seriously: he lands at the Cliffs of Dover in the morning, sets off to walk to Nottingham and by the evening is camping at Hadrian’s Wall? After that, the film had no credibility whatsoever and we took the piss out of it unmercifully.

But the fact is that I first started to spend Xmas day on my own in the mid-Nineties and did it often enough to coin the aphorism that you should always spend Xmas day with your family every three or four years so that you can understand how much fun you can have on your own.

Roll on Monday week, or rather Sunday week night at some point, where I shut out the world and for the space of a couple of days, it and I can have nothing to do with one another. Bliss.

Sometimes it’s not Crap Journalism

I’m quick to call out the Guardian for Crap Journalism (although I’m thinking of maybe renaming it Crap Above And Beyond The Call Of Everyday Crap Journalism because I let so much of it go), but I try to be equally quick to point out the ones that should be praised, for intelligence, for sensitivity, for just being human in a way we don’t see often enough.

I’ve always liked Hadley Freeman.