INSIDE AN ABANDONED TOY SHOP (PART 2)

Earlier this year I visited an old toy shop that had been a fixture on the High Street of the Welsh town of Holywell for seven decades. The shop closed down five years ago – and has sat untouched ever since. Thousands of toys dating as far back asthe 1950s – some rare and valuable – were left behind when the doors closed.

In this second post, I’ve shared pictures of many of the old toys that we discovered when we explored the shop.How much of this stuff do you remember?

PS Just in case you were pondering popping along and, ahem, liberating some of this stuff, the shop has now been cleared and the old stock is being sold at auction on behalf of the owner.

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INSIDE AN ABANDONED TOY SHOP (PART 1)

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There are some things in life you just can’t turn down, even if it involves a 300-mile round trip to North Wales on a miserable Tuesday in January. The chance to explore inside an old toy shop, abandoned five years ago with all its stock left behind like the Mary Celeste of retail is definitely one of them. I’m glad to say it lived up to all expectations.

For generations of children, Frank Beech’s toy shop in Holywell was paradise. An Aladdin’s Cave, where stock was literally stacked from floor to ceiling and it seemed that they sold every toy ever made. For decades the shop was run by Mr Beech’s daughter Dorothy and, until his death, her husband Stanley. Dorothy tried to continue to run the store on her own but five years ago, aged in her nineties, she decided she could no longer manage the business and made the decision to shut up shop.

The legend goes that until a few weeks ago, the shop remained in the exact same condition as it was on the day it closed down in 2009… and if that is the case you wonder how on earth it ever managed to operate at all. To be blunt, as I discovered when I visited, the place was an absolute shambles.

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The main public part of the shop was piled high with toys. Until recently it had been impossible to even walk in this room, so full had it been. But towards the end of 2014, auctioneers Vectis, who specialise in rare toys, were brought in to clear the shop and sell anything they thought was valuable. By the time of our trip, there had already been seven van loads removed by the auctioneers and the shop was still more than half full.

Inside the door, an old Christmas Club poster lay on the ground, but other than that the path through the front shop was now clear. On the left was the glass counter where Mrs Beech had served local customers for so long. Behind that were shelves packed with all sorts of long-forgotten toys and games and beyond it a display cabinet containing slightly creepy-looking porcelain dolls.

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If this had been all there was it would have been interesting enough, but it was just a taster. The premises were massive, with at least three floors of storage rooms, each packed with boxes of toys from the 1950s right up to the early 2000s. It wasn’t so much a time-capsule as a time-line of toys, charting the changing tastes of kids through the generations, from the dolls, cowboys and toy soldiers of the post-war years to the fantasy and super-hero action figures of the modern era.

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As we crept carefully through the warren of passageways in the darkness, doing our best to avoid holes in the floorboards and huge spider’s webs, it seemed that in some places the only thing holding the building up was the amount of toys piled up against the walls. Every square foot of the building was covered with toys. They filled stairwells, were piled up on shelves or left neatly stacked on the floor. In some rooms a huge mountain of toys rose from the ground, sometimes reaching as high as the ceiling – either the neat piles had collapsed or the toys had just been thrown in to make space for new deliveries.

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Often it looked like junk, but appearances can be deceptive. In one room full of boxes damaged by water coming in through a leaky roof, we opened an unpromising looking carton to discover 96 mint condition Return of the Jedi figures. Some of these individual figures can be worth up to £100 each so there’s potentially £10,000 worth of toys in that one box. The auctioneers found seven similar Star Wars boxes. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. For the avid toy collector, the shop was a treasure trove. Other highlights included trade boxes of Action Man figures and accessories from the 1960s and 70s, along with Raleigh bicycles that were still wrapped in plastic and Triang pedal cars.

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But for me, the real joy of this place wasn’t so much the rare and potentially valuable toys, but the memories it evoked. Exploring Beech’s was like flicking through a pile of old Argos catalogues, but in real life. Room after room conjured up long forgotten childhood memories. In one there was a Paul Daniels magic set, in another a Subbuteo Snooker Express. Each room was filled with nostalgia. Scalextric, Hornby, Airfix, Matchbox, Corgi… all present and correct. There were TV tie-ins like the Les Dennis fronted Family Fortunes board game and the Buzby cuddly toy. Not necessarily worth much in cold hard cash, but priceless when it comes to memories.

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Of course, you couldn’t escape the feeling of melancholy. This had once been a thriving business, somewhere people used to flock to, especially at Christmas. The window displays, featuring the likes of Triang, Meccano and Lego, were legendary in the area. On Christmas Eve, parents would queue up to collect orders they’d placed – sometimes it’d be so busy they’d be told to come back in a couple of hours to pick up the bike or train set they were waiting for. Kids would spend their pocket money here, doting grandparents would take them in for a special treat. Despite the apparent chaos, Dorothy knew where everything was – and if she didn’t she would ask you to return the next day. That big Tesco round the corner probably sells toys, but  it’s not quite the same.

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It was sad to see how business had clearly deteriorated, as the proprietors aged and shopping habits changed. And you could pinpoint by the types of toy that sat on the shelves, exactly when things had started to go downhill. And judging by the piles of unsold Fisher Price toys, the 80s was not a good decade for Beech’s.

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Like many similar sized towns around the UK, Holywell is a place with its best days behind it. A real sense of gloom hangs over the High Street today. Too many shops are closed down and boarded up. Traffic is banned from the High Street and these days you’ll struggle to find many pedestrians either. The shops that remain are clearly doing their best, but you get the distinct impression that they’re swimming against the tide. It wasn’t always like this though. Holywell was once a busy retail centre, where independent shops of all kinds thrived. It’s obviously far too late for a revival for Frank Beech’s toy shop but it would be nice to see a resurgence in the town’s fortunes one day.

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THE NIGHT SINATRA PLAYED AT IBROX

Frank Sinatra

Of all the international superstars who have graced the Ibrox pitch over the decades, none could get close to the global fame of the man who appeared at the stadium on 12 June 1990. Cruyff, Di Stefano, Puskas, Beckenbauer, Gascoigne and Ronaldinho may have been household names around the world, but all paled into insignificance compared to the legend that was Francis Albert Sinatra.

Sinatra may have been past his best by the time he performed at Ibrox. His show may have been overpriced and something of a shambles. But as events go, it was up there among the most memorable ever to take place at the stadium. Sinatra himself, even at the age of 74 and after five decades in showbusiness, was moved to tears. For the audience, many of whom had waited a lifetime to see Old Blue Eyes in the flesh, it was something akin to a religious experience.

In 1990, Glasgow was enjoying something of a renaissance. Forever plagued with the No Mean City image of razor gangs and random violence, Scotland’s industrial capital had suffered badly from the decline in manufacturing in the 70s and 80s and was in real need of an economic boost. The International Garden Festival of 1988, held on the southern banks of the Clyde, not far from Ibrox, was the first step on the road to recovery. Two years later the makeover was complete when Glasgow was named European City of Culture. A year-long festival of culture ensued, which did much to change the outside world’s perception of the city, although critics argued that there were few benefits for the impoverished local population.

For many, the highlight of the festivities was Frank Sinatra’s show at Ibrox. The man considered by many to be the world’s greatest singer, hadn’t played in Scotland for almost 40 years, after a series of disastrous concerts in the 1950s when his career had temporarily gone into free-fall. But by the time he returned at the age of 74 he had assumed legendary status.

Tickets for Ibrox were not cheap, with some fans paying £60 each for premium positions in front of the stage. Even the cheapest seats were £35 and the promoters soon realised that the projected sales of 33,000 were never going to materialise. The decision was taken late to only use the Govan Stand and the capacity was cut to just 11,000. Fans who had bought tickets for other parts of the ground had to be reallocated new seats, meaning some who had paid £60 were put in cheaper areas.

Queues began to build up outside the stadium and thousands were locked out of the ground as Sinatra started his performance. Some fans didn’t get inside until the fifth or sixth song, while others had to wait even longer. Refunds were handed out to dozens of devastated fans but it was scant compensation for missing the show. Even Rangers manager Graeme Souness was affected – he discovered his £60 seats were occupied by someone else and ended up watching from an Ibrox hospitality suite.

Those who had got through the gates earlier were treated to support performances by Glasgow jazz singer Carol Kidd and, somewhat bizarrely, a stand-up act by local comedian Arnold Brown. As he would say, “and why not”.

A letter from Sinatra to then Rangers manager Graeme Souness

A letter from Sinatra to then Rangers manager Graeme Souness

But there was no question who the crowds had come to see. Dressed in a dinner suit and black bow tie, Sinatra, performed on a stage set up in the middle of the pitch, miles away from the audience. He opened with You Make Me Feel So Young. It set the tone for the night as Sinatra rolled back the years, performing many of his classics like I Get A Kick Out Of You, Strangers In The Night, Bewitched, Mack The Knife, My Way and New York, New York.

The stage set-up lacked intimacy, but the chemistry between performer and audience was so strong that the distance was barely noticeable. Tom Gardner and his wife were among those who had paid the top price for a ticket. “Our seats were supposed to be on the pitch directly in front of the stage and cost £60 each,’ he remembered.

“On the day they changed all the arrangements. Our new seats put us at the edge of the Govan almost where we normally sat on matchdays. We went back and complained and got centre front seats. I think we were ahead of the disaster that then occurred when queues lasting several hours formed.
 The show started promptly at 7.30pm. Frank came on at roughly 8.00 pm and I remember he travelled across the pitch in a little golf buggy.”

Sinatra performed for more than an hour then, as he approached the end of the show, he left the stage. To the shock, and delight, of his fans, he suddenly appeared on the track in front of the Govan stand and began shaking hands with members of the audience. Sinatra enjoyed the performance so much that he performed a rare encore, coming back onstage to perform a rendition of Where Or When.

“Just as he finished his encore, an old woman squeezed in and sat down beside us,” recalled Tom Gardner. “First thing she asked was did we know when he would be coming on. She burst into tears when we told her the show was finished.

“I believe many refunds were given out and the council lost a fortune in the end. But it was great show and for a 74- year-old his voice was pretty good. It does remind me that my mother also saw him play the Glasgow Empire back in the 1950s during one of his unpopular phases. The hall had less than 100 people in it.”

Sinatra’s English driver and friend Dennis Parker later revealed how much the Ibrox show had meant to the singer. “He hated being so far away from them,” Parker told newspapers. “Half way through, he grabbed a hand mike and walked off stage to get close to the crowd. It was completely unrehearsed. The emotion that passed between artist and audience that night was magical. Afterwards, back at the hotel, tears started running down his cheeks, he had been so affected by it.”

Sinatra later told his entourage, “In all my time in showbusiness I have never had such a stupendous feeling. I have never been so moved by anything in my life before.”

This first appeared in my book Temple of Dreams: The Changing Face of Ibrox

 

 

 

SNOOKER LOOPY NUTS ARE WE

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It was one of the most memorable – if unlikely – sporting images of the last 30 years. A slightly portly middle-aged man in a bow tie and comedy glasses, wagging his finger in an “I-told-you-so” fashion, with an enormous grin on his face.

Dennis Taylor was said finger-wagger. He had just beaten Steve Davis on the last ball, of the last frame of the 1985 snooker World Championship final and more than 18 million of us had stayed up after midnight to watch it on TV. Yes, that’s right. 18 million. Watching snooker. On a Sunday night. On BBC2.

This was arguably snooker’s finest hour, and certainly the peak of its mass-market appeal. In the mid-eighties, with football in the doldrums, Britain had gone snooker loopy. If you are over the age of 40 and remotely interested in sport then there’s a good chance you watched the 1985 final. Not only that, you probably also watched most of the other big tournaments that filled hours of television schedules at the time.

You will also have known the names of all the leading players on the snooker circuit. Davis and Taylor obviously were superstars of the green baize but by far the most popular players were the mavericks, Jimmy White and Alex Higgins. But there was strength in depth and the likes of Cliff Thorburn, Tony Knowles, John Virgo, Kirk Stevens and Terry Griffiths all had their devoted fans. And with the arrival in 1991 of the BBC1 quiz show Big Break (with its theme tune that was originally written by chief Womble Mike Batt and performed by Captain Sensible for an ill-fated musical based on Lewis Carroll’s poem The Hunting of The Snark. It’s like punk never happened…) these guys and those that followed in their footsteps, all became prime-time celebrities.

2014-04-21 14.03.45Just as famous as the players, was the venue. The Crucible Theatre in Sheffield started hosting the World Championship in 1977 and by the mid-eighties it had become synonymous with the sport. Three decades later it remains the spiritual home of snooker. As a British sporting venue, it is up there with St Andrews, Lords, Wimbledon and Wembley in terms of prestige and history. But compared to those grand old locations, it’s an unlikely icon. There are no ivy-clad walls, no 700-year old stone bridge, no giant arch. In fact there’s nothing in the way of grandeur or tradition in its four concrete walls. It looks exactly like what it is: a provincial theatre tucked away in a quiet corner of Sheffield city centre.

For 50 weeks of the year, the Crucible happily fulfils that worthy, if rather unglamorous role, providing a stage for the same sort of hotchpotch of plays, shows and lectures that you’ll find in any similar-sized venue throughout the country.

But for the other two weeks of the year the place is transformed from regional playhouse to international sporting arena. And not just any international sporting arena. For the duration of the World Championship, the Crucible becomes a battleground with a cauldron-like atmosphere that is hard to beat anywhere in sport. Think Centre Court at Wimbledon, but more oppressive. The 18th hole on the Old Course? A mere bagatelle in comparison.

Snooker may have lost a lot of its popularity in recent years, but for its devoted fans the Crucible has lost none of its magnetism. Thousands are drawn to Sheffield every year for the tournament and it remains a major event on the British sporting calendar. I’ve stopped following the sport closely but I’ve certainly not forgotten how much of an impression it made on me in my formative years, which is why a visit to the Crucible has long been on my “must-do” list. This year I finally got to tick it off.

POT THE REDS…

I’ve seen the annual trip to Sheffield described as a pilgrimage and a near-religious experience for the sport’s devoted followers. If so, it must be the only spiritual journey where the pilgrims are mainly middle-aged men dressed in polo shirts and Jeremy Clarkson jeans and surrounded by the faint (and frankly, sometimes more than faint) whiff of fart.

My Sheffield experience began at the Landmark Chinese restaurant across the road from the Crucible, where the excellent and extensive all-you-can-eat buffet is an obvious attraction for the snooker fans. Indeed, judging by the staggering amount of food being shovelled away by some diners (and that’s coming from someone who’s no shrinking violet when it comes to repeat plate fills) I rather suspect this may be the source of much of the aforementioned wind problem.

Inside the Crucible we queued and were subjected to a bag search. I’m not sure what we were banned from bringing in – perhaps a doggy bag from the Landmark Buffet – but I was allowed entry, despite my “joke” about having a vuvuzela with me. However, as we shall see, perhaps security needs to be a little more thorough in their bag checks.

Behind the scenes. The message on the TV screens seems a bit harsh though

Behind the scenes. The message on the TV screens seems a bit harsh though

In the arena, there was an overwhelming sense of being behind the scenes at the recording of one of your favourite TV shows. Everything was familiar, but with the very obvious presence of the cameras and production crew, it all seemed slightly strange, almost surreal. It quickly becomes clear that everything is driven by the demands of television, which is hardly surprising given the vital role TV played in the development of the sport. The cameras are huge and conspicuous, but they silently glide around the table like giant robots, somehow managing to keep out of the players’ way. Watching the cameramen choose their positions and their shots, you realise how knowledgeable they must be about the game.

The man in charge – in public at least – is the MC, Rob Walker, a lanky, sharp-suited sports reporter with spiky hair, a catchphrase (“let’s get the boys on the baize”) and a penchant for inventing nicknames for the players. He uses these when he announces their arrival, boxing-style, in the arena, accompanied by an appropriate blast of music (veteran Alan “Angles” McManus walked on to Return of The Mack, for example). Walker’s brand of fast-talking patter is about as far removed from the hushed tones of whispering Ted Lowe as it’s possible to get and you’d imagine that snooker’s old guard probably don’t approve. But whatever they think, it’s all good fun and the Crucible crowd certainly seem to enjoy his attempts to inject a little showbiz into proceedings, although I would question the wisdom of whipping a snooker audience into a state of mild hysteria.

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No sooner are the aisles rocking than we have to shut up and let the players concentrate. As a hush descended over the arena I became vaguely aware of the white noise of a radio trying to tune into a station. At first I thought it was something to do with the headsets that allow you to listen in to the TV commentary but it quickly became apparent the sound was coming from my rucksack. As fellow spectators started to glare in my direction, I realised it was the radio I’d taken with us on our camping trip the night before. Not only had it switched itself on, but somehow the volume had been turned up to full. It was surely only a matter of time before Hallam FM was blasting through the silence and I would be hauled out of the theatre in front of a national TV audience and banned from ever attending another snooker match. Then, inexplicably and without warning, the radio switched itself off and the drama was averted.

…THEN SCREW BACK

In the opening stages of the tournament, there are two tables playing at a time. On the far side, it was McManus against the “Wizard of Wishaw” John Higgins. On table one, where i was sitting, we had Chinese world number two Ding Junhui against debutant Michael Wasley. Ding was leading 6-3 after the opening session and with five ranking tournaments to his name this season already, he was expected to cruise through to the second round against his inexperienced opponent.

DSC_0007The opening frame of the afternoon was not memorable. It took 13 minutes for the first red to be potted, then another five for the next as both players focused on making sure they didn’t give their opponent a chance. The guy immediately behind me was unimpressed – greeting each safety shot with increasingly audible groans and the occasional “SHITE!” In those opening stages, the biggest excitement was when the ref in the other game knocked over a bottle of water. Judging by the regular bursts of laughter from the other side of the theatre, the veteran Scots didn’t seem to be taking things quite as seriously as they were on our table.

Wasley eventually won the frame but it was scrappy and to be honest I was beginning to wonder what all the fuss was about. Then it got interesting. In the next frame Wasley put together a break of 135 and then won his third consecutive frame to draw level. Ding took the fourth and fifth frames of the afternoon to go two ahead again, only for the Englishman to win the following two. Without realising it, I had got caught up in the drama. Just as Wasley seemed to have seized the initiative, Ding fought back again to take a 9-8 lead.

DSC_0014He needed just one more frame to progress to the next round but much to everyone’s disappointment time had run out. The players were told they had to return to finish their match at the end of the scheduled evening session. We were turfed out and would have to watch the rest of the game on the BBC’s Red Button that night. Just like that classic match between Taylor and Davis 29 years ago, it would be after midnight before the game came to a conclusion. And just like in 1985 it was the underdog who won it, Wasley taking the deciding frame on the pink.

…FOR THE YELLOW, GREEN, BROWN, BLUE, PINK AND BLACK

I don’t pretend to know that much about modern-day snooker, but those who do have some insight put Ding’s defeat down to the fact that he does not cope well with the unique pressures and mental demands of the Crucible’s claustrophobic atmosphere. And that’s what makes the place so special.  There is speculation that the tournament could be moved away from Yorkshire when the current contract ends in 2015, possibly to the Far East. But you wonder if any new venue would be able to recreate the sort of atmosphere that the Crucible can generate.

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It seems unlikely, but the reality is that it will be market forces that will determine whether or not change happens. And with snooker’s growing popularity in China, who would bet against it? It would, though, be a sad day for snooker, and in fact British sport in general, if the Crucible, with all its memories, was abandoned. Whatever happens, I’m just glad to have been able to enjoy it, even if it was just for a few hours. 2014-04-21 17.40.53

 

MY BRUSH WITH SUBBUTEO FAME AND FORTUNE

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Back in 1985, Saturday mornings were all about my quest to be the next Boris Becker. Or at least Jeremy Bates. This mission involved two hours of whacking a sponge ball over a net on a badminton court at my local council sports centre followed by a plate of chips, drenched in vinegar. It was tennis, east end of Glasgow style.

I wouldn’t have admitted it at the time, but at the age of 13, deep down I’d already resigned myself to the reality that I wasn’t going to make it as a footballer. Tennis, though, was another matter. That I could do. Surely a couple of hours practice a week was all I’d need to bring me up to the standard of someone like Bates? I even had a real coach, for God’s sake – even if he was a Bobby Ball lookalike who, judging by his bedraggled state every Saturday, spent Friday nights on the razzle, rather than preparing to impart his wisdom on a gang of oiks.

But this is not about tennis. Much as I enjoyed my weekly sessions of short tennis – that’s the official name for indoor tennis with a sponge ball – football was my first love, so when the chance to play alongside some of Scotland’s best players came I didn’t hesitate to grab it. Even if they were of the table football variety.

IMG_3720Out of the blue, one Friday evening I got a phone call at home from a man. Phone calls for me were a fairly rare occurrence back then – calls from strange men, I assure you, were even rarer, which is why the rest of the family clustered round the trimphone as I took the call. The man on the other end of the line turned out to be Bob McGiffen, the president of the Scottish branch of the Subbuteo Association, and he was calling to invite me to take part in a competition the very next day. I was nearly sick with excitement.

I’d been playing Subbuteo for about six years and for a while it had been an absolute obsession. My pal Kevin and I developed our own league, filled with fictional teams and players. We compiled league tables, invented knock-out competitions and drew up endless lists of stats. I made match programmes for big games and we even recorded radio programmes, complete with live commentaries and match reports. We also made up our own rules and developed our own unique “style” of play that would have given the traditionalists heart failure. I loved Subbuteo so much, that in first year at secondary school I did a presentation in front of my entire English class on the history of the game, complete with props.

Actually, by 1985, my passion for Subbuteo was on the wane, with pop music gradually taking over as my Big Thing (home-made radio shows and stats were still to the fore, natch). But we still played fairly regularly and I was still a member of the Subbuteo Association, hence that Friday night call from Mr McGiffen.

IMG_0055At some point, I had apparently expressed an interest in taking part in official competitions and may also have told a little white lie, implying (or more likely, stating) that I competed in a proper league. The Glasgow regional heat of the Scottish Championships was taking place the next day and there had been a last-minute withdrawal. He knew it was short notice, but Bob wondered if I could fill the vacant space. Could I be in Jordanhill by 9am the next morning?

Could I? COULD I? Of course I bloody could! Once I’d checked that my dad would be able to drive me across the city, that is. Having cleared that hurdle, short tennis was promptly cancelled and I set about preparing for the competition. Clearly the most pressing issue was reading up on the rules, since this competition was not going to be played under the Baillieston and Mount Vernon Subbuteo Association’s code.

The biggest problem was that we had eschewed one of the fundamental tenets of the table-top game, the concept of the flick-to-kick technique. Essentially this meant you were only allowed to move players to by flicking them with your index finger. Kevin and I had decided at an early stage that this was far too difficult and that you should be allowed to use any method of propulsion you liked, as long as it was with the hand. My favoured technique was to use my thumb, which gave you a lot more power and height on shots. Unfortunately, by the letter of the law, it was completely illegal.

The other difference between the official game and our take on it, was that until now, every match I’d ever played had taken place with the pitch laid out on a carpeted floor rather than nailed to a specially designed table. Not only did this call for a completely different playing style, but also resulted in numerous injuries to players, caused by misplaced knees and rampaging little sisters.

IMG_0157IMG_0154After an evening studying the regulations, I retired to bed, although obviously I hardly slept. Armed with two teams – I’ve forgotten which ones they were but I suspect it would have been Belgium and Watford, two of my favourites – we headed west to leafy Jordanhill, and the venue for the tournament, the Jolly Giant toy superstore.

OK, it might not have been Hampden or Ibrox but the Jolly Giant still held some sort of cachet for a 13-year-old boy. The toy superstore had been opened by a Scottish businessman inspired by a visit to Toys R Us in the USA and at the time there was nothing else like it on this side of the Atlantic. This was my first visit and I was somewhat taken aback to be confronted by a huge, animatronic giant as we entered the shop.

scan0037A section had been cleared for the tournament at the back of the store, featuring two tables surrounded by the famous green Subbuteo branding. The pitches were brightly lit (significantly, not by pisspoor Subbuteo floodlights) and pristine, like Wembley on FA Cup final day – or, more accurately, like the green baize at the Crucible on Snooker World Championship final day.

After the giant, er, giant, the next surreal moment of the day was receiving my COMPETITOR badge and seeing my name on the board listing all the fixtures. This shit was real! I was down to play against an R. Lee (I think his first name might have been Ronnie, so let’s call him that) and I scanned the gathered players to see if I could identify my opponent. I imagined he would be the one looking supremely confident after being drawn against some unknown, but in truth everyone looked a bit like I felt – nervous and apprehensive.

Then came surreal moment number three. As I looked around, I spotted a familiar, if unexpected face. Who was that anxious looking old bloke in the duffel coat, carrying a supermarket plastic bag? Surely not Mr S, the chemistry teacher from my school? With his dad. No, it couldn’t be. Could it? Well, yes it could, and in fact it was. As I read in the following Monday’s paper, it turned out that he’d actually won a Daily Record competition to take part in the tournament. Unfortunately for him, he was hammered four nil in the first round but still had to have his picture in the paper.

Meanwhile, as the minutes passed before my match, I was getting increasingly anxious. Watching the other games, I began to worry that I had agreed to something that I simply wasn’t up to. The formations and tactics being used by the other players were frankly baffling, and of course, there was the small matter of never having actually played the game properly before.

I briefly toyed with the idea of doing a runner, but it was too late to back out now. Before I knew it my name was being called out and it was game-time. Looking back, I’ve got very little recollection of the match itself. It all passed in a bit of a blur. For all my fears, I must have absorbed enough from watching the other matches to get the gist of the style expected because I don’t remember any strange looks from my opponent or the referee. In fact not only did I hold my own, somehow I managed to score a goal. I’d love to be able to describe it in great detail here, but again, I have no memory of it all.

IMG_0277Sadly, I wasn’t able to hold on for an unlikely victory. Ronnie equalised in the second half and the game went to the Subbuteo equivalent of a penalty shoot-out. Yet again, I don’t remember any of it, but needless to say I lost. Fittingly, my adventure had ended in typical Scottish football style – glorious failure. So near, yet so far.  Yada yada. My opponent made it through the next round before being defeated in the semi finals. Who’s to say how I might have fared? Maybe with a bit of momentum and a kind draw, I could have made it all the way to the final. And then… well, who knows?

But now it was over. It never really began, but in my heart it was so real. That’s what Morrissey might have said if he’d played Subbuteo. I was a bit less poetic, but just as emotional. I stayed until the end of the tournament before slinking off home.

My brush with the glamorous stars of table football was over and the following Saturday morning I returned to the hard slog of trying to become a tennis professional. Looking back, I wonder if that week of missed sponge-ball-whacking was what caused me to fail in my quest? I chose not to share my weekend’s activities with my school pals – playing Subbuteo might have been acceptable when I was in first year of secondary school, but by the age of 13 it was decidedly uncool. And that’s why I also spared Mr S the embarrassment of telling everyone what he was doing at the Jolly Giant toy superstore with his dad on Saturday morning.

So that was the end of my top-flight Subbuteo career. I let my membership pass and although I carried on playing sporadically at home, to be honest my heart wasn’t really in it. Real football, pop music and, ahem, “other stuff”, would take up more and more of my time. Without wanting to sound like Kevin from the Wonder Years, in some ways that Saturday morning marked the end of my childhood. But more important than that, it was probably the most exciting thing I’d done in my life up until that point. And almost 30 years on, it’s probably still in my top 10. What that says about my life I’ll leave you to decide…

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HEROES HONOURED

In 1917, King George V visited Glasgow to honour heroes of the Great War, both military and civilian, at a massive outdoor investiture ceremony at Ibrox. It was appropriate that Rangers’ home should have been chosen as the venue for the investiture. The working class industrial districts which surrounded the arena were key to the war effort. The Empire owed a huge debt to those who lived in the area’s tenements and who worked close-by. As the Scotsman pointed out, ‘Within easy hail are the great docks and the yards, where the busy hammers are clanging the death-knell of enemy hopes, and shell factories, where night and day many toilers are aiding the defeat of the German military machine.’ Several thousand women workers from local munitions factories were packed into the north stand and a choir made up of factory workers from Cardonald provided musical entertainment to the crowd.

standardAfter a morning touring the city, the King travelled to Ibrox from the city chambers in his royal car, along streets lined by crowds. By the time he arrived, at least three-quarters of the vast bowl was filled. In size, it was the sort of crowd normally only seen at football matches but it differed greatly in make-up. With thousands of men still serving in combat, many of those attending were women, and they dressed for the occasion. Rather than the usual row after row of drab flat caps, the steep Ibrox slopes were filled with colour from brightly-hued hats and dresses. Entrance to the stadium was first come first served and there were huge queues outside Ibrox when the gates were opened two hours before the ceremony was due to start.

It wasn’t just the crowds who brought colour to the scene. The ground was festooned with a multitude of flags from all the Allied countries. Notably, the US Stars and Stripes flew alongside the Union Jack on the roof of the north stand and a long line of small flags hung above the terracings. The royal platform, which had a prominent position on the playing field, was covered with crimson cloth and was surrounded by brightly coloured flower arrangements. The Glasgow Herald wrote, ‘The famous enclosure has housed many crowds, but seldom has it presented such a scene as today, when the sombre monotony of the football spectators’ bonnets gave way to the blaze of colour provided by the military display.’

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To the sound of a bugle, the King entered the arena at 3.30pm and was greeted by deafening cheers from the crowd. The Herald described the scene in glowing terms. ‘They waved tiny flags and handkerchiefs and cheered as though they would never cease. The demonstration was as a whole of the most superb character’ while the Scotsman said the welcome ‘reinforced the spirit of loyalty and personal regard’ for the monarch.

A company of wounded soldiers from local hospitals faced the King as he took to the dais on the Royal platform while to his right the recipients of the day’s honours were seated. The greatest ovations were reserved for the three soldiers who were presented with the Victoria Cross, particularly Private Harry Christian of the Royal Lancaster Regiment. He had been brought north from a hospital in the north of England but was so ill that he had to be carried to the stage on a chair by members of the St Andrew’s Ambulance Association. The official description of his deeds read as follows:

He was holding a crater with five or six men in front of our trenches. The enemy commenced a very heavy bombardment of the positions with heavy ‘minenwerfer’ bombs, forcing a temporary withdrawal. When he found that three men were missing Private Christian at once returned alone to the crater, and although bombs were continually bursting actually on the crater, he found, dug out and carried one by one into safety all three men, thereby undoubtedly saving their lives. Later he placed himself where he could see the bombs coming and directed his comrades when and where to seek cover.

Private Christian was followed onto the stage by a cheerful Highlander, Private George Mackintosh of the Gordon Highlanders. His commendation read:

During the consolidation of a position , his company came under machine gun fire at close range. Private Mackintosh immediately rushed forward under heavy fire, and, reaching the emplacement, he threw a Mill’s grenade into it, killing two of the enemy and wounding a third. Subsequently, entering the dug-out, he found two light machine guns, which he carried back with him. His quick grasp of the situation and the utter fearlessness and rapidity with which he acted undoubtedly saved many of his comrades, and enabled the consolidation to proceed unhindered by machine gun fire.

The third and final VC was received by ANZAC Lance Corporal Sam Frickleton, of the New Zealand rifle brigade As well as the injuries he suffered carrying out his act of bravery, it also transpired that he had been gassed. The official description of his actions read:

With attacking troops which came under heavy fire and were checked. Although slightly wounded, Corporal Frickleton dashed forward at the head of his section and pushed into the barrage and personally destroyed with bombs an enemy machine gun and crew which was causing heavy casualties. He then attacked a second gun, killing the whole of the crew of twelve. By the destruction of these two guns he undoubtedly saved his own and other units from very severe casualties and his magnificent courage and gallantry ensured the capture of the objective. During the consolidation of the position he received a second severe wound. He set throughout a great example of heroism.

EDIT: August 7th 2014: Cpl Frickleton originally came from Slamannan in Stirlingshire

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The most poignant moments of the investiture came when the mourning widows of fallen soldiers stepped forward to receive posthumous awards on behalf of their late husbands. Among them was the widow of Lieutenant J. Giffen of the Cameron Highlanders, who collected her husband’s Military Cross amid sympathetic applause from the crowd. Their two young sons and daughter watched the ceremony from the grandstand.

William Wilton and Rangers president Sir John Ure Primrose were introduced to the King as the day’s events drew to a close. By all accounts it was a good humoured exchange, with the monarch laughingly suggesting that most of the crowd at Ibrox that day would rather have been watching a football match. After the playing of the National Anthem, the royal party left the ground to yet more cheers from the crowd and a chorus of Rule Britannia from the munitions girls. For the Ibrox men it was the perfect end to what had been a historic day – and a hugely successful one for the club, which cemented its reputation as one of Scotland’s greatest sporting and social institutions.

STUFF: RIP Tom Hibbert aka Black Type

I recently learned of the sad passing of the music journalist Tom Hibbert. Lord Hibbert of Hibbertsworth (as he wasn’t known) was  the “brains” behind the inspired lunacy that was the letters page in ver Hits (aka Smash Hits magazine) during the 1980s. As Black Type, he was an unlikely inspiration for my writing “career”.

Photo by Paul Rider

As well as developing much of Smash Hits’ unique lingo and trademark nicknames, he also interviewed most of the stars of the era –  most notably the Prime Minister of the day Margaret Thatcher (favourite song How Much Is That Doggy In the Window?) and Morrissey.

With apologies to both the original publishers and the person who painstakingly typed it out, here is the full interview with Morrissey from 1985.

MEAT IS MURDER !

That’s the message from Morrissey. A message he’s “madly serious” about. He’s so serious, in fact, that The Smiths are just about to release an LP called Meat Is Murder. Yet despite his health-giving vegetarian diet, The Smiths’ singer still turns up to be interviewed looking decidedly under the weather. Is he, we wondered, permanently peaky? Wouldn’t a good McDonald’s quarter-pounder have him back on his feet in no time? “I sincerely doubt it,” he tells Tom Hibbert.

Are you feeling better?
It’s quite a struggle.
What’s the matter with you?
Oh just a general mental decay – so many things, the list is fascinatingly long. I look ill, don’t I?
Yes, you look terrible, actually. Are you under the doctor?
I don’t believe in doctors, I believe in self-cure. I’ve seen very threadbare GPs and I’ve seen very expensive doctors and I find that they’re all relatively useless.
How long have you not been eating meat?
For almost a decade.
Can you remember that last time you ate meat?
I can’t really – but I didn’t like it the last time. I’m quite sure it was bacon because I had a moderate bacon fetish. And I can remember as it came to the end of my bacon period, I thought – oh, I don’t like the taste of this anymore. It was simply the realisation of the horrific treatment of animals – I had never been aware of it before. I suppose that I knew vaguely that animals died, but I didn’t know how and I didn’t know why. I think generally that people think that meat doesn’t have anything to do with animals. It’s like potatoes or something – it hasn’t got a cow’s face and it doesn’t moo, so people don’t think it’s animals. But of course it is – as I’m sure you’ve recently realised.
Yes, I did twig. Did you approve of the Animal Liberation Front’s Mars Bars hoax?
I wholeheartedly believe in hoaxes.
But would you approve if it weren’t a hoax?
Oh, yes. Completely. Yes, I would because I think we have to take these measures now because polite demonstration is pointless. You have to get angry, you have to be violent otherwise what’s the point? There’s no point in demonstrating if you don’t get any national press, TV or radio, or nobody listens to you or you get beaten up by the police. So I do believe in these animal groups but I think they should be more forceful and I think what they need now is a national figure, a national face – sounds like an ice lolly – I think they need some very forthright figure head.
Vegetarian pop stars don’t tend to be very militant types – Paul McCartney, Limahl, etc…
Yes, very effete figures, non-political figures who would never raise their voices which, of course, is pointless. Whenever vegetarianism has been covered in the popular press, it’s been whispered, nothing ever very forceful. Nobody really concentrates on the reasons why people don’t eat meat, instead this person eats blah blah blah…
Yes. Brown rice and here’s how to cook a nut cutlet in your Habitat kitchen…
Yes, so the brown rice becomes the centre-piece of this person’s stand – when, of course, it isn’t.
Why do you think being vegetarian is almost considered effeminate? Ozzy Osbourne, Ted Nugent, so-called “macho” people like that have to be real red-blooded meat-eaters.
Yes, I’ve never really thought about that. I can’t think of any reason why vegetarians should be considered effeminate. Why? Because you care about animals? Is that effeminate? Is that a weak trait? It shouldn’t be and I think it’s a very sad reflection on the human race that it often is.
What about your heroes? I’m sure Oscar Wilde enjoyed a nice leg of mutton.
Or a big rump steak. Yes. He was a hideously fat person so I’m sure he did indulge quite often – in fact he did but he is forgiven.
And James Dean probably enyoyed a tasty hamburger.
I’m sure he did. But we all have our weaknesses.
So it’s alright, is it?
No, it isn’t. Certainly not.
How far can you take this? What do you want to achieve?
Well, I’m very nervous about it because I’m deadly serious. It isn’t, you know, catchphrase of the month. It isn’t this year’s hysteria. I’m madly serious about it.
Did you have any pets when you were young?
Yes, I had a pet which I still have, in fact. I have a cat that is 23 years old, which makes him something like a thousand in cat years. He’s actually older than the other members of The Smiths, which is remarkable.
What’s his name?
His name – and I’m not responsible – is Tibby. It could be worse but I think that was a very popular cat name in the early ’60s. It’s quite extraordinary because we have family photographs of me when I was a day old and I’m clutching this cat and there he is today still hobbling around the house.
What do you feed him on?
Regrettably, cat meat. Sad as it is, he eats meat but nothing can be done now because he won’t eat anything else. Certainly if I bought a pet today, I’d feed it on non-meat products like Smarties and baked beans. It’s a shame that Tibby is glued to meat, as it were, because – in effect – he’s eating other cats.
But cats are natural carnivores. Wouldn’t it be a bit selfish to impose your views on a cat and turn it into a vegetarian?
No, because cat food is an animal. It’s a horse or it’s a cat or it’s a dog or whatever. So how can I be selfish by not allowing an animal to eat another animal? I’m simply looking after it. Animals can live without meat. We get violently upset when animals eat human beings, it’s horrific, it’s dreadful. So why shouldn’t we feel horror when human beings eat animals?
I do.
You do what? Eat humans?
No, eat animals. Which human would you most like to eat?
Well, now. This is tricky because I spent the last 18 months criticising people, putting them down, destroying them, and I’ve reached the point where I realise that there’s not any point. Because you meet these people and you find that some of them are really quite affable. Some of them are quite nauseating.
Is Limahl affable?
No, he’s certainly not in that category. But I’ve got a new policy. I’m not going to drag people down anymore. Everybody within this curious profession has to do their own thing, however obnoxious that may be. And nothing I can say is going to change that. Besides, I’ve too many enemies. It’s quite distressing. It’s a bit of a strain because one is welcome almost nowhere. I don’t want to go to parties or go skiing with Spandau Ballet or anything but still it’s become quite tiresome, this constant barrier of hate. Silence is the safest thing.
What do you eat?
I have a daily intake of yoghurt and bread.
Do you think that this might be responsible for your present state of ill-health? A good McDonald’s quarter-pounder would put you back on your feet in no time.
I sincerely doubt it.
If you died tomorrow, went up to heaven and met Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame, what would you say to him?
Words would just be useless. I think I’d resort to the old physical knee in the groin – “this is on behalf of all those poor animals who died simply because of you.”
That was a trick question. You should have said Colonel Sanders wouldn’t be in heaven.
Oh.
OK. That’s the end.
Of what?
Of the interview.
Thank heavens for that. You didn’t ask me about Band Aid.
What about Band Aid?
Band Aid is the undiscussable, I’m afraid.
You brought it up!
Yes, and I finished the sentence. Full stop.

PS This article also appears online here http://www.compsoc.man.ac.uk/~moz/quotes/murder.htm and here http://foreverill.com/interviews/1985/murder.htm

A full obituary appeared in the Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2011/sep/01/tom-hibbert-obituary

Merry Xmas – and win a copy of the Old Firm book

Hope everyone had a great Christmas. Here’s a chance to win a copy of the Classic Old Firm Clashes book courtesy of the Rangers Supporters Trust. Top prize in their New Year draw is a pair of tickets for the derby on January 2nd. More details here

http://www.rangerssupporterstrust.co.uk/rstsite/latest-rst-news/366-the-new-year-draw