No Acting Experience Needed

My week of faking it as an Actor on the professional stage

After having taught An Inspector Calls as a GCSE set text for more years than I care to remember, the chance of appearing in a professional production of it was too good an opportunity to turn down. And not just any production. This was the legendary Steven Daldry production, which had improbably revived an old creaking classic when it first burst onto the scene at The National Theatre in 1992. The play had been steadily falling out favour as an exam text, despite its many qualities. In stock cupboards of English Departments all over the country, dog eared copies of the play were left gathering dust. The main problem was that it is, essentially, a very wordy play. Not much happens. It takes place largely in one room, where various people tell their story under interrogation from the mysterious police man, Inspector Goole. It’s the ultimate example of tell not show. The drama of Eva Smith’s tragic suicide is conveyed at a distance via the relentless question and answer technique of Goole. This is usually resolved in TV and Film versions by setting up a series of flashbacks, with an actress playing the role Eva Smith, despite the fact that the play makes it clear that the stories the characters tell concern several young vulnerable women, not one.

The Daldry production takes a radically different approach, honouring the text, and using, instead of flashbacks, scenery to ramp up the drama, and to underline the contemporary relevance. The ingenious collapsing house becomes a powerful metaphor for the collapse,  not only of the cosy successful upper middle class world of the Birlings, but also of a society whose structures are rigged against the poor and the dispossessed.

Having ossified into a wordy exam text, at a stroke Daldry transformed it back into a drama that thrillingly presents issues of fairness, poverty, and class divisions in a vital and engaging way for audiences, not readers. For English teachers it has another compelling quality. It’s virtually the only time in a philistine curriculum, when fifteen year olds learn about politics: parties, ideology, structures of government. As a result,  they also learn that boring old politics, despite what they are encouraged to think, produces significant material effects on everybody’s life. Your vote does make a difference.

Its relevance today is unmistakeable, when we have a government that is shockingly cruel, both by design and by outcome, to some carefully selected scapegoats. It’s impossible to sit through the Inspector’s last speech in the play without immediately thinking of our current shambolic set of charlatans who still cling to power. If they cling on for a further term, don’t be surprised to see it removed from exam specs. And in the Gradgrind world of the Tories, if it’s not examined, it may as well not exist.

So when I was sent a copy of the Facebook page of The Churchill theatre in Bromley, just round the corner from where I live, with a notice asking for “Community Volunteers” to take part in their forthcoming production of the play, I was intrigued. Reading it more closely, there was one detail that was the clincher: No Acting Experience needed. That was a selection criteria that I definitely met. Apart from a much talked about role as Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol, in a school staff/student Christmas  show, my last performance had been as a tree in my primary school nativity play. It was a role I reprised for several years for Hackney Red Star and then Acacia Dynamo, on the Marshes and Clapham Common, as a willing but limited Sunday League centre forward.

I emailed Charlotte Peters, the Company Director, and then promptly forgot all about it. And then, a couple of weeks later, the invite to take part was received. This provoked a strange mixture of regret, excitement and fear, all of which were in evidence when, as instructed, I made my way to the Stage Door of the Churchill Theatre in Bromley.

It’s a little embarrassing to report that that instruction seemed impossibly glamorous to me, a stranger to the world of theatre. The Stage Door! And even if the Stage Door at The Churchill is hidden in a nest of scaffolding and decay, it was still a thrill. The fact that we (the Community Company) were due to be taken through our part at about 3 pm on Tuesday afternoon and the first performance proper was at 7.30pm the same day, stoked all three emotions afresh. 

The Community Volunteers (left): Thomas, Rosie, Giselle, Peter, Colin, Sir Lawrence Olivier, Asti and Hugh

There were eight of us in the Community Volunteer group, and our role was principally to gather on stage in a cloud of dry ice to sit in judgement on The Birlings as The Inspector reached the climax of his investigation. This was done by taking our positions on stage, then, on cue, taking a threatening half step forward.

For all of our time on stage we were to be stony faced, staring into the middle distance. Then, we were to turn and walk off ahead of the Inspectors exit in the famous scene where the ingenious Birling House literally collapses on stage in a cacophony of fireworks, bangs and flashing lights. We stare at this spectacle over our shoulder, before leaving the stage.

The whole thing took about fifteen minutes. Sounds pretty simple, right? Wrong! In that fifteen minutes of hard-faced staring, one is left in stark isolation under the lights, in front of an audience, contemplating all manner of things to do with the workings  of the human body. An itch on one’s nose. Cramp in one’s left leg. Cramp in one’s right leg. The first, frightening tickle of the beginning of an explosive cough. A tiny belch. A runny nose. Hold that fart in. The palpitations of the heart and laboured breathing that in your fevered, overworked imagination, are clearly the start of cardiac arrest. Actors have died on stage, haven’t they? And then one’s thoughts are overloaded with the practicalities of managing a heart attack on stage, such that you miss the cue to begin your exit turn.

The walk back to the dressing room after successfully getting away with it on stage is a heady cocktail of euphoria and relief. We gathered together downstairs for a 15 minute wait before going back on stage for our curtain call. For three or four of us, there was an additional scene where they investigated the ruined house, but clearly, the criteria for selection for this onerous task was to be young and pretty. (and less than 6 feet 4 inches tall so you could comfortably navigate your way around a crowded space). That left me, a reject along with 3 other losers, to assemble on one side of the stage to take the applause. Sounds pretty simple, but we had to maintain our stony judgemental faces, when every human instinct is to smile in recognition of the audience’s acclaim. Impassive silence is not as easy as Buster Keaton makes it seem!

Well, we spent an awful lot of time together. The role involves an enormous amount of hanging around in the dressing room, so it was very important that we all got on. It would have been disappointing if we had just retreated into the world of social media on our phones for hours at a time. We did do a lot of that as well, but there was a lot of chat and a lot of laughs.

Mobile Phones and the Art of Conversation, above

We did this for 8 performances over 5 days. It was a strangely exhausting week, notwithstanding the fact that, really, we did very little. If it was acting at all, it was definitely the Robert Mitchum version of acting – walk on and point your suit at the audience. But it was a fascinating, thrilling experience, and I finished the week with a huge sense of respect for the skill, teamwork and professionalism that underpins putting on a quality production such as this. That judgement is reserved for the professionals we worked with, but what of the other Community volunteers?

The other people were fascinating. The 8 divided into various groups. First the Young Ones – Rosie and Thomas, who were Front of house staff at the theatre, relishing getting back stage and on stage. Rosie did a great impersonation of an air stewardess in her costume and organised several attempts to get us to do a Tik Tok dance routine. Thomas took great pleasure in mimicking the main players in the cast and took particular delight in honing his Scottish accent to perfection. He was also responsible for most of the photographs.

Then came the AmDram squad, led by the extraordinary Hugh, aged 81, who reckoned he had done about 1500 performances as a Community Volunteer, and who was also a veteran of amdram productions going back years, to the silent movie days. (OK, not quite) Peter and Colin were also heavily involved in amateur productions, with Peter a leading light of the Bromley Little Theatre (Licensee, actor and set builder).

Then we had Giselle, a professionally trained ballet dancer and teacher, whose day job was as CEO of Darcey Bussell’s dance fitness brand, DDMIX. She had boundless energy and would often fit in classes or other work commitments even in days when we had two performances. Finally, there was Asti, who, in between stories about the ABBA hologram gig she attended during the run, brought her laptop into the dressing room, to keep on top of her, remote, day job. In discussion, it quickly became clear that there were no shows or plays of note in London’s Glittering West End that she hadn’t been to.

The Community Volunteers ( minus Asti who was partying with Abba that night) above, right.

In comparison to the others, as far as the theatre world was concerned, I wasn’t even a rank amateur, I was nowhere. I concluded that the only reason I got the gig was because I was retired and available, I lived a 5 minute bus ride away, and I knew the play inside out, having taught it for thirty years or more. To their credit, the others tolerated me and my pretensions to write a novel set in a provincial theatre, (Coming, but not soon, “Exit Stage Left”) and responded patiently to all of my rather obvious questions that were from the box labelled “background research”.

The chat ranged far and wide over topics that included:

  • Lower league football teams – Middlesbrough, Plymouth, QPR. Also Crystal Palace – yes, I know, they’re not lower league yet, but they soon will be. (sorry Colin, but simetimes you have to be cruel to be kind)
  • TikTok and what it’s like to have 500,000 followers
  • Superhero Comic Conventions
  • The history and origins of the Little Theatre movement
  • Agatha Christie and rescuing her reputation as a Playwright
  • The importance of having an expensive lightsabre
  • Jim Davidson and the importance of not being rude and offensive
  • Where to get the best Hot Cross Buns
  • Modern theatre audiences drunkenly abusing theatre staff
  • The Police Force and institutional Misogyny and Racism
  • Stage Fright
  • Where to get hold of cheap theatre tickets
  • Telly: Gold, Succession, Happy Valley, White Lotus
  • The relative merits of Greggs, Pret and the local Greasy Spoon
  • A guided tour of great performances we have given. (I was very quiet during these particular conversations, which happened approximately every five minutes. There’s nothing that actors, particularly amateurs, I suspect, like better than talking about their greatest performances of all time. Colin even brought his script for his latest play, so that he could learn his lines. What a trouper!
Back to the Professionals

We were looked after for the week by Philip Stewart, who took us through the choreography of our scene, and checked in on us throughout each day to make sure we were alright. His main role was as the understudy for Mr Birling. Luckily, we got to see him perform the role in one matinee towards the end of the run. Like everyone else, he was excellent in the role: authoritative and convincing as a self-made, blinkered Capitalist. Birling is someone who has pulled himself up by his bootstraps to make something of himself and can’t see why all those who bleat about poverty can’t do the same. It’s hard to overstate how difficult being an understudy must be. They have to know the part inside out, and have the confidence to step in at a moment’s notice without it showing. Phil epitomised this – he appeared to have been doing the role for the whole of the run. The Company Stage Manager, Brad Fitt, was also very welcoming and helpful, making sure we got loads of photos of our experience.

Because we were onstage for only one scene, we got to know it inside out, and it was fascinating to see how the actors, individually and as an ensemble, varied it from night to night. We witnessed the Inspector’s interrogation of Eric, the young wayward son of Mr Birling, leading to the collapse of the family’s smug, pompous self confidence in a terrible physical confrontation between Eric and his mother, before his father smashes the whiskey tantalus, hits Eric and throws him to the ground. Eric was played by George Rowlands, a young actor in one of his first roles. We were privileged to watch him do this scene so close up. He changed it slightly every performance, but each one was as intense as the last. He’s got a big future, I think.

I’m sure all of the other actors were brilliant as well, it’s just that we didn’t see as much of them. We didn’t see the Gerald Croft character on stage at all, because of the structure of the play. Sorry, Simon!

I must confess that one of my concerns before the first day was how we would fit in with the professionals. I had a very stereotypical view of how that was going to go, assuming that we wouldn’t even register a flicker on the actors’ radar. After all, they had been together since August, and they see a new group of volunteers from the community every week. It wouldn’t have been a surprise if they had regally blanked us all.  Nothing could be further from the truth. They were all extremely friendly and welcoming, and did everything they could to put us at our ease. 

We (the community volunteers) were all struck by how much the audience communicate with the actors on stage, and how much they play a part, differently, in every performance. For the Am Dram crew, this was nothing new, but for the rest of us, it added a whole new dimension to the experience. I imagine we’re all familiar with the concept of a “Good House” or a “Good audience”, but to experience the reality of that was something else. During the matinees, and the evening performances to a lesser extent, in the first few days of the run, school parties, full of GCSE students and their hard pressed teachers, dominated.

For the kids, particularly in the matinees, this was as much an escape from the drudgery at school as it was a theatrical experience. And it was an experience they were determined to enjoy. They whooped! They cheered! They groaned! They showed their approval or disapproval of each character as they all told their stories.

As an ex English teacher with many such trips under my belt, this brought back many memories, some of them uncomfortable. Before we used to take a school group to the theatre, we would spend a lesson briefing them on theatre audience etiquette, emphasising that a trip to the theatre was not the same as going to the cinema, with its noisy, continual eating, and discussing the film (at best) or their social life (at worst). It wouldn’t have been fair to put them in an unfamiliar situation and expect them, instinctively to know how to behave. Even with the briefing, group hysteria and peer pressure would often take over, and we were left fielding disapproving looks and comments from all of the card carrying members of the Young People Today Are Awful Brigade. There were a few of them in attendance at The Churchill, several of them haranguing the box office staff for a refund because they were surrounded by kids. How terrible for them.

So, there were times when I winced at inappropriate laughter, chat, or whooping. But then, as the run went into Friday and Saturday, when the serious local theatre buffs attend, I began to long for some evidence of the audience’s engagement with the play. At moments of high drama, moments when the student-dominated audiences would gasp or groan or cheer, from the respectable burghers of Bromley, there was nothing. And on stage, even as a high class bollard, that was strangely deflating. For the principal actors, it must have felt like being ignored – chatting to someone at a party when you notice they are more interested in looking over your shoulder for someone more interesting. Not that that’s ever happened to me, you understand.

I was struck by the gruelling nature of life on the road for a jobbing actor. For the principal characters in particular, doing two performances a day must be physically very demanding. They’ve been doing this run since September, criss crossing the country, changing locations every week. Living in digs away from one’s family, only getting back for a break for a day every now and again – this is not an easy life. Nor a glamorous one.

Backstage, celebrating our glittering success (above right)

As a tiny example, at the end of the last performance on Saturday evening, the thing I was really looking forward to about the return to normal life was the opportunity to eat something vaguely green in colour. A salad leaf. A broccoli stem. A green bean. Even a frozen pea would have been welcome. An unvarying diet of sugar/grease sludge, snatched between performances in a high street chain is not good for you, particularly when combined with a visit to the pub every night. I had expected the actors and crew to conform to the stereotype of the wild thespian troubadors, out on the lash every night in a carnival of excess, but in fact, they were disappointingly sober and professional. Probably why they were all so good at their jobs, on reflection. Or perhaps they just went, sneakily, to a different pub, away from the Hoi Palloi. Hmm.

I was also fascinated by the innards of a professional theatre. Going through the stage door, and making one’s way down the stairs into the bowels of the theatre was real thrill. There was a warren of dressing rooms and ancillary rooms: rehearsal spaces, the wardrobe and laundry area, kitchen, the Company Stage Manager’s office, the Green room. I thought of all the great names that might have occupied the same rooms over the years. And Jim Davidson.

The wings and back stage were another mysterious area, full of shadowy experts silently going about their business to knit the production together. I was particularly struck by the member of the Company (don’t know if it was the DSM or ASM) following each performance on a monitor, in front of a Star Trek dashboard of knobs and controls, issuing instructions to the crew: “Open the house, please”.She was also the person who summoned us from the dressing room to the wings to be ready for our cue.

The strange world of “Back Stage” (above)

Overall, it was a wonderful, memorable experience, one I’ll never forget. It was the sort of thing that retirement, as a second playtime, was designed for. If only I’d followed up that performance as a tree in the Primary Nativity play, all those years ago, things could have been very different.

Me on set, a strange hybrid of a Tree and a Bollard

Lessons in Chemistry

Bonnie Garmus’ debut novel in “surprisingly good” shock

When I was thinking about this review, I searched for something from the professionals, and came across this, from Stephanie Merrit in The Guardian. Merrit is the real name of the very fabulous S J Parris, writer of the Bruno Giordano historical detective thrillers. And just like in those books, she is right on the money regarding this new novel from Bonnie Garmus. This is how she starts her review:

Every now and again, a first novel appears in a flurry of hype and big-name TV deals, and before the end of the first chapter you do a little air-punch because for once it’s all completely justified. Lessons in Chemistry, by former copywriter Bonnie Garmus, is that rare beast; a polished, funny, thought-provoking story, wearing its research lightly but confidently, and with sentences so stylishly turned it’s hard to believe it’s a debut.”

She’s exactly right. I started the book, primed and ready to savour its shortcomings. Not, I hasten to add, because I’m that kind of sour, narrow minded, mean spirited kind of person, you understand. No, simply because it’s an experience so common that it becomes an expectation. A couple of times a year, at least, a book rockets into the Literary Heavens, seemingly out of nowhere, and becomes the “Next Big Thing”. It’s endlessly tweeted about, suddenly all the weekend papers are splashing interviews with the author, and, in a sure fire sign that this is a genuine publishing phenomenon, it gets traction in mass market publications. The writer appears on the One Show, it’s featured in Hello! Magazine, and lo and behold, Reece Witherspoon has bought the rights and is making a 5 part mini series that can only be seen via some new streaming platform that requires you to take out yet another £9.99 monthly subscription.

I often read these literary meteors while they are still burning brightly. This is partly out of an interest in the Literary world in general, partly in an attempt to discern what the secret is to writing a best seller (though to be honest, I’d be happy with finding what the secret is to writing anything that other people – that’s people I don’t know, personally or professionally- might quite like. Maybe even read to the end of, one day. Well, one can dream.) And almost always, the result is the same. The book stinks.

OK, that’s a little harsh. Stinks is maybe pushing it. How about, the book is a little dull. A little obvious. A little lowest common denominator. A little, a book written for people who don’t really like books, in the same way that Ed Sheeran writes music for people who don’t really like music. Stop it. I’m just being deliberately waspish now. It is a weakness of mine. I often give into it and write damning reviews of these meretricious page turners, sarcastic and withering, condescending and judgemental by turns. 

This has become so common, I was beginning to fear it was indicative, not of falling standards in the literary world, but of a propensity to clever cleverness on my part. Not wanting to be perceived as being a part of the common herd, who fall for any old rubbish as long as it’s being featured in the media. These lumpen members of the herd are incapable of forming an independent opinion of their own, having such atrophied powers of analysis and comparison that they can never step out from the pack and say what they think before checking it against the approved opinion. Was I just signalling my own credibility as a cultural consumer by automatically damning the latest literary blockbuster without even reading it?

Still from forthcoming Apple TV adaptation, above right

With all of this in mind, it’s a relief and a pleasure to report that I can fear no more. It’s official – this is A Good Book. By the end, admittedly, it’s flaws have become more obvious, but the opening is so convincing, so welcoming, so right, that one forgives even the most jarring of errors that emerge as the story unfolds. Set in the dark ages of the early sixties, when the USA, outside of New York and San Francisco,  was a stultifying, homogenous sludge of conformity. The promised land if you were male, white and Christian. A treadmill of lowered expectations and domestic thraldom if not. Particularly for women. And it’s that group who the book is primarily concerned with, via a series of likeable characters who the reader is rooting for right from the get go. The obstacles faced by the protagonist, the intelligent, resourceful, attractive career woman, Elizabeth Zott, are petty, ubiquitous and insuperable. It seems barely credible to our twenty first century eyes that such talent was so routinely and unthinkingly suppressed. Of course, we know the story. We know the progress that has been made. But it still has the power to shock and disturb when we see it dramatically presented through the operations of a woman we instinctively warm to.

So the setting, characters, relationships, plot and themes all tick boxes. This is a book that, from the beginning, enlists our sympathy and support. But often, even such a list of positives is not enough. The clincher in Lessons in Chemistry is the prose style. It’s gorgeous. Immaculate sentence after immaculate sentence aggregate into a steadily growing mound of pleasure: precise, economical, engaging. This is not firework prose. It’s not meretricious. It doesn’t show off, or shout its own virtues to the heavens. Instead, it’s quiet, unassuming and effective. It’s the sort of writing that sneaks up on you. You pick up the book because you fancy a bit of reading, and then, before you know it, you’ve read 90 pages in a flash. It’s like a long cold glass of water when you’re thirsty – just exactly what is required. And, miraculously, all of this occurs in her debut novel.

Bonnie Garmus, above left

And ultimately, it’s that that immunises the reader against the novel’s weaknesses. The characters, although engaging, sometimes strain the reader’s credulity. I simply cannot believe that Elizabeth’s neighbour, even though she is locked in a loveless marriage, would get up at 4 am to mind Maddy, Elizabeth’s daughter, to allow Elizabeth to go rowing with her husband. The bloody minded intransigence of Zott, in the face of the nonsensical demands of 1960s American daytime TV, aimed at the only female viewer the executives recognised, the housewife, doesn’t really ring true. Nobody, except perhaps  someone a fair way along the spectrum, would continue not to recognise the commercial realities of both the university research world and the daytime TV world.

The other weakness is that the plot depends on more bare faced coincidences than even old Charlie Dickens himself tried to get away with. Again, the fund of good will the book has built up with the reader by the time we reach the home strait, generates a willingness to suspend disbelief, but the rope is a little too tight by the closing scenes.

Still from upcoming Apple TV adaptation (above right)

Then we come to the thorny matter of the dog. Yes, the dog. Not the one that didn’t bark, but the one that, apparently, as the arch rationalist Gormus tells us, has a vocabulary of nearly a thousand words. The same one that comments on the predicaments of Elizabeth, Calvin, Maddie and Harriet with more wisdom, insight and emotional intelligence than any human appearing on reality TV. I love a bit of Magic Realism as much as the next Joe, but this was a bridge too far for me. And yet, it does work, no matter how ridiculous it makes you feel as a supposedly discerning adult reader. The dispassionate observer role that the dog, Six Thirty, performs does bring something significant to the table. I just don’t know what, how or why.

Garmus with her dog above left. The dog is, strangely, important

Maybe a little mystery about the mechanics of an engaging novel is a good thing every now and again. As an  antidote to over analysing, perhaps one should simply experience a book, and take pleasure from it. After all, you can’t do a post mortem without killing the subject, so, just for once, let’s trust our reactions and let the book live and breathe without trying to find out why. Try it, and see whether you agree.

Dazed and Confused

2022 – the strangest year in Boro’s history? 2023 – the most glorious for fifty years?

Nick Hornby got it right all those years ago in Fever Pitch, just when football was beginning it’s transition from a working class pursuit, looked down on and vilified by cultural commentators, mired in a seemingly endless cycle of violence and male aggression,  to a middle class one, with a Pavarotti soundtrack. The new ballet for edgy cultural thrill seekers looking for authenticity. Being a real football supporter has got little to do with choice, or pleasure or glory. That, ironically enough, is exactly what it means for the new fan. The fan that actively chooses their team, generally speaking because they have a chance of winning the Champions League, have billionaire foreign owners, and can be used as another high fashion luxury accessory for their glossy lifestyle.

Real football supporters do not choose. They are chosen, as a result of family or geography. Anyone who chooses their team is a consumer, not a fan. It’s a community, a roots thing. You go to your first game as a young kid, and generally speaking, that’s it, you’re hooked. And, apart from a few possible mini breaks for University or Child rearing, when there are more pressing things to attend to, that’s you for life. And there’s nothing you can do about it – it’s a life sentence that brings heartbreak, disappointment and endlessly dashed hopes. And they are just the good times.

So, for the average supporter, of small to middling teams, when some success comes around, you have to cherish it, to savour it, because you fear, deep inside, that before too long it will have evaporated, and all you’ll be left with are memories and faint hopes yet again. This is what it is to be a supporter of Middlesbrough FC, a team from “just a small town in Europe”. There have been memorable periods in our history, since I went to my first game in 1968, both of success and abject, catastrophic failure: promotions, relegations, on the verge of liquidation, Cup finals, domestic and European, even cup wins. Well, alright, one cup win. But the yardstick that all supporters of my age use to measure Boro’s current prospects, is the celebrated Jack Charlton team and the season of 1973 – 74. No team has ever come close to that perfection, that total dominance. Some have come dabbled with our emotions: the Rioch fairytale rise from the ashes, the days of Juninho, Ravanelli, and Emerson were a crazy joy ride; the European adventures under McClaren; Karanka’s supremely functional team and their promotion (our last) to the Premier League. None has generated the same, certain confidence that we would win every match, of that season. Until now.

In some ways, those of us who were lucky enough to see the emergence of the Charlton team, have suffered in the same way that the same generation suffered by watching England win the 1966 World Cup. You think that it’s always going to be that way, that England and Boro winning things, is just a part of the natural order of things. It set us all up for a painful journey of readjustment, as we slowly realised that the success we witnessed was just a blip in a longer, well-established pattern of mediocrity.

It is with some trepidation that I have to report, that now, fifty years later,  the current team and manager might just be worthy successors to Charlton’s men. Trepidation because, over the years, I’ve been close to making the same pronouncement a couple of times, only for any early promising signs to disappear to be replaced by the usual disappointments, leaving me feeling rather silly that I had been so optimistic. What makes the current situation so unusual is that it was only a year ago that I was on the verge of making the same prediction. It was around about  now, probably peaking with the FA cup win over Spurs in March last year,  that I found myself thinking that Chris Wilder’s team was rapidly turning into one of my all time favourite Boro teams.

Some history is required, children. Bear with me, particularly if you clicked on the blog hoping for some bog standard Tory bashing. Chris Wilder had been appointed to replace Neil Warnock, an old war horse with limited tactical acumen, whose effectiveness as a manager had started to exhibit the Law of Diminishing Returns. He deserves great credit for saving us from relegation, and for resurrecting the Boro careers of Dyksteel, and Bola, for accidentally finding an excellent defensive partnership involving McNair and Fry, and not least, for rescuing Duncan Whatmore from injury blighted, no contract, no man’s land. For a while it worked. Until it didn’t and he was replaced by Wilder. Let’s not forget that securing his services was a real, coup for a club the size and status of Boro. He had been manager of the year two years earlier, and had a reputation for tactical innovation. That, plus our changes in the scouting and player recruitment department, made it seem as if at last, we were finally embracing the 21st century.

And it all started  so well. Wilder introduced a high, all action pressing game. For his first few games in charge, the players managed it for about 65 minutes before they ran out of steam, but eventually, fitness improved and so did results. The form of Isaiah Jones and Matt Crooks on the right hand side of midfield, and the all action displays of Marcus Tavernier, meant that we were exciting to watch and never seemed to know when we were beaten. The January transfer window promised much in the way of strikers. Admittedly, we had a dodgy keeper, but that’s been the case for most of my time as a Boro fan. ( Take a bow Jim Platt,  Stephen Pears, Mark Schwarzer and Darren Randolph) I was excited about the acquisition of the young Balogun from Arsenal, and interested in that of Connolly from Brighton, who had shown some form the previous year. I, like many Boro fans, thought we were certainties for the playoffs.

And then, it all went pear shaped. Balogun and especially Connolly had made us worse. Our only threat came from the right. If Jones was not at his best, we couldn’t find another way to score. Rumours of Wilder angling for a move to Burnley surfaced and would not go away. It still seemed though that, having sent Connolly and Balogun back, and with the promise of a summer transfer window to plug the obvious gaps, a real go at promotion was assured for this season. It started with high hopes, but before too long, it was clear that there were major problems behind the scenes.

To be fair, Wilder’s situation was not helped by the fact that right at the last moment before the season started, Marcus Tavernier was sold out of the blue. Tavernier was the beating heart of the side, a young. player full of energy, skill and commitment. Without him, we were half the side we had been the previous year. But that was his only defence. He was his own worst enemy. Wilder’s extremely unattractive quality of throwing certain players to the wolves publicly after a bad result came to the fore. Dyksteel, one of my favourite Boro players, was humiliated by Wilder, post match, several times. Dael Fry, another quality defender, also received the public dressing down treatment, and he suffered the ultimate humiliation for any pro – the half time substitution. That’s just not the way to keep the dressing room on your side.

Early in the season, when I was still thinking things would come right, I went see the game at Loftus Road, against QPR. It was a profoundly depressing experience. Without Tav in the middle of the park we were horribly lightweight in midfield, with no aggression or penetration. McGree, Mowatt, Howson, and Crooks were painfully slow and couldn’t tackle their way out of a damp paper bag. (To be fair to Crooks, who is ridiculously underrated by a section of supporters, he was struggling needing a hernia operation. The others had no such excuse) Defensively, we were shambolic. The breaking up of a really good defence the previous year to include new signing  Lenihan seemed another bizarre achievement for Wilder. Although we came back in the second half, it confirmed for me that, far from being promotion challengers, we were well and truly in the relegation mix.

It was hard to fathom. What on earth had happened to the great side of just five or six months earlier? Could it be true that the Messiah, Wilder, was really just a very naughty boy? Just another charlatan? Confusion reigned. It was the biggest turnaround in performance and expectations that I can remember in all my time as a fan. A few months ago, I was convinced that Wilder was the answer, and that at last we had made a managerial appointment that indicated Steve Gibson, bless his saintly cotton socks, knew what he was doing. Many Boro fans shared that view it seemed.Now, he is an object of scorn, for the failings that became ever clearer. I’m not one for vilifying managers, generally. Obviously, I make an exception for Tony Pulis, whose approach to football was positively horrendous. In the dying days of his reign, I would have rather visited the dentist without anaesthetic, than be forced to watch Boro play. Less painful. I will, though, make an exception for Wilder. And I have finally worked out who it was he reminded me of so much. He must be the Love Child of Mr Sugden, from Kes. A dead ringer.

But now, it’s happened again. From despair to high expectations in a couple of months. Carrick has moulded an exceptional team, rescuing Wilder’s write offs and adding real quality to the squad. What’s more, he’s done it quietly and calmly, not playing the big I Am, and he’s done it by getting us to play sublime football, from back to front in the blink of an eye. I’ve wracked my brain and can’t get past the idea that the current team is playing the best football I’ve seen Boro consistently produce, probably since the John Neal side of the late Seventies, early Eighties. At its best the Robson Juninho team was exhilarating, but there were also some shambolic performances along the way.

A few observations on what has happened under Carrick:

  1. The Remarkable Transformation of Mr Chuba  Akpom

Akpom has gone from ordinary, journeyman striker, picked up  cheapish from Greece, and then shipped out on loan when it was clearly not working out for him, to a reincarnation of Mark Viduka. Where on earth did that come from? Admittedly, he has some Arsenal Youth pedigree behind him, but that was a long while ago now.

Lovely instant control with back to goal, strong and very diffiult to shake off the ball, great passing and vision for a pass, great movement and deadly in the box. There was no sign of any of those qualities in his first spell at the club. More proof that Carrick is actually a necromancer, with little wax dolls of all the players that he casts spells on at Midnight in his office. It’s the only explanation.

  1. The emergence of Mr Hayden Hackney, fully formed, as a top class central midfielder, straight from the Academy. See point above about wax models.

In all my time supporting the mighty Reds, I have never seen a better player emerge from the Academy or the Reserves, apart from David Armstrong. From his first game (and well done Leo Percovitch for throwing him in) it was obvious he was really good. When he receives the ball in the middle of midfield from the defence, he’s on the half turn and he runs forward, glides, carrying the ball effortlessly. His range of passing is outstanding and he is always looking to pass forward, in between defenders. Added to that he works his socks off and loves a tackle.

The only thing he is missing at the moment is goals, but let’s not be greedy. The real mystery here is how Wilder, paid a huge amount of money for his footballing expertise and judgement, couldn’t see this. According to him, no one from the Academy was ready for the the first team. Not ready, my arse. Hackney is a future England player – or he would have been if he hadn’t already plumped for Scotland. That’s England’s loss and their gain.

3. Riley McGree fulfilling his potential.

    At the beginning of the season I was unimpressed. He struck me as this year’s Adam Forshaw: neat, tidy, but with little threat. Definitely not a central midfielder and much more effective when he played higher up the pitch. Now, he’s unrecognisable. Nominally on the left, he drifts all over the pitch and finds space in between the lines, and is a visionary passer. He also scores goals. Fabulous

      4. Marcus Forss is another player whose performances have made Wilder look more than a little silly. According to the great Sheffield Oracle, Forss was a “developmental player”, a “project”. What nonsense. He’s got a searing turn of pace, closes opposition defenders down relentlessly, provides assists from the right and is a great finisher. He’s been an unsung player this season, but one who is instrumental in the way we play.


        Lenihan has justified his purchase in the summer, and has become a key element in our steadily improving defence. A future Captain, when Johnny Howson hangs up his boots.

        So, what does the future hold? We will go up, perhaps even in second place, automatically. I firmly believe that if Carrick had started the season in charge it would ourselves and Burnley who would be miles out in front of the pack, just like Charlton’s champions were all those years ago. Carrick’s reputation, and his obvious eye for a player will mean that our recruitment for the Premier League will be more effective than it’s ever been. I hope he can revitalise some of the casualties, players who still have a great deal to offer, imho. I’m thinking of Bola, Dyksteel, and Jones, in particular, who looks a pale shadow of the player that broke through last year.

        Carrick will be much coveted by any Premier League club that sacks their manager next season, but I get the impression that he, unlike Wilder, really likes being here and will want to see out the project to its conclusion. We will also be lucky to hold on to the players I’ve highlighted. It’s likely that Akpom, McGree, Hackney, Forss will be the subject of big money bids. We need to resist them if we are going to build something here.

        Of course, we won’t really find out about whether Carrick is the real deal until he’s lost five on the bounce and someone throws their season ticket at him in the dug out. Responding to pressure is the key test (the test that Karanka spectacularly failed in our last promotion season), particularly in the Premier League where the quality of opposition is frighteningly high. Should that happen, we can confidently expect some of the board warriors to emerge, telling us that they called it at the time and that appointing Carrick was a mistake. He will of course have a losing run at some time. It’s easier to get out of it with the support of the crowd, but my hunch is that he is made of the right stuff and will find the answers to turn it round.

        We are set for a really enjoyable few years, I reckon. And part of that pleasure is to acknowledge that, at last we have worthy inheritors of the mantle of 73/74. Something is stirring down in TS3. Something beautiful and special. Perhaps Hornby wasn’t completely correct about the pain and angst of being a football supporter. Maybe, just maybe, this is a unique time when your team provide pure, sublime joy. The beautiful game is even more beautiful when your own, beloved team are playing it. Long may it continue.

        Final point: It’s hard to shake off years of underachievement, and the ingrained, heady mixture of fear and pessimism that has been ingested over the many years of standing on the Holgate. It was like a toxic radiation cloud, post Nuclear Armageddon, with dangerous levels of Pipe smoke, Bovril fumes, and Bitter Cynicism.

        Typical Bloody Boro is never very far from the surface, when opportunity knocks. On Saturday we are away to West Bromwich Albion. After this particular post, this is the only image that will do.

        Up The Boro.

        How to Survive The Writers’ Workshop

        The first thing to realise is that creative writing is something of a drug. And like all addicts,  budding writers, who keep their activities a murky secret, need a support network that treads a fine line between encouragement, understanding and brutal character assassination. For many of us, this is the Writers Workshop, an institution that strikes fear into the heart of anyone who has tried to write something other than a work email or a letter appealing against a parking fine. Many writers fall at this first hurdle, when, having been brave enough to submit their early, faltering efforts to the scrutiny of their peers, they are left shell shocked at the realisation that not everyone agrees with them that they have a rare talent that should be not only nurtured, but celebrated. Shouted from the rooftops, in fact.

        The first time this happens, and you sit there, your smile becoming ever more forced and rictus like, as each sentence of the judgement of your friends and colleagues strips away another layer of self respect and self esteem, is a life changing moment. Your stare becomes glassy eyed, your eyes vacant and slowly and steadily you retreat back into some terrible protective shell, nodding wisely at every acid comment, every slash of the knife. Not listening behind a certain point of maximum pain, but just waiting for the whole ghastly experience to be over.

        Why on earth would anyone out themselves through this more than once? And indeed, many people reach the same conclusion. They put it down to experience and vow never again to entertain such obviously deluded ideas about their own abilities. And they never come back. Some of them end up as the pub bore, always ready to burden their chums with their opinions about cultural products, self appointed experts on all the different forms of narrative experience. They refer frequently to their writing, usually as a prequel to their favourite subject, the evil of literary agents and the publishing industry, who, know nothing about the craft of writing but are only interested in selling, shifting units that are essentially the same as baked beans in the supermarket. They bore on about the hundreds of times JK Rowling got rejection slips. All this to subtly imply that genius such as theirs is routinely ignored by the lesser drones of an industry that represents the general decay of western cultural production. Others never mention it to anyone. They spend their life reading voraciously and watching box sets, silently brooding, while thinking, “It could have been me.”

        Most of them manage to go on with their lives, some of them making a useful contribution to society. Some of them even become OFSTED inspectors, convinced that their frequent use of fronted adverbials and semicolons in their writing should have protected them from criticism. They will spend the next thirty years of their professional lives taking revenge on schoolteachers with a similarly sloppy approach to the craft of writing.

        How to avoid such a fate? I’ve had quite a lot of experience of the dreaded writing workshop, in different groups and in different settings. Here are some basic rules that have emerged from my experiences. I’ve divided them into two sections: For Writers and For Critics.

        For Writers

        1. All First Drafts Are Shit

        In the words of one of my esteemed tutors, All First Drafts Are Shit.(Or maybe they said, “All your drafts are shit” No, I really must work on this Imposter Syndrome thing) It’s a simple enough statement, but one that’s worth remembering. If your submission to the group is relatively unworked ( and weekly deadlines mean that it almost certainly is) you’re going to get a lot of critical feedback. Because all first drafts are shit. Listening to the feedback is one way of beginning to make them a little less shit.

        2. The Reader is Always Right.

        Until they’re actually wrong. (see 3 below) If one of your readers is telling you they didn’t like some aspects of your piece, please, before you open your mouth, remember that they are telling the truth and only they can know. It’s not an episode of Traitors where they are trying to double bluff you. They didn’t like it. And nothing you can say – no explanation of what you were trying to achieve – can make any difference to that. You have a choice of possible ways to respond. One way makes you look like a twat – and remember, it’s important, if you want to try to have a long run in the same group of writing buddies, to try to preserve some sense of dignity and humanity. That way is to argue. When you do this, you are basically saying that the reader is a moron because they did not get what you were trying to do. Hmm, how can I put this politely? Might it not be possible, nay, likely that they didn’t get it because you didn’t write it well enough? Worth considering, n’est-ce pas?  The second way is much more straightforward. Just listen. Make some notes. And then go away and think about it.

        3. Except when it comes to Literary Criticism

        The plot thickens when their feedback strays into literary criticism, as it often does. As soon as they step onto that particular thin sheet of ice, well then you’re into the area of discussion, debate, argument. Because in trying to analyse why the writing doesn’t work, they will often get it wrong. And then you can really go for them….

        4. Shut the Fuck Up.

        Some writing workshops have formalised this so that is a key part of how feedback works. The person receiving the feedback is not allowed to respond, whether it’s asking or answering questions, or offering explanations. It is formally understood by all, that it’s the people offering the feedback who hold the floor. Given the fact that, in most cases, this process involves real human beings, this is harder to achieve than it sounds. In my experience, having silence as an unbreakable rule is the only way to make it work. I still feel myself going red and feeling uncomfortably hot under the collar when I recall some of my intemperate responses to feedback I didn’t agree with. Once again, if you value your reputation and want your membership of the group to continue profitably, just zip it, at least until you get home when you can offload to your long suffering partner about the heavy cross you have to bear in being an unrecognised genius surrounded by fools.

        5. RASB

        This acronym was, pleasingly, going to be Rasberry, but by the time I got to the letter E, I came over all tired and had to have a lie down.

        Recognise the agony of releasing your work in progress into the world. The minute you do that, it’s not exclusively yours anymore. It’s remade afresh every time someone starts reading it. Because those pesky readers will insist on bringing their own stuff to the party, sometimes, or so it seems, wilfully misinterpreting what you’ve written. There is nothing more sobering than realising the yawning chasm between what you think you’ve written, and what the reader has read. If this sounds familiar to you, go back to rule 2 and have a little think. Giving your WIP to someone is a Revelatory Act of Supreme Bravery. It’s been your dirty little secret for so long and while it’s a secret, you can continue to live with the fantasy that it is good and you are a genius. Sending it into the world is the first and the decisive step in destroying that.

        6. It’s OK to disagree

        Notwithstanding rule 2, sometimes the feedback you get is wrong, or unhelpful, or does not have to be acted upon. How do you know which feedback is valid or important, and which is just the reader’s expression of personal taste? If you only have one or two readers providing feedback, then this is a difficult judgement and, in the end, all you’ve got to go on is your instinct. Does the feedback strike a chord with you? Does it chime with previous comments that have been made about your work? If it doesn’t, it may not be essential to enact it. After all, the next person who reads it may directly contradict the previous reader. You could spend all of your time chopping and changing, on the back of every successive reader’s comments, and end up exactly where you started.

        7. Do The Maths

        If you give your precious WIP to twenty people and nineteen come back and say that the opening chapter was slow and boring, then it’s not rocket science to think that you need to edit the first chapter.

        Volume of feedback pointing out the same weaknesses is to be ignored at your peril. They haven’t all got together to plan your psychological destruction. Suck it up and make the changes.

        8. Know Thyself

        Try to use the experience to come to some overall understanding of your modus operandi as a writer. What is your usual model of working? What are your strengths and weaknesses? How does this compare to that of your fellow writers? The more of a handle you have on your preferred methods, the quicker you will be able to recognise the valuable things all of this feedback is telling you. And, the things that are, ahem, nonsense.

        9. It’s Good To Talk. ( see 4 above)

        Writing is essentially a lonely pursuit. Most writers, when they have finished something, are gripped by a powerful need for readers. Writers have laboured long and hard alone, thinking about the story, characters, themes, structure, voice etc. The list is endless. There’s always something to get wrong. And just like a football manager interviewed straight  after the final whistle, writers are invariably unreliable witnesses when it comes to their own work. That was never a penalty! (After opposing forward has been subject to grievous bodily harm in the six yard box) But there are two different kinds of talk, each one essential for the writer. The first is forensic, critical feedback, which can be brutal and difficult to take. In this, the writer must shut the fuck up and listen. The second is akin to therapy. Writers want to talk about their work in progress endlessly and obsessively. They are gripped by a burning need to explain. They are compelled to share with fellow writers, or other keen, reliable readers, what they were trying to do, how they were trying to do it, and why. In this sense, I am convinced that when Coleridge wrote the Ancient Mariner, he had a writer in mind. The opening verses tell of a strange, wild eyed sailor, who randomly forced himself and his story on any unfortunate soul he meets. (In this case, a Wedding Guest)

        It is an ancient Mariner, And he stoppeth one of three.

        ‘By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,

        Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?

        He holds him with his glittering eye—

        The Wedding-Guest stood still,

        And listens like a three years’ child:

        The Mariner hath his will.

        The Wedding-Guest sat on a stone:

        He cannot choose but hear;

        And thus spake on that ancient man,

        The bright-eyed Mariner.

        “He stoppeth one of three” and then he proceeds to bore the listener to death by telling him his story. Obviously a frustrated writer looking for a publisher/ agent.

        If you’re working with a group using the Shut The Fuck Up model of interrogation, you must find another outlet, where you, the writer, can talk discursively and in an unrestrained way. Unless you’ve got very understanding friends or a saint of a partner, this has to be with someone who is tolerant of your need to obsess about your work in progress. Often, the only way of managing this is in a quid pro quo arrangement with a fellow writer. One week they listen to you droning on about your WIP, the next week you return the favour. I would go as far as to say that having a regular session for 15 minutes where people tell you how great the WIP is an essential prerequisite for emotional and psychological well being. This what pubs were invented for. Just be aware that, on its own, it’s also a routine  guaranteed to ensure your writing doesn’t get appreciably better. And, incidently, ensuring that you quickly run out of friends But you’ll have a nice warm glow of well-being about you, so who cares?

        10. The Shit Sandwich.

        (Please note: I avoided the temptation to add an illustration)

        It’s basic human psychology that people will only listen to criticism about their work on the back of praise that’s been laid on with a trowel. So if you are trying to help out a fellow writer, remember that your points of criticism must not only be specific and proportionate, but they must be heavily outweighed by all the good things you’ve been able to say about the work. If you are the person delivering the feedback you’ve got to be prepared to do the work and find genuine things to praise and be enthusiastic about. Let’s be nice to each other. But actually, the metaphor doesn’t really stand up. Because, no matter how nice the bread is – sourdough,  brioche, perhaps a nice juicy, garlicky focaccia – at some point you’re going to have to eat some shit. And in reality, the filling of this particular sandwich, while it may not be palatable, is actually good for you. Maybe it should be the Cod Liver Oil sandwich.

        11. Sleep On It.

        The hurt of criticism is real, but the sting fades eventually. Embrace the pain. After all, like real pain and the red, angry inflammation it produces, it’s a sign that the body is working to process it. Here, it’s also a sign that you care about it, which is an essential precursor to good writing. Do the same with your mind and your heart, and let the feelings stew for a while. When you’ve done that, it’s much easier to a) hear the detail of what has been said, b) decide whether you agree, and c) learn from it.

        For Critics

        There is, of course, another side to this coin. How can you be a useful critic, rather than a smart arse know all?

        1.The One Rule to Bind Them All

        The thing to remember above all else, is that your value to the writer comes from your status as A Reader, not as An Expert. The certain knowledge that some people will disagree with your own, idiosyncratic reading of the text should generate some humility on your part.

        2. Be Nice

        Find something you can genuinely enthuse about. Sometimes, that will require you to go the extra mile in terms of how much time you spend on it, but there will always be something.

        3. Read it with some care and attention

        Read the piece. Seriously. Don’t be that person who turns up to the feedback session who hasn’t done the reading. Even worse, don’t be that person who pretends they’ve done the reading, and can only give the most bland unhelpful feedback ever. Obviously, even budding writers have lives and shit happens, so sometimes you just don’t have the time. Everyone understands that and forgives. But only once. The writer has spent a lot of time producing this, so the least you can do is be respectful and read the damn thing. Even if you hate it.

        4.Remember whose writing it is

        Don’t give loads of advice about how to change it. It’s not your WIP, remember, it’s theirs, and you may have completely misread their intentions. Frame your feedback in terms of how it came across to you, and then let the writer decide what should follow from that.

        5. Give the writer the benefit of the doubt.

        Engage your brain when reading the submission and then when feeding back in the group. If, as is likely, the submission is a section of a longer piece, be wary of droning on about how there were too many character names, you didn’t know how they fitted together, or what their relationships were. Give the writer the benefit of the doubt. Almost certainly, the sections either side of the submission will answer your questions. The writer is often asking the reader to do some work, puzzling out the connections. You know, like someone who reads a lot of fiction. They are paying you a compliment and you should return the favour.

        When it comes to meaning, in my opinion 75% of the meaning of any 500 word passage comes from the 500 words that precede it and the 500 words that immediately follow it. Notwithstanding the point above, the submission should be able to stand on its own two feet, with its merits clear for all to see. Please note: all percentages in this blog are meaningless, or at best, vague substitutes for words like “very”, “some”, “most” etc.

        6. Give the writer the benefit of the doubt again

        This is with particular reference to character. It’s pretty difficult to make meaningful judgements about the authenticity of characters in the first few pages after they are introduced. All the reader knows about a character is what the writer has chosen to tell you (or show you). So if a character jars with you, don’t say “this character would not behave like that”, because you really can’t know that. What you really mean is “The stereotypical character I’m referencing in my head wouldn’t behave like that.” And that leads you into the revolutionary idea that the thought or action or speech you objected to, might well be a deliberate act on the part of the writer, designed to build up a picture of an unusual, complex, messy, unpredictable character. Because that’s what people are like.

        On the other hand, there comes a point deep into the book, where you know enough about the character to make that kind of judgement fairly and helpfully. It’s after about 120 pages, roughly. (not)

        7. Do As You Would Be Done To

        Most importantly, remember that the people whose work you are critiquing will soon be doing the same to you. Another, more cynical, reason for rule 1 in this section.

        Please note: every item in the list of advice above can be ignored. There are no rules. Only you will recognise which bit applies to you and it will be different for everyone. The only bit that that doesn’t apply to is this final nugget of wisdom:

        Enjoy it. Recognise the luxury of having found a group of people who, like you, are similarly obsessive about reading and writing and then talking about it. It’s a gift beyond price – even if you’re paying an arm and a leg for it. Whether you desperately dream of being published, or would just like to write something for yourself and your family, sharing your work will help. 

        The Old Grey Owl’s Almanac 2023

        Part 1

        As Old Father Time takes his last faltering steps towards the end of 2022, the Owl roots around in the detritus that gathers under his nest in the old oak of The Great North Wood. The mist clears, the twigs and bones settle into their celestial pattern, and the events of 2023 shimmer and shift, until they come, fleetingly, into sharp focus.

        This is what 2023, bright and shiny as it approaches the start line, has in store for us all.


        The Uk is locked into a new Ice Age, starting on January 9th. Temperatures plunge to minus 15 degrees in cities, even in the soft, sybaritic hub of decadence that is London. On higher ground it falls further and minus twenty becomes commonplace. The far right libertarian warriors are gleeful, taking this as irrefutable proof that global warming is a woke conspiracy of the Deep State. Normal people, with more than one brain cell to rub together, think that they are mad.

        The Conservative government open coal mines in every region of the UK, except the Cotswolds, obviously. They also announce a new policy of a “bonfire in every town”. This replaces the “Grammar School in every town” policy which is quietly dropped because their latest focus groups ( consisting, as usual, of retired white people visiting garden centres) have realised that their grandchildren might not get in. Opening three Secondary Moderns in every town is not quite as catchy as a policy pledge.

        The bonfires will be sited in key locations where coal can be burnt 24 hours a day, so that the poor, bless them, can gather together and not freeze to death. Only British nationals are allowed in, so that those damn foreigners, refugees, asylum seekers, and dark skinned types can be incentivised to go back to their own countries. This, of course, is to smash once and for all the terrible people traffickers so as to protect the vulnerable. Government spokespeople say this with a straight face whenever they are asked about human rights.

        The month ends with three more unnamed Tory MPs being investigated by the police for “serious sexual assault.” They are not named and do not have the whip withdrawn because “people are innocent for as long as we can get away with it”. Oh no, hang on a minute, that’s wrong. “People are innocent until they are proven guilty, in this great country of ours” Yes, that’s it.

        Vox pops on national news programmes carry people saying, “These politicians are all as bad as each other.” This is greeted with rapturous round of applause by the Question Time audience.Sir Keir Starmer pledges that under his watch, any Labour member caught in an ongoing trousers down situation, will be tarred and feathered on Westminster Green, that’s how tough he is, oh yes indeed.


        A heatwave strikes, as an area of high pressure squats over the UK. The ERG cite this as the long searched for, often thought mythical, Brexit Benefit. Normal people think they are mad and that this is evidence that Global warming is here and is A Bad Thing. Bonfires have to be kept alight because of the contractual obligations drawn up with the Chinese owners of the newly opened coal mines. A pall of smoke hangs over the entire country, apart from The Cotswolds.

        The Appeal courts rule that the Rwandan deportation policy is, in fact, illegal, contravening every norm of civilised jurisdiction, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is said to be the work of Woke Lefty Lawyers and the Enemies of The People. Cruella Braverman, the Home Secretary, says she will immediately end Britain’s membership of the European Court of Human Rights and bring in their own Great British version of Human Rights, hosted every Saturday by  Paul Hollywood, Nigel Farage, and Simon Cowell.

        The Appeal court is disbanded, and decisions in future will be ratified by Twitter poll and audience phone in. Only people with recognised photo ID will be eligible to vote.

        Braverman announces a new immigration policy, in the light of the appeal court’s decision. People in coastal communities will be invited to join newly established armed militias who will patrol local beaches with powers to make citizens arrests of illegal immigrants. This is known as “Taking back control”.

        Rishi Sunak, when challenged about the policy, sounds a note of caution. “We will, of course, fulfill our obligations under global treaties and human rights agreements.” There is an immediate challenge to his leadership, on the grounds that he is a “socialist”. He loses a vote of confidence in the house and Cruella Braverman is duly elected as leader of the Tory party, and de facto Prime Minister.

        In a major policy speech given by Sir Keir Starmer during a celeb spot on Britain’s Got Talent/ Strictly Come Dancing/ I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, Starmer declares, “We’re the Nasty Party now!” He slams Braverman for being soft on immigration, and says, “There’s no place in Labour Britain for foreigners”. He is wearing, for the first time, the new red baseball cap emblazoned with the slogan, “Britain Under Labour Looks Lovely”. BULLL


        Braverman’s first move is to appoint Nigel Farage to be Home Secretary,  and Patrick Mindford as Chancellor. The Telegraph calls it , “A Government of all the talents” while The Daily Lie trumpets, “ At Last! A proper Tory Government!” In her honeymoon period of seven day, she meets with senior Treasury Officials and the Governor of The Bank of England, who explain economics to her, in a PowerPoint presentation in Comic Sans MS

        On day 8, she sacks the Governor, appointing Boris Johnson in his place. Johnson is said to find working in close proximity to all of those fifty pound notes impossible to turn down. Senior Treasury Officials seek an urgent meeting with Cruella, feeling she had not been listening during the PowerPoint, instead continually scrolling through her notifications on Twitter. Braverman does not show up for the meeting and sacks the people waiting to see her at Downing Street via Twitter. She posts a TikTok video of herself wielding the axe, which goes viral.

        Film of Johnson appears on Twitter. He is wearing a stripy T-shirt, woolly hat, and pair of tights over his head,  sneaking out of the Bank of England in the early hours of the morning with a stuffed bin liner over his shoulder. This is deleted after five minutes and is not reported by the British media.

        Braverman does not turn up to the Commons for PMQs – Jacob Rees Mogg, confirmed as Minister for the 18th Century does the media rounds saying it’s perfectly constitutionally appropriate not to appear to take Questions from the Leader of “The Remoaners”. He later clarifies this, after repeating it in the House, by saying he was referring to the Constitution of France in 1790.

        Braverman, from deep within her bunker underneath Number 10, slashes taxes to 5%, and abolishes The Welfare State, including the NHS. Because the State no longer has responsibility for Health, Pensions, Transport, Education, she brilliantly, at a stroke, balances the books.The Daily Lie, the Telegraph,and the rest of the rags, carry these Headlines: “Keep your nerve!” “Be Brave ( r ) Ma’am”, “Scroungers, Shirkers, The Woke, and Illegal immigrants beware! Suella is coming for you”

        Britain PLC tanks when the stock markets reopen. Interest rates shoot up to 17%.

        A series of Tory lickspittles are trundled out on The breakfast media round to rally round Braverman, including Nadim Zahawi, a man who will tell any incredible lie with a straight face, as long as he is guaranteed a ministerial job. By the lunchtime news on BBC Zahawi is back on the air waves withdrawing support from Braverman, who, he says, recognises that she went “too far too fast” and throwing his weight behind Margaret Thatcher, who has emerged as the shock favourite in a poll of Tory members. It later emerges that the people behind the ABBA avatars have constructed a Thatcher version, and focus groups reported rave responses. Zahawi is a major shareholder in the company that designs and makes the avatars. “No conflict of interest” declares the new Independent advisor on Ministerial matters, Michelle Mone.

        The 1922 committee change their leadership election rules and the Thatcher avatar is voted in, in a secret phone “sampling exercise”..

        Polls before Thatcher’s appointment put the Tories on 9% trailing, Labour by 40 points. Polls taken after the announcement put them on 25%, trailing Labour by 7 points.

        “The Iron Lady is back – forever!” screams The Daily Lie. On the day of Thatcher’s election, in a delicious example  of pathetic fallacy, torrential rain  begins across the UK.


        Energy bills rise by 400%, just as government support is withdrawn. “No more Nanny State!” says the Daily Lie

        All NHS A and E Departments are officially closed to be reopened a week later under new management, rebranded as Amazon Health, available as Prime or Standard. Queues for treatment, ambulances waiting outside of A and E, all disappear overnight. No figures are available for excess deaths, despite FOI requests. A variety of Right Wing Shock Jocks: Julia Hartley Brewer, Richard Tice, Nigel Farage, Dan Wootton, Katie Osborne say, “Shit happens, get over it, Snowflakes!”

        Strikes by nurses, rail workers, teachers, Barristers, bus drivers continue. A General Strike is called for May. This is denounced by the Tories. “The Enemy Within” fumes Thatcher.

        The rain continues and Britain is deluged. There are Major floods in every region of the Nation. Except The Cotswolds. Thatcher declares this as evidence of “Levelling up working”. After forty days of continuous rain, the bonfires eventually all go out. Floods cause raw sewage to be released into every High Street in Britain. Except The Cotswolds.

        The Daily Lie proclaims this a major triumph for Privatisation because for the duration of the floods, no sewage is discharged into the sea near any resort. They’ve finally run out of shit. 

        After an exhaustive investigation into the three Tory sex criminals (Q: Did you do it? A: No. Q: Fair enough. Close the door on the way out and mind how you go.) all charges are dropped. Coincidentally, Boris Johnson throws a lavish party the next weekend. Special guests of honour: Cressida Dick, Mark Francois and an avatar of Jimmy Saville.

        In Sport, Newcastle United find themselves twelve points behind Arsenal and ten points behind Manchester City as the season moves into the last month. Saudi owners not happy about the return on their investment. They announce that they intend to buy Arsenal and Man City.

        The Premier League issues stern warning of the severe consequences if Newcastle go through with the purchases, because of their rigorous rules: points deductions, relegation, financial penalties, transfer embargo.

        Newcastle announce they have bought The Premier League. Premier League issue statement welcoming the stability that the Saudi takeover of the PL will bring.


        Newcastle crowned Premier League champions, after Arsenal and Man City are officially dissolved (in a vat of acid) and therefore removed from the league table. Pep Guardiola and Mikel Arteta disappear on a Charity event visit to the Saudi embassy in London. They are seen entering the building, but not leaving. They are never seen again.

        Snow begins falling on May1st and does not stop again for the entire month. Floods turn into treacherous Ice rinks. No-one can light the sodden coal bonfires in every town in England (Except The Cotswolds), but the contract requires coal to be piled up on each bonfire. By the end of May, each bonfire is the size of The Houses of Parliament.

        Boris Johnson, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, has not been seen for two months. When questioned about this, the Thatcher avatar says, “Well, Boris is Boris..” After threatening to challenge the D notice that had been slapped on his whereabouts (“issues of National Security”), Johnson is finally spotted leaving The Saudi Embassy in a state of dishevellement, red wine stains down his shirt, no tie, carrying two large bin liners. He stumbles down the road to be picked up by a limo from the Russian Embassy driven by his best friend, Evgeny Lebedev. As he gets in, one fifty pound note flutters down the street,having escaped from the bin liner.

        The Tories announce a Festival of National Renewal and Brexit Celebration to take place in June. Every Bonfire wll be lit using the Army and each one will carry effigies to be decided by Twitter poll. Favourite candidates are: An Illegal immigrant. Prince Harry and Meghan. A Lefty Lawyer. President Macron. Angela Merkel. Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion types.There’s a bonus local spot reserved for each bonfire for regional figures of hate. This is known as “Devolution”

        Government spokesperson says, “We know times are tough. We get it. But difficult times call for difficult sacrifices, and this festival is just a bit of fun to help people through these times. After all, we survived the War! And The War time spirit is just what this country needs now.”


        A cloud of gloom and crisis hangs over Downing Street. There are signs the brilliant Thatcher Avatar scam has not worked. Average polling now puts the Tories forty points behind Labour, on 7%. Have people finally had enough of dead bodies in the streets? Months of floods followed by Arctic snow fall, with no-one able to afford to heat any part of their homes is having an impact, even amongst the stubborn Red Wall Leavers in Hartlepool. The impact of Interest Rates now at 20% begins to come through and there is a wave of evictions, and repossessions. A million and a half people join the homeless figures.

        Thatcher Avatar brilliantly announces sales of Council Houses, until someone reminds her that there aren’t any left. The greatest minds of the Tory Party think tanks have a brain storming away day session at Chequers. They triumphantly announce the results of their “Blue Sky” thinking. They will replicate the glittering success of the Nightingale Hospitals, and build mass, warehouse-style housing in every town in the country. People will be able to have a safe warm place to sleep, with three “meals” a day, in exchange for some small tasks that have to be accomplished. It’s like “Im a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here”

        They will be called the “New Work Houses”. Jacob Rees Mogg has this responsibility added to his portfolio and becomes the Minister for Workhouses, the fulfillment of a lifetime’s dream. As part of his role he announces the abolition of paid holidays, maternity and paternity leave and statutory sick pay.

        Nadim Zahawi tours the TV studios to say, “The Tory Government can always be relied upon to look after its people. Whatever it takes!” building starts work across the country immediately. The contract to build them goes to some Tory Croney, who once had a lego set when he was a kid. “No Conflict of interest here, “ says Michelle Mone, the Standards Commissioner.

        The Tories go down in the Polls. Panic and Crisis grips number ten. There is nothing else for it. They are forced to play their emergency, Get out of Jail Free Card. A thousand Illegal immigrants are filmed coming across the Channel in small boats.

        The Daily Lie gives itself an aneurysm, shouting until thrombosis occurs – “ Get A Grip Thatcher!”. Thatcher immediately announces that the building of a Great Wall, that can be seen from space, will begin immediately. It will stretch from The Wash to St Ives, and will be patrolled by local vigilante groups. According to Thatcher, the Wall will be paid for by Mexico. No, France. Yes, that’s right, France.

        Keir Starmer says nothing about this for about a week. Then, in a major policy announcement, he gives the Labour Party’s line on this new policy. No one can understand what the policy is. The words of Sir Keir’s statement are fed through the Deep Blue Computer, are pored over by experts in textual  exegesis, but still no clear meaning can be discerned.Eventually, Lisa Nandy helpfully throws some light on the mystery. “What Sir Keir means is that he’s going to wait and see what other Parties say about it, and what opinion polls and our laser sharp focus groups say about , before we decide, as a matter of principle, what we think of the policy and what our official policy will be. It’s the right thing to do.” Ah, so that’s it. Thanks, Lisa.

        Labour’s Policy emerges three days later. “Under Labour, we will build a wall, which will be bigger and somehow nicer than the Tory wall. Perhaps in a chrome and cedar wood finish. And with Solar panels, as part of Labour’s New Green Deal, where everyone can feel good about being patriotic and nasty to immigrants at the same time. Remember,  Britain Under Labour Looks Lovely. BULLL – you heard it here first.”

        Rumours swirl around Westminster that there will be a vote of no confidence in Thatcher, and that Boris Johnson is being tipped for a move from the Treasury back to number ten. If anyone can find him, that is. Stories circulate that he is currently on Constituency business in Mustique.

        As speculation reaches fever pitch, a new piece of breaking news from China, sends shivers of fear through the population. The rising death toll, hard to calculate since the abolishing of the NHS and The Welfare State, but discernible by the mounting piles of bodies on street corners has accelerated. The one last outpost of the Test and Trace unit, obliterated since the Dido Harding crony corruption scandal, but still clinging on in a single Local Authority in Wales, reveals its findings from the last round of testing: A new, deadly  form of Covid is ready to sweep the nation: More transmissible, leading to more deaths, impervious to existing vaccines. It looks grim.

        There’s only one answer. The cry came loud and clear: It’s time for Matt Hancock.

        Part 2 next month

        For more wise words from The Old Grey Owl, designed to entertain and offend, have a look at Zero Tolerance published by Matador books. More coruscating criticism of the ghastly Tories and their appalling approach to education, immigration and all stations in between. With a few titterss thrown in as well.

        You’ll laugh! You’ll cry! You’ll yawn politely


        After the showing of the two part adaptation of Mayflies on BBC over Christmas, I thought it was a good time to revisit my original review of the book (first published on my other website, last year). It’s a great example, I think, of a TV adaptation being better than the book, although the book has a lot to like and admire. Here’s what I wrote, back in June 2021:

        This book looked right up my street – an affectionate memoir of a group of seventeen-year old friends in Glasgow, forever bonded by their shared experience of growing up together as a band of brothers with their love of music holding them together. Then add to the mix a fast forward to contemporary Britain to see how they have fared in the intervening thirty-five years. It’s structured in two halves -then and now-  and it’s almost brilliant. Almost, but not quite.

        The first half, an evocative portrait of a group of friends on a mythical weekender to Manchester for a festival, with the obsession of the possibility of catching a glimpse of Morrisey in a club, is beautifully done. Anyone who experienced the salvation provided by a like-minded group of anti-establishment friends at that age, with the same passions, the same obsessions, the same devotions, will read this with a tear in their eye and a smile, as your own memories flicker in and out of focus. The power and significance of the music you listened to when you were seventeen – what pain, joy and agony it can conjure, even when catching a few bars of an obscure track in the gang’s playlist.

        The main protagonist, destined to escape working class Glasgow life through his intelligence and determination (and, classically, the devotion of the ubiquitous English teacher who encouraged him and pushed him on his path) is a sympathetic character who is transformed into a very successful writer, critically acclaimed and living in a hipster’s paradise in a beautiful and expensive part of London. He has still remained connected to his roots, however, and to one friend in particular who stayed in Glasgow and who turned his talents to English teaching in a “Challenging “ school where he has spent his entire career, inspiring generations of abandoned Glaswegians through his teaching and his humanity.

        The second part reveals very early on that Tully, the Head of English back in Glasgow, has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. From then on the remainder of the novel charts how James (“Noodle”) deals with this devastating news and helps Tully end his days at Dignitas. I hope that’s not a spoiler, but the publicity surrounding the novel made the story very clear. There is tremendous sadness and grief and nostalgia, as you would expect, and the novel does not shy away from the anger and unreasonableness people show in these testing situations.

        Pic: Andrew O’Hagan

        But. And it’s a big but. The second half goes on and on and on, seemingly without the watchful eye of an editor. And then I realised. This was autobiographical. This was O’Hagan’s story. And the novel had become a therapeutic exercise for him, whereby every detail was included because the memory of his part of the second half was too significant to leave anything else out. I googled it, and it was true. This was O’Hagan’s story, almost word for word, and just a year or so earlier. And Tully was, in fact, Keith Martin, his boyhood friend. So O’Hagan deals with grief so recent, it’s still raw and it completely clouds his judgement.

        It’s a familiar problem for a novelist, when you are casting around in your own autobiography for material for a novel and the first draft includes a load of stuff that is oh so significant to you, but which means diddly squat to your readers. And the editor was too sensitive to point it out. Or O’Hagan was too blinkered and determined to listen. It’s a pity. I reckon that if O’Hagan had waited a for a few years, he would have written a masterpiece, with the benefit of some perspective.

        Pic: O’Hagan with Keith Martin in 2018 (right)

        But then, sometimes, what the reader needs is irrelevant. The writer’s human too. And if Andrew O’Hagan needed to write this book to work through his grief, who am I to carp, because it wasted half a day of my time. The friendship he delightfully and brilliantly portrays , a friendship we can probably all replicate in our own back story, deserves the epitaph O’Hagan decides to give it, in his own way and in his own terms. Narrative arc can sometimes take a back seat.

        Post script:

        The distance between the events portrayed and the writing of the TV script, with the urgent, autobiographical recording of the novel in between, has done the trick, I reckon. And I don’t think it’s insignificant that the adaptation was written by Andrea Gibb, not O’Hagan himself. Mediating traumatic events through a third person has brought much needed perspective, while retaining the raw emotion of the story.

        It’s a great piece of work. And the first half of the novel, with its portrait of the obsessive, bonding passions of the gang of seventeen year old friends, remains a beautiful, luminous, evocative piece of writing.

        A Review of “The Marriage Portrait” by Maggie O’Farrell

        “Hamnet” was in my top five novels of the year in 2021, and many other people’s as well, if Twitter is anything to go by, so the announcement of her follow up, “The Marriage Portrait”, earlier this year caused great excitement. English teachers who have taught GCSE Literature in the last fifteen years will be very familiar with the source material: My Last Duchess by Robert Browning. 

        The poem, written in 1842, is a wonderful thing. It’s a long poem, a dramatic monologue, in the voice of an Italian Duke, Alfonso of Ferrara. The Duke is escorting a servant of a visiting nobleman around his palatial aristocratic pile. The visitor is there to negotiate a marriage between the Duke and his daughter. They stop at a portrait, hidden behind a curtain,  of the Duke’s late wife.  Browning brilliantly conveys, from his own lips, the cruelty and snobbery of the Duke.

        By the end of the poem, the reader is left with an uneasy near certainty that Alfonso has engineered the murder of his young wife, seemingly because she was open hearted and friendly with people other than himself, specifically, people from a lower social class than himself. It’s master class of innuendo and suggestion. Without saying anything incriminating, the case against the Duke and the world he represents seems watertight.

        It’s also a marvellous poem for GCSE students. It’s a great example of a poem that at first sight, and after first reading, seems impenetrable: obscure, dull, irrelevant. With a bit of reassurance, and a bit of skillful handholding, students can learn the fact that poetry, with its supercharged language, can be made to yield its secrets, like a tightly folded bud opening its petals one by one. Repeated reading reveals new insights, new possibilities, new pleasures. Once experienced, the joys of poetry seem just a little bit more real, a little bit more accessible, and students seem a little bit more willing to try another difficult one.

        And so, given the magic wrought by O’Farrell in Hamnet, it seemed like a rich seam of material to mine. I started, with eager anticipation, a useful store of knowledge, and a fund of goodwill towards the writer. And there is a lot here to admire. I read it quickly, carried along by the narrative and the language. But…..

        By the end, I was racing to finish for a different reason. How can I put this politely? It’s a little…..dull. The period and place are beautifully evoked. The language shimmers and sparkles. But the plot, which is the spine of any novel in my opinion, disappoints. The fact that, because of the original poem, the plot is so well known isn’t really the issue here. After all, O’Farrell starts the novel with Lucrezia, the Duchess of the marriage, realising she has been brought to an isolated rural loggia to be murdered. The rest of it is a procession of inevitability.

        O’Farrell tries to use structure to shake things up a little, switching between the scenes at the end of her life, “imprisoned” in her husband’s country retreat, and incidents from her childhood in Florence. The scenes in Florence are more engaging somehow. The portrait of a privileged, but loving family, makes a sharp contrast with the Ferrara scenes. There’s a charm and an interest in the depiction of Lucrezia’s childhood, the eccentric younger child of the family. One luminous early section concerns the encounter between Lucrezia and the tiger her father commissions on a whim, to add to his menagerie of exotic creatures, kept down deep in the dungeons below the family home. Her determination to leave her bedroom and travel in the dark to encounter this magnificent beast radiates with poetry and significance. The idea that the Tiger allows her to stroke it through the bars without savaging her, imbues our protagonist with qualities that mark her out as a rare character of substance.

        There’s also a pleasing attempt to use the plot to give the Duchess an escape route. No spoilers here, but it is plausible and the idea is satisfying. Ultimately, though, it is rather thrown away, as if O’Farrell herself felt a little uncomfortable about changing history.

        In the end, the problem is that O’Farrell, gifted novelist though she is, cannot compete with Robert Browning’s original. (Picture of Browning , right) The subtlety and nuance of his version of events requires readers to work hard to unpick its story. He pays them the ultimate compliment of trusting their intelligence to pick up the thread he has carefully woven through the verse. Somehow, it makes for a more satisfying read than O’Farrell’s four hundred plus pages of prose, no matter how beautiful much of it is.

        I was left with a feeling of disappointment and let down. What promised much delivered very little. I’m hoping her next novel will abandon a reworking of our literary heritage and strike out with something new. It’s a difficult habit to kick though, once you’re in the grip of addiction. And there’s so much to choose from: 

        • Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti (All that suppressed sex and oozing juice of ripe fruit. It could certainly stand a Game of Thrones mash up)
        • London by William Blake. (who was that mysterious man wandering around those “Chartered streets”?)
        • Dickens’ affairs with Ellen Ternan and Georgina Hogarth. (With the added Gothic bonus of the Great Man’s attempts to have his wife locked up in an asylum)

        And, of course, that old favourite, beloved of English teachers of a certain vintage, from the days of 100% coursework and “creative responses”, a retelling of The Ancient Mariner from the point of view of the Albatross. That would be a challenge. It was certainly beyond the grasp of most of the Year 11 kids who attempted it in the Eighties.

        On second thoughts, I have some advice for Ms O’Farrell. Just step away from your laptop, Maggie, take some time out, and come up with a contemporary tale set in the here and now. Now that would be worth waiting for.

        The Watcher and The Friend Audio Book

        Just a quick announcement that I’m serialising my children’s book, The Watcher and The Friend, pubished by Burton Mayers Books via my Podcast, Telling Stories. I’m hoping to publish a new chapter every week. I’ve had lots of people ask me about this and I can reveal that the second book in the series is almost finished. You can find out more about the book on my other website:

        The Wolf Attack – illustration by Daisy Alexander

        The podcast is available here

        The book is availabe from Amazon here:

        Spike: In Memoriam

        David Armstrong 1954 -2022

        First an explanation for the regular readers of the blog, who are likely to be baffled by this one. The normal diet of political rants, opinion pieces on Education, and reviews of Books, Music, Films, TV and Theatre have been put to one side for this edition to indulge in a personal reflection. Bear with me for five minutes or so.

        It’s taken me some time to get down to write this. As you get older, news of one’s contemporaries deaths gets increasingly common. At first, it’s people who seem to be sewn into the fabric of your childhood. TV stars and musicians and sports people. People who figured, back in the day, as media celebrities and who seemed to have always been there, often in the background, in one’s life. And with every death announced, even the minor characters, a part of your childhood dies with it. 

        But some deaths are more significant than others. Some people have carved a special place in each of our personal Halls of Fame, and their loss is more keenly felt. The death of David Bowie, for example, left me feeling bereft for a while. A great artist who had provided me with wonderful memories and songs that I’ll always play. Most of the time, it’s a sense of sadness, a moment or two of reflection, a few memories and a few nostalgic conversations about the old days. And then there are yet others whose passing seems like a shift in spiritual tectonic plates. The recently announced death of David “Spike” Armstrong is one such example.

        There’ll be many people reading this who have no idea who on earth Armstrong actually was. What did he do? What’s his claim to fame? So, a few basic facts first. He was a left-footed football player, who played in the Seventies and Eighties, predominantly for my team, Middlesbrough FC, and then for Southampton. He played a couple of times (3?) for England, but then, apart from some low  key radio punditry, disappeared from view. It’s a thin basis for devotion, but the bare facts don’t really tell the story, which is quintessentially a tale of the Seventies, a more innocent time than today.

        My Username on the Middlesbrough FC Fan Message Board, Fly Me To The Moon, is Spikelangelo. It was intended to be my tribute to the artistry of Spike, a player who did the footballing version of the Sistine chapel ceiling most Saturdays at Ayresome Park, Middlesbrough during the Seventies and early Eighties. Yes, I know. It’s an over the top, hyperbolic description, but I’m really trying to give you a flavour of the talent of this largely unsung sporting hero.

        I first saw him play when I was seventeen, living in Stockton-on-Tees doing my A levels at Stockton Sixth Form College. Up until that point, nothing much had happened for Boro, a perenially underperforming small town team. I had been a supporter since I was elevenand strangely, I went to the games regularly on my own. Back then, it was cheap, and although this was the beginning of the legendary era of football hooliganism, for a young kid, it was pretty safe. I was hooked the first time I went. The extraordinary vivid green  of the pitch, the sense of space, the smell of bovril and pipe smoke, the tannoy announcements, the singing and the roar of the crowd – they all had a profound effect on me.

        The promotion winning side, 1973-74. Spike, top right, with a little more hair

        I also went on my own at that age because my Dad was profoundly cynical about Boro. He talked of Mannion and Hardwick and some mythical glory period, but then told me as many times as I would listen that Boro would  never amount to anything. They would beat superior sides regularly and then let you and themselves down by losing ignominiously to minnows. ( I hate to acknowledge this, all these years later, but that assessment seems to contain a nugget of truth for the long suffering supporter) He famously promised that if Boro ever went up, he would pay for a season ticket. This was round about 1970. It was a promise he would mysteriously forget about just four years later. They did go up and, predictably,  no season ticket materialised.

        Of course, as an eleven year old, I had no idea about football. I could sort of tell when we played well, or if the opposition was any good, but tactics, formations, skills were all a bit of a mystery to me. Favourite players might be chosen on the back of a spectacular goal, or the chants, or what it said in The Sports Gazette, or even what they looked like. So one of my early favourites was a winger called Derrick Downing, partly because of his dashing sideburns and longish hair. I think he was pretty good, and he did once score a wonderful diving header against glamour team West Ham, but I couldn’t really form a valid opinion about that on my own.

        One thing that stood out for me, though, was that it didn’t really look much like the football I saw on Saturday night on Match of the Day. I’d only just been allowed to stay up to watch it, and it was a window on a much more glamorous world than that Ayresome Park contained. It seemed as if everywhere else had a proper football club, that played proper, attractive, attacking football. Nothing more underlined just how small town, nowheresville Teesside seemed, than the fact that we would never, ever get to be in Division One and be on Match of The Day regularly.

        So when in 1973, the legendary World Cup winner, Jack Charlton was announced as our manager, and this was reported on the national news, something was very definitely going on. Something different, something special. We started winning regularly. Very soon in that season, after an early hiccup or two, we hit the top of the table and inexorably extended the lead. Supporters went to the games expecting to win and expecting not to concede any goals. They also, in a dimension that you don’t  often hear mention of, expected thrilling football and lots of goals.This was in large part down to Jack Charlton’s tactical innovations and partly down to the quality of the first team. 

        That Free Kick……….

        By this time, I had seen a lot more football, and played a lot more proper eleven aside football myself, so I was beginning to understand what was really going on in a football match. I was very lucky that this stage of my footballing education coincided with going to watch probably the greatest side in our history. By then, I’d learned to ignore my Dad’s cynicism. He could keep his Mannions and Hardwicks, that seemed to me to belong to ancient history, with brylcreem and black and white photos. I preferred the present and the future to the past, like just about every seventeen year old in recorded history. 

        And I was no longer Billy Nomates, getting the bus to The Blind School on my own. I had a group of friends who were my partners in crime on this new, exciting Holgate adventure. I’ve long thought that the friends you have when you are Seventeen, the books you read, the records you bought, the gigs you went to – all of these are deeply formative experiences. The camaraderie of that shared experience as you are growing away from the family unit and taking your first faltering steps in the adult world. It’s an exciting period  of your life and the friendships you make then forge unbreakable bonds and powerful memories. And that season, and the emergence of my beloved Boro, was a crucial part of it, and made a lasting impression on me.

        We were not, as ill informed myth has it, a long ball, kick and rush team. There’s a great video somewhere of Charlton taking a training session. He says to Spike, “You’ve got to be brave enough, Spike, to hit the space behind the fullback. Don’t worry about Alan or Millsy – they”ll get there.”

        And he was right – they did get there. A watertight defence that led to Bobby Murdoch, or Souness or Spike playing the ball down the channels for very fast players breaking from midfield, who would either go on to score, or cross for one of the midfield, who had surged into the box, to a score. It was a little like watching today’s Liverpool. Just without the fitness, pressing, and with Players  Number Six and Double Maxim. (By the way, if anyone has access to that video, I’d love to see it again. The internet is not as all powerful as I had previously assumed, and I couldn’t find it anywhere. Maybe I imagined it.)

        Souness, of course, was the King of the side. Head and shoulders the greatest ever player I saw playing for Boro, bar none. But not far behind him, in my humble opinion, was Spike. “My Little Gem”, as Charlton affectionately called him. He taught me that there was a lot more to skill as a footballer than George Best type mazy dribbles. There was the skill of being able to bring down a ball, no matter how hard it was hit at you, or at what impossible angle it came at you, and have it under control instantly. There was the skill of having the full range of passing: the two yard lay off after winning a tackle, a forty yard raking cross field ball, a cunning slide rule inch perfect pass between centre back and full back, the perfectly weighted ball into someone’s run, such that they didn’t have to break stride before hitting it.

        There was also the reading of the game and the stamina to go box to box for ninety  minutes. And finally, the coup de grace, the skill of arriving in the box at the far post at exactly the right moment from midfield, to score. For about six years in a row, after he became a regular starter, Spike scored 77 goals from the left hand side of midfield. If he were playing now, with those stats, he’d be worth silly money.

        The other joy of this, was the fact that, as far as I was concerned, he was my first independent discovery. For most of us, in most areas of life (cinema, theatre, art, sport, politics etc) our opinions are generally speaking based on received wisdom. If people in the media say such and such is good, well they must be, because that commentator knows much more about it than I do. With Armstrong, it was one of the very first times when I saw something and after a while thought, “Bloody hell, he is a really, really good player.” It became even sweeter when those same pundits started talking about him as a future England player. Then, he became my player, my discovery.

        So, if he was that good , why did he only play for England three times? It’s a fair question. First, he was unlucky to be playing in the Seventies for a very unfashionable provincial club. There was very little football on the telly back then. Had he played for a London club, or one of the giants, I think he would have had many more caps. Second, he was very unlucky that he overlapped with three other gifted left footers: Trevor Brooking, Ray Kennedy and Alan Devonshire. He was better than all of them. I did get to see him play at Wembley in 1982. It was Bobby Robson’s first home game as manager. He did alright, but it was already a little late for him. I was just delighted to see him in an England shirt. My special player for my special club. It didn’t mean much to anyone else in the crowd that night, but it meant a lot to me, an exiled Teessider in London, trying to keep the flame alive. And by 1982, the glory days of Jack Charlton were long gone, and Boro were about to enter a period of terrible decline.

        That Wembley friendly seems to have been airbrushed out of his record, and its not widely known about, but the highlights video below give you a flavour. He’s always showing for the ball, but nearly gives away a goal via a poor/unucky back pass. It’s worth a dip in, just to see Spike in an England shirt at Wembley.

        Spike at Wembley!

        And now, Spike has gone, and a part of my adolescence has gone with him. My apologies for this piece being as much about me as about him, but really, that’s the point of the article. There have been many touching obituaries to Spike in the last week or so, but they only really give us the surface details. He meant much more to me than the accumulation of his stats. The real meaning of this, is in the relationship we individually forge with our heroes, and the impact they have on us and the way they enhance our lives. So, I will finish by sending sincere condolences to Spike’s friends and family. I hope it is of some comfort to you, in what must be a difficult time, to know that he touched people’s lives in a positive way, by being a key player in a great side that meant an awful lot to a community struggling through difficult times at the end of the Seventies.

        RIP Spike. And thanks for all the great memories.