I arranged to travel to the 1982 World Cup Finals in Spain with my Ballinamallard school friends. They were coming over by coach on the Belfast boat and the plan was to meet them in Liverpool and jump on board for the ride down to the Costa Dorada. This had to happen at some ridiculous time of the morning, like 630 which meant getting a train from Manchester at about 5. I was terrified of oversleeping so I sat up all night and John Axon kept me awake providing videos, sustinence and tales of adventure with his bolas. Anyway, I made it onto the coach and another largely sleepless night followed as the two drivers swapped shifts and kept the bus rolling south, across the Channel and down through France, towards the Pyrenees. What sustained me on that journey was Janice thoughtfully preparing me an enormous batch of tuna butties wrapped up in tin foil. There were at least half a dozen of them, a straightforward well-seasoned tuna mayonnaise mix in a soft wholemeal roll. Crucially however, a healthy dash of tomato sauce was added to the blend, giving it some colour and piquancy. There was also a light addition of salad – some thinly-sliced cucumber and a sprig of lettuce. My mates pulled my leg at these ‘butties’ – it was a name not familiar to those on the other side of the Irish Sea. ‘Who made these for you, Bet Lynch?’ Perhaps it was the blend of omega-3 oils with a touch of lycopene, but they were quite delicious and sustaining in a way that no food, before or since has ever quite been able to match. I struggled for some time to master the contentious issue of how much sauce to add, but even now, if I ever make such a sandwich filling, it revives and revitalizes, filling my head with thoughts of adventure, a journey into the sun and memories of the excitement of that first teenage foray into a foreign land.
Getting to London was always a challenge. The train was never an option, even in those pre-privatised days it was a scandalous rip-off and out of our league. Unless of course you were on one of the infamous ‘Football Specials’. All the way to The Smoke for six quid return mate, but be prepared for a friendly cuff round the ear from one of God’s cops along the way. Occasionally I would get the special one-way and then hitch back. The only downside of that was that if the match was at West Ham, you ended up in some godforsaken spot like Barking at 2pm on a Saturday afternoon, which rather ate into your weekend. Hitching was fraught with danger and unpredictability and shy as I was, I found it quite easy to strike up conversations with complete strangers. If you were going on Friday it had to be the coach, and good old National Express, who as Neil Hannon noted did indeed have a jolly hostess serving crisps and tea. With a student coachcard it was about £7.50 return and they seemed to have things sewn up. Then a competitor suddenly appeared on the scene, Len Wright Travel. He operated from Ducie Street, round the back of Piccadilly Station which was a good earthy contrast to the fume-filled, stress-inducing concrete citadel of Chorlton Street coach station. I don’t think he went anywhere else, immediately cutting out all the chaos and confusion. The drop-off spot in London was also unvconventional, a car park behind Gloucester Road tube which was handy for getting out to Ealing. Len’s buses, as if in perfect harmony with the plain-speaking no-nonsense name of the company, were done out in a seventies style brown and orange livery that gave them a retro edge in comparison to National Express’ predictable red, white and blue colour scheme. Not only that but he was £1 cheaper AND most crucially showed videos, though they were never any good, usually third-rate horror flicks which you couldn’t hear properly. National Express fought back with toilets, the hostess and for a while, if you drank a lot of cans of Pepsi and collected the ring-pulls you got a free ride.
Sometime around 1982, MPSU HQ moved across All Saints Park from the cheerfully ramshackle Cavendish House to the functional red-brick Mandela Building, tucked in next to The Mancunian Way flyover. In my first year, apart from the odd trip to the cinema, I’d been too terrified to go out after dark. I remember Barabas telling me about the carnage after a ten pence a pint ‘Skol Night’ during Freshers Week. By my second year I was getting more adventurous and was for a while a bit of a regular at the infamous Friday Night Bop. Three tunes remind me of those uncertain but exhilarating times as I gently dipped my toes into this mysterious and alien world populated by exotic people who truly might as well have stepped off another planet. A lot of the music was over my head – Killling Joke, Southern Death Cult or Spear of Destiny – but one I recognised was ‘Rock the Casbah’ by The Clash. I had never heard of Nina Simone’s ‘My Baby Just Cares for Me’ but grew to love it. Best of all though has to be ‘The Message’ by Grand Master Flash and The Furious Five’. Even now the opening notes take me right back to those jungle-like Friday nights, the pulsing throb of that awesome groove makes me recall my fledgling steps into the tribalistic world of the night. A few years later when I was a fully-formed nocturnal animal, picking up empty glasses in Saturdays, I saw Mr Flash on my pot-collecting round. He was swathed in leather, fur and over-size dark glasses with what looked like a stuffed racoon dangling from his neck.
Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais wrote a hit TV series in the eighties called Auf Wiedersehen Pet about a gang of Geordie brickies working away from home. Being at Europe’s largest Poly in Manchester around the same time was a steep learning curve. As fate would have it, doors opened immediately and as I discovered later, many students not just in Manchester were lonely and unhappy. My fellow humanities and social studies compatriots came from different backgrounds. This was a polytechnic not Oxford or Cambridge and there were a variety of permutations in terms of individual subjects to study. How did you make friends? Through the Poly coffee bar or ‘Friday Night Bop’ or due to your shared accomodation or via the numerous clubs that it was fashionable not to join. My digs were in Chorlton, a modest but growing suburb three miles south of the city centre. The house comprised of landlord and landlady, their three kids, Sam the dog and six students, all from different courses. We had a garden, Sam to exercise, a local churchyard for football and a large degree of freedom – though no girls upstairs, please. We all got on fine, were well fed and had a wide range of student parties to choose from every weekend. At the end of my first year, I realised I didn’t know anyone off my course. In my second year, with only eighteen hours of education narrowed down to two subjects with four tutorials a week, I made a real effort to get to know my fellow politics and literature students. Soon there were three scousers, all named Steve and Neil from Ireland. I had family in Liverpool and the old Scottie Road/docks where my Grandad had worked, plus the faded glory of this old port city with its great writers, musicians and poets like Roger McGough fascinated me. MY newfound mates were into politics, music and fashion, alternative as it was known then – underground and leftfield. Commercial success on the music scene was not cool. If a new Liverpool singer like Pete Wylie and his Mighty Wah band made Top of the Pops, they were struck off. They had sold out. Unlike Auf Wiedersehen Pet, although these boys were proud of their working class roots, there was little camaraderie. It was all about image. I started listening to The Velvet Underground, Sector 27 and Echo and the Bunnymen. Neil took me to his brother’s house in Fallowfield. There was a large IRA mural in the hallway, armalite rifle and philosophy. His brother later became a politics writer and lecturer. I felt very welcome and because Neil and I were big Man City fans we became good friends. I invited my Humanities mates to a house party on Albany Road, a big three storey scruffy red-brick house for students with Gustav the polish baker living in the attic. There were all sorts there – geography, business studies, graphic design, hotel and catering – an eclectic mix of students, plus Macca our landlord who brought home brew. The party was going well when a fight broke out over a vinyl record. We listened to pop, some heavy rock, Bob Marley and reggae in general, but the easy-going party atmosphere had changed. A fracas developed when one of the humanities lads tried to change the music. A pane of glass in the front room smashed and a melee ensued. All of a sudden there was a mighty roar and up stepped Macca the landlord and Big Al, ex-politics student and Man City apprentice from Longsight. Rising above the stampede, they ejected my humanities pals effortlessly yet forcefully. I shyly looked around, thanked them, supped some homebrew and slipped OMD back onto the turntable. A lesson had been taught that night, that a real world with real Mancs existed outside of studentland. MACCA WHO DRANK BODDINGTONS OF A SATURDAY NIGHT, TOOK HIS WIFE TO THE LOCAL TRATTORIA EVERY SUNDAY, BROUGHT UP FOUR KIDS, DROVE A BMW BIKE AND HELD DOWN A STEADY JOB FOR THIRTY YEARS, HAD RISEN TO THE OCCASION. I DIDNT MIX MUCH WITH MY FELLOW HUMANITIES STUDENTS IN MY FINAL YEAR. TRUTH BE TOLD, THERE WASN’T MUCH INTEREST ON EITHER SIDE. APART FROM A BRIEF FLING WITH A PRETTY GIRL CALLED CALLED JULIET WHO WAS ALSO STUDYING POETRY, THE HUMANITIES SOCIAL STUDIES SCENE NEVER REALLY ENCROACHED AGAIN.
Eventually it got to the point where things got serious on my Art and Design Foundation Course and I had to apply myself to what came next and try and get on a degree course. My mission was to follow Man Utd so there was only one option. It was fortunate that Manchester Poly had a very good reputation for graphic design – one or two big names of the design world had been there. It was around March that we came to do our two week graphics block. This was my big chance to shine, but after all the sketching, etching and sculpting – trying to come up with ideas on blank sheets of wafer-thin layout paper with magic markers seemed a bit sterile. Already it seemed like this was the hard-nosed commercial side of the art world, at odds with the free-spirited Barry White splash-it-all-over one where I felt quite at home. We did a logo for a TV station and a cover for New Scientist magazine. I fluffed it. My creative juices were back in the print room and my efforts were woeful. The tutor in charge, a pragmatic Scot called Cameron told me to forget trying to get on the degree course. That shook me up a bit and very half-heartedly I considered my options. It was working with words and images that appealed to me long-term so graphics it had to be. I needed a second-choice college and of all the wonderful art schools around the UK that I could have applied to why I decided to head down the M6 to Wolverhampton, I’ve no idea. I can’t recall a single thing about the interview, but I was quite pleased that hitching a ride there and back was fairly easy. Come the big day of my Manchester interview, Janice ironed my ‘lucky shirt’ and clutching my big burgundy-coloured portfolio up I went to the sixth floor of the Chatham Building. An ugly purplish-grey sixties demi-tower block nestled between The Salutation pub and The Royal Northern College of Music. I knew Cameron would be one of the interviewers and his words had steeled me for the worst. Despite all that, I felt somehow this was my destiny and even though I knew the odds were against me, I still had hope in my heart. The interview itself was wonderfully relaxed and friendly, I can still remember the names of everyone. Even Cameron was encouraging. A few days later I found out I’d got a place and the next three years were secured. It was a pivotal moment in my young life. Not long after he saw me and said ‘Son, its good to prove people wrong’. Too right, but maybe his harsh words that Spring just inspired me to rise above myself.
I first visited the current Premier League winner’s old ground in 1973. The glory team of Bell, Summerbee and Lee was all but gone and although cup finals at Wembley and a creditable second to Liverpool over the next nine years, barren and infertile winds swept over Man City, Moss Side Stadium, Maine Road, Manchester 16. In 1999 we found ourselves in the third tier of English football. A once great club seemingly on the verge of extinction. A peculiarly sweet smell of horse shit, hot dogs and laundry drying on the washing lines of the local terraced housing was my first memory. ‘Mister, can we mind your car, Sir – only 50p?’ was heard as we passed the Saab-sponsored cars of the players and into the ground. My Father being a Chelsea fan and a practical man had recently relocated to the north. He took me first to Old Trafford, then to the blue citadel of the Citizens and I wisely chose the latter. Was it Shakespeare who wrote ‘All will come to those who wait’? THE FAMILY LIVED FIRST IN BOWDON VALE, KNUTSFORD AND FINALLY HALE. BUT THIS WAS LEAFY CHESHIRE WITH RETIRED MAJORS, MANICURED LAWNS AND OSTENTATIOUS DISPLAYS OF WHITE AND RED ROSES. MY FIRST GENUINE MANC HOME WAS NEXT TO ST. JOHN’S CATHOLIC CHURCH WHERE SIR MATT BUSBY AND MORE RECENTLY MARIO BALOTELLI AND ROBERTO MANCINI WERE RUMOURED TO PRAY. St Clements Road, with its dog Sam, Macca’s motorbike and caravan, plus ready-made soccer team TKFC, would be home for the next three years. Manchester as a city was on the up, although the country had high unemployment, there was a massive student population with readies to spend. It seemed to have an appreciation of food and music that many towns in the midlands and south lacked. Looking back the range and choice of food was mind-boggling and the taste of the curry and chips transported me to the cuisine of a country most of my mates had not even heard of.
Before going to Manchester the only tea I ever drunk was produced from a bag. My parents weren’t big hot drink fans full-stop. So, the ritual of the brew, straight after our evening meal (known itself as ‘tea’) was one which fascinated me. There was no messing about, almost as soon as the cutlery clanked down on the last empty plate, the shout went out ‘Who’s brewin’ up?’ We took it in turns and it became second nature to pop the kettle on and do a quick head-count. Depending on who was around and had time for a cup before going out, there might have been up to eight takers. This required the largest tin teapot. If my memory serves me right, there were three of these, ranging in size and if only a couple of people wanted a brew then you’d go for the smaller one. A full house obviously required a lot of tea shovelled in and in those days everyone took sugar so you didn’t even ask about that. One lad with a particularly sweet tooth liked four. But it was still a delicate art judging the strength, how long to let it brew and getting it into the cup without any stray leaves making an appearance. That’s without even thinking about the further complication of milk. The mugs were all medium-sized seventies style earthenware in a range of browns and beiges. These were the days before promotional or colourfully designed Cath Kidston and the like. It was just pot-luck which one you got because they all looked the same. John really liked his brew more than anyone and I can still see him kicking back in his chair, well satisfied after a plate of chilli and gearing himself up for a night at The Lauriston with his hot beverage by his side and all well with the world. It was one of the proudest moments of my life when towards the end of my time there he told me I made an exceptionally good brew.
Sometime around 1984, at a party in Chorlton, I was introduced to a very jolly rotund figure who looked not unlike a young Oliver Hardy. I met him again on the terraces at Old Trafford and very soon we were good pals and hooked-up regularly on the same patch of concrete, three steps from the back of the United Road Paddock. He was known as Big Alex or Stash. This was due to his Ukranian ancestry rather than any ability to purvey narcotics – any mysterious bulge in his anorak pocket was due to the presence of a two litre bottle of Strongbow. Alex was already showing all the signs of becoming a legend in later life. He was full of boisterous good humour and as bright as a button. He had glittering A-level results but rejected a golden future at UMIST to bore holes in bits of metal in a factory in Dukinfield. Music was his greatest passion and he was well on his way to clocking up almost one hundred New Order concerts. He also followed The Fall and The Inspiral Carpets. Nearly every concert ended up with a tape recording being made and he reportedly had 30,000 cassettes in his bedroom. One of his early gifts to me was a 1976 tape of The Buzzcocks at Leeds Poly which I’ve still got. We would meet on those terraces about an hour before kick-off and spend that time and indeed most of the match bantering and joking about almost anything but football. This was the tail-end of the Big Ron Atkinson era and the tepid opening years of the Ferguson regime, a time when the football on offer was less than engrossing. Certainly our chats were often more memorable than anything we saw on the pitch, sometimes quite surreal and obscure humour and it wasn’t the sight of Ralphie Milne charging down the wing that had us creased up in stitches. He was though passionate about the game and his goal celebrations were notorious. Like a huge spinning human top, he would wind himself into a whirling frenzy, careering down the terrace, scattering bodies in all directions. It was a routine that I saw repeated in the scrum at the front of a Fall gig on a number of occasions. He was usually accompanied by a sidekick from Dukinfield or Denton. There was Darren, who with his large eyes and small but highly-defined eyebrows bore more than a passing resemblance to Frank Sidebottom, Rude Kid, so-called because of his supposedly abusive language – though he looked like a choirboy and I never heard him swear once and most famously of all, Mr Boris Becker who curiously was an admirer of all things German. For a while at the height of the ‘inflatbles’ craze his companion at New Order was a blow-up skeleton called Ian (Curtis). Alex had one of the loudest voices I’ve ever heard and used to start chants and singing. A few years previously, on Barry White’s suggestion, I had begun writing down these verses sung by the crowds at football matches, and had put together a booklet. What a thrill then to meet and befriend a real-life instigator. He also had the ability to make himself heard by players on the pitch. Colin ‘Donkey’ Gibson was one with whom I remember some friendly exchanges and it was all good-natured rather than anything abusive. For me, my Man Utd days and the sight of pre-match Alex lurching towards me grinning, like twin-holsters – his anorak pockets bulging with a couple of two litre bottles of cider, are entwined in one glorious fuzz.