A sense of belonging …

The first 11 years of my life were fairly straightforward.  I was born in the upstairs bedroom of the house I grew up in for the first 14 years of my life.  My Junior school was in the same village and so everything was simple as all my friends were also living on my street (or very close to it).

Then, aged 11, I switched to my local Comprehensive which was in a neighbouring village, and for the first time I encountered the ‘us and them’ tribal divisions that affect us all at some point or other in our lives.  To varying degrees obviously.

It’s true to say there was a considerable degree of animosity between the local Kendray kids and us  Ardsley kids from the east, who were now invading their territory.  Not only were we outsiders but we were posh too.  Posh is a very relative term, especially in Barnsley, and like most towns, it had its good and bad parts.  Kendray was undoubtedly one of the rougher parts, separated from Ardsley by the daftest roundabout in the whole of Christendom, called Stairfoot.  Stairfoot is in a valley, Ardsley up one side, Kendray up t’other, hence the place in the middle was at the foot of the stairs, at foot o’t stairs, Stairfoot.  Try it one day, you won’t be disappointed.

Anyway, us Ardsley kids were not made to feel very welcome.  To walk to school meant walking through the local council estate and regular kickings were handed out by the locals.  I remember my older brother was the recipient of a fairly brutal shoeing, and I too ended up one year in a fight with a local kid (he was small) and I had to be driven home by Mr Earnshaw the metalwork teacher on account of the gang waiting for me at the school gates at 4pm.  I slept fitfully that night and for many nights thereafter.

Games/PE was the scariest of all.  I remember having Wednesday-itis, a stomach complaint every Wednesday accompanied by a rash on my back.  Dr Matuk put it down to not very much and for weeks I just had to endure this puzzling ailment that recurred every Wednesday and subsided by Thursday.  We had games on Wednesdays and I didn’t enjoy it much.

Then a funny thing happened.  Around my third year at the school, my mum and dad reminded me we had relatives in Kendray.  A cousin of my dads had a boy who went to my school.  He was in the year above me, but most importantly of all he was cock of the year.  I appreciate ‘cock of the year’ might not translate far outside of the S70 postcode.  It doesn’t refer to the size of your nob, but to the best fighter.

Cock, as in rooster, I guess, and like wild animals, we had a pecking order, and I swear that every kid knew their place within the year.  I knew who was above and who was below.  Put a new horse in a field of horses and you will observe the same behaviour.  The new horse will be attacked, kicked and bullied until finally the pecking order is worked out and order is once again returned to the field.

I have mentioned this to my kids and they thankfully look at me blankly.  When I’ve asked my boys who is the best fighter at school they don’t have a clue and think me very odd for asking it, but back then it meant everything.  You knew your place and you stuck with it.  I wasn’t very high up on the pecking order and relied on my wit and charm for survival.  This might go some way to explaining why I was driven home by the metalwork teacher.

Anyway, my cock of the year cousin took to me.  I went to his for lunch some days, and I walked with puffed out chest through streets previously well and truly out of bounds to such poncey posh puffs as I.  He was the coolest kid on the planet as far as I was concerned and I immediately became untouchable.  I had a lucky escape.  It was a truly grim school and a difficult five years for everyone there, kids and teachers alike.  When I look back and recall some of the appalling bullying dished out by the kids and sometimes by some of the teachers, I shudder.  I was no better than any other kid, I knew my place and whilst I wasn’t a physical bully, I made my fair share of jokes to the detriment of others.  If you were the last kid to be picked when football teams were created, your life was shit.  I often wonder what happened to some of the less fortunate kids at that school.  Kendray Oaks school was knocked down and no longer exists.

I then went to sixth form in Barnsley town centre.  It was a lovely old college in a very nice part of town, and it was a college where kids from all over Barnsley came to do A levels.  The net was now cast wider.  There wasn’t any of the bullying thankfully and because it was effectively a neutral venue we were all in it together.  I enjoyed sixth form but was shocked at how hard A levels were. At school I had been one of the clever ones but this meant I was a target, not just posh but a smart-arse too, thank God for cousin Nige.   I didn’t revise much though.  I thought I had to beat the competition, be better than the others and I would succeed, and this flawed logic gave me a false sense of perspective which was exposed as soon as I got to sixth form as I very quickly realised there were lots of kids way smarter than I was.  I had to work hard for my A levels and felt I scraped through.

I then went to University in Colchester, Essex.  It’s about 1 million miles from Barnsley to Colchester.  You cross about 37 cultures and 53 languages to reach it, and when I arrived I quickly experienced the “Eeh-bah-gum /Burnley Effect”.  That’s my term, but one I guarantee anyone from Barnsley has experienced in some shape or other when down south.  It goes something like this:

“Where are you from?”
“Barnsley”
“Eeh-bah-gum Baaaaarnsley!  Dickie Bird!  I’ve been to Turf Moor once”
“Turf Moor is Burnley”
“I know”
“I’m from Barnsley”
“Oh is it different?”

I also became very self-conscious whenever I spoke at University.  I was like a pet that was brought out to perform at parties:

“Hey Ramsden, what time is your maths lecture tomorrow?”
“9 while 10, why?”
“Pffft! When is it? Say it again!”
“9 while 10”

It turns out that that the word ‘while’ functions both as a noun and as a subordinating conjunction, it’s meaning varying largely by region and dialect.  You fucking bet it does.

I saw nothing wrong with saying “while” instead of “until”.  When I said “until” I felt like a big toffee nosed Jess.  It didn’t sit well in my mouth and I couldn’t help it.  It’s the same reason why today I still can’t say “Waitrose” except as “Way’t’rose” with a very softened, almost non existent “t”.  I’m told I sound common but if I say “Waitrose” in what I would grudgingly say is in fact the correct way with a very loud and clear T sound in the middle, it sounds so wrong coming from me.  I’m sorry but I do sound gay.

University was hard, I was so out of my depth intellectually.  My O levels had looked good at the time, but not when put in context nationally and I didn’t have the tools, the grounding, I needed.  I chose to study maths which just exposed my gulf in knowledge even more widely.

Somehow I bluffed my way through and I then took a job in London.  Northern monkey done good.  By now my accent had softened somewhat but there was always plenty to talk about when northern lad was around.  Usually by ignorant southern twats who knew no better, but as London was their ‘turf’, it was OK.

I often returned home to Barnsley, usually to coincide with a home game and that meant meeting up with mates for a pint before the match.

“What thar doin nar Rammo?” [For ‘Rammo’ was my nickname, long before Rambo was conceived]
“I’m living in London”
“Eyup fucking hell thar talks dead posh theee nar!”

I couldn’t win, I was an outsider at home, and an outsider at home.  I didn’t really fit anywhere any more.  I always felt, and always have felt northern, particularly Yorkshire.

My favourite football chant of all time is the very tribal “Yorkshire! Yorkshire! Yorkshire!” which is sung at Oakwell whenever a non Yorkshire team comes-a-calling.  We usually sing it when our backs are against the wall, which means it gets plenty of airings, and I love it because its exactly what I feel.  It’s childish, pointless, culturally unsavoury but I just love it and make no apologies for it, it’s in my DNA.

But here I was in Barnsley, singing chants about Yorkshire, living in London, yet feeling slightly out of place in both.

Oakwell is Barnsley’s football ground and even if the locals think I talk ‘dead posh nar’ it will always have a special place in my heart.  I first went there in 1972 when I was 7 and I have been there every year since.  This means it’s the oldest place I still visit.  We moved from my old house in ’79 so Oakwell is the one and only constant (place) that still exists today.  It’s the last link to my childhood.

It’s also special because my dad took me to Oakwell, and for 30-odd years that became our meeting place.  I often went several months without going home but I would sometimes drive back up north for a midweek evening game, always my favourite with the floodlights on.  I would pick up dad, we would go for a pint, watch Barnsley lose, go for another pint, listen to Praise or Grumble on Radio Sheffield, then head home for a brew with Mum before I headed back down the M1.

Saturday 19th April, 2008.  Dad wasn’t very well.  I had a season ticket in The Ponty End that year for some reason.  We were on the verge of relegation and due to play Leicester.  My family and I were up visiting and my dad wanted to go to the game even though he wasn’t feeling too great, so my mum, dad, my kids and my wife, all got tickets in the East Stand lower, near the corner flag, Ponty End.

I could see them from my seat.  It was an awful game and we were losing and I looked over at Dad.  He looked tiny and old and I remember it really shocking me.  He was seated in what was known as the old Brewery Stand when I first went in 1972, standing room only back then of course.  I think I knew he was seriously ill and I remember feeling really pissed off and angry that he was very probably going to die soon, and I really didn’t want his last memory of BFC to be associated with relegation.

We were never going to score, but seconds before the game ended there was that murmur in the crowd, difficult to describe, but anyone who has ever been to an end of season game with relegation or promotion looming, will know only too well.  Blokes with radios glued to their ears – a score had come in that someone else was losing.  I forgot who it was, but it meant that even if we lost we would most likely stay up.  We lost and we stayed up, and I remember looking across at my dad and smiling.  He stood up and clapped at the end.  That was as close as he ever got to unbridled ecstasy and joy.

That was my dad’s last ever game and I miss him most whenever I’m at Oakwell.  I always see him in the crowd, I always miss listening to Praise or Grumble with him in the car after, and I certainly miss having a pint with him.  And if Barnsley ever do become rich and move to a new flat-packed stadium on the edge of town, the fate of so many clubs these days, then I will be absolutely gutted.  I love Oakwell me, warts n’all.

My favourite ‘al-fresco’ toilet ever.  Behind the West Stand, Oakwell.

Bit of a departure from my original theme, but the point I was trying to make was that I have never felt I truly fit in anywhere since I was 11.  I don’t mean that in a ‘oh woe is me’ way, it’s just an observation and probably everyone has their own spin on this line unless you have lived in a cave all your life.

I’m sat writing this in Texas, I just got back from breakfast:

“Good morning sir, what can I get for you today!”
“A cup of tea please”
“Sure, hey is that a British accent I hear?”
“Yes I’m from Barnsley”
“Eeh bah gum they sure miss Owen Coyle at Turf Moor these days!”

I made the last line up.

Hindsight is a mischievous thing

What do I have in common with Sir Ian Botham and Freddie Mercury I hear you ask?  To answer that we need to return to August 1986, but before that let’s travel briefly to the mid-70s.

I was a very skinny kid.  Growing up I was always conscious of my bandy legs, pencil thin and knobbly kneed they were.  Strong, muscled, masculine they weren’t.  I have a lingering memory of my mum coercing me to put shorts on during one particularly long, hot summer.  It could have been the heatwave of ’76, I can’t recall exactly, but I do remember that I was so self conscious of my twiggy extensions that I refused to take off my (probably flared) corduroy trousers when I went out to play.

And yet here I am, in middle age, now overweight, and now as conscious of my heftiness, as I was of my skinniness as a child.  I’m not the kind of person who gains and loses weight, I don’t yo-yo like some people do. To borrow a mathematical term, my weight has been monotonically increasing since the day I was born, give or take the odd diet or Delhi belly episode, here and there.

This led me to thinking therefore, that there must have been a point when I was the ideal weight, sometime between ‘then’ and ‘now’.  There must have been a moment where my physical stature was just about right.  I don’t want to con my readership by suggesting I was ever Adonis-like in any way, and I am sure even back then I was still unhappy about certain features, but of course what I never realised or appreciated, was that that was it, that was the best it was ever going to be for me.  Only hindsight offers me such a perspective.

I remember after I left university and started working in London, that I slowly started to become conscious of my weight.  The heavy boozing through my university years and the inevitable slowdown in physical activity that accompanied it, were starting to take their toll.  That was September 1986, ergo, I reckon August 1986 must have been when I was at my absolute physical peak.

I remember now, I went on holiday to the USA in August 1986.  We were 2 boys and 2 girls fresh out of university.  We travelled through Connecticut, New England, New Hampshire, Vermont, Montreal, Toronto, Chicago.  We visited Niagara, we took in a baseball game at the White Sox, we stayed in cheap motels, we stopped wherever and whenever we wanted and we partied long into the night.  I think one hot day on that trip I even took my t-shirt off, further evidence if needed that I was indeed at one with my physical self.  Happy days.

Also during that month in August 1986, when I was enjoying my peak, one of my boyhood heroes, Ian Botham (a man who ironically also battled with his weight later in his career), returned to test cricket after a ban for taking Cannabis.  He was recalled at The Oval against New Zealand, and with his second and 12th balls took the two wickets he needed to equal, and pass, Dennis Lillee’s then world record of 355 Test wickets.  Botham went on to play international cricket until 1992 but only collected another 30 or so wickets in those intervening 6 years.

August 1986 was also the month that saw Queen play their last live gig with Freddie Mercury as frontman.  Mercury’s final live performance with Queen took place on 9 August 1986 at Knebworth Park and which was rumoured to draw an attendance estimated to be as high as 300,000. 

So the answer to the opening conundrum is that Andy Ramsden, Ian Botham and Freddie Mercury all enjoyed their peak in August 1986. Although none of us knew it.  It’s only with the luxury of hindsight that we can look back and identify the peaks and the troughs.  At any point in real time, whether we feel low, or high, we never know if we have troughed or peaked until some time after the event.  Ah, the benefit of hindsight.  

‘Beefy’ probably thought he could take another 100 test wickets.  Freddie probably already had the lyrics laid down for his next album, and as I drove along the freeways of North America, fresh out of university, reading Jack Kerouac, listening to Joni Mitchell, contentedly stroking my six-pack with one hand whilst drinking a Michelob with the other, I certainly never believed for one moment that I had a 20 year career at BT waiting for me at Heathrow in just 2 weeks time, along with a monotonically increasing waistline that would continue to grow with me from that day onwards.

Sadly Freddie is no longer with us, but Ian and I continue to waddle on.  With life experience behind us instead of in front of us, we re-adjust and reset our goals to more realistic levels.  

Ian and I both still enjoy a glass or two of red wine (allegedly), and I don’t doubt that just as I occasionally sit back and think about that crazy, hot summer in North America, that Ian perhaps does the same, recalling the LBW of Jeff Crowe that gave him his world record 356th test wicket.  

If only we had known then what we know now, would we have followed different paths?

Carpe Diem.