July 22 2017: Lands of hope….

There was almost a football match today. Plan A was to watch cricket, Lands v Raby Castle, Plan B was Richmond Town v Tow Law in a pre-season friendly.

After a night of heavy rain and a little-better morning, the phone rings at 11am. I’m sure it’ll be the cricket lads calling off but it’s Lawyers secretary Steve Moralee. Match off, waterlogged pitch.

Lands CC chairman Carroll Simpson rings, too. “We’re trying very hard,” he says.

Lands is really two villages in west Durham – High Lands and Low Lands – birthplace of the munificent John Elliott, chairman of Northern League sponsor Ebac, an empire built on dehumidifiers. High Lands is small, its neighbour minuscule.

John insists that when, many years ago, he collected his MBE, the Queen asked where he was from. Lands, he said.

“Is that High Lands or Low Lands?” said Her Majesty.

Carroll Simpson tells how John welded his first dehumidifier in one of the hen huts across the fields. “It was for a feller in Scotland who was so pleased he ordered another ten. John thought he might have to get a bigger hen house.”

The match is tremendous, tensely competitive, the second innings bathed in sunshine. For four hours these lads give everything without thought – or chance – of remuneration and without a single audible cuss. Then they pay for their tea and take their washing home.

Little wonder that some of us wish that summer might go on a little longer.

*West Allotment Celtic secretary Ted Ilderton reports from their Friday night friendly against Whitley Bay, played at their new home on the former Wheatsheaf ground – adjacent to Newcastle Airport.

Doubtless the match was compelling, though attention may have been diverted by the Red Arrows, circling the place barely above the hedge tops before landing, one by one, next door. “Entertainment that other clubs can’t provide,” says Ted, inarguably.

Incorrigibly, it also recalls the joke about which birds fly in formation and emit red, white and blue smoke.

The red sparrows, of course.




July 21 2017: another whitewash

“Tom appeared on the side-walk with a bucket of whitewash and a long-handled brush. He surveyed the fence and the gladness went out of nature, and a deep melancholy settled down upon his spirit. Thirty yards of broad fence nine feet high! It seemed to him that life was hollow and existence but a burden.”

Mark Twain: Tom Sawyer

So now we know how Alan Hamilton really feels, though the Darlington RA secretary’s fence hurdle is closer to two miles than 30 yards.

Alan’s massive paint job, outlined in Tuesday’s blog, aroused plenty of interest but – it has to be admitted – not a single offer of help.

Martin Birtle merely thought it a cover up, Don Clarke suggested using a spray gun with the additional advantage that the threat of it might keep away idle onlookers. Geoff Thornton was much more sympathetic.

Geoff lives in Felbridge, Surrey, where lies the grave of Northern League founder Charles Samuel Craven, and is a volunteer on the Bluebell Railway. They’ve lots of fencing, too.

His most recent task involved painting four-foot palings – “that’s two protective coatings, two coats of undercoat and two of the top coat – front, back and sides. You can take it from me, that when you’ve seen one fence paling, you’ve seen them all.”

At least Geoff got his picture, glossy no doubt, in Steam Railway magazine. Poor Alan gets nothing grander than Grass Routes.

It’s our kidder, the brighter of the twins, who cites Mark Twain – he who wrote “Truth is the most valuable thing we have: let us economise it” and gave the world its greatest euphemism.

Tom Sawyer had an answer, however: he not only convinced spectators that he was having fun – “Does a boy get the chance to whitewash the fence every day?” – but persuaded his fellow American youths to pay, in kind, for the privilege of mucking in.

“He also had a nice, good time all the while – plenty of company – and the fence had three coats of whitewash on it,” writes Mark Twain. “If he hadn’t run out of whitewash, he could have bankrupted every boy in the village.”

The estimable Alan Hamilton is more a Charles Dickens fan: before another brush is stuck in another paint pot, we refer him to Tom Sawyer, nonetheless.

July 20 2017: another BBC shocker

On the day that the BBC was compelled to reveal the Sky-plus salaries of its top earners, further shocking news seeped from the Corporation: Barry Hindson and Dave Andrew are leaving BBC Newcastle after 30 years apiece.

Whether this is because the guys feel miffed at being a few bob behind Mr Shearer’s half-a-million-a-year cannot be confirmed.

Barry, a long-retired head teacher, is joining the on-line TV channel Made in Tyne and Wear. Whether he has face for television remains to be seen, but he certainly had the mellifluous voice for radio – and a real passion for non-league football.

He knows his stuff, knows his people, produced in 2001 and 2006 two wonderful books of interviews with some of the great football characters  around the region Рthe first with his BBC colleague Paul Dixon.

Dave, who still works full-time for Gateshead Council, spent 20 years performing a similar role to Barry before starting a Saturday afternoon production shift back at the Pink Palace. He’ll now have weekends off.

BBC Newcastle has long been very good to the Northern League and to the non-league game as a whole: it’s to be hoped that the daft money they throw at the fripperies doesn’t mean they’re having to cut back on the essentials. Perhaps Mr Shearer will sponsor it.

*Since the lady of this house has once again taken herself off for the day – Edinburgh, first class – I head, second class, for a bite of something sustaining at the new Colmans Seafood Temple on South Shields sea front.

When South Shierlds last featured hereabouts, we noted that William Wouldhave – all-time local hero and inventor of the self-righting lifeboat – was by birth and browtins up a North Shields lad.

“I nearly chocked on my cornflakes,” wrote Don Clarke, having confirmed the terrible truth.

Of the 44 Last Legs walks in 2015-16, the wettest were both on South Tyneside – South Shields and Jarrow Roofing. Today’s weather’s little less lugubrious, so wet that I forego both one of Signor Minchella’s celebrated ice creams and a ride on the miniature railway around South Marine Park.

Come of that, I don’t even have a pint, just Coca-Cola with the cod. If the BBC wants the story, it’ll cost them.




July 19 2017: cometh the hour

It rang an alarm in the dead of the night,

An alarm that for years had been dumb,

And we knew that his spirit was pluming for flight

That his hour of departure had come.

That verse, memory suggests, was omitted from the version of My Grandfather’s Clock – Burl Ives or someone? – played with almost chronological regularity on Children’s Favourites.

Grass Routes readers may be more familiar with the chorus, about the clock which stopped, short, never to go again when the old man died.

Monday’s blog mentioned the story, not quite in passing. One or two questioned it, Shildon fan Pete Sixsmith confirms it from afar – and whatever the doubters suppose, it has stood the test of time.

The clock, made in the early 19th century by James Thompson of Darlington, has long stood in The George Hotel in Piercebridge, on the Yorkshire bank of the Tees a few miles west of the town.

In the 1870s, so the story goes, American song writer Henry Clay Work looked in to wet his whistle, was told the tale of the clock and set to work.

Already he’d written Marching Through Georgia, which had sold more than a million sheet music copies. Grandfather’s Clock was to outdo it.

Perhaps more remarkably, it also made it, duly acknowledged, into the Oxford English Dictionary. Such venerable timepieces had hitherto simply been known as longcase clocks. Thereafter, thanks to Henry Clay Work, they became grandfather clocks.

Pete Sixsmith happened to be in south Wales last week, attended a concert by the Tenby Male Voice Choir at which Grandfather’s Clock – “their novelty piece” – was accompanied by bells, whistles and crackers.

“Their conductor, a Mr Williams, told the audience the story and I was able to confirm it for him on the way out.”

Though stopped short – of course – the clock still stands at The George, last orders forever ten to six. It proved a perfectly pleasant place, especially for those who like their barmen tattooed, the only downside that a pint of session bitter brewed three miles down the road was ¬£3 50. They don’t do tick.

July 18 2017: the art of painting the fence

Those who have visited Darlington RA will know that, as well as the Northern League set-up, there’s another football pitch, a cricket ground, a rifle club (honest) and sundry other bits and pieces.

RA secretary Alan Hamilton estimates almost a mile of wooden perimeter fencing. Remembering what the Chinese philospher Laozi (allegedly) had to say about a journey of 1,000 miles beginning with a single step, Alan decided the other day that – for the first time in its long existence – the fence should be painted.

Front and back, make that two miles.

What happened next may strike a chord with painters everywhere. Alan’s email suggests that there’s more than a few Dulux fumes he wants to get off his chest. I quote it verbatim:

“As you know, I used to work for a bank and am not blessed with any great manual skills. On the whole I am pretty low-tech, so I sallied forth undaunted, armed with a pot of paint and a brush. A couple of things soon became apparent.

“Firstly, the residents of DL3 are experts, almost to a man, in the art of fence painting. This fact was previously unknown to me – lights and bushels immediately spring to mind.

“Secondly, while I was quite proud of the fact that I was applying paint – to my mind quite efficiently – to a surface that hadn’t seen such treatment in its lifetime, the legion of fencing aficionados made it quite clear that I was doing it wrongly.

“There was no great concensus on the correct way to do it – some thought that I should be using a larger brush, others believed that the job called for a roller, others that a spray gun was the answer – but there can be little doubt that my technique was sadly wanting. All that notwithstanding, only one of the many people encountered managed to apply any paint to the fence.

“As a minimum I think that we should inform the government about the skills hot-spot in Cockerton and its environs. The day will surely come when a skills shortage in the fence painting department will rear its ugly head and we would have been derelict in our duty if we had not made the powers-that-be aware of the magnificent resource on our doorstep.

“Think also of the result if we could expand this expertise from a simple consultancy to a more executive role.”

Paraphrased, – though not, of course, glossed over – all that may mean that he’d love the help of a few brush-bright volunteers. “For the time being, I suppose that we will have to defer to Laozi and take it one step at a time.”

July 17 2017: Britney horror

We’re in town for vaguely similar reasons: haircuts. Mine costs ¬£4 50 – a snip? – and takes about ten minutes. Hers occupies three-and-a-half hours, including the blether factor, and costs probably ten times as much.

Waiting in the barber’s, I fall to skimming a magazine called Heat, full of vacuous pap about vacuous pop. At the back there’s a feature called “This day in history” which momentarily suggests something a little more compelling.

The big day was in May 2006. “Britney almost drops her baby….”

Three hours to kill and a haircut to die for, I take myself off on a walk to Piercebridge, a village with the remains of a Roman fort, partly along the Teesdale Way which runs from Dufton in Cumbria to the North Sea at Redcar.

A sign warns that anyone omitting to shut or fasten the gate shall be liable to a fine not exceeding forty shillings; several others warn of the perils of giant hogweed. Since I wouldn’t know giant hogweed from Giant Haystacks, their effect is somewhat diminished.

From the town centre, and including an unplanned diversion, the walk fills the three sunblessed hours and ends with a pint in the George at Piercebridge, home of the grandfather’s clock that stopped, short, never to go again. That’s what you call a song.

Sharon picks me up. I say nowt about her haircut and she says nowt about mine. It’s what’s called the Barnet Formula, is it not?



July 16 2017: Wenger’s double?

Malcolm Macdonald and I are just about the first to arrive at the Footbaaalll Show comedy club night in Darlington.

Apropos of little, I ask the former Arsenal and Newcastle United man if he’s ever met Arsene Wenger.

Supermac – top bloke, North Shields FC president – says that he has and that for a few moments Wenger just stared at him. “Maybe it’s because he was trying to remember who I was, maybe it was because he thought he was looking in a mirror. A lot of people say I look like Arsene Wenger.”

The barman gives him a free blackcurrant and water – Malcolm hasn’t touched alcohol for 20 years. The barman must think he’s Arsene Wenger, too.

The Footbaaalll Show’s run by Gavin Webster, familiar on the numerous Northern League grounds of North Tyneside, usually at the Stand Comedy Club in Newcastle. This one’s part of the Darlington Comedy festival, Malcolm’s on with former Boro boy Bernie Slaven and they’ll have played to bigger crowds. There won’t be more than 20 in.

Bernie can’t find the place, enters an elliptical orbit like a spacecraft with a sticky satnav, but finally has to be talked in over the phone by the barmaid.

Both are on good form, confirming the theory that when two or three old pro’s are gathered together, talk will always eventually turn to Jack Charlton.

Bernie, proud Glaswegian, recalls when Big Jack – then manager if the Republic of Ireland – asked him if he’s any qualifications to represent Eire. “I’ve an Irish setter,” said Bernie and that, of course, did nicely.

Malcolm’s met Rafa Benitez, too, liked the guy, fears that his Tyneside time is limited because of the failure to make summer signings. “It would be such a shame, he’s an outstanding manager.”

The joke would be on Mr Ashley.

*An email on my late night return reports the death of Albert Hawman, father of Darlington RA chairman Doug Hawman. He was 104. Former steam engine driver, fervent flower grower, Albert had had a chrysanthemum named after him to mark his 100th birthday. It was just a few weeks before the centenary that a friend reported seeing him up a 14ft ladder, cleaning out the gutters. Rest in peace.