Six days at sea provides an opportunity for some serious reading, or as much as heavy swells allow. Books and magazines make a significant contribution to the arm wrenching quality of my luggage; another of the joys of sailing to and from Southampton, no weight limits. Mixed in with the shirts, jeans, shoes and sad to admit, the dinner jacket, are two magazines I religiously read cover to cover; The Week and Motor Sport.
I feel a certain affinity with the motor racing journalist Nigel Roebuck; both Cheshire boys of a similar and certain age, we spent a large part of our teenage years trackside at Oulton Park watching our helmeted heroes race by. He went onto achieve what I only aspired to; I still have copies of my early ‘race reports’, evidence of intent if not talent. This is a short extract from his Reflections column in the October edition of Motor Sport which deserves a wider audience:
Hard as it may be to believe in 2012, when the enchanting Mr Rooney trousers £220,000 a week, there was a time when sportsmen – of all kinds – frequently struggled to make ends meet. The Manchester United team of the mid to late ‘50s – the legendary ‘Busby Babes’ was emphatically the best in the land but it was hardly reflected in the players’ wage packets. One of them, tragically lost at Munich in February 1958, was a patient of my father and told him one day of the great celebration at the club for the Captain, Roger Byrne, had acquired a Morris Minor, thus becoming the team’s first player to own a car. United’s bonus scheme was simple: £2 for a win, a quid for a draw.
Similarly, we hold Gordon Brown, Ed Balls and bankers in the same high esteem as said Mr Rooney.
By chance I have just finished reading Dodie Smith’s autobiography, Look Back With Love, the story of her early life in Manchester (a glorious Slightly Foxed Edition). A playwright and novelist, her best known work is The Hundred and One Dalmatians, written out of sheer irritation at Enid Blyton’s success. I was drawn to the book because she grew up in Old Trafford in the early 1900s when it was still a pleasant suburb, a few miles from Manchester. I was born and raised near Altrincham so the bus and train routes into and out of Manchester, via Old Trafford, form part of my internal landscape. That landscape is blackened-building, smoke and fog filled as a consequence of the heavy industry that sprawled across Trafford Park. In the 1950s it would be very hard to imagine Old Trafford a pleasant suburb, even more so then, than now.
Dodie moved away from Manchester in 1910 so there is no mention of the football ground, United only moving to Old Trafford that same year. However, there is brief mention of the Cricket Ground, “beside which was a dusty road on which my grandfather would draw ships with his stick” – perhaps inspired by those he saw travelling across fields near their home; the Manchester Ship Canal was in sight of their Old Trafford home, Kingston House (eventually demolished to make way for a new railway).
It is a gentle story of a gentle upbringing on the eve of great change. This brief extract tells of a car journey in a dark red de Dion Bouton from Old Trafford to Tenby when such a journey would be a rare and grand adventure:
Those were the days of dusty roads; as soon as we left the suburbs of Manchester the hedges were powdered white and a great white cloud followed us. Whenever we saw another car approaching us, we stuffed handkerchiefs into our mouths, covered our faces with our hands and ducked, but even so the dust was suffocating. As I came up for air I always cast an admiring glance at Uncle Bertie, upright, indomitable and be-goggled at the wheel, his pipe with its patent spark-preventing lid clenched between his teeth. Not for him to duck from dust clouds and, as the hours wore on, his face, moustache and cap grew white as any miller’s.
I am slightly perplexed as to why the roads around Manchester would be throwing up white dust, this being something I have always associated with the chalk uplands of Hampshire and Dorset; indeed, travel the minor roads of those counties today and there is still evidence of chalk cuttings beneath ancient tree shrouded by-ways. Maybe chalk was the forerunner of tarmac; maybe memories play tricks.