2007 and all that

Was this year a good thing? Ben Yarde-Buller casts his sideways glance over the past 12 months

Happy New EU

As is traditional the new year* began just after midnight with a wave of parties, treaties and new E.U. member states such as Bulgaria and even Romania. As the Bulgarians and Romanians had very few Gross Domestic Products* they were unable to drink any champagne to celebrate being the new poor men of Europe. However they managed to cheer themselves up by gathering in public places and attending free concerts, often simultaneously.

* 2007
* except some raw materials e.g. cabbage

Cash for Honours

Tony Blah did not have much time to govern in 2007 as he kept popping round to his local police station to swear that he had never made an Honours Penny in his life. He did not enjoy this at all, as the police refused to treat him as a suspect or indeed with any caution whatsoever, even though he was a Prime Minister and thus by definition a V.I.P.

Shaat Al-Arab

Shaat Al Arab is not a racist slur. On the contrary it is the name of a disputed waterway running between Iraq and Iran* where fifteen British sailors were humiliatingly captured by Irani terrorists in March. This was quite outrageous as at the time of their capture the sailors were very much minding their own business by boarding and searching Irani ships for smuggled goods.

Eventually Blah made a diplomatic effort and persuaded the Iranis to give the sailors right back. However he soon regretted his actions as on their return they all sold their stories to the tabloids, thus damaging Britain’s reputation (as the stories were rather boring and not even particularly well-written).

* or vice-versa depending on one’s viewpoint

The End of the Blah Era

In geological terms the Blah Era was a mere blip but to most of the people involved it didn’t seem that way at all.

Towards the end of his Era, Tony Blah started trying to work out what his Legacy should be. At first his main ideas were:

  • Africa
  • The Middle East
  • Iraq
  • Iran
  • Northern Ireland
  • Afghanistan
  • Bosnia
  • A.N. Other Country
  • Good Friday

However in the end it turned out that Blah’s Legacy was none of the above but Gordon Brown* instead.

* no relation of Bennett

Gordon Brown

Gordon Brown hotly denied that he was Blah’s Legacy, arguing that if anything it was the other way round (or vice-versa). He tried to prove this by having some very firm policies of his very own, fizz:

  • almost calling several elections
  • almost pulling several troops out of Iraq
  • almost gaining the confidence of several middle class voters

This is almost known as Leadership.

Smoking Ban

Smoking harms your unborn child (especially in public spaces) and was thus banned by the government on July 1st. This is known as a smoking ban and is a highly complex and controversial issue, as will now be proved beyond reasonable doubt:

Main Arguments (for the Smoking Ban)

  • I do not smoke
  • I do not like the smell of smoke on my clothes
  • Smoking harms my unborn child

Main Counter-Arguments (against the Smoking Ban)

  • I do smoke.
  • I do like the smell of smoke on my clothes.
  • Why should I believe you? Are you a scientist?

Sub Prime Lending Crisis

This unmemorable crisis was something to do with the American economy and is thus excessively relevant though not at all interesting except to:

  • people who have a lot of money and/or free time (and/or both)
  • people who are into northern rock
  • economists, doom-mongers, sub-prime-ministers* etc

Sub-Prime Lending might (but shouldn’t) be confused with the Cash for Honours Scandal, The Abrahams Affair or Political Donations in general.

* e.g. Gordon Brown

Afghanistan, Iraq and all that

Afghanistan and Iraq should on no account be mixed up even though they are both fundamentally somewhat Muslim and thus contain millions of disaffected young men with a negative attitude (and bombs). Also they are both Asian and larger than Europe and thus ideal venues for a war on terror.

In Afghanistan the War on Terror continued steadily towards Peace by means of skirmishes, massacres, roadside explosions, the Caliban and Class A drugs.

In Iraq the War on Terror brought so much Peace, security, schools, policemen, chaos and mayhem that British troops chose to withdraw in an orderly yet shambolic fashion before they were all killed. They tried their very best to hand over power to genuine Iraqis, but by mistake gave it to some Shia* Militias instead. This was A Bad Thing but can on no account be viewed as an abject failure (least of all by the politicians in charge).

* Irani

2008

It was thus finally time for everyone* to put their feet up and take a well-earned rest before 2008 (and all that…).

* especially politicians and other important types

END OF YEAR EXAM

1. Arrange in order of preference, starting with your absolute favourite: Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, North Korea, Iran, Northern Ireland, Congo. Give four glib reasons for your answer.

2. In your personal opinion, what is a Mullah?

3. Which European country has the Grossest Domestic Product? (Hint: The answer is Germany.)

4. Romania and Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007. Whatever next? Turkey?

5. Is this a libellous statement: “Tony Blah solicited cash for the Labour Party in return for dispensing honours.”? How about this: “Tony Blah sexed up the September Dossier in order to bolster his case for going to war against Iraq.”?

6. On a scale of 1 to 10 (via 5) how humiliating was the capture of British sailors by Irani terrorists?

7. Mind your own business (while straying into another country’s territorial waters and searching their ships for smuggled goods).

8. How cool is Britannia? (N.B. This is not a rhetorical question.)

9. Imagine for a brief moment that you trust Gordon Brown. How was it?

10. Pay lip-service to the crucial importance of the American economy then turn your mind to something more interesting (e.g. football or The X Factor).

11. Confuse and contrast Iraq, Iran, the Gulf, Mesopotamia, the Middle East, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Taliban and (if you still have time) North Korea.

12. Write an email to your local M.P., expressing yourself in no uncertain terms.

13. “A Scot, a Presbyterian and an Economist.” How accurate do you find this assessment of Sub-Prime-Minister Brown?

14. Using only unavailable evidence, assess the situation in Basra.

15. Was 2007 A Good Thing? Your answer should take account of all of the following: Iraq, Afghanistan, the Taliban, North Korea, the England Football Team, Floods, Sub-Prime Mortgages, Sub-Prime Ministers, Russian Democracy, Anglo-Russian Relations, the Housing Market, Madeleine McCann, the Dafur Region, Chlorine Bombs, Global Warming and Paul Potts.

2066 AND ALL THAT - a memorable
Memorable Modern History from the Suffragettes to Saddam and Beyond (via the Coronation Chicken) by Ben Yarde-Buller & Sophie Duncan
ISBN: 978-1-90584-729-7
Price: £ 9.99
Publisher: Old Street Publishing
December 2007

Martin O’Neill for New Statesman
Show Hide image

1966 and all that

A year of World Cup glory, meeting Paul McCartney and eating placenta.

Fifty years ago this Saturday, on 30 July 1966, I was at Wembley. I have my ticket and my programme to prove it. I also have my 1966 ­diary, which I am looking at now. I was 30, weighed ten stone and eight pounds, and my waist was 32 inches – about as hard to believe now as England winning another World Cup final.

I am still in the same house, all these decades later, but my telephone number then was GUL 4685. GUL was short for Gulliver, I can’t remember why. In my list of contacts at the end of my diary is Melvyn Bragg, who was another recent arrival in London from Cumbria, like myself and my wife, on PRO 0790. PRO stood for Prospect, I think, which was the exchange name for somewhere over the river, possibly Kew.

My office number was TER 1234. I always thought that was a great and memorable number. It’s only now, thinking about it, that I realise that TER – meaning Terminus –
probably related to King’s Cross, which the Sunday Times was near in those days.

At the top of the charts in July 1966 were the Kinks with “Sunny Afternoon”, which I can well remember, as it was so ironically chirpy, and Georgie Fame with “Getaway”. I liked Georgie Fame – low-key, cool – but I can’t remember that tune. Both were replaced in August by the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine”/“Eleanor Rigby”.

My day job in July 1966, on the Sunday Times staff, was writing the Atticus column. It still exists, but in a smaller, more skittery format. Previous incumbents included Ian Fleming, John Buchan and Sacheverell Sitwell, who was reputed to have got free Mateus rosé for life after giving the wine its first mention in an English newspaper.

I had been on the paper since 1960, after spending two years as a so-called graduate trainee journalist, mainly in Manchester, which was a laugh. There was no training and there were no lessons in law. You had a mentor for a few weeks and then you got on with it.

In my first few years as the boy on Atticus, I never had my name in the paper. I had to write dreary paragraphs about who might be our next man in Washington, or the bishop of London, or the master of Balliol, as if I cared. I wanted to write about footballers, gritty northern novelists, pop stars.

When I started at the Sunday Times, I felt for a while that people were prejudiced against me, because I was northern and working class and had gone to grammar school and a provincial university (Durham). Everyone else seemed to have been at Oxbridge and gone to public school.

But this prejudice was all in my head, imagined, just as it had been when I used to go from Durham to visit my girlfriend, Margaret – whom I married in 1960 – at Oxford. I was convinced that some of her posh friends were being condescending ­towards me. Total nonsense, but I had a chip on my shoulder for some years. Gone, all gone, just like my 32-inch waist. (I am now 12 stone and the new shorts I bought last week have a 38-inch waist. Oh, the horror.) If anything, these past 50 years, any prejudice has been in my favour.

Harold Wilson was the prime minister in 1966. His northern accent was even stronger than mine. I still have a letter from him, dated 21 March 1963, after I interviewed him for Atticus. In the letter, he ­describes the 1938 FA Cup final in which Preston beat Huddersfield Town 1-0, scoring in the last minute of extra time. At the bottom of the page, in handwriting, he’d added: “after hitting the crossbar”.

What I remember most about the interview was George Brown, who was deputy to
Wilson as Labour leader at the time, hanging around outside his office, drunk. Marcia Williams, Wilson’s secretary, was going around tut-tutting, making faces, complaining about George. I thought she shouldn’t have done, not in front of me, as I was a total stranger and a hack. (I don’t think we called ourselves hacks in those days, which is the normal, half-ironic self-description today.)

Harold was a football man and also a real know-all, forever boasting about his memory for facts and figures. The contents of this letter illustrate both aspects of his character. It led me later to collect a letter or autograph from every prime minister, going back to Robert Walpole. Only took me ten years.

There is a myth that England’s 1966 win helped Labour stay in power – which does not quite stand up. The general election was in March – four months before the final. But Wilson did milk England’s victory, identifying himself and the nation with our English champions.

It is possible that the reverse effect happened in 1970, when Wilson was chucked out and Edward Heath came in. England’s defeat at the 1970 World Cup by West Germany was just four days before the June general election.

***

I got my ticket for the 1966 World Cup final – for one of the best seats, priced at £5 – from my friend James Bredin, now dead, who was the boss of Border Television. Based in Carlisle, Border covered the Scottish Borders and the Isle of Man. It was a thriving, thrusting regional ITV station, now also deceased.

James’s chauffeur came to pick me up and waited for us after the match, a sign of the importance and affluence of even minor ITV stations. Border contributed quite a bit to the network, such as Mr and Mrs, starring Derek Batey, who presented 450 editions of this very popular national show. Batey was a local lad who started his show business life as an amateur ventriloquist in the little market town of Brampton, Cumbria, before becoming Carlisle’s Mr Show Business. He was so polished – lush hair, shiny suits, so starry, so glittery – that I always wondered why he was not in London, in the West End.

Border TV also produced some excellent documentaries that were networked across the ITV region, two of which I presented. One was about walking along Hadrian’s Wall and the other was about George Stephenson. For a while in the 1970s, I began to think I was going to become a TV presenter, despite being not much good. I was lousy at acting, which you need for television, and disliked asking questions to which I already knew the answers. And it took so much time. For each programme, we spent eight weeks on location with a crew of eight, just to make a one-hour documentary. Now they
do docs in a week with just two people.

For half an hour, I also imagined that I was going to become a playwright. In 1967, I had a play in the BBC’s Wednesday Play slot, awfully prestigious at the time, called The Playground. It was one of those shows that were filmed live and then wiped, so I have never seen it since, nor has anybody else. I blamed that for blighting my playwriting career, though till I was looking in my 1966 diary and saw that I was working on that play, I’d forgotten about its existence. As we go through life, we forget all the paths not trodden.

I’ve boasted endlessly about being at the 1966 Wembley final, and it was so exciting, but I can’t remember many of the details. I must have been aware of Geoff Hurst’s second goal being a bit dodgy, as there were loud complaints from the German fans, but as Sir Geoff, as he then wasn’t, went on to score a third goal, it didn’t really matter. At the time, I considered that the England-Portugal semi-final had been a better game, with our Bobby Charlton scoring two goals against one from Eusebio, but of course winning a final is winning a final and the excitement and the patriotic pride continued for weeks and months. We felt as if it had been our right to win – after all, did we not give the game to the world, lay down the first rules, show all those foreigners how to play our game?

The result was that we usually ignored all the new ideas and developments that were emerging from Europe and South America, carrying on with our old ways, stuffing our faces with steak before a game and knocking back six pints afterwards, a bit like Alf Tupper in the Rover comic. He lived on fish and chips, but on the race track he could beat anyone.

Those funny Continental players started playing in funny lightweight boots, more like slippers or ballet shoes, which seemed barmy to us. How we scoffed. How can you play properly, far less kick someone properly, unless your ankles are encased in hard leather as tough as steel? Who cared if they weighed a ton, especially in wet weather? We Brits were tough.

The top First Division stars of 1966 earned about £200 a week, including bonuses, and lived in £20,000 houses, semi-detached, on new estates with Tudor overtones. The top players drove Jaguars. But most were lucky to afford a Ford Cortina. I had one myself for a while. Awfully smart, or so I thought at the time.

Their basic wages were little more than double that of the best-paid working men, such as a foreman bricklayer or a successful plumber. Their neighbours on their estates were bank mangers or salesmen, a higher scale socially than their own background, but still fairly modest. Not like today. Footballers don’t even have neighbours any more. They are cocooned in their own gated mansions, with personal staff, gardeners, nannies, accountants, lawyers, agents.

Yet despite their modest lifestyles in those days, there were celebrity players, such as Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton and, before them, Billy Wright, all household names, loved and admired, recognised everywhere.

None of them had an agent in 1966. The nearest thing to it was the system that operated if a team got to the FA Cup final. They would then agree to divvy up the peripheral proceeds, such as money from giving newspaper interviews, posing for staged corny photographs, opening shops, or selling their spare tickets to touts (which they were not supposed to do). They’d appoint some dodgy friend of one of the senior players to arrange the deals and collect the monies for them. Times, they always change. Otherwise, what’s the point, eh?

***

In 1966, two big events occurred in my personal life. In May that year, my son, Jake, was born – at home, in what is now our kitchen. He arrived so quickly that the midwife hadn’t turned up yet and he emerged with the cord twisted around his neck. I managed to untie it, which I have maintained since kept him alive (a trick I had learned at fathers’ classes).

Fathers’ classes – wow, what a novelty that was in the 1960s. Who says we were all chauvinist pigs back then? (Today’s young, female star writers at the New Statesman, probably.) I attended my first ones, at the Royal Free Hospital in 1964, when our firstborn, Caitlin, was about to arrive. I remember immediately thinking when the invite came that I would get 1,000 words out of this – which I did, for the Sunday Times women’s pages.

Also at those first-ever fathers’ classes at the Royal Free was a young BBC producer whose wife was also about to give birth: Wilfred De’Ath. He, too, was desperate to get a piece out of it. (He now writes occasionally for the Oldie, and he appears to be down and out and living in France.)

After Jake’s birth, I got the midwife to give me the placenta and I ate it, fried with onions. Tasted like liver. Another 1,000 words.

The other event of note in my ever-so-exciting life in 1966 was meeting Paul McCartney. When “Eleanor Rigby” came out, I thought the words – not just the tune – were so wonderful. Possibly the best poetry of the year, I said, as if I knew anything about poetry. I went to see him for Atticus in his new house in St John’s Wood, which he still has, being a very conservative feller. I talked to him about the background to the lyrics, as opposed to his hair, which interviewers were still asking him about.

A few months later, at the end of 1966, I went to see him again, wearing a different cap, as a screenwriter. I’d had a novel published the previous year, Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, which was being made into a film, with Clive Donner directing. We went to see Paul at his house and discussed with him if he would do the theme tune. He turned us down in the end but it was while I was with him that I suggested that there should be a proper biography of the Beatles. He said Brian (Epstein, the band’s manager) would have to agree – and there and then sat me down and helped me write a suitable arse-licking letter to him.

I eventually saw Brian, after several cancellations, at his home in Belgravia and he played me the acetate of “Strawberry Fields Forever”. I was astounded. It seemed to break every rule of what was then considered pop music. I wondered if all Beatles fans
would take to it. But I could see that it was amazing and perhaps the Beatles weren’t finished, which was what some people were saying in 1966. At my publisher, Heinemann, which paid me £3,000 for the book, there was one director who maintained the Beatles bubble was about to burst.

Brian agreed to my project and offered a clause in the contract that we had not requested or even thought of. He said he would not give any other writer access to the Beatles for two years after my book came out. This was 1966. The book came out in 1968. Two years later, in 1970, the Beatles were no more. Without realising it at the time, I became the only authorised ­biographer of the Beatles.

***

So, 1966, a big year for me, so glad I kept that diary, and also a big year for the nation. I thought at the time that the Beatles were bound to fade, eventually, while England surely would dominate world football from now on. After their humbling by Iceland at this year’s World Cup, I now realise that England will never win the World Cup again in my life, what’s left of it. And probably not even another game.

The only way to rationalise it is to tell ourselves that we are ahead of the game. We are rubbish, but in turn it will happen to all the other so-called advanced nations.

You could say Brexit is a bit like that. We are ahead of the other leading European nations in going it alone, even though it is depressing and awful and shameful. We are advanced in wilfully turning ourselves into a rubbish nation. We are leading the way, as ever. Inger-land, Inger-land.

Hunter Davies’s memoir of the postwar years, “The Co-op’s Got Bananas!” (Simon & Schuster), was published in April, followed by “Lakeland: a Personal Journal” (Head of Zeus). His final book on the Fab Four, “The Beatles Book” (Ebury), will be published on 1 September

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue