Lost in the north

Hunter Davies wonders what on earth he's doing in Leeds - and gets a nice surprise

I regretted agreeing to go to Leeds the moment I got to King's Cross. It must be the coldest station in northern Europe. On the train there was no free food, just tea and coffee, even though I was in first class, paid for by Harrogate International Festivals Ltd. Don't ask me who they are. Just wrote to me out of the blue, and for some reason I can't remember now, I agreed to go.

Last time I went to Leeds the main excitement was Don Revie's team wearing sock numbers - you know, players with their team numbers on their socks, a great help to anyone able to read six-point print a hundred yards away. I wonder why they never caught on.

They'd put me up at the Malmaison. I remember staying at the first Malmaison in Glasgow many years ago and thinking what a silly name it was for a hotel, for surely it translates as "ill house". Some time later, in a book about Napoleon, I read that he'd had a country place called Malmaison. Presumably that was the origin.

Nice hotel, chic decor, but in the room next to mine someone with a "Do not disturb" sign on the door had their telly on at full blast. I told reception, hoping they would break the door down, haul out the person, string them up, but they did bugger all. Oh God, why have I come to Leeds? Have I become a moaner in my old age, or just such a creature of routine? I don't want to go anywhere, do anything, apart from stay at home and watch the footer. I have been to Leeds, so why go again in the same lifetime?

I walked too far as I tried to remember well-known people who’d gone to Leeds Uni – Jack Straw, Alan Yentob, Paul Dacre

I walked around the town and found a nice ephemera shop where I bought some good wartime ration books and leaflets, so that cheered me up, but then I walked too far, trying to think of well-known people who'd gone to Leeds Uni, such as Jack Straw, Alan Yentob and Paul Dacre, by which time I had got lost. I came back knackered, moaning even more.

My hosts had arranged for a taxi to take me to the event at the Headingley Carnegie Stadium. It never turned up. I stood outside the Malmaison in the cold and wind for 40 minutes thinking, "That's it, I ain't going nowhere, never again." I had to get the receptionist, the one I'd moaned to about noise, to order me a cab.

The event, whatever it was, was taking place in a large function room filled with overexcited people in their best suits and frocks, checking the seat numbers to see where they were sitting for dinner. I'd been told the vice-chancellor of Leeds Metropolitan University and some of Yorkshire's Olympic medallists had come to celebrate. Now I studied the menu at the opening of the Carnegie Sporting Words Festival.

The sports world loves these sorts of dos; any excuse to get dolled up and ogle famous sportspeople. I went to quite a few in the 1970s at posh hotels in Park Lane with the Spurs players, who'd be given free tickets, often by Stan Flashman, king of touts. I don't suppose Prem players can be arsed to go to such places any more just for a free meal.

There were various speeches during the meal, and once again I wondered what was going on, why had I come, I can get free meals at home. Then Linford Christie was called forward to be interviewed by Mark Pougatch of Radio 5. Linford was so fluent, so intelligent. Then, blow me, I found myself being interviewed - and presented with the First Carnegie Award for Outstanding Achievement as a Sports Writer. The only other prize I've had is a West Australian Award, in 1993, for children's books. So, in the end, I did find out why I went to Leeds. Glad that I did.

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 03 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Israel v Hamas