I used to think that others were prejudiced against me because of my background. I got it into my head that the reason I wasn’t being promoted on the Sunday Times, doomed for ever to be the boy assistant on the Atticus column, was that I was northern and provincial and hadn’t gone to a public school or Oxbridge.
This was back in the Sixties. For about four years, working on the column, I had to write really boring pieces about who would be the next master of Balliol, our ambassador in Washington, or the bishop of London, as if I cared. I wanted to interview footballers, Merseyside pop singers, gritty northern novelists, working-class cockney photographers.
I used to lie awake and think: if only I’d gone to Eton – like Ian Fleming, who used to be Atticus – or Cambridge, like Nick Tomalin, who’d been president of the Union and was the current Atticus, and my boss. I’d be much more valued, loved and admired. Perhaps I should take elocution lessons.
A few months ago when the Newcastle fans were being beastly to Alan Pardew – more than beastly, they were bestial – I wondered if he was lying awake at night and thinking: is it ’cos I is cockney?
He was born in Wimbledon (so that makes him something other than cockney) and his career as a player was almost totally London-based, with Palace and Charlton, then as a manager at West Ham, Charlton and Southampton, before, to everyone’s surprise, he fetched up at Newcastle. In the eyes of the average northern football fan, who is known for being a splendid, fair-minded chap, he was and always will be seen as a dirty cockney bastard. If Newcastle had won the League he might have been forgiven and his awful southern background overlooked, but even when he pulled them round, got them on a winning streak, he was still booed – just for being Pardew.
What about Big Sam? Is he lying awake in his Big Bed thinking: what have I done wrong, why are they still against me, is it ’cos I is northern? In the eyes of all southern fans, who are known for their tolerance and niceness, Sam will for ever be a typical northerner, booting the ball upfield when he played for Bolton, Sunderland and Preston, doing much the same when he went on to manage Preston, Blackpool, Bolton and Blackburn. Eating all the pies, keeping whippets, ee-by-gumming. We don’t want his sort, so many West Ham fans thought, when he got appointed.
He’s done a great job at West Ham, overachieving if anything, though I can’t see them making the top six. And yet he is still being booed by West Ham fans, who also take it out on the co-owners for appointing him. They just don’t like Big Sam. As the Geordies despised Pardew.
Big Sam, in his earlier career, when he was always being overlooked for bigger, smarter clubs, used to say that if he’d been called Alardicce, and not Allardyce, he’d have done much better. In the Prem at present, none of the top seven managers is English – in order, they are Portuguese, Chilean, French, two Dutch, Northern Irish, Argentinian. In fact, Sam, born in Dudley, is our most successful English manager.
In the middle of the night these days, he has probably forgotten about his longing to be an Italian. Being born within the sound of Bow Bells, that would be enough. I am sure he thinks he’s a good manager, doing a great job in difficult circumstances as Pardew did. What else can it be but blind prejudice against him?
Pardew won in the end, in the sense that he wasn’t sacked. He chose to move to Palace, so the fans didn’t have the satisfaction of humiliating him, but it was clear that they were the reason he left. They’d made his life a misery.
I nearly left the Sunday Times, thinking that’s it, they don’t like me here; and then something happened outside my control. The Sixties didn’t begin, in fact, until 1964 – that was the year it changed. Suddenly gritty northern writers, Merseyside pop singers, footballers and cockney snappers became the flavour of the times. I got given the job. Oh bliss…