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Strai(gh)tened Times - Capital
By David Walsh

The Capital

No dirt-track shale-shifting in London. The capital's gone mad!

Despite the many magical hours I've spent at rural speedways, those at Berrington Lough being the best, deep down I've always believed that speedway belongs in the heart of the city. The city is where the largest, most diverse communities are to be found and I've always liked the fact that speedway teams, unlike every other motor-sport, carry before them a community identity.

The special nature of 'speedway in the city' was initially etched into my psyche whilst a boy growing up watching speedway at Halifax. No, Halifax is not a city. I know that. When you watched speedway there you were left in no doubt that Halifax is in fact a hill town; a hill town hemmed-in by the last major peaks at the eastern edge of the West Yorkshire Pennines.

The spectacularly imposing presence of Beacon Hill, looming over proceedings beyond the back-straight stand, left every visitor to The Shay in no doubt as to the special character of the community of Halifax, represented as it was by a signature white elephant. I have no doubt many could have even pictured in their mind's eye Hannibal himself appearing at the top of Southowram Bank, leading a whole army of elephants down Trooper Lane towards The Shay for a Saturday night skirmish with the seven elephantine Dukes of Skircoat Road, start-time 7:30pm and a proud yet somewhat parochial home record under serious threat. The operative word: parochial!

No, my views on city speedway have nothing to do with Halifax, per se, unless you consider the impact on the psyche of contrast. My views were initially born out of my family's annual trek west, over the Pennines to Manchester to attend the British League Riders' Championship at the old Belle Vue. There was never any question in my mind that the BLRC used to be the biggest meeting of the year, its line-up always trumping the one-off World Finals which to their detriment necessarily included the usual also-rans from Eastern Europe, 1973 excepted. I would look forward to the BLRC for months, the sense of anticipation building steadily as late summer turned into autumn. That sense of anticipation would become almost unbearable when the day itself arrived. Why? The city.

We would depart mid-afternoon and once our car reached the high edge of the western Pennines the whole of the Greater Manchester conurbation would be laid out below us as far as the eye could see. Somewhere down there was our prize, the BLRC.

Negotiating the steep descent into Oldham was one thing, picking our way through the expansive outer labyrinth surrounding old Mamucium quite another. Now, deep down in a foreign land of fiery red, the terraced houses, pubs and warehouses, mills and stacks seemed to take an age to pass through, all the while the sense of excitement building and us not daring to take a wrong turn in case the worst of all scenarios became our fate...late for the speedway, lost and stranded at the centre of it all: Piccadilly, the flaming core of modern Manchester cast in Accrington brick!

That, of course, would have been a disaster and so the most important landmark of all in this strange, darkly exotic Mancunian morass, was the equally strange and exotically domed Playhouse at Miles Platting. That was where you had to turn right to go left and head in the right direction, away from perdition, towards the sanctuary of speedway at The Zoo. From the Playhouse, heading directly towards Hyde Road, you'd pass by the Ashburys Market, a reminder that there was a multi-coloured alternative in this city after all, not just that damned brick-red. Then on to the final curiosity just opposite the imposing gates of the old Belle Vue, a cool little oasis in all the Madchester-ness: Taffy Owen's Trackshop!

I absolutely loved that journey to the speedway. Others would have their own story to tell. Not least, I should think, the group of Germans who we always seemed to stand right next to on the 1st/2nd bend terracing at tapes-up. Their annual presence simply reinforced the impression in my young mind that the city, that city, on speedway night was the place to be, and it appeared that fans from right across Europe knew the truth of it too. And to top it all off, with the ink dry on the programme and the trophies presented, we set off to do the journey again in reverse, retracing the route and inevitably resting on the climb out of Oldham for a fish and a few chips. Then we'd finally ease away from the city still further up the hill, our mission for the day complete before finding ourselves back amongst the rock-solid reassurances of sturdy millstone grit...home, where the white roses grow!

That was it then, the BLRC in Manchester. Quite a lot to answer for, and utterly fan-tastic! And the speedway wasn't bad, you know. Heat 20, 1978 anyone?

Well, eight-hundred words and I haven't mentioned London once. Now it's the turn of the capital!

Eventually, my father and I started branching out and taking in speedways further afield. When we started taking an interest in London and getting there under our own steam, the excitement I felt visiting Belle Vue became magnified many times over. First as spectators, we would embark upon what seemed impossibly long journeys down the A1 (more civilised than the M1 - it had roundabouts!), and the fun would really start once we'd reached the Apex Corner Post Office on Watford Way. We would then drive down to Fiveways Corner before heading towards the North Circular Road at Brent Cross.

Whether it was to Wembley for a World Final or White City for an Overseas or Intercontinental, the sense of occasion was enhanced massively by the stop-start, noisy, chaotic scenes we witnessed through our windscreen. The first time I successfully guided my father's driving to White City, via the Edgware Road, Marble Arch, Bayswater and Shepherd's Bush, up past the epicentre of Britain's voice in the world, BBC HQ, will always remain in the memory, so nervous was he of the alien milieu through which he found himself having to steer. You can imagine, when eventually we began repeating these forays into the capital to places like Hackney, Wimbledon and Crayford with me as competitor-son rather than fan, the nervous tension would go through the roof. In short, we felt to be taking on the (speedway) world and never more alive in our relationship with the sport we loved.

That is what speedway in the city meant to me and so naturally I grew fond of attending a speedway stadium that enjoyed a cityscape for a backdrop. For instance, the view from inside Hackney Stadium of the tower blocks beyond the second bend always felt just right (why, even the kid from Bronco Bullfrog knew it was THE place to be for him and his girl!), and Birmingham's city centre from the high vantage point at the Bordersley Green Wheels Project was a truly spectacular sight. Nowadays I always enjoy the view from Glasgow's Ashfield Stadium of the apartment blocks built high on the hill at Springburn, standing tall as if sentinels watching over us stating: we are all in this (city) together!

That's it, I think, that explains it all. It's that sense of community that's an integral part, supposedly, of speedway's raison d'�tre and which the city expresses on the grandest scale. After all, it's in the city where the masses are and where fostering a sense of community is one the biggest and most important challenges. In that, speedway certainly has a role.

Alas, no more speedway in London. What's gone wrong? Shall I race you to an answer? Good. Right then...On your Marx...Get set...Capital! Hey, hey, I win! What? Don't you complain because we didn't pass Go. Since when has a race for the capital been fair?

We are all aware of the speedway tradition that has existed in London over the years. I do not need to produce a list of speedway teams and venues that are now lost to the capital. When thinking about this issue I am reminded of the laments carried by the speedway press at the time when London first became speedway-less with the closure of Wimbledon in 1991. London Lions operated briefly at Hackney, 1996, before Wimbledon re-opened in 2002 with an even tighter circuit than previously. Alas, however tight the operation may have been, The Dons folded yet again and London has now been without a speedway track since 2005 (Arena Essex? Close, but not quite there!). Why?

Could this sorry state of affairs possibly have something to do with the London economy being so out of kilter with the rest of the UK since City de-regulation in the 1980s? Well, we know what's happened to rents and land values in the South East since the free-flow of capital in-and-out of London was initially facilitated by the so-called 'Big Bang' in 1986. Analysts have drawn direct links between City de-regulation and the great bank crash of 2008 and ensuing economic crisis, and that is surely uncontroversial. But in the intervening years, while many will celebrate the vast riches generated by the City of London, it is reasonable to suggest that easier movement of capital has also resulted in greater financial instability and job insecurity, as Cambridge economist, Ha-Joon Chang, has stated. While London continues to attract wealthy investors from around the world in the financial and property markets, another London is becoming ever more evident: one of increased poverty.

In the week before Christmas just passed, a survey of London teachers found that on average five children in every London classroom could not concentrate because of a lack of food. Changes to social security and the soon to be scrapped Discretionary Social Fund will only make matters worse. Traditionally, a significant proportion of speedway's support has come from working-class families. Is it likely that a city such as London could now sustain a speedway track through its traditional support? That's an open question. Some would point to broader changes to demographics. In any case, the question assumes that a venue in London will ever become available to speedway again.

It stands to reason over-inflated land values in London has had an impact on what that land is used for and what investors are likely to support. In Hackney, supposedly one of London's most deprived boroughs, the average house price is now an astonishing £426,000 and an ever increasing number of people are having to pay extortionate private rents. The dual pressure of high rents and temptation to sell for development, plus the short-term imperative of modern finance, is bound to put a squeeze on alternative land uses. I have no insight into how such matters have affected leisure pursuits in and around London but, though perhaps not directly related, it surely comes as no surprise that on the sites of several former speedways there now exists monuments to major corporate interests.

For example, the BBC Media Village, though set to leave, now occupies the site of White City. The Olympic Stadium and Olympic Village (including a Westfield mall), a multi-billion pound exercise in the branding of what some would refer to as 'UK plc', now occupies a vast swathe of the Lea Valley, including where Hackney Wick Stadium once stood. And don't even get me started on Stamford Bridge! Oops, seems like I already have, but let's keep it short...

This fan of The Blues since childhood has renounced his support for the Chelsea FC oligarchy and will only renew his club membership when speedway returns to Stamford Bridge! And what are the chances of that happening, eh? What has the Roman ever done for us?

Of course, the biggest speedway hurt where the capital is concerned is reserved for Wembley. It was there in 1981 where over 90,000 speedway fans witnessed arguably the greatest single meeting of all time, both in terms of on-track action and overall spectacle. That my brother, father and myself were there to support Kenny Carter's unsuccessful bid for the 1981 world title wouldn't alter that for us. Now Wembley has been rebuilt and is owned by the Football Association. There is a case to be made that the FA are in fact the stewards of the sport of Mammon, so out of control are football's finances and often reminiscent of the worst excesses of neoliberalism. Yet the FA refers to Wembley as the National Stadium. No, that claim would have more validity if there was still a speedway track there ready to be unearthed at least once a year for the British Speedway Grand Prix. Instead we look to Cardiff.

Many inflated egos in the world of football will be arrogant enough to believe theirs is the only game in town, much like the City of London thinks of itself since its government-granted privileged status since de-regulation in the 1980s. Of course, both institutions are wrong.

Just this week UBS's new head of investment banking, Andrea Orcel, admitted to MPs that banks had become "too arrogant, too self-convinced" before the banking crisis and he agreed that banking culture had to change. It is to be hoped the City will indeed be made to atone for all of its errors which are leading to so much misery in other parts of the UK. An increasing number of people north of the northern border will no doubt have hopes of one day seeing an independently staged Scottish Speedway Grand Prix at, say, Hampden Park, so disillusioned are they by the more egregious values and associated hurts inflicted over the years, real or perceived, by the capital of London. On that, I suppose, we'll just have to wait and see.

Yet having said all of this, there is hope.

First, it's manifest in every game of football played by the supporter-owned London-based team, AFC Wimbledon.

Second, it resides in the fact that a tiny financial transactions tax (aka 'Robin Hood' tax) would, at the end of the day, Gary, go a long way to defray the national deficit and remove the justification for the current ideologically driven and economically self-defeating policies of austerity. Such an outcome would surely loosen the purse strings for many people in Britain who are now finding it more and more difficult to make ends meet, not to mention make more affordable alternative leisure pursuits which would include, of course, attending the speedway...which would be nice!

Meanwhile, 800 job losses have just been announced at Swindon's Honda factory, with obvious implications for the speedway Robins, and figures published by the National Institute for Economic and Social Research suggest Britain is now heading for an unprecedented triple-dip recession in 2013. A 'Robin Hood' tax on the City of London would, it is claimed, require an international consensus to be workable. Well then, now might be a good time to work towards one, don't you think?

Finally, back to that first measure of hope...AFC Wimbledon.

Should South London's Merton Council maintain a policy that stipulates a sporting legacy for the site, the mooted redevelopment of Wimbledon Stadium, Plough Lane, could yet open the way for the return of speedway in London and render much of what I've just written invalid. Hoorah! One proposal is for a new, ahem, football stadium for AFC Wimbledon. Do we know anyone associated with AFC Wimbledon's 'Crazy Gang' who's sympathetic to speedway? I do wish them well, but somehow I don't think I'll be heading off back to Apex Corner for quite a while yet!


Next: Part VI - Drones


This article was first published on 13th January 2013

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