This Speedway Life: Through the Mill
Did you know, "Life is just a bowl of toenails" (© 'Comfort room' wall, Upper George Hotel, Halifax, circa 1979)? It's a maximum of 10 clippings, obviously, and a mercifully cliché-free zone!
So why, then, do people say "life begins at 40?" You could share the bowl, I suppose, which would be the obvious answer, though somehow I get the feeling many would cringe at the thought. So apart from that, "40" what? Shall we try atomic numbers? Why on earth not?
Zirconium it is then, 40th element in the Periodic Table. Discovered by Klaproth and described thus: silvery white, lustrous, ductile, malleable, its dioxide often used by jewellers as a substitute for diamond.
Nah, doesn't quite cut it, does it, but certainly more life enhancing than, say, 92 (KABOOM!),1 and with a potential speedway application to boot, i.e. oil-less engines. Hmm...
But no, a Periodic 40 surely can't be the "key to the door;" that's what 21 is for, and 21 happens to be...scandium. Again, hmm...you might like to read on...
Or, maybe life begins when you just take "40" winks? Well, I for one would certainly be prepared to try that - on forty consecutive nights if necessary, you know, should 40 be the number that's strictly prescribed. The corresponding 40 days could get pretty tiring, mind, trying to get by on just 40 winks and nothing more...
On second thoughts, nah, not sure these days I'd be up for it, truth be told, for it's time for the 40-winking to end, for sleeping well and then waking up fully refreshed again, and time to look elsewhere for an answer to this question.
By the way, and on a personal note, it was a most wonderful thing to enter university at the age of 40. Irrelevant, I know. Just saying, that's all.
Or, could that life beginning 4 x 10 refer to the rhythm of Venus completing its celestial cycle high in the heavens? You can always rely on Venus, that's for sure, because its 40-something, like zirconium, is an established, observable scientific fact and quite unlike some superstitious associations with "40" that, frankly, ought to be quarantined!2
But to continue on a speedway theme (this is its Plus site, after all), here's an idle thought...story...poem...chipped bowl...interminable bore...coronach, call each part of it what you like...
It will be 40 years ago next month when an expectant, idealistic lad of twelve arrived at Belle Vue, Manchester, following a really rather thrilling and moderately, ahem, fortitudinous journey from Halifax - yon' mill town ovva t' 'ill!
Adorned with a set of three iconic offerings - metal pin-badge, black-and-gold rosette, red-and-white scarf - under the guidance of his father the youth confidently strode toward the Pleasure Park little realising he'd soon be on a Hyde Road-ing to nothing, or maybe something depending on your point of view and reading.
Of course, the two of them left plenty of time before the main event to ride the dodgems, bag a doomed fish or simply savour the atmosphere as the crowds steadily grew at the Zoo...
Ah, that wonderful urban Zoo, its gloriously faded glamour, gardens and...toffee apples! Whoo-hoo!
Built by the Jennisons from the profits of the Adam and Eve public house in Stockport, the Zoo was to be an oasis to leaven the souls of generations of Manchester's own mill folk just when they needed it most: Belle Vue was founded in 1836 with Manchester still toiling in the aftermath of Peterloo.3
And 139 years on, still so much to do!
In what time they had to spare could the boy and father "do" the Great Ape House, too? Monsterland? Clench teeth at the Reptilium? Go crazy at the Zoo-B-Doo Disco? Tread more carefully at the Model Village? Or scratch all of that and leap headlong toward the smallest show in town: Len Tomlinson's Flea Circus?
Yes, all life was to be found at the Zoo, alright, but none of its amusing preambles were really that important because also within those enchanted Gardens was to be found what many would regard as the North's spiritual home of...speedway, though others might make a strong claim for The Shay!!
And what a grand sight, sound and smell the old Belle Vue Speedway was, set on this particular occasion to host the 1975 British League Riders' Championship Final.4 There'd be no missing that, that was for sure, and the dad and the lad couldn't wait.
But it became increasingly apparent that something wasn't quite right. A broken-down coach, perhaps? Yes, that must be it. But surely there'd be more than just one coach here on a day like this? So why, then, did the boy appear to be alone at the Zoo sporting the colours and image of one who ordinarily hundreds, if not thousands, would have come to support and pay tribute?
Well, news travelled relatively slowly back in the 1970s and though the cold, hard truth slowly, painfully dawned naive hope still sprang, if not quite eternal. Because even though his father had prepared him for the worst, once in the main arena the Big Dipper rumbled high above the first and second bend and from there, at last, there came a sign - another kindred spirit in reassuringly high spirits calling out the name emblazoned on the boy's chest, though now in forty-year retrospect there can be no doubting that what was actually called-out from up there, despite what the boy so desperately wanted to hear, was the following:
"Oggy oggy oggy! Oi oi oi!"
Aye, that once appetising yet now pitifully gormless cry, which seems to have heralded a 40-odd-year cultural slide, was what really issued forth from the mouth of some round-and-round, up-and-down reveller perhaps still boozed-up following the previous night's oompah at the Vue's Bier Halle trying in vain to impress at least one more fellow traveller. Could it have been the likes of the boy he was trying to impress? Well, at the time the boy thought so but more likely the cry was directed towards a girl in the rollercoaster carriage by his side or perhaps just everyone else within earshot who were trying their damnedest to focus on some other, even faster, pulse-racing attraction.
But then the time arrived for the terrible truth finally, unequivocally to be revealed over Belle Vue's tannoy and for those who even at that late stage were still wondering what was wrong in their child-like, or simply pre-iPhone, ignorance, the penny finally dropped...and like a stone. I paraphrase:
"It is with great sadness and regret that Belle Vue Speedway announce the death in a track crash at Wolverhampton last night of New Zealand rider Gary Petersen. We must also announce that recently crowned world champion Ole Olsen has withdrawn from tonight's meeting as a mark of respect for his team mate and friend."
[Now, while setting down these thoughts it was necessary to return to the 1975 BLRC programme to find out who eventually finished on the rostrum that night and, perhaps surprisingly, the scorechart had been filled-in thus:
1st Peter Collins; 2nd Phil Crump; 3rd Martin Ashby.
Memories are funny things; they can become a little cloudy at times and in this case for good reason, but I'm pretty sure I recall that it rained that weekend.
Certainly, the cloud that descended over Belle Vue on 18th October, 1975, was real enough for me, though in all honesty it was being denied the thrill of cheering my idol at the time, Ole Olsen, as I had done triumphantly just a few weeks earlier at Wembley, that immediately got to me. But I was old enough to appreciate that something tragic and profound had taken place the previous night in the Midlands and understood that in not coming to Belle Vue Ole had done the right thing.
And as if to compound any hurt, though on reflection it could be read as a troubled mark of respect, looking further down the programme's scorechart I'm reminded that Ole's replacement on the night, John Boulger, took all five of his rides and scored nil. The show goes on, of course, but whatever the provenance of his score, those in the know all know that a more than worthy Heathen was John.
In the years since, and indeed before, speedway has been darkened by such clouds on all too many occasions, accompanied not by rain but the manifest sorrow of those most directly affected. Without needing to be a speedway fan (though it helps), anyone possessing any measure of human sympathy would be shocked and saddened by the premature death of someone like Gary Petersen and, perhaps, might also start to question just what the hell it is we think we're doing messing about with such high-powered bikes, and courting such danger, in the first place? Well, as a former sponsor of mine would often say, "folk just cannot resist the thrills and spills of speedway." Indeed.
Less unhappily, though certainly irritating, it's the literal downpours that lead to countless cancelled meetings that over time have usually affected our sport adversely, and with what now seems like increasing regularity. Could just be the climate of the times, I suppose, though perhaps such a perspective isn't helped by a life now being lived approximately 40 miles north of Ayr. It does seem to rain quite a lot in Glasgow, true, but whenever they do deign to go down, wow, those glorious sunsets over Argyll!5
Anyway, all things considered, is not the proper course for speedway to be open to the sky, and all the beauty, light, air and at times grim predictability that it brings, i.e. the inevitable rain?
This is the sport we love and it's worthy of coming back to again and again with no need to cover its flaws. It rains and often pours. We must accept that. And for all its hard won glory and despite the inevitable heartaches and pain, who would have it any other way?
Well, here's a flight of fancy...
Considering a course based on rather less than proper, sound, solid and, yes, even philosophical foundations, if at the speedway you ever saw war waged against the sky and rain gods - e.g. Yu Shi, Zeus, Indra, Cocijo and the prankster Tonenili - with defences raised, the overhead shield shut tight and the massed ranks huddled below trying desperately to keep their powder dry, then you might just have ended up witnessing the most ironic contest of all: Warsaw, 18th April 2015. Didn't go to plan at all, did it? Called-off. Track unfit. Tonenili et al having the last laugh, as you would naturally expect!
And furthermore, on that Polish score, in purely speedway terms there can surely be nothing wrong at all with the likes of Bydgoszcz, Torun, Gorzow or Katowice. Yet nowadays many folk have been persuaded that the temporary and the indoor must reign supreme despite all the compressed rutting, ducking and diving. Is all that not just a little quasi?
Yet conversely many of speedway's most memorable and iconic moments have only been made possible by having taken place on "proper" tracks and under the darkest clouds and heavy rain.
Who can forget, for example, the incomparable Ivan Mauger cocking a snook to the weather gods in Ullevi, 1977, raising his hand from the bars on the final bend of a waterlogged, ice rink-like track to, quite literally, single-handedly take his fifth world championship?6 That was Ivan, all right, still leading the way in the face of so much adversity.
Or the ultimately ill-fated Kenny Carter winning the 1984 British Championship at an awful, water-affected Brandon despite riding with a broken leg. What he did that day was really quite remarkable (some might say "nowt special, just Yorkshire grit, lad!"), though the rest of the field may not have been thanking Neptune for that one!
Or how about that eye-catching photograph of Alan Grahame striding back to the pits plastered from head to foot in slime and mud assisted by a similarly splattered brother, both none other than the 1982 British Champion and runner-up.7 Poor Andy and Big Al, there often really is little justice in this world!
Yes, speedway is skilled, daring, thrilling, inspiring and reckless in equal measure, yet still confined within the fenced-off parameters of entertainment and based on a premise, theoretically at least, of innocent fun and competition, i.e. it's a sport and thereby quite unlike some other human pursuits that are absolutely horrifying. So I've always liked speedway, a lot, though at times it has saddened me terribly. I also fear, particularly at times like this on SpeedwayPlus, though not exclusively, that I have saddened it. If so, sorry about that!
Anyway. After trying to explain away some grim weather, some pain and heartache, though word for word hardly literally, perhaps it's time to be getting back toward the point of all this...]
On hearing Ole wasn't going to show, more out of adolescent self-consciousness than anything else (though sort of appropriate given that Ole at the time was in mourning), the boy unpinned the rosette, removed the scarf that was tucked into the top of his jeans and, as inconspicuously as he could, put them to quiet rest in his pocket for the night. Being less flamboyantly expressive the badge stayed where it was on the boy's anorak (the ultimate symbol of the obsessive) and he continued to idolise the in absentia world champion.
Indeed, far from going cool on Ole the whole dark episode simply reinforced his devotion (for a while, at least, until a young Haligonian arrived on his scene. But by then, 1979, with a few more years on the clock and after the emergence of Punk Rock, the boy was becoming more sceptical where idols were concerned. After all, many nights spent at the local hop8 pogoing to the refrain of "no more heroes anymore"9 was bound to lead him to question the value of a public image...limited10) and the following spring he stripped-down his bicycle and spray-painted it red, applied two elongated white crosses down each fork leg and stenciled OLE OLSEN on either side of the crossbar. A vertical DANMARK completed the look on the down-tube below the seat and, suitably inspired, he was ready to join the ad hoc cycle speedway meetings he and his friends would arrange on all manner of waste grounds that littered their hometown.
Even then in those saddle day events the boy was typically enthusiastic and committed ("Go Bison!"11); to the point, in fact, that it became quite difficult at times to persuade the other kids to race with him. Wasn't it just a bit of fun? they would bemoan as time after time he'd barge up the inside sending all and sundry hurtling towards the long grass, or for an appointment with mother to plaster-up a nasty gash to the palm or knee.
Over zealous? Maybe. Actually, absolutely! And though the one who had inspired it all would probably have disapproved of the tactics employed and his immature exuberance during each race, the boy knew that Ole Olsen rode with him. Why, by the boy's own hand Ole's name, country and flag were painted on the bike for all to see. Such livery was a psychological advantage, you see, amid the bars-to-bars melee, though no less a confection, or home-spun illusion, that represented nothing so much as a childish but nonetheless wonderful dream.
And all these years on, the boy as a man is still not sure too many of his childhood friends ever really understood him, though there was one who never failed to take up the challenge of the pedal-powered 4-lap dash and, fair play to him, he often won. Paul was his name: a Dukes fan.
More years then naturally passed, and with the OLE OLSEN bike re-sprayed (it became a silver machine with flames on the forks where the flags had been) time after time the boy and Paul would race each other, and each other alone on the vast expanse of a concrete floor covered in muck, ash and brick dust; the broad, open, unpredictable skies their roof above.
And this was a world bequeathed to them by 'higher forces' who unwittingly created the perfect conditions for sliding shoulder-to-shoulder, scuffed knees, bent wheels and laughter by demolishing the walls of a huge weaving mill, just the kind in which the boy's own father worked the night shift for 20 years; precisely half the time it's said that a life doth begin. And if that were indeed so, and another life was possible, oh for the chance to work those next 20 years of thankless graft for him, just to see his face once more. Then it would be straight to Florence for a family-inspired, truly epic renaissance on a distant, far-flung shore. Alas...
But no time here for stalling, no brakes are, as then, the order of the day lest momentum be lost because the spoils of each race goes to the one with most guile, most energy, most skillful recklessness and, of course, to the one prepared to slide most spectacularly, unaided. No brakes, then. No brakes! The guiding principle behind an awful, restless cliché: Horace's timeworn, impatient Carpe Diem!
And in the end the two of them, the boy and Paul, they shared this love (the boy's first love of all) and they also played football together in the same team, the Friendly Youth AFC, unofficial club motto: "Lacerabuntur unguis et opus pede mirabilia...VICTOREM!" (translation: "Toenails Clipped, Fancy Footwork... GOAAAAL!").
Regrettably, today it would probably be more: "Unguis funghi et genua mal...QUOD 'VITA!" Yet even now in such a "life #2"12 that lad, who in his own right was a bona fide mill-track champ, would understand and remains a speedway hero to me, though "Paul" is merely poetic licence, i.e. a pseudonym.
That's a true story (so far as memory and perception allows), and though rather tiny, glazed-over, chipped and boney, the "bowl" remains half-full! 13
2. Put it like this for any adults who may be waiting to reach the approximate age when their beloved children fly the nest and disregarding scripted orthodoxy once upon a time in an unpunctuated nursery rhyme with toys all over the floor should a tower of Meccano fall as the innocents say their prayers and rainbows get drawn over their island map as others come of age is nothing more than coincidental and they all lived happily ever after <--
5. http://www.gettyimages.co.uk/detail/news-photo/sunset-over-jura-seen-from-kintyre-argyll-and-bute-scotland-news-photo/520720223?#sunset-over-jura-seen-from-kintyre-argyll-and-bute-scotland-picture-id520720223 <--
This article was first published on 27th September 2015
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