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This Speedway Life: Through the Mill
Part V: Tribute 2 - Home Venue

Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you:
But when the leaves hang trembling
The wind is passing through.

Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I:
But when the trees bow down their heads
The wind is passing by
.

(Christina Rossetti)

 

Setting out on the Xanthus, 29th August, 2015, heading south yet to The North like a steam train en route to a dream-bound, merry-go-round-like speedway, the whispering wind turned to full flow, rushed through the wide open visor into the core of the hard-headed shell behind and quickened the senses just as it did in the old days.

Nothing flashed by unnoticed, and on entering a majestic borderland valley, beyond its banks, flood plain and golden meadows, both the last swallow and bee or not to bee of summer appeared a little out of sorts.

Yet the gathering breeze eventually found its way under the weatherproofed top-layer and the day became oh so alive again - elemental, in fact - and though the scene may have resembled a classic illusion of freedom, the bushes in the hedgerows were still filthily spiked, the Xanthus remained as deceptively treacherous as ever and, given a theoretical need to bring horsepower to heel at any moment, this time the right-hand was poised over the brakes, just in case!

Though arriving late, whether as old pro or merely by beginner's luck, the journey was not quite complete and after witnessing a fine meeting amongst illuminating former colleagues and friends the onset of the dark autumnal night was held in abeyance by bright, silvery sunlight reflected in the perfect sphere of a full moon; its usual shroud of hanging clouds weak and scattered, each spotlighted from above-and-beyond as if thieves in the night, exposed.

Now back in the saddle the moonlit surrounds made for a magical journey through the ancient realm and inspiring landscape of Northumberland with no need for the twists and turns of the road ahead to be forecast by the piercing eyes of a thousand cats, aka Percy Shaw's lifesaving project, Reflecting Roadstuds, that in effect mean all roads do not lead to the seven hills of Rome but the rise down from Queensbury to a modest Yorkshire mill town - you'll know the one!

So, then, spinning the wheels of the Xanthus further as the lit side of the moon still reflectively shone like an omnipresent, monocular, so not quite all-seeing Big Cat's eye up above, I imagined I was actually on my way home to Halifax, first stop to be the Piece Hall while begging the question, as perhaps would any modern-day highwayman as he clocked-up each incremental mile, whether destination and building weren't somehow spelt wrong? Well, the question's relevant litany mattered not for this was the beginning of a journey beneath a sunlit moon of rare enlightenment. This rider was compelled to ride on...

And on arrival I found access to the Piece Hall was being denied to the world and his/her dog pending some kind of facelift. But when it eventually re-opens and visitors are able to enjoy the Hall's internal splendour once more, on a good day they may imagine themselves to be somewhere near...yes, that place again, Rome. I mean, don't laugh. Just look at it!

Ok, maybe not quite Rome: the Eternal City's already been dealt with and by a sure Shaw mile reflectively outshone.

Perhaps Dodge Holme, then, a place north of the town where, as a matter of fact, rather than being suckled by a wild mythical canine, having drawn the short straw in a new job as a postie some feral hound once bit my father on the arm. The lancing needle was soon to follow which thankfully quelled the alarm, so, for a third and last time, hmm...clearly, had Don remained amongst the towering environs where he was brought up and nurtured - not Dodge 'olme, or Rome, but Delph 'ill - his wellbeing would no doubt have been guaranteed a little more predictably. Nevertheless, the NHS, our now mortally endangered saving grace, served him well you will surely be pleased to know.

So, having been temporarily thwarted at the Piece Hall I continued the ride and thought it might be a great thing to have a little spin outside the town's Civic Theatre, a venue where the only two riders ever to don the body colours of the Bison have worked behind the scenes and front of house and where many a past night has been danced away on some really quite significant occasions.

But the Civic had been re-renamed after a real-life Dickens-era queen and, sadly, inevitably on this occasion, I struggled to recognise it. There was another madcap pantomime playing below while the comedy club rocked above, yet the classy, transparent front doors, like the solid Clydeside-built gates at the Piece Hall, were locked!

Third time lucky (?) there was nothing else for it. On a wing and a prayer the Xanthus whisked me away to visit the site just outside the north-facing boundary of the town's mediaeval centerpiece, Halifax Minster, where the names of former Halifax Speedway riders were long ago chiselled into the coping-stone of a low-lying wall. It's made of millstone grit, you know, and the names were all still there and seemed to be doing all right, while peering down at them from a bowed, broken back-aching height seemed like an undeserved privilege.

So, suitably inspired, after that there was only one thing for it: a personal pilgrimage to the Shay to see if the ghosts of its speedway past still haunted the place with as much grace as they do to this day just beyond the boundaries of the church.

Spirits at SpeedwayPlus may be lifted to know that, yes, a whiff of the soul of a once grey, crushed granite oval was present there too, wafting mysteriously through the air and filling the heart and lungs with a final, tinctured, ethereal hue. And I'm sure the pitch-perfect and much missed voice of erstwhile announcer, Doug Adams, could be heard introducing to a silenced crowd "When Will I See You Again" by The Three Degrees, followed by "The Hustle," then "The Crunch" but absolutely nothing could be seen. Except, from the Corporation Garage high above on the road to Skircoat Green the No. 40 left for Sowerby Bridge while the No. 38 did the same for Elland and, in that instant, I was reminded of what happiness used to be.

Then, quite incredibly, as if individual chapters in a speedway life, five spectral former Dukes, one rider called Replacement and a shadowy Guest were seen clambering aboard a third bus, the magnificent No. 7, and set off not just up the road to the Dukes' Regimental HQ at Wellesley Park Barracks, but toward a colour-coded kindred spirit in...Glasgow, Scotland.

One could only presume, and indeed hope, that on arrival there the five Dukes, the rider called Replacement and the shadowy Guest were welcomed and reconciled with a more familiar mode of transport (Indian elephant or 500cc bike, doesn't matter which, both work fine) and promptly adopted by the powers that be as the "Second City of Empire's" very own speedway team.

Why, whoever would dare to dream-up the cast Iron (Duke) logic of such a thing, with not an elephant but Wellington himself mounted on the front of seven aptly designed body jackets (quick, call David Shrigley!) being chased around Possil Park by the most characterful squad of tiger-ish foot soldiers, all the while The Duke, with haplessly unreformed aristocratic aplomb, sporting the most recognisable and photographed anti-crash hat in the world, perhaps decorated with a D...for Duke, of course!

Aye, in the Plus of your mind's eye just picture the broadsliding ambassadors of the speedway world's most symbolic white elephant riding away from George Square, Halifax, and after a journey that seemed to take an eternity but was in effect merely an instant, in a puff of organic, intoxicating smoke re-appeared in...well, well, well, George Square, Glasgow, quite the coincidence! Their long-awaited arrival cheered by the only crowd that could ever truly appreciate the event's significance, i.e. no one at all because they were all round the corner on Queen Street taking selfies with one of the most eye-catching examples of comically subversive (and quite possibly drunken!) guerilla art installations on the island of Britain.

Yet that alternative scene, outside the Gallery of Modern Art at the appropriately named Exchange Square, speaks to the real magic that lay at the heart of Scotland's largest city. Just what is it that "makes Glasgow" again? Whether pretending to glory in the psychic gutter, or reaching for the stars, it takes all sorts, of course, but folk can be cannily funny in Glesga and that applies all the way from, er...Duke Street in the east to Switchback Road in the west, a single reflective cone perched precariously outside GOMA the city's central testament to that.

So, if you were mad enough...no, furious enough to listen to me, I'd say deep down everyone in the speedway world must surely realise that the time of the Great White Elephant has arrived, again, and it belongs in a Dear Green Place!

And at the risk of laboring the point, just picture such a thing: the Glasgow Dukes speedway team! A name, motif and ethos inspired respectively by an extraordinary history, an iconic statue and an independently minded civic spirit rooted in wry mischief and artful creativity. Quite something! And should your post-Big Bang soul be so damaged to think of such a proposition purely in terms of "product," "brand" or "marketing opportunity," though significant as those terms are in today's societal currency, well, if the cone fits, wear it! But as someone who's "short o' nowt thiv got" the concept would certainly work on a wholly alternative 'business platform' for me.

You see, the only speedway team I ever managed was the Dukes; just once in a representative junior challenge at a certain Craven Park, Hull, but there was nothing spiritless about it. Bloody rotten tactics, though, of that I must confess, and can assume with confidence that any present day equivalent would make a much better job of it. Be that as it may, a former Tigers skipper-turned-heretic hath spake and the idea of the Glasgow Dukes, at last, is here!

Or rather, it was there, in my head. Inconsequentially. At the Shay. And on a day for experiencing the weird disconnections of a make-believe journey back home - the memories, the reveries and the comforting sense of belonging and never being alone. At which point I simply burst out laughing again having found I'd drifted into Halifax Town's centre-circle in a completely empty football ground.

Yet, oddly for the Shay bowl, the echo of the laughter strained to reach even where the speedway's starting tapes used to be and got nowhere near the four key points of a once spectacular track: those 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th bends. Banked, they were, and originally built-up from a wealth of charcoal cinders harvested from the furnaces of the town's mills and yet, today, lay in the shadow of a busted yet somehow still flush HalifaX (itself built-up, by the way, with sweat, toil and thrift borne of the town's mills), the bends' now squared-off hoardings advertising the rich, corner-cutting promises of a couple of bookies and a struggling-to-hold-itself-together "Mon ey Shop." Funny, that: someone somewhere must have been having a right laugh!

And someone certainly was but without an echo in any part of the ground to acknowledge it. The reason being the scene's solo merrymaker was actually facing the old back-straight stand and looking over towards the imposing vista of the Southowram Bank, and that's a long way for a single voice and hearty laugh to bounce back from, a burning visualisation on the crest of Beacon Hill no doubt required for such a far-reaching signal to strike back at its target.

All blazingly frustrating, of course. But having recently been introduced to Saint-Exupery's Little Prince (it's never too late!) and finding at last a right royal friend worthy of the name, it occurred to me that in the sky atop that Hill there appeared to exist not a beacon set on fire but a laughing star - no echo necessary! And then I suppose I must have wondered which planet I was on, or whether another much missed Douglas Adams could offer further meaning with his guide to this galaxy of ours?

Well, elementally speaking, that thinking only led to un-leaden molybdenum (atomic number 42), which apparently, "with infinite majesty and calm," does not occur naturally in its pure form on Earth. Then I had another Little Prince-inspired thought...

Though what is most important is that which cannot be seen, Halifax, light the beacon...er, not, because that last bit's nothing more than a fresh air-polluting bad joke!

Anyway. Compelled at last to break free from this former speedway venue's twisted grip on one personal reality and to continue the pilgrimage, I left for the other side of the tracks, a.k.a Shay Syke, and headed to Shaw Lane and then down to the Holdsworth's Mill complex.

Oddly enough the route took me via Paris Gates where I thought of Frenchman Albert Camus and his philosophy football. Rather than simply his goalkeeping role in defence of the 'onion bag,' as if signed and marked on the wing beyond an existential touchline Camus once 'scrabbled-down' in the margins of his page this grim yet ever hopeful warrant: "Come to terms with death" he wrote (I'd add in the way that absolutely avoided harming anyone else. Thanks!) "Thereafter anything is possible."

Well, I reached The Shears Inn just before the nick of time - that theoretically relative minute-or-two before they stopped serving food at the bar (thanks Albert!), and I also managed to come to terms with there being only one option on the menu: King Size Yorkshire Pudding filled with potatoes, vegetables and a rather thick gravy made of onions. And after all that I found myself the length of a piece of string (des oignons, of course!) away from crying.

You see, affectionately known locally as "Johnny's," it was at Holdsworth's Mill where my paternal grandfather worked as a stoker in the boiler room. He died before I was born but was an avid watcher of the Halifax Dukes and the Bradford Boomerangs. I wondered what he might have thought of the fate of speedway at The Shay (where in 1949/50 he was a member), Odsal and the old Belle Vue.

Furthermore, concerning the latter, I wondered too what his view would have been of the respective line-ups in the last ever meeting to be held there in 1987?

On that occasion, breaking with the norm, there appeared three teams at the Zoo; it was a cracking finale and I'd like to think my grandfather would have wholeheartedly approved. The occasion featured the swiftest rider ever to appear at Hyde Road: its track record holder who also notably flew to the same perpetual distinction at the Empire Stadium, Wembley, the venue named for the exploits of, amongst others, the Duke.

Whatever Arthur Wellesley might have thought of that, I suspect my grandfather would have loved that last night at the old Belle Vue despite the fact that the team denying the Aces a final brace of victories hadn't needed to cross the Pennines to do it. Those Heathens, eh? Tssk! They were led by none other than the imperial track record breaker, Erik Gundersen, who was, still is, another great Dane and formerly advised by Ole Olsen, needless to say!

Now, such subjective threads binding together the North and Manchester's speedway memory are set to be stretched somewhat further due to next year's opening of the new National Speedway Stadium, Kirkmanshulme Lane when, presumably, many hearts and minds are set to be contemporarily rejuvenated in the process. Let's hope so, eh, and in a truly great way! But the reconstituted club will need to provide plenty of classic line-ups to trump all those that passed through the Zoo, that's for sure, and I certainly wish the soon to be "national" Belle Vue every success, while at the same time can't help but hope that in all the excitement no one quite forgets about those toffee apples...or the fleas!

Still, all such nostalgia is clearly of little bearing today, though perhaps will be expanded upon by some erudite speedway authority in the future. But for now it could be reasonably argued (though really rather unreasonably when you think about it) that as a sport-loving witness to the post-war years of northern speedway, and via his1 and wife Nellie's2 loved and loving son3 together with another extraordinary piece worker of the mills, Florence Margaret,4 my grandfather might just be responsible for the songs and every word written above (blimey, talk about scapegoating!) and, indeed, everything else over the years this one has submitted to SpeedwayPlus, though I doubt very much there'll be many people thanking Tonenili for that!!

But whatever others may think of all of this and all that, no matter; I am indebted and, taken from his letters which include beguiling accounts of those coping-stone Dukes versus the Ashfield Giants, and here writing wholly literally at last, I'll always be grateful to Fred Walsh, the gentle man of the cinders I never knew back home in that old mill town, aka "Halez Fax."

* * *

Next: Part VI - New Signing

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This article was first published on 18th October 2015

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