Tuesday 5 February 2008

Prejudice and pride

14st 8lb; two units of alcohol; 1,460; Bailey.

I finally achieved the supreme accolade of having my name dropped in someone else’s column in the local paper yesterday; albeit only by my losing rival in the Great Weight Loss Challenge. Worse still, it was mentioned in same breath as that of his pal Richard Stilgoe, the minor 1970s TV personality turned fabulously high-earning lyricist. It’s not the company I would have chosen, though I consoled myself with the thought that it could have been much worse: he could so easily have been writing about the recently deceased Jeremy Beadle.

Whenever Stilgoe appeared on Nationwide in the far distant days of my youth, I felt a powerful urge (a) to switch the set off, and (b) to hit him. Jeremy Beadle apparently had the same effect on the entire nation, and only the personal intervention of Greg Dyke prevented him from suing one tabloid for incitement after they urged their readers to give him the punch in the face he so richly deserved. Yet I don’t believe it was just the convention of not speaking ill of the dead that led everyone who actually knew Beadle to say last week what a genuinely decent and likeable Bloke he was. Similarly, my rival states that Stilgoe is “one of the world’s genuinely nice chaps”.

So what can my prejudice be based on? The common factor seems to be beards. My knuckles certainly itch whenever I see Richard Branson (who seems to be the exception to the “actually, he’s a really nice Bloke” rule). But – and here’s the odd thing – I have worn a beard myself for significant chunks of my adult life, shaving off the last, hideous example as recently as 1 January 2007.

I am also powerfully prejudiced against fat people, as readers of yesterday’s entry will have noted, and that has done nothing to prevent me being overweight for most of the last half century. I think I detect a pattern. The same sort of distorted thinking that might lead a black man to try and join the BNP.

Musing on whether other people’s urge to punch me in the face increased exponentially when I had a beard, I drove into Alnwick to observe that focus of local pride, the Shrove Tuesday football match. I hadn’t been since 1987, and was a bit depressed to reflect that nearly all the participants hadn’t actually been born then. Most of them looked as though they should have been at school, but perhaps an enlightened head teacher told them to look upon it as an unconventional PE lesson. An American “university” occupies part of Alnwick Castle, meaning that there were quite a few American accents among the players, which must have added considerably to the pleasure that the local bruisers derived from the ensuing mindless violence.

On our way to the Big Match

We assembled outside the bailey of the castle (you see, those sea areas I put in the first line aren’t just meaningless babble on the lines of “Mornington Crescent”, though I’ll admit that they are mainly that) and only pure technical incompetence prevents me from bringing you a stunning action shot of the match ball being flung from the battlements, as tradition demands. Tradition also demands that the ceremony be performed by the Duke of Northumberland, but he had clearly found something better to do and his younger brother Lord James Percy stood in for him. We then trooped down to the pastures by the River Aln behind the Duke’s personal piper and a couple of flag-bearers.

One of England's grander football stands

The pre-Match entertainment

The only word to describe the pastures was “waterlogged”. The players divided themselves into two teams, theoretically representing the old Alnwick parishes of St Michael and St Paul, though membership apparently fluctuate in the course of the match depending on which team looks most like winning. The object of the game is to get the ball through one of two house door frames wrapped in greenery, which are called “hales”. A bloke in a bowler hat blew a bugle from time to time, for reasons that were utterly mysterious to me, and a lot of people ran around making a great deal of noise and falling over almost every time they tried to kick the ball, thereby getting very wet indeed. A number of them were girls, which I am sure is a change since 1987, but I never actually saw a female foot making contact with the ball. But then I didn’t hang around that long on the grounds that it was absolutely bloody freezing.
I was planning a witty caption about muddied oafs - but apparently that's rugby

The match goes on until one side scores two hales, however long that takes. Then the only prize – the match ball – is awarded to the person daft enough to retrieve it after it has been kicked into the freezing river. Given that the Aln today was swollen with murky floodwater, the chances of some participants being halfway to Denmark by now must be quite high. It would seem an awful lot easier to me to go and buy oneself a ball at one of that nice Mike Ashley’s warm and cosy sports shops.

According to tradition, the match was originally played not with a ball, but a Scotchman’s head. Next year, perhaps.

I wonder whether Gordon Brown has any plans to visit Alnwick in the early part of 2009?

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