The final part in a loose trilogy of Dispatches on why “modern life is rubbish”.
The demise of Ceefax this week signalled the end of another affectionately recalled aspect of the experiences of football fans of a certain age. With nights drawing in and dinner on the hob, we would come home from school or laborious dayshifts, switch the television on and punch those three famous digits into our remote controls. In the days before instant phone updates, page 302 was our first point of call for breaking news and transfer gossip. Page 324 took us to the league table and 316 for latest scores on matchdays.
We’d stare at the screen for hours on end. Leave it revolving throughout the entirety of football matches despite the occasional glitches that would tell us that Ev r t n were two-nil up against Liv r poo . It all might seem so archaic to young football fans today, but Ceefax in all its pre-digital imperfection really was compulsive viewing. So it’s not surprising that many of us have been prompted to mark its final week with a flurry of nostalgic salutations.
As with all things though, its time had come. It couldn’t compete when compared with the giant leaps of instantaneous news-gathering that the modern world spoils us with. Have you tried watching a VHS video lately? When was the last time you chose to play the pools over playing the lottery?
Every Wednesday night, my dad would come home at about nine o’clock after a gruelling day cutting cloth on industrial machinery and he’d take out that familiar pools coupon from his inside coat pocket. I loved those nights. I loved pretending that I was some kind of statistical soothsayer, predicting where the score draws would play out on Saturday. I loved how the cross I made would push through the top copy onto the carbon below it. It was magical and one of the rare occasions when my dad and I actually felt like we were making some kind of connection, discussing as we did the reasons why Norwich might just sneak a draw at Highbury that week.
The reality was that I just went for the names I liked best. Names like Alloa and Grimsby and Rochdale. Places that seemed as strange and distant to me as Los Angeles or Addis Ababa. My dad was probably just dreaming of winning a few quid in a bid to escape the constraints of family life and London. When the pools collector knocked at the door on a Thursday night, there was always that sense of promise and hope. Then the national lottery was born with all its attention-seeking razzamatazz and with that followed the breakdown of my parents’ marriage; not that the two are directly linked but it somehow seems symbolic now in hindsight that the random immediacy of the lottery rendered redundant the more prosaic and considered pastime of the pools and the communication it encouraged between us as a father and son.
It’s prescient perhaps that in the week we said goodbye to Ceefax the BBC chose to screen a documentary paying tribute to the much underrated ‘rockney’ songsmiths Chas ‘n’ Dave during their farewell tour. I’ve always been an unashamed fan of their music not just because of their close association with Spurs or that they hail from the same part of North London as me but also because of what their music represents. It’s evocative of the mythical, fast-receding London that has always eluded me, having been born slightly too late but whose fragments I remember snatches of as I was growing up in Edmonton. It’s the London of purse-lipped matriarchs, outhouses and glass dimple beer mugs that seemed to weigh a tonne. It’s tinned corned beef sandwiches and music halls and my mum telling me about eating pie and liquor on the ‘Cally’ Road. It’s the London that I’ve always been in love with.
Sadly, by the time I was of an age to truly appreciate all these textures of London’s broad tapestry, the Edmonton Regal Cinema that had played host to Jerry Lee Lewis and The Beatles had been gutted and transformed into a Safeway. It’s been downgraded even more now. It’s a Lidl.
Our next-door neighbour but one when I was growing up ran a fruit and veg stall on Leeds Street, on the approach to White Hart Lane if you go there by foot. My mum tells me he’s still there, stubbornly hawking his produce, his fingers blistering in the frost of December, parked up beside the sickly aromas of a KFC outlet and within walking distance of Asda. Sooner or later he’ll realise the game’s up. But I admire his obstinacy.
It’s true when people tell you that you should never re-visit past glories or favourite childhood haunts. When we moved briefly back to Cyprus in the early 90s, my grandfather was unable to reconcile the fact that this was not the island he had left behind in 1953. The realisation of time passing broke him and once the cancer came, he tragically had little left for the fight. And it happens in football time and again. Kevin Keegan, Howard Kendall, Kenny Dalglish and many others have faltered under the weight of previous successes and mythologies.
Because of this, I’m finding it difficult to wholeheartedly get behind the campaign to re-introduce standing at football matches. The arguments for safe standing are sound and it’s been proven that it works in other countries but I’ve got to an age where the thought of spending ninety minutes in the rain shifting from foot to foot makes me want to reach out for a warming cup of tea and a biscuit from the comfort of my sofa for Spurs’ next home match. It’s age you see. You can’t stop it. I’ve done my time standing. My joints ache.
I’m a person prone to overly romanticising the past and it’s moments like this one, having spent nigh-on one thousand words eulogising the Edmonton of my youth, where my mum would dismissively shrug and tell me in her forthright, Cockney manner: “What would you want to come back here for?” And she’d be right. My life lies elsewhere now. What I’m reaching out to are merely echoes from eras that may or may not have existed. Would I want to exchange the relative knowledge and luxuries I have now for the hard, mind-numbing graft and worry that weighed over my grandparents’ generation as they sought to forge their own path in a new country? Of course not. That’s why they did the graft in the first place.
The remnants of what was are there for us all to see if we look hard enough. If when Bonnie grows up she so wishes to know, the stories and the places will still be there. As will football. In a stadium in North London built under the famous shadow of another no doubt. The ghosts of those who filled White Hart Lane will always loom large.
You can’t help the onward march of technology and with greater knowledge there has to be a necessary trade-off and that comes in the shape of a loss of innocence. The sinister events of the last few weeks involving Jimmy Savile and Lance Armstrong may have destroyed the illusions of many Jim’ll Fix It badge holders or readers inspired by the latter’s autobiography but would we rather live in a blissful state of ignorance than know the real truth behind such deceptions?
I did spare a thought for Ceefax’s departure. But in all honesty, I hadn’t thought about it for years. It was as obsolete as the boxy transistor my dad held towards his ear at half-time during matches. It’s the loss of youth that many of us mourned this week, not the thing itself. John Lennon would often round on people upset over the Beatles’ split by telling them they could play the songs whenever they wanted. That’s the great thing about the world we live in today and it’s about time I, for one, embraced it. Time to make a Chas ‘n’ Dave playlist…
Further reading: Chas ‘n’ Dave Revisited & The Great Divide: Northern Football vs Southern Football
Follow Dispatches on Twitter: @Sofalife