Monday, March 3, 2014

12 Wembley

Back in 1940 (when the war was European and African and not quite worldly) Winston Churchill spoke;

"And now it has come to us to stand alone in the breach, and face the worst that the tyrant's might and enmity can do. Bearing ourselves humbly before God, but conscious that we serve an unfolding purpose, we are ready to defend our native land against the invasion by which it is threatened. We are fighting by ourselves alone; but we are not fighting for ourselves alone."

England versus the Rest of the World. 1940.

I reckon that Winston could have given the exact same speech in 1963 (exactly fifty years ago to the day when I first wrote this) to the England football team versus the Rest of World at half time in the Wembley dressing room.

But Winston could relax. Because the result was "England two Rest of the World one." Jimmy Greaves scored the winner in the last minute. One up, then one all and bingo,

But we could have done with Winston's post Crimean wisdom in the winter of 1918.

At this point, two decades before Winston's words for those involved with the Dunkirk evacuation, the body of an unidentified casualty of the First World War was brought back from a battlefield in France, shipped across the English Channel to Britain, the coffin borne on a gun carriage and drawn through London in the presence of King George V. The unidentified, Unknown Soldier was given a state funeral in Westminster Abbey. Between 1914 and 1918 Britain had lost a million men. Never before had there been such slaughter. A veteran recalls,

“The shock to the system, the national system, of the first war had really gone very, very deep. It is almost impossible looking back now to understand how very deep it had gone… … and the trench warfare of the last four years had bitten into everybody's souls . (*) We trusted it had been so there was to be no more war. It was the war to end all wars.”

When they unveiled Charles Holden’s cenotaph on Whitehall, a large Union Flag fell from the war monument to end all war monuments to reveal the white marble underneath.
The war had brought Britain close to bankruptcy. Most people were worn down and worn out.

The Government organized an exhibition. An exhibition with a theme.

The same veteran tells,

“It seems to me that someone must have said, 'now we’ve got this terrible war over we must do something to promote business and trade to let the world know that the British Empire is still alive and well and to boost morale.' And what better way to do this than with the British Empire exhibition?"

The outcome was the British Empire Exhibition held at Wembley in 1924 and extended because of the demand into 1925. Like World's Fairs the exhibition needed new sports arenas, swimming pools, pavilions and gardens. We got a Palace of Industry (finally demolished in 2013) and we got a spanking new, 100 000 capacity Wembley Stadium; the Empire Stadium. (The car park in front wasn't called the Empire Car Park, but it did hold Sunday Markets for the next sixty years. Diamond geezers stood in the backs of white trucks selling “leather” jackets and doing deals on dodgy crockery sets, “you've seen the patterns, you know they don't break, hold yer money missus, hold yer money, I’m throwing in the cruets I'm throwing in the tea pot the coffee pot and the sugar bowl (Pause) you know what, the boss will give me trouble as I'm throwing in the glasses as well (Pause) I'm not stopping there in go the cups and in go the saucers (longer pause) give us two tenners (shorter pause) the lot’s yours. First ten only ladies money to the lads at the front.”)

In the spirit of Empire Wembley's architects and designers stuck closely to the style Luttyens created for the New Delhi. Wembley's famous "Twin Towers" looked like a pair Viceroy residence domes married together above the grandstand behind the royal box.

The stadium and the new exhibition grounds became the setting for a royal opening ceremony. Massed bands and choirs were conducted by the Britian's (i.e. England's) most British (i.e. English) of composers; Edward Elgar.

They played Nimrod and the technicians at Alexandria Palace (Ally Pally) broadcasted the opening ceremony across the globe to whoever in the empire had a wirelesses. Wembley went global. It inspired Colin Frith to play King George as the stuttering King ploughing his way through the opening speech in front of the flag waving hordes.

You can get a flavor of the black and white memories of Empire Exhibition watching Pathe News reels such as this but the really good one that gave me a sense of Wembley's proud history is this one...

Today, Wembley Stadium isn’t called the “Empire Stadium” (the original, when it was still standing, lost that label when the Empire was dismantled and the Commonwealth arrived). Wembley Stadium is called, simply, "Wembley". If you find yourself in England, or anywhere else in the world, and you mention that you’re going to Wembley expect the Englishman to reply with enthusiasm and an “Oh yeah? Who are you are seeing?”

Try not to say, “My mate Phil" or "My cousin Lilian"

What is meant is, “Who's playing?” that is what football match you're going to watch. Just use the team names no further grammar required.

"England Brazil"
"Spurs Hull City"
"Widnes St Helens"

And if the interest is there and you have done it right so far then they might ask if you got decent tickets. No! This does not refer to internet travel deals using Expedia or a special on an Oyster Card. They mean did you pay a decent price for decent seats. Don't be shy about saying how much the seats are. The point of this part is so you can both draw breath over your teeth and talk about the rip off these days, but insinuating you are a real fan and also got a few bob to throw around.

Now. For me, “Going to Wembley” has associations with being transported as a king to Valhalla, being karmicly elevated to a higher Nirvana, taking the steps to the Pearly Gates. Marching up the Empire Way (that used to join Wembley Park tube station with the Empire Stadium, right between the Twin Towers and up the ramp) means journeying to sporting heaven.  If an English doris was laying back and thinking of England then Wembley would be where they were playing their home leg.

There's few other stadiums in the world that match Wembley (Yankee Stadium possibly but the corwd there don't sing, the Yabba but the crowd there is cricket, the Nou Camp - but the Nou Camp is club and not country). Having been to all, I'm proud to believe that these stadiums have a timid squeak grounds compared to the lions’ roar of the arena we've got. Wembley is an English Everest in our landscape of sound. Wembley, for me, means SOUND. It means NOISE. It is BEAUTY IN NOISE. No.... not the noise of a glittery white jump suited Neil Diamond beautiful noise
“...a beautiful noise,
A sound that I love,
And it fits me as well,
As a hand in a glove,
Yes it does, yes it does

What a beautiful noise
Coming up from the park
It's the song of the kids
And it plays until dark

(Crikey, how woeful is that.)

No. Wembley cannot be described as "a beautiful noise."

To say to the visiting team that Wembley is a “beautiful noise” is as dumb as telling your lass she has a “fragrant stench” after she’s spent two hours in the bathroom.

Wembley sounds are not urbane Neil Diamond noises. Wembley sounds are cultural harmonies. They are as delicious to an Englishman’s ear as paella is to a Nou Camp, Spaniard's tum. Paella probably being the right aural grub analogy to use.

Wembley is Aural Paella; having as much to do with celebration (enjoying paella), belonging to a tribe (enjoying paella with friends and family) and production (making and enjoying paella with your friends and family) as they have to do with consumption (eating paella).
In my adolescent years I stood on Wembley’s terraces, beside the tunnel, behind the speedway track. It was us that bashed together the noise. The raw chanting / singing ripple started somewhere behind the goal. It simmered up, coming to the boil in a full on howl as we joined as one - right round the tiers – perhaps leaving out the tossers in suits in the posh seats.

I could liken that Wembley vocal collectivism to an Amish barn raising, with Harrison Ford swinging his hammer on the roofline and 100,000 of us underneath swinging ours. Alone the men in Wembley crowd would have struggled to assemble a lap wood garden shed straight from the box, but crammed in behind the posts, with England on the pitch for focus, the crowd together could sing up a Canterbury Cathedral.

You don’t get this Wembley-ness in every national stadium.

In many of the modern technological biscuit tins a DJ turns a natty pop tune onto the speakers while a fifty by thirty metre Panasonic video screen prompts the “event’s attendees” to chip in with an appropriate mono syllabled grunt. When they are told. I am sorry to get indignant but that’s not cultural chefery. That’s pretending you've made the dinner party dessert because you sprinkled extra chocolate over the Walls Viennetta. At Wembley the crowd creates and the crowd consumes. The crowd supports and doesn't just watch. We get in there with our noise while the lads on the pitch provide the visuals. Thus for sound Wembley goes straight to my top ten places to listen to before I die.

And then there are the radio commentaries. These words when read, like Winston Churchill's stand alone speech, immediately invoke the memory of the commentator who spoke them. The radio are the best...

1966. "Twenty seconds, twenty seconds and it's Hurst. And Bell is shouting for it on the right here; and there's people on the pitch at the moment. Yes! A goal by Hurst. A goal by Hurst. Number four. And the England players are going down on the turf hugging each other, on their hands and knees. And here it is, number four for England."

Early 1990s. “Free kick to Spurs, thirty yards from goal. Paul Gascoigne is lined up from a central position. Gascoigne moving towards it now, …drives it in direct. Ohhh ! What a great goal from Paul Gascoigne !"

...but the Telly commentaries are nearly as good (if you close your eyes)

Geoff Hurst

Paul Gascoigne

More 1990s. "Rosenthal, down the right, scampering in field across the face of the penalty area; he tees it up, left footed. He's found the net again. It's two in ninety seconds for Ronny Rosenthal. And Tottenham are right back in this match, right back in the F.A. Cup and right back on the Wembley trail.

Wembley's Empire Pool aka Wembley Arena added to my sporting Wembley sounds with boxing. At the Arena once, Frank Bruno, in round one, belted Gerry Coetzee so hard that he crashed over the ropes and landed on the commentator's table outside the ring. I was three rows backs and I heard the drinks glasses fall, smash on the floor and Gerry "oofffing oooffing" through his semi consciousness. On another night I could hear Charlie Magri’s wife sobbing and screaming “Oh No Charlie” through every one of his twelve three minutes. Why did she turn up if she was only going to weep through the whole thing?

Unlike Charlie’s wife who had a limo to take her to Wembley, and Alan Minter who had an ambulance to take him home after the heinous Marvin Hagler debacle (Harry Carpenter commentates, "and people are throwing beer cans.... one's landed on me... and I'm smothered in beer....”)

I had to get to and away from Wembley on a Tube train.

Again, Mr Diamond didn’t even get Wembley's Bakerloo / Jubilee / Metropolitan line sounds right. I didn't get the “clickety clack of a train on a track” as I arrived with excitement and went home with adrenalin and elation or worn out depression. The beautiful Wembley noise I was served at Wembley Park, as the electric train rumbled and hummed in, to slow and rest beside platform three, came from a pre recorded message. The slightly distorted tannoy voice of Oswald Lawrence declared in later years (as the clip below reveals) but in some instances it was the Jamaican station master that told us to

"Mind The Gap" and when I was lucky I got a second, slower dose of it "M i i i i i i nd ... the Gap”

Mind the Gap. Number two in my top ten noise chart.

I've got to run now. Off out, I'll wrap up. Wembley. They can foolishly demolish the towers. But they'll never muffle the history of Wembley’s sound.


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