IT WAS TOWARDS THE END OF my first year at university, and the end of The Boo Radleys’ first and last slice of stardom.
A “friend” of mine, one of those hall-of-residence “friends” who I was shortly to never speak with or see ever again, had got tickets to see The Boo Radleys at the Parr Hall in Warrington. He knew I was a fan. I owed him a favour after he agreed to come with me to see Gene play Liverpool University Students’ Union. It was during that aimless period between the end of exams and the announcement of results. He asked me to come to the gig. I said yes.
Since starting at Liverpool University, I’d passed through Warrington countless times on the train, either en route to Manchester and Sheffield to visit old school friends or on the way to and from my hometown of Loughborough. (This was before I discovered the “quicker” route of leaving Lime Street on a fast train bound for London, then changing at Nuneaton for a local service via Leicester).
I’d never, however, had cause to visit the town itself. Nor had I ever seen the Boo Radleys live.
The latter would prove to be the more fulfilling of the two formative experiences, but only just.
The gig got off to an atrocious start courtesy of the support band, Swervedriver, who, according to my diary, “sent me into a semi-coma” of “bored fatigueness [sic]”.
Two friends of my “friend” had come along purely to see Swervedriver, and once the group had gone from the stage made it very clear they couldn’t be arsed with the Boo Radleys at all, rudely disappearing off into the recesses of the Parr Hall.
Once they and other Swervedriverers had sloped away, the remaining audience comprised one third of people who knew and loved the Boos for their earlier stuff, in my case their utterly splendid 1993 album Giant Steps, but two thirds of people who knew them as That Band Who Did A Jingle For The Chris Evans Breakfast Show.
And these two groups of people did not like each other.
I described the majority in my diary as “ludicrous under-age pre-pubescent knicker-throwing teenage girls.” They had every right to be there, of course, but this didn’t stop me raging inwardly at their presence, particularly at how they seemed to make the Boos “aggressive and pissed off with things”.
It became a battle of the cliques. That troika of rousing Radley epics, Wish I Was Skinny, Barney (…And Me), and Lazarus, were received by most in the hall in bemused near-silence, apart from me and the minority, who cheered them to the skies. Meanwhile the new stuff, especially (inevitably) Wake Up Boo!, was heralded with tumult by the masses but stoical indifference by the few, leading to enormous scuffles and convulsions that left both my feet and back severely bruised.
I think it was this gig that turned my dislike of Wake Up Boo! into rampant, untethered hatred.
At the end of the gig we got lost trying to get back to the station. I can’t remember if it was Bank Quay or Central, but we made it just in time to catch the last train to Lime Street: one of those barely-furnished bone-rattlers that stopped at everywhere and resembled the inside of a bus.
Nobody said anything to anybody for the entire journey. The only sound was the creak of the carriage, the echoes of belligerent cheering, and a clutch of flawed, fading harmonies.
HERE’S THE OLDEST TRAIN TICKET I have in my possession:
Ho hum: British Rail. Yes, I know it was never actually as good as it seems now, and it was an organisation that mostly functioned better as an idea, or an advertising concept, rather than in practice. But seeing it printed there on that piece of card evokes more than a tinge of sadness in me for something that, like Radio 1 on the Medium Wave and crossed lines during telephone conversations, was loved in spite of rather than because of its existence.
The ticket is for a journey I made by way of a return favour.
I’d struck a deal with my next-door neighbour in my hall of residence at Liverpool University. If he came with me to a Smiths night at Hardy’s in Hardman Street (a desperately shabby nightclub of a mostly indie persuasion, now long gone), I would go with him to see Cardiff City, his team, the next time they had an away match nearby.
This day arrived on Saturday 18 March 1995, when Cardiff were away to Wrexham.
It was, I’m not ashamed to admit, the first time I’d been to a football match. And it remains, to date, the first of only two football matches I have seen in my entire life. The second one was also a Cardiff game, this time at Chester’s pompously-titled nation-straddling Deva stadium.
The game at Wrexham was in much more lowly surroundings: Wrexham Racecourse. I could see it as our train arrived into the town. It looked tired and unhappy. It smelt like a black-and-white film.
Yet I was determined to keep an open mind and treat the whole thing as a bit of an adventure, which, for a fiercely ill-educated non-football fan such as myself, was really the only strategy I could adopt.
I don’t remember much about the journey, nor why I decided to keep my train ticket (establishing a precedent that has continued, more or less, to this day).
The fact that Cardiff won 3-0 undoubtedly made it more of an enjoyable occasion than would otherwise have been the case. The fact they won by, as far as I could see, booting the ball as far as they could up the other side’s end, then racing after it to try and score, didn’t bother my friend or any of the 200-odd supporters who made up the sparse crowd at the away end.
I learned that Cardiff fans hated Wrexham fans, who they mocked by shouting “Wrexham! Wrexham!” in a high-pitched voice, as if to cast doubt on their masculinity. I also learned that some of Cardiff’s youngest fans knew some of the choicest profanities on the planet.
It cost me £8.50 to get into the ground, a sum that I described in my diary entry for the day as depressing, given “I’ve a week ahead where I can’t spend much money”. I also mentioned being struck at the “real community feeling” amongst the Cardiff fans, “a sort of extended-family warmth”. This sounds a bit over-the-top, but it was true at the time and for a football novice was very reassuring, even comforting.
I didn’t see much more of Wrexham during the trip, apart from a bakery in which me and my friend bought food before – but not after – the game. It was a bitingly cold day and by the time we were back in Liverpool it was pouring with rain. Right outside our hall of residence I was splashed by a car racing through a giant puddle. However this did not, to use a painful cliche, “dampen my spirits”, as by that point I was basking in that sense of achievement that comes from trying something new – albeit fairly trivial – and surviving.
The following day, a Sunday, Liverpool beat Manchester United 2-0. I can’t say my interest in football persisted beyond the weekend, but I see from my diary that I took care to note that the name of our team in that evening’s quiz in the student common room was: Man Utd Are Fucked Now, Aren’t They?
Note: Thanks to YouTube, I see Wrexham got their revenge a few months later, beating Cardiff in the Welsh FA Cup final:
A MEMORY HAS BEEN EMBEDDED deep in my mind for almost two decades.
It’s a memory of sitting in a carriage of a train, going nowhere. But I’m not just sitting in a carriage. I’m sitting in a compartment of a carriage.
It’s the kind of compartment immortalised in sitcoms and sketches usually involving archetypes of comically contrasting backgrounds reading wildly contrasting newspapers. The kind of compartment where passengers sit facing each other in long lines, and which has a door one side that allows you into a connecting corridor and a door on the other side through which you enter and leave the train.
This memory, I would tell myself, must hail from at least the late 1980s. At a push, it could be the very early 1990s. But no later. Such compartments must have passed out of use by the time British Rail was being prepared for privatisation. Such an antiquated (by which I mean old, not redundant) structure could not have been trundling along busy routes or creaking along branch lines while John Major’s government was busy bowdlerising BR in the name of competition.
And yet I have always associated this memory with being a university student, which had to place it at some point after September 1994. Furthermore, I have always associated the location of memory with Runcorn station. I had never been through Runcorn station before I went to university.
To solve the mystery, I turned to my diary.
Fully expecting the incident to date from autumn 1994, I was amazed to find it took place on Monday 27 November 1995.
My diary records that I was stuck at Runcorn from around 4.30 to 6pm, in a compartment empty of people save for one businessman who grew increasingly frustrated at the delay, but whose anger manifested itself merely in “sighing, walking around and throwing his briefcase on to the opposite seat and off again.”
It also notes that no official explanation was offered for the incident. Indeed, it seems there was no communication with or from any train staff at all. There was simply word going around that the train had broken down, which was, in any case, completely self-evident.
After 90 minutes of stationary tension of the kind more common to an afternoon play on Radio 4 or an episode of the old Children’s ITV strand Dramarama, everyone was ordered off the defunct train so it could be towed away. We then had to wait for a delayed InterCity to pick us up and take us on to Liverpool.
Someone reading this might be able to tell me what sort of train it would have been that broke down so spectacularly.
Perhaps it was actually quite common for those types of carriages with compartments to still be in use well into the era of New Labour, Britpop, Chris Evans on Radio 1 and The Sunday Show on BBC2. Yet in my head I’d reassigned them to a slightly earlier, older age. Perhaps the way I compartmentalise my own life can be as misleading as the neat division of the decades. Perhaps the 1980s only really ended in 1997.