The latest in a series of profiles and interviews, Orginal Fat Bob gives his personal view on the life and career of a footballing guest, before sitting down for a chat and asking a few questions. Our Diasboro special guest this week is Harry Pearson.
1. The Overview – the man and his career
One of the nicest things about doing these In2Views articles, is that the bloggers on Diasboro quite often put in a request for someone for me to talk to, that they themselves hold in high regard. One such request came from our own Jarsue, who holds this man’s writing and works in such affection. John tells me that Harry bought from him, one of his little hand printed and hand cut Jack Russell Books and that he’s a top man.
Harry Pearson was born in 1961, in the village of Great Ayton, a few miles outside Middlesbrough. Synonymous for being the village where Captain James Cook the famous explorer went to school. Harry remembers that he was born and brought up in a house on High Green. He told me that this was in the same row as Artie Suggett and Donald Petch but says ruefully, “though I never got free ice creams, or pies.”
For the benefit of those unfamiliar with Great Ayton, Suggett’s were and still are, noted for their Dairy Ice Cream Shop and Parlour. Petch the butchers however, are famous for the quality of their Pork, Steak Pies and Pasties and many people travel far and wide to queue up and buy.
We swapped a few names of people we both knew in the village. Jim Pearson (no relation – OFB) was the local builder who worked hard and slaked his thirst each evening in The Royal Oak. I mentioned to Harry that Jim, being a master stone mason, had constructed a large stone trough for me, which I still have today. Harry agreed and said “Yes, he was a lovely man. Did a fair bit of work on our house over the years.”
Harry was educated by kindly Quakers and can still sing all the words to the Society of Friends’ rousing anthem Baggy, baggy britches/Shaggy, shaggy locks/You are pulling down the pillars of the world George Fox. It is on record that his attempt to become a journalist foundered when he failed to get onto an NUJ course because his spelling wasn’t considered good enough. After many years working in shop jobs,his life was altered forever by reading an article about Boro’s Alan Foggon in “When Saturday Comes (WSC).”
Since then he has written many well regarded books including The Far Corner: A Hazy Dribble Through North-East Football, Dribble: An Unbelievable Football Encyclopedia (described as an A-Z of credulity-twanging facts and stories about what Pele once memorably dubbed ‘my bloody job’ ). Also for his sins, Harry has even written books on cricket, notably The Trundlers: Underrate Them at Your Peril and Slipless in Settle: A Slow Turn Around Northern Cricket – as well as being a contributor to many others books too. He has written for WSC for 20 years and has been a weekly columnist on the Guardian since 1997. It has been said of him that his spelling remains erratic, but it is still much better than his punctuation. He is a former sports columnist for the Guardian, a former travel feature writer for Conde Naste Traveller and Contributing Editor of GQ. Incidentally, it should be noted that his book; The Far Corner was the runner-up in the 1995 Sports Book of the Year awards.
Like myself and a lot of other football supporters Harry loves Northern Non-League Football. After being involved with it myself, firstly as a referee and avid supporter, then subsequently watching my family and friends play. you seem to get more personally involved with the clubs. You cannot be a neutral or be a silent bystander. You must be vocal and be a true football fan. One cannot but admire their dedication and how much it means to each village to have their own successful team and it has to be sampled, to know why it compels and is so addictive.
Harry also loves the professional footballers as well, here is an extract from his blog about TLF.
“In mid-afternoon the players’ tunnel at The Riverside Stadium, Middlesbrough is shaded by the West Stand. Last Saturday Boro’s Brazilian midfielder, Juninho did what he always does before running onto the field. The 27-year-old, dipped one knee, touched the turf by the touchline with his right hand and then crossed himself before passing from the shadow into the sunlight. It may be the last time home fans see that characteristic gesture. Juninho’s loan spell from Atletico Madrid, the club he left Teesside for in a £12 million deal in 1997, comes to an end at Goodison Park at the weekend. No one, including the 1994 Brazilian Footballer of the Year, knows if the club plan to make the move permanent, or not.”
“The supporters are more ambivalent than might be expected about the future of the player they voted the greatest in the club’s history three years ago. The chant of “Sign On Juninho” (a phrase that seems less open to misinterpretation when shouted than it does in print) may have echoed round the Riverside Stadium on Saturday, but a poll published in club fanzine Fly Me To The Moon found 40% of respondents thought Boro shouldn’t pay the £5.9 million asking price.”
2. The Interview – a quick chat
OFB: What year did you start as a professional writer?
HP: 1988. I got made redundant from my job working in an off-license in Soho and used the money from that to get on the Enterprise Allowance Scheme, which was one of Thatcher’s ideas to get people off the dole. So you have her to thank for what followed….(and for that we are grateful – OFB)
OFB: Where did you live at that time? Did you rent, or did you live in digs?
HP: I lived in a rented house in Golders Green, that I shared with a Czech friend of mine who was mad keen on Subbuteo. We used to play a game every night, much to the annoyance of his wife.
OFB: What was the first Boro game that you ever saw, and do you still remember it?
HP: It was against Carlisle United, Boxing Day 1968. John O’Rourke scored a hat-trick. I went with my Grandad, Harry Fixter who was born and brought up in Essex Street. All the seats in the Bob End had been sold, so we had to stand in the Chicken Run. I was seven and spent the whole time whining that I was cold and couldn’t see and so my Grandad took me home after an hour.
OFB: Who was your favourite Boro player and others that you have watched over the years?
HP: The winger David Chadwick was an early hero, partly because the kid I used to go to football with back then – Deano – was a year older than me and had baggsied John Hickton. Back then there were lots of strange friendly matches played at Ayresome. I saw Eusebio play for Benfica and I went to the English League v Scottish League game which was more or less the 1966 World Cup winner v the Lisbon Lions. I wish I could remember that game better – so many great players, but the only thing that sticks in my mind is that Ronnie Simpson the Scotland keeper wore a tweed flat cap.
OFB: What was the most memorable game, or your own best experience watching a football match?
HP: Probably the Hartlepool v Blyth Spartans FA Cup tie in 2014. I went with a German friend – a big Werder Bremen fan who works in Newcastle. We’d been to watch Blyth a few times together, so we were supporting them even though we were sitting in the Millhouse. It was a Friday night, freezing cold, yet at half-time these Poolie lads in day-glo mankinis invaded the pitch. They were chased by the oldest fattest steward I’ve ever seen, while H’Angus the monkey ran about waving a plastic banana in the air. I laughed until my sides ached. Blyth scored two superb goals late on to win it. My German friend says it is the second best game he ever attended, after the World Cup semi-final of 2014. He went to the 2014 final too, so you can see how great it was. His wife says he still sometimes wakes up in the morning chortling and says, “Ah Hartlepool, fantastic!”
OFB: What was the worst game or experience that you have experienced watching football and why?
HP: Back in the late eighties it was generally pretty grim going to games. I suppose my worst experience was going to see Boro play at Swindon in about 1990. They’d made the away end all ticket and Middlesbrough Supporters South didn’t have any tickets so we tried to go in the home end. The police let every Boro fan in except me. I’d like to think that’s because I look really hard. But obviously I don’t. So instead of watching the game I had to spend two hours wandering around Swindon. It was a long two hours.
OFB: Which is the best non-league football ground you have visited and why?
HP: Ironworks Road, Tow Law is pretty fantastic. It feels like it’s perched on the edge of the world. Jarrow Roofing’s ground is good too. It looks like one of those allotment sheds your uncles knocked up out of old doors and bits of packing crates. The old lady who runs the tea bar also does the announcements, often while serving hot dogs. They should do something similar at the Riverside – save money.
OFB: Which team in the Northern League do you like the most and why?
HP: Dunston is the easiest club to get to from where I live, so I go there more than anywhere else. I sit with an old fella named Jimmy from Hetton whose father played youth team football with Bob Paisley and Harry Potts. Jimmy and his family have been involved with the Northern League all their lives. He knows every player and every bit of gossip. You say, “That team won the title not so long ago, how come they’re so hopeless now?” and he says, “Well the bloke as owns them ran this big drug pub up the coast and the police shut it down, so they’ve nay money anymore”.
OFB: Can you tell us any amusing anecdotes, either about football, or in your professional life?
HP: You don’t have time or space. Well, a couple of weeks back I was waiting for a bus coming back from Ryhope Colliery Welfare v Marske and the two young women behind me started talking about some bloke. One said, “He’s gay, you know” and her friend said, “I don’t think he’s actually gay. I think he’s just bi-culiar!”
OFB: Is there a game that you wished you had watched and been there as a spectator, either for Boro or another team?
HP: I’d love to have seen that Boro team from the late 1930s – Wilf, Hardwick, Mickey Fenton.
OFB: Who was in your opinion, the best manager that Boro have ever had and why?
HP: Bruce Rioch. To manage the club during the insolvency and keep the players together must have been really difficult. His team played attractive football and were successful too, and he had no money to spend. That was my favourite Boro team.
OFB: Who was in your opinion the hardest player you have ever seen on a football field and why?
HP: Mick Harford. Just typing his name has given me a bruise above my left eye.
OFB: Which opposing team and which player did you fear Boro playing against?
HP: I fear any team that arrives off a record breaking string of losses, never having won away for two years, or having conceded seventy goals in their last ten games. Boro were invented to break such runs.
OFB: Who is your favourite Boro player of all time and why?
HP: Juninho. Obvious, I know. Not just because of his talent, but because he was brave and big hearted and was always so charming about Teesside. I can’t help thinking about him without misting up
OFB: Who is your current favourite Boro player, if you have one and why?
HP: I’ve got to an age when the words ‘he seems like a nice young man’ pop into my head unbidden, so George Friend.
OFB: How do you think the match day has changed from the time that you watched professional football to the present day?
HP: It’s changed beyond all recognition. Up until the mid-1990s the experience of watching football for me was just about the same as it had been for my Grandad when he first went to a game at Ayresome before the First World War.
OFB: If you could be a fly on the wall, is there any dressing room you would wish to eavesdrop on?
HP: I think I’d prefer not to know.
OFB: What is your happiest memory of watching or being involved with Football?
HP: The 1998 World Cup. I had a press pass through When Saturday Comes and also wrote three pieces a week for the Guardian. I had an inter-rail card and travelled all over France, saw pretty much a game every day for three weeks, ate great food and had fantastic time in the press stands. It’s wonderful when you are watching a game and the old bloke next to you starts telling you what he thinks is going on and after a few minutes of chatting, you suddenly realize you are talking to Rinus Michels. (For those who may not remember, Marinus Jacobus Hendricus “Rinus” Michels was the former Dutch football player and coach who played his entire career for Ajax, then later coached them and was regarded as the architect of ‘Total Football’ – OFB)
OFB: Do you have any regrets in your career, or missed opportunities?
HP: I’ve been lucky and just done what I liked and got paid for it. There were times when I earned good money, nowadays, not so much, but still it’s better than working.
OFB: I know that you go to Northern League games these days, but do you still follow the Boro and their results?
HP: I’ll always be a Boro fan. So that’s the first result I look for.
OFB: Whereabouts in the Country do you now live and what do you do?
HP: Hexham in Northumberland. I’ve been here 27 years now. When I split up with Catherine about five years ago I thought of moving down to Saltburn or somewhere and making a fresh start, but our daughter chose to live with me (which was both scary and marvelous) and she was still at school and I felt she didn’t need any more upheavals, so I stayed put. Now she’s at university, but I met someone else who lives here and her kid is still at school, so it seems I’ll be here for a while yet. And to be honest, it’s a pretty nice place.
OFB: Whom have you made a lifelong friend through football, or your career as a writer?
HP: Almost too many to mention through football, in fact probably 90% of all the men I know and a fair few of the women too, I met through the game one way or another.
OFB: Your books are a great favourite with our Diasboro bloggers, do you have a particular favourite and why?
HP: The Far Corner. It changed my life. I met dozens of friends through it and made a career. But what’s really nice for me is that people think of that book with affection. I wrote it so long ago – 25 years more or less – that I have no idea now where it all came from. It’s like someone else wrote it, which in some ways they did.
OFB: Finally, if you hadn’t had a professional career as a writer, what do you think you would have done as a career?
HP: I’d probably still be working as a shop assistant in some sort of specialist shop – wine, records, whatever. It’s a nice life. I enjoy talking to people and I don’t like too much responsibility.
OFB: A huge thank you Harry, for taking the time to talk to Diasboro and our readers.