Marmite and a Learned Review from ‘Professor’ Barclay

Last page of the Peterborough programme for the important televised meeting with Swindon featured the most scholarly review of my book so far by Derek ‘Professor’ Barclay. He has kindly sent me the text of his review though this means disappointing that you can’t see the picture of him that adorns the column – apparently posing with his laptop, though it’s obscured by some improbably placed programmes, with a starled look that is still part Geography teacher and part Probation Officer. Also he has kindly corrected a couple of errors that appeared in the published version, notably his use of the (new) word “Homerian” – I imagine that he must be a charcter in The Simpsons – and the hard to substantiate claim that Marmite is an “infamous beef extract spread”.

The review reads:

Right, back from my hols and time to review the book I’ve lately been lugging (and it’s some lug!) across the beaches of Turkey. Memo to self: pick a lighter book next year and annoy the wife less!
But I have to say ‘Showered In Shale’ by Jeff Scott is worth the read even with a touch extra effort: as this is clearly NOT the typical Speedway book and is something close to my heart, a genuine attempt to look at our sport in the wider context of modern Britain.

Some have compared it to Nick Hornby’s ground-breaking (and much mimicked) football classic, ‘Fever Pitch’. I have to say, that only someone who’s never read ‘Fever Pitch’ (one of the finest books ever written, in my Gooner-biased opinion!) would make this comparison. Hornby’s book is a personal voyage from child to adult and very much in the first person. Scott’s Homeric quest is to visit every track in the UK in one season and observe (and he certainly is a comprehensive recorder of the minutiae of these observations); but the ‘heroes’ of the book and the medium through which the stories are told are third parties: the great, good and mostly spectacularly ordinary folk of British Speedway.

So what IS Scott aiming to do with his book? His thesis is that, “Speedway is the complete opposite of the contrived experiences of today..: the mendacity that is the bane of modern life the false representations of reality”. Phew! To Scott, “the sport represents one of the last true bastions of white working-class culture in the country. Speedway says a lot about people, relationships and community”. And perhaps most illuminatingly: “Speedway is an activity that still manages to connect people to a place; their passions to their lives; their dreams to their communities, but without the relentless consumerism and anonymity of so many aspects of contemporary life in our modern society”.

Yes – Scott isn’t going for an easy meander around Britain’s 30 or so tracks. And to me, the book is at its strongest when the author ties in his specific observations of a Speedway club with their locale: the sense of place and how the Speedway community there retains a valuable identity which runs contrary to what he observes as the increasingly predictable sameness of the changing British social landscape: as he puts it, “these pseudo-aspirational zones that frame so much of the modern consumer experience”.

And Speedway exists (or he seems to argue, subsists..) in a working class environment which as Pete Toogood is quoted as saying, “lacks chimney pots”. The struggle of the most taciturn of all his interviewees, the promoters to keep the sport alive in such conditions is a major theme.

As well as a sense of place, Speedway is an appeal to the senses. And Scott at times magnificently captures this. There’s sight (“a race simultaneously appears timeless, caught in the moment and somehow more significant in the overall scheme of things”); sound and smell (“they say your smell and hearing are the last senses to go when you die; in which case God must be a Speedway fan as these are the key senses you engage at every meeting. There’s the throaty roar of the bikes. and the distinctive bouquet and aroma of the methanol”) and even taste: our sport is compared by someone as like “Marmite – loved by some but inspiring loathing and antipathy in many others”.

Hmm. Like the infamous, what is it, vegetable/beef (??!) extract spread, you may like Jeff Scott’s book or maybe not: you certainly shouldn’t ignore it!

‘Professor’ Barclay has just returned from a trip to the wilds of the border of England and Scotland and has now encountered one of the country’s unique speedway circuits (and meeting presenters):

“And I was knocked out by Shielfield Park..!! I’m surprised you don’t make more of it in your book – coz I thought it was probably the most amazing venue I’ve ever been to..!

The shock of turning into what appears to be a very normal entrance to a normal park on a normal Council housing estate and finding that there’s a football ground with a fully fledged deep, dark shaled Speedway circuit
’round it was literally breathtaking..!!
And more than anywhere I’ve been in recent years, you do get the full experience of being back in the ’70s (or even earlier) inside Shielfield Park. Quite amazing..: a bullshit free zone..: oh, but then there’s Dick Barrie..!!

I loved his pre-match ramblings..: they sounded almost pre-recorded or scripted and it reminded me so much of – you may not know this allusion – those Crusin’ LPs released in the ’70s of original USA radio shows from the mid-’50s thru’ to the early ’60s. The charm of these were the jingles and the ads with the likes of ‘Jumping’ George Oxford of KSAN, San Fran. and Dick Biondi of WKBW, Buffalo giving out spoken word ads for the local furniture stores and meat emporiums. Dick advertising the main Berwick club sponsor, Andersons Butchers of North Berwick is exactly like those old US radio ads. Priceless; and adds to the
almost surreal feel about Berwick Speedway. Incidentally it’s also extremely Scottish – right down to the toy-town style bank notes I kept being given in my change. How they can say it’s in England is beyond me..!

But Mr. Barrie does begin to grate as he goes on & on & on & on…!! And the constant reminiscences back to some halcyon days gone by..?!! Much as the ‘Berwick Speedway Experience’ is somewhat embellished by the feeling
you’ve stepped back in time, for the sake of continuing commercial viability I’d say they need to ease up on this a tad..!

But, all in all, my feeling was this.. EVERY town in the UK should have a place in their municipal parks like this: a football stadium with a Speedway circuit around it, where locals can gather if they want on early Saturday
evenings for good, old fashioned harmless excitement – coming out of their nearby (very nearby in some cases..!) houses without planning officials and/or Environmental Officers telling ’em they can’t..!
THAT’S what my vision would be : please insert in a hundred plus Local Development Frameworks (sic)!!”

These lovely Scottish notes can buy my book for £20 at trackshops or £24 by post as the postal charges have recently gone down.

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