England versus Rest of the World?
WEMBLEY, SOME DODGY EMPIRIC ROOTS.
As Winston Churchill said.
“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.”
That was in the Summer. Of 1940. Old Winch could have said the same thing before England versus Rest of World in 1963. But he didn't. (Didn't have to. England 2 RoW 1, Greaves scores the winner in the last minute.)
Twenty odd years before Winston's chat about the retreat from Dunkirk the body of an unidentified casualty of the First World War was brought from a battlefield in France across the English Channel to Britain. Borne on a gun carriage, the coffin was drawn through London and, in the presence of King George V, the Unknown Soldier was given a state funeral in Westminster Abbey. Between 1914 and 1918 Britain alone 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 war monument to end all war monuments on Whitehall, a large Union Flag fell from the marble to reveal the cenotaph underneath. But the war, and that cenotaph, had brought Britain close to bankruptcy. Most folk were pretty much worn down by the whole fiasco. To cheer up the depressed post war gammas the Government organized an exhibition. It’s theme was the Empire. Hmmmm...
The same veteran... “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?”
Well. They decided to hold the British Empire Exhibition in Wembley. And there you have it. We got a spanking new dobbing massive 100 000 capacity Wembley Stadium, and also the car park in front of it. The one that they later ran the Sunday Market on. And because of all that Empire malarkey they used the design template Luttyens created for the Viceroy's Residence in New Delhi for the Wembley's famous "Twin Towers" ...in them days India was dead important for outsourcing the crap civil service paperwork jobs.
The then recently built stadium and the new exhibition grounds became the setting for the royal opening ceremony. Mass 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 fellahs at Ally Pally broadcasted it across the nation's wirelesses. The chiefs printed 'Empire Stadium' on the programmes and sold thousands for tuppence a copy.
However, these days they don't call Wembley Stadium the 'Empire Stadium' (even if the original was still standing). We call Wembley, "Wembley". And should you mention to a Londoner “I’m going to Wembley,” they’ll ask you, if they are up for a chat, “Who are you are seeing?”
Try not to say, “My mate Phil.”
What they usually mean is, “Who's playing?”
Then they’ll ask if you got decent tickets. Neither does this refer to internet promotion deals on an Oyster Card. They mean a decent price for decent seats.
You see, these days 'going to Wembley' has associations with journeying to a Valhalla, karmicly elevating to a Nirvana or ho jing wai'ing and a number 33 (easy on the sweet and sour) to Tian. Going to Wembley means going to sporting heaven.
Wembley hosted sport way before the opening of the British Empire Exhibition. It took them a few years to sort out the big occasion organisation. In 1923, just months after the stadium was finished, the FA Cup Final turned into a right hooley. 80,000 people turned up without a ticket in addition to the 100,000 who did. 180,000 folk at Wembley at 2.58pm !!!! And partly because the builders hadn’t quite got round to making the fences high enough a good deal of the ticketless 80,000 swarmed the turnstiles, bunked in and oozed onto the pitch.
Okay, they oozed back off the pitch all peacefully and everything, realising that until they did the match couldn't start. But they still estimate there was at least 130,000 in the stadium at the kick off whistle.
After that first cup final fixture Wembley went on to secure itself as the place for (English) FA Cup Finals, Rugby League Challenge Cups, and it became "England's Home."
I suppose Pasadena and Madison Square Garden are America’s answer to Wembley. I'm proud to write that what they have is a timid squeak compared to the lions’ roars we've got.
Our Wembley is our landmark in our geography of urban sound. I don't mean the ad hoc tinnie townie sounds Neil Diamond sings of,
“...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. (Crikey, how woeful is that.)
What a beautiful noise,
Coming up from the park,
It's the song of the kids,
And it plays until dark.”
No, no, no, Mr Neil White Glittery Jump Suit Diamond. Wembley is not a beautiful noise. To say to a visiting team that Wembley is a “beautiful noise” is as daft 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, thank you.
Wembley sounds are cultural harmonies. They are as delicious to an Englishman’s ear as paella is to a Spaniard's tum. Paella probably being the right aural grub analogy to use. (Though for those in the away changing room the home fans singing outside on the terraces might have evoked Delhi Belly memories following a foolish street stall snack in front of the Viceroy's House.)
Wembley sounds have as much to do with celebration, belonging and production as they have to do with consumption. When in my teen years I stood on Wembley’s terraces, beside the tunnel, behind the speedway track, it was us that bashed together the noise. The raw ingredients of banter started somewhere behind the goal. It then simmered up, coming to the boil in a full on howl as we joined as one - right round the tiers. No girlie all seater Mexican Waves for us.
You could liken the Wembley vocal collectivism to an Amish barn raising, Harrison Ford swinging his hammer on the roofline and 100,000 of us underneath swinging ours. Alone we’d have struggled to assemble a lap wood garden shed, but crammed in behind the posts, with our boys on the pitch for focus, we could have sung up a Canterbury Cathedral.
In the process we reinforced our English identity in TIDAL waves of chant.
You don’t get this Wembley-ness in every national stadium. In many 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 “attendees” to chip in with an appropriate mono syllabled grunt. When they are told.
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. And for this Wembley should go right to the top of your top ten places to listen to before you die.
If you can't get to Wembley, or you can't get decent tickets, you can always listen to the radio commentaries that emanated from the BBC and ITV press boxes rammed right up under the roofline.
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 nineties. “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 !"
More nineties. "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.
In my later youth Wembley's Empire Pool / Arena added to my sporting festivities. The Arena lobbed in boxing to garnish my football.
At the Arena once, Frank Bruno belted Gerry Coetzee so hard in round one that the bloke landed on the commentator's table outiside the ring. We heard the drinks glasses fall off and smash on the floor, three rows back back. And Gerry "oofffing oooffing" through semi consciousness.
I met Gerry in a bar in Jo’burg some years ago. He remembered the exchange.
The Arena was where I listened to Charlie Magri’s wife sobbing and screaming “Oh No Charlie” through every one of his twelve three minutes. Why didn’t she just stop home?
Aye, the Arena had its own sounds too.
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 episode (Harry Carpenter commentates, "and people are throwing beer cans.... one's landed on me... and I'm smothered in beer....') it is most likely that you’ll get to and away from the sacred Wembley grass and canvas on a Tube train.
You'll alight at Wembley Park. And again, this is what Neil couldn’t get quite right. You won't get a clickety clack. The beautiful Wembley noise you'll have as the train rumble doors open will come from a station announcer. In a slightly distorted tannoy voice he'll say… authoritatively....
"Mind The Gap. M i i i i i i nd ... the Gap.”
That one’s also in London’s top ten historic noise charts.
You can demolish the original towers and you can take away the flagpoles. You can even dismantle that ridiculous empire. But you'll never ever silence our sound-dom.
* The soundtrack on this video is "Abide Wth Me," Henry Lyte's famous hymn. It's been sung before every Wembley FA Cup Final since 1927.
"Abide with me, fast falls the eventide
The darkness deepens, Lord, with me abide
When other helpers fail and comforts flee
Help of the helpless, O abide with me
"Hold now your cross before my closing eyes
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies
Heaven’s morning breaks and earth’s vain shadows flee
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me."