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Published: January 13th 2013
Winston Churchill, our then Prime Minister, spoke in the summer of 1940
(when there was a bit of a European, African and Asian barney going on); “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.”
Autumn. 1963. Winston could have said the same to the England team that played the Rest of World. But he didn't. He didn't have to. Not even if he was still alive. Because the scoe ended up as "England two Rest of the World one." Greaves scored the winner in the last minute. At Wembley.
Winter. 1918. We could have done with Winston's post Crimean wisdom then. Twenty years before Winston's motivational speech for those involved with Dunkirk, the body of an unidentified casualty of the First World War was brought from a battlefield in France, shipped across the English Channel to Britain, with the coffin borne on a gun carriage and drawn through London and, in the presence of King George V that, 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. But 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?” Hmmm. Some governments never learn.
They held the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley. We got a spanking new, 100 000 capacity Wembley Stadium, and a car park in front of it on which they later ran the Sunday Market. Blokes standing in the backs of white trucks sold “leather” jackets and gave splendid deals on crockery sets, “hold yer money missus, I’m throwing in the cruets and tea pot.Give us two tennersthe lot’s yours.”
In the spirit of Empire they stuck fairly closely to the design template Luttyens created for the Viveroy's Residence in New Delhi for Wembley's famous "Twin Towers" and the balcony of the royal box. The then recently built stadium and the new exhibition grounds became the setting for the 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 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. Then along came Colin Frith and there he stuttered his King’s Speech in front of the flag waving hordes.
These days Wembley Stadium isn’t called the “Empire Stadium” (the original, when it was still standing, lost that label when the Comonwealth arrived). Wembley Stadium is called, simply, "Wembley". Should you mention you’re going to Wembley, I would reply as a Londoner and ask you “Oh yeah? Who are you are seeing?”
Try not to say, “My mate Phil.”
What I mean is, “Who's playing?”
Then I might ask if you got decent tickets. This does not refer to internet travel deals on an Oyster Card. I mean did you pay a decent price for decent seats.
For me, “going to Wembley” has associations with boating to Valhalla, karmicly elevating to Nirvana, ho jing wai'ing and a number 33 (easy on the sweet and sour sauce) to Tian. Marching up the Empire Way means journeying to a sporting heaven. Wembley, with its iconic twin towers, went on to secure itself as the place for (English) FA Cup Finals, Rugby League Challenge Cups. If someone is just laying there and thinking of England then Wembley would be where that England is playing their home leg.
It's possible that I could get away with suggesting East Rutherford, Texas Stadium and Madison Square Garden are a few American equivalents of Wembley (Yankee Stadium would probably categorise itself alongside Lords and the MCG). Having been to all, I'm proud to write that the US has timid squeak grounds compared to the lions’ roar arena we've got. Wembley is our Everest in our lanscape of urban sound. A Neil Diamond, I am what I New Yorker am, example will suffice,
“...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 cannot be described as a beautiful noise. To say to the visiting team that Wembley is a “beautiful noise” is as stupid 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 very much. 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.
Wembley sounds have as much to do with celebration (enjoying paella), belonging (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 ingredients of banter started somewhere behind the goal. These simmered up, coming to the boil in a full on howl as we joined as one - right round the tiers – except the suits in the posh seats.
I 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 team on the pitch for focus, we could have sung 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.
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 you can listen to the radio commentaries to get a feel of what is happening. Some of the more excitable and theatrical commentators’ speeches have gone down in history.
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 !"
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 festivities. The Arena lobbed in boxing to garnish my football. At the Arena once, Frank Bruno, in round one, belted Gerry Coetzee so hard that the bloke crashed over and landed on the commentator's table outiside the ring. We were three rows backs and heard the drinks glasses fall off and smash on the floor and Gerry "oofffing oooffing" through semi consciousness.
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?
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 turf on a Tube train. You'll alight at Wembley Park. Again, Mr Diamond didn’t get it quite right. You won't get a “clickety clack of a train on a track” as you arrive. The beautiful Wembley noise you'll be served, as the elecrtic train rumbles and humms to rest beside platform three, and as the doors open, will come from a station announcer. In a slightly distorted tannoy voice you’ll hear… authoritatively...
"Mind The Gap. M i i i i i i nd ... the Gap.”
Mind the Gap. Another one for London’s top ten noise chart.
Wembley. They can demolish the original towers. They can take away the flagpoles. They can even dismantle that ridiculous empire. But they can never silence Wembley’s sound-dom.
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