Saturday, 9 June 2012

Dixie Dean at the School of Science

Goodison Park, Liverpool, Saturday 24 October 1928

So many people in crowd that my feet don’t touch ground. Have never seen such perfect grass. White of lines makes it even more beautiful. There is no air, just smell of pipe tobacco.  Father tells me to look out for William Ralph Dean: “Birkenhead lad, only eighteen years old and he got a hat-trick last week at Burnley.” Man next to us says he thinks Dean will get three more today. When players come onto field, cheering is so loud I can’t hear what Father is saying and feel sick in stomach with excitement.

Just three minutes have passed. William Dean – I hadn’t imagined him so young or so dark – comes onto ball with rush like Liverpool train hitting mouth of tunnel just before Hamilton Square. There is a slap of leather on wood as ball smacks into post and everybody (twenty-eight thousand voices) roar as it hits back of net. I try to roar too but am too out of breath to make much noise.

Second goal is even better. Chedgzoy runs down wing and dribbles past two players. When he crosses ball, Dean comes rushing in and crashes into Leeds defender, who falls to ground with blood trickling from above his eye. Ball flies into corner of net off Dean’s head. Goalkeeper can’t believe it. Feel a little sorry for him even if he does play for Leeds. Explosion of noise. When is quieter, huge man with beard turns to Father and says, “Forehead like a brick wall.” Father nods, pats me on head.

“Told you, didn’t I, son?” said the man next to us when Dean scored his third goal. Father kept shaking his head as if couldn’t believe what was happening. Asked me strange questions when we were walking away after match. “Did you see how the crowd changed when he got the hat-trick? Did you see the light in their eyes?” Started talking about God. “That’s the light you see when disbelief evolves into belief. The missionaries speak of it.” I could still see the ball rolling down the back of the net (beautiful!) and William Ralph Dean lying in the mud with his arms outstretched.

From the diary of The Mick, The Wooden-Legged Elephant

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Onions & The Art of Seduction

She was sitting on the step outside the fire exit to our classroom, waiting for her mates to arrive. I could feel my heart beating fast and I felt out of breath like I’d been running. She didn’t look up from her book.

“Do you want to hear a joke?”

“Get your breath back first.” She’d noticed me, but she still didn’t look up.

“It’s about an onion.”

“Go on then.” And she still didn’t look up.

“Well. There’s this onion, a young lad onion. He lives with his family in a big house on the Underchurch Road.”

Now she looked up. “The one you can’t see from the road because it’s got a line of fir trees against the front wall?”

When you’re talking to girls, Bolley says, tell them things they want to hear. “Er…yeah. The one with the fir trees. That one.”

“My aunt lives there. I haven’t seen any onions.” She was staring very hard at the step now, like she was reading her words from off of it.

Just make stuff up if you have to. “It was a long time ago.”

“Like, before we were born?”

“Yeah. Before we were born. Before the war.”

“Which war?” This wasn’t fair. She wouldn’t look at me while I was trying to tell the joke, and she wouldn’t stop looking at me when she asked questions I couldn’t answer.

The war.” She looked back down at the concrete, pressed her lips together very hard and said nothing. Anyway, the baby onion…”

“Baby? You said he was a young lad onion.”

Never lose your cool. “Shit, just listen to the joke, will you?” And (would you believe it?) that’s when she gave me the smile. I suppose I must have smiled back because I forgot I was telling the joke. She raised her eyebrows.

“So?…The baby onion?”

“The onion. Yeah. He liked football.” Girls like details. Give them loads of details. “Every afternoon he would rush home and change into his Everton kit.” She was supposed to smile again at this point, say that Everton were her team, but she didn’t. Maybe she was just getting into the story. “He used to go out in the garden and practise his ball skills, juggle it from foot to foot and that, whack it up in the air and bring it down on his foot.” I mimed it for her. “He couldn’t trap it on the back of his neck, though, because…”

“Because onions don’t have necks?”

“Because it’s dead diffic…Yeah, actually he didn’t have much of a neck.” She looked pleased about that.

“Anyway, one day, while he was playing in the rain, he lost control of the ball because his boots were all wet, and it flew out onto the road. So he…”

“Underchurch Road?”


“Over those tall, tall pine trees?”

“Er…yeah. It was before the war, remember. They were only little then.”

“Like the tiny onion.” And she made that “ahhh” sound that girls make when they see a little baby or a picture of a koala bear or something.

“Mmm. Anyway…he ran out onto the road to get the ball back. Now, because he was always playing football and never watched television, he didn’t know about the Green Cross Code…”

“Probably because onions don’t cross roads.”

“Sometimes they do.” Her crumpled face crumpled even more when I said that. But she was listening carefully now. “Anyway…”

“You keep saying that: ‘anyway’.”

“Yeah. Anyway, the young onion legs it out into the road without looking and WHUM – this ginormous lorry smacks into him and knocks him down. The driver stops and jumps out and runs to the phone box…”


“There was a phone box. Just outside the house. It was red. Anyway…anyways, the ambulance arrives and they put him on a stretcher. He’s unconscience and…”

“He’s what?”

“Unconscience. Like when you get knocked out.”


“So…they take him to hospital. Then, well, his dad comes home from work…”

“What does he do?”

“Like, what’s his job, you mean? He’s…er…a teacher.”

“Does he teach onions or children?”

“Onions. There’s no way they’d let him teach children.” Sometimes girls can be really stupid.

“I suppose…” She looked a bit sad, like she thought it would be good to have an onion for a teacher. “So what happened then?”

“Him and Young Onion’s mam rush to the hospital but they aren’t allowed to see him because the doctors are doing an operation, so they just sit there and walk up and down, and his mam cries a bit…”

“Onions make me cry, too.” You could tell she wasn’t trying to spoil the joke or to be funny. She just said it because it came into her head.

“Any…So, at three o’clock in the morning the boss doctor comes out of the room and he won’t look at them. The mam onion starts crying again and the dad onion goes all pale, like, and he says to the doctor: ‘He’s dead, isn’t he?’ And the doctor looks up and says…” Always do a little pause before the punchline to make sure they’re listening.

She looked up at me and put on this kind of posh voice: “He’s not dead, but I’m afraid he’s going to be a vegetable for the rest of his life.” Then she looked back down at her book.

From The Wooden-Legged Elephant, Amazon KDP, 2012

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The Young Naturalist's Guide to the Football Animal

In the breeding season, the Chelsea fan (chavus opportunisticus) performs an elaborate courting ritual, preening its cash and bleating loudly. Then, for reasons still unclear to zoologists, before insemination is complete, the beast turns on and devours its bemused mate. Owing to its poor genetic heritage, the species is thought to be ill-equipped to survive the predicted imminent moulting of its bank-notes.

The Evertonian (toffeis magnificus) is easily recognisable on account of its unfailing loyalty and attachment to its young, which are much-prized by predators. Recent School of Science experiments have revealed that the distinctive blue and white markings of this noble, intelligent creature serve to ward off investors.

Easily distinguishable by the large amounts of spawn it produces throughout the year, the Liverpudlian (smuggus frustratus) is currently the object of an in-depth study by psychologists seeking to shed light on the characteristic whine it emits every thirty seconds in the months between August and May. The young feed on stale crumbs brought from ever-diminishing stores by older adults or on (fortunately still abundant) delusions of grandeur. Although rarely seen nowadays in mainland Europe, the “Koppite” still infests many areas of the British Isles, largely thanks to the untiring work of the Red Referees Association, which is dedicated to the propagation of the species.

Manchester City
Traditionally an object of pity and/or derision for other animals in the jungle, the City supporter (nuvor richus) has recently enjoyed a resurgence thanks to a Middle Eastern initiative for the conservation of trophy-deficient species. The controversial grafting of an Argentine gene onto the DNA of the richus, a move designed to enable the creature to evolve more rapidly, is now thought by some scientists to be responsible for both the sudden decline of its pack instinct and its apparent disorientation when away from its lair.

Manchester United
According to the WWF, the Man U Fan (diabolus ruber) is unique in that it is incapable of producing song, a defect thought to derive from its tendency to eschew traditional grassy pastureland in favour of shady prawn sandwich groves. The “Red Devil” is widespread throughout Asia and the United Kingdom, with the exception of the Merseyside area, where – owing to its peculiar genetic make-up – it is unable to survive more than a few hours.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Mediterranean Scallies

While most climate scientists these days are preoccupied with melting glaciers and the thinning of the permafrost, a small but growing number of global warming experts are currently expressing concern at a more recent but equally alarming phenomenon first observed in the Adriatic port town of Bari: the fattening of the scally.

The species, which is now widespread across Europe, was first identified by explorers in some of the remoter housing estates on Merseyside in the late 1970s. Distinguishable by their glossy coats, scrawny build and stolen footwear, scallies quickly became a focus of attention for zoologists in the North West. Professor Ivor Traynee from the University of Norris Green recalls his first face-to-face encounters with the creatures: “We’d been observing them in the wild for quite some time, of course, but they are elusive animals, adept at disappearing over fences and down side alleyways, and I didn’t get the chance to engage with a specimen at close quarters until mid-1980. One of the local rangers had managed to bring down a wounded 15-year-old with a tranquilliser dart, and the Observation Pen at Bidston Magistrates Court was abuzz with expectation. I can still remember the gasp from the assembled scientists when its Adidas pouch broke open and a flock of knock-off T-shirts flew out.”

In his seminal work, Scallius Erectus – Darwin Was Wrong, Peter Busy, head of Garston’s award-winning wildlife reserve and one of the world’s leading authorities on scally behaviour, describes a typical day in the life of a young male. “The Scallius cub rarely or never emerges from its burrow before dawn, perhaps, some experts surmise, because the early morning dew is notoriously damaging to the fibres of its shell-suit. Morning feeding tends to be a solitary affair: emitting guttural grunts intended to warn off humans bent on civilized discourse, the creature grazes morosely on burning tobacco and slakes its thirst at the nearest lager-hole. After urinating and/or defecating on open land – a deliberately ostentatious territorial gesture – the scally will then emit higher pitched barks as it seeks out fellow pack members. Paradoxically, although surly and aggressive towards mankind, the packs tend to congregate in the areas most frequented by human beings (shopping centres, entrances to railway stations, bus stops, etc). Lean and hungry-looking, the young males snarl and skit, their eyes darting from side to side in search of opportunities for mischief.”

What is worrying the scientists monitoring scally activity in Italy is that rising temperatures appear to be having a dramatic effect on the animal’s physical development, behaviour and survival rate. “Whereas twenty-five years ago the average full-grown scally weighed in at 140 pounds, we have been encountering 12-year-old cubs that are already tipping the scales at over 200,” says Professor Barry Borsa of the Italian Wideboy National Research Centre. “This means that even before puberty many are too porky and slow to be able to effect a successful bag-snatch and make their getaway; we have even come across cases of 'motorised snatchers' (a local subspecies) being so heavy that their scooters buckle under their weight making them easy prey for marauding police squads. All of which obviously has grave implications for the crime chain, not only at a local level, but ultimately throughout Europe and beyond.”

Even more disturbing, the Professor points out, is the effect of what he calls “fat bastard warming”: the concentration of a high number of lard-arsed specimens in one area leads to the sun’s rays being unable to bounce back from the ground and up into the atmosphere. “A remarkable amount of energy becomes trapped just below gut level as the rays encounter a stratum of blubber,” explains Professor Borsa. As a result, average temperatures in the inner city and in the dodgier suburbs have risen by an alarming 3% since 2009, and local environmental groups have been urging both the Italian government and the European Commission to take action. “One of the biggest problems we face is that of ‘fat bastard denial’”, points out the head of Bari’s ‘Save Our Criminals’ association, which, via a series of initiatives in schools and the community, is attempting to improve young scallies’ eating habits. “There are too many vested interests in play here. The Crap Food Consortium, for example, provides illicit subsidies to scientists willing to argue the case against the key role played by fat lads in global warming.”

Back in Norris Green, Professor Traynee issues a sombre warning: “This double whammy of scallies continuing to put on weight and temperatures steadily climbing is going to mean serious trouble in the years to come: the resulting rise in sweat levels will ultimately lead to the submerging and disappearance of many coastal and lowland areas. If we don’t act now, future generations of scallies will run a real risk of getting their gear all wet.”

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The Wooden-Legged Elephant - Chapter 1

“Out Of Bounds Means OUT OF BOUNDS!” shrieks Father Kelly.

“You don’t fucking say…” One of the things I like about Bolley is that even when he uses words I haven’t heard of, I do know what he means. I have to guess how to spell them though, because they’re never in The Catholic Family Dictionary, and he never knows. His spelling is shight.

I am eight years old, nearly nine. The sun is coming through the big windows of the assembly hall, which is good news because, if the rain keeps off, we get to play football after lunch. Our school, St. Stephen’s, hasn’t got a pitch, so on Tuesdays we walk down the main road to the protestant school in Underchurch, which has got a cracking one with proper white lines and corner flags and nets. You would think that it would be the other way round and the Underchurch kids would have to walk up here to use our pitch. I’ve noticed, though, that being a Catholic doesn’t always mean you get better treatment than protestants, even if we get spelled with capital letters and they don’t. Me nan says this is because God moves in mysterious ways.

We get changed in the classroom here. Today I can’t wait, because I’ve got a new Everton shirt. Actually, it isn’t new. It was Davie’s from down the road, but he’s too big for it now and his mam gave it to me nan – they know each other from church. I pulled it on over my uniform in the playground before the bell rang, and showed it to Bolley. I would have let him have a go at wearing it too, but it was too small for him.

It’s hard to concentrate on thinking about my shirt at the moment, though, because Father Kelly is off on one. Usually he talks dead slowly, like a divvie, with Capital Letters everywhere. And he can’t say his “r”s.

“Pwear is the Answer. If we stop Pwaying then we turn our Backs on

lmighty God.” When he stops, and he’s always stopping, we’re supposed to Think and Reflect. It’s no use, though. He could let us Think and Weflect until the Last Judgment and we still wouldn’t know what he was talking about.

He talks bollocks, Bolley says. It’s funny – Bolley can’t spell, like I said, and I have to help him when we have a test, and he always gets bad marks in English, but his words sound like what they mean, and you could listen to him all day. But listening to Father Kelly is like listening to a robot that’s not working properly. It’s funny for about half a minute and then you just get bored. It’s bad enough him talking in Capital Letters all the time, but when he is angry he speaks in BLOCK CAPITALS. And he is always getting angry – as Bolley says, he might not be able to say his “r”s but he’s great at seeing his arse, and when he does there’s no way you can listen to him for long. His words hit you and bounce off you, a bit like me grandad’s sledgehammer off the concrete. Me grandad works on building sites and sometimes he lets me go and sit in the cab of one of the cranes or watch him smashing stuff. I heard him say to me nan once, when he thought I wasn’t listening, that Father Kelly is a dreadful fucker.

“He’s English.” says me nan, which is not something you want her to say about you, even if you are. “Still, a priest’s a priest.” Though you can tell that deep down she thinks he’s a dreadful fucker too. She wouldn’t say it like that, obviously, because she only uses words from The Catholic Family Dictionary, and “fucker” isn’t in it. I checked.

When me nan starts going on about the English, me grandad mutters and pours himself a Jameson’s. He keeps the bottle by his armchair and he has got this glass that he won’t let me nan wash. “Sure, the whiskey kills more bacteria than soap and water ever will.” Before he drinks it, he holds it up and smiles at it. Me nan says that long before I was a twinkle in my poor daddy’s eye, Grandad used to smile at her like that. And he didn’t use to mutter.

“Jimmy O’Hare, now he was my idea of a priest.” Me grandad’s voice is quieter than other people’s, but he’s easy to listen to because he puts loads of his words into italics, especially after he’s had a few glasses. Evie, me nan’s fat friend from Manchester, the one who smells really old, says I talk like him. She says I’m precautious, which I think must be bad, because it isn’t in The Catholic Family Dictionary either. I read too much for a kid, she reckons.

Anyway, like I was telling you, Kelly is seeing his arse about something.


The hall goes dead quiet, and you can hear the piece of paper shaking in his horrible yellow hand. He always trembles more when he is not smoking.

“Stephen Libble, come out here, Now.”

I get a funny feeling in my stomach, like I need a pooh. Bolley steps forward. “Bolley” isn’t his real name, you see. His real name is Stephen Libble. The rows of kids part for him like the Red Sea. Like the Dead Sea. No one is breathing.

“STEE-PHEN LIB-BLE!!!” Father Kelly uses hyphens and exclamation marks a lot too. I like hyphens (and brackets) but I hate exclamation marks. Miss McManus, who is pretty and our student-teacher this year, told us they are ugly and unnecessary. “Like fascists, and mosquitoes,” she said, “though I don’t suppose you get many of those in Birkenhead.” “Like Liverpool supporters, I said – we get loads of them.” And she laughed. She’s even prettier when she laughs and I think she secretly supports Everton, though she didn't actually say she does. She laughed again when I asked her, and stroked my hair, and then I forgot about Everton.

“STEE-PHEN LIB-BLE!” He repeats himself a lot too, Father Kelly. And his mouth and chin shake when he screams. The glass in his glasses is like the bottom of a milk bottle before you rinse it out, and his eyes are like the ones on the dead fish in Collins’s shop window.

“Who Do You Think You Are?”

Bolley is crap at grammar and spelling, like I said, but he’s not stupid. He knows who he is. And he knows that sometimes teachers ask you questions they don’t want you to answer. He is the cock of the lower school. Everyone knows that. Fat Boy, who fancies himself as a bit of an expert on these things (Bolley says that fat boys become experts on things to make up for being fat), can tell you how many fights (nineteen) he has won and how many (none) he has lost. Usually you can bet with McInerny on who will win a fight. But not on Bolley.

“Do you Think we make these Wules for Fun?” I think the answer to this question is supposed to be “No”. But the weird way Kelly smiles when he says it, makes you Think and Weflect.

“Is Football more Wimportant than Aaall-Mighty GO-O-OD?”

The answer to this is also supposed to be “No”, but Bolley’s got this smile on his face like rubbed out pencil. You have to look close to see it, but it’s there. And you can tell that he wants to say “Yes, it is. So fuck you, fish-eyes.” And the thing with Bolley is, you know he might do it. But even though part of me wants him to say it, part of me is scared for him. In The World of Insects, which me grandad got me for my birthday, there’s a picture of a praying mantis. It’s the dead spit of Father Kelly, and it’s about to eat a friendly-looking little bug. Bolley isn’t little, but next to Father Kelly he looks like he is.

So I say a prayer. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. He only went to get the ball back, God. It was a good, Catholic thing to do. And it was such a great game (four-all, if You remember, with three minutes to go), and it’s not like he went into someone’s garden, he only went into the spinney, and that’s part of the school. It shouldn’t be out of bounds at all. He didn’t even step on any flowers there, for Go…for goodness sake. Please don’t let Kelly beat him. Amen.

Father Kelly is looking down the hall with his horrible dead-mackerel eyes. When he looks at you, you want to start crying and shout “Yes, it was me, but don’t hurt me anyway.” Bolley doesn’t say a word but he smiles his fuck-off smile. That makes me feel good, like when Everton score. But there’s no way that Kelly is not going to cane him now. If I was God, I’d send down a flash of lightning and blow the priest’s hand off, but I know that the real God doesn’t do stuff like that. This makes me so angry sometimes that my head hurts.

“Let this – be a Lesson – to you All! – gwow Up – to Wespect – our Father win Heaven!”

Father Kelly sort of smiles when he hits people. Bolley doesn’t cry till the fifth stroke, and he doesn’t cry with his mouth. There’s just two tears. They actually look quite cool. And his face still says “Fuck off”. But the priest is still smiling that strange smile. He’s scary. I think he scares Jimmy Harvey, the school protestant, because Jimmy pisses a pool onto the floor, and Helen Davies in front of him ends up in it, and the shock of it makes her piss her own pants. Helen Davies is an immigrant from Betws-y-Coed. She’s a methodist and the only other non-Catholic in the school. I suppose that’s God and his mysterious ways again.

Mrs Berry, who has eyes like a shit-house rat, is over like a shot. While she is hauling the pissers away, a girl I have never seen before, with a crumply face and yellowy-brown eyes, turns and looks at me.

“Wasn’t me,” I say, and then feel stupid.

She smiles like she thinks I’ve made a good joke, and I get a funny feeling in my stomach again, but this time I don’t feel like I need a pooh.

The Wooden-Legged Elephant is available in paperback and electronic (Kindle, iPhone, iPad, Android, PC and Mac) format at,,,,, etc.

Cover: Matthew Watkins, "Elephant in the Library"

Monday, 20 February 2012

The Raft of the Bunnies

It had been one hell of a stag night. Actually more heaven than hell, if Kevin was honest with himself. All those nymphomaniac bunnyettes in the Night Warren, the magic carrots they’d bought from that dodgy-looking hare, and more lettuce cider than any lagomorph with half a brain would ever dream of drinking in one evening. Not surprising then that Wayne had been puking over the side of the raft ever since they got back on board, while Billy was slumped, hungover-head in paw, half-heartedly restraining an unconscious sibling from slipping into the rather lively waters of the Leporid Channel.

Someone, probably one of the two stoned carrot-heads in the bows, was singing a tuneless version of Mr Tambourine Bunn, and Kevin wished they would stop. He probably should have been feeling guilty. In spite of all his faithful promises to his fiancée Sharon, he’d ended up back in a bohemian burrow with a couple of very cute and wholly uninhibited twin cottontails, and they’d spent most of the night making the beast with three backs... Three backs…? How had that worked exactly? … Shit, those magic carrots were still blowing his mind!

Kevin leaned over and ducked his head into an icy wave. When he looked up, through clearer eyes, he saw a sailboat racing towards them. Carrots or no carrots, Sharon was suddenly looking decidedly different from how he remembered her.

This mini-story was inspired by "The Raft of the Bunnies", an ipad fingerpainting by Matthew Watkins. Website: