You never lose the buzz

Published on 13th February 2024
Author George Dodds

And so, 56 years after the first time, the personal countdown to a new speedway season at Shielfield Park continues. 49 sleeps (60-odd if the increasingly necessary afternoon naps are included) to tapes-up.

In many ways little’s changed – I still live a ten-minute walk from the turnstiles, four stripped-down, high-performance motorcycles still reach ridiculous speeds on a near quarter-mile wall of death, cheered from the terraces by those roaring on their favourites.

The Ducket remains the dark, brooding presence which inspired set designers for hundreds of slasher movies, a place where only the brave and the alcoholic dare to venture, the third bend one of the best viewing areas in British speedway while doubling as a case study for aspiring disciples of Freud, Kraepelin and Beck. I still dream of possessing the social mores of those in the posh seats or the naked, unashamed wealth of the hospitality dwellers.

But in reality so much has changed it leaves me more light-headed than walking up a flight of stairs.

No longer will that journey start from the middle of a council estate, a house with only two coal fires for heating, a black and white tv in the sitting room corner. Two channels available during the day, a third, BBC2., springing into life after 7pm. A time when our slightly posher next-door neighbour had “the” car in the street, shops shut at 5pm, pubs between 3pm and 7pm, factories early on Friday afternoon until Monday morning.

America and Australia are no longer fighting to stop Vietnam falling into communist hands, the British Army “keeping the peace” in Ulster, Poland part of a mysterious Soviet bloc hidden behind the Berlin Wall and closed to all but the most adventurous of travellers or public school/Oxbridge educated traitors. A Labour government isn’t trying to keep the Tories from power.

We’ve landed men on the moon – or not depending on the amount of tin foil lining the windows of your bunker – and practically everyone in attendance when Workington Comets hit town on 30 March will carry a device with more computing capacity than managed to ensure that Apollo 11 found terra firma and didn’t hurtle off into inter-galactic oblivion 13 months after the Bandits were born.

That year’s FA Cup Final was one of three football matches broadcast live in the UK, covered on two channels by a combined total of six cameras – one more than Bandits TV will use to stream the Border Trophy opener. For Kenneth Wolstenholme and Huw Johns read Messrs Black and Clyde.

Anyone under 40 struggles to grasp the change both societal and technological that those making our way up Shielfield Terrace that May evening have had to contend with.

Not least the fact that sport was for the masses and the weekend was the time that those masses could play, unencumbered by the need to earn an honest crust. The debilitating gig economy and hospitality sector decades in the future.

Work Monday to Friday, play Saturday, pray Sunday. Rinse and repeat. Only the upper-middle classes and rich holidayed abroad. Three times a year benevolent factory owners stopped the production lines and the winter or summer wakes saw trainloads head from Tweedmouth station to North Berwick, Amble or Rothbury. One or two explorers made it to Blackpool. Some never made it back. Although for most of my mates we had more chance of walking on the moon than going on holiday. Proper poor rather than considering-cancelling-Netflix-poor.

A few of us will still be there when Workington, led by Cookie, Celina, Antu and Troy roll into town. Fittingly the Cumbrian resurrectionists arriving on Easter Saturday.

Many have fallen along the way a combination of time, the opposite, indeed same, sex, alcohol, live TV, cheap travel, life-changing keyboard warrior injuries, ankle tags, seeing them fall by the wayside.

New recruits have arrived, some stayed some have been and gone, but against some pretty huge odds at times we are almost ready to go again.

You might think that the fundamentals of speedway haven’t changed. Seven to a team, four laps, four riders, person and machine against each other and adversity.

But the power, reliability – expense – of the equipment; fitness levels, focus, and experience of the competitors is chalk and cheese to the British and Commonwealth daredevils who formed the original second tier, bobble hat pulled over the ears, Park Drive dangling from the side of the mouth and just a suspicion of hard liquor on the breath and hip flask in the pocket of their all-black leathers.

When once a week of heavy travelling meant Berwick, Hampden, Peterborough, and Eastbourne they now pray that EasyJet, Wizzair and KLM remember to send planes to the right European airports at the allotted times.

Which makes putting a competitive team together for a Saturday night in the northern reaches a monumental task.

One which those tasked with it have achieved admirably this season.

A side which – the Terry Lindon’s HP (higher purchase rather than Dutch-manufactured sauce) year of 1991 aside – I believe is the best Berwick team assembled since 1989.

A septet lauded as the team which won the Knockout Cup. But which I have always felt could, even should, have won the league as well.

There were many reasons it didn’t, most obviously the one thing that no-one can plan for in a brutally dangerous sport – injury which knocked the Bandits out of contention when it mattered most that year.

So, no pressure on the 2024 vintage then.

It’ll be a more arthritic gait that leaves a house still 40 years from being built in 1968 on Easter Saturday but the destination, hopes, dreams and sense of child-like excitement will be the same as that four-year-old way back when the world still happened in black and white.

Bring it on.

George Dodds
George Dodds

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