Things you only know if your dad is from Grimsby

Cod Almighty | Article

by Pat Bell

12 February 2013

The train back to Manchester had filled up since Bolton, and a dark-eyed, black-haired woman had joined my partner, son and I in the four seats around a table. Self-conscious now, as people forced to stand crowded over us, I carried on discussing with my son the crossword we were doing.

"This is an easy one. Four letters, seaside projection... Brighton's got two." I filtered seaside towns through my brain to find another example George would know: "Cleethorpes has got one."

As George wrote "pier" in the grid, the dark-eyed woman leaned across with shy eagerness. "I was born in Cleethorpes," she said.

If I had the capacity for keeping calculations in my head, I'd be a decent card player because I've a face that rarely gives much away. Even so, I'm told my ears visibly twitched on a train in south London when I overheard the word 'Grimsby' from the other side of the carriage. My poker face dissolves on an unexpected mention of the south bank of the Humber, and now I could feel my face lightening.

I explained my father was from Cleethorpes, adding: "I support Grimsby Town, for my sins."

"Good for you," she replied, sincerely but with limited interest. I checked the impulse to tell her of the trouble I'd just been taking to learn that we had beaten Ashington 5-0.

One of my brothers once had to check several maps before finding one with the right degree of inaccuracy to win a bet by proving that the Greenwich Meridian ran through the centre of Cleethorpes

Instead I went through my thin stock of non-footballing Grimsby lore. "I took these two there once," I said, indicating Terri and George. "To my surprise they quite liked it. Not that we saw the sea, of course. When the tide is out there, it goes out a long way, doesn't it?"

My new friend's nods and smiles took on a puzzled air. The conversation lapsed and we just smiled on parting. Not for us second-generation Grimbarians the real connectedness that comes from knowing not just the depthlessness of Chapman's Pond but the awe that depthlessness inspires in young minds. Or not only knowing the meaning of the word 'nunty' but being able to use it in conversation. There is a second order, not exactly of things that you only know because your father was born in Grimsby, but of things that many people know, but which you swell to inordinate importance.

George at the Greenwich Meridian lineCleethorpes, for example, is on the Greenwich Meridian. My father told a story of being taken as a boy for a walk in Cleethorpes by two aunts. At a certain point, he stopped to ask: "What's this rail across the path for?" His aunts twittered their delight, in the way of elderly relatives treated to an example of a young nephew's perspicacity. The purpose of the walk had been precisely to show him the Greenwich Meridian, so it made their day that he had seen first the very thing they were looking for.

Terri's and George's enthusiasm for Cleethorpes survived my insisting we follow in their footsteps. Cleethorpes is on the Greenwich Meridian, but it's further than you think, especially on a cold, late afternoon in October. I should have remembered; one of my brothers once had to check several maps before finding one with the right degree of inaccuracy to win a bet by proving that the Greenwich Meridian ran through the centre of Cleethorpes.

In my distorted view, no pub quiz should be complete without a question alluding to the position of Cleethorpes on the line where east meets west, although I do occasionally allow rationality to peep out from from its hiding place in my subconscious, for a line of longitude is an arbitrary thing. There are apparently four Greenwich Meridians and the line marked at Cleethorpes is about 5.5 metres west of the one established in 1884 as the basis for global timekeeping. Just as well; those extra few yards might have been too much for Terri's and George's patience.

It is through stories like those, passed around families in the car or at the dining table that pride in a place is maintained. The Irish have a phrase, 'plastic paddy', for those who strain to claim membership of a community to which their links are purely genealogical. The trace of Irish culture in so many English cities is the product of a nation whose children had to travel to find work, but we all travel now. My father finished his education and started his career in Hull and worked in Barrow and Hertfordshire before settling in Wales. His sporting affiliations - Grimsby at football but Yorkshire at cricket (though never, ever, Wales at rugby) - reflected his movements.

Now that I live in Manchester, the number 76,962 feels like a magic cloak which preserves me from contamination

'Plastic' need not mean synthetic; it can also mean flexible. There may not be Grimbarian pubs across the land but the names on messageboards, the people you meet at matches who reveal that the visit of the Mariners to their second hometown is an annual treat, show that most cities have an undercurrent of people maintaining their roots through football. We children of that migration are not plastic paddies but glass-fibre Grimbarians, stretching out facts and vague impressions to form a thin but firm connection to a place where we have never lived.

Deciding in the mid-1970s to follow a third division team on the east coast of England when I lived on the west coast of Wales made for a long-distance relationship. It was maintained by reading, and re-reading, every scrap of information about the Mariners I could find. But scraps are all they were. In the absence of the opportunity to watch more than two or three games a year, what I knew about Grimsby Town were some names from the 1930s, two FA Cup semi-finals, and the record attendance at Old Trafford.

Notwithstanding my poor memory for figures, I just jotted the figure down before checking. Sure enough, 76,962 is the exact figure for the most people who have ever watched a match at Old Trafford - not to see Manchester United or England, but for the 1939 FA Cup semi-final between Wolves and the Mariners. Now that I live in Manchester, the number 76,962 feels like a magic cloak which preserves me from contamination, a number that should be muttered as a password at a speakeasy, to gain admittance to those places where the word 'Grimsby' will be spoken, and spoken without ironic stress on the first syllable.

I hope I would not shrink from sabotage should the Glazers ever plot to extend Manchester United's ground capacity to 76,963. For the second generation Grimbarian, deprived of day-to-day familiarity with the town, must pay a heavy

Are you a second-generation Town fan, an exile, or a "glass-fibre Grimbarian"? Share your experiences, or your thoughts on Pat's article, using the Cod Almighty feedback form.