Panini Days.

There was a certain elegance in the way the action of throwing these valuable prizes into the air that caught the attention. It was the flowing motion that they were raised, almost as if offering the precious, often fought over with the resulting small bruises and black eyes to match, the lifting of some ancient artefact to the Gods which proclaimed that the holder, the bearer of such gifts was a step beyond that of the lowly Hamlet gazing into the hollowed out skull of Yorick, they were the exuberant interest of every boy in the playground.

The football stickers, the peeled off photographs to those to whom we as children saw as deity made human, were not just fought over, they were coveted as highly as a kiss would be just a few years later when we traded our childhood for that of a moment of time with the one girl who had flowered between junior school and that of the bike sheds of being considered uncool as we either descended into the world of the quick crafty drag of a stolen Player’s cigarette or finding out we somehow could not shake off our obsession to the collecting of the five in a pack hero worship.

In all innocence though it was not just in the action of holding aloft these small visions of a book being filled, it was the control in which the holder had as they saw young faces salivating over the prospect of finally getting that one Liverpool player, that elusive golden shaped team badge that was always missing from Coventry City or in the season in which they won the first division, finally finding a packet that contained Gary Shaw or Peter Withe, a strike partnership to rival anything in the league at the time. The control came with the one word that was repeated for an entire week as the art of football sticker collecting moved onto the clash of embellished conker wins or the smash of cheaply produced marbles that would chip and split as they were flicked against the wall of the school. Replace those marbles with penny pieces and all of a sudden you peel back the years to cheap street entertainment of the American Depression, the girls, always aloof, always clever enough to never get drawn into this world of future gambling habits would sigh and talk about us behind our backs or worse, make their way back to the main playground and forge friendships that didn’t depend on the ability to put pressure on the opponent.

In the beginning there was the word, so we are told as we attended the Sunday Schools that were attached to our learning, those dark multi-rooms of faith in which I was once asked to never go back to as I made my giant Fozzie Bear do unspeakable acts of anarchy at a Christmas service, the following year having been forgiven and earning a brand new book by Nigel Hinton for being able to recite the story of Jonah in the big fish I decided for whatever reason to go on the stage, shake the pastor’s hand and in my best impression of Larry Grayson, declare him a nice boy. It was perhaps with relief that my parents moved later away from the area and the days of spending Sundays in such a fashion far behind me. In the beginning was the word…perhaps the real phrase should be, at the end was the bellow. It was one that was heralded by gossip, of rumour and scaremongering, a boy had finished a book and as was convention, the swapping of such gilded prizes were now at an end, the season was finished, the marbles and the conkers were now to be purchased or collected from the floor, sometimes the act of these were interchangeable as marbles traded hands at the type of runaway inflation that would see a fish finger on a Friday lunch time go for a single roughed up and unwinnable marble and by the following Wednesday would be worth an entire dinner; no matter how well I did in the marble department I could never get anyone to trade my hated salad for even a whiff of a conker, never being truly adept to win a single game, for me marbles were the stuff of legend, able to command the winning of ten pence pieces, the same coins being dishearteningly handed across the following day as soft conker followed after undependable conker.

The rumour of a boy finally finishing one of the fabled books in which the stickers found pride of place was one that soon found its way round the classes, three classes per year and four years across the school, some two hundred boys with thoughts of one thing beyond the final bell, the moment when Excalibur was raised to the Heavens and a new sticker collecting king was anointed. The first act of this new head of state was to declare with as much enthusiasm and as much gusto that their boy like vocals could exclaim the singular word, stretched if possible to the point where even Lenny Henry in his Tiswas days would find his lungs bursting, “Scrammmmmmmmmmble.”

The rumour hit my ears from my oldest mate, across both infant and junior school we had known each other and he was only one of two boys that shared the existence of the mixed 1970s cohabitation with the foreignness of girls who didn’t like football, nobody would ever argue with him though for a fan of the local club he was already packing muscles where most of us would never even believe it was possible. He had no axe to grind with football, he didn’t get the obsession most of us at that school in Birmingham ever felt and that meant as I was fiddling with the zip of my coat that he was also to be trusted, this was no set up, no sign of pulling one over on me. I felt the thrill of illusion run through my head and remembered the numbers that I needed to finish my own collection, the players, the manager and the badges still required to finally finish a single book after what seemed a life time of trying.

The closest I had ever come, the scent of near certainty had been the special collection they had released for the European Championships of 1980. The delight of seeing these names from across the channel, a sea I was more than happy to cross to spend time in the islands, from my Uncle’s own Italy, from Belgium and the powerhouse of Germany, of players that were at other times confined to my father’s collection of the Rothman’s yearly output of stats. Delight which turned to misery when players such as Karl Heinz Rummenigge, Tony Woodcock and Marco Tardelli failed to materialise in any packet I bought from the corner shop or in anybody else’s swop pile. I did however find Johnny Rep and Bernard Dietz a constant embarrassment of riches within the packs brought with the spare change from my mum’s packet of cigarettes.

The rumours were true, the captain of the football team had for the third year running won the race to get the sticker album finished first. Not known to us at the time was the story that his father got the stickers in bulk by being able to find a way to get hold of the long boxes that held each enveloped like packet, some 400 packets at a time, it was deceitful to the ethics of the playground, it was against the ethics of young friendship and when we all found out, well we could only congratulate him, even if it meant that the lauding of such a fix as he stood taking the acclaim between lunch time servings more than stuck in the craw.

Positioning was all, not just in the school, we all had our place and I suspect that nothing has changed in the thirty-five years since I left junior school, the responsibilities, the small perks that came with being a ten year old, milk monitor for two years a distinct bonus during all the strikes of the late 70s, but also within the playground as the figure of the victor was overshadowed by the descending sight of hundreds of stickers, stickers that if not caught on the way down would become the object in which a mass brawl would explode into action and leaving the young teacher on playground duty either terrified or if left to Mr. Baker would become the sole reason you were placed into the football team, desire to win at all cost in his book a much better attribute than being able to understand the off-side rule or dribble past a couple of defenders.

Positioning was all, too close to Barry and you were not only guaranteed to hardly get any as they floated, twirled and spun in the air but you were likely to get a kick in the back or a fist across the side of the head, the apology of a shrugged shoulder the best that could be hoped for and the grin of thirty stickers or more being flushed in your face as you wiped the emerging blood away. If you stood too far away the only chance you had in gaining anything that might end up in your own now diminishing album was the leftovers, the stickers to which nobody needed at all, those which had in our minds flooded the market or the players which somehow you could never imagine Villa paying more than a few quid for without ransacking the coffers of every young fan’s bank accounts. If you were going to do this, if you were going to participate in the scramble, in the glory of resolution, then being in the middle of it all, in the centre of the melee was your only chance, in my eyes it was a theory that worked, even if you didn’t get the elusive name or number you had memorised you at least stood a chance of impressing Mr. Baker with your bob and weave avoidance; I never missed a game for the school in three years because of this forethought.

The time announced in quiet whispers around the playground during the eleven o’ clock break, whispered so not to give the Stalag Luft guards masquerading as teachers the opportunity to impose a lunch time ban on any boy leaving the class room and the impending shaking of the heads of the girls who thought we were mad in our pursuits, never quite understanding that to us school was never to be loved, it was to be endured, like prisoners of war stuck watching Steve McQueen desperately attempt to get out of any camp they placed us in. Boredom was our killer, education not really happening for us until we realised that girls, being cleverer than us, liked a lad who could hold his own in a debate in a classroom without resorting to threats of a punch or a dead leg. These whispers filled my mind throughout the rest of the morning, not for me the interest that normally held my attention of wondering why my fourth year class teacher was beautiful or why I found her scent intoxicating, instead my singular thought was the numbers and names needed to finish my own book.

It was one of the longest couple of hours I ever endured at any school, only the day several years later in which I was warned I was going to have my head kicked in by a lad for standing up to him as he terrorised a couple of first years who didn’t move out of his way. To this day I think I’d rather sit through the idea a thousand times of pissing myself as the clock counted down to the point where I would need crutches rather than ever have to remember the seventy odd stickers required to finish an album that was, after all, a fool’s pursuit; a pursuit that meant more to me at that point of realising why I had fallen for my teacher as she leant over me and her perfume kicking me in throat.

The numbers, the images of peeling back the photograph from its backing and placing it into the book filled my mind, I was intoxicated on the thought of completion and more than once I was told to get my head out of the clouds. It wasn’t the clouds where my thoughts lay but in my strategy of avoiding a fist disguised as a playful youthful push, I wanted to complete the book but also I wanted to keep my teeth.

Like butterflies dying in great numbers the air was filled and the sun blotted out above our tiny heads as Barry threw the contents of his father’s handiwork as hard into the sky as he was able. Each one bursting out and climbing high as if guided by one of the rockets were told about that carried the bomb that could kill us all if ever we were stupid enough to go to war against Russia. The sight of a couple of hundred lads, all thoughts of playing football, of kicking a stone across the playground, of climbing over the imposing wire fence that separated the school and the old people’s home in search of insects to play with and even the second sitting of the grizzled meat, undercooked dumplings and stewed to death substance that in a former life was a healthy carrot. These were forgotten and dismissed for the pleasure of completion was one that never loses the impression of conflict, of the battle royal for ground as possessions are brawled over and the victory, the chocolate cigarettes passed round in a job well done and the toast of a swig of cold cow juice from the many bottles carted home to help reduce your mother’s milk bill, all were the stuff of black and white war films that filled our television screens each Sunday; we were the heroes of our own hostile crusade.

As they came down, arms outstretched, a couple of people fell over as the fists reigned in, the yells of enthusiasm strong and audible and the image of the school secretary producing her ready-made letters baring the school insignia and the headmaster’s signature all ready and waiting to be posted with glee very much being dismissed by all taking part.

As quick as it had begun, it was over, cheers filtering away down the playground as lads waved their treasure in their hands, Neville Chamberlin’s Peace in our time having nothing on the aftermath of such displays of early machismo, it was the aftermath in which friendships were strained, where a lost tooth was worth getting the much valued West Bromwich Albion badge, where the tuft of hair lost was worth the price of Kenny Dalglish and Jimmy Rimmer and a kick to the shins which would bruise and shine like a blistered moon worth every second of enjoying putting Asa Hartford into his slot in a nearly full album. The remains of insanity littered the floor, the preparations made for the cremations of the remaining stickers already being discussed by the caretaker and the shocked headmaster who once more would prepare his steely gaze upon us in the morning assembly address…

Was it worth it? I never did fill an entire album, not until in my thirties when I decided to go out one last time and complete a part of my childhood that was somehow missing, my lost innocence regained as the last dregs of invisible players were not fought over like bread in a famine zone or the fight to the death for the final bullet and the price of bruised knee avoided as the simplicity of going along to a show where you just told them which ones you needed and paid ten pence per sticker not lost upon me as a much more civilised way in which to conduct the finishing of a collection. Part of me though misses that cry of machismo, the childhood interpretation of once more into the breach dear friends, the blocking out of the late autumn sun and connection felt as brother’s in arms we charged to secure our heroes, we charged to show our king we could fight to the last to be like him; after all school days back then were easier to get through than by today’s standards, we learned at least that someone else was always in control and that we had to fight to be seen.

Ian D. Hall 2015