Kevan Pooler

Creative Writer on The Meaning of Life and the Sex that started it.

Sheffield Pals

A first extract from ‘Courage and Conviction?’ My own Grandfather, Jim Pooler a 4’10” Lancashire Fusilier Bantam, was gassed probably at Arras on the Somme. I publish this on the eve of 100th anniversary of the Somme, in memory of all the poor lads left behind, and the poor lasses left at home.

Eric re his father (in his POW journal – addressed to Pina his, as yet unborn, daughter)

You’d have liked my Dad, your Grandad – he’d have really liked you. Gentle souls the pair of you. Supported the Blades – that’s Sheffield United to you. But Uncle Frank was the one who took me to the matches. I knew why, like, Mam told me it was the noise, from the war and that. I knew all about the noise … and how I couldn’t make it.

1919 was the last league derby there had been. I suppose it was because they were in different leagues or something. But when I could stand on my own two feet and see between a few people who were taller, me and Frank would catch a game somewhere most weeks.

I didn’t find out he wasn’t my real Uncle until the great 26/27 season. I’d turned eleven that June and Uncle Frank gave me the Steel City derby for my birthday. Course it wasn’t on my birthday – it’s two games – they play at each other’s grounds. That’s not at Derby of course – I don’t know why they call it that. It’s where the two local teams play each other. For us that means when we play Wednesday – the Owls. But that year, Mam said it was the right sort of fever that gripped the city, not like in ’19.

After the games, Uncle Frank would take me in and bring my Dad a bottle of brown – just the one they would have to share – the twenties did not roar for us – times were always hard for us after the war.

We’d all sit down and Mam would corral me – almost put reins on me to keep control. She’d sit there while I rattled off who scored this, who fouled who and ‘bloody ref’, when Mam would clip Uncle Frank round the ear.

‘Don’t be teaching t’lad your ways, Frank,’ she’d tell him. But she’d smile.

Her hands would go back over her mouth as I prattled on, her eyes intent on Dad, sometimes bringing me up short. I would be beginning to notice the shakes for myself by then. Well I weren’t a kid n’more, our Pina, were I?

And ’26 had the General Strike in May, and there wasn’t such a thing as strike pay, so for my birthday in June, Uncle Frank was giving a present he didn’t have to pay for, yet!

The season opened and it was our long school holidays. Us lads would be out on the street being moved on by one set of neighbours after another: ‘Stop banging your ball on our wall,’ ‘watch out for t’winders, lads, get down t’Rec.’ The first derby match was one of the first matches of the season – end of August. We had a bit of a trip out and up to Hillsborough on the tram to play Wednesday away. And we won! We beat them 3 – 2.

My, did us lads have something to talk about when we got back to school. And not a few scraps either. It was big school now – lots of extra lads we didn’t know and just as many supporting Owls as Blades.

I got a cut lip I was proud of, but you girls don’t understand that sort of thing do you? Mam didn’t.

Christmas wasn’t so bad for us that year. Mam and me had a heart to heart just before New Year. She was pleased with how I’d settled into the Grammar School, and I think she felt she was at last getting someone in the home she could talk to. I see it as my coming of age, even if most people think eleven is a bit early for that.

She was happy how Dad had held down his work this year ‘for the first time since the war, really…’ She looked into my eyes and took my hands. ‘It weren’t good for your Dad, the war, you know. Uncle Frank is looking after you, i’n’t he? Out there?’

I wanted to tell her how many lads and lasses in my class had dads that had simply disappeared in the war, gone to bits, blasted to pieces, ground into the mud, rotted with rats… But I think she knew I knew all that. She wanted to tell me something else. Something about Uncle Frank maybe.

‘Frank isn’t your real Uncle, our Eric.’

Was he my real dad?

She coughed and carried on, ‘This footie … Blades, Eric.’

That’s why it’s him that takes me to the match. That’s what Dads do.

Frank had gone and left Dad a cheery chappy, snoozing off a couple of lunchtime pints by the fire.

Mum was happy. Hands holding mine were soft and dry – not gripping and dripping.

‘Do you remember your Daddy taking you when you were about five?’

I didn’t. ‘Really Mam?’

‘Yes love, it was the last time they had a proper Derby match.’

I didn’t know that Mam understood football. She was a woman after all.

‘It was a stinking, rotten, horrible year. You won’t remember that either, will you?’

I thought she was going to let me down gently about the Blades in 1919.

‘You know about all the men killed in the Great War and your Dad … you know. Well there was this…’ Her voice cracked, but she carried on. ‘This great plague they called the…’

‘Spanish Flu,’ I said. ‘We did it at school. Killed more people than the war, didn’t it Our Mam?’

She looked up to the heavens. ‘Cruel, very cruel. But we sailed through it and your Daddy thought if he survived all that … mud, he wasn’t going to be beat by a bug you couldn’t even see. The trams couldn’t run properly, your school sent you home some days because there weren’t enough teachers.’ She chuckled, ‘that was after Miss Pilkington – remember her? – after she had tried to look after the whole school all on her own, well her and that daft caretaker. What a pair. Never again. Headmistress made a rule you all had to be sent home if they got down to only two teachers!

‘The 1919 derby was a like a beam of light the Lord sent shining down on Sheffield at that time. First season after the war was greatly anticipated by the men – and the boys.

‘The derby was at the start of the season – and it was to be two weeks running. The first game was at Hillsborough, Wednesday’s home ground and they won. There’s an advantage playing at home, you know that our Eric. Your own crowd shouts for you and you get a lift.’

We were both nodding.

‘Your Daddy’s wheezing was a good deal better – it was much worse back then, after he got back from the war. I think the gas must be clearing out of him slowly. It was summer and his wound hadn’t given him much jip so he was winding himself up to give the Blades some home support. It meant a lot to him you see. When he had last been, he said it was the last time he was a whole man.’

She swung her head away and back and I saw one hand sweep away a tear.

‘We made you after that match,’ she blushed, but I knew she knew I was a man now and would not be shocked.

I’d worked it out with my pal – if I was born in June 1915, then I was made in September 1914. We still didn’t know how we were made though.

‘And the next week he signed up for the Pals Brigade.’ She let go of my hands and stood up, went over the fireplace and put on a log. She lingered, looking down at Dad for a bit, her hand on her cheek. I couldn’t see her face. When she turned back she was radiant – almost. She took my hands again and got back to telling me about Uncle not being my uncle.

‘That game. 1919. I didn’t want him taking you into that crowd breathing all those flu germs, but he was so positive, so strong.’ She looked across at him again and he let out a relaxed sigh in his dream.

‘He wasn’t the only one who had that idea, and there was a good crowd. Your Daddy got you up on his shoulders and you saw the first goal. Unfortunately, you were in the way of a man behind you who happened to miss it. One nil to the Blades and he had missed it.

‘He gave your Dad a prod in the back. “Eyup pal!” he starts. Well that was it.

‘”Pal?” he says, “Pal? Call me Pal. My Pals are out there in the mud. In the Somme. I ’a’n’t got no Pals here.” And then he just says “Pal” over and over and over – and he was wilting.

‘The bloke sees your Dad’s grey face … and clutching at his throat … and beginning to keel over. The bloke lifts you – more or less catches you, actually – and puts you on his own shoulders. He sees your Daddy is looking out at the game, the rest of the crowd is roaring the Blades on, but Daddy is crying. The bloke doesn’t know what to do. Shall he go or shall he stay? Your Daddy isn’t going, so the bloke … this total stranger who just two minutes before was having a go at your Dad…’ She stops to blink a reservoir full of tears away. ‘He put his arm around your Dad for the rest of the game … like two old pals.’

I looked across at my Daddy and dragged a sleeve across my nose.

‘Uncle Frank?’

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