Local Hero

Local Hero

Michael Jackson fulfils a fantasy
Like most small boys, I wanted to be a big man. Specifically, I wanted to be a big man called Dave Valentine. Why didn’t they pick him for England? “Because he is Scottish,” explained my Dad.At eight, I was just beginning to learn about international sport, and geography. We lived in England, but our local heroes seemed to come from Scotland. Bill Shankly (Britain’s Vince Lombardi) was next to arrive. My teacher was keen on Thomas Telford, who had built a bridge in the area. He could have added Faraday, Fleming, Friar John Cor; I would still have voted Valentine.My hero was from the Scottish Borders, a hotbed of Rugby Union, in those days an amateur sport for gentlemen. He came to my home town in England to earn a bawbee playing professional Rugby League. The social elitism of the day means that he remains unsung, though a sporting hero he certainly was.I saw him captain Great Britain, against Australia. The stadium was in a former quarry. The dressing rooms were on the rim, obliging the players to trot down a long flight of steps to the field. My father and I sat near the steps, and I smelt the liniment on the players as their metal-studded boots crunched toward battle. Valentine led his English and Welsh team-mates to victory, after which their reward was to climb back up the steps. My nose detected the aroma of blood, sweat and Australian tears blending with the liniment. My nose still remembers that early outing.“Ever thought of insuring your nose?” I am occasionally asked. I tell them I don’t think it’s any better than anyone else’s, though bigger than most. I encourage everyone to nose their whisky, the better to appreciate and enjoy it. My passion is for shared pleasure, not mystique. I want to democratise drink. The battle is to persuade drinkers that their tipples are worth tasting, not just ingesting.Also, it is too late to insure my nose. I broke it, along with my jaw and leg, while playing Rugby League at junior school. It seemed unlikely that I would be able to string together enough intact and properly connected bones to lead Great Britain against the Australians. Perhaps it would be safer to be a war correspondent, like Hemingway, and write The Great American Novel. This would offer the bonus of considerable drinking. I didn’t get it right first time, failing to realise that beer’s purpose was merely to be chaser for whisky. Such a breakthrough in understanding was also hard to achieve on the ‘wages’ paid by a local weekly newspaper in a mill town on the edge of Leeds.I was, though, encouraged by a role model. In the next little town, the local weekly had just lost Keith Waterhouse en route to a literary career that would produce such masterworks as The Theory and Practice of Lunch and Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell. He once observed: “To consider yourself a drinker and not to have practised that art in Fleet Street is like saying that you were a soldier but never under fire.”In Fleet Street, I found that writing and drinking can emulsify. The nose that smelled blood, sweat and tears now attempts to unpick earth, wind and fire in whisky. In the company of a great whisky-maker, I feel humble. At Whisky Live in Tokyo, the experience was multiplied. I found myself leading onstage enough whisky-makers to form a rugby team.I had to psych myself up by reminding myself that, while their knowledge was extraordinarily deep, mine in a good many cases was far wider; that whisky still lagged far behind wine in public awareness and appreciation, and needed its own literature; and that Whisky Magazine had asked me to fulfil this task.A door was opened, and I led the team into the lecture hall to applause. The team all seemed taller than me, several kilted and coiffed. I suspect I resembled a writer: hair needs cutting; suit seeks a pressing; shoes need cleaning. Next time, if they let me do it again, I’ll stay in the persona of Dave Valentine.We were, for the third time, a great success in Tokyo … but Dave Valentine’s team won the World Cup.
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