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Cheers, Ginger!

September 19, 2011

Growing up, I lived in Birkdale, a suburb in the Lancashire town of Southport. About a hundred yards from my house, there was the odd set up of a racing stable yard crammed in behind a second hand car showroom. Every morning a stream of racehorses would clop down the road past our house on the way to train on the beach, at that time another odd procedure for a trainer who wanted to be taken seriously. One of the horses, a big, tall, strong looking beast, called ‘Glenkiln’ actually ran in the National a few times – to very little effect. Lancashire humour being as it is, there was a wry relationship between the locals in Birkdale and the trainer and his lads as they made their way along our streets.
“Off paddling again, Ginger? I don’t know why you bother!”
“He’s moving faster along York Rd than he does on the track!”
“It’s not just yer cars that are knackered!”

He took it all in good part and was well capable of giving as good as he got, whether on the streets, the beach or in his local ‘The Upsteps’ at the end of Aughton Rd.

Fifty yards up our road in the other direction was a small modern bungalow, looking incongruous amongst the large red brick Victorian houses around it. It was owned by a very quiet and unassuming miillionaire called Noel Le Mare, whose one concession to wealth appeared to be a chauffeur to drive his Austin Van den Plas. Word got out that he’d bought a horse – cue much punning on his name – and stabled it with the trainer at the other end of the road. Even as a teenager, with no interest in horse racing, I joined in the shaking of heads and the sympathetic grins: “That’ll be the last we’ll hear of that nag then!”

Well, not quite. It was called Red Rum and became possibly the most famous racehorse ever.

Naturally, all of this was in my mind when I heard of Ginger McCain’s death this morning. In all the time he, and Rummy, stayed at the end of our road, he never changed, never got big time, never lost his sometimes irascible Lancashire demeanour, never seemed to resent the interest of the locals who laughed for years and now were lost in admiration.

I’ve already written on how the local cricket club in Birkdale was an important part of my growing up, but, though racing has never been an interest of mine (apart from when McCain horse have been running), I have to reflect on how an accident of geography can affect your approach to life in general and sport in particular.

I lived in Birkdale from aged 7 to 18, and the area where Red Rum was stabled played a large part in my growth. The stable yard was entered down a lane between the double shop frontage of McCain’s Car Sales. To one side was a small shop called ‘Mac’s Pie Shop’ run by a guy who was the spit of my late father; never knew if he was related to Ginger or not. Second hand cars would be parked on the pavement area and sometimes it was difficult for the horses to get from street down the lane.

The frontage in 2003; the pie shop was behind the red car

Opposite the stables was a chip shop, run by a couple form Leigh near Manchester. they were almost a cartoon 60s chippy owners; she severe in glasses and pony tail, serving briskly and efficiently; he more talkative and expansive, chatting to the customers. When I first saw the couple who ran the cafe in early series of ‘Last of the Summer Wine’, I thought of them immediately. In those far off times, I used to cycle to watch fourth division Southport, and on the way home, especially from midweek evening games, I would always stop for chips. He would go through the same routine each time –
“Oh dear! Here he is! Been to watch that shower again? Lose again did they? What a team! What about that big fellow up front – useless isn’t he?”

I would respond with a teenager’s earnestness, but I got to enjoy the banter, it became part of my routine. It was only later I appreciated the warmth of the encounters.

When Red Rum began winning the National it was exciting for locals, though in those days the hype that surrounds sporting events was nowhere near as overblown. On two or three occasions on the morning of the race I happened to be walking down our road as the horse box set off for Aintree. It was a thumbs up and a mouthed ‘good luck’ to the driver and lads in the cab, met with a smile and a cheery wave as a prelude to national and international attention.

Again, after each of his wins, especially the earlier ones, his return home was a muted, local affair. You might have around a hundred locals waiting outside the showroom, some with polo mints for the horse. He’d come out of the horsebox on the street and walk between the crowds; Ginger would stop and chaff the locals, ask how much we’d won, and ease the ‘old fella’, as he called him, through to the stables. It was a lovely small scale ending to a huge day of fame.

Rummy the winner comes home to Aughton Rd: myself bottom right with the fashionable hippy hair!

On the other side of the local level crossing, Red Rum’s original stable boy, Billy Ellison lived in a flat. He garnered a fair amount of fame himself as pictures of Rummy at full gallop on the sands became popular. In the early seventies, as a student Christmas postman, I delivered to his address – often written on envelopes as ‘Billy, C/o Red Rum, Southport’.

It was, as I said, an accident of geography and timing that I was to live so close to such a famous sporting legend, but the way Ginger McCain handled it, his willingness to chat or react to those of us who lived nearby, even his mercurial, Lancashire, masculine demeanour, reminiscent of my St Helen’s born grandad, and not to everyone’s taste, left a lasting impression on me, and affected my view of sport, and, I suppose, fame, for the rest of my life.

Likewise, the banter of the chip shop owner, more gentle and empathetic than Ginger’s approach, helped me appreciate that watching football was about the experience, not necessarily the glory of top teams or tournaments won.

I suppose, opposite each other, on that quiet Birkdale street, were the two sides of sport – the sympathy for those who are fated never to achieve greatness, and the phlegmatic approach to success that recognises it’s the result of hard work and good fortune.

The chip shop folk retired, sold up, and moved back to Leigh and at least I was able to attempt an emotional good bye to them as they served me my last Holland’s Steak Pudding! The McCain outfit eventually moved to Cheshire, long after I’d left Southport myself. I continued to look out for his horses and enjoyed his annual appearances on TV at National time.

When Red Rum died and was buried at Aintree’s finishing post, I felt for the emotional man being interviewed, and was thankful our paths had crossed, even if briefly. Marvelously, having done well on Red Rum over the years, my annual Grand National bet came up trumps again with Amberleigh House, all those years later, in what we all assumed was Ginger’s swansong.

So to see his son repeat the achievement this year at Aintree was just marvelous. Ginger, interviewed in the winners’ enclosure, was the same pretend bluff Lancastrian he had always been. Despite the pride and emotion fairly glowing from him, he was still at 80, the master of the deprecating one liner:
“Ginger, you must be very proud of what he’s done here today?”
“Yes, I am; and when I find out who is father is, I’ll congratulate him!”

That stretch of Aughton Rd taught me to appreciate sport for what it is and to look on fame and success as the imposters they are; the measure of success is not how great your achievement but how you handle it. I was lucky to know Red Rum, lucky to share a small town with Ginger McCain, blessed to be there when it all happened, and fortunate to see close up the best way of reacting to victory. I suppose I also gained a love of fish and chips!

So cheers, Ginger, you made a difference to my life and attitudes without ever realising it. In the week when Lancashire’s cricket team became County Champions, you were another reminder of the values and qualities of the north west of England.

I hope you’re not giving God too hard a time!

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