Randall Butt's story: Episode Four
Where was I? Oh yes, the Welsh valleys in the mid-60s. The theme tune to this instalment is provided by the Animals: ‘We gotta get out of this place, if it’s the last thing we ever do!’
Don’t get me wrong. The Western valley of Monmouthshire was a great place to be a kid. We rambled wild and free in the mountains, played kick-the-tin, allaboo (Welsh version of British bulldog) and football in the car-less streets until, and often after, it got dark. Made bows and arrows and slings, and generally carried on like William Brown and his Outlaws.
But into the teenage years the brooding high hills, often shrouded for days in dripping mist, seemed to close in. It was a narrow place to be, in more ways than one. The 60s were beginning to swing, but in Cwmcarn and its interconnected ex-mining villages (geographers call it ribbon development) it was only taking place on flickering black and white TV screens. (The aerials were huge, but the mountains were a lot bigger.)
Since the idea of work did not immediately appeal, education was the only escape route. And at first it looked as tough as getting out of Colditz. Interviews at York and Reading Universities resulted in such stratospheric ‘offers’ as to be meaningless in the days of real A-level exams when an A grade was a thing of myth and legend.
But rescue was at hand, thanks to a cat. I’ve always liked cats, but this one had Ts: Portsmouth CATT (College of Advanced Technology), which had ambitions to become a polytechnic. In order to attain such status it had to offer degree courses, and needed a lot more students pronto. I applied, and instead of an invitation to attend a tortuous interview received a letter that said, in many more and longer words: ‘Two A-levels, doesn’t matter what grades, and you’re in. And oh, since we’re doing London University external degrees you’ll need two O-level languages if you want to study arts.’
Panic! Until I remembered that Latin was a language as well as a form of torture. I’d passed it at the second attempt. The only way I was going to get the ‘O’ level was to improve hugely in the set book translation exam: the wonderful poems of Ovid, plus Caesar’s Gallic Wars. And the only way to do that, I realised, was to learn huge chunks of the text off by heart.
It got me through the exam, out of the valleys, and somehow boosted my power of recall – vital for a journalist who struggled with shorthand. I had no problem writing it down. It was just that I couldn’t actually read much of it back. My United tale at the end of this section will show how, in the words of Julie Driscoll and Brian Auger: ‘My memory served me well.’
I had French to go with the Latin, scrambled A-levels in history and geography, and was off by train from Newport to Pompey. That evening I walked along the shore at Southsea and felt homesick. Nobody in the valleys left home much in those days, unless they were in the South Wales Borderers, and the downside of that was that sometimes they got shot at. But I’d been the first to arrive at the digs. When I got back from my miserable walk, people were piling in, and the first of many parties in three fabulous years on a student grant was under way.
The first brilliant discovery was that, unlike at grammar school, if you didn’t turn up for a lecture nobody gave you lines or hit you. The second was that Pompey wasn’t far from London (part of my general arts degree course was geography, and as you can see I was pretty sharp). It meant the big 60s groups often headed down the A3, so when we had college dances on South Parade Pier we didn’t have to listen to some bunch of spotty local youths. We had the Moody Blues, Free, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, John Mayall and Chicken Shack. I remember one night at the Guildhall where for the princely sum of seven shillings and sixpence I saw Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, The Move, Amen Corner and The Nice.
We also headed up the A3 for some memorable sporting occasions. Just imagine being able to do this today. We noticed that Manchester United
were playing at West Ham, where victory would give them the First Division title, so we thought, we’ll go and have a look. Didn’t need tickets, we just turned up, queued for a short while and watched as Best, Law and Charlton were so much better than Peters, Moore and Hurst (plus Harry Redknapp) that they strolled home 6-1.
Fratton Park and The Dell were other regular haunts. Once, sitting in the train for the return journey from Southampton, we were next to the Man Utd special. There, a few feet away, were some of the greatest players who ever lived. Who would have thought that one day I would be sitting next to Denis Law in the press box at Maine Road, covering Cambridge United’s match against Man City?
But what about journalism, I hear you murmur. What indeed? Did I write for the college paper? No chance. I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to revolutionise. But then in the third year, when there was some talk of eventually having to earn a living, one of my flatmates, Jim Mansell, said he thought that being a reporter might not be the worst thing to do.Off we went in his ageing car to London for interviews at the Sunday Times for its training scheme. All either of us can remember is the windscreen suddenly crazing and Jim having to punch a hole to stop us crashing. He went to the interview with his hand wrapped in a bloody handkerchief. It was the most impressive thing about us, and no offer was forthcoming.
We realised we’d better try to get a degree to have some chance in the cruel outside world. And the three years had flown by, filled with many diversions, including a lovely long-haired lady from London called Christine, who amazingly is still Mrs Butt. Nine finals exams loomed ahead. Twenty-seven hours to cruelly expose what little I’d picked up about geomorphology, the 30 Years War and the macroeconomic multiplier effect. I moved back into digs for the last term and swotted day in and night out.
But now into the time tunnel and the latter part of my Cambridge News career, when the U’s turned to an old hero to halt their slither down the snake towards the non-League swamp. John (Shaggy) Taylor attained legendary status as one of John Beck’s stormtroopers, but when he returned as manager they were tougher, tighter times. And one of the first things soccer bosses do when they are under pressure is blame the messenger.
The reason for the bust-up now eludes me – something to do with quoting a player, much to the manager’s displeasure. We had an argument at the Abbey after a match, and to make sure (as he thought) I didn’t quote any of that, JT grabbed my tape recorder.
I’d taken to carrying one, but just for back-up at post-match interviews. Remembering what managers said was a piece of cake after learning hundreds of lines of Latin text. And in those days I didn’t have time to play a tape back before sending off Saturday evening reports to the nationals – News of the World, Mail on Sunday etc. It was kind of allowed by the CEN, and very lucrative.
I told JT I didn’t need the recorder. Providing it was within 24 hours I could type out the conversation pretty much word for word. Obviously not convinced, he walked off with the machine, which I have to admit did surprise me quite a lot. I relayed the encounter to the sports editor, as a joke as much as anything, but he hit the roof: ‘He can’t do that to a reporter, we have freedom of the press etc …’ All of a sudden it was a very big deal, involving the top level of both organisations.
I duly wrote the story, without mentioning ‘the mugging’, but JT was in the doghouse. On the Monday morning he had to drive past the Abbey turn-off on his way from his Suffolk home and present the purloined recorder at the News offices in Milton. Difficult to say which of us was more embarrassed by one of the daftest incidents of my decades in the job.