The 10th of September always reminds me of a kid I went to infants and primary school with, the middle son of Irish immigrants who holed themselves up, as many did, in Clapham, southwest London, and who would, as the eighties arrived, acquire the nickname ‘Spud’.
Spud was born on the 10th September 1971. Blonde and freckly, he was the oldest kid in the year, a status he held for the full seven years we schooled together, as well as always being one of the shortest boys in the class. Being the oldest kid in the year always held a mystical status and I’m sure as much as the world has changed, that’s still the case in schools these days. To a mid-spring kid like me, the fact that Spud was always celebrating his birthday a full eight months before me might as well have made him five years older than me.
I think it was that status as the class elder statesman that allowed Spud to get away with much of his behaviour. He would appropriate the latest kids showing any sign of popularity among their peers and acquire them for his entourage, a bit like mid-90s Elton John with Take That, before quietly dropping them and moving onto the next popular kid.
I was always in and out of favour with Spud. In September 1980, just days after proclaiming me the hardest tackler in our football team, Spud quietly dropped me from an invitation to go to Windsor Safari Park to celebrate his ninth birthday. That’s the closest I ever came to visiting any kind of zoo. Having never been to a zoo to this day, I’m actually pleased that happened. While not an animal lover, I have never had any desire to see caged animals, though at the time I was hugely disappointed to be dropped from the Safari visit, not so much because of the opportunity to see the animals, but because it was Spud’s birthday and it meant something to be invited to his birthday. Given that on the final day of the summer term the previous school year I had chosen Spud to play Subbuteo (I had brought my favourite game to the school that day, the teams I brought with me being the Man Utd home and Liverpool away), I felt hard done by.
There was another kid in the class, also of Irish extraction, whose initials spelt out SOS. SOS was a nice kid. The tallest in the class. He idolised Spud throughout primary school, but was regularly treated with such disdain by the most inexplicably popular kid in our class. To be fair, it wasn’t just the kids that seemed to be bewitched by Spud. The teachers loved him too, especially the teachers who took us un the second and third years (1980-82).
The thing that really sealed it for me with Spud though, the pinnacle of my disappointment with this kid, came in the spring of ’83. By the following September, we would finally go our separate ways, electing to go to different Catholic secondary schools, and perhaps it was knowing that after seven years together, it was all coming to an end, that our on-off friendship enjoyed one final flourish. After several visits to Spud’s council house just off Clapham High Street, he came to my bedsit and I pulled out all the stops to entertain him, knowing full well if the visit came up short, it would be all around the school when we got back to St Mary’s Juniors.
We must’ve been playing with my Star Wars action figures because at the end of his visit, Spud asked to borrow my Han Solo (the original Star Wars film doll with the black waistcoat and the red stripe down black trousers) and a Hoth Storm Trooper. I don’t like lending stuff to this day, something probably not unrelated to that day, but it was Spud. You didn’t say “no”. By then I had set up my Star Wars football league as I sought more than Subbuteo could give me. I wanted to build teams. I didn’t want the identikit miniature figures that came with Subbuteo. I wanted to be able to look at a figure and say, “Okay, Hammerhead, that’s a defender. This one, Snaggletooth, he can play off the front man.” So I was loath to lose two players. Solo was captaining cup specialists X-Wing, while the rather stocky figure of Hoth Trooper was keeping goal for, well, Hoth, who had won the Division 2 title in the inaugural 1982-83 season.
It was the February half term I think as Spud had come over on a week day. We agreed he would return the action figures when school started up again. The following Monday, Spud handed back a chocolate covered Hoth Trooper, explaining his year-old brother had got hold of him. I wasn’t impressed. When I borrowed stuff, people always got back exactly what I had taken. But all this was soon overshadowed that there was no Han Solo, arguably the finest Star Wars footballer of the early 80s (the league would run until 2000, played behind a then girlfriend’s back).
I didn’t understand how he could lose something that he had borrowed. To this day, I don’t think I have ever done that. It was the final disappointment of that hot-cold friendship that had begun in January ’77 when my first ever teacher at St Mary’s infants in Clapham had asked Spud to look after me on my first morning.
The ’83-84 Star Wars football season resumed with Han Solo still missing from the X-Wing line up. More anal Star Wars fans will know the specifics of what happened with the action figures at that time, but I know there was some sort of changeover from the original makers, it might’ve been Kenner, to another manufacturer, and the original Han Solo doll was pretty much scarce all over London.
It was not until the 23d of December 1984, a Sunday, one of the greatest days of my young life, when ahead of a Christmas party at my friend’s dad’s pub in Clapham North later that day, my mum had taken my sibling and I to East Street market off Walworth Road on the 45, that I managed to find a Han Solo action figure and X-Wing got their missing captain back. Okay, it wasn’t the original Han Solo, and the new manufacturers had given him a larger head, but you know, it was as good as things were going to get. The search was over.
In the spring of ’85, I saw Spud for the last time, as we were both attending Sunday school ahead of our confirmations. I hadn’t seen him for two years and I was struck by how kids from our old school who had switched to the same secondary as Spud, now treated the long-time St Mary’s God. They would play punch him, grab him in a headlock. The awe of old was no longer there. One old classmate even invited me to punch Spud (I declined). It seemed Spud’s move to the big boys’ school had diminished him somewhat.
I never saw him again after that.
33 years on though, I still remember how he lost my Han Solo.
Footnote: Hoth Trooper kept goal for Hoth in their 1986 FA Cup Final win, the chocolate stains of ’83 still evident.