Football League: Welcome to Wrexham!

It was a true Hollywood ending. Wrexham AFC are returning to the Football League after a 15 year exile. Their star owners Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney were there to see the club they bought in 2021 crowned champions of the National League.

Season two of Welcome to Wrexham will prove even more compelling viewing than the debut one.

Super Paul Mullin at Maidenhead United, 4 March 2022

I can honestly say that I saw Wrexham in its historic promotion-winning season. I took my 14 year old son Owen to see the team play Maidenhead United last month. It was a gripping encounter that ended with the Berkshire team snatching a last-gasp draw. It showed how Hollywood money was no guarantee of success – Maidenhead battled all the way, and Wrexham lost two vital points.

We were standing right by the touchline, and had an amazing view, especially when Maidenhead’s number 7 Sam Barrett took a throw late on. I wonder if we will feature in Welcome to Wrexham?

Four Welsh Football League clubs again

When I was growing up, there were four Welsh clubs in the English football league: my club, Cardiff City, Swansea City, Newport County and Wrexham. Newport were always on the brink of extinction – in the 1970s, Manchester United played a combined South Wales team to raise money to save County – and succumbed in the late 1980s. Wrexham joined them in the National League in 2008, leaving just the big city clubs left in the EFL. A decade ago, Newport beat Wrexham in the National League playoff final to become a league club again. As I pointed out at the time, this was surely the only time a playoff to enter the Football League had been contested by two former quarter finalists from a European competition. (Wrexham and Newport competed in European Cup Winners Cup quarter finals in the 1970s and 1980s)

The greatest game I’ve ever attended?

Football fans tend to be tribal. Cardiff City and Swansea City fans have a brutal rivalry, for example. I’ve always been different. I cheered Wrexham and Newport on their European odysseys, and was delighted when Swansea briefly led the old First Division in 1981/82.

I spent most Saturdays in the 1970s at Ninian Park, and was thrilled by City’s promotion to the Second Division in 1976. The following season Cardiff knocked First Division Tottenham Hotspur out of the FA Cup, and faced Wrexham in the next round.

That game showed how sport could prove the greatest theatre on the planet. City were cruising to an easy 2-0 win when Wrexham snatched two late goals to level the tie. Just as it looked like we were heading for a replay John Buchanan scored a stunning winner. (We narrowly lost to First Division Everton in the next round.)

I still revel in those childhood memories. Anyone who was at the Racecourse this weekend witnessing Wrexham ending 15 years of exile will similarly replay the experience for the rest of their lives – including Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney. Ryan was pitch-perfect in his comments after the game, praising Boreham Wood, and hoping that magnificent rivals Notts County join Wrexham in League Two next season. They deserve no less after a season that followed Hollywood’s script.

Back on the bike

The joy of a new bike…

Cycle tours are like exams. You need to prepare for them. Just four weeks before the start of my Peak Tours Portugal end to end trip I’m feeling nervous. I’m horribly ill-prepared, but have finally begun training.

I’d like to think I have an excuse. My father died in February, and I simply couldn’t find the energy for bike rides, especially in March’s distinctly un-spring-like weather.

My much-missed Synapse

But this weekend I rediscovered the pleasure of cycling on my new Specialized Roubaix. It reminded me of the revelation of first rides on my original Roubaix, my first road bike, in 2014. This new Roubaix replaces my much-missed Cannondale Synapse, retired in 2021 with a damaged frame after over 7,000 miles, including a wonderful Land’s End-John O’Groats tour four years ago. It’s good to have a fast bike again.

My first Roubaix, 75 miles into a century ride in 2015

Over the next four weeks I’ll try to regain some tour fitness, initially by building cardio hours, then adding increasingly tough hill climbing hours in the ever-hilly Chilterns. (Not to mention my weekly personal training sessions.) I clearly won’t be as match fit as I’d like, but hope to start the Portugal end to end without the feeling I’ve entered the exam hall without a moment’s revision. That’s the hope…

PS: it will be poignant arriving in Porto next month. Last June I flew there en route to Vigo in Spain to support my 95 year old father, and get him home from hospital. That was the start of the final chapter in Dad’s extraordinary story. I am looking forward to returning to Portugal for a very different challenge.

Farewell to Howells of Cardiff

James Howells in its prime. Photo: Wales Online

Yet another Cardiff landmark has passed into history with the closure of the city’s Howells department store after 150 years.

The news brought back memories of tranquil moments in one of the store’s cafes when Owen was a toddler. In October 2010 I described lunch there as an oasis of calm.

The Bethany chapel within Howells

Howells must be the only department store in the country with a chapel. When the store took over the site, rather than demolishing the old Bethany baptist chapel the owners incorporated it in the shop.

In truth, we were a David Morgan family. Howells seemed rather posh to us, and so we would head to Morgan’s nearby store for a coffee, Santa’s grotto – or in the case of my parents, to order new carpets. For years they kept a carrier bag commemorating Morgan’s centenary in 1979. Back then no one would have suspected that the store would be gone within 30 years. As a small child I was impressed by the Oak Room restaurant although we never had anything to eat or drink there. (In the 1970s it was disfigured by garish panels, as if the store management were embarrassed by the retro look.)

Both stores sprawled endearingly. Howells once included a bridge over Wharton Street linking its two buildings. (Waterstones now occupies the old Howells annexe.) Morgan’s was bisected by the Morgan Arcade, which still contains quirky independent shops and cafes.

Howells and David Morgan are two of a long list of vanished Cardiff department stores: Debenhams, Evan Roberts, Allders (Mackross), Seccombes and Marments to name just the ones I remember.

But the store I miss the most is Lears. This wonderful bookshop was a treasure trove, and I doubt my love of reading would have been so deep today were it not for hours spent in Lears as a child. At first I was hooked on the usual Enid Blyton bestsellers but I also fell under the spell of Jackdaws: a fascinating series of folders that illustrated historical topics with facsimiles of related documents. For example, the Battle of Britain one included an identity card and a copy of a 1940 Daily Mirror. I added my grandfather’s wartime identity card to that one.

Would we mourn the demise of Amazon in the same way? I doubt it!

Mylo’s tribute to his great grandfather Bob Skinner

On Friday 24 March, we said farewell to my wonderful father, Bob Skinner. Here is the tribute that Mylo, Bob’s oldest great grandchild, gave at the lovely funeral service at Penarth Methodist Church, conducted by Rev Catherine Lewis.

Mylo and Bob at Glamorgan county cricket ground Cardiff, 2017

I will miss Bob dearly; he was such an amazing great grandfather.  

I fondly remember my visits to Owy and Bob’s. We would always go for a walk along the pier, normally followed by an ice cream. On reflection, I now fully appreciate and am grateful for how he would always make the time and effort to play football with me in parks and gardens, despite being in his 80s. He was such a caring, impressive and giving person.  

Bob had so much time for everyone which I often got to witness first hand with my little sisters. During visits, he would constantly talk to and play with them despite them being very loud and energetic. Whenever we would visit Bob at his flat in Penarth he would cook an amazing roast dinner which tasted as though he had been perfecting over the last 80 years. This was one of the highlights of visiting him considering I have vegetarian parents. 

Bob with his new teeth, January 2023

As a child I always enjoyed writing stories which I think was influenced by Bob, he would frequently ask me to read them to him and would enquire about when I’d be starting my next one, interested in the topic or draft storyline. As I grew up, I gained a greater understanding of Bob and his career as a successful journalist. I’m certain this has contributed to me choosing to study journalism at university. I was very recently given an assignment to write a story about something “untold” in my local area. Thankfully when Robert came to visit us, he suggested I write about Bob’s teeth saga. I emailed Bob and despite him being in a hospital bed he still managed to reply and help me gather additional information about his unfortunate situation. I really appreciated his interest and input – I am so grateful that he had the time to help me, it really emphasises how much cared for and valued his family. I emailed him back the final version, I so hope that he got a chance to read it. I’m sure he would have enjoyed seeing his great grandson take footsteps on a similar path to the ones he took (albeit without a Fresher’s week).  

It was a real shock to hear of his passing, and desperately sad. When my Mum and I visited him in hospital he seemed to be getting so much better, he was certain that he was going home to be able to live independently. That was something that I really admire about Bob, how he was so determined and positive, even in his 90’s. Bob was someone who I really looked up to and someone I will continue to look up to. I hope that as a great grandson I have made him proud.

This is one of three tributes to Bob from his funeral service. Read the others below:

Rob Skinner, Bob’s son

Owen Skinner, Bob’s youngest grandchild.

Owen’s tribute to his grandfather, Bob Skinner

On Friday 24 March, we said farewell to my wonderful father, Bob Skinner. Here is the tribute that my son, Bob’s youngest grandson Owen, gave at the lovely funeral service at Penarth Methodist Church, conducted by Rev Catherine Lewis.

Bob Skinner 1926 – 2023

Growing up, I have always felt close to Bob. Despite living two and a half hours away from him and Owy, I still saw them enough to develop a deep and loving relationship with them as my Grandparents. I would always look forward to those precious visits to Wales; some of my favourite memories at Windsor Court, their old flat, are of us watching ‘Happy Feet’ in front of their TV, learning how to use their stair lift, and playing the game ‘Shut the Box’ in their living room.

Christmas Day Zoom call with Bob, 2021

As all of us here will have experienced, COVID disrupted all of our lives when it arrived, but it never stopped Bob. At the age of 93 he was able to crack the great enigma that had been troubling the older generations for years: How to use Zoom. Instead of losing precious time with Bob, we were able to see each other twice a week through a screen, and he was able to watch our dog, Rufus, join the family. In late 2020, Bob was struck down by the virus, and we thought it may be the end. Nevertheless, Bob never gave in, and was able to relentlessly fight the disease whilst still being able to deliver regular Zoom calls to us. If Bob is known for anything, it is his fighting spirit.

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Paying tribute to my father, Bob Skinner

On Friday 24 March, we said farewell to my wonderful father, Bob Skinner. Here is the tribute I gave at the lovely funeral service at Penarth Methodist Church, conducted by Rev Catherine Lewis.

This is the day I never thought would arrive. Bob was the great survivor, the last of his generation in our family. His mother Gwen lived to 102. He even once used the word Everlasting in a password!

But Bob slipped the surly bonds of Earth on 21 February, after a life well lived. He had written the last chapter of a thrilling story, and today is a celebration of that remarkable life. I’d like to say a heartfelt thank you for being here, for your kind and comforting messages over the past month – and for your support during Bob’s twilight months. Diolch yn fawr iawn i chi i gyd.

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Remembering my wonderful Dad

Robert Charles Skinner, 27 November 1926 – 21 February 2023

Ten years ago, I had one of the most wonderful evenings of my life.

I was having dinner with my father, Bob Skinner, at Penarth Yacht Club in Wales. A few hours earlier my mother Rosemary had had a successful cancer operation at the age of 84, and we were celebrating. Dad spoke movingly about losing his father Frank when he was 16 in 1942, and his deep regret that he never had the chance to get to know him. For the very first time, I admitted to Dad that when I was 16 I was scared the same thing would happen. (Dad’s grandfather also died young.)

Happily, Dad remained a precious part of my life for 43 years after I passed the milestone of turning 16. But those days have now come to an end. He slipped the surly bonds of Earth on 21 February, and I will always be grateful for the time we had together. He was an inspiration to me: his zest for life, his sense of fairness and his way with words lit up my life. I followed him into public relations, and one of the proudest days of my life was when we stood on the terrace of the House of Lords after I was made a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations almost 40 years after Dad himself became a Fellow.

I’ll write again about Dad in the coming weeks. I have a lifetime of memories, together with Dad’s extensive writing about his life and work, to cherish. I couldn’t have wished for a better father. Thanks, Dad. I will always love you.

Empire of Light and Cardiff cinema memories

Above: the cinema in Empire of Light

Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light was not the film I was expecting. I was looking forward to a moving story about a neglected seaside cinema lovingly brought back to life. (Think Cinema Paradiso, Margate-style.) Instead, it was a far starker and more complicated tale of early Eighties Britain, with racism, mental illness and misogyny centre-stage.

I’ll share my thoughts on Empire of Light later. But this post is an unashamed exercise in nostalgia. The film revived long-dormant memories of childhood trips to the cinema in 1970s Cardiff. Going to the pictures (as parents, aunts and uncles described a trip to the cinema) was a very different experience 50 years ago, and Empire of Light brilliantly captures the mood of the time.

The first film I remember seeing in a cinema was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on its release in 1968 when I was five. We also saw Earthquake, a 1974 disaster movie, in Elephant & Castle when we were staying in London for a weekend. (It featured sound effects designed to simulate an earthquake.) But most of my childhood big screen outings were in my hometown, Cardiff, Wales.

One Christmas, my father Bob Skinner took me to the old Globe cinema in Roath to see A Christmas Carol, which I now realise would have been the version that came out when Dad was 12 in 1938. (Dad’s favourite film.) The photos above capture the venue exactly as I remember it, with a bush growing out of the roof, and a shabby auditorium. (The moniker ‘flea-pit’ could have been inspired by the 1970s Globe.) In those days, films were often played on a loop, which gave rise to the expression ‘this is where I came in’. Sure enough, we stayed long enough to see the film starting again! Dad tells me that the cinema was run by a Welsh rugby international, whose wife worked in the box office. It was one of the first venues to show foreign films. The Globe closed in the 1980s, not long after my friend Anthony and I watched Return of the Jedi there – the only early Star Wars film I watched in a cinema.

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Captain Boycott, Coventry and the origins of cancel culture

Captain Boycott by Spy, Vanity Fair 1881

Cancel culture is a hot topic in today’s world. It’s seen as a product of our aggressive, confrontational online society, with its culture wars.

But cancel culture is likely to have been a feature of life since early humans started living in communities. This thought only struck me when my son Owen was researching for a school talk on cancel culture. My mind went back to a class room at Cardiff High School, Wales, in 1979, and a lesson on British and Irish history with our wonderful O level teacher, Dr Davies. Back then, the name ‘Boycott’ was associated with cricket: the Yorkshire cricketer Geoffrey Boycott was in his pomp, having completed his 100th first-class century two years before. Dr Davies told us of another Boycott, who gave his name to the English language after he was ‘boycotted’ by a community in the west of Ireland in the 1880s. In other words, he was cancelled.

Charles Boycott was the agent of Lord Erne, a hated landowner in County Mayo in the west of Ireland. After Erne refused to accept the tenants’ plea for more affordable rents, Boycott tried to evict them. The community was outraged, and pressured people working for Boycott and local shops to refuse to deal with him. Boycott wrote a letter to The Times in London, which created sensational news stories around the world. Boycott left Ireland in disgrace soon after.

“The shopkeepers have been warned to stop all supplies to my house, and I have just received a message from the postmistress to say that the telegraph messenger was stopped and threatened on the road when bringing out a message to me and that she does not think it safe to send any telegrams which may come for me in the future for fear they should be abstracted and the messenger injured. My farm is public property; the people wander over it with impunity. My crops are trampled upon, carried away in quantities, and destroyed wholesale.

extract From charles boycott’s letter to the times, 14 october 1880

Essay in Irish history: my O level mock history paper, Cardiff High School, 1979

The treatment of Boycott gave a huge boost to the campaign for justice for Ireland’s rural tenants. Ireland was then part of the United Kingdom, and prime minister William Gladstone recognised that solving the land question was critical if he was to achieve his mission of ‘pacifying Ireland’. Parliament passed an Irish land act within months, in 1881, meeting the demand for the ‘three Fs’: fixed tenure, fair rents, and free sale of leases. A long-ago example of how cancel culture can force dramatic, historic reform.

Sent to … Coventry. Photo: BBC

As I reflected on that Irish boycott, I remembered another phrase that proves cancel culture’s long history. When I was growing up, it wasn’t unusual to hear of people being ‘sent to Coventry’ when they were being ostracised or given the cold shoulder. Some say that the expression dates back over 470 years to the English civil war, when Royalist prisoners would be taken to Coventry, where they would be shunned by the locals.

I will know better next time someone claims cancel culture is a uniquely 21st century issue!

Note: Charles Boycott was not an army captain. It seems he was given the title of captain by the local community, who did not intend it as a compliment.

Centenary of Britain’s Big Four railways

The Times marks LNER’s 100th birthday

The LNER rail company has been celebrating its centenary this week, with this splendid video:

I admire the company’s enterprising PR spirit. But there’s more to this 100th birthday than you’d think reading an @LNER tweet. The current LNER is just five years old, taking over rail services on the east coast main line in 2018. The new operator revived the name of the historic LNER, which was created on 1 January 1923 when some 120 British railway companies were grouped into the ‘Big Four’: GWR, LNER, LMS and Southern Railway. Those iconic brands disappeared exactly 25 years later when the railways were nationalised. Yet their enduring appeal led to three of the famous names being revived by privatised-era rail operators: GWR, Southern and LNER. (The reborn LNER scrapped the conjunction in the old name, London and North Eastern Railway.)

The British government’s 1920 white paper that led to the 1923 grouping

It is striking that the aim of the grouping was to make the railways more efficient, and to eliminate direct competition ‘as far as possible’. Indeed, Winston Churchill spoke in favour of nationalising the railways in 1918, but changed his mind by the time the 1945 Labour government nationalised the Big Four as British Railways. The eventual amalgamation created just four groups rather than the seven suggested in 1920.

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