Source: Manchester Confidential
The writer Mike Duff once received a phone call from Andrew Motion, the ex-Poet Laureate, to congratulate him on a poem he’d written. “He said, ‘How long did it take you to write the poem?’ I said about five minutes. He said, ‘Good heavens!’. So I asked him how long it took him to write his Prince William poem. He said four months. I could see that was my chance. I couldn’t resist. I said, “Good heavens!”
On Saturday Duff was at ‘Course You Can, Malcolm’, FC United’s self-styled ‘club-night-in-the-afternoon-at-the-potty-end-of-the-tram-tracks’ (i.e. Gigg Lane) to launch his latest novel, Yer Wot? There was real ale and mince pies and potato hash with pickled cabbage. A small choir in Santa hats sang Pride Of All Europe and Fairytale of New York and then Duff gave a reading. The event was a fundraiser for the club’s development fund. They desperately need their own stadium, due to the cost of hiring out Bury’s for each home game. Duff will be donating the profits from the sale of the book.
The novel offers a fresh dollop of Duff’s familiar scally prose, cut-throat gags and impeccably observed characters, spinning a roughhouse Romeo and Juliet tale around what Duff calls ‘the Heartlands’: Moston, Harpurhey, Monsall, Newton Heath, Collyhurst, Miles Platting, Clayton. The plot unfolds around the birth of the breakaway football team, whose games the characters attend, and is a worthy successor to Low Life, the novel which made his name, which Duff wrote ten years ago on the rebound from an acrimonious divorce.
“I had a drink problem,” he said. “Which I’ve basically had all me life. And ‘cos I went round to the house and caused trouble…well it didn’t look good for me in court, did it?” Instead, he did his therapy on the page. “They were talking about supervised access and I said ‘God will die before you make me see my kids like that. So I went home and wrote Low Life.” He cites Kurt Vonnegut, Anthony Burgess and Bob Dylan as inspirations, but also Keith Waterhouse’s first novel, There Is A Happy Land. “Of course, my book’s a lot more violent than that.”
Low Life won a competition run by the Manchester publisher Commonword, and has since gone on to acquire local classic status. Guardian reviews and Granada profiles followed. Then in 2004 he won the BBC Poem For Manchester competition, prompting Motion’s call. Duff’s winning poem, ‘In The Rain’ is inscribed into the Manchester Curve Bridge on London Road. He says it’s the poems which give him the greater pride. You can read them in the Manchester United fanzine, United We Stand, most issues.
Duff signed a stream of books for supporters and fans, many of whom offered memories of previous, inebriated readings or personal connections to poems or passages from the novels. Then he got up to read a selection of verse from his collection, Of A Mancunian. We got ‘Rent Boy Crisis’, ‘On The Road To Harpurhey’, and an account of his brother’s death, last year, called ‘And John Terry Cried’. When he finished, he went home to look after his mam, who is 91 and bed-ridden. At Gigg Lane, FC duly emerged and got spanked 4-2 by league leaders Retford United – and truth be told, it was a real pre-Christmas stuffing, as the North East side’s forwards, Neil Harvey and Darryl Thomas, chopped up FC’s back four like a line of whizz, all afternoon. Even a Carlos Roca pearler, just before half time, couldn’t lift the home side.
The next day I called at Duff’s Blackley home. Sky Sports highlights were flickering brightly on the television; daughter Kerry was happily ensconced on the sofa. There was a wintry flush of health about the writer’s chops. He said he’s off the booze for the time being. “Did you see the Wigan goal?” he asked.
We talked about Bolton Wanderers and Saturday’s 3-3 with Manchester City. Though he’s Cheetham Hill born he’s been a fan of the Trotters since he was seven, though he rarely goes any more. “When we were winning 3-2, there was some glorious opportunities, one where Muamba was clean through. Then again, is it wise to be throwing four men forward when you’re 3-2 up against City?.”
He’s no love for Sky Blues (though daughter Kerry is a fan) and he thinks Hughes is wrong for them. “He’s a relegation manager, isn’t he?” He finds the current Trotters outfit something of a mixed bag. “I’ve got worries about Zat Knight – I didn’t think Andy O’Brien was that bad a player before him. But they bought two full backs…last season they played Steinsson, who I rated, and Samuels, who I think is all right. Then they buy Robinson and Ricketts, and I can’t understand what his [manager Gary Megson’s] game is.”
He says he keeps changing his mind about Megson. “He’s done the ‘ginger marine’ bit, which probably helped, and he’s better than Sammy Lee. They play a bit more football than they’re often given credit for. But to stay up…you’ve got to look at the teams we’re losing to. We lost to Wolves, for fuck’s sake.”
The team currently lie next from bottom of the Premiership table.
“The way I see it the next four games are going to be crucial. West Ham [on Tuesday night]. Wigan [next Monday]. Burnley [Boxing Day]. Hull [Dec 29]. We’ve got to pick up some points. ‘Cos after Christmas it’s Arsenal, Liverpool, City again and Sunderland away…”