Asked why Australians are so good at sport, Dame Edna Everage replied: "Because there is nothing intellectual to distract people from it." Until the turn of the century the same held true of north-east England. Nowadays, the region is brimming with cultural distractions - The Sage, Baltic, mima, The Potato and Egg Shop - but back then it was a case of football, or eff all.
Two travellers from this less enlightened time battled their way on to the train the other day in a whirl of haversacks, Thermos flasks and muttered curses, and plonked themselves opposite me. Both had the big red faces of northern working men and voices built to be heard above the roar of heavy machinery.
The men on the train arranged themselves noisily. One stretched and groaned, the other cleared his nostrils with a noise like an emerging whale. "Did I say," the first man said, "I was talking to Peter Beardsley the other day?" "I didn't know you knew Peter Beardsley," his companion replied.
"Well, I don't know him, know him," the first man said. "But I know him, like."
"Well, obviously, man. Everybody knows Peter."
"I'll tell you something," the first man continued. "He seems a lot taller now than when we watched him playing."
"Mebbe he's had surgery," the second man said sarcastically. There was a note of peevishness in his voice. Envy, I suspect. It is always annoying when somebody else has encountered a famous person and you haven't.
There was a short silence, a sort of verbal staring match, until the second man cracked and asked: "Where was this, then?"
"Kingston Park Tesco's," the first man said.
"In the cheese aisle."
"In the cheese aisle?" his friend repeated.
"Don't sound that surprised. It's not like he was in ladies toiletries."
"So Peter was buying cheese, like?"
"What sort of cheese?"
"Well, I didn't like to stare at his trolley directly, case he thought I was prying, but I got a glance at it, and I think it was that Wensleydale with berries."
"Aw, hey, I'm not fond of that," the second man said with feeling. "I don't like cheese with owt in it."
"Me neither. But mind, Peter's lived all over the country, hasn't he?" the first man said wisely. "Merseyside, Manchester ..."
"Carlisle," his companion added.
"Aye, Carlisle," the first man said. "So he's likely acquired a taste for that sort of thing, on his travels."
"So what did you say to him?"
"I said 'How, Peter. How are you doing?' And he said, natural as could be like, 'Fine, thanks. How about you?' And I said 'Canny, thanks Peter.' And he said 'That's good. See you then.' And off he went. What a lovely feller." The first man folded his hands across his stomach and grinned broadly.
"You weren't tempted to ask him about the current situation at St James' then?" the other asked.
"I wasn't. And even if I had, I doubt Peter'd have said owt about it."
"Aye," the second man said, "he'd have kept his own counsel, Peter."
"Mind, if I see him again I'll likely ask him," the first man said brightly.
"Aye well, you'll be able to, won't you?" the first man said with a trace of scorn, "Now you've established a rapport."
And then they lapsed into silent contemplation of that happy moment as they train rattled onwards in the thickening darkness.