As the majority of you will know the TTSC shop at the Grandstand is situated next to the TT Marshals’ Association Office; this close juxtaposition led to a chance meeting between myself and Eric Alexander, a past Chairman of the Marshal’s Association. Eric proved a fascinating person to chat with, being highly conversant in more than just motorcycle racing. His first recollection of our two-wheeled sport was when his sister and her boyfriend took him, as a small boy, to Ballacraine and Creg ny Baa during the last meeting before the Second World War, the 1939 TT.
Eric was not able to watch the 1946 MGP, which saw the return of racing to the Mountain Course, but has been involved, more or less, ever since, evidenced by his comprehensive collection of programmes and newspaper cuttings. In fact his interest was becoming quite well known, Eric explains, “1948 was School certificate year for me at Manchester Grammar School and when I returned five days late after the Whitsun holidays, my Form Master, renown for his acid tongue, greeted me, ‘nice to have you back, Alexander, trust you had a good TT’. My eventual career was as a commercial artist and industrial designer and at that time my school books were covered with drawings of motor bikes, aeroplanes and facsimile footballers autographs, no doubt observed by vigilant staff”.
How did the Alexanders become connected with the Isle of Man? “My family visited Port St Mary each summer from 1921, purchasing some building land at Port Erin before the 1939/45 War, but sold it and bought our current home in Port St Mary at the end of the ‘40s. I lived and worked in the Manchester area until moving back to the Island in 1973”.
It was, in fact, the mention of Manchester that got us talking about out other mutual love – football. It was only then that I, a true “red”, realised I was talking to a former Chairman of Manchester City Football Club. The Alexander family is steeped in the history of the club, with Eric’s Grandfather, Albert, later to become President, putting up some of the money to help build Maine Road. Eric’s father, also called Albert, was associated with the Club for over 60 years, starting the “A” Team in 1921 and being responsible for bringing Matt Busby to City from Scotland in the ‘30s and for turning him from an inside forward into a wing half, because he thought he was too slow. So when did Eric become involved? “I went on to the Board at the end of our championship winning season, ‘67-’68 and became Chairman three years later when Dad was made President”. Eric resigned from that position in 1983, having introduced the first successful under-soil heating system to British football and pioneering pop-up sprinklers as well as overseeing some of the most successful years in the Club’s history. Eric still travels over to Manchester to watch most of City’s home games.
Back to two wheels, in particular, marshalling, so when did it all begin? “I first marshalled in 1952 at Drinkwater’s Bend [11th Milestone] and believe I’ve spectated or marshalled at about every bend or kink on the TT Course over the past 53 years, even ‘doing’ a week’s morning practice at the Gooseneck, all the way from Port St Mary, proving I’m either barmy or an enthusiast”.
Eric served as an Officer Cadet at RAF Jurby during the 1950s, still marshalling at Ballaugh and Sulby Bridge; in fact in ’54, the Boy Scouts were still at school when the Clubman Races were run during Practice Week, so we, in the Yellow Squadron, were drafted in to operate the Glencrutchery Road scoreboards. Eric also attempted to initiate his fellow squaddies into the rudiments of IoM road racing by writing an article about the TT races in the squadron magazine, “Yellow Fever”.
Over the years Eric has served as Deputy and then Chief Sector Marshal before becoming Chairman of the TT Marshall’s Association; Eric takes up the story, “I offered to take up the Chairmanship for 2003 on the understanding that younger members must come forward and fill the executive positions whilst there were older and experienced members able to ‘teach them the ropes’. Sadly, but not unexpectedly, few younger marshals have been willing to take responsibility, although we have some very efficient ones coming through the system. We have an enthusiastic and knowledgeable Secretary in Brian Smith and things are definitely on the up. With the creation of the Limited Company last year, I did not have the time to spend many hours and winter travel attending winter meetings and so retired gracefully”.
Much comment was made about the marshalling around the Mountain Course, not all of it positive, following the David Jefferies’ accident of last year so our conversation naturally moved in the direction of training, Eric explains current thinking, “Incident Management Courses are held regularly on the Island and recently a team went to England to hold an inaugural course for English based marshals, hopefully the forerunner of a regular system, which can only be helpful to both countries”.
Eric passed on to me a copy of the TT 2004 Association Handbook – ‘Marshalling Matters’, which makes interesting reading, clearly setting out and explaining the roles of the marshals. Isn’t it somewhat daunting for the would-be marshal? - not at all, as Eric explains, “a new marshal receives training, is never put on his or her own, but always with experienced marshals and there is no expectation that attendance must be given to every practice or race”. Eric is passionate about the TT and the organisation of it, defending the marshals’ position to the hilt, exemplified by the letter he wrote to the Isle of Man Examiner in September of last year after the completion of the inquest into DJ’s tragic accident in which he stated “the vast majority of riders fully appreciate that without marshals there would be no racing and that their cooperation is for the good of all. It is not funny to be in the middle of the road, round a blind corner, kneeling by a fallen rider or clearing the road when some irresponsible clown comes upon the scene having virtually ignored the warning signs and flagging”.
There has been some scepticism about the future, not on Eric’s part, “the prophets of doom foretell the Races will fold after 2007 but at the present time I see no reason why they should not continue in to the foreseeable future. Both TT and MGP are usually over-subscribed and there are plenty of very good young riders coming up the lists. The Manx Motorcycle Club taking over the organisation of the TT this year was considered a good move by the great majority of competitors and next year is the Golden Jubilee of the Southern 100, so racing is in good heart on the Island. For myself, I only missed the 1955 and 1962 TTs and four MGPs in the ‘50s and I hope to assist with or at least spectate at a few more yet”.
Despite having retired from organisational and administrative positions Eric is still active “on the course” in his role as Chief Sector Marshal for Sector 3 from Greeba Castle to Ballig Bridge, usually being found at Ballacraine, passing on his wealth of experience to those learning the trade. Interestingly, at the MGP of 2003, Eric used a pedometer to find out how many miles he covered during the fortnight of practicing and racing. All of his duties during this period, including the walking of his section from one end to the other and back again, amassed a total of 74 miles – very nearly two laps of the Mountain Course!
It was a pleasure to talk with Eric; it’s reassuring for the future of road racing on the Isle of Man that so many individuals like him are prepared to assist in the organisation of our sport. Thanks, Eric for all the help given to me in writing this article.