Hugh MacDonald talks to people's historian Daniel Gray about his journeys to the past

THIS is what he talks about when he talks about love.

“I wouldn’t be here without it,” says Daniel Gray, looking out onto to Cockburn Street, whose brightness gives the merest suspicion of an Edinburgh summer. The fact of love is geographical, professional, emotional and, of course, physical for Gray.

It revolves around a ball. “Without going to football, I would never have been a writer,” he says simply. He would also not have been an author, TV presenter, husband or father. Or at least not in Edinburgh.

It is somehow almost predictable that Gray, 35, met his wife 14 years ago when on an expedition from his native north-east England to watch a former Middlesbrough stalwart, Phil Stamp, play for Hearts. “Partick away and he didn’t even start,” he says.

Gray and friend repaired to an Edinburgh nightclub, where he met his future wife. He came to live in Edinburgh but Middlesbrough is still in the marrow as well as the heart. “My first Middlesbrough game was a formative thing. I still go and it is still much of my identity,” he says. So what is this identity?

Gray, quietly but surely, has become the writer of stunning books whose substance belie their brevity. They are the Slim Jim of books, confident yet admitting to the power of emotion and elegant in their purpose and devastating in their power. The most recent are Saturday, 3pm, a love letter to watching football, and Scribbles in the Margin, a love letter to reading.

Love, yet again. But it is a passion that is supported by hard work, diligent research and a willingness to throw himself at the mercy of the capricious mistress that is publishing, journalism and broadcasting in the 21st century.

He is the writer of Homage to Caledonia, a testimony to Scottish involvement in the Spanish Civil war, the holder of the title of People’s Historian in his programmes for STV and an indefatigable traveller in search of a football game – preferably, but not necessarily, one involving Middlesbrough.

His love of words has sustained him personally and now professionally. It started, of course, at the football. “I remember getting my first copy of Fly Me to the Moon, the Middlesbrough fanzine. It fell in the Hallgate end during a 1-1 draw with Southend United,” he says as if referring to manna from heaven. “We missed a penalty and someone threw it down in disgust. I was 10 or 11 and I picked it up and I read it and I discovered writing about football could be funny, daft, angry, spiky.”

He was contributing to the fanzine 10 years later. “That moment of first seeing your words in print is thrilling,” he says. It still is. There is an energy, even joy that runs through his writing. No-one who loves football could dislike Saturday, 3pm. No-one who loves reading could put down Scribbles in the Margin.

This devotion to words all started in a football stand but it was nurtured elsewhere. “I only went to school to play football but sixth-form college changed me,” he says. “I found teachers there respected your opinion or at least allowed you to air it. They made literature exciting again. At school I found the breaking down of poetry really depressing. At college I learned that poetry was about the way it hit you in the heart, not just about assonance and alliteration.

“I also found out that you could learn about the history you were interested in.”

His development as a writer took a major step when he subsequently studied politics and history at Newcastle University.

“A lecturer knew I did some writing and had an interest in left-wing ideology so he asked me to be his researcher for a historical dictionary of Marxism. He was so far behind the deadline I had to write half of it for him.

“He gave me a big list of entries and it shows my own leanings that the John Maclean entry is much longer than the one about the People’s Republic of China.”

The last is said with a smile but one that does not seek to disguise Gray’s fascination with politics and history which both accompanies and enhances his love of football.

This ability to distil Marxist alienation theory into a 200-word dictionary entry has stayed with him. He writes with a flourish but also with enviable economy.

After the pilgrimage to watch Phil Stamp, Gray stayed in Edinburgh to become an archivist at the National Library of Scotland and was seduced by the tales of the International Brigade who fought in the Spanish Civil War.

“I was amazed by this wider story of how involved Scotland was in the war. Not just the people who went but the aid movement back here, and there was some great oral testimony,” he says. Homage to Caledonia became the basis of a TV programme, the Scots who Fought Franco, and Gray moved into presenting as the People’s Historian, and writing a history of whisky presented by David Hayman in a BBC TV series.

“History is for everyone. It is not owned by professors, it is not owned by authors, but by all of us. I am not so interested in the history of kings and castles but in the lives of people.”

This is true both of his football books and those writings on other matters.

“I loved the letters home by the International Brigaders, talking about Burns suppers or matches between English brigades and Scottish brigades. I also found out so much about other areas of Scotland rather than just Red Clydeside.

Aberdeen was a radical place where fascists were run out of town. Cowdenbeath was put under martial law. Gagarin Street in Lumphinnans is still there. I am obsessed with the 20s and 30s. I keep falling in love with footballers who are long dead such as wee Willie Crilly of Alloa.”

The passion is obvious. “I am here because I fell in love,” he says again. “I suppose my philosophy is you throw out your heart and chase after it.”


Favourite book: I will choose one non-fiction and one fiction. The Far Corner by Harry Pearson, which I read every year, is my non-fiction choice. And the novel is The Outsider by Camus which I first read when I was about 14.

Biggest influence: My mum, who always went to night schools when I was growing up. That taught me that learning is lifelong.

Favourite football moment: It would be Middlesbrough scoring at Wembley in 1997 in the League Cup final.

Favourite ground: Cappielow, with Somerset Park a close second and Palmerston third.

Favourite music: Manic Street Preachers and I Am Kloot Favourite period in history: The 1920s and 1930s in Scotland or England

Favourite period in history: The 1920s and 1930s in Scotland or England