I recently received, from a cousin, a small collection of old family photographs. The black and white images of my late parents’ wedding always invoke strong & wonderful memories. As their oldest child, born just 6 months after this occasion (a-hem !), I can remember this young, striking couple, optimistic that their life together in the post-war 1950s would be a material & social improvement on their childhood experience of economic depression & war. The cache also includes photos & a couple of pages from a scrapbook from 4 years earlier when Dad was an outstanding teenage track athlete, winning 4 County titles at youth level. I don’t know which member of his family had cut out & collected these local press clippings, there was obviously pride in his achievements. My father continued to compete throughout the next decade & I have many summer memories of watching him run. My sister & I are the only ones still around from that time so maybe it’s time to write them here before there is no-one left to remember them.
In 1949 Dad was 18 years old & became the National Junior Champion at 440 yards. The one lap sprint is a tough race & when he entered his 18 months of National Service (compulsory for males between 17-21) he won championships in the shorter sprints. On returning to England his most notable success was back over the longer distance when, in 1954, now married & a father of 2, he won the North of England title. I once asked him why he stopped running the 440 & he told me that it was just too bloody hard !
He trained, 2 evenings a week, at the well appointed sports ground of the steel company where he was employed & I was often taken along. I did what I could to help, carefully carrying the spiked running shoes but not the lightweight steel starting blocks he used, they were still too heavy & bulky for me. I could join the small group in their warm-up exercises & the best part, probably the reason I was there, assisted on their practice starts. Unfortunately I was not given a pistol. It was “on your marks…set” then I slapped together a pair of plywood clappers. No-one started until I did my thing. Over 30 years later I was back on that field playing cricket in the works league. The same summer sunlight, the same long shadows of the trees were a reminder of those times with Dad & his friends.
There were race meetings across the North of England all summer long back then. Our family travelled by coach with the other local athletes. While Dad prepared for his race I watched the other heats of his event. The races were handicapped & Dad was always at the back of the field. The combination of a young flyer with a favourable handicap could be dangerous. Down at the start of the final I passed on the intel, wished him luck then made my way to the finish line at the other end of the straight. Man, he was strong & powerful & fast. He didn’t always win, though it seems to me that he usually did. As we walked back together after the race I was probably more aware of the applause from the, often large, crowd than he was. It’s cool to hang out with the winner.
Of course this was an amateur sport & no money changed hands. Our house was full of trophies & prizes that he had won, clocks, canteens of cutlery & a couple of Fabulous Fifties bakelite picnic hampers that would be the very thing to have now. Everyone loves a picnic & Mum set the bar for alfresco alimentation pretty high. We sat trackside, cheering on our friends, filling up on hard-boiled eggs, sausage rolls & potted meat sandwiches. Life was good.
In 1958, when I was 5, my Dad, my godfather Tom White & myself crossed the Pennines for the Northern Counties Championships in Manchester. “Uncle” Tom was Dad’s coach & mentor, a National Champion at 880 yards he had competed in the Olympic Games in London (1948) & Helsinki (1952). I pestered him for details about his great international adventures & he was always considerate of this pesky kid. Dad’s win, 4 years earlier, was engraved on to the biggest trophy on show…impressive. We saw Derek Ibbotson, the then holder of the world mile record, a blue riband event after Roger Bannister had broken the 4-minute barrier for the distance in 1954. Dad called him over & this international star, glowing with fitness & celebrity, in an Olympic issue Great Britain tracksuit (he was a bronze medallist) , approached us for a chat. I was introduced & he shook my hand. I was speechless, my jaw still on the floor from this new information that a sporting hero actually knew my Dad’s name !
The following year the same crew hit the road for the longer journey to the National Championships. My first visit to that London, first time in a large, crowded sports stadium. We had no family car & the journey down the Great North Road, me in the back seat, listening to the men talk up front, was exhilarating. My over-excitement & curiosity (I was a curious boy !) possibly stretched their patience but I knew not to push it. This was too good a time for a motor-mouthed, indefatigable little kid to blow. I’m sure Tom & Dad were relieved when my energy finally ran out & I slept all the way home.
By 1960 there were 4 children in the family & Dad was busy at the steel plant, working with the asbestos fibres which invaded the lungs in his barrel chest, undoubtedly contributing to his early passing. There was less time to train & he was unlikely to maintain the form of his youth. He competed in fewer track meetings. There was also the attraction of his winter sport. Rugby is a team sport, on-field bonds of trust & friendship extended beyond the touchline. Our local club benefitted from his energy & enthusiasm long after his playing days were over. Dad had said that he would retire when he had played with his oldest son (that would be me). When that thing happened, (how great was it to have your Dad looking out for you on a rugby pitch ?), our house was a quieter place for the rest of the week.
As a teenager I had my own spiked shoes & pestered my reluctant Dad to assist our school athletics team. Our star sprinter was surprised when he would be busting himself while the trainer jogged alongside him barking out instruction. If Dad could not make the full session he would hand out our schedules, telling us that he didn’t care if we cheated on them, we would only be cheating ourselves. We had been told ! It worked, our performances improved & other athletes asked to join the most organized group on the track. The mellifluously named Melody, 19 & the fastest female in town, was, I hope, amused by her new gaggle of 14 year old admirers !
In later years I loved to watch televised track & field with Dad. On his own TV debut he had been disqualified for 2 false starts. Mum, watching on a neighbour’s set, was in tears. His expertise & his delight in exceptional performances were informative & inspirational. We attended a meeting in London, an opportunity to admire Britain’s great middle distance runners Cram, Coe & Ovett. At a Northern Championships I encountered an old friend who introduced Dad to some of the competitors. He was always happy in the company of young athletes whatever their sport. Watching him in animated conversation with the winner of the 400 metres, the same title he had won 40 years earlier, was just a gas, gas, gas.
I understand that these memories are rose-tinged. We had our differences, he was my Dad, it’s his job. The strong-legged, fast-twitch runner he was is an important part of carefree, endless summer childhood memories. Now, there’s an empty chair in the room when I watch the Olympics or the World Championships. I know that he would be appalled at the drug-fuelled disgrace of athletics while loving the unique abilities of Usain Bolt. I know that he would be telling it like it is. Sport…it’s something me & my Dad did.
Mal, That is a beautiful piece. Your dad sounds like quite a man.
Lovely stuff Mal
Thanks Stuart. The athletics meetings were often run alongside cycle races. Our stadium had a modern, banked velodrome but the bumpy grass tracks provided unpredictable entertainment.
I know what a big deal track and field was in the Midlands when I was growing up (Wolverhampton and Bilston, Tipton Harriers, Birchfield Harriers), all producing national and international champions.
I’m not sure how it fairing since I’ve moved away.