THE first black man I can remember meeting face to face was the West Indies cricketer Charlie Griffith. Each team in the Lancashire League had one professional player and the demon bowler from Barbados was the choice of Burnley CC. In 1964, playing only at weekends, he took an astonishing 144 wickets at an average of 5.20, the highest total since the league was formed in the 19th century. A 6ft 2in mass of muscle, he was unplayable.
One Saturday that year, he arrived on a coach with the Burnley team to play my home town of Nelson and I was in the crowd armed with an autograph book to avoid any repetition of the scandalous Jimmy Adamson incident (boo, hiss). Diffidently I approached this huge figure, in my nine-year-old ignorance unaware whether he could speak English or not.
Waving the book at him I said: ‘Sign, pliss,’ in my best pidgin, hoping he’d understand. He grinned and in a strong Lancashire accent said: ‘No problem, pal, give us yer pen.’ If I had felt small before, by now I was vanishing through the cracks in the pavement.
Griffith was half of a fearsome West Indies bowling strike force along with Wes Hall, who at 6ft 5in was even bigger. Hall spent three years as the professional at Accrington, which shows the pulling power of the Lancashire League in them days. Among the youngsters at the club was David Lloyd, who would go on to play for Lancashire and England before finding his niche as ‘Bumble’ the commentator.
Hall was ‘the guy who really got me hooked on the game and the rest of the juniors who were here at the time,’ Lloyd said. ‘He gave me my first cricket bat.’
By the mid-1960s, 12 of the 14 Lancashire League clubs had West Indian professionals. Lloyd added: ‘I know the senior lads would look at the fixtures and book their holidays when you were up against one of the big quicks.’
Griffith’s Burnley team-mate Jack Schofield said the amateur batsmen ‘were obviously thinking, “I hope I get to work on Monday morning”. If you didn’t get out of the way you could get hit and get hurt.’
Big Charlie himself added: ‘Before you got there you could see they were very nervous. Some batsmen came in and you could see in his face – the fear.’
Sir Charles Christopher Griffith and Sir Wesley Winfield Hall are both still with us, aged 83 and 84 respectively. They would be quick to acknowledge that their road to Lancashire was paved by Learie Constantine.
In 1928 Nelson CC, heavily in debt, invested in the services of Constantine, a Trinidadian all-rounder. For the summer season he received an incredible £800, equivalent to £56,000 today, making him the best-paid sportsman in the country.
‘Schoolchildren were peeping through the window to see him,’ Nelson fan Edna Hartley told a BBC documentary. ‘They were all lining up to see him because they had never seen a black man. They even came from Yorkshire to watch!’
Constantine attracted record crowds of 7,000 as he led Nelson to seven league titles in nine seasons and once took all ten wickets in an innings for ten runs. He lived in the town for 19 years, becoming a barrister, a knight and Britain’s first black peer – Baron Constantine of Nelson. I remember a school photograph among my late mother’s possessions which included one black face among the pupils of Nelson Grammar – Learie’s daughter Gloria.
Among the Nelson professionals to succeed him were the Australians Ray Lindwall and Neil Hawke, the latter of whom would work with me on the Burnley Evening Star in the 1970s. Neil was great company, much larger than life. And he did wonders for our office cricket team. His glamorous wife, Elsa, wore tiny hotpants and opened a boutique in Nelson’s Arndale Centre called the Eye Catcher. Not sure if the local lasses were ready for it.
In 1987 another Lancashire League club, Rishton, near Blackburn, pulled off a coup by signing the mighty West Indies batsman Viv Richards, who arrived by helicopter half an hour before his debut and smashed 87 runs to win the match.
These days the league has lost a lot of its lustre but Lancashire remains imprinted on the hearts of its imported stars. In 2017 Sir Wes Hall told the BBC: ‘I am only 80 and if there is one thing I am going to do is return to Accrington some time.’
And Sir Vivian Richards, a self-proclaimed ‘honorary Lancastrian’, said: ‘Rishton sort of opened their arms. It’s not just the memories of what you accomplish in county cricket, Test match cricket or world series cricket. That was something very special.’
RETURNING to the Nelson of my youth, from the age of 15 I was a regular at the Bull Hotel, a Whitbread pub 50 yards or so from my back door. My friends and I were clearly under-age but so long as we kept to a corner in the tap room and behaved ourselves while supping the fizzy keg beer, everything was tickety-boo.
The proudest moment of my life thus far was when at 16 I sauntered into the Bull and Ron the landlord said: ‘The usual?’
Old Jokes’ Home
Two unemployed Irishmen are walking through a wood when Mick points out a sign saying: ‘Tree fellers wanted.’ Paddy protests: ‘But there’s only two of us!’
A PS from PG
As is so often the case with butlers, there was a good deal of Beach. Julius Caesar, who liked to have men about him who were fat, would have taken to him at once. He was a man who had made two chins grow where only one had been before, and his waistcoat swelled like the sail of a racing yacht.
PG Wodehouse: Galahad at Blandings