A JOURNEY WELL WORTH THE TAKING

By Clayton Goodwin

On 10th May 1948 – his 29th birthday – my father took me to a charity cricket game at the county Bat and Ball ground at Gravesend. Kent were playing the Mayor of Gravesend’s XI which comprised a mixture of current and former players. The batting was opened by Allan Rae, a young left-handed Jamaican who had made a name in club cricket but not yet made his Test debut. That was to come the following winter. He struck the ball repeatedly into the gardens of neighbouring Trafalgar Road as I feared for the safety of our baker’s-roundsman Harry Wise and his family who lived there. This side of Rae was not seen in his international career because he provided the defensive foundation for the free-scoring middle-order.

Fifty-two years later Allan and myself were press-box colleagues. As we chatted by the coffee-machine in a break in play of the Test Match play at Birmingham he recalled every detail of that minor game played a life-time ago. He mentioned that most of the team were drawn from the Hampshire county side (with a few celebrities, such as Bill O’Reilly and Jack Fingleton added), that they met at a London railway terminus and travelled together by train to the Kentish town. He even recalled the topics of conversation on that journey.

Allan Rae was perhaps the key batsman in West Indies’ triumph over England in 1950. The alliterative Worrell, Weekes and Walcott made the highest scores and took the eye, but the Jamaican’s centuries at both Lord’s and the Oval set up the victories. “Rae had confidence, so he put up a strong defence” sang the calypsonian in the famous “Cricket, lovely cricket” calypso. Of the stroke-players has there been a greater triumvirate than the graceful Frank Worrell, powerful Clyde Walcott, and masterful Everton Weekes whose style and precision were reminiscent of Donald Bradman. The last-named was not fully fit when I saw him bat against Kent at Canterbury in 1957 and could not do justice to his talents.  (Walcott hit an imposing century in that game). Yet Weekes played a memorable, defiant innings – falling just short of three figures – on a fiery pitch in a vain attempt to stave off defeat in the Test at Lord’s.

I saw West Indies play for the first time on the opening day of the Test match at the Oval in 1957. England won the toss and batted. David Sheppard, a clergyman, and Peter Richardson began proceedings with a 92 runs stand. The former, who no longer played cricket regularly had the knack of raising his game immediately to international standard when his calling permitted him the time to do so. The church claimed his career from cricket and he rose to become Bishop of Liverpool. As we left the ground at the close of play we turned to acknowledge a driver who had stopped to let us cross the street – the driver was Rev’d Sheppard himself.

When the West Indies returned six years later I was in the press-box for the Test match at Lord’s in June 1963. It was the first such match on which I reported. It has gone down in legend as the most consistently exciting and evenly-contested Test in history. Only four runs separated the teams on first innings, and it stayed that way. There were many heroic achievements, none greater than that of Wesley Hall, the Barbadian fast bowler who toiled without rest throughout the last afternoon. He had bowled the final over in the dramatic Brisbane (ties) three years earlier, and he did so again here. In a tight finish in which one loose delivery could have cost West Indies the match, Hall kept the ball up to the bat. At the penultimate delivery all four results were possible, and the Test ended in a draw with four runs and two wickets the respective margins.

The West Indies cricketers were more than just sportsmen. They shaped the English public’s understanding and image of all West Indians, and, indeed, Black people in general. Over the next decade, however, an array of role models developed. The host community could now draw on their own experiences of – for example – neighbours and entertainers. By the beginning of the 1970s they had both in the television comedy series Love Thy Neighbour. Although it has become derided subsequently for its outdated racial and social attitudes, the programme was very much of its time a genuine attempt to prick racial stereotypes by humour at a time of misunderstanding and simmering community resentment.

The West Indian stars of the programme were Rudolph Walker and Nina Baden-Semper, both Trinidadian. I have been privileged to know both for many years. In fact, I had got to know the former, through a mutual friend Rema Nelson, when he had a minor role in Benito Cereno at the Mermaid Theatre, and the latter during her performance in the Martin Luther King Story at the Greenwich Theatre. Rudolph, a deep thinker and serious intent (as well as humour), has achieved stardom for his role in the very popular soap-opera East Enders and become the doyen of the UK West Indian theatre and television. Yet for many people Nina has remained the image of the earlier innocence.

Nor did the public have to wait until West Indies toured before we saw West Indian cricketers in person. Almost all the first-class counties had developed their own Caribbean talent. Following the example of Roland Butcher, who had made his debut for England in 1980, quite a number went on to play for the country. Gladstone Small, the cheerful and whole-hearted Barbadian fast bowler from Warwickshire, was representative of a generation of cricketers who were West Indian by birth and/or family and English by definition and commitment.

People of West Indian heritage had risen to the top in many aspects of contemporary British life. Rt Rev’d Wilfred Wood, Bishop of Croydon, was the most prominent Black representative of the Anglican Church in England. Indeed, churches and fraternal associations were integral to the framework of the West Indian, and particularly Jamaican, community. Rev’d Cecil Cobran, short, cheery and always with a ready quip, whom I had known since he founded the United Amalgamated Fraternal Association with Wilfred Barrows in 1970, became chaplain to the Jamaican High Commission.

Although the first Black members were not elected to the House of Commons until 1987, West Indians and Africans had made steady progress across the country in winning local government council seats and even mayoralties. By the turn of century Joseph Jaggon, a trade unionist, was the first Jamaican Mayor of Gravesham (as Gravesend had become), a feat which would have been unthinkable when I grew up there and Allan Rae was hitting sixes into Trafalgar Road. Rural areas, such as those in Kent, as well the main conurbations had their own West Indian community which considered itself to be every bit as local and relevant as those whose forebears had lived there for many years.

In June 2000 all – or most – of the people mentioned here found that their paths crossed when they came together for a service celebrating the Centenary of West Indian cricket tours to England which I was privileged to present at the church of St Martin’s in the Field, Trafalgar Square, London. It was a very hot summer day and the vicar, Rev’d Nicholas Holtam, allowed us to play publicly a tape of “Cricket, lovely Cricket”. The event could not have come about without the sponsorship of BWIA airways and the support of His Excellent Laleshwar Singh, High Commissioner for Guyana and dean of the college of Commonwealth Caribbean high commissioners.

Rt Rev’d David Sheppard and Rev’d Wesley Hall preached the sermons; Rudolph Walker and distinguished English actor (Lord) Brian Rix read the lessons; Rt Rev’d Wilfred Wood and Rev’d Cecil Cobran gave the blessing; Everton Weekes and Allan Rae (as the tape played “Rae had confidence”) represented former Test cricketers and Gladstone Small was there on behalf cricketers; the lady Lord Mayor of Westminster spoke an introduction; Nina Baden-Semper and Trevor Phillips, Chairman of the Race Relations Council, addressed the assembly; Sandra Andrew sang a solo; well-known commentator and journalist (Joseph) Reds Perreira, boxing champion Gary Mason, Mayor Joseph Jaggon and other civic dignitaries joined all the Commonwealth Caribbean high commissions, and many others, in attendance

Afterwards they mingled with each other and the public in the sunshine on the steps of St Martin’s in the heart of London.

It had been quite a journey, and very well worth the taking.

 

   
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