Barry Walsh – The Inverse Buccaneer

de Havilland

To look at him now is to miss the man he was. Perhaps in the small, wrinkled canyons which line his face, it is possible to see a sliver of the past, a glimpse of the famous de Havilland Aircraft Company – his former employer – but mainly he is as unrecognisable as the large field and forest that Horwich once was.

Barry Walsh, born in June 1942 – six months after Pearl Harbour – loves three things: history; football; and table tennis. His living room is lined with books about the Second World War – fights at sea, land battles and the prodigious personalities that dominated the era.

He reels off, in a slightly stuttered fashion, a quote from Franklin D. Roosevelt following the destruction of USS Kearny by a German U-boat: “…history has recorded who fired the first shot. In the long run, however, all that will matter is who fired the last shot.”

Such feeling, such inspiration, matters to Walsh. Powerful radio broadcasts, before he even travelled the womb, somehow capture what he represents – what he stands for and looks to uphold.

A former committee member at the Hilton Table Tennis Centre and one of six official key holders, Walsh only recently stepped down. Seven years of ‘letting people in’ was enough. The man always seen on Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays was reducing his outings to just one thus finally retiring in legitimate fashion.

Recent years on the table tennis circuit have led to this moment – his number of matches declining from 72 (2011/12), to 21 (2012/13) to a mere 6 (2013/14); his last victory a season-ending barnstormer against John Lawrence on 6th April 2012 (11-8, 11-8, 11-6). Lawrence twice bowed to the might of Walsh that season, as did Eric Shaw and Bob Waller.

Those days cease to hold much significance for Walsh though. Despite being one half of the uproarious Summer League outfit, the Coffin Dodgers and noted for wearing a fine collection of bob hats and T-shirts at the club, it is the 1950s and 60s that still have him entranced.

Re-awakening memories of his first few years of employment in the engineering sector and his initial rejection by de Havilland, he recalls: “Listen to this. This is what people can do. My brother Clive knew an upstairs guy – one of the bosses. He got me in. Those eight or nine years made me. It was proper engineering. Horwich was a massive place.”

Given the nickname ‘Chert’ from his footballing days, Walsh understood the importance of working for a grand and reputable British aviation manufacturer – its premises built in Horwich in 1937; “part of a group of ‘shadow’ factories constructed in Lancashire, away from the main bombing zone in the south.”

The Mosquito (1940), the Vampire (1943) and the Comet (1949) still fly through the mind of Walsh. They provide succour and compound his great thoughts of Church Road “bomber command” teacher, Mr Worrell.

Aware of his pupil’s eyesight deficiency and the need to wear glasses, Worrell produced the classic words: “Walsh – you’ll have to play at left back.”

From left back to engineering to table tennis, Walsh’s size 7 ½ feet now stand at the crest of a small mountain having been made an Honorary Lifetime Member of the Hilton Centre. For the inverse buccaneer, it is another beginning.


BLGC Seek Next Generation

Empires fall. Bit by bit they disintegrate – marry their mortar with the dust and dirt on the ground. The Ottomans, the Romans, the Persians, the Mongols – all had their era, their might, a trail of subjects and slaves; hubristic legacies now largely forgotten, yet represented by potent dents in the minds of historians and archeologists.

The Bolton Lads’ Club began life in 1889 as the Children’s Bolton Club. It was the same year that gave birth to the Eiffel Tower, Adolf Hitler and Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night.

Founded by two church leaders and three industrialists, acutely aware of the plight of young, cotton mill children and their need, initially, just to be “able to wash, eat and sleep in peace away from their looms”, it served a distinguished role as a hostel.

Less than a decade later, the stampede began: “They came in their hundreds, for of all animals, lads are perhaps the most gregarious. They came to meet their fellows under conditions somewhat more comfortable and convenient than their natural meeting place, the street. They initially came for amusement and for games and for nothing else, and if we had told them it was our intention to improve them they would certainly not have come.

“But it is interesting how quickly their attitude to the club has changed, it is no longer our club, it is theirs, and we merely manage it for them. It is no longer a mere place of amusement, but is a place which plays a real part in their lives. It is a place for honour and for success.”

In 1947 table tennis entered the Lads’ Club’s doors. Bark Street – the old location – welcomed the fevered game, entered its recruits into the Bolton League. And so, the beautiful sport was inaugurated, two decades after the first World Championships in London and the year the International Table Tennis Federation or ITTF was formed (1926).

This led to a crossover point in 1952 – Japan’s World Champion, Hiroji Satoh signalling the end of the hard bat / pimpled rubber era and the rise of the sponge bat. From wiff-waff, to ping-pong, to table tennis sophisticates, the game developed – reducing the net height from 6 ¾” to 6”, introducing US celluloid balls and embracing technology on an unprecedented scale.

The Lads’ Club evolved by introducing girls into its ranks. In 2002, Team BLGC moved to its new £5million premises on Spa Road – the rear of the building resting impressively on White Lion Brow.

Inside, Tomorrows Citizens roam. Sports and games are played – basketball, pool, Xbox, football, boxing, gym. Underneath the Harrison Burton Climbing Wall, however, is a pitiful sight: two TT tables. (There used to be five permanently unfolded.) Numbers are short. Coach Roger Bertrand (07530 690985) and volunteer Ian Monk (07903 827703) have just three 12-18 year olds for the forthcoming September-April season. They are, in many ways, the Blackpool FC of the table tennis league.

What has gone wrong? How can they resurrect the glory days (2012/13) when their ‘A’ team finished a credible 6th in Division Four?

By its very nature, a youth club loses players. Suddenly, there is nothing to replenish the squad though. The feeder club’s diet is now a mirage.

Bold/passionate, empire-saving youngsters required: Mondays 5-7pm & Thursdays 6-9pm. Bertrand is waiting.

A Tale of Two Dogs

two dogs

Summer League Final:

Ivory Toasters       12
Hilton C                     10

In the panoramic slide of action inside the Hilton Centre, it is as if a rainbow has fallen. The coloured tops are many, the mannerisms assorted, the styles like a succession of rival comedians.

On the top wall are pinned seven notices: IMPORTANT REMINDER ABOUT SHOES; PLEASE REMEMBER – TURN ON ALL FANS; etc. One imagines they were last read many years ago. One imagines that even if they were waved around by an air stewardess pre-match, the players would still be singularly focused – not bidden by the flat charms of instructive words.

The summer league final is an important marker of talent. It defines a limited field of entrants, affords them the chance of playing against loftier or dubious opposition. And yet the winners are neither recorded in the annual handbook nor engraved on a panel out of reach of sticky hands.

They should be – if only to attract a deeper body of competitors.

No matter. The finalists are of good calibre. Representing the Ivory Toasters are Krishna Chauhan and Wilson Parker – combined age 33; players pulled from a whippersnapper enclave. Hilton C – Chris Naylor and Annie Hudson – are veterans by comparison (73), although mostly loaded up with Naylor’s fifty years, keen reptilian eyes and quick-talking mien.

He kneels and chats beforehand with Division One foe, Mark Speakman, toys with a bottle of water, thinks not of the matches about to unfold but of something more serene.

Hudson, his playing partner, pretty feet bound up in green-trimmed socks and purple Nike, has an air of cross-legged relaxation about her. The kids opposite are nothing she has not seen before.

‘Are you ready?’ comes the prompt from Parker, his hair quiffed to the side, looking dandy – surely washed less than two hours ago.

He steps up. Opposite is Hudson, the tormentor, the British League doyenne – not to be fazed, not to be out-swaggered by the pumped-up game of Parker.

Except, Parker leads 11-9, 6-0. Hudson appears ragged – hitting too many long; a slight look of disgust permeating her face. Composure rarely leaves her, troops out of town, yet she seems wounded by the Parker artillery – unsettled and faint.

A nick of the table reduces matters to 6-2, Parker ‘net and off’ 7-5, a trademark Hudson positional shot: 10-8. Then comes the Hudson resilience, the know-how: four straight points – Parker tossing away the second set (10-12) as if on an agitated horse.

Naylor calls a tactical break – has a word with his recovering lioness. We then see the new Annie, the old Annie – whichever makes this game look so easy. Barely moving, it is as if every ball TomToms to her blade. Parker falls, loses sets three and four 10-12, 9-11.

‘I just choked – whole game went down the drain.’ A glimmer of honesty beneath the often tart mouth – a player’s fortune reversed within minutes. This is not football, or cricket or any of those ‘long’ games. It is table tennis – judge, jury and executioner; the swing of a bat critical and unforgiving.

Parker “The Rottweiler” is fortunate to have the calm, southpaw Chauhan in his camp. Apoplectic tirades suggest otherwise during their doubles loss (2-3), but Chauhan “The Labrador” – two singles wins (3-2 versus Naylor and Hudson) – is instrumental despite reigning champ, Parker’s timely skinning of Naylor (3-0).

Keep on Runnin’

“The dread of getting old is a universal, if intermittent preoccupation. ‘As I give thought to the matter,’ said Cicero, ‘I find four causes for the apparent misery of old age: first, it withdraws us from active accomplishment; second, it renders the body less powerful; third, it deprives us of almost all forms of enjoyment; fourth, it stands not far from death.’”

2014 will not come around again – neither in number, nor in its sweeping assailment of great names. Football has mourned the imperious Alfredo Di Stefano (aged 88), the exquisite Tom Finney (91) and the explosive Eusebio (71). Politics/journalism has lost the ameliorative Bob Crow (52), the messianic Tony Benn (88) and the outspoken Joe McGinniss (71).

One could compare the year – if ballsy enough – with 2005 when literature lamented the departure of Arthur Miller (89), Hunter S. Thompson (67) and Saul Bellow (89) – men whose perception of that around them astounded and left in wonderment the reader and listener.

Squeezed into this life are naivety, easy optimism, flair, fear and the wisdom of knowing that we know nothing. Beyond the pallor and impoverishment of old age, however, are those ready to defy Cicero’s first cause; players and sportsmen for whom creaking knees and ravaged minds are modest hindrances.

Across eight table tennis clubs, the septuagenarians stretch – the two octogenarians in the league, Brian Hall and Colin Roberts respectively ruminating over the “continued challenge…obsession” and the perhaps unmatched feat of winning “seven Ron Hindle trophies”.

Player 2014/15 Club Born
1 Brian Hall Div 2 Hilton May 1933
2 Colin Roberts Div 4 Heaton Jun 1933
3 Alan Lansdale Div 2 Little Lever May 1935
4 Johnny Scowcroft Div 1 Heaton Feb 1936
5 Alan Bradshaw Div 2 Hilton Mar 1936
6 Keith Phillips Div 4 St Paul’s Peel 1936(?)
7 Jackie Smith Div 4 Meadow Hill Apr 1938
8 Neville Singh Div 4 Irlam Steel Sep 1938
9 Ian Wheeldon Div 2 Meadow Ben Feb 1939
10 Alan Hibbert Div 4 Meadow Ben 1939(?)
11 Brian Young Div 3 Hilton Feb 1940
12 Geoff Rushton Div 2 Farnworth SC Sep 1940
13 Mel Brooks Div 3 Heaton Oct 1941
14 Barry Walsh Div 2 Hilton Jun 1942
15 Dave Waite Div 4 St Paul’s Peel 1942(?)
16 Dave Jones Snr Div 2 Heaton 1942(?)
17 Richard Reading Div 3 Hilton Apr 1943
18 Dave Parker Div 4 Hilton Aug 1944

The bug that is table tennis surpasses the doom-like proclamations of hardy philosophers (“Wrinkles are harbingers of a slide to nothingness, not marks of a transcendence to come.”) It casts a wand over leaden feet and comfy chairs. The tales of the ‘oldies’, of the players that keep on running are but specks in a whirling universe, yet they must be heard:

Alan Bradshaw – “I did my 2-years national service from 1954 to 1956 [during which time] I won a lot of regimental table tennis contests. After winning thirteen competitions in the NAAFI canteen, I was advised not to enter any more.”

Neville Singh – “I used to play on a rolling and pitching ship in the Atlantic Ocean.”

Ian Wheeldon – “There was a room under the local church where we could practise at any time…collecting the key from the vicarage.”

Geoff Rushton – “Coached my son, Andrew to the Commonwealth Games silver medal (2006).”

Richard Reading – “First played table tennis at Bovington (Army) Camp in 1960. It led me to becoming an international athlete.”

The birth certificate of Dave Parker will be scrutinised next month. He will be the newest member of the clan, of the 70+ brigade and to Brian Hall a mere pup.


Fumata nera

‘Big’ Bob Jackson of Wharton United Reformed Church phoned me around tea time on Thursday, 27th March. I had been getting ready, gearing up for the Wharton versus Little Lever ‘A’ table tennis match – the last of their league season and what was to mark my official entry into The Sixteen Club; a pantheon of individuals who had witnessed or played a match at all of the current B&DTTL venues.

The imagined papal conclave was playing eeny, meeny, miny, moe with the Fumata bianca (elected) and Fumata nera (less than 2/3 majority) chemicals in a jolly, high-spirited game of white smoke/dark smoke. Could we check the mileage on his car? Had he actually visited fifteen of these historical venues before tonight? Had he stayed the entire evening and not fallen asleep at any point?

I had in my head the faces of the people who could vouch for me, the weary words that had been spoken at times and the gruesome image of a soon-to-be cam belt invoice from my favoured garage in lower Adlington. If the ‘cardinals’ were to withhold my membership – the modest spoils of my skidding around the Bolton area – then I would be a broken man.

“We played the match on Tuesday,” Jackson’s first words were, “Re-arranged it due to the Zumba.” It got worse. “They’re selling the church so we’ll have to find a new venue for next season.”

I had heard about this Colombian craze. My ears had first sampled its hip-hop, samba, salsa relentlessness at St Paul’s Peel Parish Hall on 13th March 2012. From the room next door, whilst playing against Manny Nradede, I listened to and briefly glimpsed the war-like, shunting bodies of 50 and 60-year-old ladies embossed in Lycra. (The image still haunts me.)

But now, beyond the concern of being outbid by the Zumba camp for prime table tennis space, there was the genuinely sad news that yet another venue was about to close or be the brazen booty of a rival church’s development plans (not even an ‘old Lancashire’ church at that).

Oh, the irony that Dunlop Heywood’s self-styled “God’s surveyor”, Peter Townley was involved in the sale of the 0.34 acre site. God, Himself mustn’t have shown up at the negotiations. Or beforehand, when He was really needed. Perhaps His bank balance was running low – lower than the £110,000 needed (money, the bleeder and heartache implicit in everything).

League General Secretary, Roy Caswell had offered to sift through the Bolton Museum’s archives last month in an effort to thoroughly understand how deeply embedded table tennis is in these parts. The annual handbooks (not a totally reliable source but a good indicator nevertheless) revealed some long-established roots: Bolton Lads’ Club (1947); Little Lever (1970); Wharton (1971); BEN (1973); Wingates (1974); Nomads (1975). Nearly seventy years of history!

On the 12th April 2014, Lostock became another ‘faller’ in the table tennis Grand National. This reduced the number of venues to fourteen for the imminent winter season (2014/15) – well below the widely-recognised healthy minimum of eighteen.

The pressure on the Hilton Centre to accommodate the ‘homeless’ is now at breaking point. We have an epidemic of sorts – fevered tables around the district neglected and left to rot in unused shells.

Friends, Romans, Reverends, philanthropists – lend me your ears. Saviours needed. Please email: