Category Archives: Sports Profile

George Laks R.I.P.

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“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”

I heard these words for the first time while watching a film with my children over the Christmas period. I suppose they act as an emphatic plea to us all. Henry David Thoreau – author of them and the famous Walden (1854) – lived such a short life himself (dying aged 44) yet, as with many of his quotes, observed things in a rich, philosophical manner.

Numerous great minds were inspired and influenced by Thoreau: Leo Tolstoy; George Bernard Shaw; Mahatma Gandhi; John F. Kennedy; Martin Luther King Jr. He lived the life only he wished to live and for that should be commended.

George Laks, Bolton’s adopted son, followed a similar route it could be said. Of Polish origin, George fled the invading Germans on 1 September 1939 less than a month after his 20th birthday. Biking it with his brother to the Soviet-controlled east, he effectively traded Adolf Hitler for Joseph Stalin. A proud Pole, however, George refused Russian citizenship.

The consequences of this intransigence were harsh. Accused of being a spy in a slightly surreal twist to his already dangerous plight, George found himself sentenced to 12 years hard labour in the gulags (Vladivostok and Magadan among others in Siberia).

Serving 18 months of this before being permitted to join the Polish Army, George then worked in Tashkent and Kirkuk before a London delegation invited him and his compatriots in 1942 to join the Polish Air Force in Britain. Initially stationed in Blackpool, he finally made his way to Bolton via RAF Halton as a burgeoning wireless mechanic.

A stint in Italy (1944-46) and demobilization from the air force in 1948 left George free to finally pursue a normal, civilian life. Jobs with Metropolitan-Vickers, Marconi and Kendal Milne & Co (now House of Fraser) gave him a taste of electrical engineering British-style, but this son of a prominent Polish engineer knew he had to start something of his own.

Breightmet Electrics was born in the 1950s. Two decades later it had six shops and around thirty employees. Slot TV was the thing and George was one of its early pioneers. Outside of his professional sphere though, George developed a philanthropic streak and it is for this generosity that many remember him today.

George’s Wood in Ainsworth (planted with the help of fellow Bolton CHA Rambling Club members) was donated to the Woodland Trust. The swish ‘top table’ (Cornilleau 740) – Hilton Table Tennis Centre’s very first quality table – was a gift from George and is the source of much amusement to this day (Jean Smart misspelling his name on the tiny plaque as George Lax).

I think we can safely say that George’s song touched many. He lived ‘til 94 – a ripe, old age (just one year younger than Nelson Mandela). There are fewer and fewer of his generation about, but such vitality – playing table tennis right up until the end (for Hilton, Breightmet Electrics, Heaton) – is an example to us all.

Colin Roberts: “George had a table tennis room purpose-built at the back of his shop. I met his wife, Joyce following the Keogh/Ritson merger in 1968. I have enormous respect for him.”

Alan Bradshaw: “Johnny Leach [Table Tennis World Champion 1949 & 1951] toured RAF Aerodromes during the war challenging all-comers whilst sat down. He soon got off his chair when George started playing.”

Jean Smart: “George would not let me change the plaque. We had many a laugh.”

Derek Weston: “He would often keep staff on when not needed and would famously pop in even when retired.”

Alan Ingerson: “A very quiet and softly spoken man – a decent defensive player.”

George Laks: 2nd August 1919 – 13th December 2013

 

 

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Farewell Ingerson

The text arrived at 1.14pm on 4 June 2013. 60-year-old Alan Ingerson, rejuvenated through his brief spell with Division Three, BRASS announced to me that he had signed for Ladybridge ‘B’ in Division One.

Despite BRASS winning the 4th tier title – in large part, of course, due to the heroics of 96% man, Ingerson – he had decided to walk away. There wasn’t quite the press coverage of a significant football transfer or the fanfare in Ladybridge to welcome the new player. And certainly no stepping off a plane to be greeted by a marching band (just 3.3 miles separate BRASS’ venue, Victoria Hall from the Ladybridge Community Centre). But to the table tennis community – fully aware of their marginalised status – this was a pivotal moment.

Players’ careers at local level can last for 70 years. Ingerson had already put in a 46-year stint and the old sparkle had seemed to return. There had been tantrums, heated moments and snarls as with any relationship but also plenty of mirth and camaraderie. Ingerson had been a par excellence signing for BRASS – an ‘out of contract’ (so to speak) mercurial wonder. His game was different to anything I’d seen before – the south-paw top spin like watching an industrial worker crank a heavy piece of machinery. Returning such balls was little short of impossible given their accentuated kick. Only the canniest of opponents knew how.

Having made his debut on 31 October 2012, he lost two of his initial fifteen matches. To most players returning from a two-season sabbatical such statistics would please them. Ingerson, somewhat traumatised by his ‘black November’, set out to correct and fine tune certain parts of his game; the result being that in his final thirty-three matches he was unbeaten. 46/48 wins – one for each year of effort since he first picked up a bat in 1967.

I have had the privilege of playing alongside many different nationalities – Ethiopian, Zambian, Iranian, French – and when Ingerson approached BRASS with a view to joining the team, I was expecting a fair-haired Scandinavian giant. Instead, we got a follicly-challenged, affable grumbler – one a joy to be around though.

Backroom transfer deals in table tennis are unlikely to be replaced with a transparent electronic system anytime soon, but I bear no ill will. We have lost our ‘Eric Cantona’ like Leeds in 1992, but his sublime presence will not be forgotten.

 

Wilson Parker-Roger Bertrand III

rivalry

Rivalry can demoralise, panic or excite a table tennis player. To know that there is one specific person out there who is your nemesis can be disheartening or revelatory. The relationship is usually borne out of a lingering stare, a reluctant acknowledgement of your opponent’s skills or mutual respect. Wilson Parker/Roger Bertrand, a McEnroe/Borg-type affair, sits between reluctant warfare and ever-so-necessary victory. The match up is many things: The Ashes; Froch/Kessler; Real Madrid Vs Barcelona.

In this instance, it is a precocious and fiery young Englishman versus a proficient and dogged Frenchman; a Wellington/Napoleon re-enactment 200 years later but without the satin breeches. Three points separate them competitively – Bertrand winning in Nov 2012 at Victoria Hall (11-8, 11-5, 11-9) but Parker gaining revenge in May 2013 at the Hilton Centre (11-7, 10-12, 11-7, 13-11).

I ask the black-clad Wilson Parker what strategy he plans to adopt tonight. He looks puzzled for a moment. “Play,” he then calmly mutters. It is dismissive and bold – the monosyllabic answer in keeping with his intransigence, yet somehow embodying the essential shrift of a broken intercom (the suggestion being that his body will know what to do – it will throw itself on the battlefield without inhibition and see what transpires).

What happens, what actually transpires is barely recognisable. I write the words ‘long’, ‘net’, ‘any ammo?’ repeatedly in relation to Bertrand’s play. His backhand is not functioning. He looks ragged, tired, far from the great, tactical genius I know. It is disappointing. Like watching Lord of the Rings without Gandalf. 11-5 (an intense, but futile Bertrand-winning-rally pulling it back to 9-5). 11-2 (a nasty nadir). 11-5 (a brutal ending – more punishment from Parker).

There is a huge, collective intake of air. Can it really be over? Already? A 3-0 whitewash? Sometimes table tennis bludgeons you, refuses to follow the script, the form guide, expectation levels. It cavorts on the horizon and laughs at your game plan, your execution of shots.

Let us not take anything away from Parker though. His chin, at times, was almost down to table height so keen was he to see the opening, thrust the ball back with extra spin on it. Despite the panache, however, I believe the subtler side of Wilson’s game is the real difference; the elegant nudges over the net; the masked concentration.

Will Bertrand return from this harrowing experience? Undoubtedly so.

* This piece will be published in The Bolton News on 25 June 2013

 

The Lostock Lasher

There are only three players across all five divisions of the Bolton Table Tennis League with a 95% win average over the past two seasons. A couple of them stand out: Premiership stalwarts, Michael Moir (Ramsbottom A) and John Hilton (Flixton CC). Down in the depths of Division 4, however (and rarely talked about) is Lostock A’s John Nuttall with the somewhat incredible record of 113 wins out of 114.

He is unorthodox, accurate, quick and powerful, and clearly owes many of his skills to tennis; his two-handed backhand alone surprising many purists. Why has he languished in Bolton’s bottom division? Because – despite the individual, match-playing nature of table tennis – each team consists of three players. If one of these cogs isn’t performing, the emphasis on the other two to regularly ‘treble’ becomes burdensome.

After finishing 3rd (outside the promotion places) for this very reason in 2011/12, Lostock strengthened last summer via the consistent services of 89% man, Adam Francis. Having now comfortably won the 2012/13 Division 4 title, they are finally set for life outside the bottom tier. Will Nuttall, the Lostock Lasher cope? Will his near-perfect record disintegrate when subjected to the wily manoeuvres of Division 3’s finest? I suspect he will destroy most of those who face him. And his single defeat at the hands of Heaton’s Dave Jones Snr will be avenged (both home and away for good measure).

I rarely ‘talk up’ sportsmen, but John Nuttall’s game consists of certain ingredients it is hard to ignore. His supple, elastic-like wrist has the habit of bending seemingly implausible shots back at the opposition. And such forehands are not only deep but fast. Stretching the ‘enemy’ represents the nucleus of his game. If you are not nimble, if you cannot move with sufficient speed, then you are done for.

I had the privilege of playing against The Lasher for the first time eighteen months ago. And I knew immediately – from the pounding rallies, the constant pushing and probing – that this was someone I had to ‘spar’ with. For a moment I felt like Muhammad Ali needing the jabs and muscle of the young Larry Holmes in order to improve his defences.

Nuttall is relentless. He can break you. Small talk, when practising/sparring, is often sacrificed at the altar of sweat. For this, as a means of balancing the humiliation, I am grateful.

* This piece was published in The Bolton News Sports Supplement on Tues, 4th June 2013