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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:


The Last of the Great Caretakers


All sportsmen – be they amateur or professional – are essentially flat-pack players. They only come to life when loaded up with cam dowels, wood dowels and the beast of screws, cam locks. Without the assistance of this prudent army in the form of ball boys, caretakers, tea ladies, dietitians and the like sportsmen are merely floating apparitions.

My first experience of such a person – posited in the background, ready to tidy up, fix things or prepare the groundwork – was in 1974. He worked at the primary school I attended (Harwood Meadows) and went under the majestic and somewhat burlesque name of Mr Mann.

I cannot completely picture his face in my head given the forty years that have since elapsed, but his granite features tinged with an immeasurable kindness remain in a distant corner of my brain.

To me he was ‘The Sacred Retriever’ – a suitably attired grafter, in caretaker coat, whose awareness and personality differed from the teachers around us. He would retrieve footballs from the one-story roof, stride up his wooden ladder with the efficient air of a 1500m runner.

When the ball again landed on the raised playground at the side of the school building, the cries of the children would intensify given their focus for nothing other than this soft, round missile of fun. Mr Mann – a Second World War P.o.W. – thus represented a continuing of the status quo, a bridge from glumness to elatedness.

Known as ‘Bill’ to the kitchen staff (and his wife), but always ‘Mr Mann’ to the teachers in a kind of Upstairs, Downstairs mimicry – the TV series running from 1971 to 1975 – William Mann had his own room within the school; an eight feet by six feet store room rather than office with neither radio nor chair.

Inside this Gentleman Jim ‘manor’ of sorts stood the requisite hardware and paraphernalia needed for the job: “A sluice sink, a built-in bench along one wall with shelves above it, cleaning materials, the odd few tools for those little ‘tightening up’ jobs, cleaning cloths, toilet rolls and paper towels. The floor space was taken up with buckets, mops and the rotary polisher/cleaner for the hall floor – a very important tool in his armoury!”

It is the rotary polisher that leads us to the heart of this story. Mr Mann’s “pride was the beautiful parquet flooring in the school hall,” ex-teacher Brian Smith – a man who commanded my attention and whom I was once fearful of – tells me. “[It] was not just swept but regularly ‘spray-polished’. The result was a floor that was a delight to see.”

So delightful that conflict and an early form of protectionism were inevitable. Reacting to the plimsoll scuff marks that resulted from Smith’s Friday 5-A-Side football sessions – only hours after the weekly polish – Mann protested. “He wasn’t at all pleased and told me so!”

A compromise was duly reached and ‘barefoot football’ was born. It is one of my abiding memories; a rare, giant of a game up there with table tennis and surely England’s (and India’s) equivalent to South American futsal and beach soccer.

The Mann/Smith Pact of 1975, through its hardening of players, is emblematic of what can happen when two very different people meet.