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Learning more about her father's boyhood hero helps a cricket writer understand her father better
April 29, 2013
When I was small, we had shelves of cricket books crawling up the walls. I ate my way through most during my bookworm years, a greedy, speedy reader. But one I didn't pull out. A small volume with a green cover: Fast Fury by Freddie Trueman.
The pages were off-white with funny textured paper; the cover was slightly ripped about the spine: there was something just off-putting about it. So there it stayed on the bottom shelf, tight to the left, increasingly a prisoner of time.
I should have picked it out, am ashamed not to have done so. Freddie Trueman was, is, the absolute hero of my dad, Anthony, who bought the book, complete with FS Trueman scrawled in blue biro on an inside page, from the Ilkley branch of WHSmith when he was 14. It cost him 12s 6d, and there was a little about the way he would deliberately tuck it back into place, like a stray hair firmly returned behind an ear, that said: this, children, this really is something.
Why Trueman? Just how good was he? Where did he come from? Why did the raging fast bowler with 307 Test wickets turn into a grumbling old man of the radio? And why had he inspired such devotion in my father, a quiet man with a very different upbringing? I didn't know the answer to any of these questions.
Then in late 2011, Chris Waters, a friend from the days when he would disgruntledly follow Kevin Pietersen around as cricket correspondent of the Nottingham Evening Post, published a Trueman biography. It had fantastic reviews, winning a mantelpiece of awards.
Here was the chance to make up for 39 years of determinedly not reading something that I definitely ought to have read. Who was Fred? Who, for that matter, was Ant?
My dad was born in Leeds at the Tower Wood Nursing Home on 23 June, 1947. It cost my grandmother Jeanne seven guineas for board and lodging and five pence for laundry. Her husband, Bob, was away working in Africa and Jeanne named her bouncing boy Anthony Hugh. A telegram came back: call him Robert. So she did, on paper, but won the war - Anthony he remained.
Jeanne's mother was French, short of temper, with a liking for Craven cigarettes, and had come to Yorkshire from Paris around 1910. When her husband died young, the family were left sophisticated but broke. Bob was the son of an electrical engineer, Leeds born and bred, and qualified as a quantity surveyor by studying at night school. There are amusing sepia pictures of him wandering the moors in a tweed suit. They were very different, Bob and Jeanne, but they married in a registry office off the Euston Road in 1938 and had three children - Christine, Susan and Anthony.
The family were happy in the Leeds suburb of Roundhay, but in 1951 moved to north Harrow in Middlesex - the beginning of a journey of bettering themselves. They ended up living on St George's Hill in Weybridge, an exclusive estate in London's commuter belt made famous when John Lennon and Ringo Starr moved in and which the Diggers had tried to turn into common land in revolutionary 1649. My poor dad, fuzzy-haired, who cried at the slightest provocation, was sent to prep school in Watford to board from ten and then onto Milton Abbey in Dorset - a boarding school of cold showers, early-morning runs and common minor cruelties.
So the Aldreds of Weybridge embraced the south, but prick the surface and the white rose ran thick. They went "back home" every year, holidaying in Ilkley and Wharfedale and York. My grandfather might have joined the golf club and held court in the boardroom, but his accent stayed proper Horsforth. My grandmother baked Yorkshire pudding for lunch and parkin for sticky fingers in mid-afternoon. High tea was served with thick sticks of celery in a glass on the table and bread and butter in a basket. And young Anthony wanted to play not at Lord's or The Oval but Headingley. He followed Yorkshire's scores in the family copy of the Daily Telegraph; and in particular the progress of that big-bottomed and jet-haired lummox from the mines.
Sixteen years before my father, Trueman had been born near Maltby, eight miles from Rotherham, ten from Sheffield and just four north of the Nottinghamshire border. I wanted to go and see the spot that Waters describes so evocatively in his book, to breathe the air. It took two trains, a bus and a false trail when a smart woman in red wearing a hat pin touched my shoulder, directed me off the bus and in the direction of Fred's sister's house, only for her not to be in. A mini-cab drove a couple of miles into the countryside and I started looking for Scotch Springs and the miners' cottages now scorched from the earth. As I clambered up scrubland in four inches of thick January snow, armed with a text of directions from Chris, I found - at least I think I found - the right place.
Maltby colliery dominates the view. The last coal mine left in the Rother valley, it is running down and due to close for good. The towers of the pit, reflected in the slurry of water to my left, are evocative of a landscape Trueman grew up in and my dad knew, but which is alien to me and most people born south of the 1984 miners' strike. Little trucks rumble by in the distance, dark with coal. The sky is smoker's breath, the hills brilliant white.
The odd car goes past and the pylons buzz but it is quiet save for the drip, drip of the melting snow and the call of the crow. A buzzard flies past and sits on a telephone pole. The soaring birds look black against the pale clouds. All is monochrome apart from the scarlet hips on the hedgerows. Even now, when Maltby has grown to a town of over 16,000 inhabitants, this feels isolated.
|Trueman was a link to the place Anthony called home but would never live in again. He needed that. Because the boy who moved from Leeds when he was only four, who has not a single memory of living in the place, and who has the voice of a Surrey commuter, considers himself, still, a true Yorkshireman|
So it was here where Trueman was born, in an outside toilet, so fast he was caught by his grandma Elizabeth Stimpson, whose reward was to have her new grandson take her maiden name as his middle: Sewards.
Of course young Anthony knew little of this. He was reluctant at school, found his lessons difficult, but loved cricket. He was the only boy in his form who supported Yorkshire, who hero-worshipped Trueman. Was there a class thing going on? He says not. Was there a north-south thing going on? He says not. He was in the playground: he wanted to be Trueman. Others didn't. As simple and as easy as that.
There was no boarding school for Trueman - Waters meticulously plots his uncompromising life growing up beside the smell and sounds of the pit yard. There was little money but a lot of love. Trueman may have grown up coarse but he grew up close with his parents and siblings, especially his beloved older brother Arthur. It was tough: his father burnt his clothes at the end of the garden when he finished working and was in despair when Arthur followed him underground. But there wasn't much choice: it was the mine or the forces. Unless you were Fred, where raw talent led to Yorkshire CCC, England and a different sort of life.
But it never was quite the young boy's dream. Waters describes an awkward bugger, thrust into the Yorkshire and England teams at a time when class and seniority had a huge bearing on the way that you were supposed to behave. There were some difficult men around, and just about the worst man-management of a young, extremely talented, eager, if uncouth and socially all-at-sea young bowler it is possible to imagine. Patronised, ignored, fobbed off, laughed at - Trueman never forgave Yorkshire for their behaviour, which culminated in them asking him to pay £120 towards the cost of his own retirement present: a £220 silver cruet. They didn't even manage to engrave it.
I was unaware of quite how Boys' Own Trueman's first international series was. My dad must have told us but by quite early on in our childhood his "when I were a lad in Yorkshire" stories had lost their gilt. We laughed at them, and their sackcloth undertones, and slowly he stopped telling.
Of course the England debut came at Headingley - 5 June 1952, against India. It included a spell of three wickets for nought in eight balls and terrified the visiting batsmen whilst wolf-whistling the crammed stands. Eight wickets followed at Lord's, and at Old Trafford he took 8 for 31 in the first innings - then the best return by a genuinely fast bowler. England had in their hands raw dynamite.
They blew it, of course - their handling almost as inept as Yorkshire's. After the 1953-54 West Indies tour, a diplomatic disaster for which Trueman took much of the blame, he missed 23 of England's next 26 Tests. And all the while he bowled and bowled for Yorkshire in a talented team with a dismal camaraderie - at least until Ronnie Burnet took over in 1958.
Eventually Trueman found men who knew how to handle him and became what he was in his pomp - magnificence. YouTube shows a wide-paced, rhythmic run-up, a left shoulder forward, majestic side-on action, a flurry of rolled-up sleeves, an uncontrollable head of hair. A swagger. A foot drag. A black-and-white superstar.
Ardent royalist, churchgoer, Tory: Trueman was nothing if not surprising. If he grew cantankerous on air with age, in person he was, mostly, incredibly generous - giving money to a stranger who knocked on the door on Christmas Day, raising funds for good causes, organising a tribute dinner for his old mucker Brian Statham, who had fallen on hard times. He was the one who brokered a peace with Geoffrey Boycott when Boycott was diagnosed with cancer. He also had a deep passion for dogs, one of whom, William, caused carnage in the Test Match Special box, eating two microphones.
His second wife Veronica told Waters a story of Fred's terrible anxiety that a new dog they were going to fetch wouldn't like him. "When we arrived at the kennels, Fred started pacing around the office while the staff went off to fetch the dog, then he went to the toilet, then he came back out again, then he started fidgeting around in his chair… Eventually they brought this dog through and of course the first thing it did was bound over to Fred and lick his face, and the relief on Fred's face just had to be seen."
Ant loves dogs too. He still mourns the last one, a daft brown thing - in tears as he dug the grave in the garden: deeper and deeper he went as if in shifting the earth he could restore the wag to the still tail.
Waters' book hangs together beautifully - the questioning, the research, the unpicking of a life lived rumbustiously, all this paints a vivid picture of Trueman. From the young Fred who loved bird-nesting with friends to the old man of the Dales who would reach for the bird book from the comfort of his armchair to identify something colourful in the garden. A flawed man, a sometimes bitter man, but mischievous, quick-witted, kind.
To my dad though, all this was by the by. It was the young, fit Trueman who was everything. He saw him play only three times: at Lord's in 1961 against Australia, when Trueman hung about for 25 in the first innings and my dad collected Tizer bottles from the grass to earn pennies at the shop; at Headingley in 1963, when he went with his cousin Christopher to all five days and saw a slightly under-par Trueman take six wickets; and at the Gillette Cup Final of 1965 when Yorkshire thrashed Surrey and Trueman took three wickets in an over. Not much to feed off, but enough for dad.
"The sheer excitement of watching him, this seemingly large man starting his run and just getting faster and faster and then that perfect action and the anticipation of wondering, would he get a wicket? Childhood heroes are magic and that's what Fred was."
Cricket wasn't everywhere then. Test Match Special only started in 1957, and not many had televisions: heroes were in the head, imitated in the garden, not captured on the computer, ready to call up day or night.
Trueman was a link to the place Anthony called home but would never live in again. He needed that. Because the boy who moved from Leeds when he was only four, who has not a single memory of living in the place, and who has the voice of a Surrey commuter, considers himself, still, a true Yorkshireman.
Tanya Aldred is a freelance writer in Manchester. This piece was first published in The Nightwatchman, the Wisden Cricket Quarterly, a collection of essays and long-form articles that launched in spring 2013. Free sampler hereFeeds: Tanya Aldred
© The Nightwatchman
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