Take a break, turn off your phone and tuck into Jonathan Wilson’s 29-page epic from issue 30 of The Nightwatchman…
YOU, YOUR MAM AND LANCE GIBBS
Jonathan Wilson lets go of Sunderland
In dementia we die a thousand deaths – and the last is not the worst.
You were fucking proud of that, the intro to your eulogy for your mam. It’s a good line. It’s accurate. It scans. It has some understated alliteration and assonance. In its virtuosity there is an illusion of control. Look at me, the journalist, doing words. Look at me, so in command I can turn grief into passable sub-Larkin pastiche.
Is that the best you’ve got? Fuck you, Death. Fuck you, Disease. Fuck you, Dementia. Come and have a go, sunshine, and I’ll fucking do you with an intro. Fuck youse all.
In dementia we die a thousand deaths – and the last is not the worst.
It works. It’s true. But it’s also inadequate. Everything is. Yes, it gets the message across, the idea that the final breath, the 4am call on your mobile, three hours after you’ve decided that this won’t be the night, that you can risk going home for some sleep, comes as a relief. But it doesn’t convey the difficulty of those months before, the phase when your mam is your mam and not your mam, as your dad had once been your dad and not your dad, when they were gaslighted by their own biology and didn’t know who or where or why they were, when they fought a losing battle with memory.
And memory is key. Memory is who we were and who we are and when it has gone so has almost everything.
This was conceived as a piece about Lance Gibbs as my dad was dying from Alzheimer’s in 2010. It has ended, a decade later, as a piece about Lance Gibbs, but also about memory and family and place and belonging in the months after the death of my mam from Alzheimer’s – which eventually became the months of the virus and death on a scale we had never imagined.
Ken Longstaff was a well-respected opening batsman who ran the butcher’s near East Boldon station. In the mid-’50s he’d represented the county and as he approached 30 he was a stalwart of the Durham Senior League, playing for Boldon. The opening day of the 1962 season was bright, if not especially warm. The first match always brought with it a sense of anticipation but this year it was particularly keen. Longstaff would be facing a Test player after that day’s opponents Whitburn, the next village but one (although Cleadon, in between, had neither a club nor a pitch), implausibly signed Lance Gibbs as their pro.
It wasn’t all that was new at Whitburn. As the wind whipped in off the North Sea, the club chairman Percy Bell and Penelope Evans, daughter of the new owner Laurie Evans, opened the new pavilion. This, said Bell, would be “the greatest season in the history of the club”. Could one player, even a bona fide great like Lance Gibbs, really make that much difference? Gibbs himself seemed uncertain: the photo in the Sunderland Echo shows him swaddled in at least two jumpers, looking distinctly uncomfortable.
On the boundary edge a teenager called Barry Emerson sat with his crystal radio set: he wanted to watch Gibbs’s debut for Whitburn, but he also wanted to keep up to date with Sunderland’s final game of the season, away at Swansea Town. Win and they’d be promoted back to a top flight they’d been relegated from for the first time four years earlier.
They all watched Gibbs mark his run, struck by how far he went back. “When spin bowlers opened the bowling,” Longstaff said, “they often wouldn’t waste the new ball bowling spin: they’d try and swing it. I was facing the first ball. I saw him take a long run and I thought he would bowl swing.” It was a fatal misjudgement.
“It was a little bit outside off on a good length,” said Longstaff. “I thought it would swing away. He’d taken such a long run and the whip of his arm – I thought nobody could be bowling spin at that pace, but then it turned back. He had terrifically long fingers. He could wrap his index finger round the ball.” Longstaff was bowled, first ball.
Gibbs, Barry Emerson decided, might be as good as everybody said he was.
Your dad was sectioned two days before the African Cup of Nations final in February 2010. You were in a guest house in Benguela, southern Angola, when your mam rang with the news. It wasn’t a huge surprise, however distressing it may have been that he’d become a danger to himself and others. The need for some kind of permanent care had been inevitable from the moment a few months earlier when he’d turned to her as she drove him along the side of Ullswater and asked: “And who are you again?” They’d been married 41 years.
You went up to Luanda, covered the final, flew back to London, popped into your flat to swap Angola stuff for Sunderland stuff and caught the train home. Your mam was booked in for a hip replacement, so you would have had to go up to look after her anyway. Life with your dad had become increasingly difficult for her. Lamps kept being broken; his camera, once his pride and joy – his obsession with it perhaps a way of preserving a fading memory – kept malfunctioning; cutlery kept disappearing as he lost the ability to differentiate between what was to be washed and what was to be chucked in the bin. He kept asking what had happened to his mam: sometimes you told him she’d died in December 1996, sometimes you made up a plausible lie for why he couldn’t go and see her; it didn’t seem to make much difference. He became depressed and would spend hours in bed, and when he got up he would go for long walks. It was the only thing that seemed to soothe him, but every time he took a step outside the door there was the danger he might not come back. More than once, when he was late coming home, your mam had found him on the street where he had grown up near Roker Park, staring at the door of the house where your gran had once lived.
Around that time, you agreed a deal to write a biography of Brian Clough. You were sceptical when the publisher had first suggested it – what more was there to say? – but everything seemed to fall into place. He had been your dad’s favourite player – an oddity given he, like you, was inherently sceptical of anybody who scored large numbers of goals and on the whole had preferred tidy deep-lying midfielders. And the fact you were in Sunderland for the foreseeable future meant you could research Clough’s origins, his time as a player and the injury that ended his career, parts of his life that, at least by comparison with his managerial career at Derby County, Leeds and Nottingham Forest, seemed under-discussed.
The days after your mam had the hip operation began to take on a regular pattern. You got your mam up and dressed, prepared her breakfast, gave her the injection she needed, did whatever work needed immediate attention, then made lunch. In the afternoon, you would head to the secure unit to visit your dad and then decompress by spending two to three hours doing research at the library, sifting through old copies of the Echo on microfilm before going home to make the dinner.
It was then that you first noticed a story about Lance Gibbs playing for Whitburn. It couldn’t, you assumed, be that Lance Gibbs. That would be ridiculous. Whitburn was where you had watched your first live cricket, a small ground on the coast road ten minutes’ walk from the house where you grew up. But then you read the article. “West Indies Test ace”: it really did sound like that Lance Gibbs.
When you got home, you asked your mam. “Is this right? Did Lance Gibbs play for Whitburn?”
“Oh yes,” she said. “When they played evening games I’d go down there with some of the teachers from school.”
She thought a little more. “He was the first black man I ever saw.”
How had nobody bothered to tell you this before? This was worse than when you’d found out, aged 30, that you’d been taken in your pram to see Muhammad Ali when he came to South Shields to have his wedding blessed at the Laygate mosque in 1977.
The next day, you began to look at the reports of Whitburn games in the Echo. Their batting seemed distinctly fragile. Repeatedly, they seemed to be bailed out by R McCluskey, arriving in the middle order to halt a collapse and drag them to a score that, with Gibbs, they might be able to defend. Surely that couldn’t be… but then you found a reference in a report: Ron McCluskey.
You’d known a Ron McCluskey. When you’d gone to Sunday School, it had been run by his wife, Connie. He’d been a churchwarden and, at least to your seven-year-old mind, a terrifying figure, hunched with curvature of the spine, perpetually cranky and with a tendency to drag one leg. It surely couldn’t be that Ron McCluskey.
It was that Ron McCluskey. You decided then that this was a story you had to write.
You emailed the club and got an enthusiastic response from Russell Muse, who at the time was Whitburn’s chairman. Come round and have a chat, he said; it turned out he lived five minutes’ walk away in the flats that had been built on the old Bay Hotel, where you’d had your first proper job, washing dishes in the kitchen. The Sunderland footballers Nyron Nosworthy and Kenwyne Jones had both lived there at various points. You’d been past hundreds of times since – it’s at the bottom of the road leading into the estate where your mam had lived since she and your dad bought their house in 1967 – but it was still slightly odd going into the car park. The door is tucked round the back, near the old staff entrance, but the whole building has been reconstructed, so of course all the angles are wrong and nothing seems quite where it ought to be.
There was a warm smell of garlic from the kitchen, where Russ’s wife was cooking a Bolognese. Russ, a big man with a bald head and a thick white goatee, was in the living-room, watching an ODI from Grenada. He was too young to have been at the club when Gibbs was there, but he knew the club, knew his legend, knew people who had played with him and, of course, knew Barry Emerson and Ron McCluskey. “I joined the club in 1970,” Russ said. “I was a good clean hitter. They always said me and Ron were the cleanest hitters in the club. He was mainly a second-team player by then, though.”
Emerson and McCluskey would clash during the succession crisis that followed Laurie Evans’s withdrawal in 1987. “Ron was always about the club,” Russ said. “Prophet of doom, he was. He’d point at the fruit machine in the corner of the bar and say, ‘It’s the only thing keeping us going.’”
But McCluskey kept going back to the club, even after Connie had died and dementia had begun to set in. Russ remembered him sitting at the bar, saying hello when people greeted him, but with no understanding of who they were.
That led to a discussion about your mam and the reason you were in the north-east far more often. “A teacher you say? At Fulwell? When was she there? She must have taught me.”
“Mrs Wilson,” you said. “Miss Willis she was.”
He gave a snort of recognition. “Miss Willis who became Mrs Wilson. Yes! Thin woman, knew what she was about. Yes. I used to see her, even after I’d left, walking down Mere Knolls Road. She’ll remember me. She must do.”
And she did. Or at least, she came up with a story to fit, some convoluted prank Russ and his sister had pulled. Five minutes in which she could drift back to her time teaching, five minutes of relief.
Of course the prank may never have happened. It may not have involved Russ and his sister. He may not even have had a sister. There seemed little benefit in checking.
It was 11 November 2018, Remembrance Sunday – the gods will have their little jokes – when your mam first forgot who you were.
She hadn’t been quite right since the summer. When you’d gone to the World Cup in Russia she’d been fine; when you got back she was an old woman. She’d been on a trip to Norfolk with her gardening group and had had some kind of funny turn, had started wandering downstairs in the early hours and demanding taxis back to Sunderland.
On the phone she sounded OK but when you went up to Sunderland to see her after the World Cup it was obvious something wasn’t right. She’d lost a load of weight and seemed to find simple tasks challenging. She’d essentially stopped cooking for herself and the slightest set-back – a bulb going or a battery needing replacing – provoked panic. This, you later learned, was characteristic of Lewy body dementia. By the time it came for her to have the scan that would confirm a diagnosis, she was too distressed to undergo it. Given she was also exhibiting symptoms of Alzheimer’s and the treatment for both was similar, she was reported as suffering “mixed dementia”, although it was Alzheimer’s that would be recorded on her death certificate.
You went to the Memory Protection Service who gave her a series of tests. She was annoyingly good at them because at that stage her short-term memory was fine. And she was smart. This was different to your dad’s decline.
She was extremely good at what you later learned was called confabulation. She could take a couple of known facts and from them form a story that explained everything; it was never her own failing capacities that were to blame. You explained quietly to doctor after doctor that she might sound plausible but that little of what she was saying was actually true, a mesh of narrative strung between isolated posts of actuality. She would, as one of them said, have made an excellent journalist.
She even made jokes. When they asked who the prime minister was, she’d roll her eyes. “When I left this morning, it was Theresa May,” she’d say. “But who knows?” But that wasn’t really what she was bad at: what she’d lost was her power to reason, to work out the solution to problems.
The only aspect of the test she really struggled at was when they asked her to draw a clock face and put in the hands showing a particular time. She produced something oddly like a Dalí painting, a wobbly circle with the numbers dropping off the right-hand side. But you blamed that on her arthritis, which made it hard for her to grip the pencil.
They sent somebody round to watch her make an omelette and cheese-on-toast and apparently she passed that as well. But at that point she was able to raise her game when it mattered. For doctors, nurses, anybody in a position of power, anybody she thought she should impress, she could perform. They didn’t see her confusing adverts for detective dramas, or throwing out bedding so there were only two duvets for the three beds in the house. They didn’t see the day-to-day stuff that sounds ridiculous, trivial, when you say it out loud but that, built up over days and weeks and months, makes you realise something is badly wrong.
You started spending alternate weeks in Sunderland, leaving food for her to heat up when you were back in London. You would speak on the phone every day and talk her through boiling the water for the rice or heating up a chilli or a soup. She regained a little weight and started, uncertainly, going out again.
That November, when you left on the Thursday, you thought you were winning. She seemed happier, more confident. Then on the Friday night she had a fall, her third since the World Cup. The other two had been in the bathroom – she blamed the bathmat – but this one was in the dining room. In each of them, she seemed to have toppled over backwards. She had a panic button on a string around her neck, but never used it because she didn’t like to bother people. The details remain unclear, but she’d somehow managed to telephone a friend who’d taken her in a taxi up to the drop-in centre at Bunny Hill. Just bruising, they decided, and sent her home.
That niggled. You were supposed to be going to Budapest the following Monday for the final research on a book you were writing. There were a couple of details you still needed to check, a few last interviews to round up, but fundamentally you were looking forward to good food and wine in the evenings, to thanking the people who had helped. You didn’t want to cancel.
That Sunday was the Manchester derby. City beat United 3-1. You filed your piece for Sports Illustrated and left the stadium to walk down to the station. You rang your mam. “Yes,” she said. “I’m just having a nice night in with Jonathan.”
Did she know another Jonathan? You couldn’t think of one. “No, mam. I’m Jonathan.”
“No,” she insisted. “He’s over there on the settee.”
“Mam, it’s me. This is Jonathan. I’m in Manchester. I can’t be on the settee.”
A pause. “Oh yes…” she said. “I see now. It’s just a lampshade.”
Your flight was early the next morning. You had to get up at four to write a follow-up on the Manchester derby for the Guardian. (Yes, you could have done it the night before, but those pieces somehow come out better when you’ve slept on them. Partly it’s as though distance from the game gives you the perspective a follow-up should have; partly it’s some mystery of the subconscious that it seems to write the thing for you as you sleep so you can get up and, with a single cup of coffee, expel your 850 words as one almost pre-formed pellet. And, yes, this has become an increasingly disconcerting thought – that it relies on a part of you of which you are not in control. It’s impossible not to start analogising, whatever the medical science may say, to wonder whether your capacity to conjure up the metaphor or the reference or the play on words doesn’t derive from some glitch in the brain, some imbalance or blockage that is an early sign of the illness to which you’re genetically predisposed.)
When you finished you got a cab out to Heathrow. If you rang and she still seemed confused, you promised, you’d get a flight up to Newcastle instead. You don’t know how bad she’d need to have been to make you do that, but she seemed fine, bright even. She didn’t even seem especially bothered about her bruised back. You got on the plane with a clear(ish) conscience.
That week, you rang her twice a day. She seemed fine. Each time you rang you asked what she’d eaten and she always gave detail. The dal you’d left. A salad. Poached eggs. Some sort of pasty she liked that she bought at Marks & Spencer. Did she like pasties? It seemed odd; not her sort of food, especially after she’d been diagnosed as a coeliac. Was it a gluten-free pasty? That seemed even odder. But you didn’t question it because, well, why would you?
In 1961, Whitburn had finished bottom of the Durham Senior League. The glory days of the 1890s and the 1920s were long gone. They had, it’s true, won the title in 1950, but Whitburn by the early ’60s was an attractive fishing village, far more likely to win Tidy Village awards than cricket competitions. It stands just up the coast from the fading resort area of Seaburn, just to the north of Sunderland’s boundary with South Tyneside, the other side to the estate where I grew up. The historian Dan Jackson, in his book The Northumbrians, posits what he terms the “Beetroot Line”: to the north the guttural vowels of the Geordie accent – “Biet-rüt”; to the south the more elongated sounds of Mackem – “Beyt-roowt”. The Beetroot Line, he notes, maps almost exactly to the watersheds of the Tyne and the Wear. It passes through the south edge of Whitburn as though skirting the boundary of the cricket ground.
Whitburn’s colliery, which at its height had employed 1,500 men and led to the construction of Marsden village further along the clifftop, was struggling as seawater began to infiltrate shafts that had been dug far out under the North Sea. Within a couple of years it would be closed before being written off for good in 1968. There was no way the cricket club could match the financial clout of Sunderland or Durham City.
Cricket had been played in the village from the early 19th century but the modern club dates its origins to 1862 and a conversation between the local landowner, Sir Hedworth Williamson, and his butler. Williamson had been born in Florence in 1827 and educated at Eton, Christ Church College, Oxford, and St John’s College, Cambridge. He became a successful diplomat and supporter of the RSPCA before, in 1861, succeeding his father to become 8th baronet. The following spring, he allocated part of his garden to the newly founded cricket club so he could watch matches from his south windows. There were, however, two conditions: to discourage shots towards the hall, no runs could be scored if the ball landed on his lawns; and a large sycamore inside the boundary was not to be cut down.
The first game on the new ground was played on Whit Monday, between two Whitburn teams. The following day Whitburn took on Monkwearmouth Eden and won a rain-affected match by 25 runs. Williamson himself played in at least one of the two games and remained a keen player. A scorecard from 1865 shows him scoring 13 not out and taking three wickets in a narrow defeat to Sunderland.
Williamson became a Liberal MP for North Durham in 1864, a post he held for a decade before becoming High Sheriff of Durham in 1877. Three years later Roker Park – the park, not the football ground – opened on land he had donated for public use. As he turned 70, Williamson would have seen the first golden age of Whitburn cricket, the club losing just three games in the County League between 1896 and 1898. They won the title twice and missed out by a single run in 1897.
In those days it was common for clubs to carry around a painted board, a little like a pub sign, to represent them. Whitburn’s was “The Fighting Man”, depicting a heavily built bruiser with a handlebar moustache, shirt off, fists raised in readiness for a scrap. It seems bizarrely out of keeping with the character of the village as it is today but it supposedly represented the battling qualities of the club against wealthier and more accomplished opponents.
Williamson died in 1900 of complications brought on by diabetes but in his will he stipulated that part of his land be given to Whitburn Cricket Club in perpetuity, so long as they never charged anybody to watch. For quarter of a century, there was no further success but Whitburn claimed the Durham Senior League in 1923 and won it the following three seasons as well, then again in 1932. As that generation aged, Whitburn returned to its natural level, eventually finishing bottom of the league in 1949. Action was needed and it was taken by Percy Bell, at the time the honorary treasurer but later the chairman.
He knew Jimmy Seed, the manager of Charlton Athletic. Seed had been born in Blackhill near Consett in 1895 but, when he was two, concerns over the future of the paper mill at Shotley Bridge (Paul Collingwood’s hometown) led his family to move to Whitburn and a relatively secure job in the mine. At the age of 14, Seed had begun working at the colliery. He joined the cricket club but his real talent lay in football. From the age of 16 he played as Whitburn’s centre-forward. Sunderland asked him for a trial but it came after a night shift at the pit and he had to borrow boots that turned out to be too big for him. He tried out at South Shields without success as well before his goal-scoring exploits for Whitburn persuaded the Sunderland manager Bob Kyle to take another look at him. This time, playing at inside-right, Seed scored a hat-trick in a North-Eastern League match against Wallsend. Sunderland gave him a contract and he spent 1914–15 quietly impressing in the reserves.
As the First World War intensified, Seed joined the Army Cyclist Corps and was drafted to France as part of the 8th Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment in summer 1916. He twice suffered gas attacks that damaged his lungs to the extent that Sunderland released him when the war was over. He moved to Tonypandy to play for Mid Rhondda and recovered sufficiently to forge a successful career with Tottenham and Sheffield Wednesday, retiring in 1931.
Herbert Chapman, the Arsenal manager, told Seed that Arsenal planned to buy Clapton Orient to operate as a feeder club and persuaded him to become their manager. The League, though, ruled the plan unlawful, the sale fell through and, with money extremely limited, Seed moved to third-division Charlton Athletic, where he was extraordinarily successful. After two promotions, Seed’s Charlton finished second, third and fourth in the top flight before the Second World War brought league football to an end.
Seed had captained an England representative team that toured South Africa in 1929 and had become good friends with the opposing national captain, George Brunton. Resources at Charlton were tight and at the end of the war he asked him if he could recommend any young South African talent who might be interested in a move to England. Brunton suggested Sid O’Linn and Dudley Forbes and they became the first of 14 South Africans to play for Charlton during Seed’s time as manager.
They were also the answer to Whitburn’s problem. In the off-season, the South African footballers had little to do and they weren’t necessarily keen on a long voyage back home, so in 1949, three of them – O’Linn, Stuart Leary and Ken Kirsten – moved north for the summer. All three were excellent all-round sportsmen. O’Linn and Leary both went on to play for Kent, while O’Linn, a left-handed wicketkeeper, won seven international caps in cricket and one in football. The trio helped Whitburn to the Durham Senior League title in 1950.
Also in the side was Richard Heron, widely known as “Dick the Fish”. He had been vice-captain of Trinity Hall College during his five years at Cambridge (the captain was the spy Donald Maclean). Heron, described as “posh” by Barry Emerson, was a solicitor who also ran a ship’s boiler-descaling company in South Shields. It was he who, in the late ’50s, decided it was time to get rid of the sycamore on the outfield, reasoning that – whatever the 8th baronet may have stipulated – there was not much anybody could do once it was gone.
In 2019, you appeared on Backlisted podcast talking about Bruce Chatwin, specifically his final novel, Utz. It was the only one you could really relax into, you said, because you had a real sense that it was fiction. You worried about some of his other work, you said, because it affected a truthfulness and then altered the reality in quite profound ways. You acknowledged that might be a specifically journalistic concern, and certainly the other three people on the podcast seemed more concerned with “emotional” truth than “factual” truth. And perhaps they were right: you’ve never been great with the emotional side of things.
You have a similar problem with Ryszard Kapuściński and Eduardo Galeano, with that whole notion of blurring the lines between reportage and fiction. Back when you did the podcast, you’d thought it was an issue of conscience and journalistic practice: once a writer starts eliding incidents or inventing meetings, where does the untruth end? Who are you, the writer, to be the arbiter of which truths are worth preserving and which can be manipulated for the sake of a better narrative? Or maybe that is what writing is, maybe all narrative is confabulation.
But you wonder now if it’s something more profound than that. Get the facts in, in as much detail as you can, and you reduce the amount of work being done by confabulation, not only by you, but by future generations who might look to your work for research. Telling stories may be how we make sense of the world, but how do you know those stories are true?
There were other, greater, changes afoot. By the late 1950s, living accommodation within Whitburn Hall had been reduced to a flat, which the 11th baronet, Sir Nicholas Hedworth Williamson, rented out while he was at university. When he graduated in 1961, he decided not to return to the north-east and the hall was bought by Laurie Evans, a local builder and the vice-chairman of Sunderland Football Club.
Evans wasn’t much of a cricket fan, but he realised that investment in the cricket club could raise his standing in the village, which might dampen opposition to his ambitious plans to build flats on the site. He knocked down the shabby old pavilion and that winter built the pavilion that still stands today, with its bar on the first floor.
Modernising the infrastructure, though, wasn’t enough. In 1961, Whitburn had finished bottom of the Durham Senior League. This, Evans decided, wouldn’t do. How, he asked, could the side be improved? The answer was obvious: sign a high-class professional. But who? The answer came at a board meeting that September: Lance Gibbs.
It was an astonishing move. Gibbs had been born in Georgetown, British Guiana, in 1934 and had made his first-class debut against the MCC in 1953, claiming the wickets of Denis Compton and Tom Graveney. His Test debut came against Pakistan in 1957 but it was on the 1960–61 tour of Australia that he really arrived. He wasn’t selected for the tied Test at the Gabba but, after West Indies had lost the second match by seven wickets, Gibbs was brought in at Sydney.
He responded with a match-winning display, finishing off the Australian first innings by taking the final three wickets in four balls and then claiming 5 for 66 in the second – including a spell of four wickets for two runs in 27 balls – as the Windies won by 222 runs. The fourth Test in Adelaide ended in a draw, Rohan Kanhai scoring a century in each innings, while Gibbs claimed a hat-trick as part of another five-fer in the first innings. Six more scalps followed at Melbourne but Australia won the match by two wickets and took the series. A return of 19 wickets in three Tests, though, had made clear just how talented Gibbs was. Tall and with an erect action that generated the bounce that made sweeping him fraught, he was hard to get away and would finish his Test career with an economy rate of under two.
From Australia, Gibbs went to Lancashire to play for Burnley. “The wickets were extremely slow and soft,” he said. “After four games I had only nine wickets and the crowd started barracking me. I was not particularly pleased about that. When the sun came out and the wickets hardened up I ended up with 90-plus wickets.” Burnley offered him a new contract but the memory of those early weeks remained potent. “I was upset with the treatment I’d received,” he said, and so when Whitburn made their approach, he was delighted to accept.
Whitburn paid Gibbs £40 a week (when the maximum wage for footballers had been abolished a year earlier, it had stood at £20 a week), making him the first £1,000 player in the Durham Senior League’s history, and also secured for him an additional £1,000 a year writing a fortnightly column for the Sunday Sun. On alternate weeks the column was written by his West Indies teammate and fellow Guyanan Rohan Kanhai, who had signed for Ashington in the Northumberland League.
But to speak of numbers and practicalities is hardly the point. Conceptually this was an extraordinary leap. Whitburn hadn’t even had a professional since Nev Lorraine in 1958 – and he was a local talent, not a Test star. At the time, the highest-profile player in the league was probably Alec Coxon, an opening bowler and middle-order batsman at South Shields who had played one Test for England, in 1948, when he reputedly had a dressing-room row with Denis Compton. He had made his debut for Yorkshire after the war, by which time he was 29. When he retired in 1950, supposedly because he was overlooked for the Ashes tour that winter, Coxon had taken 146 first-class wickets at 20.91. He became a fixture in the Durham Senior League, first at Sunderland and then South Shields, but became notorious for his prickliness. Oddly, the Jamaican record producer Coxsone Dodd, who was influential in the development of ska, dub and reggae, derived his nickname from Coxon, after his cricketing talent was compared to the bowler’s at school.
The former Whitburn player Alan Alder remembers Coxon as “a horrible bloke”, while Barry Emerson recalls him standing in the corner, farting and swearing. On one occasion he was banned from the bar at Whitburn for several weeks after urinating in a sink. Nonetheless, he returned to Whitburn as a coach in 1979 (when the club pro was Lance Cairns – “bloody awful; the league had balls we called conkers,” was the New Zealander’s summation of his season there).
But Gibbs was an entirely different level, a player of far greater stature than any who had ever played for Whitburn before or would ever play for them after.
You landed at Heathrow on the Thursday night and rang home as soon as you got in the cab. It was about 8pm. No answer. That was an immediate concern. She seemed very unlikely to be out. Perhaps she was in the bathroom or the garage. You rang at 8.10. No answer. You rang at 8.20. At 8.30. At 8.40. There had been a brief spell a couple of weeks earlier when she’d forgotten how to use the phone. Maybe it was just that. The stories we tell ourselves, the confabulations.
You got back to your flat. You kept ringing every ten minutes. You imagined her, collapsed on the kitchen floor. A friend of hers had fallen off some steps in the garden and lain for hours until she was found. Could something similar have happened?
By 9.30, you were frantic. The next-door neighbours had a key, you knew. They seemed nice, although you’d barely ever spoken to them. You knew they helped out with odd jobs for your mam. But then you realised you didn’t know their surname. You googled their address, but that didn’t help. You would ring a mate. He could pop over and make sure she was OK. You decided to give it till 10.
At 10.10 you rang him. He was very clearly in a pub. It turned out he was in Newcastle with clients – and clearly had been for some time. You explained the situation, feeling terrible. But he was great. He said he’d finish his drink, call a cab, drop his wife at home to take over from the babysitter and then go over. You explained the neighbours had a key.
You kept ringing, thinking that she might suddenly just pick up and that everything would be OK. She didn’t.
Eventually, just after midnight, your mate rang. It turned out the neighbour didn’t have a key; they’d never got a new one after your mam had had a new door fitted a few months earlier. But they’d rung the bell and your mam had come downstairs and answered the door. She was fully dressed and seemed to have no idea what time it was but she was fundamentally OK. Your mate passed the phone to your mam. She seemed baffled by the fuss.
“I’ve been calling you all night,” you said.
“Oh,” she said. “The phone keeps on ringing. I think there must be a fault.”
You took the train up the following day.
Again, the gods had their joke: you spent the journey uploading backed-up files to your laptop having accidentally deleted them that morning. Digital memory could be restored; human memory couldn’t.
It was obvious as soon as you opened the door that there was something badly wrong. Your mam looked at you blankly until you introduced yourself. She was thin, pathetically so.
You checked in the kitchen. All the food you’d left was still there. Even the milk was as you’d left it a week earlier. All the time you’d been away she seemingly hadn’t eaten anything.
“Where are you staying tonight?” she asked.
“Here,” you said. “In my room.”
“Right,” she said, uncertainly. “The children have been. I think they’ve made a mess.”
There were no children. It made no sense. You went upstairs and checked your room. It was fine, exactly as you’d left it. You went into her room. It was not fine, the bedding soiled and tangled, piled with towels she’d used to try to clean up piles of her own shit. You changed the sheets and the duvet cover, put the dirty stuff on to wash.
You made the dinner, very aware that you were out of your depth. What to do? Maybe you could stay and look after her, get back to where you’d been a week earlier.
That night showed you couldn’t. There was no going back, and you couldn’t cope. You had to change the bedding twice more. You were down to the last clean sheet. At one point you heard her try to get up and helped her to the bathroom door. “What do I do now?” she asked.
“You know, mam, just… go to the toilet.”
And so she did. In the bath.
You got perhaps half an hour’s sleep. She finally dropped off at about 6. You dialled 111, but they insisted on talking to the patient. A couple of hours later, when your mam had begun to stir, you rang them again and handed her the phone. They sent an ambulance straightaway.
Alan Alder lives just beyond the church in Whitburn. He’s in his mid-eighties but looks well, tanned and with a thick head of white hair. He used to be a dog-handler in the RAF, and a photo on the wall shows him in uniform, crouching beside an Alsatian. He had Alsatians for 46 years, he said, before deciding he was too old for a dog. We’d been chatting for about ten minutes, though, when his wife Dorothy arrived with a shaggy white Labradoodle; they still looked after guide dogs who had proved unsuitable in some way. Barry Emerson introduced us, and almost immediately Alder began apologising for his memory.
Alder was a batsman who made his debut for Whitburn in 1954 before being stationed in Cyprus. He returned in 1961 and took his place in what he remembers as a fragile batting side. Selection would take place alongside a net session on a Tuesday night and there would be a further practice on a Thursday. The club had bought an enormous roller from the Penshaw Iron Foundry for £22 in 1880 – it’s still in use today – and all the players would take their turn pushing it up and down the pitch.
Lance Gibbs in those early days would bowl in a coat in the nets – “and we still couldn’t handle him,” Alder said. “We’d seen nothing like it. He was a tall, rangy lad, long-limbed, and he bowled from his full height. He had a quick arm, quicker than most spinners we’d faced, and he turned the ball a long way. His height was a bonus.”
Alder’s memories are less to do with specific games than with general impressions. He remembers that after a game away to Durham City, Gibbs had taken the rest of the team out for a Chinese meal. “It was a different world, back then,” he said. “Nobody had had a foreign meal. Lance took charge of the whole thing. We’d never had anything like that – when the waiter put the food in the middle of the table and you served yourself.”
The culinary exchange went both ways. “That’s where I learned to eat fish-and-chips,” said Gibbs. “There was a shop around the corner that we’d go to after games. I had a great time. Everybody was very nice to me.”
The benefit matches, when Gibbs would bring his West Indies teammates to play in front of huge crowds at Whitburn, stand out: Roy Gilchrist and Wes Hall pushing off from the sightscreen, Charlie Griffith offering to play for Whitburn if there was a vacancy, Garry Sobers and his brother Gerry at the crease. “There would be great crowds,” said Gibbs, “lines of people stretching down the road.”
Gibbs picked Ken Longstaff to play for a Durham League XI against Rohan Kanhai’s Northumberland XI in a game at Ashington. “I’d made 44 not out when it rained,” the Boldon opener recalled, “so that was another disappointment – but at least it showed I wasn’t the mug I’d looked in that first game.”
Longstaff also played in a benefit at Whitburn. “I remember I got there early, hung my clothes up in the corner. And Charlie Griffith comes in and says: ‘Hey, son. I always sit in the corner.’ I wasn’t arguing.”
Everybody seems to have fond memories of those games – and why wouldn’t you relish the incongruity of West Indian greats playing at this wind-lashed little ground on the clifftop? Yet the first of them almost turned into a fiasco. Whitburn’s players, including Gibbs, had turned up and changed, but of the rest of the West Indies there was no sign and a large crowd was beginning to grow restive. By the time the coach eventually turned up more than an hour late, Barry Emerson said, Gibbs “was almost in tears. And when they did get there, their priority was getting the crate of beers out of the boot, not getting into the dressing-room.” It turned out they’d stopped off at a bookies on the way.
You hid it well, the toll of the attrition. You let people think you were fine. You let yourself think that. You coped. You did your work. You filed your book on time – conveying the tragedy of Hungary and the Holocaust in colder, more precise prose than you usually managed. Yes, you knew. Well done, hard lad. You had surgery on your shoulder. You did the physio. You went through the routines. You missed your cricket, but you’d have missed it anyway with your mam and resented it more if you hadn’t been injured. You were fine.
The façade broke only three times, and almost never in public.
The first came on Sunday, 18 November 2018 as England scored twice in the final 12 minutes to beat Croatia 2-1 and reach the Nations League semi-final. Your mam was still in hospital but you knew she would never come home. And sitting there in the living room in Sunderland as “Three Lions” blared out from Wembley, your mind inevitably went back to Euro ’96 and the build-up to the semi-final, when you’d sat on the same settee and heard the same song and you’d had two parents and the world had seemed like it was becoming a better place.
That got fucked up.
The third came on Sunday, 16 September 2019 when you got out of the shower in London to find a message on your phone telling you to ring the hospital immediately. When you did, still dripping, a towel wrapped round your waist, you heard what you knew you were going to hear, that you should hurry back because there wasn’t long left. When you rang a friend to tell her you’d be away for a few days, the words wouldn’t come, choked by tears. Then you went and covered Chelsea 1 Liverpool 2 before getting the train home.
But the second time was the most violent and the least explicable. It came on 25 August 2019. You’d covered Liverpool’s 3-1 home win over Arsenal the night before and as you got the train down to London you’d largely given up on the Test at Headingley. You had a window open on your laptop but definitely weren’t watching it when the job demanded you pay attention to Bournemouth v Manchester City. As England closed to within 50 of an implausible victory you were categorically ignoring the cricket. You may have started to glance at it as the target fell to 30. Only when it was down to 18 did you switch over.
As Pat Cummins dropped short and wide, the tears began. You waited for the moment to pass but it didn’t. They just kept coming. For half an hour you sat alone on your chair and rocked back and forth as the tears soaked your T-shirt and the skin around your eyes began to sting. It was Ben Stokes and pride in a Durham lad doing that, particularly one who had been through so much – and perhaps it felt more significant because you’d missed the World Cup final six weeks earlier, trapped in a press room in Cairo covering Algeria v Nigeria in the Africa Cup of Nations semi-final.
But it wasn’t just Ben Stokes, was it? It wasn’t just that, as a shit northern man, you can express emotion only via sport. (Last time you hugged your dad? 30 March 1996 when Michael Bridges came off the bench to score two late goals in Sunderland’s 3-2 victory over Huddersfield. Yes, it is pathetic. Fuck off.)
It wasn’t even simply that the particular tension and fulfilment of Stokes’s innings operated as a release for the emotional pressure that had been building for more than a year, although clearly that was a large part of it.
There was something more specific and less tangible about cricket and home and your mam.
Gibbs arrived in Whitburn in the last week of April 1962, lodging with a Mrs Hutchison on Roker Park Road. “She had two daughters,” he remembered, “and they looked after me. It was very near the football ground and they warned me to get home early when there was football on.”
The Evening Chronicle described Gibbs standing shivering with his teammates as “a chill wind was blowing in from the sea… ‘I hope it gets warmer than this,’ he commented jocularly.” But vitally, Gibbs was ready to play against Boldon the following day despite not having had time for any practice with his new club. “It’s hardly necessary,” he told the Chronicle. “After all, I’ve never stopped playing and after the long West Indies season and the Tests I’m fit – but cold!”
Gibbs’s first season had begun well. The prevailing weather, it turned out, was an advantage. “Whitburn was particularly breezy,” Gibbs said. “So the wickets were not too bad. And I would help out with that, turning up a few hours early and telling the groundsman certain things. Wickets are very important. The harder the wicket the more bounce a spin bowler can get. Most batsmen would try to sweep me but with bounce and fielders set behind square that’s very dangerous.”
Whitburn had beaten Boldon in that opening match. After dismissing Ken Longstaff, Gibbs had spent much of the Boldon innings bowling at the Durham captain Don Hardy, a player he still remembers fondly almost 60 years later. “It is doubtful if Hardy has ever batted better,” the Sunderland Echo said, but there is only so much one man can do. Hardy, doing his best to farm the strike so he faced Gibbs, ended up with 48 out of a total of 61. “Gibbs’s many variations of pace and flight and his undoubted spinning power provided plenty of evidence that he will cause a lot of devastation before the summer ends,” the Echo reported, but although he ended up with 4 for 32, his figures were outshone by the other opening bowler, the bustling seamer Tommy Milton, whose six wickets cost just 25. Setting a pattern that would become very familiar, Whitburn struggled in response before a rapid 30 not out from Ron McCluskey saw them home by four wickets.
The batting simply couldn’t be relied upon. At Seaham Harbour the following week, Gibbs took 7 for 53 as the hosts were dismissed for 164, and then top-scored with 57 as Whitburn were bowled out for 132.
There was a sense that the Echo was as unsure what to make of Gibbs as opposing batsmen. Live reporting for the Saturday evening Sports Echo is a thankless task at the best of times, but particularly when the paper hits the streets before the match has even finished. “Poor day for Gibbs against North Durham” roared the headline on 12 May, although by the end of the intro you could sense the writer losing faith: “The reputation of the West Indies spin star Lance Gibbs meant nothing to North Durham today, for although they lost their first five wickets for 47 when they batted first at Whitburn, the home professional had only one wicket to his credit and had conceded 26 runs.” By the Monday Gibbs’s 4 for 30 and 22 not out had been “match-winning feats”.
There were five wickets against Durham City, seven against Eppleton and Gateshead Fell, and six in a crushing six-wicket win over Sunderland in which Alan Alder “threw off the shackles of uncertainty with a free-flowing display of powerful strokes” to make a decisive 70. Although the Whitburn wicket-keeper Geoff Taylor was struggling against Gibbs and conceding a lot of byes, Whitburn were flying, clear at the top of the table.
At which, as Emerson and Alder remember it, Gibbs broke his hand in the return match against Sunderland and Whitburn’s form disintegrated. But memory is slippery. Emerson insists Gibbs was diving forward to try to take a catch at cover when he sustained the injury; Alder thinks he was trying to take a catch off his own bowling. Faced with the alternate versions, they looked at each other across Alder’s living-room and shrugged. Both had a clear picture of the incident; neither entirely trusted it. Gibbs himself couldn’t remember being injured at all. The report in the Echo was no great help: Gibbs had taken 6 for 78 when he “badly hurt his hand going for a difficult catch towards the close of Sunderland’s innings; his finger being bent back as it scraped along the ground”. An X-ray confirmed he had broken the little finger on his bowling hand.
Whitburn ended up losing that game by 38 runs and the decline began. But it wasn’t quite as simple as that. However straightforward or even comforting it may be to blame what happened that season on a moment of ill-fortune and a broken finger, the defeat was Whitburn’s fourth in a row and although it left them just a point behind South Shields at the top of the table, they had played two games more.
The rot had begun at the end of June as Whitburn laboured to 101 all out against Philadelphia, thanks largely to a “determined 28” from Ron McCluskey. Gibbs took 4 for 56 in 20 overs, but Whitburn lost by four wickets. They remained top of the table, four points clear of South Shields, whom they faced the following week. Tommy Milton bowled Alec Coxon for a duck in the first over but, in front of a crowd of 1,500, Shields made 140 before bowling Whitburn out for 70.
Those batting frailties were exposed again the following week against Chester-le-Street as Whitburn recovered from 1 for 3 and 26 for 6 to 61 all out, thanks largely to Gibbs’s 19. He then took 4 for 26 but they still lost by five wickets. With Gibbs injured there was no coming back and they won only one more league game all season. Whitburn finished ninth, having scored fewer runs but taken their wickets more cheaply than anyone else in the league. Gibbs topped the bowling averages with 84 wickets at 8.4; 100 of his 334.1 overs had been maidens.
Whitburn did, though, win that year’s Durham Tidy Village competition, despite concerns about a litter problem that was blamed on day-trippers.
Fuck grief. You’re too tough for grief. What kind of fucking weakling feels grief for a tormented 78-year-old whose death came as, let’s be honest, a relief? A week before your mam died, a friend lost his brother. That was something to grieve over, a fit young life cut suddenly and appallingly short. Parents are meant to die; younger brothers aren’t. You weren’t going to grieve for the natural run of things. Fuck that. You didn’t do grief – and even if you did, for an ageing parent it would be self-indulgent.
There was a moment towards the end of your dad’s life when you walked into his room in the hospital and found him, a man of 71 in pyjamas that were by then far too big for him, sprawled on a mattress on the floor. They later explained to you that it was because, even with the restraining bars up, he kept falling out of bed. That made sense but at the time it was a shock, his posture like a prisoner thrown down in a cell, or an inmate in an asylum.
Which of course he had been, not that we call it that any more, before he got pneumonia.
You sat on the floor by the mattress, your back against a cupboard painted an ugly fleshy cream, and wept. Your shoulders shook, your lungs heaved and spat, and the tears burned the dry skin beneath your eyes. But your mam was there, unable to bend after her hip operation and she tried to console you and you saw the look of horror on her face and you realised you had to pull yourself together and you did.
That night you realised two things. Firstly, that you had never previously cried in your adult life. And secondly, that weeping was a great comfort, one that you would have indulged far longer had your mam not been there.
You thought that was a one-off. But the following year, on a bus in Albania with your new girlfriend, talk turned to Sunderland’s FA Cup victory in 1973. To your horror, you found your voice catching and before you knew it the tears were dripping down your cheeks.
Because you’re a northern man and can emote only through sport – even if it’s sport that happened three years before you were born.
A few weeks later you wrote a piece about your relationship with your dad and football. It was widely praised and circulated on Twitter because people love a bit of death. You talked about how Sunderland nearly won away at Manchester United in the Cup on the day of your gran’s funeral and about how you’d realised that your grandfather whom you’d never known had been coming to games with you and your dad, a ghost binding you to home and belonging.
It was not true. Or at least, it was not true enough. It had a sentimental truth, written initially in a cathartic rush on a train to meet a deadline for a Polish website, but essentially it mediated your feelings through other things you’d read and seen, through what seemed appropriate.
It was comfortable, unchallenging. But perhaps it was a necessary piece given that your eulogy for him had been shite, a piece of boilerplate about remembering the man he had been rather than the confused shell he became that only exposed how little you had known an introverted, almost pathologically quiet and undemonstrative man.
At least your mam got a great intro.
Great fucking outro, as well, cynically though it played on the fact she’d been a primary-school teacher. “But now the bell has gone. The school day is over. It’s home-time, everyone.” Well done, son. Play the notes they want to hear: after all, they’ve come to hear you speak, not to watch her burn.
Yes. Well fucking done. Sick jokes to prove you were in command, so you didn’t have to deal with the fact that your mam had gone mad and died just like your dad had gone mad and died and like you would go mad and die. Great fucking job.
In April 1964, the Saturday evening sports edition of the Sunderland Echo abandoned its green pages for pink to celebrate Sunderland’s return to the First Division, Alan Brown’s attacking side registering the best goal average in the league and finishing second behind Don Revie’s Leeds. With rumours Brian Clough might be fit after his knee injury for the start of the following campaign, a sense of optimism swept Wearside.
The Echo saw reason to be optimistic about Whitburn as well – Lance Gibbs was returning. Nasim-ul-Ghani – who had been the youngest player in Test history when he’d made his debut at 16 against West Indies in 1958 and who, four years later, as a nightwatchman, had scored the first Test century by a Pakistani in England – had been a popular and successful pro in 1963, but he was not Gibbs. The previous season for Whitburn, anyway, had been less about Nasim than about an incident against Boldon in August. Don Hardy had seemingly edged a ball to slip and Whitburn had walked off believing they had won. But Hardy, realising the umpire hadn’t given him, had stood his ground and Whitburn had refused to return, for which they had been fined five guineas. Devastated, Barrie Cooper, Whitburn’s captain, never played again.
“Two seasons ago,” the Echo’s preview read, “batting collapses and a hand injury to Gibbs were responsible for a disappointing season.”
It went on: “A demoralising start with only four wins out of the opening 17 games removed all hopes of success at an early stage in 1963 but the improvement shown from the beginning of July onwards gives cause for renewed hope.
“The weather ruined three of the last 13 fixtures but of the remainder six were won, and four were drawn, the sort of form which, over a full campaign, wins championships. A great responsibility rests with the batsmen, however, for the stream of runs which flowed from the bat of Nasim-ul-Ghani, last year’s Pakistani professional, will be missing. There is no doubt that Gibbs is the better bowler by far but his efforts with the bat will not be comparable with Nasim’s total of 762 League runs.”
Those batting frailties were clear on the opening weekend as Whitburn, having bowled out Seaham Harbour for 85 (Gibbs 5 for 29), found themselves 68 for 7 before Cliff Bell and Gerry Crosby brought them home. Gibbs revelled in the early-season pitches. He took 7 for 11 in 14 overs as Chester-le-Street were bowled out for 43, and the following week, he and Doug Bell reduced Wearmouth to 18 for 7 within 50 minutes to set up an eight-wicket victory. Their success with the new ball meant Tommy Milton, who, after recovering from a thigh injury, had the previous season taken his last 45 wickets at 8.7, often didn’t get much of a bowl.
There was an eight-wicket defeat to Burnmoor, but then came the derby against South Shields. Whitburn posted 150, and bowled out their great rivals for 82, Gibbs taking 5 for 29 and Doug Bell 4 for 11. “Lance,” said the Echo, “seems to have the ability to turn even mediocre bowlers into giants just by his ever-present threat at the other end. The suggestion is not that the rest of the Villagers’ attack is mediocre but that they have never before realised their potential.”
When Gibbs took 8 for 25 against North Durham in a 76-run win, Whitburn went joint top of the table with Gateshead Fell, whom they faced the following week. It took just 97 minutes to complete victory by ten wickets, Gibbs taking 7 for 11 and Doug Bell 3 for 2. They shared ten wickets against Horden as well, as a 124-run victory took them eight points clear. But then came the rain and two draws in the middle of June that brought Eppleton back to within a point.
This was the stage at which, two seasons earlier, the wheels had fallen off – what Whitburn really didn’t need now was to be facing the traditional giants Sunderland. Whitburn made 176 for 8 and, with Gibbs unusually ineffective, Sunderland went into their final over eight down, needing ten to win. Ken Biddulph – once of Somerset but now Sunderland’s pro and one of the great stalwarts of the Senior League – hit Mel Allen’s first two balls for four. Allen recovered with a pair of dots: two runs needed off two balls with two wickets standing. Biddulph made contact with the penultimate delivery, ran one, but was run out coming back for a match-winning second. One ball left, one wicket left, one run needed. Allen bowled to the Sunderland No.11 Jack Washington. He thrashed wildly and spooned the ball up towards Kenny Cooper at short leg. But the ball looped over him and, although he retrieved quickly and had a shy, his throw missed the stumps and Sunderland won. Whitburn were off the top, four behind Eppleton and level with Sunderland and Durham City.
Everything could have collapsed there and then. The template had been set two seasons earlier of a team over-reliant on one great bowler. This team was stronger, with the bowling of Doug Bell and Tommy Milton, and the clean middle-order hitting of Eric Smith – whose father Billy and uncle Jack had both played for Whitburn and had been in the Portsmouth side beaten 2-1 by Manchester City in the 1934 FA Cup final. As Gibbs acknowledged, though, “we didn’t have much batting”. The fixture list offered no respite and on the first weekend of July, Whitburn faced Eppleton. The league leaders started well and were 104 for 2 when Gibbs got going. He finished with 6 for 64 as Eppleton collapsed to 178 all out. Whitburn won by six wickets.
But they were living on their nerves. Having bowled Seaham Harbour out for 117, Whitburn struggled in reply as Bill Wolfendale took a hat-trick before scraping home by two wickets. Four days later, in a midweek fixture, Gibbs took 9 for 56 as Boldon were dismissed for 179. The following night Whitburn slumped to 75 for 5 before Smith hit an unbeaten 86 that included 17 fours. A four-wicket win took Whitburn four points clear of Sunderland at the top.
But at that stage nothing was without anxiety. Batting first against Wearmouth they went from 26 without loss to 38 for 7 before Smith and Alan Alder added 71 for the eighth wicket. Gibbs took 6 for 25 in a 49-run win.
South Shields gave Gibbs some early hammer before a burst of 4 for 7 gave him figures of 6 for 62. But Whitburn made hard work of chasing 117 and won by just two wickets.
Then, at last, there was a comfortable win by eight wickets over Burnmoor, Gibbs taking 7 for 25 to go through 100 league wickets for the season. It was still only 3 August. He took another three the following weekend in a comfortable win over North Durham to move to 108 for the season, five shy of a record set in 1912.
But Whitburn’s batting could not be trusted. As Geoff Boycott hit his first Test century, against Australia at Old Trafford, they were bowled out for 64 chasing 177 at Philadelphia. Sunderland drew against Durham City to close to within two points of Whitburn at the top of the table.
Gibbs claimed the record with six wickets against Horden, who were bowled out for 124. It was not, though, an easy chase. How could it have been? Whitburn’s eighth wicket went down with 50 still required, bringing Doug Bell together with Kenny Cooper. Bell was out for 23 but Cooper, with an unbeaten 22, steered Whitburn to a one-wicket success. Sunderland could only draw at Boldon, and so the lead was extended to five points.
Two matches remained: Whitburn faced a tough game against Durham City while Sunderland were against struggling Burnmoor, and then they would meet on the final day.
The final weekend of August was anticlimactic, but it set up the ideal finale. Whitburn’s batting, for once, fired, Cooper getting making a half-century as they declared on 203 for 9 before Gibbs ripped through Durham City, taking 5 for 17 as they were bowled out for 68. But Sunderland won just as easily, by ten wickets.
That meant that a draw was good enough for Whitburn, while even a win for Sunderland, who had beaten Whitburn by 16 runs in the final of the Saunders Cup two weeks earlier, would mean a play-off for the title. On a hazy day at Ashbrooke, Kenny Cooper won the toss and, as any captain needing a draw would, inserted Sunderland. The openers inflicted familiar damage, Doug Bell taking 6 for 60 and Gibbs 3 for 42 as Sunderland were dismissed for 107. With Whitburn’s fragility, of course, nothing could be taken for granted, but as the clouds closed in they began steadily enough. Rain began to fall, but for half an hour they plodded on, reaching 62 for 3 by the time the umpires decided the light had deteriorated too far.
The teams hung around for a while, but the weather was set. “As rain pelted down on Ashbrooke at 5.45 on Saturday,” the Echo reported, “Vic Reed of Sunderland, and Ken Cooper of Whitburn, stood at the top of the pavilion steps and agreed that no more play was possible in the vital struggle between the sides.” After 14 years, the title was Whitburn’s again.
But it wasn’t all good news for the village. Scarcely had the celebrations settled down when the devastating news broke: Whitburn had finished only third in the Durham County Tidy Village contest, a fall from grace blamed on litter. And this, perhaps, is the paradox of the Tidy Village: the nicer a place is the more day-trippers it attracts and the less tidy it becomes. Mrs E Watson, the secretary of the Whitburn Women’s Institute, saw the chip shop as a particular problem. “Some women in the village did everything possible to bring it up to standard,” she said, “but others just do not care. They throw litter around and don’t bother with their garden.”
Gibbs finished the season with 126 wickets at 8.5 in 551.4 overs, with an economy rate a shade under two, a record that still stands. Opponents averaged under 12 runs per wicket against Whitburn. But there was a problem beyond the Tidy Village disappointment. At the beginning of the season, Gibbs had signed a two-year contract, planning to play the second of those seasons in 1966 only for it subsequently to be decided that the West Indies would tour England that summer. The best solution, it was agreed, was for Gibbs to return instead in 1965, although the Windies’ tour of Australia meant he would miss the first five games of the season.
The news that Bob Willis had died hit you surprisingly hard. You’d only met him once, on a delayed train to Nottingham. But he had been born in Sunderland, and your mam’s maiden name had been Willis. She’d had an Uncle Bob, who was once president of the TUC.
You’d never met Bob Willis the trades unionist, but you’d once gone to see Bob Willis the cricketer play when you were a kid, a charity match between Warwickshire and some local side at Ashbrooke – Sunderland, maybe, or a representative XI. You don’t remember much about it other than that Willis was forced to withdraw through injury and it rained a lot, so you spent most of the day messing about behind the pavilion.
Ashbrooke back then, on the south side of town, seemed impossibly posh with its trees peering over red-brick walls. The next time you went there was to find a nursing home for your mam. She died just across Backhouse Park from the cricket ground, perhaps 400 yards from where Lance Gibbs and Dougie Bell and the rain had won Whitburn the Durham Senior League.
The hearse pulled up at the crematorium. It was a raw, grey day. Everybody was milling awkwardly outside. You got out of the car and, aware of all the eyes on you, unsure how to react, wandered over to a couple of mates. It was about 1.25. The funeral was scheduled to start at 1.30.
An elderly cousin of your mam’s whom you’d never met came across and introduced himself. You worked out that meant you were second cousins. It got to 1.30. Still the doors remained closed.
You spoke to your mam’s neighbours, who’d been so kind. You did some grimacing and looking at the sky. Still no movement.
It began to drizzle. Everybody edged towards the shelter of the covered entrance, making stilted conversation. The door was still shut.
At about 1.40 the funeral director came over. “I’m sorry,” he said. “The funeral before yours has overrun.”
You nodded. “Slow-burner, was it?”
Could the champions cope without Gibbs for the first five games of the season before he arrived from Australia? It turned out they could. The aim may have been to ensure they were close enough to the leaders to mount a challenge once Gibbs arrived but Whitburn did far better than that. Tommy Milton and Doug Bell, after all, were a fine opening pair in their own right and nobody else had to bowl as Whitburn won their first three games.
By the time Gibbs arrived, taking the field 45 minutes late against Boldon, Whitburn were well on their way to a fifth successive win. The following week he took 6 for 23 against Gateshead Fell and Whitburn had won six in a row. The old batting frailties, though, hadn’t gone away. Chasing 75 against Boldon, they had won by two wickets; chasing 79 against Gateshead Fell, they won by three. That left them vulnerable and when they conceded 171 against Durham City at the beginning of June, they collapsed to 60 for 6, salvaging a draw thanks to Gibbs and Doug Carr.
There was a defeat to Philadelphia and a draw against Horden but a 97-run win over South Shields left them three points clear of Sunderland by the end of the month, with a game in hand. An unbeaten half-century from Alec Coxon led to defeat against Wearmouth, cutting the lead to one, but Whitburn then thrashed Chester-le-Street and drew at North Durham, 15 runs short, to extend the lead back to six, with a game in hand, by the end of July.
Four wins from their final six games would be enough to retain the title. They amassed 172 for 8 against Gateshead Fell before rain forced an abandonment; Sunderland cut the lead to two by beating Boldon. Whitburn lost by a run in a thriller at Durham City, allowing Sunderland to pull level, having played a game more, with a draw against Gateshead Fell. Against Philadelphia, their bogey side, Whitburn were bowled out for 83 and lost by seven wickets as Sunderland drew against Durham City to move two points clear.
Whitburn took the initiative again on the final weekend of August, Gibbs taking 7 for 65 in victory over Horden as Sunderland drew at Philadelphia. Then came the crunch: a Monday fixture at home against Sunderland. Win and the title was Whitburn’s. Draw and they would need only to avoid defeat at South Shields. But they lost, crushingly, by nine wickets.
Sunderland, having completed their programme, led by four points. Whitburn had to win at South Shields. The rain had confirmed their title at Ashbrooke the previous season; this time it meant they never had the chance. By midday the game had been abandoned without a ball being bowled and Sunderland were champions.
After your mam’s death, there was all the bureaucracy and then the funeral and the following week you went to Argentina and Chile. Everything seemed fine. You reported on the Copa Libertadores semi-final second leg between Boca Juniors and River Plate. You rode horses in Patagonia. You went to the cave near Puerto Natales where the mylodon hide that so inspired Bruce Chatwin was found. You looked at moai on Easter Island. You climbed a volcano near Pucón and hiked through the Atacama. You ate a lot of good food and drank a lot of great wine. You barely thought of your mam at all.
Then you got back. You tried to settle back into routine. It should have been easier. You didn’t have to keep going up to Sunderland. You didn’t feel obliged to visit the home day after day. There was no expectation you’d spend an hour on the bus, an hour walking to and from the stops because public transport in the provinces is fucking abysmal, seriously, and an hour – OK, 40 minutes – making inane small-talk while Tenable or VH1 Classic or that dire morning show with Jeremy Vine played in the background.
But it wasn’t. You had no energy, little sense of focus.
You’d thought what would get you was those moments when something happened that, for good or for ill, you thought you must tell your mam – interviewing Lance Gibbs, for instance – but in truth you’d been thinking that less and less as her capacity to understand diminished. In dementia we die a thousand deaths.
Rather there were just times when you felt – and the word seems inadequate – sad. Or moments when a sense of melancholy welled and pressed at the inside of your chest until you found a way of releasing it, usually by listening to either Emeli Sandé’s rendition of “Abide with Me” at the opening ceremony of the London Olympics or the theme from The Likely Lads. In that six weeks or so between getting back from Chile and Christmas, you probably cried at least once every day.
It bothered you. Or to be precise, the reason why you were crying bothered you. The crying itself was fine; you sort of wallowed in it and it left you feeling cleansed. But why were you crying? How could you justify it when everybody’s parents die, when this was natural and universal? You weren’t special. Man the fuck up. Why was it affecting you so much more than when your dad died, even though the circumstances were ostensibly so similar? Was it just that your mam had been so much more voluble than your dad, had occupied a larger part of your life?
Perhaps – although that seemed unsatisfactory given the role football, the love of which was very definitely instilled by your dad, continues to play in your life. Perhaps it was just that, at 43, mortality seems a more pressing concern than it had done a decade earlier.
But in the end you realised it was that, with both of them gone, now that you were an orphan, your link to Sunderland had gone. You have lived in London for 20 years, in the same flat for the last 15, and yet you still refer to Sunderland as “home”. Home is watching football in the mist and coming home to hot soup and cheese-on-toast. It’s running through Roker Park or along the cliffs at Whitburn or up over Cleadon Hills. It’s drinking in the same half-dozen pubs and thinking it an amazing coincidence when you keep bumping into the same lads you’ve been bumping into for 25 years. Sunderland is home as a nostalgic receptacle for your memories of childhood and adolescence and for some sentimentalised and unrealistic vision of a better, warmer world, and with the death of your mam your link with it is gone.
Emeli Sandé was born in Sunderland.
So was James Bolam, the star of The Likely Lads.
The last time Alan Alder saw Lance Gibbs was in 1991 when he was managing the West Indies touring side and agreed to come up to Whitburn for a reunion with the 1964 champions. Alder and Dorothy drove down to Leeds to pick him up from Headingley. Nobody can quite remember which day this was, but the consensus is it was probably the Saturday, after the third day of the first Test. Graham Gooch, at that point, had made 82 of his extraordinary second-innings 154 not out. They were unsure how they would meet Gibbs, but they saw him through the crowds, tall and erect as ever, dressed in a grey suit.
There are photographs of that evening, the night dark over the pitch, everybody seemingly wearing white or cream with splodges of colour. It’s a noticeably different world – not only in the fashions but in the way people seem so awkward in front of a camera, with none of the ease that comes from being repeatedly snapped by people with phones. When Alder brings out his pictures, there is predictable laughter about some of the clothing, but he and Emerson soon settle into something a little more sombre. Who is still alive and who has died, wives who are there and those who aren’t, the marriages that lasted and those that didn’t.
And at the centre of every picture is Gibbs: taller, slimmer and more athletic than anybody else, his suit gleaming in the flash, the obvious star.
You should have called Lance Gibbs earlier, should have called him back in 2010 when you first had the idea for the piece. You asked a couple of people if they knew how you could get in touch but, other than the vague idea he lived in Miami now, nobody seemed to know. But you could have found out. You could have pushed harder.
As you slowly did more research, spoke to more people, read more papers, you told yourself it made sense to hold off. Better to ring him when you had all the questions you wanted to ask rather than having to keep going back. But there was always a reluctance to get it done because you realised that finishing this piece, the way you began to conceive of it, the way it’s turned out, meant your mam would be gone. The article itself became a tie to Sunderland and home.
Then, in February 2019, you were chatting via Twitter to a friend who was in St Lucia, covering the third Test between England and West Indies. “Don’t suppose you’ve come across anybody out there who would know Lance Gibbs?” you asked.
“YOU’RE JOKING!!” came the reply (he’s a younger journalist). Gibbs had been in the press box in St Lucia two days earlier, happily talking to everybody. He passed on an email address.
Still you held off, until, a year later, you realised the delay was becoming absurd. You prepared meticulously, laid out the details of individual games. But Gibbs is 85. His memory of Whitburn is general: of a nice village, of the wind whipping off the sea, of fish and chips, of the friendliness of his teammates and everybody else, of how much more he enjoyed it than Burnley. And why, really, would a man who took a Test hat-trick, who took 309 Test wickets, recall a five-fer against Horden or Burnmoor, or even winning the Durham Senior League in the rain at Ashbrooke?
He asked how old you were. 43, you told him. “A young man,” he said. “Your memory will go as well in time.”
And it is going. More and more often you see a game referenced and, despite finding a report of it on your laptop proving you were there, have no recollection of it.
What memories remained for Gibbs seemed pleasant ones. “They made me very welcome,” he said. And it moved you that in Sunderland, a long, long way from Guyana, he had found something like a home. The details had fallen away and what was left was a sense of warmth and friendship.
“I sat between the two Dougs,” Gibbs said suddenly. “In the dressing-room. That was my seat. Are they still alive?”
And so, as a greasy snow fell outside your flat in London, you began an awful roll-call, you reading out a name, Gibbs confirming whether he remembered him or not, occasionally adding a detail, and you telling him whether, as far as you knew, they were still alive or not. It seemed a desperately bleak process, life stripped back to its most essential, least disputable fact, confabulation taken out of the equation: yes or no? Alive or dead?
Perhaps in the end, that’s all that remains.
This piece is taken from issue 30 of The Nightwatchman.