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Born on the wrong side

07/02/2012

Cec Thompson

In the midst of John Terry’s forthcoming court case, the fall-out from Luis Suarez’s racist abuse of Patrice Evra and the allegations of racist chanting that have dogged Euro 2012, it’s easy to forget how far we’ve come in our attitudes to black sportsmen and women in the last 50 years. When Cec Thompson became only the second black man to play rugby league for Great Britain against New Zealand in 1951 one newspaper ran the headline “Hunslet’s darkie one of Britain’s heroes”.

Theodore Cecil Thompson died almost exactly a year ago, aged 85. His story is surely one of the most remarkable of any British sportsman. In later life he became a teacher and I was lucky enough to be taught by Cec at Chesterfield School in the mid-1980s. During lessons he would often regale us with tales of playing international rugby league, but none of us knew anything about rugby (we were mostly football fans) and, to be honest, most of us didn’t believe him. We thought it was merely a show of bravado, something to impress his pupils. Yes, he probably played a bit of rugby league. But Great Britain? Nah. How little we knew. And how shocked we all were the morning after spotting him playing for Great Britain on some grainy black and white footage on Question of Sport. This was long before the days of simply typing someone’s name into an internet search engine and reading all about them.

Cec’s autobiography “Born on the Wrong Side” was published in 1995 following his retirement from teaching. The book is now out of print but my partner Maeve managed to obtain an old Doncaster Library copy on the internet. It’s a truly inspiring read and contains more about determination, courage, leadership and the rewards of sheer bloody hard work than any of the self-help “how to be successful at work” guides that clutter the shelves of bookshops.

Cec was born in County Durham in 1926 to a Trinidadian father and a mother from Yorkshire. His dad died before Cec was born and, as his mother was unable to raise four young children on her own, Cec was brought up in a number of orphanages in the south of England. His school days were unhappy ones. He was painfully shy, had trouble learning and discovered that his skin colour certainly wasn’t going to help him, experiencing years of casual racism. When he returned to Yorkshire after leaving school he was still unable to read and write properly.

He fell into playing rugby league almost by accident. After a series of dead-end manual labouring jobs he was invited to play for his works’ team in Hunslet. He found that he was a natural at it and loved the camaraderie of the dressing room, something that he brought to the classroom in later life. In his autobiography he tells of teaching himself to read by thumbing through copies of Reader’s Digest on the coach to away games. And also of learning to write to avoid the embarrassment of having to print his name when being asked for his autograph.

He was a second row forward of considerable talent and in a career spanning more than a decade he made nearly 300 appearances for Hunslet and Workington Town and represented Great Britain twice. David Oxley, former chief executive of the Rugby League, described Cec as a mixture of “pace, power and perpetual motion” in the foreword to Born on the Wrong Side.

After his rugby league career was cut short by injury, Cec established his own window cleaning business. The passion for learning and self-improvement kindled during his playing career was undiminished and during icy winter days spent cleaning the windows of schools he dreamt of becoming a teacher. Now nearly 40 and using the income from his window cleaning business, and the support of his wife Anne, he slogged through several gruelling years of study to gain O and A Levels before graduating from Leeds University with a degree in economics and a diploma in education. The national press picked up on the story with one paper running the headline “Window Cleaner to Honours Degree”. A career in teaching beckoned.

One of the few black faces around Chesterfield at the time (and the only black teacher) Cec cut a striking figure around school, always immaculately turned out, confident and assured. It’s difficult to believe that he was shy when younger, particularly around women. He had a unique teaching style that drew on his experience of rugby league dressing rooms and his later climb up the ladder of formal education. Everyone had a nickname; “drug addict”, “gigolo”, “sex fanatic” and “big gob” a few that I remember. He demanded hard work and would regularly aim a blackboard rubber at anyone not paying attention. We didn’t realise at the time the incredible sacrifices he had made to become a teacher.

He brought the subject of economics to life with stories from his own experience of setting up and running a business. Topics like monetary policy and the deregulation of financial services were made interesting for a teenage audience. Most of all though, he taught us to think for ourselves; to read about things, understand different viewpoints and debate and discuss issues. It was the first time I’d thought about major national issues like the miners’ strike. This was 1984-85 and mining villages and towns across North Derbyshire were in the vanguard of the fight against the closure of uneconomic pits. Instead of simply accepting the views of others, I was questioning why things were happening and investigating alternatives. It felt liberating.

Although Cec liked to describe himself as an entrepreneur, we sensed that perhaps his political leanings were more to the left. More than once, he referred us to a book that was partly responsible for the election of a post-war Labour government in the 1940s; The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell. It didn’t mean much to us at the time but a few years’ later I spotted a copy in the university bookshop. The book had a huge impact on me (and still has) and reinforced my belief in a fairer, socialist society. Every time I pick the book up I think of Cec.

Cec’s hunger for learning was also imbued in his son, Mark. I remember being invited round to his house one Saturday morning to assist with Mark’s geography homework. He’d spotted that I was doing alright in geography. When my explanation of how erosion can change the course of a river didn’t appear to be sinking in, he drove us to the nearest river to see for ourselves. It was typical Cec, anything to assist in the quest for knowledge.

Although always fiercely proud of his Yorkshire roots, later in life Cec travelled to Trinidad to find out more about his father’s West Indian background. In his autobiography, he tells of discovering CLR James’ book The Black Jacobins just before he made the trip to Trinidad. The book tells the remarkable story of the slaves’ revolt in Haiti in the 1790s led by Toussaint L’Ouverture resulting in Haiti becoming an independent republic in 1801. The book debunks the myth of the West Indian islands as a backwater, reliant on the support of others, instead focusing on their proud history in the fight against slavery. I’d never heard of the book until the mention in Cec’s autobiography. Even though he is sadly no longer with us he’s still influencing my reading habits. RIP Cec, a radical who kicked against customs. Thanks for everything.

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