The fascinating autobiography of Cec Thompson, one of the first black Rugby League players in the UK, has been published by BlackAmber, a new imprint of Arcadia Books.
I have to confess to neither knowing nor caring about rugby and yet found this a compelling read. It is a ‘rags to riches’ odyssey of a man who exhibits, all the way through the telling of his tale, an unusual honesty, a healthy self-deprecation and a resolve never to forget where he came from. It is his intimate recollection of, for example, emotional deprivation, the sheer cold when he could not afford heating, the blind terror before exams, that makes the book so human and memorable.
Cecil was born eighty years ago to a miner’s daughter. His Trinidadian father died before he was born, leaving his mother destitute and homeless with four children under 7-years-old. All the children were sent to different orphanages – where they stood out with their grey uniforms. But, writes, Cec, ‘my brown skin made me even more conspicuous until I felt I was shining like a Belisha Beacon’. He left school at 14 ‘utterly desensitised and virtually unemployable’ blundering from ‘one blind-alley labouring job to another’. After naval service in the War, he got a place at a copperworks in Hunslet, Yorkshire, where he was asked to play Rugby League for the firm. That was when his luck began to change. ‘I had never played the game before’ and he was ignorant of the rules. But the enthusiasm he brought meant that he was offered a professional contract by Hunslet and ultimately played for England against France and New Zealand.
A lucky break he might have had, but it was by dint of amazing perseverance that Cec made his many achievements. Asked to write a column on Rugby League for the local paper in Cumberland, he practically had to teach himself to write (joined-up) – till then he had only been able to print, and then little more than his name. And yet he became a regular and popular commentator. To fill the emptiness after the breakdown of his first marriage, he discovers music and literature. And then, with only a window-cleaning round to support himself, Cec decides he ought to really educate himself. Little by little, ‘O’ level by ‘O’ level he pushes himself through courses and colleges until in 1968 he graduates in economics from Leeds University. He went on to become a lecturer and successful businessman and a founding member of Student Rugby League.
Clearly a lot of people who have met Cec throughout his various lives have helped in the creation of this work – from David Oxley, former Chief Executive of Rugby Football League, who contributes a foreword, to the two hundred plus private subscribers whose names appear at the end.
This is a delightfully frank and life-affirming book about a man who has obviously touched many lives.