Phil Melling, 1947-2011

Transient

Phil Melling, educator, writer and rugby league evangelist, died on 11 November 2011. He was a man of great principle, limitless energy and extraordinary creative talent. Rugby league is far poorer for his passing.

Over 150 people attended his funeral at the DW Stadium. They came not only from his twin homes of Wigan and Swansea, but also from London, Ireland and numerous other places where he had left an indelible impression.

Phil was born into a mining family in Wigan in 1947, appropriately on 14 July, Bastille Day. He was bright enough to pass the eleven plus and went to Wigan Grammar School where, to his amazement, the boys were encouraged to play all types of sport except one: rugby league. 

Like thousands of others in the town, Phil had been taken to Central Park while he was still in infant school. To him this ban on rugby league seemed nonsensical, but as he grew up, he came to understand that it was part of a wider pattern of discrimination that the sport, and working-class people in general faced.

From Wigan Grammar he went to Manchester University and from on to Indiana University to work on his PhD. He arrived at Swansea University in 1978, where he became a professor and the founding head of the American Studies department, the first in Wales. 

When he arrived in Swansea almost immediately began work on establishing rugby league. His experience at Wigan Grammar prepared him for what to expect, and he was not disappointed. The rugby union establishment tried to stop the league sides using pitches, warned union players against playing league and some members of the university staff had ‘a quiet words’ with him about what promoting league could do to his career prospects.

But he was never going to be deterred and his work paid off. He was the founding chairman of the Welsh Amateur Rugby League and coached the Swansea University team to successive UAU rugby league finals. He became manager of the Welsh Students national side in 1988 and recruited Clive Griffiths to coach them. 

During his five years in charge the side won the European Student Championship three times and finished fifth in the 1989 Student World Cup, despite only having two universities playing the game. In 1990 he managed the Great Britain student team. His proudest moment came in 1992. The student world cup was held in Australia and Wales made it to the semi-final, where they lost to the eventual champions Australia.

Phil’s contribution to rugby league extended far beyond coaching and managing. For him rugby league was part of an international culture of the dispossessed and disenfranchised. His brilliant essay, Surfing the Hurricane, written as the conclusion to his 1994 biography of Dai Davies, Man of Amman, weaves rugby league into the works of authors like Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston and Chinua Achebe.

He wrote about the game from a unique perspective. His deep love for and knowledge of American literature allowed him to articulate the meaning of rugby league in a way that no other writer could. This was a man whose passion and intellect meant that he could talk about his beloved Billy Boston in the same terms as he would discuss the novels of William Faulkner or Ernest Hemingway.

He was especially proud of rugby league’s historic ability to integrate black players. As a young boy he had been captivated by seeing Billy Boston. In 2003 we collaborated as editors of The Glory of Their Times, a book that celebrated the history of the game’s outstanding black stars. He also wrote a seminal article in Our Game in 2000 about rugby league players who fought in the Spanish Civil War.

His talents and interests knew no bounds. He wrote fiction, two performed plays, Hotel Vietnam and The Day of the African, and four academic studies of American politics and culture. 

Phil commitment to the poor and oppressed extended far beyond the written word. A regular visitor to Guatemala, in 2001 he set up an educational charity, Study Guatemala, that built a school in Guatemala City that provided free education for local children.

He was working on a book about Hemingway and imperialism when he died - I once suggested to him that when he finished that he should wrote the definitive biography of Billy Boston. 'Billy's too important for me to write his biography,' he replied, putting Hemingway firmly in his place. But despite his subordinate position to Billy, Hemingway remained Phil's favourite author and he spent considerable time in Cuba, working in the archive at Hemingway’s last home.

Hemingway himself once remarked that 'as you get older it is harder to have heroes, but it is sort of necessary'. Phil was one of rugby league's necessary heroes.