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.

League and literature

In a recent edition of the online review The Browser, the novelist Richard Beard talks about the literature of rugby and selects his five key books.

His selection can be found here.

The interesting thing about this (apart from the fact he's chosen one of my books) is that although he's clearly a rugger man, he's chosen David Storey's novel This Sporting Life, which uses league as a backdrop for a doomed love story between an older woman and a younger tearaway league player.

In fact, as he admits in his book Muddied Oafs, the only two decent novelists who have ever written about 'rugby' are Storey and Thomas Keneally, both from hardcore league backgrounds.

Perhaps the devil really does have all the best books?

Eddie Waring: Mr Rugby League (BBC4)

This post was originally published on rugbyreloaded.com on 13 September 2010.

Last week's BBC4 programme, Eddie Waring: Mr Rugby League, was a subtle and nuanced portrait of a complex character. Paul Greenan and Tony Parker, the show's producers, have made one of the best British sports documentaries of recent times.

The programme was about 18 months in gestation. Paul and Tony's original idea was to make a three-part history of rugby league but the powers that be at BBC4 wanted a single programme based around Eddie Waring.

I have to admit that when I heard that the focus was to be on Eddie, my heart sank. Did we really need more clips of It's a Knockout, the Morecambe and Wise Show and Don Fox missing a goal kick?

But for once, my fears about the BBC were misplaced. Assisted by some great research from Lucy Smickersgill - who dug out some amazing footage, including Eddie on NBC - the producers managed to capture both the man and his place in the game.

Tony Hannan, Harry Waring and I were interviewed for several hours each, and inevitably some points get cut from the final show. A couple are worth recounting here.

The BBC's standard defence was that Eddie popularised the sport outside of the North. But the BBC actually carried out audience research in 1965 to judge the popularity of their sports commentators. Eddie finished next to bottom. He made no appreciable difference to the audience figures. The only commentator ranked below Eddie was rugby union's Peter West, who within a couple of years had left union commentary to concentrate on cricket.

A broader point is, as Asa Briggs points out in his official history of the BBC, that the corporation historically had problems relating to the north of England and especially the industrial working class. With his background and network of contacts, Eddie offered the BBC a way to reach that community. Once they had him, almost nothing could prise him away.

Why should we care if the BBC didn’t treat rugby league seriously? Andrew Tong in the Independent's review of the programme argues: 'So what if he drifted into caricature at times? Few people pilloried Brian Johnston for sounding absurdly public-schooly on Test Match Special, or decried Murray Walker for actually sounding like a Formula One car'.

But of course, neither Johnston nor Walker appeared on variety programmes making fun of their backgrounds. Perhaps if they had appeared on The Goodies telling jokes about Eton or Highgate schools or starred in Monty Python's 'Upper-Class Twit of the Year' sketch Tong may have a point.

And that is precisely the point. There’s a double standard at work here. Other sports did not have commentators who had become known as comic characters. Other sports were not regularly mocked on television or seen as an excuse for comedic ‘creativity’, as in the case of the K-Nine dog at Headingley (which the producer Nick Hunter now admits was a mistake).

There’s nothing wrong with poking fun at rugby league (take a listen to Roy and HG in Australia if you’re in any doubt) but there is something wrong with poking fun only at rugby league. Perhaps if Ian Carmichael, who often played slightly dim British upper-class characters such as Bertie Wooster, had presented Twickenham internationals, there may have been some parity.

I must admit to a minor disappointment with the rugby league evening. The Game That Got Away, the 1969 Roger Mills documentary that aired after Mr Rugby League, had to be cut by fifteen minutes or so. One piece of footage that didn't make it was the second half of Brian Redhead's comments about the intelligence of rugby league. Here's what he went on to say:

If you want to see stupid rugby, go and watch rugby union, and there you will see people play a game where half the things they do they do without thinking. But in this game, although it looks as if it’s all muscle and toughness, nothing ever happens that somebody hasn’t thought about very carefully. And when rugby union people come and play this game, they get outwitted and they don’t realise that they are being out-thought.

One final point. If you want to get the true measure of the man and understand how important Eddie was to rugby league, make sure you check out Eddie's The Great Ones, recently republished by the estimable Scratching Shed, in a book which also includes his fascinating England to Australia account of the 1946 Lions Tour and other journalism. Essential reading for all rugby league fans.