Fumata nera

‘Big’ Bob Jackson of Wharton United Reformed Church phoned me around tea time on Thursday, 27th March. I had been getting ready, gearing up for the Wharton versus Little Lever ‘A’ table tennis match – the last of their league season and what was to mark my official entry into The Sixteen Club; a pantheon of individuals who had witnessed or played a match at all of the current B&DTTL venues.

The imagined papal conclave was playing eeny, meeny, miny, moe with the Fumata bianca (elected) and Fumata nera (less than 2/3 majority) chemicals in a jolly, high-spirited game of white smoke/dark smoke. Could we check the mileage on his car? Had he actually visited fifteen of these historical venues before tonight? Had he stayed the entireevening and not fallen asleep at any point?

I had in my head the faces of the people who could vouch for me, the weary words that had been spoken at times and the gruesome image of a soon-to-be cam belt invoice from my favoured garage in lower Adlington. If the ‘cardinals’ were to withhold my membership – the modest spoils of my skidding around the Bolton area – then I would be a broken man.

“We played the match on Tuesday,” Jackson’s first words were, “Re-arranged it due to the Zumba.” It got worse. “They’re selling the church so we’ll have to find a new venue for next season.”

I had heard about this Colombian craze. My ears had first sampled its hip-hop, samba, salsa relentlessness at St Paul’s Peel Parish Hall on 13th March 2012. From the room next door, whilst playing against Manny Nradede, I listened to and briefly glimpsed the war-like, shunting bodies of 50 and 60-year-old ladies embossed in Lycra. (The image still haunts me.)

But now, beyond the concern of being outbid by the Zumba camp for prime table tennis space, there was the genuinely sad news that yet another venue was about to close or be the brazen booty of a rival church’s development plans (not even an ‘old Lancashire’ church at that).

Oh, the irony that Dunlop Heywood’s self-styled “God’s surveyor”, Peter Townley was involved in the sale of the 0.34 acre site. God, Himself mustn’t have shown up at the negotiations. Or beforehand, when He was really needed. Perhaps His bank balance was running low – lower than the £110,000 needed (money, the bleeder and heartache implicit in everything).

League General Secretary, Roy Caswell had offered to sift through the Bolton Museum’s archives last month in an effort to thoroughly understand how deeply embedded table tennis is in these parts. The annual handbooks (not a totally reliable source but a good indicator nevertheless) revealed some long-established roots: Bolton Lads’ Club (1947); Little Lever (1970); Wharton (1971); BEN (1973); Wingates (1974); Nomads (1975). Nearly seventy years of history!

On the 12th April 2014, Lostock became another ‘faller’ in the table tennis Grand National. This reduced the number of venues to fourteen for the imminent winter season (2014/15) – well below the widely-recognised healthy minimum of eighteen.

The pressure on the Hilton Centre to accommodate the ‘homeless’ is now at breaking point. We have an epidemic of sorts – fevered tables around the district neglected and left to rot in unused shells.

Friends, Romans, Reverends, philanthropists – lend me your ears. Saviours needed. Please email: brassttc@gmail.com

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