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Finding the power behind the scenes

Letter from London

Finding the power behind the scenes

While many blacks in the UK have become very successful in sports, politics and entertainment, few have been able to get  into positions of influence behind the scenes as coaches, managers or directors. What is behind this shortcoming? By Clayton Goodwin

Britain’s Princess Anne, presenting bestowing an MBE to the former gold medal hurdler and national team coach, Lorna Boothe caught the Jamaica born athlete by surprise with her question. “How is it,” the Princess Royal asked in words to that effect, “that you have transferred from being a top-class athlete to a top-class coach, when not all top-class athletes have done that?”

One moment Lorna had been thinking that the tension of waiting to receive the MBE medal – remembering not to turn her back on a royal personage (even when returning to her seat) – was similar to what she had experienced while listening for the starting-gun at a major athletics championships; the next, she found it was not just a matter of courtesy, accept, thank-you and retreat, but she was also expected to engage in constructive conversation.

It helped that they had met previously: both were members of the Great Britain team at the Olympic Games in Montreal in 1976 – the one on a horse, the other on the track. Lorna replied that she had always had the opportunity to be around a lot of young people and had developed her skills from that.

That answer, simple as it was, obviously satisfied Her Royal Highness, just as the Jamaica-born former Commonwealth 100 metres hurdles champion’s talent and commitment had impressed her mother sufficiently to create her a member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE).

This positive news was encouraging because that morning I had learned of the passing of Tony Becca, the former sports editor of the Gleaner newspaper. For many years he had been my ‘opposite number’ – we worked respectively for the Kingston and UK offices of the same publication – and for just as long (that is, over 30 years) he had been the lone black presence in international press-boxes at a time when the West Indies bestrode the cricket world like a colossus.

At 78 years old, Tony had been retired for some time, though still contributing a regular weekly column, so that when he suffered a cardiac arrest after entering hospital with dengue fever, what would surely have been a unique voice at this summer’s forthcoming Cricket World Cup was lost.

On contacting the London office of the Gleaner to share the sad news with colleagues I encountered Paulette Simpson, representative of Jamaica National (banking services), sponsors of that country’s team in the similarly up-coming Netball World Cup, which dove-tails in time and location with the closing stages of its cricket counter-part.

She commented wryly that Jamaica had no UK/West Indian heritage television station – in contrast to the buoyant African sector – by which to publicise the Sunshine Girls. Where, it is tempting to ask, have the Jamaicans, and West Indians in the UK generally, gone? Their withdrawal from prominence across so many activities has been the subject of concerned comment. Africans now do indeed dominate the UK ‘black’ community.

A missing voice

At about this time Ian Wright, the former footballer and currently a pundit, chaired an in-depth television discussion as to why, in a sport in which they are so prevalent as players, there are few African/Caribbean soccer coaches – which could apply also to all positions of influence and authority behind the scenes.

The Cricketer magazine has published letters regarding the lack of participation, and, also, it seems, interest in the sport among young people from a similar background. If there are few black cricketers developing, there are even fewer coaches, umpires, managers and ground-staff (apart from stewards).

A story is beginning to develop. When Princess Anne observes how few athletes transfer to being coaches; Tony Becca the last consistent black West Indian representative in the cricket press-box dies; and Ian Wright raises the question of the absence of African/Caribbean professionals in positions of influence in football, don’t you feel that there is a voice missing somewhere?

All these examples have been taken from the world of sport – deliberately. I cannot face up to the political situation again so soon. However, with life, health and the Editor’s patience permitting I promise (or threaten?) to return to that subject again soon. Nevertheless, this phenomenon can be observed equally well in politics, social affairs, business and entertainment, apart from sport.

It is accepted that to God alone belongs both ‘the power and the glory’, and that mere mortals have to settle on having just one or the other. Africans have achieved a degree of recognition ‘in front of the camera’ – as the film and television world would say – but a lot more is needed ‘behind the camera’.

There are enough quality black actors to play any part which is required on stage, screen and radio: not everything has to be handled by Sir Lenny Henry, in spite of some appearance to the contrary. Yet a fully rounded picture cannot be achieved without a similar input by black dramatists, producers and directors.

That, I would contend, is where Henry’s work is now of greater value. The contribution of the present well-publicised generation of African politicians in the UK cannot be realised until it is matched by Africans also filling the positions of party (and trade union) general secretaries, lobbyists and senior back-room staff.

As much as the downright offence which can be recognised and countered, there is by this omission, danger of misunderstanding through an ignorance which is often well-intentioned.

The late Syd Burke described his radio show Rice ‘n’ Peas on LBC as being from “a black point of view”. Several years ago a well-known television reporter said to me during a Parliamentary by-election campaign in more sympathetic bewilderment than may appear from the words on the printed page: “These black people around here are mad. They do not know who their own leaders are.”

On being challenged to specify what he meant by that, he recited the names of leading officials on community relations boards – all of whom had been appointed/elected by national, thereby primarily white, entities. When I indicated several Caribbean/Africans whose voices really counted in their neighbourhood, it was his turn to express ignorance.

Cultural empathy

To my mind there is no evidence that any race is better than another at transmitting experience and talent, or that people learn any less well from somebody of a different culture. Even so, apart from anything else, the newcomer must take comfort in knowing that a coach/manager from their own background, facing similar difficulties as themselves, has achieved the goal they seek.

The coach, too, will recognise those particular problems and have some practical idea of the solution. Above all, the minority coach/director/organiser will know where to look for talent in communities that have been overlooked and under-developed.

However well-meaning he/she may be, a university-educated coach with a secure middle-class suburban background can have little idea of or empathy with the problems of those, perhaps newly-arrived or second/third generation, from the inner cities.

Whatever may be thought of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, it is in the highest system of honours this country provides; an inspiration for those aspiring young people whom Lorna Boothe has been around, helping to develop their skills, starting from urban Croydon on London’s southern fringes.

She knows all about disadvantage. When we first met – in the early 1980s – Lorna, Jamiaca-born and black, was struggling to find sponsorship, even though she was the then current Commonwealth champion, which came more easily to her domestic rival Shirley Strong, Britain-born and blonde. Maybe nothing has changed but one thing has happened – Lorna Boothe has got to Buckingham Palace, and a new generation can take comfort that they, too, can get to the top (and not only on the track).  NA

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