Big Daddy 1978
From the start it was Big Daddy and I, way back
In the darkness where he stood, belly-slack
Bending my arm behind me so I could hear it crack.
He was there in the boarding house by the sea
Where we fetched up, in the cup of milky tea,
On the lace doily, in the broken-toothed key
They lent us for late nights. He was there in the gym
In my childhood where I was afraid of him,
And even then he was never exactly slim-jim
Or svelte but barrel-chested, almost squat
With a potentially enormous gut
When he told us to stretch and keep out mouths shut,
There from the beginning as Big Daddies are
Though just as often they’re propping up the bar
Or belching and winking but never very far
And you wonder how they carry that slab
Of grease about so easy to grab
And twist in your fingers, that gives as you jab
And avoid his rough lunge, which is a skill
You learn early if you learn it at all: that still
Moment before you spill
From the ring or skip aside as in a dance
Where the floor is on fire, taking your chance,
While the heavier man loses his balance.
Oh the beauties of wrestling: I could tell
You of such devices the very smell
Of them would drive you crazy, that hell
Itself could not have dreamed their names;
I see them barely contained by the white frames
They burst from like hot air, in flames.
When he made his reputation in wrestling, everybody, even Margaret Thatcher, called him Big Daddy. No-one used his real name, Shirley. His father was Shirley before him. Big Daddy’s grandmother had appeared in music halls and the theatre and read a lot of books. Being particularly fond of the works of Charlotte Bronte she was so taken with her novel, ‘Shirley’ that she decided to call the child she was about to have, boy or girl, by that name. They were a hard Yorkshire family. Shirley the elder became a professional wrestler as well as a Rugby League star. He would have played for Halifax in the 1931 cup final had he not been sent off in the previous round. He got his medal all the same. And when his sons were born he encouraged them to get involved in street-fights. He also made sure that one of them carried the name on. Though all three Crabtree boys - Shirley, Brian and Max - wrestled when young, it was Shirley who drew the crowds. Trim and ramrod straight (he had been a lifeguard at Blackpool), he was originally known to wrestling crowds as The Battling Guardsman. Soon he was top of the bill in Middlesbrough and Newcastle but, as his weight increased, he decided to adopt the name Big Daddy instead.
My man fourth name down
One day, long after he had become famous, Shirley, along with a host of other celebrities, was invited to a charity event at The Inn on the Park in Park Lane. It was sponsored by The Daily Star, on whose behalf he had been visiting children’s hospitals at Christmas. The paper had decided that they would give a gold star award to certain people who, they considered, over the years, had merited it. There were about four or five hundred television, film, radio and sporting figures present.
Shirley was at a table with Jeremy Beadle and three or four others, when a man came over to him and said: Hello Shirley, how are you keeping? Shirley spun round like he had been hit. No-one called him Shirley these days, The man smiled and said: You don’t know me, but I know you. I am Mrs Thatcher’s publicity officer, Bernard Ingham. I used to go watch you at the Drill Hall, Halifax. I told Mrs Thatcher all about you. She’s dying to meet you.
So, after she made her speech, Mrs Thatcher got off the podium and ignoring all others, walked across the floor, straight over to Shirley’s group. Beadle, who was looking that way, gasped: God, she’s coming to our table. She extended her hand to Shirley as he stood up and she held his for about two or three minutes (like somebody’s mother, Shirley said afterwards.) You know Big Daddy, she said, there’s something about you men of the north. We don’t breed them down the south. Would you do me a great favour? We’ve just been, Bernard and I, out to Africa, to one of those Nations Conferences. There was a banquet in the evening, and I was sitting at the banquet with the ministers of these countries and a chap beside me asked me if I knew the wrestler, Big Daddy. I was flabbergasted! Well, as a matter of fact my colleague, Mr Ingham, knows him, I answered. He watches the wrestling on the television and in real life too when he can. And how do you know about Big Daddy? I asked. Oh, we watch him on the telly too, the minister replied.