You’ll notice a couple of things about the above photo. Firstly, how the young man on the far left of the front row has hardly changed at all over the past 25 years since the snap was taken of the Dartfordians 1st XV 1985/86. The young then-winger went onto become one of east Bexley’s least talked about centers, one of the country’s slowest fast bowlers and writer of mumbling and bumbling slightly-left-of-centre blogs, part-time t-shirt maker and scaffolder’s knee-wrencher.
You’ll also notice the rather imposing figure, third in from the left of the back row of Frank Wallen. Man-mountain, father, brother (in all senses of the word), all-in wrestler, civil servant and tickler of the ivories (he played all the right notes in the right order). Frank died last night, they tell me, apparently of a heart attack. He will be sorely, sorely missed.
Frank was my vice captain when for some reason I was asked to captain the 1st XV. It was a long time ago, but the memories of my disastrous and lacklustre attempts to skipper that side still keep awake at night those poor sods who were there to witness it.
Not that Frank need have taken any of the blame for our appalling form (and I’d like to meet the bloke who’d have blamed him.) While my alcohol or apathy-related injuries prevented me from attending midweek training, Frank would be there, with the other 7 attendees, running around the dark and wet field, scaring and scragging people as he went. He did all this without a moan, without once having a go at me for not being there/being in the pub/staying at work/being in the pub (delete where applicable). Good job too: I’d have shit myself if he’d had done so.
Off the pitch he was as gentle a man you could ever wish to meet. Quiet, with a magnificent sense of humour and smile to match, he would sit at the bar, pipe on the go, nodding and giggling along with whatever story was being rolled out again for the umpteenth time. He was terrific company and seemed amiable and happy all the time.
On the pitch was a slightly different story. My mate Keith – no mean player himself – recounts the day as a 19 year old he took his place in the side as hooker, alongside Frank in the scrummage (Frank would have been around 30 by then already). The match was against local rivals Gravesend, and at each and every scrum, Frank’s opposite number would take the opportunity to call Frank a “black cvnt” every time their heads came close. What this bloke was going to do to Our Frank during and after the match was no-one’s business and anyone’s guess. Sadly for the Gravesend player (let’s call him Terry), the end of the game came sooner than expected. For him, at least.
As Keith jogged across to a lineout, he saw Terry, hands on his knees, bent over grabbing huge lungfuls of air between plays. Then something odd happened. Nothing is certain, but it seems Terry must have slipped because, all of a sudden, his chin came into violent connection with a freshly-arrived knee (the colour of which has never been proven). Terry exited the pitch quickly, chin-first, eyes shut, at a 30 degree angle and four feet above the ground, until he landed on the cricket square between pitches (somewhere around backward short leg). Frank looked around innocently. Keith threw up.
Everyone on the circuit knew Frank. He sorta stood-out. It wasn’t just that he was one of the few black prop-forwards around (we down the Rugby Club also enjoyed the playing company of his younger, bigger brother Brian), he was also as strong as one man could possibly be. I mean scary-strong.
Perhaps it was this strength that lent itself so readily to Frank’s other sporting passion: All-In Wrestling. These were the days well before WWF or Wrestlemania or whatever. Men in ill-fitting cotton and spandex outfits, pretending to jump up and down on other men, similarly attired. It must have been so hard for Frank to “pretend”.
But he didn’t fight as Frank Wallen. No, no, nothing as drab as that. When our Big Frank entered the ring he became none other than “Soul Brother Butcher” Dave Bond. It just rolled off the tongue in a way his opponents rolled off the canvass. Of this world of fixed bouts, of goodie and baddies, and little old women screaming at someone to “rip ‘is bloomin’ ‘ead orf”, Frank would tell you that he never competed as a goody. “Apart from in Brixton” he would add with smile.
After a rugby match, if you were particularly lucky, Frank and his big mate John Harrison (another big unit) would sit either end of a piano keyboard and treat you to some honky-tonk. If you were really really lucky you’d have been in a public bar when this mate John pretended to square up to Frank, having the effect of terrifying the barman due to the imminent prospect of a huge punch-up between two enormous men. As the poor innkeeper, fearful of the pub’s decor, nervously shouted “I’ll call the police”, both Frank and John would cuddle the poor guy, Frank in fits of laughter as John (a member of Her Majesty’s Met Police) would tell him “they’re already here, mate”.
But more often than not, you’d find Frank sitting at the bar, supping on his pint and pipe, smiling and listening to all around him, chatting about the game that afternoon. He knew he was a little different, that he cut an impressive dash, an imposing figure. But all Frank wanted to do was to enjoy life, a game and a pint.
As I left the clubhouse one night, he got me into a headlock to tell me a joke (it’s what he did).
“Hey, Bomber, why do white girls go out with black blokes ?”
Dreadfully nervous of putting my foot in it I replied lamely “er…I dunno, Frank”
“To get their handbags back” he cracked. Huge grin across his face, giggling to himself like a schoolboy.
“Now Frank, you’d have killed anyone here if they’d have told you that” I suggested.
“Yep, but they never would, Mike.” he grinned “They never would”.