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”.
Lovely words Bomb, sums up the man I knew perfectly.
Does “no I’m alright….I’ve just got something in my eye” work in type? Hit the spot there as usual Bomber.
Frank was a lovely man who will be greatly missed. The incident vs Gravesend (spot on with Terry btw) was my first team debut. By the time the ref arrived Frank was looking at me, tsking and shaking his head. I got the full b*llocking and final warning from the ref and my dear old Mum and Dad never came to watch another game in protest at the violence.
Encapsulated nicely sir…
The suited and booted,bespectacled ‘gentleman’ oft espeyed at Waterloo or London Bridge stations had the ability to make you glow/ smile just from knowing his alter ego(s).
Happy memories of cringeworthy shenanigans along with his contemporaries.
The most comfortable of prop forwards to ever scrummage behind.
This from Nick Blake:
Bomber – lovely, lovely piece !!!
Put me in mind of my favourite story about Frank if I might be indulged.
Andy Vacher – a mate of ours who briefly played for Darts – went to Spooks in Woolwich one night not long after he’d started playing and Frank, as he often was, was on the door. Now Andy knew of Frank (who didn’t) but he was a bit of a newbie down the club so he didn’t actually know him.
Andy bought his ticket to go in and approached the door where a large tuxedo suited arm suddenly blocked his path and prevented him from entering. Following the trail of the arm up a barrel chest he was confronted by the deadpan face of Frank Wallen who proceeded to ask him if he had paid to get in. Andy replied, rather nervously, that he had. Frank asked him if he was sure and Andy told him, more nervous than ever now, that he was. Still seemingly unhappy by this response, Frank requested that Andy accompany him to the ticket booth to verify his statement. Fearing the consequences should he argue, Andy meekly acceded.
Once there, Frank enquired of the girl selling the tickets as to whether Andy had, indeed, paid the full and complete remuneration required for entrance to the club. She looked Andy up and down before turning to Frank and confirming that he had.
‘I see’ said Frank. ‘Well, give him his bloody money back. No mate of mine pays to get into this club.’
He could barely have known Vacher at all. Probably just seen him down the club from time to time. But that seems to sum him up to me. Didn’t have to know you very well but would always make time for you and show you a kindness….. RIP, mate.
Right, I’m welling up now so I’m off.
Have to say this has completely floored me. I used to love seeing Frank down the club. I always felt we were privileged to have something of a minor celebrity in the 1st XV.
RIP, Master of the 2″ Punch.
It’s a mark of the man that everyone who has contacted me this afternoon has a different, hilarious, brilliant story about Frank. People are genuinely sad of his passing.
This from Tony Barrett:
Your words convey exactly what everyone else at Darts will be feeling right now and although I wanted to write a few words about Frank I just couldn’t get it right, so thanks for bringing back so many lovely memories of the great man. I hadn’t seen him much lately but my most recent memory is of him making a thank you speech to our French hosts at the Friday dinner on the 2009 Vets Tour to Libourne. Only last week I was telling an acquaintance about Frank and some of his exploits and the polite nods and smiles I received made me realise not only how badly I was telling the stories but also how lucky I was to have been there to enjoy his wicked sense of humour. Like when I stood next to him at the bar in a “foreign” clubhouse and he ordered a drink for himself and a pint for his brother. The barman looked at Frank and then me and scratched his head before the penny finally dropped. In his early rugby career I had the privilege of being propped by Frank and his elder brother, whose name I shamefully forget. Needless to say it was the most comfortable afternoon I ever spent in the front row and marvellous to get the credit for all the strikes against the head when in truth, you’ll be shocked to hear, I had nothing to do with it. (I know my secret’s safe with you Bomber).
How ironic that this sad news came in the same week as the verdict in the Stephen Lawrence trial. What a contrast. Nobody, including his Dartfordian family, ever thought Woolwich born Frank was different to anyone else. He was highly respected and much loved by all, except that prop from Gravesend of course. I well remember the incident and the moment of impact, 7.5 on the Richter Scale I believe. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer chap.
Caribbean nights, two pounds of pork sausages playing a piano duet, Frank and his opposing prop watching the wrestling on TV in the Warlingham clubhouse after one of them had had a torrid 80 minutes, the ref at East London calling for the black Dartfordian to answer a charge of foul play and both Wallens stepping forward to protest their innocence, and Frank reacting to the news of a new, black hooker in the first XV with the comment “I don’t want no maccas in my team”! I’ll miss him. We all will.
Absolutely gutted at Franks passing, great tribute and words Bomber.
I’ll always remember being fortunate enough to lock behind him and to be assured we definitely weren’t going backwards, nor if he didn’t want to would we go forwards such an immensely strong man. He would always play with a smile on his face before, during and after tupping someone, a great and sorely missed mate.
Great tribute Bomber , the world is a poorer place without the likes of Frank. Having not been able to get back down the club too often I hadnt seen Frank for quite a few years , but a while back I got off a train on the way to work, too early for my liking and as usual I was late. I wasnt looking where I was going so I hadnt noticed a great bear of a man step in my way. Once I had got my senses back after colliding with the “wall” I looked up and realised it was Frank. there he stood smiling. He stuck out his huge hand, crushed mine and said a warm “Hello flabs, great to see you” He was genuinely pleased to see me ( I wish a few more were! ) That was Frank to me. Always smiling, always a pleasure to meet. We will all miss him
Perfect Bomber or Ian to some, tears rolling down my face top bloke.
Thanks Gina. You and the rest of SE London, by the sound of it. Incredible what an impression Frank left.
What a devastating day yesterday was hearing the terrible news about “our Frank” For nearly 40years Frank has been not only one the best teammates I could wish for but one of the best friends as well. I have never seen Frank in anything other than a great mood , smiling ,telling jokes and generally just being great company. He would give a helping hand to anyone and his time was evrybody’s time if needed. Stories of Frank are endless but two spring to mind. 25 years ago when I was organising a rugby team in the City I found myself a prop short on the morning of the match a week before Christmas. Frank worked in the Civil Service at that time and he told me he always had his kit in his car”just in case”. I phoned him and an hour later we walked into the changing room at the HAC to park our kit. Sitting there was a shortish well built guy in a purple track suit who we both nodded to thinking that we knew him. Up to the bar for a pre match livener and introduce Frank to the rest of the team. When he was introduced as our prop everyone started laughing as I had clearly told Frank this was just a beer match and would be a great laugh. I was then informed that the shortish chap in the changing room was none other than Jeff Probyn the current England prop. Frank just lit his pipe and a wry smile appeared on his face. After a fantastic match we lost to Peter Winterbottom’s team by a solitary score and Frank had played a stormer. The talk in the bar afterwards was not of the various England players who had played against us but all about Dave” Butcher” Bond , Frank the legend.
Following my move from Full Back to Hooker my 1st team debut in that position was against Barking Park. For those old enough to remember, this match always seemed to coincide with the Lord Mayor’s Show as it did on this day. Frank coming from London was inevitably delayed and the game kicked off without him. I had the pleasure of having Steve King at prop for 20 minutes and from this match Kingy received his knickname ” Squeak Piggy Squeak”. I have never been so happy to see that big smiling face jog onto the field as when Frank arrived that day.
I only wish that could be the case again today but sadly we can now only have those great memories of a fantastic guy who never bragged or boasted about anything , he just achieved in everything he did. He has left a gap in our lives that very few people have the ability to fill.
Frank you will allways be in our thoughts, Dave
You’ve said it all there Chief. Your best blog to date. No more to add. Frank, we’ll miss you mate. Gav.
Fantastic tribute Mike. It’s amazing how some people you come across in your life leave a lasting impression. For me Frank was definitely one of those. It is over 25 years since I played with Frank, but I remember the mentoring qualities that he had very clearly. He was someone who we all respected totally , not just for his imposing physical presence but for his humour and calm assurance.
I hadn’t seen Frank for many years, but was fortunate enough to bump into him and few other Old Darts on my son’s tour to Somerset a couple of years ago. We sat and chatted for a while and it felt like coming home. We talked about the ‘Terry’ incident – i’m still in shock from that now- and we laughed a lot. Well mostly he laughed at my expense, but I wasn’t going to argue with him!
Such a great loss. A great man. It seems we all thought so – have you ever had so many responses to your blog?
Well done Michael and to the rest of you all who have paid trubutes to a wonderful man, Everyone has a story about Frank, one of the greatest characters to enrich our lives both on & off the pitch.
Thank you Peter,
Remember those Caribbean nights down the Club with Frank,Brian and their mum cooking up vats of spicy chicken ? Frank singing one of his party pieces “Zipperdy-do-dah” and bashing out a tune on the club piano with a soppy grin on his face. What memories…what a man/character. Bless you Frank. RIP.
Love Big Greg x x x x
Lovely words Bomber and the world is definitely a poorer place for Frank’s passing. The only man we ever saw to do true justice to a Carribean shirt.
Jim Cooper and Sean Cooper
My uncle frankie was the best uncle a niece could wish for always there for me smiling telling me it will be ok making jokes all the time no matter the weather it was only 2 christmas ago I saw you we all sat and eat and made jokes until night came I love u uncle for your niece miss you soo much YOU WAS A GREAT MAN
Thank you to everyone saying such wonderful things of my uncle
How thankful I was to have a such a great guy holding me up in the front row. What a lovely man!