Ffooks was not a particularly promising student. He excelled at almost nothing. Nothing, that is, apart from one curious skill. Who knows where these blessings come from? Despite being, from an early age, corpulent, he was, surprisingly, Five Counties Junior School Middle Distance Champion three years running.
There is an intriguing photo of Ffooks (©The Barton Sands Gazette, June 1956) in the local history rooms on Silver Street (It can be found in the corridor at the top of the stairs in the permanent exhibition called Penn Beacon – Youth!). The photographer, one James Liddell, has positioned himself in the middle lane of the track, just a few feet behind the finish line. The photograph captures the moment ‘Reginald Ffooks, 8, of Penn Beacon’ bursts across the ticker tape. His head of distinctive ink-stain hair is thrust toward the lens, obliterating his face. His arms are thrown up in triumph and his legs are caught, forever blurred.
The photograph is also of particular interest to those who enjoy social history. The crowd of onlookers that border the image in an almost perfect bottleneck are all turned toward the winner, and so, toward the camera. Among the expanse of faces – the usual unfortunate twisted expressions, vague features, forever-open mouths and frozen, windblown hairstyles – a pale and thin young boy in a vee-neck and tie captures the eye. He is stood next to a bee-hived woman who has hold of his left elbow: it is jerked up awkwardly toward and beyond his shoulder. She is mouthing something motherly into his ear. He ignores her. Or (and I’ve looked at this picture many times), he has not yet, in that moment, heard her. The words are on the air. The child stares directly into the camera from some feet before the finish line and, after the winner’s hair and arms and palms and blurred legs and the flailing trail of ticker tape, the viewer’s eye is drawn directly into his; as if he is peering directly into a future. A footnote to the photograph, added in 1971, reveals that the boy is Geoff Lyons, who found fame (and subsequent ‘death by misadventure’ in London’s Chalk Farm area in 1980) as Jif Nylon, singer/songwriter with New Romantic duo, Tweed Gilet.
How could such a rotund and ice cream fed fellow become a ‘middle distance’ (and, by this, it is meant, I assume, 500 or a thousand yards) champion? The secret to the boy’s success was his technique. It was closer in nature to a skip than a run. He would lead with only the left leg, all the thrust coming from the right. Young kids can be seen doing this even these days. It is the classic approximation of ‘horsing around’. Credit, I suppose, must also be given to his PE teacher at the time (Mr. D. Biscuits of Barton Sand’s Junior Grammar d. 1969), who rather than discourage such a style, recognised, and encouraged, the remarkable singularity behind it.