OThe extensive coverage of Michael Parkinson’s death recognizes the radical views he expressed long before he became a national treasure through his popular BBC celebrity interviews. He spent his formative socialist years as the son of a miner in the Yorkshire town of Barnsley. That, coupled with his love of the sport, particularly cricket and more specifically Yorkshire cricket, was perhaps why he volunteered to start of in 1965 Anti-Apartheid NewsHe wrote a sports column for the monthly, the official organ of Britain’s anti-apartheid movement.
Then came the D’Oliveira affair. Born in Cape Town, Basil D’Oliveira was classified as ‘colored’ (interracial) during apartheid. Barred from playing for his own country by law, he was forced to pursue his career abroad. From 1966 he became the automatic star player for England.
But when Marylebone Cricket Club were selecting players for a tour of South Africa in 1968/69, the England selectors struck a dirty secret deal with the white South Africans to bar D’Oliveira. Along with commentator John Arlott, Parkinson railed against the exclusion in his post Sunday Times Sports column that the MCC “is condemned as racists of the worst kind and we are all clouded by their shadow”. After the uproar, the MCC finally selected D’Oliveira and South Africa’s Prime Minister John Vorster promptly canceled the tour. Despite this unprecedented rejection, a few months later the MCC invited an all-white South African team to tour Britain in the summer of 1970.
I led a militant campaign to stop it and was hated for it. Parkinson was one of the very few journalists who supported us. He railed against the “Marylebone Clodpole Club,” whose refusal to bow in the face of public outcry he described as “a hodgepodge of clichés, red herrings, zigzags, bobbing and weaving…” a argument for the tour all waterproof properties of a shopping bag”.
The struggle to stop the Tour in 1970 resulted in cricket grounds becoming battlefields, as chronicled by Colin Shindler in Barbed wire and cucumber sandwiches, for which Parkinson, now retired from the BBC, wrote an astute foreword, voicing undiminished criticism of the English cricket establishment. “Since 1992 South Africa has happily been welcomed back into the community of cricketing nations, but the painful struggle it has endured to get there is a story that should never be forgotten.”
To say that politics can be removed from sport is tantamount to saying politics can be removed from life, he said, also memorably at a time when such a view was very uncommon in sports journalism.
Along with Brian Clough, Glenda Jackson, George Melly and several other luminaries, Parkinson also became a founding sponsor of the Anti-Nazi League in 1977 in our National Front militant campaign to combat racism and fascism.
Today the ANL is praised. Apartheid is rightly denigrated. And condemning racism in sport and “getting on your knees” in applause is mainstream for the BBC and most media. But none of that was the case half a century ago. We belonged to an often oppressed minority back then, when Parkinson stood up steadfastly to be counted among us.
Labor colleague Peter Hain’s South African memoir is A Pretoria Boy.
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