How Aigburth Cricket Club Beat The Odds For Another Five Years

It’s September 2021 and the sun is going down as the cricketers bring in the scoreboard. Joe McLarnon shakes his head when asked if there will be a big party to mark what could be Aigburth Cricket Club’s final match of its 133-year history. “A little get-together tonight. We’ll just be telling stories.”

Telling stories is arguably what sports clubs are best for and Aigburth CC has had plenty over the years. But it looks like the final chapters are being written. The club — which also hosts crown green bowls teams, darts, chess and bridge alongside art classes and a brass band — has not heard from its landlord, PR Investments, all year, beyond receiving a notice to vacate the premises by November 2021. Joe and Mark “Billo” Bagot — both playing today in the club’s first X1 — are not optimistic about the chances of an extension.

“It was only when I sat down today to think about it that I felt sad,” says Joe. “I’ve been here 13 years and I’ve never been in a school, a job, or a house for that amount of time. I’ve never been committed to something for so long — not sure my wife would like to hear that…”

Aigburth Cricket Club’s First XI following the final game of the 2021 season against Birkenhead St Mary’s.

Billo agrees, shaking his head. “We never actually thought it would come to this point.” Both seem resigned to their fate, but for Joe it’s not the cricketers who will feel the brunt of the club’s closure but the people for whom the club is a community asset.

“That’s who I feel sorry for,” he continues. “There are people down here five or six days a week. People who depend on the place, live by themselves, will be hurt the most. I’m like a pup compared to some of the people who come here and even I won’t know what to do with myself.”

Club secretary Peter Pearcey is more hopeful, but strikes a realistic tone. “At the moment we have to assume that November 21st is the last day. On the 22nd we could turn up here and find the gates padlocked, but I still think we’ve got a chance.”

Peter gestures around the cast of people who have turned up to what might be the last day’s play at Aigburth, faces from around Liverpool’s sports community who have played here over decades. Arthur Blayes is here, who played for Aigburth in the ‘50s. The cricket club itself has been going since 1888, with crown green bowls at the club since 1911.

Thoughts are turning to fond memories as members contemplate one final close of play at the ground, hemmed in by a train track, allotments and new housing, built on the site of the Liverpool Garden Festival in 1984.

“When I first joined there were no trees here,” recalls Peter. “There were massive oil tanks 30-40 feet high in the area between here and the river (the so-called Cast-Iron ‘Cazzy’ Shore of iron works, slag and shipwrecks, memorialised in The Beatles’ Glass Onion) — people used to try and hit them during a game. The sound of a cricket ball striking them was like a church bell ringing on a Sunday morning.”

Back then the pavilion was an old wooden hut, reputedly built as a snack bar for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887. “That was the pavilion here for nearly 100 years,” chuckles Peter. “When we were raising money for the new pavilion we’d put a big marquee up full of beer and food. We had to do tours of duty all through the night, sleeping in the old pavilion, to ensure it wasn’t pinched!” He squints across the ground. The view stretches for miles down the river towards the city centre. “Can you imagine this view disappearing?” he says. “It would destroy me, to be honest.”

Sam Palmer has played cricket at ACC for three years. With son Asher sat in the crook of his arm, he reflects on the role beyond sport that such clubs offer the community. “South Liverpool has lots of nice bars but proper community-focused places seem to be disappearing. This is a place where people can come and do activities: cricket, bowls, bridge, darts — but not everyone socialises with alcohol. This is a place for all people and all ages. Yes it’s a cricket club, but it’s a lot more than that.”

Billy Pinto and John Stead will attest to that. The pair have been friends for the best part of 70 years and joined Aigburth 50 years ago, having met on the streets of Toxteth. They sit down with pints, facing the pitch, and commence a great old scouse tradition: reminiscing, joshing and teasing. They weave a tapestry of pubs, cricket, people and places — some long gone. Gary Ablett played at Aigburth; Ken Dodd was a frequent visitor (at his first turn he opened with the words “I’ve played in some places but never in a Wimpy hut”); Arthur Askey played tennis here.

John Stead and Billy Pinto.

Many of the stories Billy and Steady tell are frequently hilarious: often unrepeatable; possibly libellous. A story involving a toilet, built for the Wavertree Show, Princess Margaret and a French polisher will certainly never see the light of day in print.

“I heard him before I met him,” says Steady, of Billy. The pair are a garrulous, familiar and well-loved double-act on the south Liverpool circuit. “We were at school together,” adds Billy. “We’ve been together most of our lives. We’re still together.” “Two rag-arses” is how Steady describes the pair when they turned up. In their first game, back in the ‘70s, Steady put two car windscreens through with some big hitting. Billy courted his wife here.

Back in those days Aigburth was something of an upstart in the Liverpool cricket leagues, bringing in lads from the streets of nearby Toxteth. “Ours is a proper cricket club because it’s a working-class cricket club,” says Billy. “Kids came here because they couldn’t afford to go to big clubs.”

In the trophy room, Billy scans the old pictures, full of familiar faces, some no longer with us. Billy is distinguished among his peers by always appearing clean-shaven on the team photos. “That’s the celebration of us winning the cup. Happy days up there…”

We wander outside. The game has ended in defeat for Aigburth, but it seems like small beer, given the context. The greyish cloth strips on the sight screens have been taken down and the scoreboard packed away. There’s a good chance cricket will never be played here ever again.

Billy Pinto looks out at the pitch, populated now only by magpies.

“One for sorrow, two for joy…” he muses. “I’m gutted. I hope that it doesn’t go.”

‘It’s their way or the highway’

In late November Peter Pearcey is summoned to a meeting with the landlords. With days left on the remaining lease (the club had to go to court in 2015 to pursue an application for the grant of a new tenancy, which it received in late 2016) and against all hope, the club wins another five-year lease. When he later tells members that they’ve won another lease, the place erupts.

Peter reflects on what seems like an unlikely turnaround in fortunes: “Everyone was very despondent, very down: the cricket finished, we played the last few bowls matches, everybody felt it was going to be gone next year. On the 21st November we would have had to lock the gates.”

“Massive relief” is how Peter describes his feelings, but he’s mindful that the club may have to go through the same process again in five years’ time. “Hopefully, I won’t be dealing with it by then…” he chuckles.

Peter Pearcey guarding the gates of Aigburth Cricket Club.

The club’s players and members are grateful above all. And they’re not the only ones.

Green Party councillor Tom Crone, who represents St Michael’s, says Aigburth’s survival is great news for the community too. But he strikes a note of reality when it comes to the ground’s owners, the enigmatic PR Investments. The company also owns the Olive Mount “Manweb” playing fields in Wavertree, also seemingly stuck in limbo but known to be a target for development for successive owners (the Manweb Sports and Social Club burned down in 2014).

Crone says that while the lease extension is welcome, Aigburth needs a lasting result if its survival is to be guaranteed. “The lease extension was a relief,” he says, “but we still don’t have that long-term solution.” He likens the situation to a football manager taking a win but instantly moving on to planning for the next game. “PR Investments don’t really want to engage in a dialogue, so we are left hanging. There’s no negotiation, no discussion, no kind of flexibility about what the future might look like. It’s their way or the highway.”

Crone says PR Investments has a business model of acquiring land and increasing its value, often through development. Certainly the view of some at the club is that the company wants to sell the land for development, not aided by the fact that the 2014 notice to quit was so the landlord could demolish the pavilion. Aigburth CC has offered what it believes is a fair price for the ground, based on an independent valuation; PR Investments refused the offer. The change-of-use that would be required for the development of the land to proceed seems unlikely, but Liverpool City Council’s options for protecting the club are restricted. Club and landlord seem stuck with each — for now at least.

Another five years

It’s the first day of the 2022 season. For the cricketers, the moment is tinged with joy and disbelief. Joe McClarnon and Billo are donning whites once again. The latter, not renowned for his batting, sees his stumps cartwheeling upon the very first ball of the Aigburth innings. He doesn’t care. There’s cricket again in St Michael’s.

I ask Billo how he felt when he heard the news that the club had won another five- year lease: “Oh God, another five years playing cricket!” he replies, with a laugh. He’d planned to do an umpiring course and had resigned himself to the end of his weekly commute down from Anfield. But the game, the club, the camaraderie always pulls old players back in, just when they thought they were out.

While the Second XI folded last year, as players drifted away due to the likely closure, there is a healthy First XI — and the Second XI should make a comeback. Social membership is at 400. New players have turned up to play this year and a recent crowdfunder raised £5,000 to reinvest in the ground. There’s a real sense that the community has realised what an asset it has on its doorstep — and how close it came to losing it.

“The only way I thought we’d still be here playing cricket is if we were squatting!” Billo admits. But now the club is looking forward. “I’ve been coming down here for 25 years and I’m seeing more and more faces than I’ve ever seen before,” he says. “That’s really positive for the future of the club.”

• Written for the Liverpool Post. Click here to read the original: ‘The sound of a cricket ball striking them was like a church bell ringing on a Sunday morning’ copy

Janet Hemingway Interview: ‘We’re Going To Have To Live With Covid Forever’

Professor Janet Hemingway laughs a lot. In fact, I can see that she’s laughing before I can hear her through the Microsoft Teams meeting that’s been set up for us to chat. As I fumble for an elusive “unmute” button I can see Prof Hemingway chuckling away, clad in a Princeton University hoodie and hands-free headset, from her home in the Cheshire countryside. Since March 2020, she now spends the majority of her time working from home.

“We used to have to work quite hard to persuade people that infectious diseases were important,” she muses, “but we kind of don’t need to work quite so hard now.”

It has, she concedes, been “fairy crazy”. Hemingway left her role as director of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM) — she describes it as one of the jewels in the crown of Liverpool — in 2018 with the intention to “have fun with the science” for the remainder of her career.

Within a year she was putting together a consortium of NHS and academic partners with the private sector, after the government advertised a programme inviting bids for research projects. Her idea, presciently, was for a consortium that could speed up the delivery of vaccines, drugs and diagnostics. She won the bid in March 2020. The Infection Innovation Consortium (iiCON) — a kind of Q branch for infectious diseases, antimicrobial resistance and emerging pandemics — was created.

“It struck me that if I got all of those organisations working together, we could be much greater than the sum of our parts to the benefit not only of the city, but to humanity basically,” she says. “I thought if I can pull that consortium together from the North West, I think we’ve got something that could really be world beating there.”

Janet Hemingway. Photo: Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.

When the consortium started, everyone knew Covid-19 was “coming big time,” and the new organisation pivoted its energies towards the novel disease. Later in 2020 they became involved in the trials for the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine, as well as helping in the development of the lateral flow and PCR tests.
iiCon is now working on new Covid treatments, which she says the public will become more familiar with over the course of the year: mouthwashes, surface cleaners and devices to monitor Covid in wastewater from virus hotspots are three examples she mentions.

“I went from a standing start of thinking ‘yeah, I’ll do a little bit of science, rather than run an organisation’ to, by September of this year, having a portfolio of activities that was in excess of £180m, and delivery of 2.5bn units of different products to consumers and patients.”

She pauses, then laughs. “So I’ve had a quiet year.”

Hemingway is an early riser (she gets up at 5.30 every morning to muck out horses, feed the cats and walk the dogs) and that’s just as well given her workload. She still works at the LSTM alongside her role as founding Director of iiCON; she’s a senior technical advisor on Neglected Tropical Diseases for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and she also founded the Innovative Vector Control Consortium.

She would like the city region to be recognised as a centre of excellence for infection research and development, and iiCon has attracted about £3bn worth of investment to the region by 2030. “It means lots of jobs, but I also wanted those to be jobs that people in the city felt that they could apply for and career aspirations that the kids wanted to go for as well,” she says.

Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. Photo by Rodhullandemu, released on the Wikipedia Creative Commons.

Much of the work she coordinates has an impact across the country and the world, but she also thinks there could be local benefits. “I think that it should be good for the local population, because we do have a population where the health isn’t as great as it might be,” she says. “You’ve got various issues there, including some that link with infectious diseases. And so we’re obviously working with the local NHS local populations to try and improve local health.”

I put it to Hemingway that Liverpool’s relatively low take-up of Covid vaccinations must be frustrating, given the city’s importance in tackling infectious diseases. “Liverpool has got underlying issues with poverty. It’s got underlying issues with different ethnic groups that tend to sit in their own little bubbles, if you like. And within those groups they tend to access their health care less effectively than other groups do.”

She seems to be the perfect person to ask the question that many of us have in the back of our minds right now: when is this pandemic going to end? “We’re going to have to live with Covid forever; this is never ever going to go out of the human population.”

The objective is to get the disease down to the point where it is no worse than the standard flu. “And the only way you will do that is either lots and lots of people have to get it and die from it, which is not what we want to do, or we put something in place that actually reduces the amount of transmission — that’s clearly the vaccines.”

She thinks the government’s response to the pandemic “could have been better” and has harsher words for some specific decisions (stopping air travel from South Africa when it was already clear that the variant was already within the country was “crude stupidity”). “If we’d have been a little bit more ready, before this one, we maybe could have stopped it becoming a global pandemic. And so we don’t want another one in my lifetime, certainly, but I would like not to have another one in anybody else’s lifetime. That’s a big ask, but I think if we’re really clever about the way that we put different things in place, both surveying what’s going on, and then responding very quickly. We can do that.”

And we can do it on Merseyside. “By building up a big area of expertise, we can tackle those infectious diseases that are there, year in year out, but we can also respond very quickly to anything new that might suddenly come about, and do it more effectively than we have done with Covid.”

Dr Jon Hague of Chair of the Innovation Board for the Liverpool City Region.

Something people who have worked with Hemingway pinpoint in her character is her grasp of detail and an ability not just to communicate clearly, but get others invested in what she has to say. Doctor Jon Hague, speaking in his role as Chair of the Innovation Board for the Liverpool City Region (Hague is also a Vice President at Unilever), told me about working with Hemingway. “She’s tough, right? She’s absolutely a tour de force. When she does need to stand firm and draw the line and say, no, she’ll fight tooth and nail. She digs in when she needs to and she gets a lot of respect for that.”

He says Hemingway is a rare beast in science. “She’s one of these people who is extremely good at navigating the politics of universities and institutions and governments,” he says. “But he’s also an absolutely brilliant scientist. People in science tend to be one or the other; Janet brings both of them together.”

Hague has worked with Hemingway on bringing iiCon to fruition and has experienced her “brutal efficiency”. “She’s really kind to people but like any good operator she’ll get it all lined up before the meetings. She’s like a great chess player, she’s got all the moves made. And it’s all sorted out when you go into the meeting: checkmate!”

It’s perhaps Hemingway’s steeliness that has seen her referred to as “that damn woman” by opponents — a reminder of the gender imbalance in the higher echelons of science. iiCon’s team may be all-female (“serendipitously”, says Hemingway), but the fact is while more women than men enter science, it drops off alarmingly beyond postdoctoral level. “If you look at the professorial level, I think we’re 10% female and 90% male,” she says.

Either way, the iiCon team is getting noticed. “The government is coming in February to see what’s working in Liverpool because they can see it happening with what we’re doing and how quickly it’s grown and how quickly it’s had an impact. And so they can see that there’s some fairy dust in there.”

iiCon and the LSTM are just two, relatively small, elements in the sprawling, seemingly ever-developing Knowledge Quarter that houses the University of Liverpool and Royal Liverpool University Hospital. Hemingway says the critical mass and geographical closeness has benefited Liverpool enormously. “Alongside the massive numbers of students to the city, which helps drive the economy, you’ve got the research activities tying in with the health systems, the engineering companies, the people in the maritime areas.”

She cites the rollout of 5G networks in Liverpool as pioneering (along with her role in promoting vaccines and her work with the Bill Gates Foundation, she’s a conspiracy theorist’s worst nightmare) but says the city needs to carry on innovating for its own good.

“That way, we suck in inward investment,” she says, “we suck in the sort of people who are interested in these industries, so we create better jobs for people. And if you’ve got good urban employment, everything else tends to flow through. Better jobs mean better housing and better health. And so lots and lots of the other problems that you see in cities that are deprived start to go away, because you’ve got an economy that is booming.”

It’s obvious from our conversation that Hemingway is committed to the city. “Normally I’d spend 10-12 years somewhere and then move on; I’ve now been here more than 20 years, and I haven’t yet moved on, I’m not going to.” She gets two or three job offers a month from all around the world. “And I can happily say ‘No, not interested’. Because I’m well anchored here.”

We’re wrapping up our talk, early on a day shortly before Christmas. What else has she got on after this? Hemingway lists a meeting with iiCon colleagues, a call with the Northern Health Sciences Alliance, catching up with a Japanese company to discuss bed nets for malaria control and some paperwork to finish off for a quarterly report. Plus the dogs and horses need exercising.

Not much, then. “No. I always sit twiddling my thumbs,” she says laughing.

• Original written for Liverpool Post. Click here to read the original article: ‘We’re going to have to live with Covid forever’