Becky Want interviews James Humble on BBC Radio Manchester at 2pm on Monday 19th May 2008

Becky Want: If you’ve got children or grandchildren, you’ll know how they love to hear stories of when you were young. It was for the sake of his grandchildren that Jimmy Humble from Oldham decided to write a book about his life. And what a life, I have to say. Jimmy is with me now. Afternoon, Jimmy.

James Humble: Good afternoon, Becky.

BW: It’s called ‘A Grandad’s Life’. I have to say, the picture on the front is fantastic. It’s you, isn’t it, basically, drawn by one of your grandchildren?

JKH: My oldest grandchild James.

BW: It’s a really lovely picture, a child’s eye view of his grandad. Lovely… You know, you have had quite a life. Jimmy Humble OBE, for a start. How did that happen?

JKH: The ‘OBE’ bit? Well, I’ve spent a life at the cutting edge of consumer protection changes for the last thirty-five years and, you know, you get more and more important positions and do more and more things and people eventually give you an OBE. Quite an honour.

BW: Well, yes… They might do. Not to everybody. You started off, as I said, in Oldham. How long were you in Oldham for?

JKH: Well, twenty-six years. I’m Oldham born and bred, and I love it, and it’s my roots, my existence. I wrote this book because my grandad was my hero. He taught me to run, hop, jump; he indulged me all the time. It was only when my parents died about ten years ago that I realised there were a hundred questions I wish I’d asked them. So I started telling stories to my grandchildren – I’ve got seven under ten – and they loved them. So I thought, I’ll write it down in case – not all of it for them to read now – they get curious when they’re my age.

BW: It’s a lovely idea and you’re very fortunate you have such a memory. I mean, you go back to things like the penny sweet tray. There’s lovely little detail in the book.

JKH: It’s very nice of you to say that but I don’t have any difficulty remembering those sorts of things.

BW: No, that’s amazing, isn’t it? How is that? Is that just the way your mind works? Or have you dwelt on the past?

JKH: Well, when I started to write bits, it was like an onion skin: you know, you write one bit and it suddenly triggers something else that happened. In my schooldays, there was a horrid time when all the school railings were taken down from Werneth School in Oldham. The Headmaster said to beat Hitler. I was only six or seven. I thought, how are they going to beat Hitler with school railings? Are they going to javelin them from aeroplanes? We weren’t very clear about what was going on in the world.

BW: I love the part where you talk about how worried you were about moving from infants’ school, and then from junior school to the grammar school. It was a big change for you, wasn’t it, and you were scared about that…

JKH: I was scared because all those children a year or so older said horrid things. Initiation ceremonies, that was it: heads down the lavatory and flushed, thrown over… All sorts of horrid things. I was so scared I wouldn’t go to school, stubbornly wouldn’t go. I think I was normally quite an agreeable child and did what my parents said, but I didn’t go to school. They had to bring a teacher to explain to me it was all fiction…

BW: … and it didn’t happen… A lot of people will know you, Jimmy, as a professional rugby player. So when did you – or teachers, I suppose – see that you were really quite good at sport?

JKH: Well, it developed quite slowly, really. But I did my national service in the navy and there weren’t a lot of good sportsmen in the navy at that time so the competition wasn’t hot and I spent the whole of my two years playing rugby, tennis, athletics, and so on. It was like a two-year intensive training course. I came back, was captain of Oldham Rugby Union Club, a club that I still love. We had a very good season, we were winning all our matches, and 1959 we had two games cancelled for ice and snow. A third game was cancelled…

BW: Ha ha ha!

JKH: A man very discreetly approached me and said, “Would you like a game with the other code?” That’s Rugby League. And I thought, well ,yes, let’s give it a try, nobody will know. I turned up at Leigh expecting to play on the A team – no great ambitions – and found I was playing on the 1st team under an assumed name against Jimmy Ledgard, who was Great Britain fullback. And I scored four quite sensational tries – or so the newspapers said at the time. Nobody knew who I was.

BW: Ha ha ha! So it was a pseudonym?

JKH: It was a pseudonym. John Harrison, if I remember correctly. And, of course, the directors grabbed me, took me into the (what seemed) very impressive oak-panelled boardroom, gave me something to drink and said, “Will you sign, will you sign? How much do you want?” And I said like treble – or quadruple – what I thought I was worth. And they signed me.

BW: And there we are.

JKH: And there we are. And it was only – it’s quite interesting today because there’s been a lot of publicity about Dwain Chambers playing for Castleford Tigers – it was only later that I found that Leigh had signed McDonald Bailey, the great Olympic sprinter of the time. He played one game for Leigh and never got his wind back. In fact, when I trained with him he didn’t get his wind back very quickly. So they had to save face and find another winger to replace him and that happened to be lucky me. I was right place, right time.

BW: Jimmy Humble, professional rugby player… That’s detailed in your book as well. And your job, your work, has taken you all over the world, hasn’t it?

JKH: When I finished rugby, I went to Africa to set up a trading standards service for the Nigerian Government. Now, that was some experience – wonderful!

BW: How long were you there for?

JKH: Four years. One experience stands out. My wife was teaching the Emir of Kano’s fourth wife – a fourteen-year-old girl – to speak English, and they all loved her. I was interested in the harem, as you might well be, when you’re a twenty-odd-year-old – um – guy, and I got an invitation when the Emir was away to go into the harem, in the Palace in Kano, through darker and darker corridors to eventually the holy of holies. Very gloomy. What I remember now is every wall was covered with brass plates, there was a bed about twenty feet by twenty feet, there were lots of what seemed to be very old women trying to stroke my white skin…

BW: Oh no!

JKH: They very rarely had men in there. And there was an enormous American jukebox. We had a very happy giggly time. Everybody giggled all the time.

BW: I’m not surprised!

JKH: And we left with two live ducks as our presents.

BW: Live ducks! Have any of your grandchildren read your book yet, ‘A Grandad’s Life’?

JKH: Well, I’ve got three daughters and they’ve all read the early bits, the bits that are narrative. But it gets more serious and more frank. I’m really grateful to Cockasnook Books who published it, who helped me to extend the bits about the civil service and trading standards. I was also director of the Metrication Board – that was a horrid experience!

BW: You have had an extraordinary life. Jimmy Humble, from Oldham originally, OBE, it was lovely to talk to you. Thank you very much indeed and the best of luck with the book. It’s called ‘A Grandad’s Life’. Nice to meet you. Thank you.

JKH: Thank you very much.