Our lives are constantly affected by fate. Or is it destiny, a higher power or maybe just plain luck? But whatever it is, our lives are often impacted by weird, wonderful and frankly, inexplicable coincidences.
In 1973, I remember being marched into the hall of Brynhyfryd Primary School with the rest of my class. I was in J1, which in new money is now known as Year 3. We sat, expecting the usual address from the Head, Mr Gregory, followed by hymns and sore backsides from sitting on the polished, unforgiving, wooden parquet floor. But this time it was different. Instead of the Head and senior teachers standing at the front, there was a piano, two guitars and a life sized cut out of Elton John.
No, I’m not dreaming.
In 1973, Elton John was as big as it got for a British pop star. He’d broken America with songs like ‘Your Song’ ‘Rocket Man’ and ‘Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting’, had enjoyed incredible global success, and now here he was, standing at the side of a piano in a run of the mill, working class Primary School in Swansea. The Head called us to attention and introduced us to a hip looking young man standing next to him. Dressed in a black leather jacket – or it could have been a Harrington – flared jeans and long dark rock star hair, we were told that the boy/youth/man was a former pupil at the school who was about to become a pop star. He’d been signed up by the record label of Elton John and was going to sing us some songs. Little did I know then, but that teenager would eventually change the course of my life.
He sat down at the piano, gave us a good half hour of Elton songs along with some of his own and he even got my form teacher, Mrs Webster, up to dance out at the front. It made a change, she usually spent her time telling me off. There was another teacher there that day who I remember, she was a little more friendly to me and she had an unusual name I always remembered, Mrs Cottey.
I was mesmerised by the performance. The young singer was note perfect in everything he sang and played and I suppose, looking back, I was actually experiencing my very first pop concert. In a Primary School assembly…it wasn’t quite Glastonbury, but it was special enough for me. The two things I remember vividly was how the music affected me, it got right inside me and just made me happy, exhilarated even, a feeling I get to this day in concerts. I also clearly remember thinking how cool the guy was and how cool it must have been for him to come back to his school and play a concert, not too many years after he’d have been sitting on that granite hard wooden floor himself.
Oh, there was a third thing I remember too, his name. It was Maldwyn Pope.
The following year, my parent’s marriage broke up and along with my sister, Jackie, my mother moved us from Brynhyfryd to start a new life in a strange new world. We left the hustle and bustle of busy Brynhyfryd and moved to the peace and calm of a Gower village, Three Crosses. I remember being shown to my new seat in the J2 class at the much smaller Crwys County Primary, and was placed next to a boy who would become my first new friend. His name was Anthony. After school on that first day, he came to call for me for a kickabout and then took me to meet his grandparents who lived directly behind the council house we had just moved in to. When we got there, I instantly recognised the lady that he introduced to me as his mum, it was Mrs Cottey from Brynhyfryd Primary.
Over the following years, Anthony and I pretty much became inseparable. Three Crosses was a hotbed of sport. We both played for the school rugby team, football team and cricket team. We also played for the local football club, Dunvant and Three Crosses. Over the following six or seven years, we pretty much won everything we ever entered, and mostly it was down to Anthony. He was a prodigious talent, a genuine sporting prodigy who scored goals for fun, was a hard as nails little scrum half and had also scored a century for the school team by the time he was 11. No surprise then that Anthony Cottey would eventually play professional football for Swansea City for three years, then spend another twenty playing cricket for Glamorgan and Sussex, winning the County Championship with both. Incidentally, the only Welshman to achieve this feat.
Now, whilst my best mate was achieving such brilliance on the sports fields of Britain, another name reappeared from my past, Maldwyn Pope. Only now, he was called Mal. I’d never forgotten him, his unusual name, or his energetic performance that afternoon back in Brynhyfryd. Now in my early twenties, Mal had become something of a Welsh celebrity. He was a regular host on BBC Radio Wales, had his own show on ITV based around his music and his musical heroes, and even though I didn’t know him, or had never even met him, I had an enormous pride in his success and watched everything he did on TV. My mother would always say, ‘Look at that, isn’t it brilliant? A Brynhyfryd Boy made good!”
I don’t think I missed any part of Mal’s career over the years as I moved out of my 20’s and into my early 30’s, and as his success grew, to more TV shows, music documentaries, self penned musicals at the Grand Theatre and his incredibly successful touring band, ‘The Jacks’, I would often say to myself, ‘Well, if Mal came from Brynhyfryd and he made it, there’s no reason why I can’t.’
Trouble was, I had no idea what it was I was going to make it in!
Then, in the late summer of 2004, I had a phone call from my best mate, Anthony. Only now, he wasn’t called Anthony, everyone called him Tony. He said he wanted to call round for a coffee as he had something to ask me. When he did, I nearly fell off my chair.
He’d decided he wanted to bring out an autobiography of his football and cricket career, but didn’t want to write it himself. So he asked me. That’s when my chair wobbled. Now, it’ll take another blog to tell the full story of why Anthony (he’s never been Tony to me) came to ask me to write his book, but the simple reason is, for years I’d been reading countless sports autobiographies and sharing the good ones with him. For some reason he thought that my voracious appetite for devouring the latest life stories of the great and good of the sporting world would mean I could write one. God love him, he was thankfully proved right, but I had many a wobble when the project began. I doubted myself, I doubted my writing, I doubted my ability, I doubted my background. But when my feelings of inadequacy surfaced – which was often – I always thought of two words – Mal Pope. If that Brynhyfryd boy could make his name, then maybe this one could too.
A couple of years later, ‘There’s Only Two Tony Cotteys’ was published, and it was written by yours truly. My family and friends were pleased for me and it was lovely to share the success of the book with all of them. But there was someone I felt needed to know the part they’d played in my writing it. So, using the internet, I managed to find an address for Mal Pope and sent him a signed copy of the book, with a note explaining his role as my unknown inspiration.
In the fullness of time, Mal and I subsequently met and became friends. He’s carried on with his excellent career, and I’ve written more books. In fact, when my first children’s book, ‘Champion of Champions’ was released in 2017, Mal agreed to host the book launch evening for me. But sadly, the passing of a great friend and colleague of his saw the funeral on the same day, meaning he had to pull out. But then, halfway through the evening, on his way back from the funeral in Cardiff, Mal and Hilary still found the time to pop in to show their support, and Mal bought the first book of the night. That’s the type of guy he is. His deeds inspiring me still.
Six months later, I was busy writing a follow up to ‘Champion of Champions’ when my phone rang. It was Mal. He asked me if I was free to meet him that Thursday at his bar in Swansea, The Hyst. I was. I most definitely was when he then said, ‘Great, I’d like to introduce you to James Hook, he wants some advice about writing a book.’ To say I was excited was an understatement.
James Hook was one of my all time favourite rugby players. His graceful and talented style of play and utter commitment to the team cause was something – along with the rest of Wales – that I admired greatly. He possessed the gifts of all the greats who had elevated the hallowed Welsh number 10 jersey to revered heights – John, Bennett, Davies – and to watch him glide through the tightest of defences with an elegance not seen in the Welsh game for a generation, was a thing to behold. I’d never met him, but had heard that he was an incredibly nice guy, completely untouched by his legendary status within the game. This I was able to confirm within five minutes of being in his company.
Initially, Mal sat with us and acted as a host to help find us some common ground, but when it was clear that we were getting along famously, he left us to talk about James’s idea. By that point in my career I’d written two autobiographies, Anthony’s and Swansea City’s Ashley Williams, so naturally, I assumed that James wanted to talk about his. I was wrong. Instead, he was more interested about ‘Champion of Champions’ and how children’s books were written. So I explained how it’s done, what you have to consider when writing for a younger audience and the basic do’s and dont’s therein. Then he explained his idea and the reason for the meeting.
When he was still playing at Gloucester, James had taken his eldest boy, Harrison, to an after school book fair. Harrison wanted to find a story book about rugby but was disappointed that he couldn’t. When James returned home, he did some searching on the internet and found that whilst there were plenty of autobiographies or factual rugby books or historical tales of teams like the British Lions, he couldn’t seem to find any rugby story books for children. He did some more research and realised that there may just be a gap in the market.
One day, he found himself in the company of family friend, Mal, so told him of his idea, and according to James, Mal responded with ‘I know just the guy you need to speak to about this, David Brayley.’
Fate. Destiny. A higher power. Or just blind luck?
After the initial meeting, James and I met several times over the next month. We talked endlessly about potential storylines, we considered a myriad of characters, we mulled over the options for the key settings and locations of our story. Some ideas stayed, others were quickly cast aside, but soon our plans began to take shape. We agreed on a fictional version of James as a rugby playing ten year old. Whilst the adventures in our book would be fictional, the basic character would be based on James’s own upbringing. We quickly decided not to call the character ‘James Hook’ but wanted a name that tipped a hat to James’s own story, whilst actually separating him from that reality – ‘Jimmy Joseph’ was born.
We decided that the book would reflect some key elements of James’s own childhood in the fictional tale, so ‘Jimmy’ – like James – became asthmatic, a short sighted glasses wearer, the skinny younger brother of a more successful rugby player, a product of a broken marriage and a child with an adoration of his grandparents. With these traits as the foundations of the story, it was time to discuss what we wanted the book to give to younger people.
The very first thing James and I wanted above all was rugby realism. We didn’t want to fall into the trap of Jimmy being the ‘hero’ every week and scoring a hatrick of tries in the last two minutes to win the match by a point. We also didn’t want any magic boots, or time travelling wizards, or talking ghosts from rugby’s past, we wanted to create a realistic 10 year old rugby player that could be identified as ‘real’ by our prospective readers. Yes, he would be gifted, of course – that’s what James was – but we wanted Jimmy to face barriers. We didn’t want him to have things all his own way. We wanted to highlight to the young reader the resilience required to succeed. We wanted our reader to understand that no matter how good you are in sport, it’s never easy. Usain Bolt, Lionel Messi, Rory McIllroy, Roger Federer, Shane Williams all have one thing in common apart from incredible success – the understanding of hard work and graft to get to the top. Nobody gets there without that.
We also wanted to highlight positive attitudes – team work, friendship, loyalty, family values and always giving of your best – whatever the circumstances. We didn’t want to create some gold plated, unrealistic hero, we wanted to create a boy with his own shortcomings who was just trying to do his very best in every circumstance that life might throw at him – good or bad. We wanted him to be a decent human being first, and a decent rugby player second.
Over the course of the next six to eight months, James and I met up every week to create, build, and develop the book. My writing abilities dovetailed perfectly with James’s incredibly detailed rugby knowledge. All plot lines, character development and story environments were discussed deeply and developed carefully side by side. We edited the book together and formed what I have to say from my point of view, was the perfect collaborative piece of work. James was completely committed to the project from day one, his enthusiasm and passion for the project really drove it from that first meeting. His desire to make the book perfect has impressed me deeply and his willingness to discuss and work on the book almost at any hour of the day has been incredible, as has been his attention to detail. The result is a piece of work that I am enormously proud of and am so thrilled that it has – thanks to our brilliant agent, David Luxton, and wonderful editor and publisher, Peter Burns of Polaris Books, Edinburgh – finally come to fruition and will be released this week, on October 1st.
We already have an agreement with Polaris for Book Two, which will deal with Jimmy’s final year in Primary School, and with the pre-publication reviews of ‘Kick Off’ being so incredibly positive, thoughts are already turning towards the potential for books three, four and beyond. James and I said from day one that we’d like to follow Jimmy’s journey from Primary School rugby through to seniors and with the strength of the early reviews, that’s now a distinct possibility. Obviously, book sales are the one thing that delivers follow up books, and sadly, Covid has restricted so many of the public facing publicity events James and I had planned. Instead, we just hope the public will get behind our story and rather than getting out to book shops to meet us at book signings, will instead consider logging on and delving into the many on-line bookshops and ordering their copy that way. James and I can guarantee you one thing, the rugby loving child in your family – boy or girl – will not be disappointed. This book is designed to inspire.
So, with Thursday being book launch day, this week is a very exciting time for both James and myself, very much the end of the beginning of what we both sincerely hope will be a long and successful journey in telling the story of one Jimmy Joseph and his best friends, Kitty, Matt and Manu. We just hope you can find a way to supporting us.
But as I reflect on the ready excitement of book launch week, which is such an incredibly rewarding time for an author, I still can’t stop thinking back to that afternoon in Brynhyfryd School in 1973. Sitting there watching the young Maldwyn Pope and becoming so inspired by his performance, really lit a fire deep within me to achieve something different in my life. But for all the inspiration he provided that afternoon, little did I dream that the teenager on that small stage would become the man, who, some 45 years later, would make a phone call to me that would deliver me to meeting one of the nicest people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing, but also opening the door to the most rewarding writing project of my career to date, and one that may very well become the biggest.
It’s quite an inexplicable coincidence when you come to think about it.
Thank you, Mal.
‘Chasing a Rugby Dream – Book One: Kick Off’ by James Hook and David Brayley is published by Polaris Books and will be released on Thursday 1 October. Price £7.99
Available at all good bookshops and the usual on-line retailers such as Amazon https://www.amazon.co.uk/Chasing-Rugby-Dream-Book-Kick/dp/0957507674/ref=zg_bs_10193831_2?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=42F82DSKJHJRZH9AK03W