The Big Picture: Alf Tupper made me

Christmas in the late 1940s and 1950s. No mobile phones and iPods as presents then. My wish-list was for comic annuals, especially The Rover for it contained Alf Tupper, the Tough of the Track.

Alf came from a rough background. lived in near poverty and survived on fish and chips. Each week the comic strip showed how he overcame all kinds of obstacles to win the latest race.

From the Big Picture p 6 6 December issueHis foes were the toffs who dominated the local athletics club and who despised people like Alf. In addition, the athletes from posh schools tried all kinds of dirty tricks to foil Alf on the track.

Alf refused to suck up to the wealthy club committee members and was always ready to confront the upper classes. He was a working-class hero. As Brendan Gallagher writes in Sporting Supermen (Aurem Press, 2006), Alf saw himself as an urban street fighter in the class battle that was waged in post-war Britain.

Most of the books and comics available to us featured our social superiors: airforce officers such as Biggles and children like the Famous Five, Billy Bunter and Jennings. I identified with Alf. In my teens I questioned the monarchy and soon opposed the House of Lords. My radicalism was confirmed during national service at university, it was channelled into socialism.

Radicals flourished in the 1960s and 70s, particularly among social and community workers. Years later many have abandoned their principles and opted for a more comfortable and affluent life.

Alf was fictional, although he was probably based on a real-life athlete, Alf Shrubb. He never sold out and, for all his international successes, he remained the same Alf. Three explanations can be offered. First, he continued his friendships with working-class people. Second, he never moved out of his neighbourhood. Third, he refused to enrich himself.

His example holds good for us all. Too many radicals, while claiming to be on the side of those in poverty, allow themselves to be incorporated into the establishment and have few social connections with people in deprived areas. They become a part of organisations which reinforce inequality. Like Alf Tupper, we should recognise the class divisions within Britain and be prepared to confront the power holders.

I wish today’s comics and annuals contained an Alf Tupper. It would be my Christmas present for our grandsons.

Bob Holman is an author and voluntary neighbourhood worker in Glasgow

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