An Opera for an English Olympic Hero

Lal White was forgotten by many, even residents of his small English factory town, but the whimsical Cycle Song hopes to change that

Tenor Darren Abraham plays Albert White, the previously unsung steelworker and bicycling champ. (Kieran Dodds)
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Big skies, big Scunthorpe skies,
Where the moon hangs in the evening
Shining in the big sky and the air is still
As though the air is waiting for morning
As though the air is waiting for something to move.

Ian McMillan, Cycle Song

You could say Scunthorpe is in the middle of nowhere, but it’s really not that central. Squatting over a rich bed of English limestone and iron ore, Scunthorpe is six miles from Scawby, which is 43 miles from Sleaford, which is 94 miles from Luton, which is 33 miles from London. It’s the sort of drowsy hamlet in which you can get your tank filled at the Murco station, toss back a Ruddles at the Butchers Arms or get buried in Brumby Cemetery.

It was steel that built this self-styled “industrial garden town” and steel that broke it. In its heyday, Scunthorpe’s ironworks was the second largest in Europe, employing 27,000 workers. The Frodingham Iron and Steel Company was later acquired by British Steel, an industrial giant that helped power World Wars I and II. But the industry collapsed in the 1980s and, like many English institutions, continues in decline. Its best years were in the distant past, and there’s no sign of a renaissance.

The plant, now part of an Indian conglomerate, is a battered relic of Britain’s industrial might. These days just 3,750 workers make steel there. Vast portions of the mills have been demolished; many of the great sheds are empty. What remains are four towering blast furnaces named after four once-towering queens: Anne, Mary, Victoria and Bess.

Nothing else in Scunthorpe is quite so...majestic. Which may be why Spike Milligan—the late British comedian whose epitaph, translated from the Gaelic, reads: “I told you I was ill”—gave one of his books the mocking title Indefinite Articles and Scunthorpe. When locals chafed, Milligan said: “We should like the people of Scunthorpe to know that the references to Scunthorpe are nothing personal. It is a joke, as is Scunthorpe.”

The town has few claims to even regional fame apart from the fact that, in 1996, America Online’s obscenity filter refused to allow residents to register new accounts due to an expletive embedded within the name Scunthorpe. No top-tier sports team trumpets its name, no attraction lures drivers from the thoroughfare that runs forlornly through it. Scunthorpe does boast one athletic distinction, though: The cycling pioneer Albert “Lal” White used to live there.

A steelworker who trained between shifts, White dominated English cycling from 1913 to 1926, winning 15 national titles on grass and cinders. His most memorable finish wasn’t a victory, but the Olympic silver he won in the 4,000-meter team pursuit at the 1920 Antwerp Games. He and his brother Charlie also invented the first stationary exercise bike, which they fashioned out of washing machine wringers bought at a corner store. Hence the phrase “going nowhere fast.”

White’s life and achievements are celebrated in Cycle Song, a whimsical English opera with a libretto written last year by an equally whimsical English poet. In mid-July, two outdoor performances of the newly commissioned work will be staged at Scunthorpe’s Brumby Hall sporting grounds, where White once worked out. The premiere coincides with the 2012 London Olympics.

Of the 1,400 townsfolk expected to participate, half are schoolchildren. The production will feature orchestras, marching bands, cyclists, dancers and the Scunthorpe Cooperative Junior Choir, which, in 2008, won BBC3’s prestigious Choir of the Year award.

Choral director Sue Hollingworth was responsible for getting Cycle Song in motion. She hatched the idea last year with James Beale, director of the Proper Job Theatre Company in Huddersfield. Proper Job is best known for presenting large-scale outdoor musicals about Dracula, which featured 1,000 gallons of spurting “blood,” and Robin Hood, which involved a house-size puppet that squashed the wicked Sheriff of Nottingham.

About Franz Lidz

A longtime Senior Writer at Sports Illustrated and the author of several memoirs, Franz Lidz has written for the New York Times since 1983, on travel, TV, film and theater. He is a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.

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