Splutter!!! You belonged to WHAT club?

Do you remember learning to swim? I do. The swimming baths were in Thornton (where the Brontes were born), on the outskirts of Bradford, in Yorkshire.

Victorian, smallish, they’re probably knocked down now, or derelict.

Little, swing-door changing rooms ran around the perimeter. You changed into your cossie, left your clothes in your cubicle and were right there on the pool side.

Mr Whitely, who stood on the side, had a long wooden stick with a cup shaped thing on the end. You could grab it as you sank in a panic when ‘just relax and float on your back’ didn’t quite work.

It was cold, the water, and far too much of it ended up my nose.

When I told Anthro-man about the club I’d belonged to when I learnt to swim, his reaction was a bit like mine to that chlorinated cold water – a major snort and gulp, followed by choking noises.

Because I was a member … wait for it … of the Nig Nog club.

I never really understood why it was called that but now, thanks to Jeremy Clarkson, I do.

Jeremy Clarkson, for those of you who have never had the misfortune to watch Top Gear, is a TV presenter.

A man, obvs. Who loves cars.

And he’s not exactly right-on. Nowhere near as offensive as Rod Liddle in the Sunday Times, mind, but foot features in mouth rather often.

So you’d not expect me to like him loads, would you?

But I found myself standing up for him this morning over the weekend papers.

‘Go on then,’ I said, ‘ you find another word for it in eeny meeny miny. Or in [n-word] in the woodpile, for that matter.’


I guess I’ve never used that word since about 1965.

Not even when I want to describe the perfect shade of brown, when it comes, unbidden, to my head, but remains unspoken.

We all, as children, pick up terms and use them without knowing why or whence they arose. Naturally.

No-one around me used the n-word to refer to black (which we couldn’t say then) people – so I never connected the two.

And in some vague way as I grew older I thought that it was a reference to a murky river. The Niger, probably, in the French pronunciation.

After all my mum loved eau-de-nil and that was OK. (People, I thought it was eau-de- ‘Nile’.)

There were other insidious influences at work, too.

One of my favourite children’s books is sitting here beside me as I type. I lent it to a younger friend who also suffered a snort and choke as if on chlorinated water.

I wrapped it in brown cardboard so she needn’t risk being seen in the open with it.

The name?

‘Little Black Sambo.’

IMG_3011A story in which a little boy gets new clothes, new shoes and a lovely green umbrella. Then has to give them away to threatening tigers, who – well, let’s cut to the end.

The little boy wins out and has pancakes for tea made with butter that was originally the tigers who ran round and round a tree holding onto each others’ tails and ended up as a pool of butter.Sierra Exif JPEG


The book was originally published in 1899. My version was a reprint from 1959. With embellishments in biro. (Who, me?) (Did you see me?)

Meanwhile, in adult fiction, Agatha Christie, wrote, in 1939, of ‘Ten Little Nigger Boys’ – a murder set on ‘Nigger Island’ in Devon.

So why am I telling you all this?

Well, the rhyme about ‘ten little nigger boys’, the book about ‘Little Black Sambo’, the n-in the woodpile, the colour n-brown, eeny meeny mino mo catch a [n] by the toe are all there, in my head. Have been for more (OK, quite a bit more) than forty years.

Whatever happens, they are there forever.

When I get dementia I’ll no doubt chat about them to shocked young Nigerian nurses, all unknowing I’m being racist.

I might even ask for some of those white paper ring things they used to use for strengthening holes punched in paper to mend my golliwog’s eyes …

But back to the J Clarkson n-word episode.

I reckoned he was just reciting it and the word came instinctively – he didn’t do it on purpose.

And now I’ve watched the apology video. (He was abjectly, over the top-ly, sorry.)

The biog online says he was born in 1960. So, it’s possible he had the instinct ingrained, like me.

Or not.

I’ll never know – and I don’t really care.

But while I wholeheartedly believe we shouldn’t call black people n-words, I was a little bit upset about the Nig Nog Club.

I never could work out why it should be called something that was racist.

So, thanks to J Clarkson, I looked it up online.

And – guess what? It was all totally innocent. Hooray!

First, there were Nig Nog clubs in the north east of England (with characters called Nig and Nog apparently) and then it spread to Bradford.

The local paper, the Telegraph and Argus, promoted Nig Nog clubs to encourage children to cycle and swim. Like me.

And to cap it all off nicely, the Oxford English Dictionary gives this definition:

‘A foolish person; a raw and unskilled recruit.’

What a relief. That’s little me.

This entry was posted in Thinking, or ranting, or both, Yorkshire and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Splutter!!! You belonged to WHAT club?

  1. John Kemp says:

    I’ll have to think about all,this, it’s too serious for an off-the-cuff reply, and the reply anyway perhaps too long and complicated for this format.


  2. John Kemp says:

    Oops, sorry, why did I say “reply”? I should of course have said “comment”.


    • You are welcome either to reply or comment or both, John – I look forward to your thoughts on the subject. There was a lot I left out, not least words that I don’t like to be called. Usage changes over time and continents, that much is plain.


      • Didn’t you read your membership card? it told you, “Nig and Nog were two little imps who live in the land of the moon, their chief occupation being to keep the Man in the Moon awake”. I learned to swim with Uncle Henry at Thornton Baths as well and by jingoes, it was cold! I wore my purple and gold badge, with its NigNog, pointed chin and pointed head, with pride.
        In the 30’s there had even been a NigNog Review at the Alhambra, in Bradford with one Ernest Wiseman as the young star. He went on to become one half of the due Morecambe and Wise.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Hi Fatface – (like that email ‘largely happy’) I don’t remember that bit in the booklet – I do remember how cold the water was though! Brrrr. I was taught by Mr Whitely and he had a long soup-spoon like scoop for saving me from drowning but not from inhaling loads of cold chlorine-y water! I loved Thornton – went back there over Christmas and had a lovely lemon cake and hot chocolate in the cafe next to the Brones’ birthplace. Thanks so puch for popping by – really enjoyed hearing from a fellow nig-nogger!


  3. Anne Barlow says:

    Yes I was a member of the nignog club at Thornton baths,I remember having a number and if it was listed in the telegraph you won 5 shillings.which I won once.i went to Thornton west secondary school,I had a badge but don’t know what happened to it.trying to purchase another one.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well done on the 5 shillings! I was only in Thornton for a while and was going to school at St Cuthbert’s near Lister’s Mill via 2 buses. My dad’s school (then Cardinal Hinsley) was temporarily housed in James Street. We lived just beyond the trolley bus terminus and cemetery and they were some of the happiest days of my life! And I loved swimming once I got through the worst of learning. Thank you for commenting and nice to hear from you.


  4. morphlet says:

    NigNog Club Feversham Street Baths, Bradford. All the school swimming galas were held there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think I swam in any of those but now you’ve triggered a memory and I remember cheering other on there. But I did love the club at Thornton baths!When I went to secondary school at Tong we had our own baths. Loved swimming. Thanks for popping by 🙂


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