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picture of C.W. McCall's Greatest Hits album cover

Constant's Convoy

How one umpire's struggles in the heat of the summer of 76 led to a worldwide chart smash.

It was the summer of 76 - and it was boiling!

The hottest weather on record and the on-fire West Indian test team blazed a trail across the country. It was Tony Grieg who got his fingers burnt that series, not Clive Lloyd's super cool squad. England melted under the blue blue skies.

Back in 1976 Britain was in the grip of what was thought to be worst drought of the century. The whole country was affected by water rationing as temperatures soared.

In August of that year a few drops of rain stopped play at Lord's for a quarter of an hour - prompting the crowds to start cheering.

For some it was a minor inconvenience; cars went unwashed, a few tomato plants withered and died, people were told to share bathwater.

Yet for those involved in professional sport - cricket predominantly - the situation was much more serious. Long days in the field were physically draining for all the players. But for umpires it was torture.

picture of cricket oval in summer
The sweltering summer of 2008 brought back memories of '76.

"You have to remember that a lot of the first-class umpires are no spring chickens" says a sprightly enough David Constant today. "Back in the sweltering heat of 1976 we were all struggling but the likes of Bill Alley and Tom Spencer were in their early 60s. We could be standing in the heat for seven hours a day, five days a week, without any shade and still be expected to get every decision right. It was hellish. Some grounds had water rationing which meant you couldn't even get a cup of tea."

As the season reached August and the heatwave got even more intense umpires began to feel the pressure like never before.

"There were no statutory drinks intervals like they have today; you had to wait until lunch or tea or the close if you were thirsty. Also we were capless. The TCCB said that we were not allowed to wear any headgear even when it was 100 degrees out there. I honestly thought someone was going to die before the summer was out. I just didn't expect it to be me."

David Constant was then one of the youngest umpires on the circuit at just 35. During one match at Canterbury he collapsed with heatstroke shortly after tea and had to stay in hospital overnight. After discharge a groggy Constant vowed to make his feelings known to the powers that be.

"I rang the TCCB and asked them what they intended to do about it. They replied that there was nothing they could do and that was that. I was livid. I decided to take the matter into my own hands."

Constant sent telegrams to all of the umpires on the first-class list (this was in the days before mobiles) and asked them to meet him at a hotel in the midlands. To his surprise most of them turned up on a rare day off; angered at the inhumane conditions they were expected to work with unquestioningly on a daily basis.

picture of David Constant and Dickie Bird
Constant consoles a worried Dickie Bird after learning that non driver Arthur Fagg is behind the wheel of a truck full of radioactive nuclear waste.

"Arthur Fagg came all the way from Cumbria, dear old Cec Pepper and his wife came from Wales, Jack Crapp, Dusty Rhodes, Don Oslear - it was a great turn out. We all had a few drinks, a Ploughman's and then I told them my idea. There were a few puzzled faces I can tell you when they found out what I intended on doing" laughs Constant.

Constant had become a big fan of the current craze of the day - Citizens Band Radio - and had already invested some of his umpiring earnings into a state of the art CB rig. "By using CB I got to know a lot of the truck drivers who were into cricket. My handle was 'Rubber Duck' because they all felt I was a bit harsh on new batsmen."

At the hotel his fellow umpires listened intently as 'Rubber Duck' Constant outlined his plan. He would use his contacts in the CB fraternity to allocate each umpire a truck which would meet on the outskirts of London to form the biggest convoy of trucks this side of the Atlantic. The idea of the 'convoy' - a long line of slow-moving vehicles driven in single file as a form of solidarity or anti-authority demonstration - had already become popular in American culture and Constant was sure it could work this side of the water.

"The idea was that we would give the TCCB a list of demands such as drinks breaks, floppy hats and free sun cream. If they said no then we were prepared to unleash a monster convoy onto the streets of London all the way to Lord's on the day of the Gillette Cup final. I honestly thought they would agree to our wishes but it was an unequivocal 'no'. We were left with no choice."

On the morning on the 4th September 1976 - when Lancashire were due to play Northants for the trophy - a group of 16 borrowed trucks of all shapes and sizes each driven by a first-class umpire converged at the Watford Gap service station at 6.00am. A quick fried breakfast for sustenance and they were off, each newly christened with their CB name or 'handle'.

picture of Arthur 'Pigpen' Jepson
Arthur 'Pigpen' Jepson puts out a 10:4 to the Convoy warning them that Tom Spencer has lost his Yorkie.

Barry 'Golder' Meyer, Jack 'Loada' Crapp, Harold 'Dickie' Bird ("he'd always been plain old Harold before that" recalled Constant), Cec 'Saltan' Pepper, Bill 'Tin Pan' Alley, Arthur 'Pigpen' Jepson, Don 'Reefer' Oslear to name but a few.

As the vehicles made their way towards the capital they were joined by around 70 other drivers who had come out in support. Word of this unprecedented mass gathering of trucks making its way to Lord's soon reached cricket HQ.

"It wasn't our intention to get the match postponed. Bird and Arthur Fagg were due to officiate the game and we planned to get them there on time. We just wanted to make a protest and make things a bit awkward. As we got closer to the ground it was obvious that things were getting pretty serious. There were Bears everywhere".

'Bears' is CB slang for stewards, who are also known as 'Smokeys'. Constant had to give his fellow umpires a crash course in CB lingo so that they could follow proceedings over their radios. In addition none of the umpires had ever driven such huge lorries before and some found it quite a challenge. Arthur Fagg, in fact, did not have a driving licence of any description and had never been behind the wheel of a moving vehicle before. It wasn't long before his truck - which contained a potentially lethal cargo of radioactive waste - veered off the road near Hatfield.

As the convoy approached St John's Wood there was a tangible sense of tension in the air.

picture of David Constant today
David Constant today

David Constant remembers it clearly to this day. "We had taken the TCCB by surprise. They had no idea what was happening. I think they were scared that the game would have to be cancelled because there were no first-class umpires available. We wanted to make sure this didn't happen; we were always going to make sure Dickie and Arthur got there in time. There had been a bit of a problem with Arthur because he kept crashing his truck - in hindsight we should have given him the lorry containing toilet rolls instead - but more by luck than anything else he managed to get to Lord's without wiping out the entire population of the South East."

"At Lord's the Bears (stewards) had formed a human chain in front of the where the Grace Gates are today. Parking is always a problem so we had planned to just drop off Dickie and Arthur and go on our way but the Bears had blocked our escape route and there was nowhere for us to go. We were left with no choice ..."

With their exit blocked by a human barrier of white coated stewards across St John's Wood Road, the leading vehicle of the convoy driven by Arthur 'Pigpen' Jepson suddenly turned sharply right towards the Grace Gates scattering the stunned spectators and ground officials before bursting through the barriers.

"Once the first three or four trucks were in the ground we were able to get Dickie and Arthur Fagg into the umpires' dressing room and the game started on time. I know that the TCCB were not best pleased but I think everyone else in the game respected our actions and supported what we did" says a reflective Constant today.

Although the TCCB publicly criticised the umpires' actions as 'irresponsible and not in the spirit of the game' it was Constant's men who won the day. All of the umpires' demands were quietly met in full, although it came too late in the season to benefit Constant and co. "It absolutely chucked it down from early September onwards."

But that wasn't the end of the matter for David Constant.

Shortly after the season ended Constant and a musician friend CW McCall entered Abbey Road studio to make a recording of a song that the pair had written about the infamous episode. Although Constant's version record never got released an amended version was recorded in the USA and became a massive hit worldwide.

"I guess I wasn't cut out to be a pop star" says Constant ruefully "the money would have been good but I don't think that having groupies running on the pitch whilst I was trying to umpire a match would have been very fair. Maybe now that I've retired I'll give it another go."

picture of Midland Convoy promotion

Convoy

(Constant/McCall)

[On the CB]
Ah, breaker one-nine, this here's the Rubber Duck. You gotta copy on me, Pig Pen, c'mon? Ah, yeah, 10-4, Pig Pen, for sure, for sure. By golly, it's clean clear to St John's Wood Yeah, that's a big 10-4 there, Pig Pen, yeah, we definitely got the front door, good buddy. Mercy sakes alive, looks like we got us a convoy...

Was the early morn just after dawn
In a Kenworth pullin' logs
Don Oslear with a reefer on
And Jack Crapp haulin' hogs
We is headin' for bear on I-one-oh
'Bout a mile outta Watford Town
I says, "Pig Pen, this here's the Rubber Duck.
"And I'm about to put the hammer down."

[Chorus]
'Cause we got a little convoy
Rockin' through the night.
Yeah, we got a little convoy,
Ain't she a beautiful sight?
Come on and join our convoy
And we gonna cross our swords.
We gonna roll this truckin' convoy
'Cross the town to Lord's.
Convoy!

[On the CB]
Ah, breaker, Pig Pen, this here's the Duck. And, you wanna back off them hogs? Yeah, 10-4, 'bout five mile or so. Ten, roger. Them hogs is gettin' in-tense up here.

By the time we got into Kentish Town,
We had eighty-five trucks in all.
But they's a roadblock up on the cloverleaf,
And them bears was wall-to-wall.
Yeah, them smokies is thick as bugs on a bumper;
They even had a bear in the air!
I says, "Callin' all trucks, this here's the Duck.
"We about to go a-huntin' bear."

[Chorus]
'Cause we got a great big convoy
Rockin' through the night.
Yeah, we got a great big convoy,
Ain't she a beautiful sight?
Come on and join our convoy
And we gonna cross our swords.
We gonna roll this truckin' convoy
'Cross the town to Lord's.
Convoy!

[On the CB]
Ah, you wanna give me a 10-9 on that, Pig Pen? Negatory, Pig Pen; you're still too close. Yeah, them hogs is startin' to close up my sinuses. Mercy sakes, you better back off another ten.

Well, we rolled up the M twenty five
Like a rocket sled on rails.
We tore up all of our swindle sheets,
And left 'em settin' on the scales.
By the time we hit that Camden town,
Them bears was a-gettin' smart:
They'd brought up some reinforcements
From the Robo Steward school of guards.
There's armored cars, and tanks, and jeeps,
And rigs of ev'ry size.
Yeah, them chicken coops was full'a bears
And choppers filled the skies.
Well, we shot the line and we went for broke
With a thousand screamin' trucks
An' eleven long-haired Seaxe members
In a double decker London bus.

[On the CB]
Ah, Rubber Duck to Tin Pan, come over. Yeah, 10-4, Tin Pan ? Lissen, you wanna put that micra-bus in behind that suicide jockey? Yeah, he's haulin' dynamite, and he needs all the help he can get.

Well, we laid a strip for the Grace Gates
And prepared to cross the line
I could see the bridge was lined with bears
But I didn't have a dog-goned dime.
I says, "Pig Pen, this here's the Rubber Duck.
"We just ain't a-gonna pay no toll."
So we crashed the gate doing ninety-eight
I says "Let them truckers roll, 10-4."

[Chorus]
'Cause we got a mighty convoy
Rockin' through the night.
Yeah, we got a mighty convoy,
Ain't she a beautiful sight?
Come on and join our convoy
And we gonna cross our swords
We gonna roll this truckin' convoy
'Cross the town to Lord's
Convoy!