Jack Miles, the oldest working chairman of a club, reflects on his life and loves.
Wimbledon centenarian Jack Miles was born in Tooting on March 10 1913. The Suffragettes were that week organising the Women Suffrage Parade, led by Alice Paul, down Pennsylvania Avenue towards the White House. They were besieged by mobs.
A year later, the first of the great Wars occurred, in 1914. Thankfully, Jack was just a bit too young to be conscripted – to that war, at least.
I’m meeting Jack because he has just been awarded a Guinness World Record for being the oldest working chairman of a club. He is, yes, 100 years old, and puts his good health down to this: “I didn’t drink, smoke or go with girls until I was 13. It’s all downhill after that.”
He has had a long and eventful life thus far, having seen two wars and doing a number of jobs from joinery to driving instructing, building, surveying and finally becoming chairman of the Wimbledon Common Golf club – with various things in between.
I meet him at the golf club, where I’m met warmly by the barman who offers me a free drink. They have been expecting journalists to show up, and I’m sure I’m the latest in a line of people wanting to meet with Jack. While I wait, I note how friendly and peaceful the club is. Everyone seems in a great mood for a morning, and that mood ratchets up the minute Jack walks through the door.
Cries of “Hey Jack!”, “Here he is!” and a palpable sense of appreciation of the man himself inform me I’m about to get a very charismatic chat.
We get straight to golf talk first – it’s his main passion in life. He started playing in 1947, just two years after the Great War which he was conscripted into. I ask how often he still plays.
“A few holes a week, not as many as I used to though. They say I’m old now!” he said.
So, 65 years of playing golf, and how many hole-in-ones?
“Just the one, at the Epsom club a good while back,” he said.
I imagine the thrill of getting one keeps you seeking the next. “Yeah – that’s what’s keeping me going – can’t go until I’ve got at least one more!”
Jack was born in Tooting, but lived in Merton for many years.
“Things have really changed over the years,” he explained.
“When I was a boy, no one around there had any boots. They used to have a scheme where you’d go in and get a pair, and pay for them over a few weeks or months.
“But sometimes, I’d get up for school in the morning, and find I had no shoes. My poor Mum had had to sell them back to the shop!
“School was alright, but we only did the three R’s, reading writing, and ‘rithmatic. Then it was out, and you got a job. My Dad was a joiner, so that’s how I learned my first trade.”
As is often the case when speaking to a man of a certain age, the war played an interrupting, heavy role in his life soon after growing up. It is rare to speak to someone who has seen both wars, but Jack was a baby during the first. The second is another matter.
“I got called up in 1940, while I was in the construction business. We didn’t have a choice, and I didn’t really want to get involved in all that fighting,” he said.
“But it’s your duty, you know. Lots of my friends got sent to Burma, so I’m lucky I wasn’t. I did get blown up by a grenade though.”
There is a nonchalance to how he says this that seems shocking, but there is a palpable sense of reserve in his demeanour, despite his matter-of-fact approach. I ask him what happened.
“I was in the barracks, in charge of three other lads, one of them a bit dodgy. He threw [the grenade], but it went backwards after he pulled the pin out. I got shrapnel wounds, finished up in hospital, with them picking lumps out my face. It smashed my eardrums, and from then I couldn’t go abroad. I ended up in hospital in Worcester for ages.”
His damaged ears took him out of the war. I ask tentatively whether he considers this lucky.
“For me it was yes, but so many weren’t,” he said.
What does Jack think has changed about the country over the years?
“People can buy shoes cheap now!” he joked.
Jack has sympathy for young people, which is a rare quality in the older generation who seem to think we do have it a lot easier than they did. Yet Jack believes times are harder for the young now.
“Well, you lot can’t get jobs can you? I always got a job easily. I did joinery, built prefabs, became a building surveyor in 1948…there was always work. Now people are struggling to keep their heads above water, and that can’t be easy,” he admits.
It’s great to hear someone recognise that times are rarely better or worse in the past or future and vice versa. I suppose that’s what the wisdom of 100 years and counting gives you.
We talk about the golf club. He has been a member for more than 65 years.
“1947, after the forces, about six of us joined. It’s a brilliant place, isn’t it? So welcoming,” he said.
“The club is marvellous, and I’ve been around a few. None of them compare to this. When the new members come in we give them a good welcome. We get new members all the time.”
The golf club certainly is brilliant. Set against the rolling greens of Wimbledon Common, it looks a seductive place to wile away peaceful hours. The club slowly fills, and all of its members are smiling and laughing. I can see why it has no problem at all with membership numbers.
Jack is over the moon about his Guinness World Record. I ask how it came about.
“One of the members – I don’t know how she started it off, she came in and told me I was the oldest working chairman of the club, and that it was a world record. I was a bit surprised. But it’s great isn’t it?”
It is. There is the certificate, which is beautifully framed, and he should appear in the next copy of the book, which adds yet more sparkle to an illustrious history.
Wrapping up the interview, he notices my struggle with my notes, some of which are in shorthand. He informs me he doesn’t envy trying to read it back. I inform him there’s no chance I’ll be able to. Thank God for the Dictaphone.
I ask Jack whether he’d like to play a round of golf with someone from Sportsbeat.
“Not really!” he laughs. “I don’t like competing anymore.” He would however be happy to spend a morning talking about golf, and perhaps playing one or two holes.
We touch upon a few more subjects, notably his family. He has four sons, 20 grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren, who give him a lot of joy. His youngest son died of a smoking related disease, and he tells me it’s the most stupid habit someone can have. I avert my eyes, mumbling my agreement, and resolving to…well, quit, and it seems to have done him a world of good.
His late wife died after deteriorating from dementia, and he is a patron of Merton Mind, a charity working with people with dementia and Alzheimer’s, and family members who try to cope with their loved ones’ suffering.
I leave with an overriding sense that Jack Miles has a vitality that will see him getting plenty more birthday letters from the Queen, and I’m very glad of that.
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