“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”
I heard these words for the first time while watching a film with my children over the Christmas period. I suppose they act as an emphatic plea to us all. Henry David Thoreau - author of them and the famous Walden (1854) – lived such a short life himself (dying aged 44) yet, as with many of his quotes, observed things in a rich, philosophical manner.
Numerous great minds were inspired and influenced by Thoreau: Leo Tolstoy; George Bernard Shaw; Mahatma Gandhi; John F. Kennedy; Martin Luther King Jr. He lived the life only he wished to live and for that should be commended.
George Laks, Bolton’s adopted son, followed a similar route it could be said. Of Polish origin, George fled the invading Germans on 1 September 1939 less than a month after his 20th birthday. Biking it with his brother to the Soviet-controlled east, he effectively traded Adolf Hitler for Joseph Stalin. A proud Pole, however, George refused Russian citizenship.
The consequences of this intransigence were harsh. Accused of being a spy in a slightly surreal twist to his already dangerous plight, George found himself sentenced to 12 years hard labour in the gulags (Vladivostok and Magadan among others in Siberia).
Serving 18 months of this before being permitted to join the Polish Army, George then worked in Tashkent and Kirkuk before a London delegation invited him and his compatriots in 1942 to join the Polish Air Force in Britain. Initially stationed in Blackpool, he finally made his way to Bolton via RAF Halton as a burgeoning wireless mechanic.
A stint in Italy (1944-46) and demobilization from the air force in 1948 left George free to finally pursue a normal, civilian life. Jobs with Metropolitan-Vickers, Marconi and Kendal Milne & Co (now House of Fraser) gave him a taste of electrical engineering British-style, but this son of a prominent Polish engineer knew he had to start something of his own.
Breightmet Electrics was born in the 1950s. Two decades later it had six shops and around thirty employees. Slot TV was the thing and George was one of its early pioneers. Outside of his professional sphere though, George developed a philanthropic streak and it is for this generosity that many remember him today.
George’s Wood in Ainsworth (planted with the help of fellow Bolton CHA Rambling Club members) was donated to the Woodland Trust. The swish ‘top table’ (Cornilleau 740) - Hilton Table Tennis Centre’s very first quality table – was a gift from George and is the source of much amusement to this day (Jean Smart misspelling his name on the tiny plaque as George Lax).
I think we can safely say that George’s song touched many. He lived ‘til 94 – a ripe, old age (just one year younger than Nelson Mandela). There are fewer and fewer of his generation about, but such vitality – playing table tennis right up until the end (for Hilton, Breightmet Electrics, Heaton) - is an example to us all.
Colin Roberts: “George had a table tennis room purpose-built at the back of his shop. I met his wife, Joyce following the Keogh/Ritson merger in 1968. I have enormous respect for him.”
Alan Bradshaw: “Johnny Leach [Table Tennis World Champion 1949 & 1951] toured RAF Aerodromes during the war challenging all-comers whilst sat down. He soon got off his chair when George started playing.”
Jean Smart: “George would not let me change the plaque. We had many a laugh.”
Derek Weston: “He would often keep staff on when not needed and would famously pop in even when retired.”
Alan Ingerson: “A very quiet and softly spoken man - a decent defensive player.”
George Laks: 2nd August 1919 – 13th December 2013