Tales from Heaton Moor
Heaton Moor, Stockport, Manchester, 1948, 1960, 1950, Card Games, 3 Card Brag, Pontoon, Heaton Mersey, Heaton Norris, Heaton Chapel, Terry Ryder, David Hall, Teddy Boys, Bill Haley, Richard Hodson, Susan Froggat, Fylde Lodge, Stockport Grammar, Monte Carlo Rally, St Winifred’s School, Big Fred, Big Nellie, Peter-John, RUFC, Heaton Moor Rugby Club, Lewis’s, Market Street, Deansgate, Manchester Cathedral, Osborne Bentley, St. Ambrose College, Mersey Square, Stockport Baths, National Service, Tank Corp, Heaton Moor College, Didsbury, Parrs Wood, Mauldeth Road, The Savoy, Biff Keegan, David O’Hanlon, Paul Godfrey, River Irwell, Smithfield Market, Reddish, Susan Shrigley, Sylvia Williams, Pauline Mallalieu, Michael Howard, Willy Mason.
TALES FROM HEATON MOOR 1947 TO 1961
Tales from Heaton Moor
By Noel Hodson
copyright Oxford 2000-2004
Any resemblance to any person, dead or alive, is miraculous.
These tales, as Douglas Adams said of the Hitch Hikers Guide, while containing much that is inaccurate and much that is apocryphal, are largely true to the spirit and character of Heaton Moor and its stoic inhabitants from 1948 to 1962. More historic Moor tales will be added and existing ones extended or edited. But in the meantime – I hope nostalgic readers enjoy these short stories.
When not playing rugger, one of David Hall’s haunts for his regular visits, probably his most frequented drop-in house, was the Ryder’s. The Ryders were a large, handsome, generously hospitable, Catholic family, with six children, Tony the eldest, Peter-John the third boy, then Mary-Jo, Penny and Janine the three girls – and Terry.
Terry was the second child. All the Ryders were on
the small side. Terry was small, quick witted and disreputable. Where Tony dressed
like a Lord and conducted himself with haughty decorum and was a valued
Committee Member of Heaton Moor Cricket Club, Terry was simply – scruffy and
uncommitted. Where Peter-John dutifully joined his father’s building and
shop-fitting firm, Tompkin & Ryder, long established in Smithfield Market
in the centre of
But he could tell a good story. None better.
On the same summer evening that David Hall was regaling the regular customers of Lillian’s Café with the touching scene of him taking leave of his Headmaster, a story we’ll get to later in this book, suitably accompanied on the jukebox by Johnny (Cry) Ray crooning ‘Just-a-Walkin’-in-the-Rain’, repetitively selected from the stored 78 inch vinyl disks by a young tortured soul with more silver sixpences than sense, Terry had recently been demobbed from the British Army and was sprawling at a yellow Formica topped table with four or five pals, under Lillian’s shrewd but tolerant eye.
As David eventually straightened up and giggled no more; taking on an altogether more dignified air, Terry picked up the theme of outraged authority.
“My… hee-hee-hee… My Commanding Officer…” Terry chortled, already incoherent with laughter at his own memory.
Terry was, to his horror, just old enough, three and a half years older than me, to have been in the last year of National Service. Of all the none military types on the face of the planet, Terry, the most non-military of all, had been called-up for two years into the ranks of the British Army, still feeling victorious from the Second World War, fighting in Korea and, rightly, jolly proud of their reputation – until Terry joined-up. The service that was lucky enough to embrace him to their welcoming bosom, after he had been taught how to walk, dress himself and speak to superior officers, was one of the Tank Regiments. Terry was bright. Brighter than he liked it to be known – and the army quickly spotted his potential and, despite demolishing a few military structures with the tank’s gun barrel, which was so easy to forget when turning corners, within a few months of training they had elevated him to Tank Commander. Terry thought his promotion was a gas – hilarious.
The tale Terry told us was set on Dartmoor, a high expanse of trackless unfenced moors in the south part of Devon, famous for impenetrable mists, The Hound of the Baskervilles in the Tales of Sherlock Holmes, and infamous for its grim and inescapable prison – where ‘life’ meant life and desperate prisoners were incarcerated behind forty foot granite walls. The Moor was then owned by the Ministry of Defence, as it still is, and was in regular use as a training ground and artillery range.
Terry’s tank with its crew of four good and true men, along with twenty or thirty other tanks, probably the redoubtable Centurion Tank, were ferried by road from their base in Yorkshire to an army camp on Dartmoor, where the crews were given orders for their next training exercise. Terry listened intently – acutely alert, with no need to take notes.
The Commanding Officer explained that they were to rise at dawn the next day; groans greeted this order; and were to drive out onto the moors, on a north-westerly bearing; then spread out and take their own routes. The tank commanders would have to be especially careful of rocks, troughs, pits, mine shafts, wild horses, civilians, trees, swamps, cliff edges – and all manner of perilous obstacles which could endanger the vehicles – and the crews; though the crews were replaceable and therefore expendable. Few National Servicemen found this latter remark very funny.
Terry’s laughing, wide spaced, Irish-blue eyes gleamed with interest. The Moors to him, a man from Heaton Moor, were no different to the Peak District and the high, peat bog plateau of Kinderscout, where as a youth he had often romped. Mists, fog, rain, muddy ditches, stone embankments, sheep and other wild-beasties were meat and drink to a northern lad like Terry. He just managed to restrain his right foot from lifting itself up nonchalantly onto his desk, to display dangling laces and ingrained mud that would have made a drill-sergeant-major explode.
“What is absolutely vital - chaps...” They still said ‘chaps’ in those days as if officers and men were – comrades - pals.
“…is to realise this incorporates a map-reading, orientation and navigation exercise… in strict radio silence…” the Commanding Officer swept his gaze across the tank commanders, seeking keen, intelligent understanding. He pressed on anyway – his boundless faith in the human race and the brave British Tommy, only slightly diminished.
“…so decide between you who will go where, which tank to which position, this evening, then tomorrow watch your compass, mark your charts, read the heavens and make damn sure that you know exactly where you are.”
Didn’t they have road signs in
“When you get to what you consider – this is a test of initiative that will count towards promotion – chaps – what you consider to be a strategically important controlling position over this North-South route here…” he swept his hand over a large map of the moors and a meandering faint pony trail, “… able to see the enemy coming, and lie concealed, waiting for the beggars; then dig-in…”
“What!” reacted Terry – “I mean, what do we dig in - Sir? What do you mean dig in - Sir?” at least he was listening, if not yet fully comprehending. He wisely bit back a clever joke he could have made about enemy ponies attacking thirty fully armed tanks.
“I want you all…” replied the commanding officer, “…to camouflage your tanks…” he added, narrowing his eyes and firming his jaw to show this was no longer a game – this was The Real Thing!
“…so that they can’t be seen from the ground, or the air – and can’t be picked up on radar. We’ll be testing you from a Spotter-Plane.”
“Permission to speak - Sir! Won’t radar detect any metal objects the size of tanks – Sir?” snapped out tank commander Two. “Whatever we do with nets, shrubs and the like? - Sir?”
The Commanding Officer smiled. It was an ‘I-have-got-a-trick-up-my-sleeve’ smile that the men found somewhat sinister and disconcerting. “Not…” he confided, “…if you bury the tank… Eh! Hey! What!”
Terry’s eyes opened as wide and round as the proverbial saucers. He couldn’t believe what he had just heard. Was this Commanding Officer stark, staring mad? Was he an escaped loony? Had he ever driven a tank? Had he ever even walked round a tank? Did he know just how BIG a tank was? Had he the slightest idea what he was talking about?
“…All except the gun turret…” the utter loony was saying as Terry began to recover from shock. “…we want the gun turret to be free, able to turn and of course fire! So that has to be disguised – camouflaged – and kept level. It’s up to you MEN how you do that.”
“Sir!” shouted Terry, never backwards in coming forwards where work, demarcation, his comforts, rewards and well-being were concerned. He had to find a non-impertinent way of putting this which would not draw any hostility and blemish his record. It was an easier option commanding a tank – that he could ride in – than slogging about the country as an infantry-man, carrying all the equipment needed to wage a major war – on his back. “Sir – a Centurion Tank is a large item – Sir, and, er – do we have any special tools provided – to enable us to bury it – Sir?”
“Good question Ryder…”
Terry let his jaw hang loose as he congratulated himself on his good question and cheerfully waited for a sane answer to his good question.
“No! – Standard kit only. Use just what you have on the tank. The usual stuff. No special equipment.”
Terry’s jaw – and the mouths of several of his co-commanders, fell open in theatrical disbelief and protest; which the Commanding Officer could not fail to notice and correctly interpret. Their hurt expressions kept just on the right side of a charge of insubordination.
The tank crews learned, as the Commanding Officer wound up the briefing, that they were to locate their strategic positions by lunchtime – twelve hundred hours - at the latest, dig the tanks in, up to their turrets, just the five of them, by six o’clock in the evening, eighteen-hundred hours, using the tank itself, the spades and shovels it carried – and their hands, muscles, sinews and brains. Camouflage the turret, by nineteen hundred hours, walk two hundred yards away from the spot – and check that the tank was truly invisible; then secure the machine, pack their kits – and walk back to camp in the dark – to arrive, if all went to plan, by ten o’clock, or twenty-two hundred hours – at the latest.
What about the tanks? - asked several men in unison - who will drive them back to camp?
They accepted the unwelcome reply in truculent silence. The tanks would stay where they were – So they had to be sure to immobilise them. They were to walk back; God knows how many miles, to camp that night. Sleep if they could. And then the next day, up at dawn again, trudge back across the bleak moors to dig their vehicles out – clean them off and drive them back to camp by – if they were lucky, in time for lunch.
“Bloody pissing hell…” said Terry to his crewmen who, non-hero’s to a man, were not particularly willing to die for their country – or even to suffer marginal discomfort. They did not relish the hikes back and forwards. They spent the next few hours figuring out how they could carry the least kit back to camp – and out again the next day – and how they could take a position, separate from all the other tanks, to shorten the walk. Terry went into a huddle with the other tank commanders and came away satisfied that he had bagged a prime battle position for his tank, with the shortest possible walk involved. He then evolved a cunning plan for the burying process - involving a pretend sprained shoulder, much brave and regretful wincing with heroically borne pain, and his utterly fair and attentive supervision and useful advice as the other four crew members wielded spades and carted rocks and earth, to hide the two-thousand-five-hundred cubic feet tank, excluding the turret. From his labouring experience on his father’s building sites, Terry reckoned that each cubic foot would just about fit onto a size ten spade, which made …two-thousand-five-hundred spade’s full, divided fairly between his four men – was six hundred and thirty-three each. And somebody, namely himself, would have to organise it. Thus counting, he was lulled into a deep and restful sleep.
The next morning the mists were thick, clammy and wet on Dartmoor as twenty Centurion Tanks, cleaned, equipped, fully-loaded and potentially lethal, roared off in the early pre-dawn light, long aerials topped with small triangular flags waving with the motion, in a disciplined line some forty feet apart – each guided by a smartly uniformed, helmeted and be-goggled square-jawed, grim faced commander visible from the waist up in the gun turret. As they passed the sentries, each commander saluted stiffly. The British were coming. It was a sight that still managed to bring a lump to the Commanding Officer’s throat.
That night, some very late that night, the men returned on foot, ate ravenously and collapsed into their bunks. Another dawn broke and the forces were up again, dubbin’ing their boots, adjusting their webbing, buttoning up their battle dress against the insistent damp fog, slinging their rifles and checking their charts and compasses. After a quick and silent breakfast from their iron-rations they slipped away, one hundred young soldiers, trained to deadly effect, disappeared out into the mist in groups of five, following each another stealthily for the first miles, then taking their own courses to recover their concealed tanks.
The Commanding Officer watched the tail-end-Charlies evaporate into the early light then he turned towards the officers’ mess to get himself a real breakfast. Shortly before lunch the first tanks rolled into the camp, parked, were swiftly hosed down, oiled, refuelled, the odd spot of paint applied to a flesh wound – and the crews made rapidly, pleased with their successful mission – to the mess hut to have a large and hot meal. The Commanding Officer counted them in one by one.
At , after tea and scones, he was getting a little nervous. At with the light beginning to fade and a good supper and a sun-downer beckoning, he felt a bit angry – and anxious. At – or twenty-one-hundred-hours as it was written in the reports, the Commanding Officer sent out search parties.
Close to , as he sat alone in his office, all his officers having retired to bed, a Jeep squealed to a halt outside his door and a sergeant burst in.
“Sir – Sir – We’ve found them Sir! All well Sir. No injuries.”
‘All’s well that ends well’ thought the Commanding Officer. He would have hated to lose men on his watch. He relaxed with a sigh – it had been a long day.
“Very good Sergeant. You must be tired. Why not turn in Sergeant. But I’d better just see the men first.”
The sergeant hesitated. He seemed to want to add something. But then decided better of it. “Yes Sir. They’re outside Sir. In the Land-Rover Sir.”
“Then get them in man. I’ll log their safe return and we can do a full de-brief in the morning.”
Again the sergeant seemed hesitant. And he was a man not given to hesitation. “…Er, Yes – Sir.”
The five men, the tank crew, led by Terry Ryder, shambled into the office, clearly tired and dispirited. The Commanding Officer was still basking in the reassuring knowledge that they were alive and well. He decided not to be too hard on them tonight. But he was intrigued.
“Well Ryder. All present and correct?”
“Yes – Sir. The men are fine - Sir” snapped back Terry; springing smartly to attention; but clearly with some great pain in his left shoulder.
The Commanding Officer was touched and proud that one of his men, after, what …nineteen or twenty hours in the field, had the spirit and energy to respond so – so – militarily.
“At ease Men. Glad to have you all back in one piece. We were beginning to worry about you.”
The men slumped a little, not meeting his eye.
“You are alright – aren’t you? No injuries. That shoulder looks a bit painful Ryder.”
“It’s nothing Sir” said Terry, shrugging the allegedly sprained shoulder bravely. “A day’s rest is all it needs – Sir”
“Good – Good. Well, why don’t we all turn-in then...?
…Sergeant – dismiss the men.”
As the sergeant took a deep breath preparatory to
bellowing orders at the absolute bloody shower he had found wandering aimlessly
on a road heading vaguely towards
“The tank – Ryder – the tank. No damage there I hope?” he asked narrowly. These new Centurion Tanks were bloody expensive and it would be his neck if something hugely costly had got broken.
Terry, just turning to leave, sprang back to attention, drawing himself up to his full five feet seven and fixing his Irish eyes into their most honest and heroic gaze – as at a distant heavenly vision. “No Sir – nothing wrong with the vehicle – Sir” he shouted reassuringly. The Commanding Officer started to relax again. It really had been a long day.
“…As far as we know – Sir.”
The Commanding Officer whipped around. And almost snarled, his gentlemanly languor and avuncular attitude gone in an instant. “What the hell do you mean Ryder – As far as you bloody well know?” And he leaned forward, threateningly – almost bullyingly.
‘Is he going to hit me?’ Terry wondered. But rapidly reassured himself by visualising part of the Army manual guidelines, which he had read, on striking, or more pertinently, not striking, the lower ranks, including Corporals who have temporarily mislaid a tank.
He raised his two hands in the placatory gesture he had used once before, to reasonable effect in as much as it had deflected a blow to his head from a short plank, when explaining to his father how he and his team had dropped the uniquely curved plate-glass window they had waited seven months for, as they fitted it into the frontage of C&A’s new Market Street store, which as it dropped - onto the pavement – had shattered into a thousand, maybe even a million, small pieces.
His hands thus raised pleadingly, he cocked his head in another placatory gesture and opened his big eyes in innocent, blameless appeal.
“Couldn’t find the tank – Sir!”
Then, as he saw the shock and horror his statement had wrought on the previously sanguine features of his Commanding Officer, he added hastily “…But the tank is fine Sir. It’s come to no harm.”
The Commanding Officer sank to his chair. Gazing up with blank disbelief at this small northern, still cheerful, National-Service man who had been sent by God to torment and destroy him.
The boys and girls in Lillian’s, as the sun sank behind the odd white, marble, Grecian bus-stop shelter at Wellington Road traffic lights, to a man were rolling with helpless laughter as Terry yelled and giggled and hooted. Dave Hall slapped his huge hands time after time against his thighs and did his silent double-bend dipping motions.
“You… …You didn’t lose the bloody tank – Terry?” he guffawed rhetorically. “…You couldn’t have lost the tank. Not a whole bloody tank?” and he slapped his thighs in uncontained, unrestrained merriment; and bent double again.
Terry was grinning manically – ear to ear – and he constantly fluffed his thinning hair as he giggled and giggled and giggled. He could barely speak. His breath was in very short supply.
“We … We … never found it” he screamed, falling across the ash tray on his table and beating the Formica with his fists. “Day after Day – I’ll swear to you – we went looking for that bloody tank. Planes, helicopters, scout cars, platoons on foot. It’s never been found…” and he hollered and hollered with laughter.
“But where is it?” someone had the sense to ask, “You can’t LOSE a tank.”
Terry couldn’t answer – so we all waited, grinning and giggling as he writhed in amusement. Eventually he drew sufficient breath, “It’s still out there – somewhere. It’s yours if you can find it. If you want a tank – get out there and it’s yours….”
“…I’ve still got the bloody key somewhere. Whoo! Whoo! Whoo! Hee! Hee – Hoot! Hoot! Haw!”
And with this he was unable to say more, having to be revived by being walked around the pavement outside until he regained enough strength to light a cigarette and slump back at the table into a shoulder giggling silent memory, a not altogether un-fond memory, of his Ex-Commanding Officer.
Michael Howard lived with his canary, Cherub, which was comfortably middle-aged, rotund and very yellow. Cherub sat quietly and contentedly, observing its small world, on a perch in a wire bird cage of no particular architectural merit, hanging above and close by the kitchen table. This is Cherub’s tragic story. For readers with deeply sensitive souls, who are easily disturbed by bleak tales of death and dishonour, you may wish to look away now – skip this story and turn to the next chapter.
Michael also lived with his three-years older sister, Rosemary, who kindly taught me, after I was rejected from the Osborne Bentley School of Dance, how to Jive like Elvis Presley and Rock like Bill Haley, a social skill that has served me well ever since; and he lived with his father and mother, Mr and Mrs Howard, in a nineteen-thirties, semi-detached, mock-Tudor, part timbered house, standing narrow and tall, on rising land, behind the tree line, well back from the pavement of Priestnall Road, about two hundred winding yards from the infamous and magnetic Fylde Lodge School for Girls, whose buildings dominated the wooded crossroads at Priestnall Road and Mauldeth Road.
Michael, like the house, was also narrow and tall, sporting black hair, oiled with Brylcreem, as were the coiffures of all male teenagers in those days, and illicitly allowed to grow longer than the mandatory military short-back-and-sides, which enabled Michael when safely out of parental sight, to flick his hair up and back in pale imitation of and in secret homage to the dark, back-swept look of Elvis. But, uncertain as was his admiration for the Teddy Boy style of the day, it meant that he never combed his straight locks quite determinedly enough for his hair to stay swept back for more than a minute or two and, inevitably, his quiff fell limply forwards and straight across his eyes, to be flicked back moment by moment with his fingers – like a nervous tic – which the girls seemed to find quite attractive.
Taller than his pals, Michael compensated by
stooping slightly, sometimes lending him an anxious, hand-wringing appearance.
He was an amiable lad, more likely to negotiate than to challenge, with a
modestly reliable talent as a card player. My older brother Richard, who played
cards with professional skill and dedication, had established a fashion for
intensive, schoolboy games of three card brag, pontoon (blackjack) and five card
poker, often hosted, for hours and hours, in one of the many unused rooms in
Birch House, our haunted Victorian mansion on
The Game, which was played for real money and from which Richard, winning often, was saving for a two-month Continental hitch-hiking holiday, involved everybody, who was anybody, in the district. As new players heard of it and joined in, The Game grew both in numbers and in stakes. Vital pocket-money was won and lost, leaving some bereft of funds for the coming week. One or two of the older lads had left school early at fifteen and were earning wages, apparently giving them the power to outbid and out-brag the others – but usually losing far more than they had imagined they might and thus enriching the frugal but astute young scholars; giving the lie to the street urchin’s taunt “If you’re so clever Mister! Why ain’t ‘cha rich?”
Some of the young players were coining it in.
Wealthiest of all, wealthier than the legendary Croesus (I was forty-five before I discovered the saying was not “As rich as creases;” which never made any sense to me – but “As rich as Croesus”; you know - the classical Greek millionaire) and more profligate than Timon of Athens, (he’s from Shakespeare) was Willy Mason.
Willy was perhaps a year older than Michael and me, which placed him halfway from our age to my older brother’s age, who in turn ranked in maturity alongside local legends such as Terry Ryder. Willy, painfully thin, faintly blue in the face and as tall as Michael, lived in a large detached, mock Tudor house, on the opposite corner to Fylde Lodge.
The Mason’s garage at the side of the house was
Willy’s dad was very, very rich; so rich that he
gave Willy twenty-pounds a week pocket money – when the average respectable
young teenager would be lucky to be given half-a-crown. To translate this
amazing differential, there were eight half-crowns in a pound meaning Willy had
one-hundred-and-sixty times as much as his pals and as much as, for example, a
thirty year old office manager earned in Manchester. Willy not only had cash to
burn but his father let him, even as young as seventeen, drive his cars. Willy,
notoriously, crashed two Rolls-Royces in one year, destroying them beyond
repair. Terry Ryder claimed to have seen the wreckage of the Mason’s white
Rolls Royce, on Kingsway in Burnage, a modern dual carriageway into
“It was a total bloody mess.” Terry assured his goggle eyed audience. “A smoking, smouldering ruin; A complete bloody write-off; Nobody but nobody could have survived inside that car. It was a pile of scrap squashed flat!” And he surveyed his captive audience satisfied that he had them in the palm of his orator’s hand.
“It was completely silent. Nobody said anything. Then something moved. A bit of tin shifted and fell off the pile onto the road with a big clang. The only recognisable bit left of the whole car - the only piece you could tell what it had been – was the exhaust pipe...”
Someone sniffed derisively.
“…No honest it was; just the exhaust pipe...” grinned Terry “...There was this great crumpled heap of metal and steam and smoke – and sticking straight up, like the mast on a ship – was the exhaust pipe…”
“…As God is my judge – nobody could have lived through that crash. There was no room in the car left for anyone to be in it…”
Terry waited a moment as his audience shifted inwards, nearer to him. “…And then – there was this little extra puff of smoke came out of the exhaust pipe. Honest it did. …and it formed a smoke ring that drifted up in the air…”
The collection of boys and girls were smiling, anticipating the next twist in the tale.
“…And I sniffed it. This smoke. And I’ll swear to God – on my mother’s grave (his dear mother was very much alive) – that it was Turkish, Sobranie tobacco…”
The fabulously wealthy and ever so painfully thin
Willy only smoked Black Sobranie cigarettes, a brand which claimed to be made
“…and the exhaust pipe shifted – just a fraction. And another smoke ring came up from it. …Honest it did. And then, from this scrap yard of a car, out of the exhaust pipe…”
We all knew that only Willy was slender enough to emerge from a car exhaust;
“…came Willy; Honest to God; as real and solid as I am here.”
Terry offered his arm in an exercise of dubious logic, for any doubting Thomas to hold or prod, in a pseudo scientific substitution for the real Willy. But there were no doubters.
“…and he was unmarked. No oil, no bruises, nothing. His hair was still waved like a girl…”
Willy had fair crinkly hair which he brushed hard back on his pointed head where it crouched in unwelcome, small, harsh, blondish waves.
“…and he was smoking; wearing his dog-tooth jacket…”
Willy characteristically wore a Dunn and Company black and white checked, double breasted jacket of the very best worsted – and usually with a flower in his top button hole – and always with a colourful bow tie.
Terry had his audience gripped; all grinning and waiting to hear the dénouement.
“…But the extraordinary thing was…” said Terry, his face at its most serious, credible and astonished, “…the ash was still on his cigarette.”
Several lads guffawed, not entirely believing the miracle that Terry had witnessed.
“No. As God is my Judge! I’ll swear that it was. He rose up out of that exhaust pipe like a Genie out of a bottle. Not a mark on him. Smoking a Sobranie – and there was a quarter-inch of ash still on the cigarette.”
Before the year of the white Roller, when Willy was too young to drive legally, his dad had an American car, a fabulous Juke-Box of a car in pale pink and gleaming chrome, which Willy took on short illicit runs up to the local shops. This behemoth wallowed on its soft American suspension making it difficult to steer and manoeuvre and particularly irritating to park in the garage at the side of their house – opposite the Headmistress’s window. The crossroads were slightly offset in a dog’s-leg that narrowed between the Mason’s and Fylde Lodge, forcing the Mason’s to slow the pink blancmange vehicle to two miles an hour and reverse several times in the street to bring it home to rest. It was more like docking an ocean liner than garaging a car.
Willy found a quicker route. He adopted the habit, before the headmistress, the local police and his father intervened, of hurtling back to the crossroads, huge, pink and wobbling, ignoring the necessity of the dog’s-leg, and looking to neither right nor left, as other vehicles were statistically unlikely, not impossible but in those days unlikely, to be on the roads, driving straight ahead into Fylde Lodge, through the tall, thin privet hedge; hand-brake turning the ludicrous machine through ninety-degrees on the Headmistress’s small private lawn, before bouncing over a shallow rockery through the other hedge, down the kerbstones – straight across the narrow road – into his garage; without, so urban legend reported, losing the ash on his Sobranie cigarette, eternally perched, absolutely horizontal, in the centre of his lips.
Thus did Willy’s reputation go before him and the tales of his unlimited wealth and mediocre gaming skills, ensured he was invited, politely press-ganged, into as many of the card games as possible. Being impulsive, Willy played emotionally – and so lost. Willy’s immense losses which made not a jot of difference to him, leveraged up the stakes of The Game. No longer could my brother Richard command the arrangements of where and when – and with whom – it would be played. Terry Ryder introduced a newcomer, Mike Hobbs, a short, thickset and quiet boy, who played well – and won – and won and won, as did Terry. Richard silently dropped out of games when Mike Hobbs played, particularly those at Willy’s house, where Willy might lose ten or twenty pounds – fortunes for teenagers – and Richard set up alternative games, reverting to schoolboy stakes and to his winning strategy of imposing on the players a form of sensory deprivation, locked in a darkened room for uncountable periods of time, hunched over a card table with a single light and chain smoking; inducing disorientation, dehydration, dizziness and ultimately the will to live – or win - and not allowing anyone to leave the game until he, Richard, was in profit – but he won fairly and squarely; he never cheated.
It was some months before Willy learned, and was justifiably enraged, that the unreadable Mike Hobbs had a father on the stage; a father who was a conjuror, specialising in card tricks. Willy stopped playing cards and went off alone to write-off a few more cars. Without its financial mainstay The Big Game sputtered to a halt. But as The Game splintered, other youths saw the opportunity to play host and place themselves at the epicentre of Heaton Moor society. Michael Howard, whose innocent and inoffensive parents spent weekends away, offered his kitchen as a gambling den. Cherub, the canary, cocked its little yellow head and watched from its vantage point perched above the table, with one bright eye, as the white, black and red cards flashed across the table top at the regular games.
We all smoked; not expensive Sobranie’s but cheap Woodbines, Senior Service and Players cigarettes that we could buy in packets of five, un-tipped, unfiltered and, of course, lethal. Ten or more of us would pack round the russet and black flecked Formica kitchen table, concentrating fiercely on the cards and the cash for five or six hours. Tea was brewed every hour on the hour and served dark and strong with two spoonfuls of sugar – builders’ tea – in large mugs which clustered around the wide ashtray at the edge of the table immediately under Cherub’s cage. Pennies, thru’penny bits, silver sixpences, half-pennies and even farthings were tossed into the kitty along with larger coins, two-shilling-pieces, half-crowns and, when the stakes skyrocketed, an occasional and rare reddish-fawn ten-bob-note.
From its bird’s eye view in the suspended cage,
Cherub watched all this unaccustomed traffic on the table, its bright eyes
gleaming and fluffy head bobbing quietly, seemingly unaffected by the invasion.
Below, it saw a bunch of schoolboys in their weekend gear, emerging, as they
grew older and larger, like butterflies from the chrysalis of school uniforms,
flaunting long trousers from
“Does it talk, Mike?” asked another Michael, Mick Farmer, who reared hawks in his small suburban semi, nodding in the direction of Cherub and blowing a friendly lungful of blue cigarette smoke at the brooding yellow blob, which hiccupped once and coughed a brief shoulder shrugging cough.
“It did – sometimes,” answered our host “…but not recently. Not in the last year or so. I haven’t heard it say anything…”
The card school regarded Cherub dispassionately, tacitly accepting its rights to be there and acknowledging the bond between Michael and this puffed up little resident. Cherub felt the shift in attention, looked back at us sharply, shook itself before settling its head deeper into its shoulders and shuffled a few embarrassed steps sideways on its perch.
The games were intense, weekly or sometimes twice a week we gathered in the Howard’s kitchen, huddled round the table under its cage and played – and smoked – and drank tea – and smoked some more. The air was laden with smoke and natural boyish odours; this being before the days of male deodorants. On some days Cherub seemed depressed; chunking its little head deeper than usual into its rounded shoulders, peering sadly over its breast feathers and shuffling back and forth along its perch. Sometimes it just sat in a silent, perhaps condemnatory, little yellow heap, with its eyes closed, waiting for the invaders to finish and go – and leave it in peace.
Everyone liked the little scrap of life and did their best to cheer it up. Between hands, players would pick up a sunflower seed the bird had dropped on the table and would hand feed it, offering the tasty morsel to its polished beak. Or they would refill its water dispenser and induce it to sample a few drops. When it remained particularly immobile, we discovered that blowing a cloud of cigarette smoke at it would elicit a cute, tiny cough, and maybe stimulate it to flap its wings – though we never saw Cherub lift off in joyous flight. But the nicotine did seem to give it a moment of new energy; encouraging more players to puff smoke at it and then emulate its shoulder shrugging cough.
It would be in the winter of nineteen-fifty-six or thereabouts, four years after Elvis exploded onto the scene that Mr and Mrs Howard went away again, leaving Michael and his sister in charge of the house. That Saturday afternoon the card school assembled at around three o’clock, happy to get in off the cold streets and sit shoulder to shoulder over steaming mugs of tea with the warm orange glow of cigarettes, glowing stronger as smoke was drawn deep into the lungs, creating a camp-fire atmosphere in the kitchen, while light faded from the thin northern sky. Lonnie Donegan was singing sadly from the sitting room on his 78 inch vinyl disk, played over and over by Rosemary, telling the world that “It takes a worried man to sing a worried song – I’m worried now, but I won’t be worried long.”
The players were very sharp that day and very focused. Nobody paid much heed to Cherub as it sat in its now customary sulk above the game. The light faded and turned to darkness. Michael switched on the electric light over the table, whose shade cast a shadow over Cherub, consigning the little canary to obscurity as the game ebbed and flowed energetically beneath it. After the second or even third mug of tea, the pace slackened and one or two players stood up to stretch – and to light another cigarette.
Cherub, it was observed, had its head buried even
more deeply into its shoulders than usual and seemed infinitely more depressed
than ever. It perched, as birds are wont to do, its minute claws clutching its
favourite bar in the centre of the cage, almost a perfect ball of vivid fluffy
yellow, with its eyes closed. Davy, known as Crockett, a big strong lad, from
Michael was alerted to the bird’s uncooperative behaviour and he took up an authoritative and commanding position in front of the cage. The game was put on hold as we all gathered around. Michael spoke to the family pet – in pet like phrases. Out of deep respect we shall draw a veil over this one sided conversation, the text of which may detract from the seriousness, sadness and tragedy of the moment. But still Cherub did not respond.
Michael picked up a wax fire spill from the side of the kitchen stove and used it to gently prod Cherub in its proud little feathery chest. At the first and lightest touch – Cherub toppled from its perch. The little mite, still gripping the rail which supported it, swung backwards away from the prod, in a graceful arc until it was suspended upside down, like a tennis ball with feet, and, thus orientated, its claws lost their grip and it plunged, shockingly and as it transpired, finally, to the bottom of its cage.
A deep silence gripped the company.
The silence persisted and it was now our turn to be immobilised. Slowly we turned to look at Michael and perhaps to assuage his overwhelming grief.
“Bloody Hell…” muttered Michael, seemingly more alarmed than grief-stricken – but then death affects people in many different ways – so we stood in silent respect and said nothing.
“…Bloody Hell…” he said more loudly, “…they’ll be home soon…”
We then began to understand that, while he must have been deeply and forever saddened by Cherub’s secondary smoking demise, Michael, in a saintly kind of a way, was more concerned at his parents’ grief over the tragedy than his own. At least, that is how we chose to interpret it.
“They’ll kill me…” he continued, seemingly now a little less concerned for his parents’ feelings, “they’ll bloody kill me.” And he looked around the room wildly for inspiration before searching our eyes for a miracle that might bring Cherub back to life.
We all shrugged. What could we do?
One player with great and immediate initiative started to clear the tea mugs and wash them in the sink. The rest stood as before around the cage which had now become a funeral bier for Cherub. Cherub lay on the bottom of the cage in the archetypal pose of dead birds, flat on its back with its minuscule feet up in the air. Michael’s face registered frozen horror and rising panic. We began to realise the earnestness of his emotions and some of us started to think.
“You could…” hesitantly offered Kenny Marsh, a Stockport Grammar School boy who was always quick off the mark, and being Grammar School was officially and inarguably brighter than Michael who only attended the inferior Mile End School, “…put it back on the perch, and pretend it never happened…”
Michael looked at first as if he had been punched in the solar-plexus and was still groaning inwardly at the pain, but then he straightened up and a gleam of hope sprang from his eyes. He said nothing, but inserted his nicotine stained hand into the cage and grabbed – quite tenderly – the yellow corpse and plonked it back on the central bar, adjusting its claws around the pole.
Cherub promptly fell off.
Michael placed the dead bird even more firmly on the perch. It stayed in place, looking no different than when life still coursed through its dear little corporeal form. We all breathed again – very slowly. Michael held the cage in one hand and ever so carefully closed the wire door and with the skill of a reformed safe-breaker, eased the spring catch to lock it. The spring clicked!
Cherub fell off again, on to its head then performed a head-over-heels to end up with its feet once more in the air.
Michael’s eyes were starting from his head and he incessantly flicked his quiff back from his forehead.
“Let me try…” said Biff Keegan, who as a prized goalkeeper was known to have a safe pair of hands. He also came from a strong Catholic family and was a zealous altar boy at Saint Winifred’s church, and might, if we stretched our imaginations, therefore have much needed ethereal connections with the powers of creation. He handled the bird with reverence and skill and with his large fingers folded the tiny claws around the pole. “They’re getting stiff…” he reported. “…It might stay on.”
Cherub sat on the perch. Biff eased the cage door shut – and Cherub sat on the perch. We all moved a step away. And Cherub sat on the perch. We smiled at each other in relief and turned to congratulate ourselves. And Cherub still sat on the perch.
We all relaxed. Michael started to breathe again and we understood it was time for us to get out before Mr and Mrs Howard returned. From the living room the final notes of The Platters harmonising ‘Yes! I’m the Great Pretender’ faded and turned to scratchy bumping before the inward spiralling gramophone needle triggered the lifting mechanism and switched it off. The living room door opened, there were footsteps, the kitchen door opened – and Rosemary came in.
“Hi.. Hello.. Just leaving” and so on and so forth, we all mouthed politely, urgently keeping our gaze off Cherub’s final resting place. Rosemary crossed the kitchen to fill the kettle. She lit the gas and put the kettle on the stove as we started to slink away; she turned and cooch-i-cooed at Cherub, wiggling her fingers through the bars.
Cherub fell off.
Michael, not widely celebrated for his repartee, was uncharacteristically quick; “What have you done?” he shouted in distress, “…what have you done to Cherub?”
We let ourselves out the front door into the winter darkness, turning up our Humphrey Bogart raincoat collars, as Rosemary stood in shocked silence trying to formulate a suitable response to her impertinent younger brother. Possibly out of reverence for Cherub, the smoked canary, we never played cards at the Howard’s again.
The impenetrable winter smog that fell across Heaton Moor, Heaton Mersey, Heaton Norris and Heaton Chapel on a dark early evening in 1950 was very exciting.
We had all managed to get home safely from primary school through the dark streets without being able to see so much as our hands held up in front of our faces.
Long woolly, double knitted scarves, in red and white bands, were inverted to make head hugging balaclavas at one end, with the other end wrapped several times and tightly round mouths and noses for warmth and air filters, the end being tucked into the neck of a tightly buttoned gabardine. Sound was deadened before it could travel even a few feet. Lampposts served as reliable landmarks in an otherwise featureless dark sea of cloud and chemicals. We could taste the bitter soot, from countless coal burning chimneys, in the wet cold soup as it clung to our clothes, making everything filthy and clammy to touch. The mile or so walk from school in that impenetrable darkness was hugely exciting - hand over hand along suddenly unfamiliar garden walls - navigating across streets that mysteriously seemed ten times wider than in daylight, with no landmarks or even sounds to guide us to the safety of a pavement.
Saint Winifred’s RC school, located at the very edge of what had once been a high moor, in Heaton Moor, with long views across the River Mersey valley, over the fertile Cheshire Plain as far as Chester and perhaps on a clear day beyond to Liverpool, closed earlier than usual and disgorged a hundred and fifty or so, five to eleven year old children onto Didsbury Road, into the dark oily smog, to make their way home as best they could.
We were wrapped in dark navy gabardines, swathed in those popular double wool scarves; most children with blue hands and fingers but some boasting woollen or even fabulous fur backed gloves, with one or two deeply envied boys sporting leather gauntlets. Most wore black lace-up shoes; some crept stealthily like Red-Indians in white or black summer cotton pumps or swaggered along in swashbuckling wellies with the white cotton interiors folded down to the ankles.
A silent herd of excited youngsters exited from the once fine old white Georgian house, between the peeling, fluted pillars at the main door, crept eighty yards through the impenetrable mist across the packed earth playground, passed the comforting gate-house tuck-shop and, beyond the gates, we dispersed into the gloom to go our separate ways, disappearing in seconds from each other and from the world. Little groups trailed together along silent and cloaked suburban roads, guessing at the direction; older children clutching the frozen hands of younger ones. At each junction the groups divided and smaller parties groped along walls and pavements towards, they hoped, their homes, reassured briefly by a sudden lamppost looming by a recognisable wall before blindly creeping another fifty yards to where they hoped the next street-light would be found. The lampposts always surprised the fumbling travellers, leaping into view just six inches from their frozen noses, casting a feeble yellow gas or modern electric blue glow on the slowly stirring smog, but always failing to illuminate the ground.
Our breathing made the improvised woollen masks wet, but it was more comfortable to keep the warm poultice hugging the mouth and nose than to pull the scarf aside and suck in the cold, cloying blanket of filthy fog. No cars or buses threatened the slow crossing of streets. No anxious parents appeared out of the blackness, waving torches and proffering comfort and guidance. No one came and no one was expected. The children managed the journey alone and hugely enjoyed their small adventure.
I made it back up Mauldeth Road, under the long fingered, watchful trees, to Birch House, and crept around the familiar garden in that pitch darkness for a time, enjoying the privacy and silence, before hunger and cold drove me into our large, haunted, Victorian home.
At that time of year it was dark by four-thirty and in that weather all honest people were in their homes by six. Even father made it back from Manchester, full of brief bluff comments, which left no doubt as to his manly skills and courage in cleaving his way instinctively through the smog while lesser mortals abandoned their cars and fumbled their way along the miles of impossibly dark, muffled pavements.
The smog even seeped into the kitchen, making the light dimmer and casting an imperceptible shadow over the table. The coal fire warmed the room, the only heated room in the whole house, adding its slow exhaust of smoke, carbon, tar and sulphur to the overburdened atmosphere, burning slowly and dully in the grate as the smog pressed down the chimney and choked the draught that the fire needed. We sat at the kitchen table still happy with memories of our adventures outside, and we waited in unaccustomed quiet while Mother heaved and juggled with pans full of potatoes and piles of plates in the cold condensation of the scullery. The meal was sausages, fried eggs and mashed potatoes; a firm favourite, which ensured that not a scrap would be left.
Mother was mellow as she lit her apres-tea cigarette, sucked smoke deeply into her lungs and reached for The Peterloo Massacre, her newspaper, the crossword puzzle and her pencil.
"Mum", said Peter, "Tell us about when Richard climbed on top of the houses."
The table held its breath while Mother silently considered this request. Taking an extra deep drag on her un-tipped Players cigarette and putting aside her book, paper and pencil she composed her public self, swept her audience with a professional glance, waited for the moment, and then began.
"Well…" she said, the merest stream of blue smoke issuing from deep within as she spoke,
"…Richard was a proper devil. He was the scourge of the neighbourhood even before he was a year old."
Richard neither moved nor betrayed any expressions as he became the focus of the story; but we, his three younger brothers, knew he was intrigued and this pleased us as it might maintain his pacific mood well into the evening. We were pleased that he was pleased, though a stranger could never have guessed it.
"When we lived opposite the cotton mill, off Ashton Old Road; when your father was away in the War…” she added with mild accusation, making father shift uncomfortably, “…Richard could walk before he was – no! He couldn't just walk, he could run. Really run. I've never known a baby who learned to walk and run that early. Before he was ten months old, he could run round the house like a little squirrel."
"How old was I when I could walk?" I asked, not liking these accolades being heaped upon Richard.
I shouldn't have asked.
"Oh, you were much later than Richard. You were quite the opposite. You never moved unless you absolutely had too. I always remember watching you and Richard in the garden with a ball. Richard ran after it, wherever it bounced. This way and that way; and Richard would be after it, like a whippet. But, Noel ..." she resumed addressing the whole audience, "…Noel just sat and watched the ball. He sat and watched until it had absolutely stopped, then and only then would he go and get it. He took a long time to learn to walk."
"Richard though; he gave us some moments. The neighbours were forever coming round, just when I thought Richard was safe and asleep in his pram and they'd say ‘Mrs Hodson, Mrs Hodson, we don't want to worry you but we're sure we've seen your Richard on the building site.’ And I'd tell them not to be ridiculous. He wasn't even eighteen months old and I knew that he was fast asleep in his pram. But they'd be right. There he was - there were six half-built houses in Slade Lane across the way from us, abandoned because of the War, - teetering along a fifteen foot wall, which couldn't have been more than six inches wide, with his arms out like this, calm as you like, balancing fifteen feet up in the air." She paused for breath, the memory bringing back the fear of it.
Richard sat tensed and slightly forward, listening with feigned indifference but deeply pleased at his notoriety and unrivalled early physical development. He blinked his pale blue staring eyes, eyes like his mother’s, slowly and sat even straighter in his neat thin way.
"Once…" she continued reflectively, her mind cast back to Ashton-under-Lyme, the town where I was born and we lived until I was four.
"…when your father was still away at the War..."
A thousand innuendoes
communicated themselves to this experienced audience who understood from that
one subtly enunciated phrase, that he of no name, sometimes called Father, had
volunteered for active service despite being in a reserved occupation as
accountant at the Gas Board, only to escape his responsibilities to wife, home
and children. Further, that he had somehow deliberately contrived to serve time
on the incredibly dangerous Atlantic ammunition convoys and then, having wilfully
survived the U-boats and risen to the rank of First Lieutenant, with a fine
braided uniform, be transferred to a horizontal position in a hammock, under
the palm trees, in an entirely peaceful and luscious tropical island base in
Ceylon, for the rest of the war. Further, that he returned only rarely to take
leave at home, each time impregnated his loyal wife, ate the family's entire
meagre food rations for a month in seventy-two hours and returned blithely to
his hammock, unlimited food and warm sunshine in
This underlying message was not denied or affirmed by father and we, the jury, believed what mother cared us to believe. Mother continued.
"...Richard climbed out of his bedroom window onto the sill - it was only this wide" she held out her Players Cigarette packet with its rich colours and reliable looking bearded sailor, between thumb and finger, "…and he walked along it - he could only have been fifteen months old, no, he must have been nearly two; yes almost two - teetering along this narrow sill…" her audience was wide eyed with anticipation, raptly trying to reconcile Richard's feet with the size of the cigarette packet, "…and I came into his room and could see him through the glass; but I couldn't reach him, I didn't even dare to try. I might have knocked him off and killed him."
His brothers contemplated this potential premature death of the first born in silence, each with his own thoughts carefully concealed. She drew hard and long on her cigarette which burned fiercely and brightly while a third of an inch of the paper transformed to neat, light grey ash. She held the smoke deep inside, mouth tightly closed, moved the cigarette carefully away, sat up even straighter, and continued, her voice subtly deeper from the effects of the smoke.
"I could only hold my breath and hope. He edged along the sill; right to the end, twenty feet high; and I couldn't see how he would turn round and get back - I didn't know what to do."
This sentence was visibly punctuated by a controlled stream of thin blue smoke, issuing from the very foundations of her lungs.
"He reached the end…" she still held out the indicative width of the cigarette packet, "...and stopped. I couldn't see how he was going to get back. I thought he was going to fall off. But he stepped out, with his little bootees; no, I think he was in his socks, and he stretched across to the next window sill, managed to get his foot on it - it was only a tiny semi-detached - and crossed over onto that sill. That window was open and he came back inside."
Richard's dead-pan face, so profitable to him later in life in games of poker and three card brag, reflected some satisfaction to those who could read his impassive features and Mother looked over her audience, satisfied with her own performance; seeing us gazing with awe at her and at her wondrous son. A silent moment of family self congratulation was broken by father “hrrrumphing” up out of his chair and making wordlessly for the kitchen door, en-route, we surmised, to the lavatory.
This incredible tale of infant derring-do was matched by Richard's later adventures.
Birch House, our house of ghosts with six empty attics, seven empty cellars and several locked, gloomy and unused living rooms, had four bays running from cellar to roof level. One bay, at the side, with a small flat leaded roof, could be accessed through an attic window fifty feet high. It had no balustrade and only space for two brave and agile children. It was separated by protruding eaves, slate roof, gutters and downspouts from another bay, rising perpendicularly from the ground far below, with no window behind it. This second, tiny flat roof was about seven feet away.
Richard took me out of the window onto the minuscule lead covered plateau, poised himself on the outer edge of the raised lead, where he had about nine inches of space to avoid the eaves, and leapt across that precipitous chasm to the other roof. On landing he pounded his feet in rapid, tiny, dance like steps to brake his momentum and stop himself from going over the far edge. Once there, there was no window to escape into. The only way back was to reverse the jump. I clung onto the window frame, pressed against the wall on that vertiginous, dangerous platform, too afraid to look down, and down, and down to the ground far below, as Richard measured the distance, edged out to avoid the protrusions, and sprang over the stomach churning drop. His feet landed on the edges of the five sided roof, jigged rapidly inwards and he grabbed the overhanging eaves.
I was eight, he was ten. He then persuaded me, against all my natural instincts and in defiance of my square, less agile frame, to do the same. I extremely stupidly jumped the gap, survived the moment, clutched the wooden eaves like a drowning sailor clinging to a lifeboat, and then was trapped on the second roof with no way back but that deathly leap; heart pounding, stomach in knots, the light beginning to fade, Richard getting bored and my courage having fled.
“…C’mon our kid…” said Richard in a neutral tone, now safe by the attic window, wanting to leave but knowing he would at least be heavily criticised if he either left me alone to leap, fail, plummet fifty feet and die – or if he simply abandoned me to live out my remaining days on that ten square feet of leaded roof top, an option which he was becoming more and more inclined to take.
I was gripping eaves, gutters and slate tiles; and in turn was being gripped by panic, my legs ceasing to function, a sweet terrible tremor electrifying my lower abdomen and my mind concentrated on a fascinating overview of how a fifty foot fall would affect me.
Behind me stretched forty feet of blank brick wall reaching horizontally to the front corner of the house and vertically up to sixty feet, right into the apex of the house. At my out-side was fifty yards of open space to the next house, then occupied by the Lawless family, and a single intervening young sycamore tree – its top leaves far below. On my inside was a four feet high solid, uncooperative and uncaring brick wall; that I badly wanted to dissolve through into the safety of the house. Ahead of me was the, now unbridgeable, seven foot gap to the next little, crowded, leaded eyrie; crowded with Richard, two outcropping pieces of roof and gutter and an inch high, studded lip. Between our two platforms in the sky and reaching all the way down to the stone borders of the iron barred, three foot deep, cellar light-well surrounded by white, crystallised decorative rocks – was thin air; thin air that was growing menacingly darker as the sun slid below the horizon.
“…You’ve got to do it…” intoned Richard, still keeping his voice and face entirely neutral. If he’d had a watch he would have consulted it to check he could make his next important appointment. “…You know you’ve got to jump…”
I crept an experimental foot to the edge of the lead, clinging ever harder to the gutter. The other foot followed. I un-gripped my fingers one by one, slid that hand down the brickwork on the wall – and, with no handhold, crouched on the edge; eyes staring hard and unseeing at the next safe handhold – across the impossible gap. My legs lacked the strength to push me back up into an upright stance. I imagined helicopters and fire-engine ladders and dismissed them as possible rescuers – nothing could reach me here.
Richard put one leg through the attic window behind him. “Well I’m going in…” he announced, still not challenging or taunting my cowardice, thereby tacitly testifying to the mortal danger I was in. “…You comin’ or what?”
“No – hang on a minute!” I protested with ever mounting panic.
Astute readers will have surmised, as I’m writing this tale, that I did at last make the return trip – without plummeting to an early grave. I however knew the dangers of falling; Richard appeared not to and I am sure this indifference to heights was not bravado but was natural to him, affirming mother's stories of her agile infant; agile, we might conjecture, due to lingering, evolutionary primate instincts perhaps.
With four growing, argumentative boys and new infants arriving at regular intervals - daily and for much of the day, our house and garden echoed to the screams of children, boy children, in rage, dispute or despair.
Soil fights were a speciality; the soil in the flower beds after tilling being just right to clump into hand sized greying nodules that could be hurled with a reasonable certainty of being stone-less, like summer snowballs, at a brother, and on contact the soil would not only deliver a satisfying thwack to an unprotected ear but would then, even more satisfyingly, break into a million pieces and fall down the neck of the target victim. From time to time, father, in white starched collar and sober tie, would suddenly appear at the back door, disturbed from working on the accounts of a client in the front room, and he would add to the mayhem and chaos by bellowing at his squabbling offspring to desist, be quiet and go away. Such interventions first trebled the noise and chaos and then calmed the area - for about ten minutes.
Rarely, and always dangerously, Richard and I could be found working in close, concentrated co-operation; with me, the younger, only too pleased to have his undivided attention in an apparent truce. Such as the time we played William Tell.
I, aged seven, naturally had the apple balanced on my head. Richard, by happy happenstance, did not own a longbow, or a crossbow. But we agreed that the potato peeler would do just as well. The connection was that we also used it to peel apples. The target was an apple, a nice juicy green English apple, so impaling it with a potato or apple peeler had sufficient elements of logic for us.
It was mid-afternoon and Mother was reliably settled in her chair in the Morning Room with her book, tapestry-by-numbers and cigarettes. The house was quiet. The stage chosen for the drama was the breadth of the kitchen. I was positioned with my back to the tall post of the high mantelpiece, next to the stove and the fireplace. The mantelpiece protruded some twelve inches above my head and was overshadowed by the empty clothes rack, set above the range and held up with a stout cord tied to a hook on the north wall.
Richard stood opposite me as far back as he could get, almost into the scullery as I stood obediently very, very still, balancing the apple on my mercifully thick hair.
The peeler was black, about six inches long, half of it a handle bound in black cord and the other half, the business end, an angle iron blade with a slot for the peelings and a sharp point to gouge out black-eyes, worms and rotten patches. The kitchen was fifteen feet wide and Richard stood in a little from the wall to allow room for his arm to swing, about twelve feet from me. As ever, we wore the ubiquitous grey short trousers; grey flannel shirts, mine open and crumpled at the neck, Richard’s neatly closed with a school tie precisely positioned; grey v-necked sweaters with a twin colour band at the neck, mine with that “lived-in” or even slept-in look and Richard’s seemingly freshly ironed; grey socks with a coloured band, mine crumpled down, Richard’s neatly and straight up to the knee with his elasticised tabs holding the socks in place; and black shoes with leather soles that soaked up water, were forever wearing thin and having to be repaired or cast aside. My shoes showed a rugged character and displayed the history of their recent journeys and sporting activities while Richard’s were clean and new looking.
“Can you hit it?” the question suddenly struck me as he hefted the knife and tested its balance in one hand and then the other. My skull moved as my jaw opened to let me speak – and the apple fell off. Richard paced impatiently across the room and plonked the apple back in place.
“Shut up and keep still.” He ordered with ferocious concentration as he backed away from me, staring snakelike at my forehead.
“Now stay just like that,” he murmured as he took his right arm back behind his head and rebalanced the knife on the palm of his hand.
We both knew it was vitally important that the knife flew point first which was difficult to guarantee with anything but a professional throwing knife whose blade is heavier than the handle. This peeler might turn over in flight and strike the apple, the apple standing on my head, with the rounded wooden end of the handle making a dull thud, instead of satisfactorily piercing the apple and burying its blade cleanly up to the haft as it was supposed to. Another problem to be avoided was the knife spinning on its centre of gravity and turning over and over on its journey across the kitchen making it difficult, not impossible but extremely difficult, to ensure that as it neared the apple, and my head, the sharp tip would be coming around at the precise moment required to plunge the point into the unoffending apple; or my head.
“Are you sure you can hit it?” I hissed at him, ventriloquist like without moving my lips to avoid unseating the apple again - intelligently, if selfishly becoming slightly concerned for my own safety.
“Shut up and keep still,” he hissed back at me; his right arm waving backwards and forwards in a most professional and fluid looking movement.
I breathed in deeply, managing not to move my shoulders and therefore my head and keeping the apple in place. Richard stared through me with even greater concentration and with a beautiful whip action he brought his arm through over his shoulder, aligned his hand, palm down, with the target, the target on my head, extended three fingers to guide the blade as it fled his hand and he flung the projectile across the room. It flew point first. It showed not the slightest tendency to spin. It flew flat and true to the line of his shoulder, arm and hand. It came very fast and hard. The apple feared for its life. But it would be spared. The knife struck me in the head, in the hairline, a remarkable eighth of an inch below the apple, very nearly a direct hit, and just an inch above my right-eye, that had in any case been questioned as a possibly defective eye, so not that valuable an asset to lose, and it buried its sharp tip into my skull with a perceptible “boi’ng” sound and sat there quivering with pent up disappointment.
“Aahhhgh!” I yelled; firstly because it hurt – and secondly as it was somewhat shocking to find, and be able to see with hardly an upward glance, a potato peeler sticking out of my head, above one eyebrow, and thirdly, the vibrations made my teeth rattle in harmony.
“Hushhhhhh! – you’re alright. Husssshhh!” whispered Richard, wrenching the guilty weapon from its bony setting and realising, with the advantage of his greater age and presumed greater wisdom that this minor adventure, this little accident, was just the sort of piffling incident to tip Mother into a hysterical, overly-imaginative tirade in which she would endlessly and vocally and loudly speculate on what might have happened if the outcome of this scientifically conducted experiment had been marginally different. And we all wanted to avoid that at almost any price.
“It’s OK.” Richard reassured us both.
“It’s in your hair. You can hardly even see it.” He whipped into the scullery, dropped the forensic evidence into a draw and ran back with a tea towel soaked in cold water that he pressed onto the hirsute wound, banging my head back onto the cast iron post.
“Tell them you bumped your head.” he confided, already rewriting history.
And I did. Though the potato peeler scar was easily identifiable, a leading white gap that seemed in an odd place to start a parting for my hair, for at least the next two decades.
A seven inch knife through the foot was not so easy to pass-off however.
They were referred to as Scout Knives, to lend them a spurious maturity and aura of safety, and no self-respecting boy could grow up not owning at least one. Richard had a triple set. The knives had leather bound handles, the leather so tight onto the metal haft that they seemed more like carved wood than leather. They were housed in leather sheaths and held safely and of course responsibly by a leather loop with a heavy-duty press-stud. The steel blades, rounded on one edge and sharpened on the other, with lethal points, could be any length from three to ten inches. Richard had a long knife with a sheath that sported two shorter knives accommodated on the outside. I, appropriately, had a single sheath with a medium length knife – outshone by Richard’s array of weaponry.
The favourite competition with such knives was The Splits.
Two boys (girls hardly ever played this entertaining, intelligent and skilful game) would stand on grass facing each other about three feet apart. At the start their feet would be together. The first boy threw his knife close by the opponent’s foot – it had to be within a hand-span of the foot or the throw would not count. The knife had to stick firmly in the ground, not limply fall over. The opponent handed back the knife and moved his foot to cover the gash left in the turf. As the game proceeded the players’ legs spread further and further apart. It was forbidden to put a hand on the ground to steady oneself. Wobbling at full leg stretch not only moved the target – a hands-breadth outside the well extended foot – far away from the thrower and onto a line of sight across the players’ shins, it also created a desperate imperative to balance as the next throw was made. The loser was the first to fall over.
Occasionally, particularly in a knockout tournament, with reputations at stake and old scores to settle, a great fuss would be made by parents, or school teachers, or even by the offended boy himself if he were a wimp, over a simple, usually quite clean, paediatric and podiatric wound as, in the tension of the competition, a mistake would be made and a youthful appendage, shoe, sock, flesh, blood and even bone, would be pierced and perhaps briefly and painfully staked into the turf. Such errors of judgement were however extremely rare.
With a good sized lawn, much of it in bright sunlight, and with a strong compact texture that welcomed and held strongly hefted knives, we often hosted the Heaton Moor tournaments, or held them at the Keegan’s a few houses away, witnessing a few distraught children limping off home with a bleeding foot, or two, composing unlikely explanations that might stave off the unjust, as it was the other boy’s knife that did the damage, but certain confiscation and impounding of his own sheath knife.
One warm spring
morning I took our dog, Bobby, a black, unpredictable half breed border collie
who snapped at callers, off his chain that slid along a fifty yard wire running
the whole length of the driveway from gate to garage, and we set out together.
Maybe I had a sandwich and a cold drink with me. We turned right at the road
and right again, down the path alongside the Lawless’s house, past the bombed
out house the “Laurels”, cleared of rubble and enticingly overgrown and fit
only for imaginative children to occupy, past the allotments and onto the farm
land beyond. There were rabbits, or we thought there were rabbits, which was
just as good. Bobby pelted after them, I ran after him under the wide sky.
However blue and clear, there is always a touch of misty cloud in a
The rabbits and the trails took us to the right, along the farm track, by the large barn on lower Mauldeth Road where we holed up for a time in a copse of elderberry trees that filled the corner between the barn and a garden wall abutting the roadway. I broke off a straight elder stick to be my sturdy staff that looked the part but, with its soft spongy filling, would not do any real work. We moved off again, down the hill towards the council houses in Burnage, and off to the right into the golf course, still empty at that early hour, where we ran and hid and lay down in dens and ran again. Bobby really found rabbits this time and a hare that he chased and I could see as it bounded high and fast, jigging over the clipped greens. Across the golf course, into the Shaw Road farm alongside where I took a turnip, carrots, or ears of wheat or whatever was growing then and ate it with my penknife, we pursued the hare and away now to our left, into unfamiliar territory, over fallow fields left to grow long delicate grasses and tall cerise fireweed.
Between chases we rested in the long grasses that I tied together to make small conical, living houses for elves and dormice as we lay there. Up again and there was the hare – or its cousin, so we chased after it and it took us into the huge acreage of the Fairey Aviation recreation land abutting the Mc’Vitie biscuit factory, laid out in parts as football and hockey pitches but mostly just open fields, that let onto a border with Wellington Road as it streamed towards Levenshulme and Manchester city centre.
A boy and his dog don’t want tarmac roads and harsh pavements, so we turned and wended our way north and west on a compass setting pointed towards the heart of Manchester but keeping always to the open fields and natural trees and avoiding all human contact. Hedges, fences and restricting signs had no meaning for us as we traversed the land and grounds of playing fields and schools and large houses and golf courses without let or hindrance, up through Mauldeth Home for Incurables slowly re-crossing Shaw Road farm, skirting through Mauldeth Road’s open spaces, park and allotments, through side streets and up to Didsbury Road and into the steeply sloping Leeman’s Field. There we dug in for the duration, by the steep little stream that came cleanly out of the ground higher up near the St Winifred’s school fence and down through a deep earth chasm to the acre of pond below. We built dams that day, of stones and sods – some of which held back the waters for minutes, before being overwhelmed and swept away. We closely observed and caught newts in the margins of the pond and, with the most rapid of reactions, caught sticklebacks with our hands; that we let go again as we lacked any container to carry them home in. In the gully, by the stream there was no wind and the warm spring sunlight imbued the scene with a dreamy somnolent comfort.
Eventually, driven by hunger, we wended our way home taking in the Library, Thornfield Park, the open land behind the Bank, opposite the old protestant primary school, in the crook of the Heaton Moor Road ‘S’ bend, down Balmoral Lane, pausing only to clamber up two inviting oak trees, and back to Birch House and food - a perfect, silent day.
There was a time, for
a time, that the Public Library on
Then I fell into arrears. I had exceeded the allotted time. I would be fined. I was now in an illegal state. So I did not dare go the Library again. After some months I lost the borrowed book and could no longer remember its title. The Library became a source of fear with the potential of arrest and incarceration. I became an outlaw. I skirted it apprehensively at a distance in case they recognised me.
But we had comics to read that fell through the door several times a week and were strongly competed for. The Dandy and The Beano and, as we grew older, these were supplemented by The Hotspur, The Adventure and occasionally by The Eagle. Households were either Eagle families or they were not Eagle families. Eagle families grew up to listen to Jazz. We were not an Eagle family, but the glossy comic did from time to time find its way into the house.
It was a first come first served system. Whoever saw the comic falling onto the mat had absolute rights to grab it, make off with it and read it fully and completely without argument or intervention. But to gain that unassailable privacy, most boys made for the lavatory, locked themselves in and fiercely defended their cubicle territory against bribes, threats and all out physical assault. Forty-five minutes of sitting on the lavatory, legs dangling, would bring on crippling pins and needles that necessitated remedial action and could take three or four minutes to recover from, while hopping from one tingling leg to the other.
Only-children, children reared alone, never had to develop such territorial rights and cannot in anyway understand why otherwise normal, sensible adults seem incapable of going to the toilet without a book, magazine or leaflet to read. They, the only-children, wrongly assume it has to do with bowel actions that are different from their own. That is an invalid assumption.
I also followed and collected the Adventures of Fudge and Speck, two elves who featured in a cartoon strip in the Manchester Evening News. I am yet to meet another living soul who remembers that magical pair.
Our dog Bobby, unrivalled at chasing rabbits and hares and as a companion for the great outdoors, let himself down when we were beset by thieves. Mother was relating the story to us goggle eyed children when father, having donned a sturdy seaman’s navy blue crew neck sweater, came into the kitchen brandishing a three-o-three rifle with telescopic sights that could punch a hole in a brick wall a mile distant.
“Keep the children out of the cellars will you Dear, I’m going to have some target practice” he announced.
Mother was unimpressed by this show of manly skills and valour.
“Of course” she pressed on, collecting her audience again and keeping father hovering, against his better judgement and his own volition, by the door,
“He’s not just frightened of ghosts…” she said alluding to father’s well known fear of the supernatural, which in that haunted house we children all sympathised with – he’s terrified of real people in the dark as well; despite having a whole cupboard full of guns in the bedroom.”
Father demurred but his defence was poorly constructed and in any case he could never have deflected mother’s tidal wave of narration when she was in full flow.
He swayed from foot to foot attempting to take a step back out of the door but he too was entrapped, a reluctant witness at his own trial and assassination. His feet stayed where they were.
Mother, smoking as usual, sure that she had pinned all of her audience down, had time to take a leisurely in-breath, drawn through the neat white tube of tobacco, transforming its grey tip into a bright glowing beacon for a few seconds. With the out-breath her words punctuated the blue smoke that curled up into the dusty sunbeams that glanced into the kitchen through the scullery door. Her voice carried a tone of mild, dismissive amusement.
“I was lying in bed going to sleep” she told us, “and your father as usual was taking forever in the bathroom – what he does in there every night I’ll never know but normal men can’t spend that long getting ready for bed – and I heard a noise from downstairs. No!” she corrected herself, thus demonstrating her scrupulous attention to detail and to the truth, thereby adding credibility to the story, “your father was in bed asleep – ‘cause I had to wake him up. I heard a noise from the lounge – I heard the lounge window going up ...”
The lounge was a thirty-foot long room immediately under their bedroom that was never used and was therefore cold, damp and gloomy. It had a stout door into the hall that, like all the hall doors, was bolted with a large Victorian brass fitting on the hall side; whatever phantoms lurked in that large room were safely confined.
“…Edwin! – I whispered. Edwin! Wake-up! Wake-up! There’s somebody breaking into the house. But of course he wouldn’t wake up” she snorted derisively.
Mother’s ‘whisper’ would have to carry across the thirty foot gap between their beds.
Father made another attempt to unglue one or the other of his feet and to step out of the kitchen and go and shoot bullets through the cellar walls. But he could not break the spell. He hovered in silent and silenced complaint by the open door.
“Edwin!! I almost had to shout. There’s somebody breaking into the lounge window. Edwin – will you wake-up. I had to get out of bed, creep across the floor and shake him awake. There’s a burglar in the lounge – I told him – he’s come in by the front window.”
“What about Bobby” I asked; “didn’t he bark?”
Bobby, when not with me, was a skittish, snarling animal, who was difficult to love and was the terror of all tradesmen who came to the house.
“Oh him. I’ll tell you about him in a minute. Some guard dog he turned out to be. Anyway, I got your father up at last and he sat on the edge of his bed and listened – but the burglar had gone quiet. Probably all the noise I’d had to make to wake our horizontal hero, here” she nodded in father’s direction, eyebrows raised comically to indicate his level of mental retardation on awakening and the state of his general intelligence.
We all knew she should really have married her handsome German fiancé before the War, who had thick blond hair and was tall and alert, and we now understood, was of normal brain power and high in courage - compared to this bumbling balding father who stood in the dock before us.
“ …’I can’t hear anything’ – he said. ‘Go and look’ I said. ‘I’m positive I heard the lounge window being opened. There is somebody in the lounge. You might catch him if you hurry.’
“…Well he stood up. Had to find his dressing gown. Find the key to the wardrobe. Unlock the box where he keeps that silly revolver that he shouldn’t have in the house anyway. And he was pounding around like an elephant. It would have woken the dead, never mind alerted a burglar. He put on all the bedroom lights – he might as well have sent the man a telegram telling him he was coming. Then he had to get the ammunition from the top of the wardrobe and find his torch. And he was all the time talking at me – complaining that he couldn’t hear anything and grumbling about being woken up. I could have arrested ten burglars in the time he took to get to the bedroom door.”
None of us doubted it and we could pity the hapless intruders that mother might accost. She needed no other weapons than her voice to render most men impotent and harmless.
“Then he was out onto the landing. Stamping about; putting on all the lights as he went and shouting back to me that he couldn’t hear a burglar in the lounge. Banging down the front stairs – the house was like a fairground by now, with so many lights and all the noise your father was making and then I heard him unlocking the lounge door.”
She paused. We all leaned forward for the dénouement, even father, who gripped his rifle in soldierly fashion and stopped fidgeting with his feet.
“Then there was a long silence. And I was worried what had happened to him. But after a while I heard him locking the lounge door and coming back upstairs, switching off the lights. He came into the bedroom, with his damn silly gun and torch looking like the Territorial Army and do you know what he said to me? Do you know what he said?”
We didn’t and we all shook our heads obediently as she drew renewed strength again from her Senior Service.
“He said, your father said – ‘You damn fool Mother. You’d gone and left that lounge window wide open.’”
Father shuffled miserably by the door, the powerful rifle, complete with telescopic sights, across his chest looking limp and ineffectual, still unable to escape and now at the unyielding focal point of six pairs of eyes that challenged him to stand up for himself like a man, to cross-examine his accuser, to question the evidence, to at least put in a plea of mitigation and for mercy. But he had no defence and could make no such plea. He stared helplessly at the ceiling.
“Was there a burglar?” asked Richard, ever the pragmatist, trying to extract the facts from this seething marital material that he found irrelevant to his life.
Mother snorted again “Of course there was a burglar. The next morning when we examined the window there were footprints, large footprints, in the flowerbed and on the windowsill and across the carpet. Then your father called the police. ‘I had left the window open’, indeed. What a thing to say. ‘I had left the window open’. He knows we never use the room. What does he think I would be doing opening the window in midwinter and leaving it wide open. I couldn’t even lift the window. Have you seen the size of it. It’s far too heavy for me to even think of opening. I don’t know what was in his mind. I’d left the window open. ‘Mother – you damn fool’ – he said. ‘You’ve gone and left the lounge window open all night.’ He said...”
“…And that dog of yours” she suddenly turned on me.
I quailed and Bobby scuttled under the table out of the glare.
“’Did the dog bark Mrs Hodson?’ asked the policeman. Did he heck bark. When I came down to the kitchen he was cowering; yes cowering” she insisted, poking me in the chest as the dog was considered to be mine – simply because I tried to defend it from the regular threats of being put-down every time it bit a postman, knocked a passer-by off his bike or attacked the grocer’s boy.
“He was cowering…,” she repeated with the merest hint of a sidelong glance at father that we all caught and correctly interpreted, “…right under the table and looked as if he’d been like that all night. Ears flat down and whimpering. Some brave guard dog he turned out to be – I don’t think.”
The renewed threat of extinction hung in the air over the spot where Bobby stood hidden by the tabletop.
Father at last wrenched himself free from the dock and stomped down into the cellar where, via a well positioned hole in one of the walls he had made a shooting gallery the length of the house, and where he could slam bullet after bullet hard into the targets, logs and sandbags sixty feet away from his sniper’s bed of sacking.
On a deceptively mild and life enhancing spring afternoon, led by Richard, we turned right out of the St. Winifred’s school gates along Didsbury Road on our assortment of bikes, mine was small, as befitted a small boy, and was hand painted, by me, in silver paint – a veritable silver chariot that could take me anywhere on earth.
We rode past Leeman’s field with its steep sledging hill, ponies, stream and pond and turned right into the passageway opposite the forbidding two hundred feet frontage of Barnes Home – rumoured to be a Borstal reform school for errant boys - by the eerie bombed house where I had once been stuck in the rubble blocked cellar, at the top of the hill above Stockport. The passageway was long and narrow, dark and hemmed in by tall spindly hawthorn hedges that we zoomed between in a headlong flight down towards the evil waters of the River Mersey. The steeply descending passage seemed endless as we bounced over its pitted asphalt surface but eventually it flattened out to a no-mans-land in a nearly derelict farm, flanked by the stinking river, by dilapidated mills and, ahead of us, our terrifying destination, by The Bridge.
The Bridge stood on huge oval brick piers, erected for eternity by the Victorians. Its galvanised iron shuttered sides started twenty feet above the river and climbed another thirty feet into the turbid sky. It spanned the polluted, filthy river at a long shallow angle pointing north-west, as if it cared nothing for the oily turbulent waters below and could afford to stretch endlessly over them, striding from pier to pier, staring straight and fixedly into the far distance. Where it eventually pressed its giant elbows on the far bank was the land of the infamously violent Gorsey-Bankers.
With the bikes huddled together for safety against a yellowing grassy mound we approached the brick pier on foot in awed silence. The pier, though immense, was obviously scalable. Bricks and stones had been smoothed over many years by many feet and hands, marking the eight foot climb up to a menacing thirty foot high black slot where the iron sheets slid themselves into the pier. The pier’s foundations stood half on the thin sandy earth and half in the shallow scummy waters. Richard led us as we scrambled up to a stone ledge, inched along it and suddenly disappeared from sight into the dark echoing innards of that monumental structure. Incised and paint scrawled initials and gang symbols shouted that this was not our place – we were left in no doubt that we were trespassing. This was Gorsey-Banker territory.
It was whispered that the gang’s most recent apocryphal crime was to have attacked a girl, stripped her, tied her to a pole and floated her in the river. The pole rolled and the unfortunate victim was drowned. Or, perhaps worse, the filthy waters had poisoned her beyond recovery. These were mean and desperate vandals, to be avoided at perhaps the cost of your life.
Inside the vast structure, metal beams and spars criss-crossed in an intricate and brain defying pattern. The shade was deep and gloomy and the bridge was far, far wider than it seemed from outside. It stretched forward a long, long way, its far end hidden in deepening gloom. The immediate view on either side was stopped by stolid sheets of iron cladding that climbed up and up into the intricate and ever darker patterns above. It was impossible to gauge the height over our heads. We gathered in a nervous whispering cluster, hovering between the earthed solid brick pier at our backs and the suspended bewildering fretwork of ageing metal ahead.
One of the older boys launched out into space, his front foot stepping into a square bucket-like structure that gathered the ends of five or six angle irons. He drew his other foot forward and stood in the bucket. We saw that the buckets recurred in an endless procession, each suspended above the swirling, black, chemical foam fifteen feet below. Here was a cumbersome highway on which the brave and fool-hardy could with time and concentration cross the dead waters. The sound of the river was magnified over and over by the hollow tin drum of the bridge but despite the noise we kept our voices to a whisper. None could tell who might be listening, or how close they might be in that industrial iron web. We followed Richard. Each step a full stretch to place a foot carefully and at an awkward angle into the next bucket then a pause to draw the back foot forward – clinging hard to the supports and shuddering whenever we glanced down at the oily liquid.
We yelped as, without warning, there came an immense shock from the nerve shattering noise of a speeding train thundering across above us, intensified by the racket wrenching us from our furious attention on the perilous path we trod. Reeling and terrified we stared wildly at our thin line of friends, all grasping pocked iron bars and braces that trembled and vibrated as the skull banging noise filled the bridge, shook our bones and made the water below dance in minute standing waves. The noise roared on and on, seemingly without any prospect of ending. How long could any train be? We dared not let go to cover our ears – we simply had to endure. The storm passed at last and receded into the distance, the vast bridge booming its lugubrious song long after the train’s passage, as the steel rails conducted its drumming signature from afar.
As the bridge stopped shaking, so did we. And we laughed; little short breaths of relief, as knowledge of the cause sank in. Our line was now well spread out; the boldest leading and me, the youngest, trailing behind with two or three boxes between each explorer. We could now see the whole surface of the river and the far bank. The far bank was shiny black with coal dust and absorbed oil. A cinder footpath flanked the river then gave way to a wide weedy flat plateau, defiled with industrial waste and derelict brick sheds that seemed to never have had a purpose. Beyond this depressing margin, grim terraces of Victorian brick houses huddled with their backs to us in surly ranks; every small blue slate roof punctuated by a thin brick chimney. From the chimneys smoke from coal-fires rose reluctantly into the habitually dank air.
Even with the sun announcing that spring would surely come again, even here, the air over the blackened brick walls barely had the energy to conduct the blue smoke upwards and away. The terraces were quiet. Washing could be seen hanging in tight little backyards, but no people bustled about their daily business. The serried rows of dwellings half-heartedly acknowledged the existence and direction of the river at their backs but they couldn’t maintain their forlorn interest in that sullen, natural phenomenon. After a sad gap of fifty yards of derelict land, as the bank came to meet the far end of the bridge, a mill of some sort, clearly working and sporting new aluminium smoke stacks at various junctures, poured an endless stream of something fluid - a bubbling poisonous grey white - into the already overburdened sewer that was the River Mersey.
We, children of the Second World War, born into the new but mean peace that followed, hung silently in our metal baskets, our leader about half-way along the span, over this broad sewer, which was the border of Heaton Norris and Gorsey Bank, and silently, and we hoped secretly, observed the minutiae of a neglected, severely impoverished, slum area. All was quiet.
Things happened suddenly around this brooding bridge; and, as suddenly as the train had assaulted us, as if from nowhere, a gang came running fast along the cinder track. This was no gang of children like us. This was a gang of pinched-faced youths in hand-me-down jackets and patched trousers, some as tall as six feet, wearing adult caps and braces. They were running towards their end of the bridge – and as they ran they pointed at our suspended paralysed forms and shouted harsh imprecations. The Gorsey-Bankers had us in their sights and we were frozen in fear, frozen to the unsympathetic innards of their glowering and bafflingly geometric bridge.
“Run Noel! Run – it’s the Gorsey-Bankers” Richard yelled at me; which was an improbable imperative, as running was not remotely possible through those shin cracking girders.
I was the last in and had to be the first out. I was small with short legs. Each box was about a yard from the last and a false step could have seen me dangling by one hand high above the almost certainly lethal river. But the choice was small. It was either cracked shins, plunging into the river, or capture by the infamous Gorsey-Bankers. The risk of cracked shins or of drowning had it by a mile and - as the Gorsey-Bankers swarmed effortlessly, hardly breaking stride, towards us through the struts, and their threats echoed again and again off the iron cladding – I did the impossible and almost ran from box to box, pressed ever closer by my terrified friends. Their feet were clumping down into a box almost before mine had left, snagging my heels time after time, threatening to lose my shoes and pitch me into the leering waters. After an eternity of scrambling through iron lattices, above the river, the immense brick pier was suddenly beneath my feet and my four friends arrived simultaneously at the narrow exit that we vanished through like insubstantial wraiths.
The Gorsey-Bankers were astonishingly and frighteningly already two thirds of the way across the bridge as we leapt and fell down the pier onto the ground and pelted to our bikes. As the first ugly, gangly youth emerged from the slot and leapt to the ground – we were pedalling furiously, far enough away for even the fastest runner to give up hope of pursuit. Their threats and bitter scorn leant wings to our feet and power to our trembling thighs as we tackled the steep rise up the narrow footpath back to the civilised realms of Heaton Moor and Heaton Mersey.
Our house was large, being twenty-four rooms, including the cellars, of substantial Victorian brickwork on four floors, standing in one-third of an acre of garden, boasting a wide double garage, a crumbling fifty-foot greenhouse and three or four brick outhouses, including an old boiler house that had once heated the greenhouse. But if our home was large, the house next door was huge.
Coincidentally, on one side of Birch House, container for our knife wielding, bellowing family, lived Doctor and Doctor Sykes. Not medical doctors but, would you believe, child psychiatrists; and not just one child psychiatrist but two of them – probably representing in those just-pull-yourself-together days, a goodly percentage of all the child psychiatrists in the country.
Their immense house stood in two or three acres and had a turret with a French style conical roof. They were partially protected from us by the ramparts of a fifteen-foot high brick wall that started at the Sykes’s conservatory and marched majestically along our driveway to our handsome garage. Their land went behind our garage and our greenhouse in an “L” shape with a cobbled stable yard and buildings backing onto our outhouses that let through more high walls onto a large lawn with herbaceous borders and then through fences and hedges into a grand vegetable garden surrounded by huge beech trees. Behind their land was a special school for retarded children, set in large grounds, and behind that was a farm, whose working acres capped the hill, on which Heaton Mersey stood, and continued down the slope for a mile to the vast council house estate below in Burnage, just across the Manchester and Stockport border.
They were only partially protected because of course at a young age we could climb the fifteen-foot wall and run along its concave top to access our slated garage roof, ascend that roof up a lead gully to the weather vane (was the vane ours or theirs?) and from that height, command a view of most of the Sykes’s land.
One of my favourite dens was the broad, shallow lead gully on the blue slate roof of that garage, particularly on a cool spring day with the weak sunshine soaking into the slates and warming my back as I lay, invisible to brothers, sister, parents, priests, nuns, teachers, scoutmasters and all earthly visitors, and gazed at the scudding clouds and the blue sky that becomes black and limitless as your gaze penetrates its local colouring and travels on to the infinity of space.
The Sykes’s also had a full sized, log built Summer House on their side lawn, with cricket, tennis and croquet equipment stored in a large window-seat chest. Their main protection from our natural inclinations to invade, pillage and destroy came, however, from their alien strangeness.
We were a Northern Catholic family struggling to repair and heat a large house that had been sold cheaply in the late nineteen-forties depression to us by Mr and Mrs Green, retired Radio Three presenters, who left us a legacy of wonderful, marvellous vinyl records, in bound leather volumes of all the great symphonies and operas; which, after introducing me to Benjamino Gili and the classic composers, made great throwing disks – and the lutes and mandolins they left made really good boats.
We were real people. The Sykes’s did not speak with a northern accent. They spoke like people on the BBC. They did not shout and scream; they conducted themselves quietly around the house and grounds. The odds were ten-to-one that they had been to university. They almost certainly wore open-toed sandals in the summer. They rode bicycles – not racing bikes like father’s, but sit-up-and-beg bicycles with heavy, grumbling Sturmey-Archer gears and wicker baskets. They gardened. They kept goats and rabbits and allowed us to feed them. Hugh, who was my age, refrained, for no discernible reason, from beating up his little brother Martin, two or three years younger and a really easy target. If he accidentally poked Martin in the eye and Martin cried; Hugh would hug him. This was very, very odd. Several of them wore glasses and were, we would have conjectured, probably physically deficient in other ways as well.
When we played with them in their garden, Mrs. Sykes, tall, thin and very English, would appear at with a tray of home-made cakes and orange juice. This strange and welcome ritual we learned was called “elevenses”. Hugh and Martin played musical instruments – odder and odder. They had a much older brother who was away most of the time. It transpired that he went to boarding school. Was that a punishment for some unforgivable crime, we wondered. When the older brother came home he would on some days go to the top room of the conical tower, open the windows and play a piano; play classical music that would drift over our garden. Mother said he played well, and that he was quite good and that she wished one of us would one day play like that. Of course we didn’t; ‘cause learning music was only for pansies and cissies. When Hugh was eleven or twelve, he disappeared. And I never knew where he had gone. All very peculiar.
So with all their alien ways, the Sykes’s escaped our direct attentions by bemusing and distracting us from our natural inclinations. Not so the Lawless’es.
the other side of Birch House was a Victorian house, slightly later and smaller
than ours but with a long narrow garden that marched purposefully back as far
as the end of the Sykes’s land. Two-thirds was devoted to vegetables set in
military ranks and protected on the far, lane side by a high, new chain-link
fence held erect by white tall concrete posts. Beyond the fence was the lane
that went to the farm, across that lane was a fine but dilapidated wall that
surrounded The Laurels; a large, large garden of a mansion, bombed in the war,
most of the rubble gone and the garden returned to nature. The Laurels backed
onto acres of allotments that in turn backed onto
But the Lawless’es had the double misfortune of the father being a Headmaster and of the only child, Gerald, being a plump wimp – separated from us only by a seven-foot privet hedge.
We had six or seven cooking apple trees and a thirty-foot pear tree. We also had four or five tennis racquets. It is an indisputable fact of artillery warfare that four eight year old boys, invited and trained for the purpose and furnished with old tennis racquets and an endless supply of windfalls, can sky twenty apples a minute to a height of seventy-two feet and on a narrow tangent bring them thumping down to smash onto the perfectly honed lawn of the next-door neighbours. With good preparation, in five minutes, one hundred fruity missiles can be thus delivered. Boring holes in the larger apples made them whistle like war-time shells as they climbed into the blue yonder then dropped from the skies to thud and splat on the unsuspecting enemy territory.
Even more lethal than apples weighing up to two pounds falling seventy feet onto one’s head, though we were immensely careful not to pierce anyone’s skulls but merely to worry them with narrow misses, were our cord-arrows.
Always an inventive child I discovered that taking eighteen inches of woven, not spun, cord, tying a stout knot at one end, notching the cord around the knot just below the feathers of an arrow, the heavier the better, holding the arrow tip and cord between finger and thumb, with the cord running tight up the arrow from the feather-band, then hurling the missile with a practised flick and with a whip action from the cord, made a long distance weapon of devastating and lethal accuracy. Forget your aboriginal spear throwing sticks with their feeble reach; forget your English and Red Indian bowmen piercing armour and slaying cowboys and Blue Jackets, forget even the primitive crossbow, capable of driving an iron bolt through solid oak. My cord-arrow beat the lot of them. We could hurl an arrow hundreds of yards, right across the Lawless’es garden, across the lane, over the tall, tall elm trees and into the open centre of the grounds of The Laurels. Just occasionally, with the greatest of care, and having first made sure the people were indoors, we would elevate our aim onto the narrowest trajectory, check the wind for drift and launch an arrow, or two or three, several hundred feet into the air and watch it plummet at bullet speed down into the Lawless’es previously pristine lawn. From where, of course, we would have to trespass to recover it – as arrows, homemade or bought, didn’t come cheap in those days.
These cord-arrows could outdistance arrows shot from my professional Slazenger bow by miles.
Beleaguered as they were by screaming children, bellowing father, soil bombs, whistling mortar-apples (and pears in season), lethal cord-arrows, innocently shot but aggravating footballs and cricket balls and the occasional insulting graffiti along their front wall; ‘Up with the Law and Down with the Lawless’, our neighbours were not, as you might expect, reduced to the status of victims. They had a secret weapon. Mr Lawless, the closet headmaster, was surprisingly fit.
After several seasons of blitzkrieg and bombardment, with little or no discernable satisfactory reaction other than seeing him clearing the lawn of mashed apples; four or five of us were quietly conducting the war by casually lobbing deadly missiles from the junction of the lane by The Laurels, safely close to the old post we always used to swarm up and over The Laurels’ wall and even safer in the knowledge that he was in his closed up garage, behind his own high brick wall, when to our consternation Mr Lawless suddenly appeared on the top of his wall, in an SAS Commando straddle and leapt like a pouncing tiger down into the lane. We did not scatter; we knew our territory well and we had our escape route. Faster than the average Headmaster can think, we scampered up the pole, over the wall and raced for the hidden paths between the dense foliage in The Laurels. But to our horror, and tacit admiration though now was not the time to stand and applaud, Mr Lawless vaulted the wall like an Olympic champion, soaring over the top with one hand gripping the pole, feet neatly together and out at an angle of sixty-degrees, landing lightly and effortlessly on the balls of his just proven and demonstrably most agile feet - and he came after us with an alarming purposefulness. Then we scattered like a shoal of fish; and even a superman like Lawless can only pursue one rapidly moving small boy at a time.
It wasn’t me he caught. It was probably one of the Keegan’s, another large Catholic family, mostly boys, who lived a few houses down the road with a back gate onto the lane. But he must have used techniques of duress learned at the Headmaster’s Training HQ and under cruel and unusual torture the captive cracked, resulting in gross parental interference, recriminations, confiscations and graffiti cleaning. What saved them from further persecution at our hands however was Mr Lawless’s inarguable, indisputable athleticism. Who would ever have dreamed that a Headmaster could leap like a gazelle and hunt like a hungry leopard; better left alone. So he bought himself, and his overweight son, a reprieve.
Even when a year or so later on winter evenings in the dark, we took to the exciting game of creeping illicitly through private gardens and escaping any irate householders who detected our rustling and our clambering up their fences, we left the Active Headmaster’s house well alone. I wonder if he missed us.
A few years later, the Lawless family moved – to where is not on record – and the Marsh’s, Mad Kenny and Desirable Janet – another corking Fylde Lodge school girl, moved in next door – with Janet’s fearsome dog, Sultan. But that’s another story.
I had numbers of dens, in
What drove me away was the Gang Show. I could sing – in private. I could speak – in private. But suffering from acute stage fright, the thing most certain to make me take for the hills was doing either or both of those on a public stage. My rendering of the song ‘Tea for Two’, rising to a shrieking, strangled crescendo was perhaps mercifully curtailed by the cartoon-like use of a long shepherd’s crook that mysteriously emerged from the wings, took me by the neck and tugged me, not too unkindly, out of the limelight, away from the gaze of the audience, and into the shadows of show-business obscurity.
Thus humiliated, I stopped cycling to the Levenshulme Scout Hut evenings. But the Scoutmaster must have cared and he wrote, which of course I ignored, then he phoned, that I ignored more determinedly and eventually, horror of horrors, one bright Saturday morning, he called at the house to discuss the situation with my parents. They were baffled and mortified to have an official calling about their son. Fortunately, I was lying, concealed on the garage roof, accessible only by walking twenty feet or so along the top of the Sykes’s wall – not something many adults could even attempt; apart maybe from our nimble Headmaster next door – so I was safe for the moment. After a few minute’s conversation in the house, father, mother and Scoutmaster suddenly appeared in the garden, calling for me.
To escape them I crept up the roof and slid over the ridge, onto the Sykes’s side of the building. It was a long way down from there and the pitch was far steeper – but I was out of sight. I couldn’t stay there as the Sykes’s might appear and see me and call and give me away. I could see a route down into the Sykes’s yard about eighty feet along the back of our crumbling greenhouse. I had to make the journey and so, risking discovery, I shuffled along the back roof of the collapsing glass frames, my feet in the rotten wooden gutter.
Inevitably, father, who was sometimes brighter than he appeared, spotted the shadowy figure through the distorting effect of a flourishing vine between two glass roofs and even recognised it as his second son. He called me and his calls became more and more strident as I, now in a highly dangerous position both remained determined not to be caught and was forced to concentrate on avoiding the very real possibility of plunging through the roof in a shower of glass. I shuffled on, just able through some of the clearer panes to see the astonishment on the face of the Scoutmaster, the anger of father at being ignored and the social fear of Mother as she realised that, one way or another, temporarily or eternally, I would be gone and she would be left to explain this bizarre behaviour. I reached the escape route, clambered down into the next-door stable yard and with the incredulous shouts of father echoing round the gardens made my escape through to the open farm land beyond.
Richard won his Queen Scout status, and a Duke of Edinburgh award for walking over a few hills without getting lost. I was posthumously – after the premature death of my scouting career - awarded a badge for stumbling over Kinderscout, trudging along cold, wet but uncomplaining in the wake of a large, flabby, cheery and enthusiastic Troop Leader, in the dark, by way of a train from Stockport to Edale, up and over the black, dreary peat bogs at the top and down into New Mills, on the other side of the hill, to take a desultory, nicotine stained, dripping with breathed condensation, early morning bus ride, back to Mersey Square – and then another bus home to Heaton Mersey.
As father built his solo accountancy practice in Manchester, as sugar and sweets came off ration and as the gloom of the post-war depression lifted, Birch House was slowly redecorated, painting and papering out the miserable hospital inspired two-tone greens and brown dado line, replacing the black kitchen fire range with a smart oatmeal, anthracite fuelled Aga, covering increasing amounts of lino with rugs and carpets – and opening up the unused living rooms. Father, without any warning as he was wont, appeared one day with six modern paraffin burners that he stationed in the tiled hallway and on the main landing. They gave out a rudimentary warmth and filled the house with the comforting smell of un-burnt exhaust fumes. Their circular wicks needed daily trimming and the wells needed refilling twice a day – as did the hungry Aga that ate anthracite by the ton. Filling it from the top, through the central hotplates was perilous, man’s work – as was riddling the red hot ashes out from the bottom door. Twice a week we let the Aga die out in order to de-clinker it. With skill and patience the clinker could be extracted as one large piece of fused, burnt debris that glowed in interesting ways when re-heated on the cooker and then mixed with melted lead, just small pieces filched off the roofs and surely never missed.
The new wealth also brought large supplies of grey flannel shirts, grey flannel trousers, grey woollen socks and grey v-necked jumpers with twin colour bands at the neck. Father arrived home of an evening having stopped at one of his garment maker clients, with boxes of goods, in dozens, that would be distributed by size. If it didn’t fit – you would “grow into it.” These ubiquitous school garments occasioned streets full of small children enmeshed in oversized navy blue Gabardine raincoats, with a desperate, shared hidden desire, like covered rhubarb, to grow rapidly. When their growth prayers were answered and if the new supplies were late in coming, gangly youths would suddenly be in evidence, with long self-conscious legs gleaming between short grey trousers and socks reaching only mid-calf.
I several times solved the badly fitting raincoat irritation by the simple act of throwing the offending garment away over a garden wall as I trudged home from school – then feigning utter bafflement as to its whereabouts. Mother sort of guessed what I had done as she recalled the time in the war that she had sent me to the shops over the bridge from the house in Slade Lane with a ten-shillings note, a fortune then, and with the ration books, and I was seen by some intrusive neighbour to toss the money and coupons over the bridge into the canal. Sometimes, when you are three or four, walking away from a problem is the most efficient way to solve to it.
As Birch House was spruced up and heated we could also afford holidays.
holidays were spent in North Wales at Llandudno, or its sister-town
father had not yet embarked on his racing and rallying activities he took every
opportunity to practice winning. Every car journey was to him a competitive
event. With a big family he bought big second-hand cars. We had a black Wolsey,
the familiar ‘forties police car. We had a pale-green Rover with a Viking ship
on its nose. We had a great Jaguar, racing green with wide running boards and
huge free-standing headlamps that father and I toured
A holiday would start with the loading procedures, father was tidy and precise; “Shipshape and Bristol Fashion” as he put it.
Luggage for up to six children and two adults takes a lot of space. Father despised roof racks for aerodynamic reasons. At least two of the children, at any one time, would suffer acutely from travel sickness, exacerbated by the real leather, the real wood, the anxiety, the tension and, when in flight, the bucketing, pitching and rolling at maximum speed. Father, as driver and captain, had the most space. He needed room to hold his arms straight – as good racing technique demands, he needed clear space around him to ensure his lightning fast reflexes were not obstructed, and he needed clear views in all directions.
Mother was installed in the front passenger seat, apprehensive but silent at this stage. This was before the government decided to insult the inherent skills and good sense of all drivers by insisting on cars having safety belts, so there were no entanglements of that sort to be accommodated. Under her legs would go a suitcase and on her lap would go the youngest child. The boot would be hard-packed with cases and slammed tight. The remaining children and luggage would be crammed into the rear seat and on the floor. Older children would baggsie a corner seat with a window, though we were mostly too short to see out, and the younger ones would end up perched on suitcases in the middle of the seats. Sometimes we took the dog with us just to make up the numbers.
Mother would become deeply silent and pale. Father checked the car, checked the house, checked the weather, re-checked the house, used the loo, then did a roll call and then started the engine. At which point Mother would say tensely,
“You will drive carefully won’t you Edwin?”
And he would reply “Hrrrummphh!! Hrrumph!! Of course dear, of course.”
in towns and built up areas was there a speed limit. There were no motorways,
dual carriageways were rare and the ubiquitous lethal three-lane highways to
death were highly regarded. On a modern map the journey from
But father never wavered in his parental duty to get us to and from the holiday destination as rapidly as possible, dead or alive. On one return journey, with the car bucking and heaving with the terrified family, racing up the busy Chester Road to Manchester, father dancing the car past all lesser mortals and dodging into spaces two feet shorter than the car at seventy miles an hour, we were followed and were eventually stopped by a police car. The policemen looked perplexedly into the jammed interior. There was no question of exceeding speed limits, as there were none.
“Where did you learn to drive, Sir?” said an officer in a neutral tone, and before father, shrinking into his seat, could answer…
“…We’ve been following for about five miles, and couldn’t keep up, Sir. You passed four lorries back there into oncoming traffic, Sir,…” He paused then continued admiringly
“...And I’d swear the back of your car shrank as it went through the gap! Mind how you go, Sir.”
Half an hour into a journey, as we left the relative sanity of thirty-mile-limits behind us and as father swooped past all other road users at frantic speed, Mother’s nerve would start to fail and she would launch into an endless critique of his driving and a continuous prophecy of doom.
“Slow down Edwin! You’ll kill us all. You’ll kill all these children. Oh my God, you nearly hit that van then. Look, he’s shaking his fist at us. Oh My God, you’re going too fast. If you don’t slow down now Edwin, I’m getting out at the next police station and I’ll have you arrested. Look Out! Look Out! Those lights are on red. Can’t you see? Can’t you see? Oh you’re NOT going to try to overtake here are you. You’re a madman. Stop the car Edwin – I’m going to turn you in. I will I swear it. I’ll see you in prison for the way you’re driving. Oh Holy Mother of God save us – look out! look out! he’s pulling out...”
And on and on she would wail.
would completely and utterly ignore her and our headlong flight would continue,
with squealing tyres, booming exhaust, opposite lock, braking on a sixpence and
with all the excitement of
once made a similar family journey from Stockport to
I was car-sick for most of the time on most journeys. It was perhaps in an unconscious act of revenge for being made so ill that when we got to the boarding house, about half a mile back up a hill from the seafront at Llandudno, I hatched a cunning plan that still, fifty years later, fills me with merriment.
The house was pebble dashed, on a steep hill, and accommodated about fifteen people. There were no en-suite rooms in those days and, amazingly, there was just one lavatory between all of us. It was a small narrow solid room upstairs, sporting glazed lavatory paper, a puritan invention that never actually worked, with a little, boy sized, frosted glass window. For the sake of efficient airflow, the window was usually open just a little at the bottom. The guests were polite Englishmen and Englishwomen. Though on summer holiday, the men wore ties and sports jackets in the house and the women wore Lewis’s prints. There was no noise. It was all very civilised and buttoned up. Only an inquisitive child would have opened the lavatory window wide and noted that due to the steep slope on which the house was built, while the little room was upstairs, the window sill was just five feet above the rear garden path.
a full English breakfast, served to all at the same hour for the convenience of
the landlady, I was away from the table and up to the lavatory, into the room.
I locked the door, slid the window open and climbed out, lowering myself to the
path. The lavatory; the one and only lavatory in this most lower-middle class
English setting, despite being in
Maybe it showed. Or maybe his natural authority emerged under the stress. Or maybe he had drunk more tea than the others. Whatever broke the dam, it was father who first spoke.
“Who’s in there?” he said sharply.
And within seconds several mature males of the primate species Homo-Sapiens were firmly turning, pushing and tugging at the door handle. One tapped on the door.
“Who’s there? Are you alright?” then to the fidgeting and increasingly rebellious queue,
“Do you know who is in there? They might be ill.”
Throughout these polite if firm exchanges, the adults were, unconsciously of course, counting on their fingers and placing each guest in their right locations. The missing person, would, by logical deduction, be occupying the lavatory. Logic failed. There was no such person. But still they were unsure. I quivered and quaked merrily but all behind a dead-pan face that even Richard could not have fathomed.
How father realised that it had to be me, I’ll never know, but he twigged and, after rapid fire questioning to ascertain the barest of facts, and, as timing was now of the essence, with all prisoner’s rights summarily cast aside in view of the acute state of the emergency, I was frog marched round the house and ignominiously shovelled back into the window and on pain of death or far, far worse, I was pressured to unlock the Llandudno lavatory door. As they nodded and bobbed and were wholly occupied with the urgent business in hand uttering excruciating “after you; - oh no after you I insist” politeness-es, I escaped and ran to a distant place where I could at last howl for a long time with unrestrained laughter.
It remains my best practical joke ever.
As he rid himself of the obligation of ferrying his wife and six children, driving fast became father’s overriding passion and in nineteen-sixty-two when I was nineteen and he would be forty-eight or so, Triumph fitted his two-seater TR4A with engine number one and made him leader of their rally team for the Liège-Rome-Liège Rally. Later that year he also privately entered the car, red, low and lethally quick, in the Monte-Carlo Rally that then still ran on public roads, mostly through ice and snow, from Edinburgh or London and other European capitals, across France, into the French Alps, through the cols and over the peaks, and down after three days and nights of frantic driving, without sleep, to the warmth of Monte Carlo. Of course this event required preparation and practice. The car was equipped with six additional spotlights plus an adjustable spotlight on the roof for examining snow covered French signposts. The engine was tuned to perfection and a new copper straight-through exhaust added, to give it tone. Racks were welded on to help carry the four spare wire wheels fitted with spiked ice tyres. This was father’s twelfth or thirteenth entry as a private competitor and he spurned the modern, dependent, corporate idea of a support team in a van carrying all the spares they might need.
Perhaps in late latent revenge for the locked lavatory, or more charitably, maybe stirred by a distant feeling for what other father’s seemed to do with their sons, father invited me one rare snowy evening to accompany him on a practice run. He had to use every snow and ice hour that came, to test and hone his driving skills.
burbled menacingly out from Balnacraig,
the large white house in Wilmslow that followed Birch House as our home, onto
the deserted roads towards Alderley Edge as snow fell heavily and silently in
the darkness. In the passenger seat I was confronted by technical instruments
screwed roughly onto the fascia and an additional horn button – all aids to the
navigator. The large red horn was to relieve the navigator’s mounting tensions
and terrors as the car hurtled into blind corners on sheet ice, on public
roads, often with a thousand foot drop at the side. Airplane cockpit type
harnesses pinned us into our seats. We turned towards Prestbury and growled
through the deepening snow as all the
pitied the would-be navigator who would sit in this madly bucking seat for
three days, inside the protective steel cage welded under the roof, all the way
all of that part of the
I knew that our time had come and was able to reflect briefly on my short life and its adventurous end.
I imagined I could hear Stephen Court, my long headed friend who owned the shoe-shop on Heaton Moor Road, who claimed to be able to read characters and perhaps foretell the future from studying people’s worn shoes, and who warned us constantly of the apocalyptic Yellow Peril that would soon invade the district; and who greatly admired father’s driving - breathing in his hushed slow baritone, ‘Magnificent’ as they untangled the tortured red metal and chrome lights from the Triumph embedded in the staid black metal of the Morris, and tried to reconstruct the deconstructed people.
I dispassionately noted the hairs on the mole on the District Nurse’s completely startled face, the minor red veins in her popping blue eyes and the wording on her jaunty little hat. The phrase ‘Rabbit in the headlights’ came easily to mind. She in her turn could see nothing. She was blinded by the light and transfixed by panic. Instinctively, and some might say, intelligently, the District Nurse stopped her car in the middle of the snowbound lane.
hands flying from steering wheel to light switches to gear stick, feet
tap-dancing back and forth to effect a double de-clutch, feather the brakes and
modulate the accelerator, muttered “Bloody Fool.” at the hapless nurse, flipped
the red missile, TR4A, engine number one, up the snow bank on our left, on my
side of the track, at a forty-five degree angle, where the ground miraculously held
firm, around the paralysed Morris Minor and its briefly illuminated woman
driver and down again into the roadway with just enough time and space, about
forty yards, to get the hurtling vehicle into a sideways drift at ever reducing
velocity, into the right-angle of the bend, from where we screamed out again in
second gear, full power to the bucking and slithering back wheels, to regain
the speed the bloody fool of a nurse, now plunged back into total darkness and
undoubtedly composing a UFO report, had lost us by freezing-up in the middle of
the track at such a crucial moment. On a racecourse, such as at
“If only…” Father might say,
“…if only people would learn to drive properly before they took to the Queen’s highways, the world would be a better, happier and a safer place.”
Some years later, as a Justice of the Peace on the Bench, to Mother’s eternal embarrassment, father enjoyed a moment of infamy. He was interviewed on TV by the fearsome, merciless intellectual Bernard Levin, and was caricatured in the Daily Express by the famous cartoonist Giles, for refusing to try motorists who exceeded the new seventy-miles-an-hour speed limit; on the logical grounds that if everyone drove at that same low speed, they would lose concentration, drive in convoys and it would cause Motorway pile-ups, killing God only knows how many district nurses in the ensuing chaos. And who, apart from Bernard Levin, in the light of subsequent events, could assert that he was wrong? - a Prophet in his own time and country. And we, the loyal family even including Mother, after full consideration, concluded that Bernard Levin had at last met his match.
Following in father’s footsteps and carefully coached by him, I learned early how to cycle as fast as a professional. Father, being manly and having in his youth won innumerable across-Britain cycle races, spurned gears on bicycles. Sturmey-Archer gear hubs, which had to go into neutral when changing gear – losing all rhythm and pace and any cycle race - were simply impediments that reduced speed and added useless weight. Derailer gears were essentially a foreign, possibly even a French invention for weaker men that messed up the smooth running of the chain, collected mud and were susceptible to damage. I did eventually succumb to the decadent addition of gears but when young I cycled like father on fixed-cogs.
bikes, light enough to lift with one finger, were fitted on the rear wheel with
the smallest possible cog making the highest possible gear – with no
free-wheel. Feet were securely clamped into pedal toe-caps. Once started,
slowly grinding forward on the high gear, legs had to pump to keep up with the
revolutions of the driving pedals. These were constructed of sharp metal and
woe-betide those whose feet slipped off the pedals, flailed around and were
whacked with the unstoppable force of those merciless scythes. The technique to
climb steep hills, which abound around
Coming down was an adventure. As the machine went faster and faster down, for example, the five miles of Long Hill from Buxton to Hazel Grove, our legs would have to stay on the pedals and revolve ever faster or risk being cast-off, chaos would follow and a mighty crash would ensue. The speed of descent was controlled by the legs. With all the braking power that two legs had, there was need of course for only one brake; which was on the front wheel.
and trained, I roamed the urban lands and got out into the
Every day classes began with our Form Master, Brother Leonard, a committed, youthful and red necked, black-cassocked monk, conducting a Latin Class. For this first class of every morning we had to memorise Latin vocabulary. There were fifty-two boys in the class. The robust Brother Leonard would take the register at sharp. Then without preamble would plunge us into a daily examination. Each hapless child, row by row, would be asked to translate a single word. If they failed, they had to move to an area at the front of the class. Every morning about half the class failed the test. Once the victims were identified, Brother Leonard, in a Godly, regretful sort of manner being a religious person, drew from a long pocket in his black cassock an inch thick leather strap. Today such straps are only seen in barber’s shops where they are used to sharpen cut-throat razors – strops – or might be found in museums dedicated to collecting instruments of torture. The monk took each hand of each failed pupil, raised the heavy leather and whipped it down with all his strength on the open palm. It was done efficiently and in silence so that punishing twenty-five children occupied no more than five minutes.
Six of the best, on each hand, took a lot of nursing. One infamous day a poor youth, Peter Naylor, then slightly befuddled from a recent cracked skull sustained in a road accident, was beaten so much by an enraged Christian Brother for reasons we never discovered, that he had be taken to hospital and kept off school for a week.
the teachers employed the same teaching methods to a greater or lesser extent –
except in the daily religious knowledge class. There was just one teacher who
could actually teach without beating the children. He was also an Irish Christian Brother, who,
it was rumoured, had been a mathematics tutor at
We had no frivolous subjects on the curriculum. No Art. No Music. No Drama. No Poetry. Not even Hymns; and no chapel or church. The food served at lunchtime was always grey, largely inedible and served in a squalid dripping shed. With the constant threats of the strap, the appalling food and a secret penchant for banned cigarettes that my friend and constant companion, Roger Clarke, supplied from his mother’s corner shop, my duodenal ulcers played up most days. Particularly after lunch I would sit in considerable pain for much of the afternoon. But it kept me quiet.
out and going home by bike was a treat.
I would cram everything into a large saddle-bag, jacket, cap, books and
all and zoom away, sweating freely, on my fixed gear. The objective was to get
home before my fellow pupils who lived near me and used the buses. They had to take a school single-deck bus
into Altrincham then catch the double-decker number-eighty bus, wreathed in
smoke and nasty with condensation, to
bike route took me straight down hill from Hale Barns, through country lanes
skirting Timperley, which are probably now subsumed into Ringway, Manchester
Airport, across and through the vast Wythenshaw council housing estate, down the long northern border of Wythenshaw
Park, across the dual carriageways of Princess Parkway, into little used streets
at the back of Northenden and along a lonely footpath by the fermenting threat
of the River Mersey, eventually emerging through the green wooded park of
Fletcher Moss, where I kissed my first girl under a bicycle cape, and up into
Didsbury, by the Olde Cock Inn where my route rejoined the bus journey. Thence
I cycled to the clock tower at Parr’s Wood, and made the steep climb up
were very good, possibly the best in Lancashire and
Going back to school by bike in the mornings, I would again race the buses, and determinedly arrive at full pelt, usually on time, sweating copiously, don the highly compressed, body odour absorbent school uniform, a jacket of blue and red stripes like an upper-class prison uniform and visible at one mile, then sit in class steaming gently and smelling like God only knows what. Assaulted daily by the unmitigated, undiluted body odours of fifty-two unrepentant, English teenage boys may have explained why the Irish monks beat us so soundly and so often.
religious studies were delivered daily by our Form Master, the strong armed,
youthful, red necked Brother Leonard, who spoke with a thick Irish brogue and
had a simple faith in Catholicism. Hellfire and damnation were always close to
the top of his agenda and though we ploughed through the old and new testaments
in my five years at the college, there was little room for debate; although as
I’ve said we were spared the rod during Religious Instruction. Odd really as there might have been more
justification for whipping little heathen bastards for not remembering their
Catechism, than for forgetting the capital of
an eighteen year old Italian beauty, came from southern
Like us, Liliana was a Catholic and – mother firmly believed, knowing something of the restrictions in poor but respectable Italian families, that Liliana would be a ‘Good Catholic Girl’ – of the very type that she was already introducing from the local stable of good girls, the plainer and more frigid the better, to her young sons, for the sake of our immortal souls – and therefore, presumably, it was supposed that even with an obviously highly potent, active and manly man for a husband, mother could safely assume that there would be no hanky-panky with the au-pair and no scandal in our household – thank you very much.
Earlier that year, Father Burney, the parish priest, came into the eight-year-olds class at St Winifred’s one sunny morning, clearly with something of great import to impart. Sister Bernadette, a younger, stick wielding, mean and narrow nun who taught us, was all of a dither, hushing the children though we weren’t whispering, dusting the top of her table, tidying already neat papers and brushing down her immaculate black habit. I was not only top of the class (Ann without an ‘E’ hadn’t yet launched her challenge on my supremacy) but I was also very clued up on Catechism and the Testaments Old and New.
“I have come here this morning children…” intoned the priest earnestly,
“…to choose this year’s new altar-boys.”
A religiously respectful hush descended and heads started to turn to identify the lucky boys who were about to be so honoured. Dust motes danced silently in the generous sunbeams that glanced across the room.
“Though many of you here would make very good servers at the Lord’s altar...” Father Burney continued evenly, “…sadly there is only space for four new boys.”
The respectful hush deepened.
“I’ll call out the names we’ve chosen.” he smiled with an acknowledgment to Sister Bernadette who smirked and bobbed her head at him, “And then I’ll ask you if you would like to volunteer to serve the Lord in this way.”
Like a talent show presenter, he read out the nominations from fourth to first choice, “Laurence Delaney; Edward Shaw; Christopher Keegan; and Noel Hodson.”
The class shuffled and smiled a bit. Even Sister Bernadette swept a congratulatory, yet still wary, glance over her charges. Father Burney maintained his serious face.
“Now Laurence, would you like to be one of our altar-boys?” he asked warmly.
How could anyone say “no” to this holy honour, which probably included a Plenary Indulgence, a sure-fire Catholic passport to Heaven.
“Yes Father” answered Laurence, as did Edward and as did Christopher.
As a child I would normally do just about anything to comply rapidly, to be accepted, to fit in and most of all not to have to explain myself to an audience.
“…and Noel, would you like to be one of our altar boys?” asked the priest confident of the answer I would give.
He and Sister Bernadette were just about ready for the next step in these appointments and all but turned to their papers.
“No Father, I don’t want to” I stammered in red and rising panic.
As the shock receded and they realised they would never get a coherent reason from me for this negative response, the nun and the priest repaired the damage by choosing another lucky boy – and the deed was done and ended.
Despite going on a Catholic mass schools pilgrimage to Lourdes, source of innumerable miracles, when we youngsters could only guess at the deep religious significance, indeed on a completely calm sea – the holy miracle - of the violently rocking lifeboats, missing older girls and boys and outraged, priests and nuns, failing in their frantic panic and obstructing black habits to scramble up the rigging to the boats, no other Catholic miracle intervened in my life.
But maybe it would have done if I had accepted the invitation to serve at the Lord’s altar and had I not become entangled with the fabled Liliana.
Saint Winifred's RC Primary school was housed in a dilapidated but still proud Georgian style mansion with fat fluted pillars at the main entrance and had once all been painted white.
stood a hundred yards back from
The house stood right on the western edge of Heaton moor, with views across the Cheshire Plain almost to Liverpool, by a steep slope that had been terraced and planted lower down with rhododendrons, now neglected and leggy. Children were not allowed down the slope so the land below was a mysterious forbidden place. Looking back to the road, on the left of the playground was the floor and yard of a large stable block - bombed it was rumoured - backed by a six-foot high brick wall. Behind the wall was the long driveway to another large house, hidden half way down the hill. This had been converted to a convent to which the grand-dame Sister Anthony, our unchallengeable Headmistress and the young and humourless Sister Bernadette, who taught the nine year olds, repaired to of an evening after school.
The parish congregation processed in the beautiful, steep convent grounds once a year when a girl was chosen to crown the statue of the Virgin Mary in May. All the children would be dressed in white and the May Queen was photographed for the local paper.
The previous year Angela Keegan had been the May Queen. That year our young sister Julie was so honoured and was duly photographed for the local paper, attracting the attentions of a heavy breather who phoned us several times a day for two weeks until, one evening father, ever a practical man, answered the phone, ascertained it was the heavy-breather, and fired a starter’s pistol which he had prepared for the occasion, an inch from and directly into the solid black bakelite mouthpiece. We surmised it had had the desired effect of blowing the caller’s ear drum out of his head – as he never called again.
On the right of the wide playground at Saint Winifred’s and about fifty yards nearer the road and on a rise stood a tall gaunt Victorian mansion, where the Parish priest Father Burney and his acolytes lurked behind closed doors and net curtains. It fell to me, the Altar-Boy-Refusenik, to hit a cricket ball through the priests' kitchen window showering, it was clerically alleged, a salad lunch with broken glass, causing a fuss for several days as I was identified, quizzed, reported to my apologetic parents, no doubt terrified they might lose a star from their crowns in heaven, and obliged to write a Note of Apology. I guess that father paid for the window.
After school we, Richard, me, Peter and later little Martin, would walk back to Mauldeth Road with the Keegans, Michael, Bernard, Chris and their little sister Angela, who was Peter’s age. My pal Lawrence Delaney came with us part way, peeling off home up Hawthorn Grove, which led to the Clay Pits; a no-man’s land where young gangs from far and wide came to chance the ancient, derelict brick-works, deep pools, earthen hills and bicycle paths as dangerous as the Big Dipper at Belle Vue.
First stop from school was our kitchen in Birch House where we would carve up a fresh loaf of bread, if mother and Liliana were out of the way, spread the slices with a quarter pound of butter and half a pot of strawberry jam and thus refuel the energy wasted in school.
Then, if it was still light, as it usually was that late spring, we would disperse and make for our favourite playgrounds. For me the most alluring place was the Laurels, where we made dens, climbed ancient conker trees with the aid of six-inch nails and ropes and carved out secret pathways under the dense shrubbery and grasses.
The Laurels was about three acres of grounds of a house bombed in the war – and cleared. No adults came to it and nobody tried to tame its natural growth. It had once had a large stable block with a yellow brick floor, still intact, and surrounded by a twenty-five foot wall that still stood – and that we could climb, run along and leap from into a deep pile of hay that we had gathered in a corner of the wall.
But one evening as I demolished my second strawberry jam, doorstep sized sandwich and made to leave, I was waylaid by Liliana, the first live-in domestic we had had; eighteen years old, Mediterranean, slender, and – yes of course – an olive skinned beauty, from Naples. For her arrival, sight unseen, father energetically, looking younger, had had decorated and electrified the whole haunted floor of six abandoned attics at the top of the house and he furnished two of the adjoining attics, those with the best outlook, as a bed-sitter for the Au-Pair.
Liliana had a proposition for me. We struggled with her limited English and my ability to guess her mimes but we got to the nub of it. Her boyfriend, George, was coming to see her in a few days, he would have afternoon tea in the garden, if the weather was good, and would then take her out for the evening. Before he came she wanted me to teach her the lyrics to the popular song, They try to tell us we’re too young, sung by a Mario Lanza sound-alike or it might have been a song by the great man himself. In any case, Liliana wanted to sing it to her boyfriend – in English.
deal was that I would get to meet George. It was enough - because George was a
Commando, a Royal Marine Commando, on leave from fighting in
So I listened to the radio, tuning in to Forces Favourites, to hear the song and then, instead of vanishing off to the Laurels each evening, I first patiently relayed the lyrics to Liliana and corrected her notes and words as she practised.
“They try to tell us we’re too young…” she crooned huskily, as we imagined the thousand sweet strings which backed the singer…
“Too young to really be in love,
They say that’s Love’s a word,
A word we’ve only heard,
And can’t begin to know the meaning of…”
She sang slowly and sadly, a Juliet separated from her Romeo by dried out, envious old women and jealous, shrivelled old men with medals and grey beards,
Then with operatic force she triumphed;
“And Yet – We’re not too young - to know,
Our love will last - though years may flow…”
I wasn’t at all sure what this ‘Love’ business was all about, but I faithfully coached her to sing the right words with a good English accent – northern accent of course. The mixture of back-street Neapolitan, modulated Mancunian, Mantovani’s thousand strings, and my on-the-half-beat timing, made for a rather pleasing affect; which I thought even the toughest Commando would be swayed by.
And then she sang the last lines softly and longingly…
“And then someday, - they may recall,
We were not - too young - at all.”
And an entire orchestra soared with us into an orgasmic celebration of longing, love, and life.
Once Liliana could manage the song on her own, I was off to the Laurels.
Our private nature park and playground was coming under a lot of stress that spring and summer.
Not only were the Keegans, three lads and their young sister Angela, spending more and more time there; with the unfair advantage that their house backed onto one of the lanes bounding the Laurels, but Michael Carroll, whose house in Priestnall Road backed right up to the Laurels’ west hedge, took it into his head to wander in, without our permission.
top of all these local interlopers, Jackie Wake and her friends also sauntered
in on many evenings. Jackie, who actually lived opposite Leeman’s field on
Didsbury Road, a robust girl visiting the Keegans, even committed the
unforgivable diplomatic blunder, in our territory, of wrestling my older
brother Richard to the ground and sitting on him until he gave up the struggle;
a public defeat which scarred his soul for decades. And finally, two new boys,
the Reeves, had moved into
Wilderness? Well it had been for as long as we could remember - but no longer. Someone, none of us had seen who, had parked a small modern caravan in the stable block area – then drawn the curtains and locked it.
We quickly unlocked it and the older boys, led by Richard, found it a convenient place, particularly when it rained, to smoke abandoned stubs of cigarettes, in little wooden pipes, and to play cards – the start of Richard’s long and profitable career in gambling.
But they, whoever it was, also fenced off the outlet to the Keegan’s garage area and they fitted two sets of tall wooden gates at the wide IN & OUT entrances in the east wall opposite the Lawless’s vegetable garden, and, insult piled upon insult, they had made the wall impassable by mounting a high chain-link fence along its top. Presumably the same someone, a few weeks later, erected several ‘PRIVATE - KEEP OUT’ signs, visible from the front and side lanes – which we of course ignored.
But we could no longer ignore the changes when, while our backs were turned, a substantial wooden hut, locked more securely than the caravan, was plonked in the south-east corner on top of one of our dens, obliterating two secret pathways. And then, without so much as a by-your-leave these same vandals, these wreckers, these alien invaders, mowed the central area and started flattening it and painting lines on it – to make a cricket pitch.
Aghast, we murmured more and more loudly against these creeping “improvements” to our Laurels. Who the devil were they anyway? But we were pacific – we bore the invasion with patience and mature calm. We continued, of course, to completely ignore the increasing number of PRIVATE signs that seemed to spring out of the ground like weeds.
The playing field or cricket pitch, or whatever they were trying to make, only occupied the middle of the Laurels, leaving the borders as wild and useful as ever. We moved our dens into the margins, reworked our secret paths through the shrubs and hidden piles of rubble and made new escape holes in the thick hedge along the long northern border with the allotments – in case we ever needed to escape that way. In short, we accommodated the unseen aliens, we compromised, and got on with our lives as before.
One late spring evening, when we were gracing their newly mown grass with an impromptu game of cricket – one wicket being the great conker tree, twenty feet round and patterned like a plane-tree standing on the allotment boundary – the other being a newly arrived, heavy iron roller we had sweated to bring into the middle of the pitch, the padlocked gates at the far eastern end suddenly swung open and an open backed van full of men, raced across the grass. We scattered, and the men, in fact mostly teenagers in cricket whites, chased us. But, fleet though they were and urged on by the older men as they were, we were in our Laurels, and we knew our land – and they couldn’t catch any of us.
slipped away towards the
The newcomers, we were soon to discover, came from Heaton Moor College, a small boarding school up near St Paul’s church, which garbed its inmates, many from overseas, in brown jackets and caps with a yellow badge. This was the very same school that David Hall attended most of his school life as a day-boy; bringing his Headmaster to the verge of a nervous breakdown as David would learn nothing of any academic worth - whatsoever.
Short of open land near the school buildings, they had, without any consultation with us, the rightful tenants, bought the Laurels for their playing fields. We learned this news that very evening as, tragically, Bernard Keegan, Biff, – why do these things always happen to the nicest people – had run and escaped but left his jacket behind, draped over the iron roller, where an eagle eyed teacher pounced on it victoriously.
The evil tutor held the jacket aloft and waved it at the row of faces along the wall. He even had the temerity to address us – though not me as I was hidden up my tall tree.
“Whose jacket is this?” the sports teacher demanded waving the nearly new garment in the air. “You’d better come and get it – hadn’t you?” he warbled with pleasure.
Nobody moved. Would they take the jacket with them or leave it there? – It was already growing dusk and there was less than an hour of light left.
The jubilant teacher anticipated our thoughts. “I can always go through the pockets,” he challenged, knowing he held the winning cards, “and I’ll bet your address is on something in here.”
Biff – the most kindly and best behaved boy among us – hauled himself reluctantly over the wall and walked bravely to meet his executioner – who grabbed him by the arm and took him aside for interrogation.
Another teacher was organising the cricket team to roll and mark a pitch. They moved our carefully sited roller, our wicket, seeming to lament the depression it had left – right in the middle of the green. Seeing it, the arresting officer shook Biff and pointed angrily. Biff could only shrug regretfully and say nothing.
They went and unlocked the new shed to bring forth a lining machine which was filled with whitewash and rolled along the margins, making neat white lines. As they came around the western edge, a gangly youth, a prefect I suspect, glanced up and spotted me up my tree. He got quite excited and made alarm calls which brought them all running. A crowd gathered round the base of the tree – and I was truly treed.
“You! Boy! Come down at once” ordered the Bernard-Catcher, intent on clearing out the whole damned nest of these ragamuffin trespassers.
Straddling a slender fork and clinging on to a topmost branch where I had been happily browsing new sycamore leaves (which are quite tasty as a spring snack) like a small contented primate, I considered my options. And then shook my head.
The teacher shook his fist, glaring up at me. The light was fading.
“Come down at once – or else” bellowed the teacher.
I knew all about bellowing. It was what I did to scare off bigger boys who threatened me – and my rages were so convincing that I could put whole gangs to flight. Bellowing didn’t count – I was better at it than this inexperienced teacher. I couldn’t be cowed by my own technique.
I shook my head again.
The teacher furiously searched his pockets, producing a notebook and pencil which he held aloft and purported to write in.
“What’s your name?” he demanded, “Give me your name, or I’ll call the Police.”
did perturb me. I took another handful of new leaves to chew while I thought it
through. The nearest police station – even if he knew where it was, was set
back in the school yard at the top of
I said nothing and looked unemotionally at the crowd below.
“I’ll get him Sir!” volunteered one of the taller cricketers, grabbing at the tree trunk.
I knew that he wouldn’t. He was twice my weight and would break the branches of this leggy tree – and plunge to his doom. I was forty-feet or so high.
The teacher, fatally for his bluff, hesitated. “If you don’t come down immediately – we’ll come up and bring you down!” he threatened unconvincingly.
“You and whose army?” I thought truculently; but wisely I said nothing.
They were having difficulty seeing me now as the daylight was slowly extinguished. I was wearing my ubiquitous grey shirt, grey pullover, grey trousers, grey socks and black – or off-black, almost grey shoes. My hair was mousey and my face and hands soiled – a greyish colour. I was well camouflaged. I was unconvinced by his promised action. I made no move.
The teenager in his white kit made to start up the tree, eager to show his climbing skills. The teacher held his arm and shook his head.
Had they been state school boys, he might have taken the risk of losing a few lives, but these were fee paying pupils, most with parents living abroad – possibly administrators in British Embassies and so probably important or well connected, or both. The teacher – determined though he was, couldn’t risk having to explain to a bereaved parent about one of his precious charges plummeting to earth, to his untimely death, clutching this aggravating, small, soiled, ape-like creature in his arms.
And it was going – or damn it! - it had gone, dark.
I waited ten minutes after they had driven away. Then I climbed down the tree, in the dark, slipped along one of our many hidden pathways, silently climbed the stable wall and made the difficult drop down the other side – into the lane by the Keegan’s.
Though we continued to use the Laurels with impunity, keeping a weather eye out for the new owners; it wasn’t the same. The wilderness had been tamed and we had lost our natural habitat. We had to adjust or die out as a species.
But the next Saturday I forgot the Laurels and the cricketers when Liliana’s George came, in uniform as promised, for tea in the garden. He was young, tanned, handsome, good fun – a fully trained Royal Marine Commando, the toughest soldiers on Earth, and he taught me how Commando’s use unarmed combat to vanquish their enemies and to kill with one blow. Within just half an hour I was transformed into a deadly, lethal weapon. If only I had had the lessons before the cricket team arrived to evict us.
Next time I saw her Liliana reported that the song had gone very well; she had remembered all the words in the right order. But just a week later, on a Saturday, her gratitude seemed to have evaporated.
with the conversion of the Laurels from wild jungle to suburban park, a gang of
us were careering around the
She was pretty. Even at eight I could appreciate Liliana’s beauty – in a detached, chaste, celibate and aesthetic way. But the older boys, just entering puberty, were more than artistically pleased by her; for reasons they could not comprehend, she excited them. They got silly around her. They said and did idiotic things to capture her attention – between booting footballs, climbing trees and throwing spears in the garden. As the afternoon wore on, they made excuses to go into the house more and more often. They offered to help her with the washing and ironing; they offered to make her cups of tea and they teased her about her accent and tweaked her skirt and apron strings – then dashed off laughing.
Liliana was getting cross. She shouted at them in Italian and made extravagant gestures with her hands – neck wringing gestures. She left the kitchen and busied herself in the scullery with the washing tub and the electric mangle which squeezed water from the wet laundry and grabbed unwary fingers. Four or five boys, led by the same ingénue, Biff Keegan, sneaked in and hid themselves under our large kitchen table, recessed into a big oblong window seat; from where they could see her brown legs and could leap out and shout “Boo!”
But a bunch of pre and post pubescent boys are rarely still. They giggled in anticipation like little girls as Liliana carted in a stack of wet clothes and bedding for nine people, and carted out drier ones. They squirmed without knowing what made them squirm, they squeaked the chairs along the floor and they breathed heavily. In short they fidgeted.
What precipitated the attack, I don’t know. But it was terrifying. The Mafia would have applauded Liliana’s revengeful spirit that day.
Lililana suddenly snapped. She dropped the laundry, Splat! On the tiles, leapt to the fire – remembering to guard herself with a damp towel round her hand - and snatched the white-hot poker from the coals. Yelling in Italian, she lunged the three foot sizzling bar under the table and waved it about wildly. The space under the table suddenly exploded with four youngsters hurling themselves back out of reach. One touch from that iron would be murderous and cruelly wounding. But they were backed into the alcove, the heavy table knocked askew and pressed against the window seats, leaving no exit – other than through the chair legs past the maddened Italian.
She lunged again, getting down on her knees so she could properly see the targets and thrust the glowing poker at them, one after another. Their scrambling and yelling turned to terrified screaming as this manic foreigner waggled her fantastically dangerous wand at the boys. They were not pretending. They were not giggling. They were truly and simply terrified.
I stood by the kitchen door and watched in horror.
As suddenly as she had started, Liliana stopped her attack. “OUT!” she shouted, adding a turbulent stream of rich Italian invective.
And they got out. They crawled out. They rolled out. They scuttled out. They got out any way they could, giving Liliana the widest possible berth and rushed past me.
She flashed a look at me. No memories of love songs or Mario Lanza showed in her eyes. I got out too.
The house was strangely quiet after that.
A few months later, in the autumn, Liliana left us. Mother said she had moved to another family in Rusholme. There was whispered talk of mother’s fur coat going missing and of a visit father made to see Liliana in a police cell. And we never saw her again.
In the winter Liliana’s place was taken by Bruno – the same age, from the same place, with the same olive skin. But Bruno was fat and uncommunicative. She sat a great deal. She chain smoked and gazed into the fire for hour after hour after hour. She only moved when prodded by mother. She held no excitement, no mysterious promise for the local boys, whose awakened libido’s reverted into a state of quiescent youthful arrested development – while father put back on the years he had briefly seemed to shed.
Heaton Moor was a more sombre village without the fiery Liliana.
Heaton Moor was overflowing with teenagers and every weekend some innocent, unsuspecting parents would be foolish enough to take a break by the sea or a walk in the hills, leaving their homes open to the abuse that only a gang of cider drinking, rock and rolling, Elvis inspired, sexually experimenting, overpaid teenagers, with their vinyl disks and multi-stacked electric record players, could heap upon those stolid Victorian and Edwardian villas. Most homes survived the onslaught but many a post-mortem was held involving skilled and unrelenting cross-examinations, becoming particularly heated over unmentionable stains found on brightly coloured Candlewick bedspreads; coitus-interruptus still being the most common form of prevention for Protestants and Catholics alike, in a nation where contraceptives were bought at huge cost only by premeditated lechers in dirty raincoats, from seedy barber’s shops.
One fabled party giver was Willy Mason whose family moved in to the very large mock-Tudor, Edwardian house on the corner of Mauldeth Road and Priestnall Road, with its side hedges and garages facing across the road to Fylde Lodge School, haven for some of the most lusted after gymslip girls in all the Heatons.
Before his father’s activities in acquiring and disposing of bankrupt bakery companies made it politic for the family to quit Heaton Moor and Manchester and to move to Wales, Willy had some great open-house parties that all the teenagers in the district and from far beyond were drawn to, like moths round a bright, noisy candle.
And thus, at the weekly parties, at great risk to my immortal soul, I met lovely Susan Shrigley from Heaton Chapel, Anne Prain from Cheadle, and many other girls from far afield.
There were more dangerous haunts for unwary teenagers, than Willy Mason’s parties.
This was the era of Teddy Boys who had earned a well deserved reputation for utterly mindless violence.
Moor, middle class, middle aged and respectable, stands on high ground between
Levenshulme to the north and
Weapons of common choice included flic’ knives, often French or Corsican; bicycle and motor bike chains; coshes and, most lethal of all, cut-throat razors. Gangs of psychopathic Teddy-Boys, some accompanied by matching sociopathic Teddy-girls in glowing green or pink lurex socks, were known to attack innocent passers-by for no reason; that is no reason comprehensible to ordinary citizens.
Only after a number of deaths, when cut-throat razors ‘accidentally’ bit too deep into vital arteries, did Health & Safety considerations enter the minds of these fashionable youths – after all, the Death Penalty was still imposed for murder – and they took to wrapping tape around the blades, limiting the depths of cuts. But horrible injuries and deliberate mutilations were still inflicted on rivals and strangers alike. The crazed attacks occurred without the stimulus of drugs – or alcohol. They seemed motiveless and mindless.
The culture was explained to us, my civilised teenaged friends and me, by Graham Fish, a Heaton Moor tearaway with a good brain, big heart and a completely mad passion for speeding wildly on motor-bikes – in those days without a crash helmet. ‘Fishy’ naturally wore black leather and was never far from his giant, gleaming machine.
He was famous for many spectacular adventures; such as when an irate car driver challenged him with a vulgar backwards ‘V’ sign, which must have hurt Graham’s sensitive feelings, and swerved across his line as they both descended Long Hill, which twisted treacherously through ‘S’ and hairpin bends, with treacherous adverse camber on many corners, as it plunged down the Pennines from Buxton towards Stockport.
The motorist was horrified and terrified to find, as he hurtled through the next hairpin, a suicidal black-clad biker, screaming out his favourite Goon Show phrases, clinging suicidally to the car’s wing mirror and grinning manically, a few inches from the driver’s face. Wrenching off the mirror with a triumphant yell, Fishy disappeared from view only to reappear, to the driver’s redoubled terror, on the other side of the speeding car, where he calmly wrenched off the other mirror; before, still travelling at dizzying speed, standing up on his saddle and waving the two mirrors above his head before tossing them contemptuously aside.
And such as when he spent some weeks in hospital recovering from “road-burn” caused when attempting escape from a Wolsey Police car at high speed, (it was impossible for Fishy to NOT travel at high speed) down Wellington Road towards Levenshulme, when he had to swerve, and the bike skidded from under him, leaving him to slide a long way on the tarmac outside the McVitie biscuit factory, creating a much admired black skid mark on the road as his leathers scraped on the surface, which turned to red as the leather disintegrated and skin, muscle and bone were exposed.
was short and thickset, with a broad swarthy face. His hair was black, long,
wavy, and flicked up and back with Brylcreem.
His world bridged the respectable community of Heaton Moor and the frightening
ganglands of Teddy-Boys. One summer’s
evening he described a ‘West Side Story’
Granelli’s came down the steps behind the Plaza…” Graham recounted to his wide
eyed fans gathered on the pavement outside the Conservative Club on
“…and the Gorsey’s were already there, in the bus station. They all made for Solomon’s Café and met on the road under the archway…”
“How many were there, Fishy?” breathed one of us, all pseudo Rock’n’Rollers to a man – and to a girl.
“ ‘Bout fifteen in each gang.” Graham obliged. “…and they were all tooled-up. Knives, chains, and the lot.”
“…there were three or four of us bikers just by the café window – you know; on that cobbled bit before the bridge…”
We all obediently nodded our understanding of the scene; even those who hadn’t a clue where he meant.
“…and we were keeping our heads down. No point in getting ourselves cut up… It wasn’t our fight…”
Again we all nodded in solemn and sage agreement exhibiting all the wisdom of seasoned street fighters. Stances subtly shifted to puff out chests and display bigger biceps. The girls with us adopted bored faces but stopped talking and moved in a little closer.
“…and they faced each other off. You know, strutting and jibbing.”
We could envisage the picture. ‘Jibbing’, we translated to be part jabbing and part posturing. The gangs were sizing each other up; weighing their strengths and weaknesses.
Graham was enjoying his storytelling role.
“But they were nervous; very nervous.” He said authoritatively. “You see; neither gang had their Cocks with them. Without the gang leaders, they don’t know what they’re getting into…”
We remained respectfully silent, acknowledging Graham’s unique behavioural knowledge.
“…Suppose – you see – they start scrapping and then just one of the bosses appears? They’d be in deep shit. So, instead of getting stuck straight in, they started testing. From about ten feet apart…”
Fishy indicated the distance with his hands and slicked his fingers through his forelock. “…There was this mean looking little fella with the Granelli’s. A knife man I reckoned, with a scar down here…” he drew a finger across his cheek and down onto his neck – a long and ugly scar, we knew; probably an old razor cut.
“…and he darts forward, real pugnacious, and says slow and menacing ‘We knows Red Mack’. Then he darts back before anyone can punch him.” Graham is a good mimic and we are transported to the battle front by his tale.
“Then a big fat guy from the Gorsey’s; a scruffy lad in a Donkey-Jacket, lurches out and he says, a bit thick and nervous… ’We know Big Billy – so don’t mess with us’ …and he steps back fast.”
“That was a good card to play…” continued Fishy. “I know Big Billy and there’s no way I’d get into a fight if he was around; he’s probably killed a few blokes in his time.”
“…But then the Granelli’s lad is back in the ring, and he says ‘Balls, mate. Big Billy’s in Strangeways. Everyone knows that. But Red Mack could come through that arch any minute – now’ and he points behind them, really confident.”
Graham chortled. “…But then another Gorsey comes up – and Scarface runs back, and the Gorsey shouts ‘You just watch it Mate. Big Billy came out last week and he can take Red Mack anytime. Anytime you want. In fact he’d take the whole bloody pack of you ‘ And he runs at the Granelli’s and they all back up like this…” Graham acts out a gang of cringing thugs in retreat.
“…Then one of the Granelli’s turns back on them and says in a real low voice ‘Big Billy might take Red Mack, but we know Killer Crane’ And all the Gorsey’s start back in fear – ‘Killer Crane; that mad bastard’ they say and they all retreat back to the traffic lights…”
Graham was by now taking all the parts of both gangs – and doing the various voices and making a credible job of re-enacting the entire drama. He was also winding himself up to his notorious and unnerving Fishy Scream, which was halfway between the madness of the The Goon Show and an agonising primitive death of a mythical beast. It was the scream he often inflicted on unsuspecting motorists as he gripped their car windows to ride alongside and chat to them at top speed. His excitement mounted.
“….Then, just when you think the Granelli’s will run them out of the Square – A Gorsey comes back at them. ‘Killer Crane, Huh! Killer Crane. That’s Nothing – That makes no difference’ he yells. ‘We’ve got Mad Dave’s dad…….. iiiieeeeeeeee”
This last scream was added gratuitously by Graham to illustrate the fear injected into the proceedings by the terminal threat presented by Mad Dave and his dad.
“…And so…” giggled Fishy, engrossed in his own story. “…the Gorsey’s won the fight. The Granelli’s couldn’t think of anyone more fearsome than Mad Dave’s dad…” and he laughed wildly.
“So they never fought?” one of us asked impatiently.
“…They rarely do.” Graham answered. Then suddenly very serious he said “But nor would you if you knew Mad Dave – he’s a real nutter. Smash you to pieces in a few seconds. And his dad; Well…”
Graham reflected heavily, all joking gone. “He’s about the barmiest bloke you’d never hope to meet. Ex-wrestler. He once turned a car full of blokes over in Kingsway. Nearly killed them all. On his own. Talk about strong.”
Graham’s humour re-emerged, “…No they hardly ever fight. It’s a Who-knows-Who competition. This time the Gorsey’s won it. And they all know some bloody frightening blokes.”
“But – if you see them coming. Get out of the way quick. They’ll think nothing of carving you up just for fun. …And your girl friends…” He added spinning towards the girls at the back of the group.
Seeing that he had everyone’s close attention, including all the girls’ and being smart enough to know when to make an exit – Graham leapt onto his bike – kicked it into immediate and roaring life, stood it on its back wheel in a cloud of smoke and rubber – and screamed across the pavement, onto the road, still on the back wheel and raced away – into the setting sun, screaming his trademark scream.
David Hall at sixteen was tall, over six feet, slim, very neat, brushed polished and old fashioned and, he told us, his Headmaster considered him to be intellectually challenged. His predestined fate was to be bashed, berated, bullied, beaten and belittled until – and unless – he achieved his father’s ambition for him; to be selected for the Heaton Moor Rugby Football Club First Team. David bore this burden stoically, with good humour even, and never rebelled against it. But then few would rebel against the absolute certainty of Reginald Hall, David’s large father and most pertinently, the President for life of the Club. It was also David’s fate, his karma, to become a sales and marketing representative in the medical supplies industry – just like his father.
To reduce the dramatic tension already being built here to unbearable heights, readers will be pleased to learn that, despite the stories about to be related, which might indicate otherwise, that David fulfilled all these goals, married Chris ( a girl; in fact a very attractive girl) who became a headmistress, earned a very good living in the medical supplies industry and, most pertinent to legends of Heaton Moor Rugby Club, he played Centre for the First Team, and later sired and raised with love and care, identical twin boys – six feet seven inches tall and big with it; not six-feet-seven at birth you understand but when they grew up. And nobody, but nobody – nobody in full possession of their senses – messed with the Hall Twins. And they never played rugger.
Dave Hall, as he was ‘Dave’ until he attained First Team status and insisted on being called ‘David’, had big feet, big hands, long arms and legs, a narrow body, an exceptionally small head and small, close-together blue eyes. He had his hair cut, even in the high days of Teddy Boy quiffs, grease and ducks’-arses, in a Perry Como style – very short, brushed close to his head, making the head look even smaller, and parted with razor sharp precision. Inevitably, to his endless irritation, a small spike of hair, of his fair to mousey hair, stubbornly stood up on the crown of this smallish head, a spike which he habitually patted down with a large unconscious hand.
His hair was so short, as Terry Ryder told it, that he was the only youth in Heaton Moor who brushed his hair with a flannel. At bedtime, Terry confided, David was so concerned with his appearance that the last thing he did before lights-out was to check himself over appreciatively, in his mirror, make his trademark, quick, stiff, half-wave half-salute at his own reflection and, as Terry mimicked it, cock his small bird like head on one side, give a tight smile at the perfection he observed and say “Goodnight David.”
His clothes came from the same shop which dressed his father. David was a young-fogey. His very large shoes were brown brogues, even when his peer group experimented with blue suede brothel creepers with inch thick crepe soles and later with winkle-pickers. His jackets would have graced Kenneth Moore in the 1954 film Genevieve, and his trousers were cavalry-twill, pressed with military precision, using the old trick of soap inside the crease to hold it rigid. When married, returning home to two babies, Terry insisted that Dave had bought a complete neck to ankle polythene romper suit, for himself, which he donned over his office clothes and wore until all threats of dribbling, leaking, snotting, food caking, puking and so on, were removed. David liked to be neat and clean.
His greatest quality was his love of mankind. David was a communicator and a visitor, usually an uninvited but not always unwelcome visitor, with the habit of attaching himself to one or two pals and then calling on them daily – twice daily – thrice daily, for news, conversation and companionship. Like the old storytellers and troubadours of old he would wander from habitation to habitation, always have a story to tell and had not the slightest reluctance to quiz his companions, nearly to death if necessary, about their lives, families, girlfriends, joys, sorrows and secrets. He was also an early riser, to the horror and consternation of his peer group, who like most teenagers could happily sweat it out without regard to society, conventions, their health or even their immortal souls, in their pitted beds until well after midday – if like sleeping dogs, they were let lie. But David would call, invade the family kitchen, make himself and them a mug of strong Manchester tea, with the standard two spoons of sugar, and blandly invade their privacy – launching into complex subjects as early as nine-thirty in the morning, flicking specks of their dandruff and bedroom squalor off his impeccable slacks and taking up his station, for the foreseeable future, on the end of their beds, apparently oblivious to their unshaven blurred faces, their absolute inability to respond coherently and their near-death states.
He had a very direct and practical manner and he was very polite to parents – who might be bemused to find this tall lad making himself at home, in their home, from early morning until – whatever time he chose to go. The strongest hints to get him to leave – even violent physical attacks – would slough off him like the proverbial water off a duck’s back and he would eventually go – in good humour – and then return, perhaps within the hour, to take up where he had left off. He liked being with people.
Even his Headmaster, exasperated to the point of attacking the boy, could not dint David’s inner conviction that he was always welcome.
As David told us one summer evening - as we sipped Dandelion and Burdock or Vimto and played records on the jukebox at Lillian’s Café, located on the other side, the wrong side, of Wellington Road - his very own Headmaster, in the week of David’s otherwise triumphant and celebrated departure from Heaton Moor College, had called him into his study and berated him over his examination results and his general underachieving academic life. Starting with mature, controlled and polite deliberation, the Headmaster had, as his summary of David’s attributes mounted, lost a little of his cool demeanour, risen to his feet and stationed himself at his familiar, cobra like striking distance and, as David so brilliantly parodied, delivered his final, fatal verdict, his last and Final Report; with his trade mark double finger slide down the right side of his nose, preceding a whip like action, causing the whole agitated, tutorial hand to strike out and down onto David’s near shaven head, to give emphasis to key points and essentially to drive, indeed to hammer, or try to hammer, those points home.
He did the finger slide down his nose. “Boy!” snarled the by now besides himself senior tutor striking David’s unflinching and unresponsive head sharply with his open palm,
“You are no good to your parents…”
David hee-hawed with mirth as he re-enacted the scene.
“You’re no good to your school…”
David grinned, a small teeth clenching grin, and did all the actions – his arm swinging down on an imaginary stolid schoolboy’s head.
And the now completely out of control Headmaster was taken over by emotions raging at this immutable youth who had been in his charge and teaching system for eleven years without a shred of evidence, not the merest sign, that he had learned anything whatsoever about anything at all. His voice careened to heights of impotent hysteria:
“…and you’re no bloody good to yourself. Good bloody riddance to you Boy!”
‘Slap – Slap’
And David put his two very large hands over his tight little stomach, neatly enclosed in a well tailored brown tweed jacket, and rocked forward in great, silent amusement, almost bending double and staying bent for some time before the need to breathe obliged him to come upright, draw in air, and then again descend to a ninety-degree angle, feet together, legs straight and his head shaking from side to side in utterly mute laughter at his own story.
But despite such scholastic drawbacks, and despite being no natural athlete, David left school, joined The Club and progressed painfully and steadily towards the First-Team.
Dave’s dad, Reg Hall was forty or fifty something. He was large and red faced. He had a blustering, military bearing and a notable moustache. He was the President, possibly life president of Heaton Moor Rugby Club, rugby league of course. He spoke loudly and authoritatively. In fact he not so much spoke as barked. He drank beer, seemingly constantly, without any noticeable affect on his concentration. He wore a strongly checked sports jacket with matching flat cap and, when watching a match, planted monumentally on the touch-line, Reg’s rendering of “C’mon Moor” delivered sparingly in a decisively manly bass, held a degree of underlying threat that either galvanised or paralysed players at crucial moments, depending on their lifetime’s experience of dealing with authority.
David was two year’s older and four inches taller than me and he had been a friend of my brother Richard from the age of eight. He called often at our home for his regular local news bulletins and tea. Annoyingly for me, Richard had been to St. Bede’s school, which was essentially a vulgar soccer playing establishment, and he had only taken up rugger, my game, at eighteen, to become an instant star of Heaton Moor’s First-Team, as a fast as a whippet winger – who scored. He was a First-Team hero and, two and a half years older than me, exercised his right, one of many of the rights of the first born, not to acknowledge me at The Club. But Dave Hall did. He would nod in my direction, recognising me as a person who sometimes sat in their smoke wreathed poker, brag and pontoon games, games played for money, which Richard organised at our house, just long enough to lose all my spare cash, before being permitted to make yet another tray of tea for the card-school.
When I left school, as was commonplace in those far-off days I was only sixteen and, though a very poor sportsman, I also had ambitions to be a star at the Rugby Club. For dramatic effect it will be left for some paragraphs for readers to learn what happened to that ambition.
Rugger is a “contact sport”. Non-playing readers, needing a quick introduction, should understand that a game is played with fifteen players on each of two opposing teams. Ideally they should be “built like a brick shit-house” – and preferably be male. This was a rude reference to the shape, seven feet high and three-feet-six-inches wide, and an accolade to the solidity of outside lavatories, WC’s, built in the backyards of Victorian terraced houses, with a goodly number still surviving into the late nineteen-fifties. Thirty such indestructible gentlemen plus a referee and two linesmen would, on most winter Saturdays, stomp onto the Heaton Moor pitch. The captains shook hands and tossed a coin to decide who would kick-off. The kick-off team would crowd forward to the half-way line and the defenders get well back near their own goal or “touch” line.
Reg Hall and other portly middle aged officers of the Club emerged, suitably garbed against the elements, carrying pint pots of bitter, which never seemed to empty, to walk the touchline and offer the experience of their years to the young pretenders on the pitch. A few hardy wives, pals and children lined the field as audience.
Ideally the sky was overcast, better still it would be raining, or, if not raining, then snowing and if not snowing, then it would be good for the ground to be frozen into concrete hardness and the air temperature about five degrees below freezing. On cold days, some of the less rugged players would be reminded by a ferociously cutting North-Easterly that the kit they were wearing consisted of one thin cotton shirt, gaudily coloured gold, black, white and burgundy, thin white cotton shorts – short and tight on the thighs - a rarely washed cotton jock-strap protecting the testosterone pumping gonads - woolly socks to just below the knee concealing leather shin-guards and, of course, rugger boots, armed with, in 1958, aluminium studs – for stomping on people. A well aimed North-Easterly could cut through these meagre garments in a fraction of a second and, not to put too fine a point on it, shrivel and freeze-dry a male’s pride and it’s twin dependents to the size of a single walnut. If struck, Oh my God, if struck, when so shrivelled, vulnerable, tiny and blue, the pain was excruciating, as was a blow on any part of the body which was equally blue with cold.
Any contact on such days could be worse than fatal.
Seriously damaged players with old scars and irreparable, broken noses, missing teeth and half ears – like the walking wounded after a battle, wore a plethora of safety straps. Some Moor players had leather wrist bands. Others had surgical bandages round their knees – or calves – or thighs. Scrum members often donned leather helmets with circles cut out to let air circulate in the vicinity of the brain and with ear-flaps fastened tight under the chin – to stop their ears being torn-off.
Thus adorned, these mammoths of the sporting world aligned themselves, each team in its own half of the field, for the kick-off. The ball was punted high and long; an “up-and-under” - long so as to fly into the opposition’s territory and high to allow time before the ball falls to earth for the players to thunder up field, get under the ball, and catch it. That at least was the theory.
The reality was that all eyes swivelled heavenwards to track the ball, while thirty behemoths, built like brick shit-houses and weighing much the same, rang down to their engine rooms to set their thighs, calves, ankles and hips in rapid thundering motion, designed to carry them at considerable speed – about eighteen miles an hour – towards the place where their brains, invigorated by the cold air circulating past their heads, calculated the leathern egg would descend. The objective being for a player to catch the ball, run towards the touch-line, the opponents’ touch-line, not their own, avoid being “tackled” – that is hurled to the ground and jumped on by one or more opponent, cross the line and “touch-down” with the ball as near the goal posts as possible – and thus score a “try” – which does not mean “trying” - as it had already succeeded, beyond trying, but refers to the three, or tri, points awarded to the heroic player’s team; simple really.
But it was not so simple in practice. With the ball still high in the air, sometimes lost against the bright sun or scudding clouds, and with a combined impact speed of thirty-six miles an hour, two players, between them weighing thirty-stones or four-hundred-and-ten pounds, two hundred kilo, urged on by Reg Hall’s, “C’mon Moor’ ; both gazing skywards and lifting their arms to catch the ball – could do themselves considerable harm when they met; skull cracking on skull, knee smashing on knee and ribs bending against ribs. In car crash tests – a thirty-six miles an hour collision smashes the car’s engine back about five feet, driving it through sheet metal and crushing whatever gets in it’s way.
Now multiply that impact by fifteen times.
And wonder, as you let your imagination loose, wonder if the architects of this great game had thought it through. Had they intended these consequences – or had they intended that the players, like their sensible American cousins, should be armoured from head to toe and as immune from injury and harm as a big girl’s blouse?
Now for the scrum down; many readers don’t understand the scrum.
In the ensuing melee – inevitably – the ball is dropped. As a hand reaches out for it, a metal studded boot will, as likely as not, stamp accidentally down on the groping hand – drawing blood. Tempers flare. More players try to snatch up the ball. More hands are stomped on. Another hero plunges down to collect the prize only for an anonymous groping hand to grab the hero by the hair and swing him violently sideways. Tempers ignite. Death is threatened – but, the referee steps in, recognises chaos when he sees it and whistles loudly. All the players obediently stop. A scrum-down is announced. Order is restored.
Six burly giants unite – or five giants and a smaller “hooker”; No! not that kind of hooker, but a man, a player, who, supported by the two prop-forwards, can hook a loose ball with his legs – we’ll get back to that.
The two prop-forwards link arms with the hooker between them so the hooker can swing between the two props. That makes a front row, “The Front Row Forwards” of three. Behind comes the second row of two men, the real engines of push, who also link arms, bend double, and stick their heads between the front-row thighs, wrap their other hands around the outer thighs and squeeze them all together. This now makes five men. The Front Row, still upright, tends at this stage to lean back against the weight and energy of the “Second Row” who are like large dogs on leashes, always straining forwards. The Second Row splays about with the vigorous pushing. This is cured by the sixth scrum member, the largest of all, who comes up behind the Second Row, bends double and sticks his head between the second row forwards, winds his arms round their outer thighs and pulls. He is the “middle-of-the-back” and is sometimes referred to as the “lock” forward.
Both sides have built their scrums which are now brought together by the referee, like elephants to a mating ritual, with care; and the two front rows lock their heads and necks. It is done. It is ready.
During this construction period the “scrum-half” of the team awarded the privilege, has the leathern egg and fusses around outside the scrum as the building of it proceeds. The other team’s Scrum-Half is consigned to the back row of the scrum where he fusses about, keeping a view through the legs of the scrum, of the “tunnel”.
Spatially intelligent readers, following this text, will have pictured by now that the two scrums when locked in opposition, form between them, a veritable tunnel. And we are at last getting to the point of the whole complex exercise. Into the tunnel, providing no player is cheating by obstructing the tunnel unfairly, the egg is thrown. As it enters the tunnel, the hookers seek to hook the ball with their feet, back into their own scrum, back beyond the legs of the Front Row, and beyond the legs of the Second Row, where the Middle of the Back can deliver it to his Scrum-Half, usually a smallish and quick player, who is then allowed to fish the ball out by hand – and pass it out to the “Backs” who are strung in a line across the pitch – and who then race forward with the ball to score.
However, a scrum rarely delivers up the ball so cleanly and easily. The Forwards are required to push. So as the ball is hooked backwards and starts to make its way to the waiting hands of the Scrum-Half, the opposite Forwards heave and push the scrum backwards with the effect that they walk over the ball as it were and cause it to now emerge from the back of their scrum – to their Scrum-Half who will snatch it up and out to their Backs. BUT, the original team will see this ploy and they will also push and strike in with their feet in an attempt to recover the ball, egg shaped, so it is laid egg like, from the back of their scrum. Meanwhile, inside this heaving mass of humanity, weighing in all about two-thousand-five-hundred pounds, more than a ton of flesh, the individuals do what they can to discomfort opponents and diminish their power to push or kick the ball. What a way to spend your Saturday mornings. And it gets worse.
Wholly illegally, a gentleman will stick a finger up another’s nostril and twist, or poke an unguarded eye, or bite an unprotected ear while the two hookers, their task of hooking now done, swing on the strong shoulders of their props and viciously kick whatever bits of the opponents they can reach. If these tactics don’t baffle and confuse then there is always a strong chance on a warm day that an olfactorily sensitive player may swoon, overcome by the perfumes within the tunnel. Eventually the ball emerges and one team or the other runs-off with it. The scrum disentangles and all players chase after the ball.
It was to such a battle field that Reg Hall, like the Biblical Abraham who was asked by God to sacrifice his son Isaac, chose to dedicate his only son David – or let him die in the attempt.
And I shared much the same ambition for myself as Reg did for David.
It was on the back of the reputation of my sporting if academically mediocre schooling that when I left school at sixteen I joined Heaton Moor Rugby Club and was there rapidly demoted down team after team until I reached my appropriate level on the eighth reserves, with an ill assorted bunch of the elderly, unfit, wounded, halt, lame, blind and feeble minded who, for reasons we never discussed, all felt it a duty to go to The Club, up the cinder surfaced Green Lane, on Saturdays in season, in the winter, and play up, play up and play the game.
As well as being slow, for a rugger player, and oddly unsighted in one eye, over my years at school, where I had played at Prop-Forward for six years, I had also shrunk. Well, I had not exactly become shorter but relatively speaking, compared to my age group, while the majority had accelerated in height and girth, I grew slowly and thinly due to persistent undetected duodenal ulcers - miraculously cured in my mid-thirties. But, in the Year of Our Lord 1959 as I donned the Heaton Moor Rugby Club colours – and learned to correctly intone the touch-line utterance “C’mon Moor” in as deep a bass as I could muster - I was simply skeletal and undoubtedly the only short, stick-like rugby prop forward in the whole League.
But I was a player and I had the shirt. And, alongside my team mates on the 8th Reserve, some of whom arrived at the pitch on zimmer-frames or were held together by an assortment of strange prosthetics and surgical appliances, I was a reasonably fit, if slight, prop forward. My remarkably bony shoulder protuberances and my low centre of gravity actually worked in our team’s favour, as I had a certain stamina and stubbornness, enabling me, however much pressed by the opposing scrum, to just manage to remain, while decidedly bent and very close to the floor, just marginally in legal play and still functioning a few millimetres off the grass, like a frontward crouching limbo dancer.
This wiry crouch forced the other team’s scrum to collapse down to my level on one side, my side, a situation which they omitted to train for, while for my team it was a standard and familiar geometry, causing the whole heaving scrum to either wheel rapidly and dizzyingly round me as a sort of bony fulcrum screwed immovably into the earth, or for the opposition to suddenly scrunch down on my side with all the weight of their largest players pushing up and through which, like a prize judo throw, would suddenly pitch them over, turtle-like, in a unit, still bound together in their tight - non-homosexual - embrace, and go head over heels.
Thus, as at school, while I could not run, pass, catch, kick or see well, I remained on the team. And I turned up. I was reliable. Like a good Alcoholic’s Anonymous member, I turned up.
It was in the Heaton Moor –v-
Coal, a shiny black flaking carbonate stone, you may be old enough to recall, was, prior to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, dug from the ground by the now extinct species Homo-Arthur-Scargillius and burnt in power stations, factories and every home in the land; emitting fierce gassy flames and masses of black choking smoke. The Clean Air Act, brought in around 1956 to tackle smog, which reliably killed off the old and infirm every winter and thus kept National Health Service costs down, banned coal from most towns and cities – but the ban did not extend to rugger pitches.
The week before our
It was a grey, drizzly, not cold, not warm,
ill-defined sort of a Saturday, a good day for a funeral, when we were
transported from Green Lane, Heaton Moor, on an ancient (8th
Reserves style) cream painted charabanc, to a club house on a small green
plateau in the middle of Wigan, slightly higher than the majority of coal spoil
heaps and the back-to-back houses which surrounded it. Gaunt metal lattice
towers supporting huge wheels and mine shaft lifts, the winding gear, reared up
menacingly around the grounds. We changed in a cramped room on wooden benches
They were coal miners – and perhaps ought to have been playing Rugby Union, not Rugby League, which is more the preserve of accountants, solicitors, salesmen and shop-keepers. They had all the muscularity of men hardened by daily shovelling coal, hoisting massive drills and jack-hammers and beating each other in the face with their bare fists – just for the fun of it. They unquestionably voted or supported Labour and we Heaton Moor’ons equally unthinkingly voted Conservative. It was but a short leap of logic to assume, with good reason, that they resented our middle-class aspirations and our assumed management status.
I stumbled against the
The pitch, when we emerged bravely from the
dressing room into the thin rain, was well drained and strangely sparse of
grass and weeds. On closer examination it was obviously, obvious to an
observant and intelligent office clerk who might shortly be forming an intimate
relationship with the surface, a piece of land reclaimed from a spoil tip,
levelled and planted with grass seed in the middle and clusters of blackened
thorn bushes at the corners, thorn which was hanging on for dear life with a
truculent determination to survive. The good news was that it wasn’t muddy. Our
mothers couldn’t abide us getting our freshly laundered shirts and white shorts
soused in mud. The bad news was that the lack of mud was due, not to low
rainfall, but to a fundamental lack of soil. The surface was ground stone and,
amongst the stone, lumps of black shiny coal. It echoed hollowly as we trotted
over it with our aluminium studs, not yielding at all. The surface was as
hostile as a
Miscasting of our players aside – I mean it didn’t
help that I, a seasoned, if small, prop forward, was for the first time in my
life cast as an allegedly star, scoring, sprinting winger – we had to admit
they were the better team. They were bigger, stronger, faster, more accurate,
merciless, psychopathic killers who knew how to play as a team. The score
against us mounted like a milometer on a fast car. Out on the wing I had little
to do as we rarely won possession of the ball and even when we did, and it was
passed triumphantly along the line of Backs to one of our Centres, the
momentary triumph would be overwhelmed by the heavy pounding of feet, metal
striking stone, like jungle drums, as the Wigan players bore down on one of our
hapless, puffing, terrified team-mates – and, if he was lucky – they would simply
pluck the ball out of his hands before continuing their charge, across our
touch-line, for yet another three points. The score was something
embarrassingly gargantuan to NIL when, due to a brief, overconfident loss of
I’m not a sprinter, whatever the Heaton Moor selectors may have assumed, but even after eighty minutes I was almost fresh to the game, held in secret reserve as it were, and I was able to keep up with my fellow Backs and keep position out on the left wing. Oddly, the Wigan Team seemed to me to be gathering, threateningly, like storm clouds on my side of the pitch, crowding towards the left side touch-line along which I might race, free as a bird, if I ever had the ball, to score the only try for us in the entire match. They were not only tough and disciplined players but they also displayed strategic thinking of a surprisingly high order – as it was not at all obvious to me that the prized egg would ever reach me, the play to that point having provided a mass of empirical evidence that it would not – but they somehow seemed to anticipate that it would, and they were assembling a defensive wall of bone and muscle that only I, with a turn of speed, agility, selling dummy passes by the dozen and with dazzlingly bewildering footwork, might dance through, like a will-o-the-wisp, to their eternal consternation – and score. Hurrah!
It wasn’t quite like that.
Our Backs were corralled by their Backs into a smaller and smaller quadrant. We drummed over the stony surface, faultlessly flinging the ball from genius player to genius player, without a hitch; but getting ever closer to a fence – no - to a wall - of Wigan miners who seemed to have taken it as a personal insult, a slur to their manhood and a foul curse on their sainted mothers’ graves that we had any possession of the ball at all. Into the valley of death plunged the Heaton Moorons. About six feet from the maniacal phalanx of coal-miners, my friend and colleague, my team-mate, may he die a horrible lingering death, my Centre, passed me the ball. Shockingly, even though it came from my right, where I was all unknowingly completely short-sighted with a focal length of about three feet, where I usually lost contact with the ball and thus dropped it, I foolishly caught the ball. I was the last in the line. Either I scored or it would end in an untidy scrimmage – and we would lose possession yet again.
I set my jaw. I gripped the ball. I accelerated –
not with smoke coming off my heels but I did accelerate. I jinxed. I weaved. I
had seen this done by wingers in hundreds of matches. I dodged. I made as if to
pass – and dummied. But not only did these miners have Herculean bodies, they
also had Einstein-ean intellects. They, astonishingly, even up against a first
class, office honed brain such as mine, anticipated my every move. They
heroically hurled themselves against my charging torso, giving no thought to
their own safety. Within a second I was buried beneath twelve stolid, seventeen
After an eternity and infinity of knees and elbows
and skulls and fingers and honest sweat and foul body odours, the referee and
the two linesmen managed to unravel the top
Though nothing was broken, at that moment, rising
What had I given up, that David would go on to conquer and claim as his Kingdom on Earth?
Leaving school at sixteen and eventually becoming a Heaton Moor player, had given me privileged access to the hot communal plunge pools shared by all the teams, even the 8th Reserves, which in turn meant that when dried off, dressed in civvies, flaunting a Battle of Britain pilot’s style silk cravat, and no longer muddy, only soiled with team shared earth and curdled mixed body fluids, years before deodorants became de-rigueur, I could saunter out of the dressing rooms alongside First Team and other Olympian players and take my rightful place at the club house bar, only slightly inconvenienced by being at shoulder height and half the average dimensions of the other men, hearing tales of near death experiences and scores that might have been – “if only” – with the best of them.
The bar-room, a large wooden shed that could hold a hundred or so meaty rugger types, was also frequented by a few of the bolder girlfriends and young wives of team members, who would flaunt in a middle class sort of way, their priceless assets, on a ten to one basis – ten males for every female – but exclusively reserved for the pleasure of their two-hundred-and-twenty pound escorts. It would have been suicidal – for me at least – to ogle any of these players’ molls, squeezed Jayne Mansfield and Diana Dors like into tight upholstered sweaters, with waist cutting wide belts. Such obvious interest would be more dangerous than snatching a peeled, ready to eat banana from the fist of King Kong as he lifted it lovingly to his anticipatory lips; it would definitely be ill-advised; very ill-advised. But I could secretly admire.
All this I gave up when I quit the 8th Reserves, leaving the field open to David Hall to triumphantly snatch the glittering First Team prizes.
While Terry Ryder was preparing to serve Queen and
Country and making Britain safe to live in, and would be lucky to avoid a Court
Martial for losing his tank, I was thirteen going on fourteen, as was
Peter-John, Terry’s conservative younger brother who I knocked around with, and
we were far too young to drive cars, which were in any case completely
unaffordable. I was getting to school in Hale Barns, fifteen or twenty hilly
miles away, by bicycle on most days – or in really bad weather, in two hours by
It was, however, buses or no buses, imperative for us to be out late on weekends as, in those far off days, the days when Vera Lynn was still a major star, Anne Shelton sold thousands of vinyl records of ‘Lay Down Your Arms and Surrender to Mine’, Frankie Vaughan winked provocatively at our women and Alma Cogan waggled her cleavage at the men-folk, via the twelve-inch, black and white TV screens, we had to learn to dance or lose all chance of ever joining in the teenage mating rituals. So, come buses, storms, poverty, parental bans, homework or terminal illness, we somehow or another completed the journey from Heaton Moor, down into Mersey Square – often on the Number 75 single-decker, red North-Western bus – then by foot or bus, a mile or more up from the River Mersey and out on the main road south, to The Osborne Bentley School of Dance.
Both Osborne and Bentley seemed lost and forgotten in the mists of time. Peter-John, in his stern way, attributed their permanent absence to the same cause as he was learning to explain when, dressed very like his father, he worked on Saturdays at Tompkin & Ryder, Shopfitters, his father’s firm in Smithfield Market, in the centre of Manchester.
The telephone would ring, Peter-John would answer it curtly; “Tompkin & Ryder…” he would snap at the offending customer, supplier, employee or wrong-number.
“Can I speak to Mr Tompkin please?” asked the caller, trying to by-pass this obviously hostile and unwelcoming youth.
“No!” Peter-John retorted.
Somewhat taken aback by the abruptness, the caller would typically pause and then fall for it “Why NOT?” they would snap back in anger.
“Because he’s dead. Died in . And we don’t want to dig him up,” said Peter-John, pressing the heavy black bakelite mouthpiece down onto the chromed disconnect buttons. And then he’d smile grimly to himself at his private joke.
They lost a lot of new customers that way.
But, reckoned Peter-John, Osborne and Bentley had suffered the same fate as the unlamented late Mr Tompkin, years before we discovered the School, as we never saw hide nor hair of them in all the times we graced their establishment.
This was not a school for modern dancing. This was
formal ballroom dancing. Events which we might attend and, if incredibly brave,
lucky and bold, ask a girl to dance – and sweep her around the floor like Fred
Astaire with Ginger Rogers, were organised by schools, churches, or the Liberal
Club, or the Young Conservatives or, horror piled upon horror, might be
Masonic-Lodge “ladies” evenings or “safe” gatherings for the children of the
Catenians, the Catholic answer to Free-Masons, and at such events, the music
would be pre-War and the dances were those of the adults – quickstep, foxtrot,
waltz and so on. Jazz did exist in dangerous clubs for far older people, in
sleazy dives in
Girls and Boys, heading for the dance school, travelled in single sex groups, eying each other across the bus aisle or the pavements, with deep suspicion and fearful misunderstanding.
Pauline Mallalieu, Margaret Lamerton and Jennifer
Greenlees, an inseparable trio, perhaps with Diane Watkins from Princess Road,
would catch the 75 bus at the bus-stop before mine, where I would wait with my
pal from next door, Kenny Marsh and maybe with Elizabeth Mc’Coy from round the
corner and Tats – Peter Tatersall from Cleveland Road. My eldest brother,
Richard, who had graduated from the
The bus then wound its way up
Pulling out from Parsonage Road the bus left Heaton Moor behind to descend southward on Wellington Road, the broad main road from Manchester, two miles down to Mersey Square, where it would park at the bus station in the overpowering shadow of the two hundred foot high, long, brick, Victorian viaduct which spanned the river and bestrode the cobbled Square and the complex of roads which snaked under its many arches; carrying trains from Manchester to Derby and thence to London.
There was once a competition to estimate the number of bricks in the vast bridge, but nobody could get near the right answer, everyone grossly underestimating its immense bulk, so the competition was abandoned; with no authoritative answer ever published.
Other buses from the east side of Heaton Moor and
Reddish Road would trundle down Wellington Road, or come from the west side,
down Didsbury Road, to empty more teenagers into Mersey Square – Peter-John in
his dog’s-tooth-check jacket; the beautiful, prematurely ripe Pat Fudge,
Goulash, Malcolm Holt and maybe Roger Woods (inevitably ‘Woody’) if he wasn’t
going to miss an episode of the Goon Show, Jeff Osborne and, before he got his
first motor-bike, Graham Fish. Michael Solomons, whose Greek father owned a tea
and bacon sandwich café in
From Mersey Square, come rain or shine, swathed in school mackintoshes, or for the more fashion conscious, in belt-less buff and khaki raincoats, with turned up collars, that Humphrey Bogart and Edward G Robinson, as incessantly smoking gangsters and private detectives, flaunted on screen; the groups from Heaton Moor would toil up out of Mersey Square, taking the white steep steps by the Plaza Cinema, past the side entrance to Stockport Baths, with its miserably cold swimming pool where as Primary School pupils we had been taught to swim, courtesy of Stockport Council, by being hauled, blue, shivering, snotty and swallowing gallons of cold chlorine and water, on the end of a rope, with the lady teacher’s posh, loud encouragement, loud enough to drown our death gurgles, to “Push and Glide – And Push and Glide – And Push and Glide” before those of us who survived the ordeal escaped, shivering, to buy a hot Oxo beef drink, a chocolate Wagon Wheel and to try and recover.
And hence out onto the main road opposite Stockport Infirmary; walk up past the Town Hall, another mile or so, mostly uphill, and pile into Osborne Bentley, still keeping a safe distance between the sexes – as the girls could not be sure that male spermatozoa, lurking, they were reliably informed, on all public lavatory seats, did not also leap great distances from the trousers of precocious boys and wriggle through the girls’ wool and cotton skirts, to spitefully impregnate them; and, equally, boys were unconsciously concerned, due to mystifying, misunderstood and gruesome public health posters, that females accidentally or deliberately distributed terrible venereal diseases which made male equipment curdle, break out in boils and fall off, along with their noses, lips, eyes and hair before finally consigning them to madness and a horrible lingering death.
But in spite of this almost certain knowledge of
almost certain impending disgrace, dishonour, disease, death, and eternal
damnation, the genders nevertheless drew closer and closer as they crossed the
The instructress, Miss Marjorie Barlow, was we assumed, also the present owner-manager. It had been some decades since she had truly been a Miss; and at some sessions a silently compliant, husband-type figure lurked round the door to the office and generally tried and failed to look useful. Miss Barlow was, blonde of course, ageless, tall, muscular and slender, tightly packed into a pencil-thin silvered dress with a small flared pleat on the back hem to enable long Tango steps. She was at least as tall as me and, with six inch stiletto heels, complimenting her clearly defined and muscled legs, calves and ankles, and with her hair wrenched upwards into a high tight knot as if by an unseen hand from above, she loomed above me in her several determined attempts to lead me, indeed force me, round the training room, stepping correctly like a show horse at a gymkhana.
Miss Barlow also, at times, carried a black, silver topped cane in the manner of a Russian ballet mistress. The upward pull on her blond hair stretched all her features towards the ceiling; ears, eyebrows, forehead, eyes – outlined in dark blue – cheek bones, pointed chin, neck and, not least her fine long nose. Thus tautened and strung she could not but help looking down her nose at crumpled and uncertain creatures, such as I, who had the temerity to imagine we might one day lead such a beautiful, groomed, painted, graceful and high spirited dance partner, out under the swirling multi-faceted ballroom light and into the envious and admiring gaze of competitors, judges, friends, enemies and suitors alike.
The whole business baffled me.
We were split into boys and girls and set against each other on opposite sides of the studio. In groups and individually, Miss Barlow took us through our paces, dictating which girl would dance with which boy, selected on some aesthetic criteria and judgements of her own, making choices which almost always failed to please any of the pupils.
We dressed, out of school uniform, like small copies of our parents. The Western World was on the verge, the nervous, jitterbugging edge, of the teenage explosion of self-expression. We were the War Bulge, the War Babies, The Baby Boomers, who resulted from the hurried, often unsatisfactory and ill-considered relationships between millions of troops, going off to die, and popping back on a forty-eight-hour pass for a quick knee trembler on the canal towpath, and the girls they left behind.
A post-war school class was typically fifty to sixty youngsters, with boys in short trousers to the age of twelve or thirteen. Everything was rationed after the War, requiring money AND ration coupons to buy the most mundane items, including cottons and other clothing materials. But the depression was about to end, ration books were being torn-up, employment was soaring and a new confidence started to course through society.
In tiny bedrooms, in mean back-to-back slum houses, linked by alleyways and shared outside lavatories, post-pubertal youths were absently squeezing their blackheads with nicotine stained labourers’ fingers, as they studied with fierce concentration a prized photograph or yellowing newspaper illustration of handsome male heads crowned, as they would to be crowned, with thick, long, greased hair, swept back behind the ears, grown down the cheeks into solid Edwardian sideburns, curled up and tweaked at the nape of the neck - the infamous ‘Duck’s-Arse’ or DA - and pulled forward at the front to hang frond-like out over a quizzical forehead, with the eyebrows and scalp permanently raised to lift the bobbing construction, giving the wearer an aggressive, in-your-face, ‘are-you-looking-at-me; or-chewing-a-brick – mate’ look, mixed with the apparent fear, signified by the raised eyebrows and furrowed brow, that somebody or something indefinable was about to clout them hard on the top of their heads. Eyes were at all times narrowed to sinister slits, not only to put the fear of god into all law-abiding citizens but to reduce the amount of smoke invading the eyes from the de-rigueur burning cigarette, dangling, at the same angle as the front quiff of hair, from an often protruding and dangling lower lip. Shoulders were raised, vulture-like to fend off the expected blow from above.
As the fashion, yet to appear, evolved as an outright rebellion against the War inspired short-back-and-sides, polished shoes and ubiquitous dark grey civvies suit; the protective shoulders were padded heavily, inside stylishly long jackets in light colours, trimmed with velvet collars, which would, for the serious Teddy-Boy, be further trimmed, behind the velvet, with razor blades, as a surprise for any opponent who foolishly tried to grab such a fashion-icon by the lapels, preparatory to drawing him forwards and “nutting” him and breaking his nose, cheeks and teeth, with the opponents forehead. To complete the desired outline, the wide shouldered upholstered jacket worn over a ruffed shirt with bootlace tie, narrowed as it descended to just above the knee and was fastened at the navel by a cuff-link type double button. This narrowing was then extenuated by black drainpipe trousers, just twelve-inches around the ankles – but somehow contrived to still carry the military crease that all trousers had to have – the ends of which were clearly marked by the shocking announcement of bright pink, green, red or yellow, Lurex, glowing socks.
The tapering effect, from BIG hair, oiled and bobbing and endlessly preened with a comb that redistributed the grease, down to the enormously broadened, padded shoulders, and down, down, down in a ‘V’ to the black twelve inch trousers, was now complete – and – it was felt by some leaders of fashion, overdone; leaving some of the larger youths seemingly balancing on neon hued tip-toe and about to topple to one side or the other. This rather delicate and inherently unstable stance was corrected by creating a solid platform at ground level, a sort of ballast or foundation around the feet, of the famous ‘blue suede shoes’ with inch thick crepe soles, making them ‘brothel-creepers’ which outraged every ex-military man and their brave wives, which was the whole of the adult population, as not only did the offensive shoes not have breathing leather soles – which our parents knew would cause a plague of jungle-foot-rot and trench-foot, but the hairy suede exteriors, even if one could with extreme self-control ignore the fact that they were coloured – “For God’s Sake!”, were just that, hairy, and could not be polished; could not be burnished and made to shine with daily applications of black Cherry Blossom shoe polish. And, the shoes were decidedly large, counteracting, counter-pointing and counterbalancing the carefully contrived ensemble above.
Thus was the end of civilisation and the inevitable coming of Armageddon and the cast of Apocalypse, the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the Ten Headed Beast – and most excitedly anticipated of all, The Scarlet Harlot - pronounced, to the generations which had fought and died in the First and Second World Wars to preserve the nation from the barbarian hordes.
In case any thought to mock them, in their novel clothes and Brylcreemed hair (I always thought they looked very fetching myself), when the Teddy-Boys emerged in large numbers, they armed themselves with flick-knives from Corsica, bicycle chains from their now redundant bikes – have you ever tried pedalling a bike in drainpipe trousers and an Edwardian long jacket – and cut-throat razors from barbers shops, and embarked on expeditions of mindless violence which dissuaded even the most liberal and kindly observers from presuming they understood the inner-motives of the new teenagers. The rampaging youths quickly established a reign of terror and NO-GO areas in the cities, mostly by attacking each other and less often by beating up poncey youths from Heaton Moor, on our lawful way to spend a good citizen’s evening at the Church Youth Club or the Young Conservatives Association. They quickly learned that cut-throat razors could cut throats and kill people, which, with the extant threat of the Death Penalty, they hadn’t intended, so the razors were then bound with tape, leaving a shallow cutting edge that would inflict terrible wounds, but not bite so fatally into vital arteries.
Despite their bizarre clothes, oily dripping hair, single syllable vocabulary, brothel-creeper shuffle and expressions of bewildered fear and rage, these Teddy Boys attracted girls – we noted. Their girls wore tight sweaters, often polo-necked, wide and tight waist bands, lampshade skirts over two thousand yards of pink tulle, the same lurid socks as their consorts, flimsy ballet slippers in red or black, large, hoop earrings and pulled their hair up into tight pony tails that bobbed and swung as they walked. The Teddy-Girls were in general pacific creatures, not expected to indulge in mindless violence like their boyfriends nor to attack innocent and virginal youths, as did the Mill girls, the thousands of women who worked in Stockport and Manchester factories and, it was rumoured, in their tea breaks ambushed unwary male visitors, subjecting them to all sorts of unspeakable abuse, which the average fair youth could only dream of.
We, in contrast to the Teddy Boys, dressed like our parents with some concession to film culture and television images, where white or cream mackintoshes with complex upturned collars and tight, tied belts, eventually gave way to belt-less raincoats, still white and with turned up collars; collars which served as windbreaks for us to light our lonely, moody, night time cigarettes – with a Swan match.
To assuage the loneliness and to try to find out what it was really all about, we once embarked – and never again – on a blind date.
Goulash, - whose dad was a printer and typesetter in his own business on Shaw Road – whose claim to paternal fame, apart from his wide knowledge of the protocols of Sporting Clubs, was that, having served with the Desert Rats, he ever after slept with one eye open, an orbital habit which, understandably, constantly disquieted his wife and family - Peter-John and I had somehow contrived to meet three girls from the youth club on Wellington Road on the understanding that we would all six go to the Savoy Cinema and sit on the back row.
Goulash was by far the tallest of us, with golden red hair, a willowy stance, a precocious light blue three-piece suit and, thanks to his dad’s sharing his tales of the world of Sporting Club men, with a deep understanding of adult night-life. I was the next tallest, thin like Goulash, authoritative on factual matters, plain of face and, still confined to my school blazer, considered to be a bit boring. Peter-John was easily the most handsome of us, with a straight nose, wide grey eyes, fair wavy hair, a square determined jaw, good clothes and a confident manner – but he was short of stature and brusque. The three girls, who we met by Martin’s Bank at the top of Shaw Road, were Angela Crook, the tallest of them, their leader, pretty, neat and slender with a hint of an early preference for twin-set and pearls; Sandra Dodgeson, smaller than Angela, wearing a pale yellow and black striped shirt-waister, intelligent and attractive, who cocked her head on one side and spoke quickly – like a little robin; and lastly, short, rounded, non too bright, plain, not smelling like a rose and badly dressed, was a girl we shall call Dilly.
Goulash’s most valuable asset was his talent for humorous stories. He could make girls laugh. And it was a well proven fact that once you got them laughing – you were there! Not that any of us were at all certain about where “there” was. He also had the most natural opening chat-up patter – his name. Everyone called him Goulash. He was indubitably Goulash. Most people didn’t know his real name. He introduced himself as Goulash and, as we never went back to his home, nobody heard what his mum and dad called him. Even the shyest and most reserved of fourteen year old girls who had been time without number warned from the womb to the Osborne Bentley School of Dance to Never Talk to Strange Men, could not resist asking “Why Goulash?” To which he had a selection of answers to suit any audience and any occasion. He was also tall and not bad looking in a freckly sort of a way.
As we walked in the gathering dusk and light rain
I liked Sandra. She was quick witted, wore little make up – I couldn’t bear greasy make-up - and was not manipulative or moody. Although she deferred to Angela, she had a brave streak of independence and was no pushover. She was pretty and she could think. I think she liked me. Shyly, we found ourselves walking side by side.
Peter-John was used to getting the best. Small but perfectly formed, the strong silent type, with a good turn of speed on the dance floor and expensive clothes and good manners, he usually got the girl he wanted. But the dice that evening had been cast too quickly and to his consternation he found himself at the back of the queue. At least Dilly was shorter than him, making him appear taller, as they came together by default and walked ahead of us; Peter-John setting his inevitable at-the-double-pace which we all had to keep up with, and Dilly reaching out for his hand which he wordlessly snatched away.
In the Savoy, in the Circle, we made it onto the second to the back row, all six of us parked our raincoats on the back of our own seats, lit cigarettes despite the expense to prove we were not kids, and settled down to wait for the exciting moment when the lights would go down – and we could pretend to watch, through the fog of tobacco smoke, the antics of the Three Stooges followed by Jack Hawkins grimly saving the nation in The Cruel Sea - while in reality our attention would be wholly focused on surreptitious breathless advances and sharp retreats of our questing hands, as they silently investigated the mysteries of The Opposite Sex. We might even kiss.
Peter-John however was stonily still. He was adamantine in his determination to be alone. He set his grey eyes under his black eyebrows in a ferocious glare, fixed for the duration on the screen. He kept his elbows in, lest they should touch and so invite Dilly, and his hands were glued to his lap. When her podgy little hand tried to creep across their shared arm-rest he brushed it aside with a dismissive, expressionless gesture that brooked no response. When he lit yet another cigarette he declined to offer one to Dilly. While she bent her head cutely, to gaze up into his strong silent face, he stared straight ahead, refusing to acknowledge her existence, never mind to meet her small hopeful eyes. Dilly was not easily dissuaded, she could handle rejection; even when she had the temerity to lift her short chubby arm high enough to stroke the back of her escort’s neck – no easy move for one so vertically challenged – which he angrily ducked from and pointedly turned up his jacket collar to prevent further incursions, Dilly was not deterred.
At a very, very quiet and tense part of the film, when the seas had for a moment stopped roaring and the waves ceased their crashing, and all the sailors were dying and imagining their tearful loved ones at home and Jack Hawkins was staring despairingly into the darkness, Dilly, with all the wiles of the fairer sex, almost climbing out of her seat, leaned closer to Peter-John than ever before, in fact leaned on him and tried to seduce him with a stage whisper which carried around the whole cinema, “Oh Peter-John…” she wheedled, “I’m so cold,” and she shivered pitifully.
For the first time, her beau, her date, her male, her man addressed her, turning to look her in the face and to disengage her arm that had slipped, kitten like, for warmth and protection, under his. In his normal voice, perhaps less abrupt and in his terms somewhat kinder than expected, but nevertheless a stern voice that echoed around the stilled cinema, jarring the whole audience out of its pleasurable lachrymose mood, he replied, “Then put your coat on – you potty bird.”
Even Dilly started to get the message.
On our way out, Goulash and I clutching Angela and Sandra, and Peter-John legging it up the road to outdistance a puffing, enamoured Dilly, posters were excitedly advertising the revolutionary coming of Rock ’A’ Round The Clock staring tubby Bill Haley with his kiss curl, and surrounded by a gyrating bunch of leering, long jacketed, drain-piped trousered, brothel-creeper shod Teddy Boys – whose coming would announce irreversible changes to the post-war world; but not quite just yet.
In a year or two, even we of Heaton Moor would be influenced by the Edwardian look, but that week, tripping over our collective feet at Osborne and Bentley, and subject to ration-coupons from the Ministry of Supply, we dressed like our parents, misunderstood sex like our parents – and for a short time, tried to dance like our parents.
Brother Richard could dance. He could quickstep and tango and foxtrot and waltz as well as any hotel gigolo, with any female. Peter-John, short, smartly dressed and curt, quickly picked up the movements and could scud around the ballroom in his well shone shoes. Even David Hall, with his large feet, could place them in the required positions and lead a girl, who had to dance backwards, in reasonable safety. Malcolm Holt and Tes Tyler, both tall and dark, could glide across the floor with swooning girls in their arms, completely safe from any threat of trampling. All the boys and girls seemed to easily copy the intricate little steps demonstrated by Miss Marjorie Barlow and whichever male she picked to be her temporary consort – often my brother Richard.
But I really couldn’t quite get it.
Lead with the left foot, and step-one two, to the side one-two, with the right one-two, slide one-two, and turn one-two and sweep forwards one-two.
The girls, any who would risk a dance with me, always had a foot in the wrong place at the wrong time. They had delicate little shoes, when steel toe-caps would have been more useful, and they complained loudly and often when I trod on their unprotected toes or kicked their shins backwards with a vigorous initial move into the Blue Danube Waltz or Victor Sylvester’s Foxtrot or Sir Malcolm Sergeant’s more upmarket musical contributions – famously and ponderously lauded by Stockport’s Lord Mayor after a noteworthy classical orchestral evening – “I’d like to thank Sergeant Malcolm and his Band for a wonderful …etc” - to the abiding shame of all educated Stockport citizens.
I liked music. I liked to sing. I wasn’t crippled. But the steps would not come in the right order or places.
After a few weeks of lessons and with an unmistakable decline in girls attending the school as they were systematically stomped, kicked and sprained by my unusual techniques – Miss Barlow herself devoted almost a whole determined half hour to one-to-one tuition, my arms raised as if on a rack with our hands clamped one to the other and a gap between us, wide enough for us both to see what my feet were doing – and, I now suspect, quite consciously to prevent my uncontrolled actions from jeopardising Miss Barlow’s priceless dancing feet – were they insured I wonder. But even with the expert herself, devoting herself to my conversion and salvation, I remained baffled.
At last the dogged, dedicated teacher gave up the challenge.
“Noel…” she announced so the whole class could not fail to hear, in a high, temporarily exhausted and imperious voice, “Noel… …I can do no more with you.” And then she damned and dismissed my dancing days for eternity, adding in the same loud, penetrating tone, “…You dance on the half-beat!”
And she threw me out of the school; in the middle of a session.
I walked alone down the hill into Mersey Square;
stood irresolutely at the Number 75 Bus Stop; realised I had just missed a bus
and anyway I wasn’t in any hurry, as I had nowhere to go, nothing to do and
no-one to do it with – and I trudged home up Wellington Road, eventually down
Parsonage Road, round the back of St Paul’s to the lane at the bottom of Shaw
Road. Across the
A failed quickstepper; a lethal waltzer and a discarded foxtrotter.
And, I still don’t know what she meant. What is the half-beat?
Shy and aged fourteen, I was returning one night from the Plaza cinema, sitting on the illuminated back seat of the completely full number Seventy-Five, single-decker bus from Mersey Square to Green End, with a couple of pals. Halfway up the bus three local girls were in furtive conversation about a local flasher, who had accosted one of them, Margaret Lamerton, one of the prettiest girls in Heaton Moor, who, coping daily with the realities of eight or so mixed siblings (not Catholics but fathered by a vigorous Protestant Fleet-Air-arm officer), was singularly unimpressed by the flasher’s naked cheek.
One of the girls, Pauline Mallalieu, in all innocence, said in a clear and crowd cutting voice, “Noel?” so as to definitely identify me to all the passengers; and only when she had their complete attention and they were all craning their heads round and staring fixedly in my direction did she continue;
And she directed her question at me not because we had ‘a relationship’ of any sort but because the local kids nicknamed me ‘Know-all’ because I was a serious know-it-all and it was an obvious derivative from my name.
“Noel” she called again, with a sweet smile and her blue-green eyes wide and fluttering with childlike trust; and to make sure I could hear she raised her voice above the rumble of the bus and the smokers’ coughs of the older passengers.
“What does – ‘Will you knock-me-off’’ - mean?”
The passengers – mostly neighbours of ours – lurched as if electrocuted, and naturally and instantly assumed that I had just invited this pretty child, in her school raincoat, to do me that singular honour and to ‘knock me off’ at some convenient place and time.
I said nothing and thought “When in doubt – Do Nowt.”
But I went a little pink. I went red. I glowed incandescently crimson. I was clearly and obviously guilty as charged – and had nothing to say in my own defence. Thus do miscarriages of justice occur; “We must take your silence young man, - you twisted evil pervert – to be an admission of guilt. And sentence you to be taken hence to a place …etc.….” “Well. You could see he was guilty – it was written all over his face”.
How I knew what the question meant remains a mystery to me to this day. Sex education in 1958 simply did not exist. Boys and Girls, Catholic or Protestant, curious or unconcerned, learned about sex secretly, behind the bicycle sheds and only through direct, fumbling experience. At primary school any suspect bits of the body which had to be referred to, due perhaps to near fatal accidents, were given coded names delivered by adults in whispers with terrified blushes. For our First Confessions, preludes to our First Communions, a sweating, stammering religious instructor would manage a strangled utterance to a class of seven year olds about “self-abuse”, leaving us completely perplexed and providing the base for massive misinformation, which would accompany us throughout our lives.
The only available hints about sex were found, firstly, in the Bible, the biggest selling book in the World, in which Onan spilled his ‘seed’ on the ground precipitating the wiping out of entire cities, and where Mary contrived to have a ‘Virgin’ birth, and where Moses, on God’s authority, forbade his people to ‘Covet Your Neighbour’s Wife’ or ‘Commit Adultery’ and in which various populations were ‘raped’ – each retelling of which threw our teachers into such states of guilt, embarrassment, excitement and confusion that sensitive children could not fail to realise they were concealing something of great import. Secondly, we had surreptitious recourse to Encyclopaedias. Medical Encyclopaedias were obviously the most informative, with explicit fold out diagrams of the cut-away human body – and, as we became old enough to track down specific topics, where ‘masturbation’ and ‘self-abuse’ though still not explained, was expanded on to include its scientifically attested medical consequences, including blindness, deafness, low-moral-fibre, deformity, Socialism and physically wasting away with important bits dropping off.
Urban legends and hints from older children were the most reliable and trustworthy fonts of wisdom. We quickly learned that after puberty, girls and boys kissed. That was number One. Number Two was an experimental feel of the girls’ breasts – on the outside of the clothes – and the other numbers marched inexorably on to ever higher states of intimate excitement and esoteric knowledge, all the way up to Seven, which rhymed with Heaven. It was commonplace, in every strata of society, to remain without full ‘Carnal Knowledge’ up to nineteen or twenty years old. The sexual-revolution of the Sixties was inconceivable – if you will excuse the pun.
One day, descending the front staircase, when I was sixteen or so and something of a man of the world, I intercepted my older brother escaping from a conversation with father in our living room, into the welcome darkness of the echoing, large, tiled hall.
“Yeah, Yeah. I’ll tell him.” Richard was calling back into the living room as he hastily pulled the door – shut, with huge relief at having escaped. With the ESP and instincts that families have, I knew that the ‘him’ being referred to was in fact me.
“What’cha going to tell me?” I asked as Richard plodded thoughtfully up the stairs.
It transpired to our extreme astonishment that father had been persuaded, for reasons and causes which we could never have fathomed, to ensure that his sons had a sex-education. He had cornered Richard in the living room one winter’s evening before we had slipped out to join one or another of the large groups of teenagers who assembled on street-corners, at park gates, outside the Savoy Cinema or in any one of their parentally neglected homes. Father, having waylaid his nearly eighteen-year old first male heir, had stood, red faced, looking down at the carpet until the silence became unbearable. Then he had to launch into Lesson One.
“I suppose…” he mumbled, perspiring lightly despite the cold air, “…that you know all about the …er …Birds and Bees and …er …that kind of thing?”
Richard, as acutely embarrassed as his father and only two years from siring his own first son replied “…er – Yes.”
Father was deeply relieved and allowed himself to breathe again and to take a few tiny steps around the pattern on the carpet. But he had more yet to do.
“…And…” he pressed on with the sort of determined courage that won the war, “…that your brother, Noel…” we had several brothers so it was necessary to be specific, “…knows all about it?” he asked hopefully, almost pleadingly.
Richard and I had never discussed sex. The very idea was unthinkable. But Richard had to get out of the room as quickly as possible. So, on the basis of what he knew about the company I kept, he made a reasonable assumption. “…Oh! …er… Of course. Yes.”
Father was now immensely relieved. The tension that was threatening to crack the walls of the house dissipated. He let out an audible sigh of relaxation. And Richard turned to leave, opening the door behind him. Father heroically completed his painful parental duty, “…Oh! And let Noel know we’ve had this chat – tell him what I’ve said.”
It wasn’t much of a sex education, but it was more than Pauline ever had. Her mum and dad never once mentioned the word. Her father never appeared outside of his bedroom with a shirt button undone or without his tie fastened at his neck.
A few months after the bus incident, Pauline and I embarked on a Romeo and Juliet affair which was almost as dramatic and tragic as the play.
was slender and very neat. She was born thin because of a fierce diet her tiny
mother was advised to follow throughout the pregnancy in the War while her
father, Derry Mallalieu, was away with the Ghurkha Regiment in
only child, she lived with her mum and dad in
At thirteen they all three swooned over fourteen year old pop-singer Paul Anka, who belted out, in a nerve jangling, high falsetto, the hit song ‘Oh Carol, I am such a fool’. Pauline was distressed by and utterly failed to understand her father’s sudden outburst against the sainted Paul after only a hundred and eighty two repetitions of the blessed song, played at full volume on her portable phonograph, one sunny weekend, before the plastic, 45 revs per minute disk began to show terminal signs of wear.
The next year, when they were fifteen, the Famous Three, Pauline, Margaret and Jennifer, unintentionally competed for a date with Tes Tyler; tall, dark, lean and muscular, and, I suppose, – handsome - to accompany him to the Mile End School dance. Pauline won the prize but her triumph was sabotaged by her mother’s determination for her to wear an expensive Little Bo Peep dress, in baby blue, more fitting for a twelve-year-old’s birthday party than for a night of teenage romance – and perhaps passion – leaving her to be upstaged by Margaret and Jennifer in tight sweaters and swirling knee length skirts – and to be consigned to the wall-flower seats in the school hall.
But - Never again!
The next year, at sweet sixteen, Pauline was lucky enough to meet the new, irresistible, testosterone charged me, and I, drawing on my one-to-one tuition in Jive and Rock’n’Roll with Michael Howard’s older sister, and despite Marjorie Barlow’s cruel rebuff at the dance school, taught Pauline to Jive, in her two inch high heeled shoes, enabling her in turn to swing her fashionable shirt-waister skirt, worn over a dozen paper petticoats stiffened with sugar and water paste, and to flick her shining pony-tailed hair and flash her eyes, in the centre of several local parties, and thus to be the envy of all.
My good friend and Lonnie Donegan look-a-like, Peter Tattersall, Tats, who organised us into a skiffle-group at Kenny Marsh’s house – with me on the Washboard and Biff Keegan on the Double-Bass tea-chest - was earlier that year going out with Pauline. We were all sixteen and about to leave school. Tats foolishly went on holiday with his parents and asked me, in the uncertainties of local teenage life, to keep an eye out for his girl. I nobly did that and invited her to a party, a rare party that we had at Birch House, and I walked her home afterwards.
As we sat across from each other in Pauline’s living room, inevitably drinking tea as northerners endlessly do, I heard tinkling music that I couldn’t locate the source of. In the partially lit room as I cast about, I noticed a light around Pauline that shimmered intriguingly and beautifully. I said nothing about it but the light persisted and grew stronger until she was surrounded by an inexplicable living rainbow glow. The music was strengthened but very slightly. I said absolutely nothing. Such visions certainly did not happen to up and coming drain-piped teenagers in the Rock’n’Roll era and certainly not to Heaton Moorons.
I may have been seeing and hearing things but I was inured in the stolid northern wisdom “When in doubt – Brew Up”, which we already had done, so I moved on to the next wise, more powerful imperative, “When in doubt - Do now’t.”
So I did nothing. I made no move, drank my tea politely and went home.
Had the romantic lights and music intensified, and had, say, little green fairies and elves started to drop from the ceiling and lead me in dances round the room, I would have employed the final protective spell of the trio of wisdom, with complete confidence in its archetypal Mancunian power.
“When in trouble and in Doubt. Pack you bags and F***’ off Out.”
But the third spell wasn’t required. And, without remarking on the magical illusion I had experienced, I went home to bed.
Richard was away on his long Continental Tour, financed from card-games, so I had the bedroom to myself. I then sat up for hours writing to Pauline. I was very smitten and hopelessly in love. Tats returned and rapidly and obligingly moved on to another beauty and after a few weeks Pauline and I started courting, spending every possible minute with each other.
summer, we walked out together. We were inseparable. We took the train out
towards Macclesfield, got off, or alighted, in the
We were devoted. Shopkeepers started to take us for brother and sister. In private, we kissed a lot and passionately.
After two or three months of bliss, as summer waned and autumn approached, Pauline was looking downcast – indeed she looked deeply worried. Within an hour or so of walking hand-in-hand through the dark, deserted leafy streets of Heaton Mersey, she told me what the problem was. I was appalled. I was shocked. It was beyond my powers to deal with. What, indeed, could we do? What had we done?
Her period, a function of which I had only the vaguest concept, had not, she claimed, arrived. Her period was three weeks late. I learned that it had not always been unfailingly on time, forever and ever as it were, but over the last year or so, from fourteen to fifteen, it had been punctual and reliable. And now it was late.
How late is late? We speculated. Three weeks was very late. There was only one logical conclusion. She was pregnant, she was having a baby!
Or was she? I was convinced that she could not be – but Pauline’s will and conviction were very, very strong. I started to believe her feminine instincts.
For days we agonised about what to do; who to tell; who to ask.
A doctor would know what to do.
waited until six-thirty for the autumnal darkness to descend, Pauline donned
her red, double-breasted greatcoat – for the feeling of security it conferred.
Then we walked up from
We turned into the doctor’s driveway. “Is this your family doctor?” it occurred to me to ask, seeing no brass plate or any signs of medical establishment. But, no, it wasn’t. Pauline had just heard that a doctor lived here. He didn’t know her. She didn’t know him. The house came into view. It was Victorian, not as tall as the other large houses so probably a little younger and it looked less forbidding. It had three wide, shallow steps leading up to a large lighted porch, with the door on the right out of view. By silent agreement, I stopped in the driveway, in the dark, well back from the house and Pauline went on, up the steps to the front door. After a moment’s pause she rang the bell.
We waited. A light came on and shone through a stained glass window in what I took for the hallway. A figure, a woman, passed the window and opened the door. I gathered that she was the housekeeper. She did not immediately respond to Pauline’s request to see the doctor. She took in this slender sixteen year old in her child’s red military coat, and noted a boy lurking halfway down the dark driveway. She put two and two together. There was no surgery here, this was his home, and the doctor was having his tea. But the housekeeper said, “Come in.”
Two figures crossed the little window. The hall light went out.
I waited in the dark. I waited a long time.
After two or three eternities, while I contemplated the meaning of fatherhood and wondered how one went about getting a house and paying a mortgage, Pauline emerged, saying thank you to the doctor and shaking his hand politely. She joined me. We held hands and walked away.
She began a halting explanation “…He said that that if you’ve never put your ….thing…” we both blushed and thanked the darkness for its cover “into me …into my, …you know…”
Well that was just it, I didn’t know and it had seemed pretty universally unfair, a gross miscarriage of justice, to be becoming a father – without having had the allegedly sublime pleasure of knowing of the much vaunted, much vilified, much banned, much misunderstood, much maligned, much sought after, much ill-defined, much valued, soul-destroying, mortally damning, mysterious - ‘carnal-knowledge’.
She pressed on awkwardly “The doctor said that if we hadn’t – you know put your ...thing …into my thingy m’jig, you know…” she hurried on; “…then I couldn’t… You know… be… …well be… You know… …pregnant.”
What she said the doctor had said had a certain ring of logic about it.
Even prior to the benefit of father’s informative sex lesson, via Richard, I had been wondering how, just how, girls could get pregnant through several layers of thick clothing – with no naughty bits exposed.
could only have happened in the Fifties in Heaton Moor; or of course, in
was however looming. Pauline’s father, at a turbulent point in his life, had
As they left to go by ship to the utterly inaccessible other side of the world, I wept for several days and nights, wandering the highways and byways where I could be alone to grieve; to the silent consternation of the thirty chain-smoking engineers in the Trafford Park drawing office when, tackling my first job, I turned up for work looking swollen faced and distinctly odd.
Pauline, whose periods were restored a few days after our visit to Doctor
Curtis, sailed out of my life, forever it seemed. But I wrote; first to every
port of call on their voyage, then daily to her in New Zealand – and she
replied daily. So love, the Royal Mail
and my compositions defeated all and Pauline and her mother came home after six
months, again by boat. Pauline was courted by any number of exotic young men on
the ship and came back utterly changed, grown up, a world traveller. As a
gesture of universal justice, she took up fashion modelling, ditched me for my
other best friend, Peter-John, and after just a few months in
later, Pauline suddenly turned up in
are few more alluring lifestyles on the planet that compare favourably with
living on a pittance in a damp bed-sit in
Paul Godfrey had a round baby and dimpled face, waved fair hair on a large head and big innocent blue eyes. He was as pleasant as he looked but his looks belied a fighting spirit passed to him, despite a year or more of his youth spent recuperating in a TB clinic, from his father.
Mr Godfrey, who hailed from London’s East End, part Jewish through his father, was the sort of man you fervently hoped was not in the car behind that you had cut up, given the V sign to as you zoomed past and jammed your car triumphantly ahead of his, just before coming upon a two mile stationary traffic jam; at which point he may decide to saunter up, lean down from quite a height and politely but firmly enquire just precisely what message you were attempting to communicate to him.
In civilian life he was a most respected manager in the Great Universal Stores Group – GUS, trouble shooting whatever problems arose in their numerous city centre furniture stores. In his previous incarnation – and this is why it would be wise to wave his car politely ahead of yours – he had been the British Army Light-Heavyweight Boxing Champion; he had been a regular soldier, rising to regimental sergeant major, who had fought in every major World War Two battle and, firing a large machine gun, he had led his troops when they stormed the French beaches on D-Day. And, this big, lean, toughened and seasoned fighter had taught his only son, Paul, how to take care of himself.
Paul, following in father’s footsteps, was also invading
At sixteen we had both left school, casting-off our royal-blue and red striped Catholic school blazers, simultaneously abandoning any pretence of sinless, celibate behaviour, however good for our immortal souls it may have been, and gone our separate ways. Paul to precociously manage GUS’s main store on Market Street, Manchester, me as an apprentice at Bannister Walton Structural Steel Engineers in Trafford Park, through my first post-school winter, before switching to join my father’s accountancy practice in a peculiarly narrow, white tiled building, like a high rise public lavatory, next to Manchester Cathedral and opposite the deep chasm which channelled the foul River Irwell, the border with Salford, which flowed fifty feet below street level.
The next summer rolled round and, with wages in our pockets and the post-war Depression lifting, young men planned their vacations. A key element in all such plans, in fact the element outweighing all others together, was the question of how, where, when and if there would be any engagement with - any tiny possibility, however small, of meeting with - the opposite sex.
Paul, visiting us in Heaton Moor, told us how his
He and five of his pals from the furnishings group, acquired a boat-like Ford Consul convertible, with a pram mechanism to raise and lower the soft top; two bench seats each adequate for three adults; no seat belts, of course, and therefore with a strong tendency for the driver, under inertial forces of gravity, to slide along the seat on tight corners, losing touch with the pedals and switches, a slide which he could counter by clinging onto the steering wheel and the steering-column-mounted gear stick, and hauling himself back into an upright position and, on most occasions, thus regain control of the speeding vehicle.
They brazened out the silent condemnation of the truculent customers in the barber’s shop, in the dark cobbled alleyway off Market Street behind the GUS store, to buy a packet of six condoms, a six-pack of French Letters – one each - which they secreted in their wallets; drew their meagre foreign currency allowance as permitted under Exchange Controls by The Bank of England, packed their suitcases and camping gear, and thus equipped and with hope in their eyes, headed for France, the South and the dream of beautiful, seductive, accommodating and available, wholly amoral, Christine Keeler, Mandy Rice-Davis and, Oo La la! Bridget Bardot, look-a-likes.
Crossing the Channel and driving down to the
French Riviera was quite an adventure in nineteen-sixty. There were no
motorways, no auto-routes to the sun, no motorway services, no spares for
British made cars, little tolerance for poorly spoken French language; and few
cheap hotels on the
Of course, Paul and Co had never thought to ask,
or even to consider, what any of the several million Frenchmen, who lived in
The three day journey was fun. The camp site was comfortable and the summer was hot and fabulous. Other nationalities arrived to fill the sun drenched beaches, barbecue food and drink the occasional bottle of wine. There were no drug dealers, no crack or cocaine or heroin or uppers or downers or LSD or grass and there were a few, just enough to keep the adrenaline pumping and to stave off despair for twenty-four hours a day, apparently unattached girls; their nationality now a matter of no importance whatsoever. In fact nobody’s nationality was an issue in this peaceful post-war European Union - until the German’s started playing water-polo.
The English were particularly obvious on the
beach, not only for their terrible French, Stockport Baths trunks and thin worn
towels, but for their pallid skins, ration-starved limbs and neglected
physiques. Continental youths, more accustomed to sun, sin, sand and skiing,
could not only speak each other’s languages – and English – the smug bastards,
but they also led a more open air life, giving them tanned skins and a physical
self-awareness of shape, muscles and resort athletics. They raced onto the
beach and played pansy games like volley-ball, and pat-a-cake with a tennis
ball tethered to a wooden bat with elastic, and shuttlecock over a high net.
Despite the English being the undisputed Sons of the Kings of the Waves and
every British child being taught to swim, the Continentals could also swim –
maybe not quite so furiously and bravely – they’d never survive half-an-hour in
The male perfume and a host of other small but obvious faults common among the Continentals, just managed to allow Paul and his friends to retain their self-respect and their sense of effortless superiority which was every Englishman’s birthright – born as we were as citizens in the largest Empire the World Had Ever Seen – on which the Sun Never Set.
So Paul and his pals could lounge on the sand or strut about, within certain sight of the girls, despite their reddened skins and stringy muscles, with reasonable confidence.
But then the German’s started playing water-polo.
The six or seven German youths were as easily
identified as were the English. They were, inevitably, blonde. They had great
haircuts – like film-stars. They were well muscled and tanned. Their towels and
beachwear were top quality and leading in fashionable cut and colours. They
spoke loudly in German, quipped with the girls in French and would ever so
politely switch to English to exchange pleasantries with Paul and the
All this, the English holidaymakers could cope with, reassuring themselves throughout of the natural advantages of British-ness and never even once mentioning The War; at least not in public – Who Won the War, anyway?
But when the whole gang of blonde, blue eyed, sun kissed, Aryan Adonis’s dived and cleaved in the blue, blue sea, passing a seriously heavy polo ball from athlete to athlete; leaping like dolphins from the spray to take a high catch, showing off their water streaming, carved abdomens, flinging a well aimed ball with a bronzed arm and strong fingered hand – and when it was completely obvious that every female on the beach, of whatever age and status, was riveted by this brave and bold display – Paul and his pals decided it was time to assert themselves.
Subtly, not immediately so as to make it obvious,
but with some diplomatic finesse and even some outright, outrageous flattery,
which fooled the Germans not at all, the Mancunians worked it around to a
challenge match. British against Germans. Islanders against Mainlanders. The
It was thus - with a few practice throws to get the feel of the ball, which the British boys performed deliberately poorly, to put the Germans off their guard - that two teams of six met in the sparkling water, all smiling and exchanging pleasantries and agreeing the rules – in English of course – with all eyes upon them. The lolling, beached Frenchmen made a pretence of being genuinely neutral, Paul thought, and the girls who were dotted about the beach adopted bored countenances with half-closed eyes, while keeping a very close watch on the competing young males.
The teams were evenly matched. Though the blonde, muscular Germans looked more of a team, the pale, mousey English were stronger than they appeared and they had that sense of fair-play, for which the British nation was world famous that encouraged cooperation and team work beyond personal glory. The goalmouths, edge on to the beach, were marked with four anchored, inflatable beach-balls; the shallow side-line was agreed to be at waist height and the deep water side was up to the neck. The Germans won the toss and elected to play the first half into the sun.
Paul was a rangy six-footer and, as a strong swimmer, he put himself out on the deep side, opposite a determined grim faced opponent who was particularly well built with broad shoulders and thick arms. The ball was tossed over their heads, a bad pass from the German centre to this taut faced winger. Paul lunged after it. The German plunged behind him. Paul swam hard, churning through the water in a fast, powerful crawl. The German swam past him as if jet propelled, snatched the ball without any break in rhythm and flung it hard towards the English goal. Paul puffed and swallowed too much sea water; his eyes narrowed.
The ball came again; a hopeless pass from the
English fullback out to Paul. It zoomed over his head to land twenty yards from
him and a good thirty yards from the German; Paul dived after it, churning
through the clear
One – Nil.
Paul’s team-mates gave him a look, then looked away. Paul knew he had failed them.
The ball came again. This time the German was closer but Paul had got his ginger up and he smashed his way through the water, with arms swinging like demented paddle wheels and feet threshing like flags in a gale. But the German pulled easily away and got the ball – and took a long leisurely time to decide just where to pass it before Paul puffed up to make his challenge, reared heroically out of the water as the ball went over him, arms stretched, higher than any human swimmer has a right to leap from the deep, and fell back, down and down, to rise spluttering, part drowned and exhausted; to tread water. The German, some ten feet away, gave him a look of comradely concern and made inquiring thumbs-up signs until he was sure that Paul was okay and likely to live, before rejoining the game. A very sporting gesture.
“I’ll get you, you Nazi bastard.” Vowed Paul silently, through gritted teeth that he hoped gave the impression, to the watching girls, of a good natured, devil-may-care smile.
At five goals to three, they changed ends, the English now facing into the sun and the German’s tossing the ball and the glittering diamonds which scattered from it, as high as possible into the sun, to blind and confuse them.
“There’s a Hun in the Sun.” muttered Paul grimly, again on the deep side and with the same lightning fast opponent to beat. The English fullback hurled the ball forward; Paul had his feet on the ocean bed and was able to leap into instant action, wrenching himself forwards into the blazing spray, aware of the German, at the opposite angle of a triangle, racing for the ball. They arrived simultaneously. This was a ball that Paul intended to have; at any price. As his arm broke upwards at the end of his powerful crawl stroke – and sure that the commotion and light hid his dishonour – his hand landed on the shoulder of the square faced German, and he levered himself, up and over the man; pressing him deep down under the sea – and flipped the ball across to his team-mate.
The German surfaced, coughing and choking, searching desperately for breath and thrashing around to stay buoyant. Paul trod water a few feet away, ready to help the lad – but the German recovered, saw Paul’s thumbs-up query and innocently questioning raised eyebrows – and glowered at him.
They raced for another ball. Paul was definitely ahead. He was swimming superbly, a real racing sprint. No one could catch him. The German, blonde head cutting the surface like the prow of a speedboat, passed him and, as they both lunged for the same spot at the same time, he flipped a hard face-full of water at Paul, who sucked the salty spout into his yawning maw, and felt his shoulder batted with something hard, smooth edged but quite bruising, before the German scooped the ball in to his Centre, who flipped it across to the other wing.
“What the devil was that?” Paul shouted as he coughed out the water. But nobody could hear him above the noise of the game, the wind and the waves. His opponent was already far off, making for the English goal.
“It was a flipper!” Paul told himself. “A bloody flipper. – He’s wearing flippers. …Well flipping heck! That’s cheating. …No wonder he swims so fast. Bloody Hell! Would you believe it? Flippers…”
And Paul felt something turn cold and merciless inside him. The merest hint of the cold and merciless feelings his father had had when pounding up the beach, armed to the teeth, towards a German gun emplacement, on D-Day.
“No quarter” thought Paul in quiet and deadly mood.
From then on Paul, a pacifist until such treachery brought out his excellent boxing skills, trounced the winger. He shadowed him very closely. He elbowed him hard and meanly in the ear. He kneed the man in his guts as they closed for the ball. He stepped on his thigh and pressed him under the water and then greeted him as the blonde head surfaced, mouth agape and lungs needing fresh air, with a massive swoosh of sea, aimed straight into the Germanic gullet.
Paul, under water, accidentally of course, thumped the guy hard in the solar-plexus with one tight knuckle extended into a point ahead of the others, like a bony knife. The man doubled up in pain – completely winded.
The ball flew over to them as they jostled side by side, way out of depth. Paul knew better than to go for the ball. He couldn’t outpace a man in flippers. So he went for the man. Bigger than the German, and with less water swallowed, in better trim than he was, Paul leaned on him; he pummelled him; he gouged him; he surreptitiously slapped him; he flooded his mouth with water; and he pressed him down by one shoulder to almost drown. All this Paul managed without it being apparent to the audience on the beach – though the other German players were beginning to cast very dark looks at him.
“Hey Paul!” called one of his mates “…Give it a break. We don’t want another War” he added, nodding and winking in the direction of the increasingly irate – and well muscled – blonde team.
Paul did a cartoon like whisper behind his hand to try to communicate that he, Paul, was still a nice bloke and a good sport, “…He’s got flippers” he hissed, wagging his head at the soused and battered German. “Bloomin’ Flippers.” But his pal couldn’t understand what was being said.
Paul kept up his contact-sport attacks and rapidly wore the German down. From five goals behind, the English started to catch up. Two pretty girls – without boyfriends in attendance, clapped and cheered with excitement as the English scored again. Paul, kept his man down; part drowning the cheat, part pinching and slapping him in passing – once even getting hold of his expensively styled hair under the surface and tugging it in good old rugger fashion, jerking the man’s head back suddenly, so he sucked water straight up his nose.
The game ended in a draw. Honour was satisfied. The English, never having played the game before, equal with the Germans. “We beat them at their own game” they agreed as they stumbled exhausted from the water.
Paul and his tacitly avowed enemy, the German who cheated with swim aids, had furthest to go to the beach. Some yards apart they swam to the shallow water. Paul was more tired than he had imagined and concentrated on wading through the breakers as he slipped and slid against the undertow. He attained the dry sand and turned, and looked back in understated triumph as he saw his opponent still swimming in the shallows, obviously too exhausted to get to his feet.
Paul, breathing hard, watched the man absently; fully revenged and happy that he had helped his team to a good draw. “That’ll show the bugger,” he muttered tightly as the German staggered up in the shallows, waving away his friends who were offering to help. One of them was holding out a heavy staff which the winger grabbed and used to lever himself up and forwards.
“Making a bit of a meal of it.” Paul told himself as he picked up a towel and rubbed his hair.
The German, indeed now clearly seen with his forward foot in shallow water, was, despite the visual confusion from choppy little waves, indubitably and unashamedly flapping a large, black rubberised flipper – which explained his extra-ordinary speed in the water.
He lurched to his left; clearly completely spent and exhausted. He took the staff with both hands and steadied himself. Still in a few feet of water, he waved, in German as it were, and his team mate sped down the beach with another large staff, which the winger grabbed and adjusted until he was partially supported by two staves, with the help of which he continued to haul himself up and out of the water.
“See…” called Paul to his pals, pointing to his vanquished foe, “…he’s wearing bloomin’ flippers. That’s why I couldn’t catch him.”
His English friends nodded, cautiously.
The German, broad shouldered and lean bellied, young, blonde and tanned, struggled up with the aid of the staffs.
Paul’s words froze in his mouth, which gaped open.
“He’s really, really making a bloody meal of it…” thought Paul – uncertainly.
The German, who Paul had pummelled, hopped into a vertical stance and drew himself upright in just a few inches of water. With the staves, or to be more accurate – crutches - under his arms, he swung both legs onto the dry sand, accompanied, of course, by one flipper.
“He’s only wearing one flipper…” observed one of
The German youth, face set in handsome, heroic determination, made away from the water and up the beach – quite rapidly; considering.
“…That’s because he’s only got one leg…” added
“…Well; one-and-a-half legs…” said another, setting the record straight, “…it’s only about a quarter missing – just an ankle and a foot gone – really…”
All the players, the sportsmen, looked at Paul the Pugilist. Manchester faces utterly neutral and non-judgemental; the German boys not quite as expressionless as the Mancunians but very still - and quizzical – making a sort of silent group exclamation of “Well?”
“Oh bloody hell. Oh bloody, bloody hell!” muttered Paul, burying his head in his towel.
(NB the cord on the toe tale.)
aged just twenty, had married Sylvia Williams from
I was seeing both blonde Susan Shrigley from Heaton Chapel and dark-eyed Anne, a talented fine-arts student, from Gatley, at the time – for a short time - before striking up a long, committed and lovely friendship with Susan.
was very blonde, blue eyed, cream complexioned, sang with a jazz band – a
culture beyond my experience – swaying her long thick shining hair around her
shoulders, and, she told me, was descended from the Shrigley’s of Pott
Shrigley, an exclusive
Susan’s father was, like mine, an accountant. He worked for the Electricity Board and demonstrated all the reliability, habit and precision that accountants are legendarily famous for. He was also, like Harry Williams, a Free Mason, complete with apron, trowel and mysterious briefcase. Having learned via Richard that Free Mason’s loathed Catholics, and having sat through an uncomfortable conversation with Susan’s father, in his living room, when he swore that he could detect the presence of Catholics by their awful smell – and couldn’t I do the same? I was careful not to be drawn on my religious upbringing and affiliations, which he simply assumed to be good old Church of England.
This wasn’t quite as cowardly and reprehensible as it may initially seem as, though baptised and educated as a Catholic and able to sing all the words of “Faith of our Father’s, Holy Faith” in praise of Catholic martyrdom, I had always been an unconvinced Papist and was, aged seventeen going on eighteen, about to become a lapsed Catholic, with or without Masonic approval. And to replace the loss of meaning and philosophy that quitting The Church left in my psyche, I was reading everything and anything I could get on alternatives. The more esoteric and outlandish these alternative religions – the better I liked them.
was at the time, reading the esteemed works, in paper back, of T. Lobsang
Rampa, a Tibetan monk, then masquerading as a Liverpool bus driver, who wrote
about the history and pre-history of
I had come home late from Susan’s house in an unusually untrammelled frame of mind and I finished off one of the Tibetan books before going to sleep.
was a warm night, even in
The book had given a blow by blow, step by step account and I lay flat as instructed and relaxed my body, muscle by muscle, as instructed, and then started on the process of emptying my mind, as instructed. With my supra-relaxed body feeling as if it was sinking through the bed, I imagined the blackboard at school – an empty blackboard. Every time a stray thought meandered across the blackboard, I rubbed it out, leaving the blackboard entirely black. All of a sudden – or suddenly – as my English teacher would prefer it written, I felt the psychic jolt that preceded my soul leaving the body. Any nervous jump at this point and the whole exercise would be ruined. But I was steadfast and courageous and was rewarded by my soul, my life force, drifting up to the ceiling above the bed from where, as instructed, I turned and viewed the prone body lying in deepest relaxation below. So far so good.
This was my first ever and only out-of-body experience but those of you who are old hands at astral-travel will know that once freed from the earthly flesh, the soul, or astral-body, can travel anywhere in the universe and transcend any time frame. The Universe was my oyster. I could soar into the clouds. I could flow to Mars and Saturn and Venus. I could traverse the vast distances to other galaxies in seconds. So I decided I would go to Susan’s.
She lived just two or three miles away as the crow or the astral-body flies. I manoeuvred myself out of the window with ease and with very great pleasure at being able to fly. I drifted up the house until I could see the detail of the roof. I set a course and bobbed lazily across Heaton Mersey, over Heaton Moor, marvelling at the detail and new sights I saw from that height and then gently down to Susan’s semi in Heaton Chapel. It was late and the house was closed up and asleep. The book had given no instructions about such situations, it assumed communion with other astral-travellers but none were about, so I had to improvise.
I drifted to Susan’s bedroom window, knocked politely, in a soft immaterial fashion and thoughtfully said…
“Don’t be frightened it’s only me.”
…before realising that if she did open the curtains and saw me floating there, it could be truly terrifying – as Susan knew nothing of the T. Lobsang Rampa book.
I drifted down to the glazed front door and knocked softly on the frosted
glass. Within moments I saw Susan come to the top of the stairs in her
nightdress. She peered uncertainly down at the door, with the street light
shining in – and through me – then she turned and fled back to her room. This
was not as easy as I had thought. I returned home in an instant, to think
things through. Still floating, I decided I was being too cautious. I could go
anywhere, anyplace, anytime and here I was bothering Susan. I was also still in
love with Pauline who had rejected me and gone to live in
Next day it was easy to assume the night’s happenings had been the work of an over-active imagination. I said nothing. And that evening I called as usual at about at Susan’s. Her mother came to the door in her inevitable twin-set and pearls, looking worried.
“I’m afraid Susan isn’t very well – and she’s asleep.” she told me.
“She heard somebody outside the house last night; somebody who said ‘Its only me, don’t be frightened’ and then she heard them at the front door – so she went onto the landing to look, but though she heard somebody tapping on the glass, she couldn’t see anyone. She got very spooked and sat up all night on her bed wrapped in a blanket. I’m sure she’ll be fine tomorrow.”
I kept my counsel and went about my business.
This is a true story.
Susan and I eventually parted and went our separate ways. I heard that her father died young of a heart attack, as did mine – perhaps its an accountancy thing – or maybe he died of apoplexy when he at last realised that I, regular visitor to his home for two years or more, was, or once had been, a closet, if confusingly sweet smelling, Catholic.
- To be continued -
This is a report, an entirely unimpeachable, true story, unabridged and unembellished, of unbridled, unrestrained sexual harassment and undeniable sexual lust that rocked Heaton Moor and which, if he dares to read it, will make Arthur, who from an early age traded shirts on Stockport market, blush, if he retains any sense of shame, from his starched collar to the tip of one of his ever-fresh white shirt tails.
Peter-John Ryder, Tony and Terry Ryder’s younger brother, was not as bad tempered and curt as his abrupt manner and rapid walk implied; except when dealing with his beautiful blonde sister, Mary-Jo, who was just a year younger than he. Like all the Ryders, Peter-John was small but, unlike his father and two older brothers who were big men with short legs, he was, as was his pretty mother, ‘small but perfectly formed’.
As we matured from schoolboys into teenagers and then into young-men, Peter-John, who had for years been the good-looking, strong, silent type, enhanced his sex-appeal and pal-appeal by more and more often driving his father’s excitingly new and expensive cars and, when a car was not available, Peter-John had charge of a Tompkin & Ryder builder’s van. His twenty four hour command of a serious vehicle, of any type, with wheels and an engine, placed him in a higher realm than all of his contemporaries.
Even Leon Marshall from Parsonage Road, whose father owned several tailors’ shops and who sometimes allowed Leon to drive his automatic 2.4 Jaguar, which Leon proved, on nearby Wellington Road, could accelerate from nought to a hundred and back again in a few seconds, burning off only an inch or so of rubber while carrying up to six ‘speed referees’ to witness the feat, was as a child compared to Peter-John’s adult right to his own transport.
van, always replaced after just fifty-thousand miles, so almost new, was part
of Peter-John’s work equipment, enabling him to travel from site to site,
officiously ferrying men and vital building supplies from the Tompkin &
Ryder offices in Smithfield Market to the outlying areas of
Where ordinary men might hoist a hundredweight bag of cement onto the back of the lorry Big Fred effortlessly loaded three at a time. Where common labourers cleared sand and rubble for hours with a size eight shovel Big Fred good naturedly wielded a size fourteen. When two of us youths huffed and puffed and struggled manfully to lift a roof beam onto the lorry, Big Fred, without bothering to breathe any harder, picked them up two at a time. Big Fred was strong, and in the immediate environment of Tompkin & Ryder, the only person Big Fred feared, apart from his boss Eddie Ryder – was Big Nellie.
Despite the similar soubriquet, Big Nellie and Big Fred were not related. They were however of similar size, probably of similar weights and even, with suitable allowances for gender, were quite similar in appearance. Big Nellie and her large extended family owned a fishmonger’s warehouse in the market, just a few doors away from Eddie Ryder’s first floor offices.
Peter-John, in his usual terse, tearing hurry, but even more so this Thursday spring morning, whisked three young passengers, who wanted to get to Manchester, in a small Standard 10 pick-up, from Heaton Moor to the company offices, en-route to accompany Big Fred in the lorry with a load, an urgent load of course, to a site in Moston.
With four of us packed into the two-seater cab, all of us smoking and flicking ash out of the quarter-lights, it was necessary for survival to have the main windows open – firstly in order to breath and secondly for safety purposes, as it was through the open windows that Peter-John, driving as if the survival of the human-race depended on our punctuality, forewarned pedestrians, cyclists, horse-drawn carts and other drivers, loudly, firmly and non-too politely, of our passage. He also blasted the horn a great deal. We covered the six or seven miles into Manchester centre on the main roads at a steady pace, around fifty miles an hour, through crowded streets where all other vehicles were travelling at fifteen or twenty miles an hour and were often stationery. This took some skill; skill that only a grim faced teenager, with three laconic po-faced friends, determined to show no emotion of any kind, could muster.
The pick-up-truck, carting a tall cement mixer in the back, charged and weaved and braked and twisted and turned and squealed and raced through the morning traffic. The streets around Smithfield were narrow and cobbled, packed with traders’ vans and cars and wagons parked in every bay, on the cobbles and on the pavements; and with shoppers of all ages and sizes carrying bulging string bags and brown-paper parcels tied with string. They blocked the alleyways solid – but they did not slow our headlong flight. Peter-John’s highly effective technique was to drive at obstructions and people, at high speed, horn blaring, lights flashing, face set in a death mask, and to only divert from his chosen route at the last second if the obstruction proved to be immovable and indestructible or if the pedestrians stumbled and fell beneath our wheels with cries of despair, pleading for their lives.
Dogs were given right of way. Peter-John liked dogs.
Where the cobbles were blocked, we drove on the pavements, where parked vehicles intruded into our path, Peter-John would gently nudge them out of the way with the pick-up fenders, caring little, in fact caring not at all, that the inoffensive vehicle would be trapped in its new position for eons, until uncovered in some future age by zealous archaeologists. Where a pedestrian wandered down the street in a pleasant dream, Peter-John crept up behind them to within twelve inches, then blasted the horn and swore at them as they leapt out of their raincoats and their terrified skins; before we swept imperiously past, our faces still fashionably deadpan, with Peter-John nonchalantly leaning one leather patched elbow of his hacking jacket on the window sill.
Thus, in twenty-five exciting minutes from Heaton Moor, we arrived in the jam packed street, opposite the covered market, outside Tompkin & Ryder, where Peter-John braked to a sudden halt, double parked alongside a shopper’s car, consigning the owner to a very long wait, leapt out, locked the van and marched wordlessly into a doorway, into one of the old low buildings surrounding the market, and up a flight of stairs. I followed while our two friends went off to other destinations.
The offices were low roofed, long and narrow with ancient windows overlooking the street. As at the Ryder’s home, every useful surface, including the window bays, was covered with the new Formica, in dark oak patterns. In the office, his head brushing the ceiling, and having to manoeuvre his great girth sideways through the narrow doors, was Big Fred. He automatically put the kettle on the gas ring and lined up five large, deeply stained mugs, a half-used bottle of milk, a crumpled bag of sugar and a spoon secured to the table with string – and nodded amiably at us. No words were spoken but much understanding passed between us as Peter-John took papers, a small metal ruler and a building plan from a drawer, accepted the mug of dark-brown tea, with two sugars, which Fred pressed into his hands, and pored over the documents. Big Fred, as was his role, waited and didn’t even attempt to read the obviously crucial management texts. He handed me a mug of tea. We all lit cigarettes, none of us offering our packs around – the rule being to smoke your own.
Ryder browsed in from his room, smoking a cigarette and wearing a fabulously
expensive straw coloured overcoat draped over his shoulders and an equally
pricey dark suit with a silver-grey waistcoat. His tie was secured with an
understated diamond pin. He was obviously going out and he was obviously in a
hurry, but not so hurried to not have time for a mug of
“How tall are you?” he asked with a pleasant, boss’s smile. I told him I was five-foot-ten and a half inches. The half-inch was of vital importance as it made me a quarter-inch taller, though he would deny it to his dying day, than my older brother Richard.
“Now I’m only five feet six.” Eddie told me, sleeking back his then still sandy, waved hair with a strong sunburnt hand, “…But I’ll bet you a fiver…” five pounds was a lot of money “…that I’m taller than you – sitting down…” And he smiled up at me with a broad, bronzed, superstar sort of smile.
I knew that though Eddie was carefully not looking at Big Fred, who stooped to avoid collision with the ceiling, these remarks were more for the employee’s benefit than mine. Peter-John looked up briefly and coldly at this time wasting pantomime. I must have looked a bit gormless as Eddie felt the need to explain.
“I’ll bet you, young man, five pounds, that if we sit back to back, …I’m taller than you…” and he snickered loudly like a happy horse, waiting for me to protest.
Though I was sure he was right, I politely obliged him and protested that such a thing could not possibly be. Eddie sneaked a look in Big Fred’s direction and beamed at me triumphantly. I didn’t have a fiver to take the bet but that fact was tacitly assumed and completely beside the point. As Eddie commandeered two precisely matched chairs and put them back to back, Terry Ryder in labouring clothes and a cloth cap bounded in, saw the set up, grinned wildly, grabbed a handful of notes from a petty-cash box while his father wasn’t looking and dashed out again. Eddie bade me sit and to sit up straight, as tall as I could, before he sat down.
I couldn’t of course see him and, sitting as still and upright as he required of me, it was difficult to turn round. Eddie though, quite rightly assumed I would trust his integrity in the matter; and, like a good Christian, that I would believe without seeing.
“…See…” said Eddie; though I patently couldn’t see at all, “…I’m a good inch, maybe two, taller than you!”
I could feel his hand waving around somewhere just above my swept-back hair and I fully believed that he was flattening his own hair with that hand then, with absolute fairness, was moving it horizontally backwards, without deviation, across my head to make the comparison. Peter-John snorted contemptuously and found reason to march around our little competition stage, on serious business. His father was unperturbed by this disapproval.
“Well…” he said, extremely pleased with himself and generously waving aside the non-offer I was making to pay the bet, “…I have to get over to Williams and Glynn’s bank in Old Trafford and quote for some new counters and safety glass they want…” He was now obviously in a real hurry. So he hurried out. Peter-John sniffed and Big Fred visibly relaxed.
new car, a long black Humber Hawk, an automatic, with a radio, and which,
inspired by American design, had squishy suspension that made its nose dip to
the ground when braking at high-speed, as Peter-John had demonstrated to us at
a valve bouncing one-hundred-and-two miles an hour on the Cheadle-By-Pass, was
parked half on the pavement across the office doorway immediately below us. The
market was as busy as ever, the streets blocked and, I could see for a fact,
Eddie’s car, built on a steel chassis, was irretrievably locked in, with market
traders’ cars, other big powerful cars, jammed up tight against his front and
rear bumpers. We watched as he climbed into the
Peter-John looked out at the problem with the reserved interest of a professional driver.
people waved unconcerned ‘hello’s’ to him as the
“Daft bugger” muttered Big Fred but in an admiring tone. This was the boss he gave his allegiance to, who had once again earned his respect.
Peter-John had finished with the papers. He put one or two bills of lading in a slim leather case which he tucked under his arm and asked Big Fred where the lorry was.
parked ‘im in
“…It’s s’loaded. All ready to go.”
“C’mon then,” commanded Peter-John, starting to lead the way. But before we moved, there came an uproar in the street below that had us rushing back to the windows – imagining that one of the bashed cars’ owners had turned up and was looking for someone to murder.
Across from us, under the covered market canopy, a bunch of people had gathered around three central players – then, the bunch, thinking better of it, had backed off a few yards from the three, forming a respectfully wide three-quarter circle around them.
Right in the centre was a woman. But this was no woman for virginal youths such as Peter-John and I to weave fond dreams around – nightmares perhaps, but not dreams. She represented the prima-materia of the Universe, the first Eve, the Mother of all matter, the foundation of the Earth. She was a large woman; easily as large as Big Fred. She wore the costume, unmistakably, of a fishwife. She spoke, or rather hollered, unmistakably, like a fishwife. She no doubt smelt, if one wandered into her perfumed ambit, unmistakably, like a fishwife.
Her sleeves were rolled back revealing terrifyingly, impossibly broad lower arms that were attached to monstrous upper arms and hence to massive but shapeless shoulders. Her head, topped with insubstantial mousey hair tied up, incongruously, with an infant’s red ribbon, was massive. Her face was a slab of lard, with a small mouth, which when closed was almost invisible and when open was like the maw of a Sperm Whale. Her eyes were tiny compared to her face; dark, Gallic and piercingly fierce in their intensity. Her legs, mercifully wrapped in a long pink skirt and a stripped, waterproof apron, were elephantine; each would have adequately made the whole of my mere ten-and-a-half stone.
This apparition stood, monumentally still, with her arms outstretched, extended seemingly without effort on her part. One blubbery hand encircled the neck of a man; not a small man by any means but small and helpless compared to the creature who gripped him. The hand completely contained the man’s strangulated neck, her fingers and thumb meeting at the nearside. The other arm, equally comfortably extended for as long as it took, ended in her massive fist. Within the fist were tightly gathered ample pleats from a second man’s shirt, vest, tie, waistcoat, jacket and, causing certainly some inconvenience if not agonising pain for the man who still wore, or was attempting to wear, these garments, the fist also gathered in his braces and consequently hauled the crotch of his trousers two feet higher than his tailor had ever intended. We all wondered if the poor emasculated soul dressed to his left, or to his right – in normal circumstances.
“That’s Big Nellie,” explained Peter-John shortly, but even his quick voice betrayed a note of unconscious anxiety in the presence of this destroyer of worlds.
…a bit bloody tough..” said Big Fred, not bothering to hide his fear – and his
admiration. “…There’s nobody in
We three stared transfixed at the trio outside.
“Don’t know who the blokes are…” obliged Peter-John, stimulated into a rare volunteering of information.
It was clear that the two men had friends and supporters in the watching crowd. But the supporters had obviously decided to act in a purely advisory capacity, confining themselves to helpful comments.
“She can’t hold you there all day…” one of the watching men encouraged the hapless prisoners.
Big Nellie slowly turned her head, like a hunting owl, and looked at him. He decided discretion was the better part of valour and shut up.
“She laid a bloke out last winter…” Big Fred told us, “…he wus a wrestler, you know, from Belle Vue; thought he was tough. She walloped him with just one arm. Just the one hit. He was in hospital for weeks. He never came back here…”
Big Fred sucked his toothless upper gum, being at the stage of waiting for a top denture on the National Health, and sighed heavily; whether from deep fright or suppressed love was difficult to decide. We each lit another cigarette as it was clear we would go nowhere until this drama was resolved.
“…OK Nellie…” soothed a big man in white rubberised overalls, shouldering his way into the circle.
“One of ‘er brothers” supplied Big Fred.
“…Let’s not do them any damage. After all…” he added reasonably, “…they’ve been good customers – them and their dad before them, for … well for a long time.”
Big Nellie was not quite convinced, she made no move, but to acute observers it may have seemed that she slackened her grip, a teeny-weeny bit. The strangled man’s colour reduced from bright puce to pink and his eyes settled back into his head – a little.
Despite the stay of execution, neither of them yet dared to struggle.
A sound came from Big Nellie and all around was silence to allow her voice the airwaves and space it so royally deserved, “Cheeky bloody sods,” she said sociably.
This was obviously a conciliatory statement as her brother came right up to her with some confidence and lightly held one of her ponderous wrists. “…I’ve a bloody good mind to just slap ‘em around a bit, before we let them go…” she added evenly.
Both men tensed with renewed terror, completely powerless to defend themselves, but neither tried to speak.
“…No need Nellie…” said her brother, keeping his voice calm and offering her the nearest thing his face could make of a winning smile. “…They’ve learned their lesson, Nellie. They’ll be good boys from now on… …Won’t you lads.”
The ‘good boys’, who, when not suspended from Nellie’s arms were successful and mature business men in their early forties, nodded with ingratiating vigour.
“…Well…” said Big Nellie, suddenly, horribly, becoming toe-curlingly coy, “…if they promise… I just might”
Nellie’s brother looked at his two customers, probably themselves brothers in a fishmonger business, and said nothing, but they understood nonetheless and found their collective voice.
“We promise Nellie. We promise. Honest we do Nellie. No harm done Nellie, a bit of a joke really.” They gasped in unison.
“You’d bloody better” she growled at them, her pacific mood waning fast, but she nevertheless let them both go.
Released, the neck man almost fell to the ground but two other men rushed forward and propped him up. The clothes man turned away and made brave attempts to tuck his crumpled shirt, through his twisted braces, back into his crumpled pants and to smooth out his crumpled waistcoat and badly creased suit as he stumbled quickly out of Nellie’s immediate reach. The crowd, by common consent and in awe, politely parted to let Big Nellie through and waited for her to start on her majestic way back to the family office before they began to disperse.
Big Fred wiped beads of sweat from his forehead.
go now,” he said lapsing into broadest
Peter-John leapt into action, leading Big Fred and me down the stairs through the alleyways and out onto the main shopping street, Market Street, which sloped down from Piccadilly to Deansgate. Peter-John, as neat as ever in grey cavalry-twill slacks, a country-style jacket, a smart shirt and tie and his hair cut and groomed very like his father’s, with his document case under his arm and a business like expression on his face, stepped out rapidly, clicking his shiny shoes onto the pavement with military precision. Big Fred, in a dark blue overall with bib and braces, checked shirt, a ragged tie and a favourite old cloth cap, ambled behind him with his big legs easily keeping pace. I had to skip and run a little to keep up as we weaved through window-shoppers, around parked cars, dodged behind vans and lorries and risked our lives leaping in front of the almost silent trolley buses that warned of their coming more by their ozone, electric smell and blue, crackling flashes rather than by engine noise. The Tompkin & Ryder Bedford truck, loaded with bricks, was parked at the traffic lights on the corner by Lewis’s main entrance and, as Big Fred had boasted, it was free of obstructions ahead. We scrambled into the cab, Big Fred now in charge, and the lorry lurched away, down the main street and turned right to detour out onto the road to Ancoats, as Big Fred wanted to call in at his home en route to the building site.
“Fred!...” barked Peter-John, “…where’re you going. Where are you taking us?”
Big Fred, not at all phased at being checked and challenged by this young management mosquito, calmly told us in a tone that allowed no discussion that he was going to swing by his house and pick up his lunch-box, which had not been ready when he left home at six o’clock this morning, while we were no doubt in bed, to go and get the bricks, now loaded in the lorry, which we were currently delivering.
With Big Fred’s unhurried and expert driving we arrived without incident in the hilly streets of Ancoats; row after row of small terraced Victorian brick houses with polished windows, lace curtains and spotless soap-stoned steps, pierced every fourth house by an arched passage leading to the network of cobbled alleys which ran behind and connected the community of all these homes. Infants played out in the streets, despite a persistent bright drizzle of rain, and Big Fred manoeuvred the vehicle with patience, as Peter-John jiggled his knee and fretted in silence. We arrived and Big Fred clambered out and disappeared into one of the houses.
Peter-John and I lit cigarettes and opened the quarter-lights to flick out the ash.
“He was born here…” said Peter-John suddenly, with some proprietorial pride, “…Grew up here with his brother… …lived here all his life. And when he got married and his mum died, he and his wife stayed on. Right here.”
“Oh” I said.
Big Fred came back clutching his lunch-box, a square Jacobs Cream Crackers tin, and climbed into the driver’s seat.
Before the engine started Peter-John said “Fred!” but not quite as authoritatively as usual “…tell him about your brother…” and he nodded in my direction.
Big Fred looked at me carefully while he considered this request. He sucked at his gums and took a few moments to light a Woodbine. He weighed me up for another moment then decided he could tell me the family secret.
“Me brother…” he announced suspiciously, still scrutinising my face, “…Me younger brother, Charlie…” and he paused again, still not quite certain if I could be trusted with the information, “…Charlie, is a ballet dancer.”
The information didn’t fit. It demanded feats of imagination and a suspension of disbelief that were very, very difficult to conjure.
I looked at Big Fred; his great bulk; his huge hands and thickened fingers almost immobilised by hard labour and stained by building materials and tobacco; his half toothless mouth; his thinning hair splaying out from under his cap. I thought of the bits of ballet I’d seen on the television and on posters – Nijinsky floating through the air, his impossibly taut buttocks and shapely thighs sheathed in white tights. I looked again at Big Fred and wondered about his age. I looked at the tiny terraced house, one of millions, and at the anonymous pavement. It just didn’t work. But Big Fred was clearly deadly serious; and it was not a joking matter.
“Gosh – where did he – I mean, does he, dance?”
not round ‘ere…” said Big Fred as if the very idea was not to be countenanced,
“…down in London,” he added with some relief, “…in a place called Covent Garden
– it’s a bit like our Smithfield up ‘ere – you know, costermongers,
fishmongers, butchers an’ the like. Very big market it is. Bigger than
I thought he’d finished and I was trying to frame another question, but Big Fred had more to say.
“…and in the middle of it all; right by this bloody great market, they’ve built a theatre – a bloody huge theatre… …an’ that’s where Charlie dances… …I’ve bin there; me an’ the wife… …We’ve seen ‘im dancin’… …Our Charlie can dance alright…” he added ruminatively, his mind far, far from Ancoats and our load of bricks.
Then he suddenly turned on me – to catch any hint of mockery. “…We’d best get goin’…” he said, starting up the lorry and shifting it into gear.
Peter-John dropped me on the corner of
Ryder’s home in Elm’s Road, near
Immediately greeting all callers and the eight family members who lived there was tea making equipment of the latest design and largest size. It was customary for whoever arrived, at whatever time, to refill the almost certainly still hot kettle, fire up the automatic gas cooker, flush out the team-sized teapot, refill the sugar bowl and set it by, at the very least, half-a-dozen washed tea mugs, or however many more might be indicated by counting the crowd in the next room.
The next room was a sitting room which had also been shop-fitted and stretched to and beyond its physical boundaries. The Edwardian architects had visualised a space for, say, six suburban adults to meet and converse in reasonable, civilised, quiet comfort. After suitable treatment, the demolishing of superfluous walls, the addition of bow window bays finished in Formica, and radical rethinking of the traditional furnishings, the room resembled an airport lounge with individual seating – the comfortable, wide, cushioned, leatherette chairs that Eddie Ryder preferred – for twenty-five. It also found room for a sixteen seat, Formica topped, dining table.
This room was more often than not half full of casual visitors, friends of, or at least known to one or another, of the Ryder brood, smoking, drinking tea and swapping gossip, who Mr and Mrs Ryder might join or, more often, would pass through, exchanging banter and news, on their way to get changed or, dressed in their finest, - Mrs Ryder in yet another new dress, looking half her age, slim, tiny, groomed and of whom it could not possibly be believed that she had given birth to six children - on their way out to eat a meal at the White House or the White Hart in Prestbury or to attend some other expensive venue.
The once modest end of terrace also accommodated, as well as the enlarged kitchen and commodious lounge, across its narrow hall, a small private sitting room where Peter-John liked to retire with his pals to play his Frank Sinatra records; and somehow, breaking all geometric and physical laws with impunity, laughing in the face of spatial reality, upstairs there was known to be a locked parental bedroom, with a wholly decadent and, to most reverent church goers, an unimaginable – “I mean why on Earth would you need one and what would you do in it?” en-suite bathroom and toilet; for the exclusive use of Mr and Mrs Ryder; who spent an unaccountable amount of time there. In addition to all this, the house found sleeping and private room for six grown and growing children.
The doors, day or night, were never locked and the lights were always on. It was a great house for parties.
Arthur Jowell, though local and well known, had somehow missed the previous dozens of parties at the Ryders and the always open club like tea rooms. He had somehow overlooked the budding pale beauty of Mary-Jo and missed out on the stream of attractive girls who passed through the Ryders. He was a busy young man, working hard and making money in any way he could, including selling shirts on Stockport Market. Richard and I had once tried to emulate Arthur’s obvious success but even after queuing for a stall at four in the morning, in the damp winter cold, week after week, and investing in a range of shirts and cotton dresses, we found that selling was no easy thing.
Arthur was good at it. He too was large. Not nearly as large as Big Fred, and a mere sprat compared to Big Nellie but tall and filled out. He had straight blonde neatly cut hair, a fair chubby face and he always looked well scrubbed, as if he had just had a bath or a shower. Arthur habitually wore a loose, smart white shirt, cuffs buttoned up and with a colourful tie at the starched collar. His manner was acquiescent – Arthur’s customers were always right – he put his head to one side and talked with a slightly worried frown as if he was concerned for your point of view. But shining through the conciliatory mannerisms was an underlying watchfulness, the alertness of a good salesman, looking for the trigger, the little human weakness, which he might exploit in the nicest sense, and close a deal on a shirt – or a tie – or anything else he could offer. Arthur knew that the world consisted of the Quick and the Dead. He was Quick, he had grown-up.
But even the most dedicated careerist will from time to time lose their concentrated sense of direction, take a break and relax their guard. So it was that Arthur, the same age as Terry, two or three years older than Peter-John, accepted an invitation to the party, no doubt contributed to the barrel of beer purchased for the event and turned up that Saturday night at the Ryders after stock taking and banking his sales.
Peter-John, I and our peer group were a bit out of our depth. Most of the guests were Terry’s friends and so the girls were older than us and little interested in kid-brothers. But Mary-Jo joined in and she danced with us to the Elvis records, and one or two other girls of our age dropped by, lending a sexual potential to the evening, however unattainable, which kept us going. Among Terry’s boy and girl friends there was much smooching, furtive fumbling and bedroom doors banging shut, which we could only wonder at and dismiss as drunken behaviour. As ever, at such parties, there were more males than females. At about midnight, Tony Ryder came home with a couple of friends, slightly sozzled from another night at his Cricket Club, but still managing an aristocratic hauteur and effortless superiority which Terry mocked – which in his turn Tony the Elder dismissed as being beneath his dignity.
At two o’clock the ashtrays were not quite overflowing, the beer hadn’t run out and the music still pounded out Rock and Jazz dances and intimate and romantic songs encouraging tighter and tighter embraces, when the parents, Eddie and Eileen returned. Every chair, corner, table edge and carpet, including the stairs, was occupied by young people at various stages of sexual hope, despair or scientific experimentation. Arthur, having lost the attentions of Mary-Jo who was in any case far too young for him, had been drowning his passion in larger than customary quantities of beer. He was part slumped, still pristine in his white shirt and smart tie but with some of the watchfulness faded from his eyes and perspiring freely, on the narrow, carpeted staircase.
Mr and Mrs Ryder were not party-poopers. They acknowledged people they knew with waves, nods and bows and some few words as they stepped carefully through and sometimes over the throng on the way to their private, locked and secure bedroom suite. They needed nothing from the house and minded not at all that it was heaving with noise, fumes, beer and unrequited love. They would escape it all in their sacrosanct territory.
Eddie Ryder was waylaid at the door of the lounge. Eileen took the key and went ahead of him as he chatted to one of Tony’s friends who just might want the family shop redesigned and refitted. A few minutes later he followed his wife up the stairs. Ten minutes after that, Eddie came down again. He was wearing his smart trousers, fashionable braces and socks. But his jacket and shirt were missing so the braces snaked over a gleaming white string vest which covered his barrel chest. The party was in full swing and at full stretch.
Short as he was, Eddie was king in his own domain and made an imposing figure as he positioned himself at the head of the long lounge. He seemed to need no extra height as his gaze sought out and found one of his sons. He made motions with his hands and the son immediately knew to rush over and turn off the music. As it died, everyone stopped and became silent. All eyes found Eddie Ryder. He waited until he was certain of everyone’s undivided attention.
Then he raised both his arms in the air and spread them wide. “The Party…” he pronounced, his voice carrying commandingly through the house, without him having to shout, “…is over! Everyone must leave. Go Home!”
That was it. None would argue or question the order. We all left within minutes and, as he suggested, went home.
The next day, as the regulars assembled without invitation or any time arrangement, to drink tea in the Ryder’s lounge, we learned from Terry what had happened. Terry was slumped happily in one of the easy chairs, unshaven, smoking and scratching his thinning hair. Mr and Mrs Ryder had gone out to a Garden Party.
He jumped up and impersonated his dad.
“The Party..” yelled Terry, holding his arms up like Horatio at the Bridge, “..is OVER!” he giggled; bringing his arms down in a theatrical gesture and laughing some more.
“It was Arthur…” he told us gleefully.
“…Arthur Jowell. He was on the stairs. At the top of the stairs. A bit pissed ‘cause he doesn’t drink a lot. Not Arthur…”
“…and when they were going up to bed, Eddie was stopped by Bernard Cox, Tony’s pal…”
We knew the Cox’s as the richest respectable family around. I’d been to primary school with Winifred Cox and had quite a thing for her. Bernard Cox was a budding racing driver.
Terry pressed on.
“…anyway; Eileen went up with the key to the bedroom.”
Nobody in those days referred to their parents by first name. It was faintly shocking. But then Terry was not ‘Nobody’. And it made the story more narratable.
“And she had to step over Arthur as he was sprawled on the top stair with a glass in his hand…”
He paused to accept and light a cigarette.
“…So as Eileen puts the key in the bedroom door, Arthur lurches to his feet… …Not to help her with the door though. He doesn’t know who she is.”
“And he leans over my mother – and says “I haven’t seen you before Darling! - do want me to come in there with you?” He’s propositioning Eddie’s wife – in his own house.”
And Terry went into shrieks and peals of laughter and had to drag on his cigarette before he could continue.
“Of course Eileen says nothing. She doesn’t know what to say. Mother of six and being picked up at a party by a teenager… …at her own bedroom door” and Terry again had to pause for breath from laughing – and draw on the cigarette for strength.
He wiped away a tear. “Then Eddie goes up – and she tells him what’s happened.”
Terry’s mirth is boundless as he imagines the scene and the conversation. He can hardly carry on the story. His audience, all who had mother’s, gave a mixed reaction to this shocking event.
But Terry’s giggling was infectious; it was hard not to at least smile.
“…And even though he’s part undressed – he issues forth – and…”
Terry is on the verge of collapse from laughing,
“…He does his John Wayne thing. In his string vest. Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha .. Heh Heh …The Party …. The Party … Heh Heh Ho … Is OVER!”
Wisely, Arthur sobered up, returned to selling – and according to David Hall, made several millions of pounds.
Peter Hobbs (cards)
Paul and Rosalind Elliot
Barry Chadwick –
Lee and Barrylyn Chadwick
Michael Howard –
Woody – Roger Woods
David O’Hanlon – Goulash
Michael Farmer and brother
Keith – the greengrocers son
Winifred Cox (
Jennifer Payne (at Pauline’s house)
Duke – from Burnage
Crockett – Davy
Biff Keegan etc
Nobby Reeves (and brother?)
Michael McCarron and etc.
Jane-Anne Carr (Bramhall)
& Heather Butcher
Marion Heighway – Gladstone Grove
David Deane – Gladstone Grove
The Kays –
Roger Clarke (
Janet Marsh (Sultan)
Barry Cheetham (Cheeseman?)