Photo 1- Rowland Kitchen selling flags at a parade.
Photo 2- Marchers at the 1952 Durham Miners Gala
Phot 3- Durham Miners Gala in 1967. The one we attended
“Gypsies brown passed through the town, they looked not left nor write.
Their gordy vardo’s rumble on until they’re out of sight”
When I was twelve my English teacher Mrs Dutton asked that we write a poem about something which interested us. I was struggling and unusually my dad offered help. These are the first two lines of the poem that I (he) wrote. Mrs Dutton was not impressed. I got a C minus.
When in the mood he would trot out these two lines to playfully annoy my mother who was an English teacher. She would go into a heated rant and throw the word doggerel about. He would sit and grin and his face would go pink
For forty five years I’ve been meaning to check if dad had lifted these lines from someone else’s poetry. Google has been consulted and the answer is a clear ‘no’ so that’s one more thing cleared up.
Two stories by way of an introduction
Sometime during the summer of 1967, dad and I are travelling to the Durham miners Gala. We must have gone up by train as we spent Friday night sleeping in the station waiting room there. Resting between each of our legs is a cardboard box. His bigger, mine smaller. Two holes have been made through the double layer of the box and flap. A kind of smooth braided string may be a quarter of an inch thick is threaded through each set of holes and tied back upon itself to form a shoulder harness. The box is for carrying in that way. Its full of union flags in bundles of a gross’ or twelve times a dozen. Squeezed in the in-between spaces are bags of a hundred ‘novelty balloons and thin canes to tie them on. Selling everything, which we would, gave my dad what would have been two weeks wages at his job. Sitting on top of everything and wrapped in newspaper are three large, washed potatoes.
My dad was worried that someone would make off with the stock whilst we slept. The box would not squeeze under the bench, so we would need to rest our heads upon the then with the ropes tied around our wrists in case of a grab attack. Button down pockets protected everything else of value.
Rowland, my dad is about forty seven years old. Check shirt, wine coloured tie, jaunty flat cap, jodhpurs and a corduroy jacket. Hearing aid prominently clipped to breast pocket. His pedlars licence described his complexion as ruddy, and his hearing ‘hard of’. There’s no fat on him. He habitually talks like he is addressing an audience. He declaims in Yorkshire vowels. I’m a fat little boy with a stammer. Before resting heads on boxes comes the safety lecture for the night. “Don’t go off by yourself; If anyone tries to do anything let me deal with it. If you want to go for a wee, tell me”.
I’ve looked at photos of the 1967 gala. It looks to have been something of a classic as big labour movement names Harold Wilson and Vic Feather spoke at the picnic. It looks grey and seems to be drizzling.
My memory shifts on to the morning of the gala we are walking through streets of terraced houses with the boxes hanging off our shoulders. The potatoes are impaled upon a tower of bunched canes which are wedged in a corner of the box. Individual flags and balloons on canes are pushed into the potatoes. He calls it a ‘flash’. The street traders shop window. Something to get attention and to draw in the clientele. The day was planned as for a campaign. Morning would be spent trawling the streets for pennies, around the place where later in the day the procession and bands would congregate. Small groups of young children would nag their mothers for money for a flag or balloon. Here we were not expecting big takings, it was about covering our x’s or expenses. The afternoon would then be all clear profit. Getting close to the start time we would position ourselves at the assembly point and sell to the watchers and marchers there. Twenty minutes ahead of the start it was time to launch off and follow the procession route which would by then be lined five deep. I was positioned on one side of the road and he on the other but always to be kept in view. The aprons we wore were important. They were meant for carpentry but fitted our purpose just as well. Altogether three pockets. Two open, deep ones reaching down to the knees, and one running across with a zip. Copper, silver and notes and don’t get them mixed up. The trick was to be quick and flit from groups of customers to the next. Slowing down meant being overtaken by the procession and being moved on by the police. Complicated sales with someone who could not find the last few pence meant delays, so cut and run and take a small loss if need be. Call them union flags not union jacks or somebody will want to pin you down and berate you about the difference. Writing now it brings to mind an analogy of fruit picking. Go for the ripe bunches and leave the sparse pickings to someone else. He would say, “Look for those who have lots of kids”, go for the big groups on the corners, stay away from the old people with grandkids they slow you down”. There was also the showmanship. People who smile spend money. “When it goes slow put on a show, pin the flags between the fingers of your left hand just like waiters hold wine glasses and make a flash. He would throw great bundles up in the air and across the street for me to catch with a flourish which I rarely manage. Dropped flags would get a wry comment and a laugh from the crowd. This would go on for miles at something between a fast walk and a a slow trot.. My brothers were racy cavaliers. When they came along, Ian and Neil would take two minutes out to dive into a pub and pour pints down their throats and drag on a cigarette before jumping on the belt again. We would cover incredible distances in this way. The further we walked the lighter the box would become but to begin had felt like carrying a dead body in a sling. My outer legs chaffed and bruised. My lips greased with white condensate. Exhilaration kept us going and my father would be at his happiest.
There were competition .The Manchester lads who looked like Fagin and his apprentices. They had a much more aggressive approach towards the game and came over in packs in barely legal Bedford vans. Some would berate ‘deaf boy’, which is what my father called himself for undercutting them stealing ‘their’ pitches. Others were desperate looking men on their own with little stock, and would only hang around long enough to earn enough for a few hours in the pub. Both sets were on the borderline of criminality. Dad would look anxious when they were around.
The police were also a group to be contended with. Many were fair minded and were generally tolerant so long as we kept moving. Some recognised dad and even gave a certain amount of respect. Others had a meanness and vindictiveness of mind and would contrive reasons to confiscate stock. To do what we did required a thing called a pedlars licence. A piece of paper with a quote from an early Victorian legislation, a four line description of eye colour, complexion, build and height, and a photograph. This had to be produced on demand. My difficulty was that you had to be seventeen to have one and I was ten. The drill was standard. Dad would scan the crowds for uniforms. If spotted I was to drop the box and walk off into the crowds and dad would pretend that I’d been a customer. This was obviously not a viable option when walking the procession. Here we relied upon the officers deciding it was too much hassle when they were supposed to be managing the crowd. I was only ever once arrested and that was when I was fourteen. The constable had worked his way behind us and caught me red handed selling football badges. I was charged with the wrong offence and eventually the station sergeant though the best option was to confiscate the stock and just get rid of us.
The route in Durham seems to have been miles. Through the town and out to an area which I remember as enclosed fields. It may have been the race course. Here there would be the traditional picnic and fair. The crowd which often was more than a 100,000 would listen to speeches by Labour Leaders. Harold Wilson and Vic Feather were the stars that year. The strategy here changed. We were to find a spot where large numbers of people would walk by on their way to the picnic ground. A corner was good but it could not be too close to an entrance or we would be moved on. Our boxes were not supposed to rest on the ground as this would mean that we had set up a stall, and so be breaking the law. The plan was to harvest the people’s money on the way in and on their way out. This called for a change in the potato shop window. Flags took a back seat and balloon snakes on sticks, and inflatable rubber animals (everything from tigers to ducks) moved to the fore. This was not enough. The crowd need to know we were there. For that we used our secret weapon which was named, possibly innocently “Returning Balls”. These were tight bundles of paper just smaller than a tennis ball covered in foil and held together by a string net. One end of a two foot stretch of elastic was threaded through the ball. The other end was tied around our middle fingers. The trick was to throw the ball forward with carefully measured force so as to avoid snapping the cheap elastic and then play hand tennis with the returning ball. With practice startling velocities over tangential trajectories could be produced. Try and startle people, give them a surprise, get a smile and they will buy it”. The sweated production worker in Hong Kong had not always put enough craft into his work and sometimes the balls would break free and take off above the heads of the crowd. At that point there would be a nanno-second to find the perfect comment to diffuse any potential anger and avoid a standoff with an irate father. I was old enough to be embarrassed when this happened but deaf boy must have had the spiel because I only remember grins and banter about the British space programme and the race for the moon.
Why did dad travel so far from and Leeds, and sleep out of a railway station just to sell flags and balloons? He could have done exactly the same on any weekend in summer within 20 miles of home and made as much money. The answer might be that he was a card carrying Communist, but a wonderfully pragmatic one. The Durham Miners Gala was a big day out and a real spectacle but hard to quantify and then justify in the pocket account book that he kept. Putting words in his mouth which I’m not certain he would have said the trip was about belonging to an idea and a tradition. What was the purpose in that?
Men in shirt sleeves, flushed with beer walking alongside others they had spent their span of years working with and living alongside. Standing with others from your colliery with its union lodge banner embroidered with a socialist trinity (Marx, Lenin and local hero Hardie being dominant). Many were led by their own brass band. Smart and shiny at the start, sweat soaked, unbuttoned and puffed out at the end. These were all part of the ‘order of service’ in the British Socialist theology. The catechism would be broadly similar but spoken in more or less strictly ideological terms. Some would talk about Dialectical Materialism and the inevitability of the revolution others would swear by ‘socialism in one urban borough council’, the co-op and the Workers Educational Association. Most were level headed and gradualist. Joy was seeing Barbara Castle’s swagger whilst eviscerating the Tories or watching when the first of their children graduated university. Even the most fervent Marxists amongst them would have felt contempt for the posturing of radical students or folkie CND’ers ranting in their donkey jackets. Despite hearing his voice in my head saying “daft beggar”, I’m going to say he made this trip and similar others as an affirmation, like crossing yourself or taking communion. Was he a political obsessive? Definitely not and he would laugh at those who were. They would be assigned to the category of “Silly sod” which was a serious matter.
Fifty years on much of what was crucial then seems irrelevant now. People will say we did not get the brotherhood of man but we did get to own the house and our kids are middle class. So what purpose did all of that belief and identification serve? Distilling it all down and looking for the essence I think they were all saying “I’m not that I’m this’. As simple as that. I do this, and l live here but this is what I am. For that generation the vehicle was the labour movement. Samuel Smiles would have recognised the aspiration if not the method.
It had been a good day. The aprons carried a dead weight of coins and there was thick wads of 10 shilling and pound notes in his secret pocket tied up with knicker elastic.. We were entering the last hour before the dash for the train. I wanted to be off as I was tired but inevitably all I would get was a lecture about learning to be a ‘grafter’, which somehow translated to “the money you make in the last hour is the best money”. I really did not give a damn! The flags were all gone, and were down to the last two hundred balloons and a few dozen inflatable ducks.
Over in the park the picnic and speeches were over. People had first progressed onto the fair and then the beer tents. Those with families had left and the predominant demographic profile of those that remained was male, young, loud mouthed, belligerent and very drunk. Even at ten years old I could see that the risk versus profit assessment was not optimum. For whatever reason, be it pedagogy or greed dad was intent on extracting the last possible penny from the event. So we stayed and tried to sell squeaking inflatable’s to bleary eyed youths.
Inevitably we stayed too long. A group of the most drunk and belligerent settled upon us. Tetley bitter vapour pervaded the air. Dad signalled for me to move away. They wanted everything and in multiples. “Five ducks, ten balloons no make that that ten ducks as well. Have you got change for a tenner”, Dad worked on the balloons and made matey comments whilst checking their eyes for intent. It was looking like a set up. I was watching to see how my Old Testament god of a father was going to deal with this. He looked to be floundering.
Then came the moment. Standing too close to dad and breathing in his face one of the men said “I bet you’ve done well today gypo. What does all this come to? Me and these lads says let’s go double or nothing on it”. Well dad, as a former amateur boxer must have weighed the options between taking on the group or going for the 50:50 chance which I suppose is something we all have to do in life. He chose the latter. The coin was kind and dad won. What would happen now? A none-participant observer with a scientific attitude of mind would have found this development worthy of study for the insights it could provide into the social psychology of young men in groups whilst under the influence of alcohol. I have met people in subsequent years who have made a living writing and teaching on this subject. The ten year old me in 1967 was petrified.
Well the man with the money paid up with a flourish that showed his mates that he was big enough to know how to lose. Dad looked transfixed, stuttered and then looked over at me. The men walked away but what we had not seen was the burning match dropped into the box. The inflatable petro-chemical based products were ablaze. Dad upended the box and kicked the flaming ducks and flags into the road. The lads laughed and ran off.
The Old Testament god had been tested. What would happen next? Firstly there was no doubt he was shaken. He looked like a fox surrounded by the hounds. As he carefully picked up and packed the undamaged goods into my box he shifted into didactic mode. He used ‘Object lessons’ like a Victorian teacher. Exploring a subject by first examining an artefact which exemplified the issues was the default setting.
Spitting out his words like a Yorkshire Hitler he reached for a part burnt inflatable, and he was away. “Lads like that get degraded by how they live and amount to nowt. They never acquire discipline and end up pissing their life away and in the process causing untold harm to others. The ruling classes use them to fight their wars and the rest of the time is content to let them foul up the places where they live. They need taking hold of and being shown how to behave. They mess everything up just like this duck. In Soviet Russia they would be put up against a wall and shot if they did not respect others”.
I’ve no idea now if he said these words or not, but I’m pretty sure that it would have been something like that. There would be two elements, the personal failing and the socialist perspective. “You’ve got to understand that if you don’t do ‘acquire the right habits of mind’ they will ruin you” was the essential and repeated message. There was always a sandwich, plain working man spoken English either side of a antiquated phrase from a book or pamphlet. He spoke like he was addressing a congregation. It was not a conversation. He was a person to admire but also one impossible to live with.
When I think about my dad this incident comes to mind. It’s an object lesson in itself.
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