CLINGING TO THE LETTUCE. FULL OF SOUND AND FURY
<<a Clinging to the lettuce…full of and sound and fury!
Seventeen months into the marriage Rowland had apparently deserted Kathleen and was living back with his mother.
We left Kathleen and Rowland in April 1947 just married and with a new baby, Rowland Ian. (The order of the names would be reversed periodically over the next X decades according to whatever woman he was trying to get off with). After some difficult year when the new family occupied a spare bedroom at Rowland’s mother’s house, they went to live on the Albert Square near the top of the town in Yeadon. This was possibly around June 1948. The house was the basic, damp, cold, slug friendly stone slab floored tribute to mid 19th century textile town ‘slummery’ housing. A horse stable next door was within easy crawling distance for Ian. Kathleen’s paternal grandma Clara, the mother of the runaway Harold Smith was also a neighbour. Clara was known for her garrulousness and kindness. Excepting the temporary desertion of October 1948, they were to live at Snowden building until the birth of their second child Neil three years later in 1950.
I have no memory of the desertion ever being discussed, even by Kathleen after Rowland died when she was happy to talk about anything and everything (including the antics of the French- Canadian soldiers, much to the delight of her grandchildren). Maybe it was just too sore to remember or think about. Alternatively it might have been a non event. Rowland with his horrendous temper storming out of the house in a spittle flying rage with Kathleen shouting after him “sling your hook and don’t come back” A few days of standoff. Messages being passed between them by Auntie Kathleen. Social Welfare staff telling Kathleen that she would have to lodge a complaint of desertion with the Magistrates Court if she was to get any help from the state. Eventually return to the shared slum and carrying on. I don’t honestly know which account is more truthful but my gut feeling is that the truth is somewhere nearer to the latter. I came across the summons in an old biscuit tin used for keeping old family photos and letters from the early years of their marriage. I was clearing the house after Kathleen had gone into a care home. I had four hours use of a hired truck to deal with the entire house contents. It was not a good end to the family home. Exhausted and emotionally raw I was making decisions as to what was to be kept and what was to go to the council dump. This document made it into one of the ‘keep’ boxes. The tender notes from Rowland to Kathleen which gave a different side to these years got lost in the scramble to clear the house before the refurbishment contractors arrived the next day. One of these letters was a note asking for bananas to be sent to him or brought by Kathleen next visited him in hospital. He was craving them after a minor operation he’d had. The dozen lines giving direction on how the fruit should get to him are a kind of love letter without mention of love. That bit of paper is now incinerated or in landfill.
The incident was probably due to a selfish, mother dominated but accustomed to pleasing himself Rowland having to knuckle down and take care of a family when he had the emotional maturity of a lump of coal. It was only due to the efforts of their rent collect (who happened to be Rowland’s sister Kathleen) that they managed to get a move to a better house. The move was around June 1951. Their next home and the one which became the first proper family home was a quarter of a mile away at 1 Hawthorn Road. In Yeadon A newly built two bed roomed semi detached pre-fab council house which for 1951 was a palace certainly when compared to Snowden buildings, and a major achievement for Auntie Kathleen given the post war housing crisis. They were to live there for the next eleven years and this is the scene for the first half of the next chapter. It’s also the place that my first conscious memories begin, albeit a little later
A modern photo of 1 Hawthorn Road, in Yeadon. The family home from about 1950 to 1961
So doing a stock take. Its 1950. Rowland and Kathleen have two boys, Ian Rowland, and Neil. Dad Rowland is working at Banksfield Dye works which is literally a stone’s throw, with a strong arm from the front door. Kathleen is twenty three and her husband thirty going on fifteen. So do they get domestic bliss, consumer white goods and foreign holidays? Or if not that a close partnership through life’s journey. No, at least in the ‘growing ‘ years when children were getting born and brought up it was an emotion grill rotisserie. A broiling machine in the guise of a family unit. When I was fifteen something possessed me to enrol to do Sociology ‘O’ Level at night school. I thought it was something to do with Socialism and my day school did not think I was up-to getting qualifications. One evening’s lectures was on the functions of the family from a sociological perspective. The teacher listed these functions (I think he was a functionalist) on the chalk board. Economic needs, status attribution, social stability, emotional nurturance and a thing called socialisation. The mode by which society through the agency of the parents conveyed all learnt information, and culture was passed from one generation to the next. Social science is sometimes called ‘Reductionist’. It takes the life and soul out of something and reduces that thing to a spreadsheet. It’s easy and fun to be unfair to Sociologists but lecturer’s formulation does not capture the gutwrenchingrollercoasterbipolarnihlism of the whole thing. You put five people in a a physical place, under certain conditions, and with specified resources for X number of years. Some of them provide care and the others receive it and as a consequence become adult people. No Shakespeare was better at all of this. His comments upon the life lived can also apply to the drama of family life. Rowland used to like to recite these words. “…Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard of no more. It is a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing”. (Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5, page 2).
There are twenty four hours in one day. The traditional union demand of “eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest” (Robert Owen 1817) did not reach Hawthorn Road. Rowland’s day began at Banksfield Mill at 7am. He worked till 5pm and then, often times went off to get a couple of hours in, selling from his shoulder box around the terraced streets of Kirkstall in Leeds or other place of high density housing within a 30 minute bus ride. This activity also spilt over into a weekend. In winter, on a Saturday outside the market in Bradford, or in the summer at any town carnival, Gala or visit by Royalty within a forty mile radius and accessible by the West Yorkshire Bus company. He never learnt or even had the inclination to drive.
Children were the leverage into parent’s packets so the content of the box, the stock was mostly aimed at them. Balloons, plastic inflatable’s (ducks, giraffes, ) returning balls on an elastic string, windmills, slinky springs, ‘gonks’ and of course union flags (for all occasions). Hong Kong manufactured and purchased from the children toy and novelty items shelves at Greenbaums Wholesale warehouse in the semi derelict streets behind Leeds Market. I have an atypical schema or mind set for Turnips or large potatoes. Their primary mental classification is “items into which canes are placed from which are suspended by elastic novelty items such as plastic inflatable’s or (very open/ poorly defined sub category item) gonks’. The arrangement would be cardboard box with improvised shoulder strap, tightly bound bundle of canes tied to one box corner, three canes extending from the bundle, turnip or large potato impaled as a sales platform on top of these. Single canes with novelty items attached pushed into the vegetable at angles around the circumference. .. And all of this never caused any comment from customers! Rowland called this activity ‘Grafting’ or being a ‘Grafter’. Friend’s parents would ask what my dad did for a job. The response “he’s a grafter” would get a grin or a perplexed look but that’s what I thought this carry on was called. The police called it ‘Street Peddling’ for which you had to have a licence; with a photo and description (Rowland’s always included the words ‘Ruddy complexion’). All of this went on until around 1998 when he died. Best part of fifty years of standing outside markets or running alongside carnival parades flogging his wares. The pennies from all of this activity added up and became a three bed roomed corner house and close to £200,000 pounds in savings and investment. Almost all from plastic inflatable ducks, poorly defined ‘gonks ‘and plastic union flags accidently selotaped upside down onto sticks by sweat shop labour in the Far East. Most of this ‘penny by penny’ wealth has now been handed over to dementia care home owners at the rate of £800 a week.
The only photo we have of Rowland Street selling. It was taken at the local carnival in Yeadon. The infamous box is either out of view or he’s not brought it with him. Note how many flags he is holding in one hand. That kind of colourful splay was deliberate. Its known as a ‘flash, a spectacle to catch people’s attention. I can remember him explaining that.
He would walk ahead of the carnival procession selling these flags to the crowds that lined the street.. At big occasions, such as the Halifax or Bradford events he would sell five to seven gross (that is 700- 1000 flags) along the route, before going on to set up a standing pitch near the end venue. Balloons, inflatable animals, windmills, and novelty gear would then form the display, all done with just a turnip and a bunch of canes.
The season for these big events would run from maybe Easter through to the first week in September. Every weekend he would be working on one or both days. Most years the Gawthorpe Coal Carrying race (loved typing that) would kick off the year. The main stay though were the carnivals or gala’s which every town had. Rowland’s core territory was from Rochdale in the west to York in the east, and then north-south from Harrogate to Sheffield/ Rotherham. Keeping in mind his reliance upon buses and trains it was the places with good transport links from Leeds and Bradford. Never has a bus pass been put to more profitable use.
Rowland’s last ever bus and train pass. It’s rare in the early 21st century for adults not be to be car users. Rowland never learned to drive. Kathleen felt that he lacked the confidence to learn because of his deafness. I’m not sure if that’s true, but he deliberately did opt out of the car owner culture. From mid 1960’s the family could have afforded a car. He tended to overcomplicate the difficulties and costs of ownership. Another way of seeing things was that for a relatively trivial sum he had transport which took him to where he needed to go without the need for complications or what he would have called ‘overheads’. I just wonder what all those bus drivers made of the hand luggage over the years.
These were the bread and butter work, year in year out. Other events would work their way in. Air shows at Church Fenton, the Durham miners Gala. A process ion of regular dates was carried forward from one year to the next. Third Saturday in May would be one place, Whitsun would always be somewhere else. The ‘World’s Fair’, a weekly paper for show people and associated types, printed confirmation of these dates.
Best of all though for a dyed in the wool Communist were the Royal visits. Princess Margaret arriving by helicopter at Harrogate Stray, Princess Anne scowling at school children, Prince Philip detouring off from a civic event to chat to inebriated locals congregated outside a pub. The biggest draw though was the queen. I’m told that if you look carefully at the 1953 coronation procession , Rowland pops up like Forrest Gump running ahead of the cavalcade selling flags to the masses and being pursued no doubt by police who would have wanted him out of the way. The Silver Jubilee in 1977 was the titanic one though if measured by flag sales. The two oldest sons Ian and Neil spent weeks playing leap frog with the queen. Racing into a town, moments ahead of the big woman, frenetic harvesting of the crowd then hopping back in the car moments ahead of the queen’s arrival. Then backtracking and circling the town through back lanes to avoid the temporary road blocks. Once clear, driving onto the next but one sizable community so as to give them a twenty minute sales window. With a van stacked with one gross bundles of Union Flags it was just like printing money apart from the period were the supply from Hong Kong dried up and there was family rumours of secret stashes and people whose name started with ‘I’ or ‘R’ helping themselves to others stock. Rowland might have travelled with his sons to a few events but he generally avoided bringing competition with him. And that’s how he would have seen it.
After all such days, with royalty or not the task was not complete without the ritual of the big count. The takings (or ‘bunce’) was tipped out onto the dining room table, stacked in towers and then bagged ready for the bank. Sunday morning he would catch a bus into town and re-stock from his takings at Greenbaums the wholesalers. Monday he would get to the bank and deposit the remainder. The logistics solution for a very simple business model.
It did not always go well though. The police were either benignly tolerant or took the view that street sellers were rabid pests to be harassed and driven out. The city of Leeds was always an unfriendly place. The police were known for their aggression. Bradford though was generally easier going. Store holders sometimes complained though and the police would strictly enforce the bylaws plus twenty percent for a few weeks. This could mean that all the stock had to be off the ground, and suspended from our necks, or that we had to keep moving. The definition of constituted ‘causing an obstruction’ was worthy of Lewis Carol and the officers were not up for debate. At those times it was just best to give his favourite spots of Darley Street or the doors of the covered market a miss for a while. Throughout my early teens I would stand alongside Rowland as a kind of secondary stall. This was against the law as street traders of our type had to hold a Pedlar’s licence. The minimum age for which was seventeen. Rowland’s eye would scan the crowds for police blue continually. When spotted I was nudged to move off and do an impression of a Saturday shopper. There was rarely any problems and I did not come to any moral harm or feel exploited. All was fine until one Saturday afternoon outside the Rawson Street Market. I was selling from cardboard trips of football and novelty badges. Rowland had noticed a very young constable earlier in the day hanging back in a doorway and we had done our instant strangers routine. The officer returned with great stealth later on though and was upon us without warning. The focus was licences. Rowland of course was in the clear but I was vulnerable. His argument was that I was not actually selling but just minding the stock but this did not wash. I was arrested but on the assumption that I was seventeen and without a licence. I was exceptionally tall at fourteen, close to six foot and heavily built so the assumption was understandable. In fact my father should have been arrested for allowing his underage son to work as a pedlar. After some time of standing under guard and being scrutinized sympathetically or otherwise by passing shoppers a police dog van arrived. Rowland and I were told to squeeze into the back along with our boxes and we were driven to the station in the centre of town. Rowland did not handle it very well. I have memories of him using phrases like ‘Fascists’ and ‘tools of the Capitalist system’ which antagonised the Sergeant did not help matters. We were put together in one cell and left for a very long time. Rowland was in a high state of agitation. Besides the focus on me they had also confiscated his stock and takings. The assumption by many working class men at the time was that many (but not all) police mean-minded, corrupt and disreputable wasters who could not hold down a regular job. Cynical class traitors, borderline crooks or strutting ex army tyrants. Consequently there was fear about me, but also about was happening to his money and stock.
After stewing for the longest time we were called back to the sergeant and released without charge. My age was what it all turned upon. I did not have a Pedlars licence because I was too young to have one. The offence was operating under age rather than without la liscence.The seething Rowland was given a telling off and we were released but Sans stock. As far as I know we never got it back. The bus journey home was uncomfortable. I cannot be sure what story we told Kathleen but parts would have been redacted.
In winter we would be Santa Claus and his not so little helper. This incarnation of street trading was confined to December. Rowland would stack on a table all the stock shorter than 12” that he had been unable to shift during that year. One time he had bought 6000 (poorly defined) cotton gonks from an eccentric lady in Frizinghall ,Bradford (lord knows how he found her) which were totally unsellable. He did not always ride the zeitgeist well. The word ‘Gonk’ seemed to be everywhere for a few weeks. He did not really get it. What actually was a ‘Gonk’ and how would they have to look and be in order to sell them? These seemed to be made out of floral curtain materials. Poorly sewn without discernible facial features they looked like something a little girl might have put together in a first needlework class. As for most of his stock, they were stored in deep wardrobes in his bedroom. Kathleen took special exception to these not least because of concerns about what they might be stuffed with as they gave out a funny smell. Another year it was the very Chinese looking snowmen. Little plastic figures meant to go as decorations on Christmas cakes. They were manufactured in Hong Kong and probably for the home market. Each little snowperson had clear oriental features and luminous yellow faces and hands. The people of Bradford would not buy them. They did not look traditional enough.
These and other failures from the season would find their way onto the Santa Claus table. My job was to group items together, and then pass them onto another brother for wrapping in festive paper. A third would write on the words “Merry Christmas from Santa” and we were ready for go. The usual cardboard box would be given a sacking skin to add to the effect. Rowland had a Santa Clause outfit. Poorly fitting ref nylon trousers and top and intensely irritating beard for authenticity.
Like superman we would dip into an alley behind a pub and change into the outfits and then reappear as Santa and his helper. I can’t recall much about what I wore (it is probably too painful for my conscious mind to bear) but it was to suggest that I was some kind of Elf. Rowland would modify his normal sales pitch to match the context. “Ho-ho-ho what do we have here. Christmas parcels for the kiddies. Come on mums and dads. They are just a shilling”. The parents should have guessed what they were getting was really a lucky bag of hard to shift stock. I cannot recall any complaints from the punters but can imagine later conversation between parent and child. “Oh Johnny, look what you have got from Santa. A lovely flowery creature and a Chinese snowman. Yes and there’s some smelly balloon things as well. Stop crying, Santa will be coming again next week”.
These memories are linked with that of the best meal of my life. Lunch when street selling was normally ham sandwiches wrapped in grease proof paper. Retrieved from storage deep in the box we would eat these as we worked. The Santa Claus days though were exceptionally cold. Standing for hours outside Marks and Spencer’s (they did not complain to the police) on Darley Street in Bradford with temperatures close to zero I experienced a kind of perma-frost which made it hard to move my facial muscles or form words. Rowland took the fourteen year old me off to a pub a hundred yards up the hill and near the market. There I was bought a pie and pea’s dinner and my own glass of whisky. Before then I’d only experienced dilute beer shandy or half an inch of Lambs Navy Rum at New Years. The taste has never left me and I don’t think it will. I felt myself thaw from the inside out. The 3 elements of the meal complimented each other perfectly. Every mouth full was heaven. I have never managed to recreate that experience, and it hangs on my memory as I write now. The ambience was good. Pubs were wonderful places especially near markets. Groups of hard drinking hard men. Damaged people standing alone and looking lost. Fat, loud, swearing, chain smoking women, sat alongside drink befuddled old men. No one gave us a second glance still dressed in our outfits. One of the glazed eyed women might have shouted out “what you going to give me Santa, but otherwise we just fitted straight in.
Then it was back out onto Darley Street handing out Christmas lucky bags along with Whisky breath to the five year olds. Another peak life experience done and gone.
So for close on fifty years, whilst his peers and contemporary’s were doing normal things gardening, football, social clubs, chapel and TV, Rowland was skipping off to stand at street corners or run alongside processions converting flags and balloons into cash with one person at a time. Why did he do it? I am firmly convinced that the primary drive was not money. He loved money and it made him (like many children of the Great Depression) feel safe but he was not greedy. I think it was the buzz which came from arriving anonymously in a place, as one person in a crowd and then switching over into this different thing. To then go from a full box and empty pockets to a light box and heavy pockets. There was also something of the tight rope walker about it as well. Your wits had to be fully employed. The activity was not passive. All done entirely as a free agent. My own brief experiences alongside him or working independently gave me a taste of this but I have worked in jobs all my life both self employed and working for others where I had considerable autonomy and managed my own time. He sometimes used the term ‘wage slave’ and ‘dead time’ to describe factory work. The most difficult thing to find there was autonomy and an opportunity to use his creative wits. As we shall see later though he did carve out some territory in that place.
If he enjoyed the selling so much why did he not give up Banksfield and become fully self employed. That was the thing he never did until the place burned down many years later. By that time he was in his mid fifties and he was able to make the jump from a comfortable position. House bought, wife working and children left home.
In earlier years was it a lack of guts, or wanting to be responsible and not endanger his home and family. He certainly had a raw fear of debt, poverty and going under. Kathleen said it came from his childhood. Not so much his direct family who were classic thrifty poor but what he experienced around him. In any event that guarantee of a weekly wage to cover the essentials was what he never voluntarily relinquished. It could also be said that he never really developed what he did. The stock might change slightly over the years but it was still the same basic tack, which towards his middle age had, had its day. There are still street traders but they are not the same breed.
Less enduring and a little bit idiosyncratic was his secret life as ‘Deaf-boy’, horse racing adviser to the betting public. This essentially involved wearing jodhpurs and a check shirt, and turning up at racecourses claiming to be Lord so and so’s stable boy. The insider knowledge this gave of the horses running in the next race could be bought for a shilling. You could only do this for one race, the very little credibility he had was gone after that. With suitable identify confirming props (binoculars and a sporty corduroy flat cap), he would stand on a pop up step and launch into his spiel. “In this small white envelope I have the name of the horse which is going to win the next race. How do I know this? How can you be certain of this? “. …and so on. Amazingly people paid for these little white envelopes with the little printed card inside. I can’t remember the amount, but I do remember the figure shocked me…and enough people handed it over to turn a good profit on the day. Maybe he worked on the premise asking more increased the credibility of the information.
The day would have started with me being sent to the local paper shop to buy the Daily Mirror. He would then sit at a large wooden art table (which now serves as my kitchen table) with a children’s ‘John Bull’ printing set and stamp onto old fashioned plain post cards the name of the horse tipped by the newspapers racing correspondent. The simplest ideas are the most eloquent. The cards were then carefully tucked into the envelopes (Basil Bond quality to give it all a bit of class) and packed away alongside the props, bus timetable, and grease proof paper wrapped sandwiches in a small compressed cardboard suite case.
To get away with this you had to have a good wrist watch and absolutely certain knowledge of the time of the next bus. Whilst he was “barking his spiel” I would stand off at a distance, at his instruction but also to hide my embarrassment/ fear. At eight years old I knew this was not an ordinary activity. My friend’s fathers did not do this kind of thing and I thought it probable my mum would not approve. I had been primed to wait for “the look” which told me to walk briskly and follow him at a distance (and pray the bus was on time).
Why do this? He was not a member of a shady sub class on the fringes of crime. It’s my belief based upon his reading of George Borrows stories from the 1850’s of living with the gypsies, and the fact that Kathleen kept saying so that he fancied himself as a bit of a Gypsy. The brightly coloured shirts and other affectations were a reflection of that. He named his house bought in 1961, ‘Romany Rye’ after one of Borrow’s books. The words apparently mean ‘Gypsy Gentlemen’ so it all adds up really. Oh and he used to say that he was thwarted Gypsy at heart and getting married and ruined it all.
To be fair, he did not do the race course stunt and run often. Maybe he was going through a phase.
A third string on the bow was the Punch and Judy/ Magician combo. This he did mostly in the winter months from after the war until sometime in the mid 1990’s. I can remember him saying it was time to give it up, at a point when he was in his mid 70’s. I took for granted that he carried a large dead weight suitcase and a collapsible heavy wood booth frame and floral cloth covering to every gig. Also that he was reliant upon hopping off and on chains of buses to get to venues. All this to earn twenty one guineas.
Rowland towards the end of his conjuring and Punch and Judy career performing at a local fete. Notice the tap stuck to his forehead. This was a prop for a gag which went “what do you take for water on the brain. A tap on the head of course”. I think the children had no idea of what he was talking about at that point but the tap looked funny. His knees at seventy odd look to be in a better shape than mine now twenty years younger.
The act lasted about forty five minutes. Conjuring, as he called it open the act. Rope tricks, palming coins, disappearing and reappearing budgies (not real) boxed with drop slots, and silk handkerchiefs that unknotted themselves.
In the later 1980’s I saw a man perform an identical act to an audience of psychiatric in patients in Johannesburg, South Africa. His life had been blessed and scarred by his Bipolar Mood Disorder. I got to know some of his history through my job. He had spent thirty years making a living taking this act through the towns and villages of the African continent, from Cairo to The Cape. The pace and direction directed in part by his illness. The act looked worn on stage in the hospital rec hall, but the bones of what it had been were still there and it was close to identical to what Rowland had done. Similar patter, identical props and familiar stage presence. The acts must have had a common point of origin somewhere in the post war years. I should have asked the man more about his story but did not.
I didn’t ask Rowland either. This is odd. No one else’s father went off to houses and halls knelt down behind a pop up stage and enacted domestic violence between wooden characters based upon medieval archetypes. I just took it for granted like the wall paper. The man even tried to teach me the elements of the act but I could not have been less interested. Doing the Punch and Judy had started in the post war years. The beautiful hand carved, vividly dressed and coloured puppets were made to order by a woodworker who lived in the town. Punch hangs on the wall opposite me now. The eyes follow me round the room like Mona Lisa’s. It scares and fascinates my grandchildren.
Rowland was friends with Harry Corbett of Sooty & Sweep fame. They had mates in common and were both members of a ‘Hard of Hearing Club’. Harrys parents ran and a fish shop in the neighbouring town of Guiseley. He started his entertainment career playing piano for the customers in a rival fish shop, Harry Ramsdens which became an iconic place in certain circles. It was also a bit of a social hub. Kathleen claims that Harry started her smoking when she was a teenager.
In 1948 or before Harry mentioned to Rowland that he was working on a new animal character and divulged some of the ideas on the condition that Rowland not to steal them. This was the prototype Sooty who with Sweep and Sue, went onto to take over the world in their own way. Harry and Rowland shared the same form of deafness, which could be alleviated by a surgical operation by then available on the National Health Service. The procedure came with the risk of permanent Tinnitus if it failed. Harry took the plunge, and drew the benefits. Rowland decided against it.
Rowland the street trader became ‘Rollo’ the conjurer and Punch and Judy man mainly during the winter months. There were some bookings all year round but he only advertised in the cold months when there were fewer opportunities for profitable street trading. Presumably in the early years he got his bookings by people calling at the door or by letter. By the 1970’s he had a telephone, but there was always a requirement to ask the caller to hold for a moment. This was to allow him to place the mouth piece against the hearing aid receiver pinned to his shirt. Occasionally feedback whine of some kind would erupt. He was highly anxious with the apparatus. As a fourteen year old I thought it was a laugh. He set his sights at children’s birthday and Christmas parties, mainly in large houses or in halls. I often went along, to be baby sat really. We would walk briskly from the nearest bus stop to the venue carrying the load. Identify ourselves at the door and get ushered to the focal point of the room. I would be sat on a chair and fed with sausage rolls, sandwiches and fizzy pop by the kid’s parents. Rowland worked swiftly setting up. The booth went up first as this served to provide a protected space to unpack the puppets and conjuring props. A wooden framework on concertina fold out hinges. The yard long puppet stage attached with butterfly nuts. A heavy cotton drape made the structure into a booth. Inside the space the puppets were hung from hooks immediately below the stage so that his hand could move quickly and easily between puppets He of course had to kneel throughout the performance. There was Mr Punch, his wife Judy, the baby, a doctor, clown, judge, hanging gallows and a dog. Most important was the crocodile which provided the moments of terror to the two year olds. My granddaughters who are that age now won’t go near even though it’s obviously a puppet just hanging on a wall. The woodworker who made it knew how to strike fear into children. It’s probably the teeth and snappy jaw that do it. He did not use a swizzle. The characters each had their own voice. The kids would sit cross legged in front of the booth. He had no way of seeing them. Inevitably one child would try and sneak around the back and get into the booth to see if they were real. Rowland would then have to fend them off somehow.
The conjuring part of the act preceded Punch. Dropping coins out of little peoples noses and ears went down best. Any attempt on the part of the kids to hang onto the special magic coins was deftly avoided leaving the child looking confused or occasionally loudly irate.
It was all done inside of three quarters of an hour. Parents were usually very happy and try and shove extra money into his hands. I remember him often refusing it though. His view was that gesture earn’t him word of mouth customers. It seems astonishing to me that he could do two or three of these performances, carrying all his kit, in the space of six hours on a winter Saturday afternoon and with only buses and foot for transport. He really did have stamina and resilience.
Punch and the various street based business enterprises were the money making sidelines.
An image of a gushing well comes to mind. He was just doing lots of things to tap the flow. There is also restlessness and awareness of finite time, but it wasn’t an affectation. The need to keep on stamping himself on the world, albeit in small ways was compulsive. I think there was an intuitive sense that when you are not climbing up, you are by gravity falling. I’ve had heard of him talking about work his regular job at Banksfield Mill as dead time, and gave this as a justification for his frenetic activity out of work. I cannot think of a time when he would have used the phrase ‘just chillin’. When satiated or tired he would take a chair based power-nap and then start over like a hyper-charged mechanical rabbit.
My brother Ian is fond of the phrase “I’m a human- being not a human-doing”. Wrong, sorry. Firstly this is ridiculous, patently somebody like him who takes on super long distanced walks such as 1000 mile treks across Italy, France and Spain, at twenty miles a day as he does is not a lotus eater. The easy phrase is an affectation. He’s having him-self on. Ian is as much a slave to filling “the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds' worth of distance run” as his father was.
Secondly what is ‘being ‘if we are not sodding doing something with ourselves? Who wants to sit around and just absorb the ambience all the time? It sounds too much like a vegetative state. Rowland would have said that we make ourselves by what we do and that’s how it should be. The will to be.
So what to do with those fifty hours a week spent at Scott and Rhodes in the ‘wet end’. For those of us fortunate to have avoided factory work for most of our lives, it is important to remember the baseline absolute lack of social standing that came with such jobs. Unfairly ascribed the status of low skill, low value, workers some employers barely took the time to learn your name. Of course people carved out niches for themselves and gained the personal respect of their peers. They ceased to be quite so faceless and employers would know who they were talking to. For most long term workers what made such places bearable though was the banter with workmates and finding ways in which the pace and pattern of work could be controlled. Self actualisation was not really up for grabs.
Rowland worked there from age fifteen to fifty five. Forty years. Seven thousand two hundred days of actually being at work (taking off weekends, plus twenty days a year for the occasional ailment, banks holidays and annual holiday). Now you just can’t give that much of your life away. You have to get some kind of attitude about it.
For most of the time I have no idea of what he did with it. All he said was it pays the bills and that that’s the end of it.
I have memories of him operating as some kind of below the legal radar bookie at work, at least for a time. Calculating odds and recording bets in a child’s exercise book. My only other living source, brother Ian says its total news to him so maybe I imagined it, but it does seem odd that I would have done that.
More certain though was his union role. He was the senior shop steward at the mill for decades. His union has long ago been absorbed into the Transport and General Workers, but in these years it was the ‘Dyers, bleachers and textile workers union ‘. It had a mainly west Yorkshire regional membership. In the years before the First World War unionism in Yeadon had been politicised and militant. Violence was not uncommon and on one occasion the village was put in lock down by the horse riding, baton swinging police because of street fighting and targeting of strike breakers. In 1913 hunger marchers, known as ‘Lockwoods Lambs’ marched to the coast collecting money for their families when an employer’s lockout went on for many weeks.
By the 1950’s and 1960’s the picture was different. Rowland bemoaned the lassitude of the union, and its political anaemia. Outside of work he attended his Communist Party meetings and got me to sell the Daily Worker/ Morning Star. In working hours though it was bread and butter business. There was not scope for world revolution in vivid colours but he could get the canteen sorted out or represent a worker who was up before management. Pragmatic negotiation was what was required and he apparently was good at that. Men who worked with him have told his family what a good union man he was and the respect that he was held in by everybody including the management and owners. I cannot remember any hint of industrial action; the workforce would not have been up for it but he was effective without playing to the gallery. That split between world transforming ideology on one hand and the playing out of those same values in daily life has always fascinated me. A works canteen with proper furniture and clean tables was in its own way was an assertion of the value of labour.
On an occasional Sunday morning a manager or possibly the owner of the mill would come to the house and sit across the Formica dining room table to settle a dispute. His look would be different. Alert, cautious, measured, deliberate, guarded and pragmatic. First names were not used. It was a situation where the two men had to deal with each other, because the alternative was bad for both of them.
By the 1960’s cheap imports were killing the British woollen textile industry. Over the next two decades the agenda for owners was managed decline and for workers a precarious hope the industry lasted till their pension day.
There was a class warrior in Rowland. It would emerge on walks over Otley Chevin or Ilkely Moor where a ten year old me would be given a lecture on the tenets of dialectical materialism and the inevitability of the workers revolution. Despite my age, and being suspected at the time of having an intellectual impairment by the school authorities I somehow understood what he was talking about. It shaped my world view and a lot of my life choices over the next thirty years. If truth be told there is still a Stalinist hiding in the shadier parts of my mind.( Interestingly he gets on just fine with the Blairite shades as well). It was the same for Rowland. Sometimes politicians are categorised as bookies or bishops; Pragmatic or conviction politicians. Intuitively to Rowland it was not an either or. The best operator was the inspired artisan.
A Sunday afternoon glass of rum would bring out the romantic rebel though. Two glasses of rum and he would sing ‘The Wild Colonial Boy’
The endless discussions of the mechanics of the proletarian revolution are not on the agenda any more. Was all that time spent working for and thinking about the transformation of society a waste of time? On wet miserable evenings dragging himself off to Communist Party branch meetings in a pub near Kirkstall traffic lights, The Daily Worker paper round, supporting party candidates, the campaigns. Some people would say that in the end the pragmatism and rum inspired romanticism counted for more that is left more of a useful residue.
There is another way of seeing it. For many men, and women identifying oneself as a Communist had a transformational effect. For those who had little formal education the party was their university. It was a whole system of thinking. It provided a perspective on everything from literature to lino (no nonsense, utilitarian, functional flooring material). Catholicism and Communism had a lot more in common than either camp would have liked to admit. Listening to Marxists talk about the scientific inevitability of the workers revolution sounded so much like The Magificat or The Apostles Creed. Overtly or implicitly Faith was the key stone for both although the Communists would have called it rational analysis.
Ultimately it was an identity. Something which drew a clear boundary line around oneself, much like a skin. It worked for millions of people. It nurtured the autodidact habit and gave some people more reason to be altruistic.
Rowland reading these words would have said of my comments “self indulgent clap-trap”, but hay-ho.
Sitting down across Rowland and Kathleen’s dining room table to organise Rowland’s funeral with a chap from a Humanist Society the question was put very directly. “What were the things which defined your father?” My mouth reflexively answered before my brain kicked in. It was his Communism. I thought about it afterwards. Certainly in his later years he was far from being active in the party, and if they had known about his buying up shares in Maggie’s de-nationalised industries they would have hung him from a lamppost somewhere. When I thought of him, I thought of that but what I meant by his ‘Communism’ was not the ideological catechism. It was the attitude of mind which I suppose really was a kind of ‘Metho-Communism. That thought makes me smile. Not so much Marxist- Leninist as Marxist- Wesleyan.
Running in perfect parallel to allegiance to Harry Pollitt and the party was Rowland’s abiding hobby. Investments. Converting the 10 pence’s generated from the sale of plastic novelty goods into shares and dividends. If Capitalism creates surplus value from the sweat of the workers he wanted his cut of it. There was nothing too good for the working class.
I am not too sure where it all began. Kathleen had always said she did not know where the money went. Well bags of it were going into the bank every week. All she saw for years was the family allowance, a housekeeping stipend plus 2/6 pocket money. That was before she got a job and told him to sod it (the pocket money that is). Did the accumulation of the surplus begin in the 1950’s? Was that what enabled him to get a mortgage in 1960 at a time when most working men did not meet the extraordinarily cautious credit checks of the time? I think it probably was.
The only external signs were the interest in the financial pages. Some people might have wondered if they had known what a dyers labourer was doing buying the Financial Times. Was he studying form, or tracking his investments. I don’t know because strangely we never thought to ask him. That in itself is a bit odd. Jokes about tightness yes, questions about what he was doing no.
So what did his portfolio cover? Was it just amounts in deposit accounts, premium bonds and later some Isa’s. Yes certainly up until the 1980’s it probably was. But then Maggie’s various big-bangs came along and his interest really took off. I know that he liked the denationalised industries but there have been other investments that we do not know of. He had an inherent mistrust of banks; he never believed any of their propaganda about reputation and good governance. They were just barrow boys like him but behind plate glass and wearing a suit. He liked the smaller independent Building Societies and the Co-op bank. Money did not stay still though. Financial advisers talk about active money management and he practiced it. Most of us don’t want to spend time thinking about the detail of a 0.25% interest differential versus restrictions on access. He loved it. It gave him physical pleasure. Maybe there is an acquisitive gene, the phenotype or expression of which is an affinity to see financial advantage in every situation and a magnetic attraction to money. Looking around his descendents the profligate gene dominated in the first generation. Some of us got through life treating money like cocaine. The second generation are sort of middle coursers with a need for external control, but I see at least one person in the third generation who knows which cup the ball is under. People can learn to be good at something through laborious practice and that’s ‘blank slate’ to competence learning. Others have a well spring and the learning comes in how to tap into it. Rowland had that and I’m keeping a close eye out on this rising generation. They may end up funding my retirement cause I certainly didn’t! Its either that or the pet mince and a one bar heater.
Was Rowland a financial genius? No. No he was far too cautious. I’m certain that he kept a very tight hand on spending. Looking back I can’t believe I only had one grey school shirt and wore it until it faded to light mauve. Shirts were a long term investment. Why buy five when one will do, but lord I must have smelled. The investments were low risk low return but the fun came checking out the thickness of the salami sliced interest rates and putting his investment on wheels. Moving it around to grab the 0.25%.
He was terrified of finding himself with a tax bill. So much so that he probably overpaid both in life and certainly in death (and bizarrely in a way is still doing so. Kathleen pays tax on her income from her investments which once cashed was what he left her). Two and six a week when you’re young and could have done with a few bob more. (Rapidly) dwindling thousands when all you’ve got to pay for is a room in a care home.
I’ve mentioned the shock I experienced when pulling together his affairs in the week after his death. I covered the dining room table with paying in books, exercise book accounts and evidence of investments. After a lot of shuffling and placing things in a timeline I could see that about six months previously he had made a decision to simplify and consolidate. There was also a trend towards clearer accounting as if he could imagine someone else trying to make sense of it all. My guess was that he was thinking ahead. Somebody, probably a solicitor would have to make sense of his dealings. He’d best simplify things so that nothing got left forgotten in a bank. I can’t say how much he would have been horrified to know that it was me who did the sorting out. The George Best quote would have haunted his mind “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered”. I was never into fast cars, and the birds rarely flew my way. The biggest amount went on a grand American road trip. Route 66, with a detour to the Deep South. Five thousand miles in a motor home. My two daughters and me.
My brother Ian said that Rowland would have been proud to have believed that a legacy went to each and every member of his family, especially the grand…and great grandchildren. Maybe he could have done some of that but maybe also have spent a greater amount when life was happening.
Enough tragedy, back to farce. Decimalisation caught him unprepared. This note from the BCC website is about D- Day (as in Decimalisation Day) February 15th 1971. It describes a “general picture of a clear and smooth transition”. Romany Rye was not part of that general picture.
“The British Government has launched a new decimal currency across the country.
The familiar pound (£), shilling (s) and pence (d) coins are to be phased out over the next 18 months in favour of a system dividing the pound into units of ten, including half, one, two, five, ten and 50 pence denominations.
Chairman of the Decimal Currency Board (DCB) Lord Fiske told reporters: "The general picture is quite clear and the smooth and efficient changeover so many people have worked for is now in fact being achieved."
Over the years Rowland’s mistrust of the banks had led him to stash away bags of coins, and not a few bundles of notes around the house. I was thirteen but can remember his moment of realisation, that it all could become as worthless as US Confederate currency. Of course it was not as simple as that. There was an 18th month transition period and I think an amnesty even after that. But Rowland for some reason did not get that, and in his mind saw the 15/2/1971 as a guillotine. He had forgotten though where he had hidden the money. It was dispersed around the building like bird droppings. He started off rational and calm, but quickly transformed into something like a possessed squirrel scraping out holes in the fabric and content of the house, searching for his stashes. He turned the house upside down and pulled out every drawer and emptied it. It caused rows that lasted into the night. The whole madness took over the house for days. The thought of losing the money drove him to the edge. I can’t remember what finally soothed him. Maybe someone showed him a newspaper article about the transition. There was a breathing space, and the calmer mind helped his memories to emerge. I don’t know why it became my job, (or I can) but for weeks or even months I was tasked with taken a hold-all with old cash to the bank and bringing back the new stuff. Cashiers at many banks came to know my face but not my name. “Oh you got some more for us…again”. Devaluation in the 1960’s had upset him, as hyperinflation was to in the later 70’s but Decimalisation made him ill in 1971.