April 4 2005

Throw another log on the fire and draw near while we turn the clock
back.
Hands up those who remember the days when the river that put Stafford
on the map was a force to be reckoned with?
We’re talking history here. Long before the Bridge Cafe stopped serving
cream teas and became the Curry Kuteer, even before Freddy Sandy
brought the first Wimpy to town, the muddy old Sow had aspirations.
It slurped through Doxey marshes, thumbed its nose at the sad,
sail-less windmill at Broadeye, held its breath past the clipped
keep-off-the grass splendour of Victoria Park before fizzing under
Bridge Street and leaving the town centre behind to join the Trent at
Shugborough,
Once a year or so it burst its banks and the people of South Walls and
Tenterbanks moved upstairs until the rain stopped.
The Severn it never was, but it had Izaak Walton and water rats, mute
swans and eels, crayfish and freshwater mussels.
In short, as any sixty-something born within the sound of St Mary’s
bells will tell you, the Sow had character.
And there was something else.
It had boats.
Lots of them.
Before Sainsbury’s changed the northern townscape, the gasworks
provided the backdrop for two-bob trips to paradise for young lovers
aboard skiffs hired from the nearby New Inn.
The low bridge prevented access to the park and though the scenery on
the other side wasn’t inspiring, the boats drew many an adolescent
river pirate armed with nothing more than a bottle of Tizer, five
Woodbines and a head full of shiver-me-timbers.
Then they drained part of the marshes, put in culverts to stop the
flooding and the boats sank without trace.
And when they went, the Sow died a little.
Nowadays few people live in the town centre and those who do no longer
fear the river gushing into their homes.
Nobody worries about the Sow any more.
They just ignore it.
The environmentalists and the planners have worked wonders, of course.
The riverside improvement from Bridge Street to the park and beyond is
pretty and the big clean-up means that wildlife is beginning to thrive
again (though the otter I spotted a few months back on the stretch near
near the Express & Star’s office turned out to be a fugitive mink).
But smart as the river now is, it could do with an image makeover. It’s
time it stopped skulking and made a comeback.
Perhaps it needs a touch of the Stafford Castles.
Nobody gave that concrete-stuffed stump of a folly the time of day
until the archaeologists moved in a couple of decades ago. Now it’s a
key medieval site with history trails, fake battles and summer
Shakespeare.
Who knows what the PR people might do with a river?
They could bring the skiffs back for starters. Or put punts in the park.
How about an annual boat race? A regatta even? An Izaak Walton angling
fest?
If you’ve got it, flaunt it.
Stafford-on-Sow has a certain ring.

 

April 11 2005

The Titfield Thunderbolt turned heads, but it took a mermaid to stop the traffic.
In the early 1950s, Staffordians became accustomed to odd happenings in the main street.
You want a Victor Mature lookalike in loincloth and fake tan wrestling a stuffed lion?
Right this way, madam.
But a mermaid?
In Foregate Street?
Pure fantasy.
Which, of course, it was. But it put bums on seats at the Odeon and a smile on the face of George Lockyer, the blunt  and dapper Northerner who managed the cinema (now the multi-screen Apollo) in the days when the latest from Hollywood or Elstree drew nightly queues six-deep as far as Jimmy Hardwick’s barber shop and often round the corner into the Friars.
A few days before the film Miranda, starring a half-woman, half-fish Glynis Johns, hit the screen, George had his own mermaid whisked into town by taxi. They took her into the foyer in a wheelchair, then upstairs and on to the canopy above the main entrance, from where she waved her tail at stunned motorists and pedestrians below.
Today’s health and safety inspectors would have had apoplexy.
They probably wouldn’t have been too happy either about the stunt George arranged to boost interest in The Titfield Thunderbolt.
This piece of Ealing whimsy involved the efforts of a group of rural clergy and gentry to save their branch-line from the axe. Stafford having its own railway works, George borrowed an ancient loco and parked it outside the Odeon. Drivers turning into Newport Road must have been gob-smacked.
Night life in Stafford had little to offer then beyond the pictures but the choice was wide. In addition to the Odeon, the town centre had the Picture House and, until the mid-1950s, the Albert Hall, in Crabbery Street. Half a mile away just beyond the jail, there was the Sandonia, a cavernous fleapit which had fallen on lean times after opening grandly and disastrously in the 1920s as a theatre with the London production of Chu Chin Chow.
But it was the Odeon, part of a chain of cinemas launched by Oscar Deutsch in the early 1930s, that had the best and latest films.
And for kids there was the Odeon Club, three hours every Saturday morning spent in the company of Laurel and Hardy, the Bowery Boys, Gene Autry and the Thunder Riders and others of that celluloid ilk.
It was here that George Lockyer held court, resplendent, as always, in dinner jacket, bow tie and dazzling dress shirt, his hair, jet-black and Brylcreemed to perfection, outshining his patent-leather shoes,
He judged the weekly talent show before the films began and led us in a community singing session which always ended with the club song. It was stirring stuff and we took the roof off.
It wasn’t quite Scouts and Guides, but we wore our badges with pride and we took the pledge. In song, of course:
“As members of the Odeon Club we all intend to be, good citizens when we grow up and champions of the free.”
None of us knew what a champion of the free was. But we all wanted to be one.

 

April 18 2005

Tough choice: the Magic Pound Note Machine or the pea-shooter and a quarter of parrygarrick?
Saturday in the old St John’s market always presented a dilemma.
The toy stall was the big attraction, but to get there you had to pass the sweets and for kids whose taste buds had been stunted by years of rationing, that wasn’t easy.
It was 10 years after the war ended before a stick of rhubarb and a couple of shakes of sugar, or a condensed milk sandwich stopped being a treat.
For us, the big birthday party climax wasn’t the cake and candles, but a Mars bar shaved paper thin and distributed one piece per salivating child.
We nibbled it like ambrosia. If you were careful you could make the chocolate edge on your slice last a full five minutes before you reached the squidgy stuff.
Then the sweets came back.
And the best on offer were those in the market: humbugs, wine gums, jelly babies, acid drops tart enough to strip your tongue, caramels made with so much honey you couldn’t eat more than three without being sick, gobstoppers the size of ping-pong balls.
And parrygarrick.
We got hooked on those.
One bag was never enough.
It was some years before we knew why and by then they had disappeared. The aniseed-flavoured boiled sweets (real name paregoric) were a concoction of camphor and benzoic acid. They used something similar – with just a dash of alcohol and opium – as an early painkiller.
Tooth decay was never an issue. We had withdrawal symptoms.
It took real determination to get to the toy stall and even more to decide how best to spend what was left of your pocket money.
Painting books that coloured themselves, water-squirting rings, paper kites, wind-up racing cars, Archie Andrews ventriloquist dummies, Muffin the Mule string puppets: the treasures of Ben Gunn’s cave paled by comparison.
Then there were comics. There was a huge crate of second-hand stuff: Film Fun, Knock-Out, Champion and just occasionally, Classics Illustrated, American imports with a different smell that retold in pictures stories like King of the Khyber Rifles and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  You could read Don Quixote, Les Miserables and Ivanhoe on the bus home and still have time for a game of French cricket before you were called in to listen to Dan Dare.
The pea-shooter? Shaped like a trumpet mouthpiece and made of gleaming tin, it was as cool as a Colt 45 and in the right hands almost as lethal.
Peas got stuck in the barrel so, in season, we used hawthorn berries, smaller and the colour of blood. Even better, with a mouthful of rice you could transform that Colt into a Gatling Gun. They didn’t know what hit ‘em. But it stung like billy-o.
An expedition to the market never disappointed.
Well, actually it did. Once
That Magic Pound Note Machine was a dud. It promised an ever-lasting source of pocket money, but the small print revealed that you had to load a real pound note into a complicated system of rollers before you could work the trick.
Magic? It was some years before they conjured up the Trade Descriptions Act.

 

April 25 2005

A question for all you local history buffs: what’s the link between Stafford’s main post office and the Battle of Culloden?
Here’s a clue: it involves a military order written on a playing card – the nine of diamonds as it chances – and the slaughter of hundreds of Highlanders.
Give up?
Let me explain. On the eve of Culloden, the encounter that finally crushed the Pretender’s 1745 rebellion, the Duke of Cumberland, commander of the English forces, was relaxing over a game of cards in Stafford with his friend Lord Anson.
The setting was Chetwynd House, a handsome redbrick mansion in Greengate Street, later to become the general post office, but in those days home of the Anson family before they decamped and moved four miles down the road to Shugborough.
The duke was in affable mood. He was winning well and the level of the brandy decanter was sinking steadily. Suddenly a courier burst into the room, sweaty and breathless. He’d ridden all night from a previously unheard of moor in Inverness-shire with the news that Charles Edward and his Scottish hordes were on the run.
Pausing only to pick up a quill, the Duke took a card – the nine of diamonds as it chances – and wrote on it: “No quarter”.
It meant take no prisoners and his troops followed the order to the letter. The rest is bloody history.
Since that black day, as you probably know, the nine of diamonds has been dubbed the Curse of Scotland.
It’s a little known chapter in the annals of the county town, but one that as a boy of eight I filed with the tale about Prince Rupert’s pot-shot from his room at the High House at the weathercock on top of St Mary’s.
Or the one about Sheridan hoping in a toast that the shoe trade of Stafford would for ever be trodden under foot.
There were others: George Borrow working at the Swan as an ostler, Defoe and Dickens unimpressed about the welcome they received and having harsh words to say about the old town.
But the Culloden story was my favourite. The blood, you see.
Evidence? Nothing in writing as far as I can make out, but I got it from an unimpeachable source.
My dad.
He used to tell it while performing his card trick.
It was the only one he knew, but it was pure magic.
I’d be asked to pick a card and remember it. Then with unerring accuracy and a theatrical flourish he’d name my chosen card.
I was always dumbfounded.
The really odd thing is (as he explained at every performance) the trick wouldn’t work unless he removed one of the cards before he began.
The nine of diamonds, as it chances.
You might have trouble authenticating the Chetwynd House connection because, as I mentioned, it doesn’t appear to be documented. You’ll just have to take my dad’s word for it.
I did.

 

May 2 2005

The Cubs had Akela and the Law of the Jungle. We had Noake and the New Moral World.
We (that’s me and my friend Bugs) were members of the Woodcraft Folk, the non-military youth wing of the Co-operative Movement.
If we had uniforms I don’t remember them, but we had a motto: “Span the world with friendship”. It lacked Kipling’s touch, but its heart was in the right place.
Given the Co-op’s revolutionary roots, it would be good to be able to say that we joined because of some precocious socialist leanings. In truth, we signed up because the weekly meetings were in a community hall next door but one to my Gran’s house in South Walls.
Launched in 1925 as an alternative to what its founders saw as Scouting’s militaristic approach, the WF aspired to “a world based on equality, peace, social justice and” – what else? – “co-operation”.
They planned to achieve this by teaching us to tie knots and to chop logs without decapitating ourselves or a fellow Elfin (er, that’s what they called six to nine-year-olds in the Woodcraft Folk).
Self-confidence was the name of the game and Noake deserved a medal for her efforts with Bugs and me.
The carrot was The Annual Camp.
The stick was the threat of not being allowed to go if we failed to learn log-knotting and such.
Miraculously, we found ourselves under canvas in a field near a wood, near a quarry, near Gnosall, a whole seven miles and a New Moral World away.
We chopped logs, we tied knots, we made plaster casts of animal footprints. Badger and deer, Noake said, but we suspected they belonged to cows.
And we sang campfire songs. None of your prissy dib-dib-dib. We learned Garibaldi’s rallying song, Avanti Popolo, and our favourite, Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (how we sniggered at that one).
At night, the Venturers in our tent told us and the slightly older Pioneers ghost stories and we wet ourselves.
After two days I’d had enough of roughing it and Noake’s lumpy gravy. I cried non-stop and made such a fuss they sent me packing by train back to Stafford. The Venturer who came with me didn’t say a word all the way home. Bugs was back next day and although we never spoke about it I knew he blamed me for ruining everything. He probably still does.
I wasn’t exactly drummed out, but I never went back to the Woodcraft Folk.
Their headquarters in South Walls is now part of a civic car park. But, amazingly in a world of Playstations and skateboards, the organisation still exists. Their website (www.woodcraft.org.uk) continues to proclaim the same admirable aims.
Noake?
We met some years later – in court.
I was there as a very junior reporter. She was chairman of the borough magistrates.
If she recognised me, she didn’t let on.
And I never told her that to this day lumpy gravy brings me out in a cold sweat.

 

May 9 2005

We didn’t carry donor cards, but half the eight-year-olds of Stafford had an organ or two removed in the 1950s whether we liked it or not.
A generation like ours, raised on a ration book diet supplemented by daily doses of cod liver oil, Virol, Radio Malt, concentrated orange juice and National Dried Milk, should have been healthy and we were.
Except for our tonsils.
They seemed to get the blame for everything from sore throats to scarlet fever and impetigo.
In my case, it was nosebleeds.
Better out than in was the received medical wisdom. So our tonsils had to go.
Enter The Bogeyman: the ear, nose and throat surgeon.
(Actually, there were two Bogeymen. The other was the school dentist, but we kept him at bay with a daily Gibb’s Dentifrice scrub, a ritual that earned gold stars for our Ivory Tower cards)
There was, though, no way to avoid our appointment with the ENT man.
He was the stuff of nightmares, a shadowy figure armed with gas mask and shears, lurking at the other end of an NHS waiting list which even in those days stretched more than a year into the future.
His lair was Anson Ward in the old Staffordshire General Infirmary where in the decade or so after the war hundreds of us spent three days in an anaesthetic stupor and left minus our tonsils (often our adenoids, too) unable to eat anything firmer than jelly and ice-cream.
We had no choice, of course. But the pill was easier to swallow, before the operation at least, with a bribe.
What did you get for yours? Football boots? A Hopalong Cassidy watch?
Me? I traded mine in for a crystal set.
It was the cat’s whiskers, a state-of-the-art receiver made by a neighbour’s son just back from two years’ National Service in Egypt and eager to show off his Army-acquired skills as a radio engineer. The works were housed in a four-inch square plywood box with a huge Bakelite knob and a set of ex-War department headphones so heavy I developed a stoop.
An aerial from my bedroom window to the washing post at the top of the back garden made it possible to listen to Radio Luxembourg which taught me among other things that Friday night was Amami Night and that the Bristol-based pools guru Horace Batchelor knew how to spell Keynsham (“that’s K, E, Y, N . . .”).
On a clear night I could catch short bursts of the American Forces Network in Germany, too.
Cool or what?
Even cooler was the fact that because it didn’t need electricity my crystal set was portable.
It went everywhere with me.
Once when I stayed overnight at my Gran’s in South Walls I suspended the aerial across the street to a neighbour’s handy line-prop and fell asleep with the headphones on.
Jerked awake early next morning, I looked out of the window to see an irate milkman disentangling his horse from 50 feet of copper wire.
My nose bled for hours.

 

May 16 2005

It’s not something my family talks about much, but my mum was a junkie. Long before it became fashionable.
As addictions go, hers was fairly harmless, but her cravings were real, rarely satisfied and never kicked.
She made regular visits to a dusty, long forgotten den hidden in the maze of terraces that lay between Earl Street and the back of the old police station in Bath Street, bulldozed and replaced years ago to make way for the Guildhall shopping centre and the replacement St John’s market.
Her supplier was a taciturn character in homburg and heavy belted overcoat, whose activities were conducted by the light of one small gas mantle. Shady was the word. No one knew who supplied him.
Deals were done, money changed hands, few words spoken. He knew how to mind his own business and expected his customers to do the same.
Meet Mr Turner, junk man.
His shop was always freezing, hence presumably, his hat and overcoat. But it was a wondrous grotto that over many years provided my mother and the rest of our family with countless treasures. For me, these included a complete set of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encylopaedia (a gift “to Alex, Christmas 1914”), the best fort a boy ever had and a violin, a fake Strad that raised and dashed all our hopes in one memorable week in the early 50s.
Such was my mother’s habit.
But Mr Turner’s – the shop was never called anything else – was not the only place she went for a fix.
Auctions were held every other Friday at the town’s two Smithfield cattle markets –  the Sun in Lichfield Road and the Talbot in Victoria Square. And pens that on other days held cows and sheep on their way to the abbatoir, were stuffed with junk.
My mother was a regular bidder. Among many other things, she collected brass and would bring home boxes of ornaments, plaques embossed with Spanish galleons, horse brasses and, once, a nutcracker shaped like a crocodile. She’d bring furniture: occasional tables, bookcases and such that smelled of french polish and cowdung.
And sometimes there were pianos.
She was an adventurous one-finger pianist. Her rendering of My Sweet Little Alice Blue Gown was a ground-breaking musical journey that in its audacity could surprise both player and listeners, the tune often lasting as long as a concerto while she searched for the right note. We knew she’d find it – there were only 85 keys (three didn’t work) so it had to be there somewhere. But we never held our breath.
She bought pianos like some women buy hats. Every year or so we had a different model, usually more ornate than its predecessor. One, a Victorian walnut affair as big as a wardrobe, had built-in candlesticks and burnished keys the colour of nicotine. And every one of them made a noise.
Alice Blue Gown never sounded better.
She gave up playing when my sister brought home the boyfriend she later married who turned out to be an accomplished pianist. He used all his fingers and I don’t think mum ever forgave him.

 

May 23 2005

Recycling was something we didn’t know much about in Stafford in the 1950s, but some of us did our green bit without realising it. And it kept us on the streets.
Two regular visitors made it easy – and lucrative: the Corona pop lorry and the rag-and-bone man. Both offered incentives.
The Corona driver was manager of a mobile bottle bank which gave an instant return on investment.
His empties were as good as hard cash. Half a dozen provided a week’s worth of sweets, or a couple of comics and a roll of caps.
Often they were used by neighbours as a reward for running errands.
Old Mrs Williams, blind, bent, widowed and pretty much confined to barracks, gave a couple – and a slice of her home-made fruit cake – everytime one of us did her shopping.
We’d queue outside her house in Sidney Avenue waiting like stevedores to be chosen.
On a good day the cake would come with a glass of dandelion and burdock as well. Then, as a bonus, she’d add the bottle she’d just emptied to the two she’d already given us.
The pop was good – Corona dandelion and burdock was the best in the world – but the empties were even better.
And when they ran out there was always the rag-and-bone man.
Not that his his horse and cart showed up as often as the Corona lorry but we always knew when he was coming. You could hear him streets away which was our cue to dash indoors and start rummaging for, er, rummage.
He announced himself and his mantra never varied.
“Steps and lineprops!” he’d shout, inexplicably.
Steps?
Never saw any.
But, then, his trade description was a bit of a misnomer, too.
Rags?
Well, yes.
Bones?
Never saw any.
Every few months he’d arrive, a Christmas cracker on wheels, and in exchange for last year’s school flannels with the knees out and a jumper the moths had got at, we’d get a tracing book, a kazoo, a lopsided goldfish or a day-old chick doomed to die overnight in the airing cupboard.
When he drew up there was pandemonium as we fought for his attention with our carrier bags of wampum. One favoured individual would be handed the nosebag and the horse would snack while the R&B man examined each proffered load, rejecting non-woollies with a disdainful shake of his expert’s head and shoving the good stuff into big hessian sacks.
Sometimes we’d sulk when domestic needs took priority and our mums squandered everything on a new lineprop.
Mostly, though, we’d end up with something to smile about.
Then the nosebag would be handed back and he’d be off, leaving us to swank with our kazoos or trying to remember where we’d put that tub of ant-eggs bought for the goldfish he gave us last time.
There were always plenty left.
The life expectancy of a goldfish wasn’t much more than a day-old chick’s.

 

June 8 2005

Shakespeare wasn’t much of a poet, but he was a great banjo player. And a painter whose work never failed to attract attention.
We’re talking Reg here, of course, not Will.
Reg Shakespeare (Shaky to his friends) was a man of many parts.
He earned his living as a signwriter.
His creations were often the first thing you focused on when you hit town.
You couldn’t really miss them: letters a foot high grabbed you by the throat and dared you not to notice.
Outside the Sun and Smithfield there was always one of his huge hoardings advertising something or other, an amdram production, an exhibition, a jumble sale. Ditto the Oddfellows’ Hall, which for a few years before the Gatehouse took on the role, served as Stafford’s arts centre.
And whatever was happening there you could rely on Shaky to announce it with a flourish. His style was hardly original; it was typical of the sort of lettering you could see on notice boards and wayside pulpits in any town until more sophisticated publicity tools emerged.
But it was beautiful in its unassuming, take-it-or-leave-it way. He was a skilled craftsman and in Stafford he’d cornered the market.
Like all skilled craftsmen, he made it look easy.
But it was when he put down his paint brushes, that the real artist emerged.
Shaky was a fine musician who might have hit the big time as an entertainer had he made different choices. He lived in South Walls near the house where I was born and he and his banjo and his dog The Vicar, a Jack Russell who loved him, were inseparable. They said that he once had offers from the BBC and an invitation to join the Big Ben Banjo Band, but turned them down because he got cold feet.
Others, less charitable, suggested it was because he was too fond of his beer and, truth to tell, he was often in his cups.
Years after I’d moved away, our paths crossed sometimes on a late night bus from Cannock. He would ease himself on at the Chetwynd Arms, where he was a regular, and sit just inside near the door playing and singing, drunk but eloquent, about Carolina moons, happy days, lonely nights, Bill Bailey or Fanlight Fanny. The dog was always there, faithful but slightly embarrassed.
By then, the voice was shot and the banjo, like its owner, had seen better days, but Shaky was always worth listening to and I never had such enjoyable bus journeys.
The conductor would pour him off  in town and he would meander gently along the Walls, still serenading one and all, until he reached his front door.
The hoardings and the music are long gone, and the house has been demolished. Round the corner from where it stood, certainly no further than you could toss a paint-pot, is the spot where another well known Stafford character was born.
They gave Izaak Walton a marble bust in St Mary’s. Maybe they should find a place for Shaky’s banjo.

 

June 15 2005

Keeping warm, before central heating made it too easy, was a risky business. There’s nothing like a chimney fire for turning your knuckles white.
We had them regularly. Sweeps were expensive, so my father would use Imps, stamp-sized packets of wonderstuff that promised to blast the flue clean safely but which inevitably turned nasty and resulted in the chimney doing a Stromboli while lava gushed into the grate and we sat on the edge of our seats with fixed stares.
When my family moved from the town centre in the late 1940s to live on Stafford’s first post-war housing estate at Silkmore, we said goodbye to all that and took a quantum leap into a hi-tech world: electric lighting, inside loo and the newfangled Beeston Boiler, which provided us with hot water on tap and which ran on anything from old shoes to sugar bags filled with damp, nutty slack.
These stoves, made in a Nottinghamshire factory, were state of the art and, before the council started building in Sidney Avenue and neighbouring streets, a luxury unknown in Stafford.
Our particular home fire never stopped burning.
A smart grey-enamel affair that dominated the dining room, it was at its most efficient fed on coke, but when supplies ran low, as they inevitably did in the thick of winter, anything was worth a try.
It was on such occasions that the shoe cupboard was raided. It was always well-stocked: my mother, a jumble sale regular, was in the habit of grabbing half a dozen bargain pairs to put by purely for their potential as fuel. She also saved every day’s potato peelings – rice and pasta hadn’t been invented – to “bank up” last thing before bed.
No matter what we had for breakfast (often porridge slowcooked overnight in an earthenware crock on top of the stove) it was always accompanied by the tantalising smell of baked spuds.
The heat generated while the family slept was never wasted. A clothes-horse full of washing was left in front every night to air, part of a laundry process that included using the stove as an improvised iron. My school tie was passed behind the chimney pipe and pulled back and forth against it until the creases disappeared.
After Sunday lunch and after tea on weekdays, the wireless beckoned.
We’d settle down to listen to Billy Cotton, Take it from Here, Educating Archie, Life with the Lyons or Arthur Askey and the doors of the Beeston would be opened. We all roasted and got chilblains.
At bedtime I resented leaving the rest of the family in that friendly glow, but as the youngest I had little choice.
Consolation was provided by a different sort of glow. On top of the landing just outside my bedroom door the Valor paraffin stove, shiny-black and smelling like an ironmonger’s shop, phut-phutted idly and I’d fall asleep looking at the ruby patterns on the ceiling cast there by its coloured grille.
Central heating? More efficient, inarguably, but it’s not easy to get enthusiastic about a radiator.