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.


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