‘What was that?’ he asked.
‘A hook, sir,’ I said.
‘Hook?’ he said, shaking his head. ‘A hook? At your age you shouldn’t even know what that means.’
It was the best possible introduction to the man who, for the next four years, was to coach me in the game. He taught in the great Yorkshire tradition, concentrating solely on backward and forward defence play. Any strokes we played that required the bat moving from the perpendicular were better done when he wasn’t looking. I once played a late cut for four in a school game when I thought he was in bed with ’flu and, as my eyes followed the ball to the boundary, I saw him standing there, sadly shaking his head at the horror of it all.
For all he was a puritan about cricket, he was a marvellous coach. He turned out a succession of young cricketers who were so well versed in the rudiments of the game that they found the transition from schoolboy cricket to the leagues fairly painless. His one blind spot was a total inability to appreciate the odd exceptional talent that came his way. Everyone had to conform to his basic principles, no matter how rich their natural gifts.
At the time I was at school we had in our team a batsman of remarkable ability. Hector Allsop, who was shaped like a junior Colin Milburn, the rotund Test cricketer, had no time for acquiring defensive techniques. He approached each ball as if it was the last he would ever receive on this earth and, that being the case, he was going to try to split it in two. For a schoolboy he was an exceptional striker of the ball, blessed with a powerful physique, a quick eye and a sure sense of timing. He played some fine innings for the school teams, but no matter how brilliantly he played, he never pleased Webb.
‘Defence, Hector lad, defence,’Webb would say, and Hector would put one foot down the track and blast the ball straight for six.
The high point of their relationship occurred in a Masters versus Boys game in which the sports master opened the bowling and Hector opened the batting. He played one of his best innings that day, thrashing the bowling, particularly the sports master’s, without mercy. Webb kept the ball pitched up, as he always taught us to do, and Hector kept thumping away.
He had scored about 86 in thirty minutes when he hit over one of Webb’s deliveries and was bowled. As he walked towards the pavilion the sports master said triumphantly, ‘I warned you Hector lad, that’s what fancy play gets you.’
He was the only man on the field, or off it, who remained convinced that Hector had failed. But for all that, he was a good man who taught a lot of boys a proper respect for the most difficult and beautiful of games. He was an important man in my life.
I never recovered from the first unhappy year at Barnsley Grammar. I had been promoted way above and beyond my capabilities. Moreover, halfway through the first term I spent six weeks out of school with rheumatic fever. When I returned I was two inches taller but, sadly, no brighter. I dropped to the A stream, which was easier, but I was still unhappy.
Whenever I try to analyse the reason for my disaffection with the grammar school I remember one free period when we were allowed to read a book of our own choosing. At the time I had discovered American novelists. I devoured the likes of Hemingway, William Faulkner, John Dos Passos and Scott Fitzgerald. I brought to school my own copy of John Steinbeck’s
The Grapes of Wrath
. Our presiding teacher was an old and chalky man who taught science and was one of a group brought out of retirement to replace the young men who went to war. He picked up my book and, holding it aloft, asked me to explain to the class what I was reading. I started to speak but he interrupted.
‘Tripe,’ he said. ‘Filthy tripe’, and dropped the book in the wastepaper basket.
I once wrote that my time at Barnsley Grammar School did for my education what myxomatosis did for the rabbit. This assessment produced the predictable squawks of protest from those of my contemporaries who had a better time than I did.
The most interesting letter contained a clipping of the group photograph of Barnsley Grammar School’s club Express One of 1946/47 with me sitting next to our form master, the formidable Hubert Haigh. I was looking quite happy. It was taken before the rot set in. The letter pointed out that, in spite of my reservations, the school did a good job because ten boys in a class of twenty-four had gone to university, seven to Oxbridge, where two had won blues for soccer and athletics. Among the rest were several captains of industry, not forgetting the misfit who became a TV star.
It didn’t change my view and – Webb Swift apart – I regarded Barnsley Grammar School as a waste of time.
The fact is I had already decided what I wanted to be. When my father was captain of the local cricket team we were visited every Monday by a man from the local paper riding a large and sturdy Raleigh bicycle. He would collect a match report from my dad. It seemed to me a wonderful way to spend a day. I wanted a job like that. In fact, I wanted his job.
At the same time, I had seen enough Hollywood movies to realise that there was also a more glamorous side to being a journalist, involving men wearing trilby hats and belted raincoats, with epaulettes. Often these men looked like Humphrey Bogart and bought cocktails for molls who resembled Lauren Bacall. I wanted to be a reporter and I couldn’t see anything stopping me. I had always possessed an ability to write, even making a bob or two writing essays for friends at school. In my dafter moments I had practised phoning in imaginary scoops. I would find a public call box, nestle the receiver into my shoulder in the approved manner and dial the operator. When she replied I’d say something like, ‘Get me the city desk, doll,’ or ‘Sister, hold the front page.’ They thought at first they were dealing with a nutter. After a while they would simply tell me to bugger off.
Shortly before I took my O levels I was caned by my headmaster, Roche. A large and blustery man with strange eyes, he took his time, keeping you waiting outside his study, making sure you heard the whacks and cries as he beat the bum or hands of some unfortunate boy ahead of you. He had three or four canes he would practise swishing while you stood there wondering how many you might get and what the target might be. Before the beating he told you what he thought of you. He was a man who took his job seriously.
On this occasion he finished his speech by saying, ‘Unless you buck up, Parkinson, you will never add up to much.’ Then he gave me six on the hand, which meant I couldn’t pick up a pen for a day or two. As I left his study, trying hard not to whimper, I remember thinking there wasn’t much point in hanging about. He didn’t like me and I hated him and what he stood for, so the sooner we parted the better.
I took O levels without doing any work and without caring. I passed in Art and English and departed Barnsley Grammar School shortly after. I was sixteen and already had a job. I was the man on the bike who came to our house for the cricket scores, a junior reporter on the
South Yorkshire Times
Many years later I received a letter saying that there was to be a dinner in honour of Mr Roche and, since he had watched my career on newspaper and TV with interest, would I be willing to be a guest of honour? I politely declined.
So that was how it started. I bought myself a bike, a drop-handled Raleigh with a Sturmey-Archer three-speed, a pair of metal bike clips, and a trench coat like Bogey wore in all his pictures. I was sixteen years old, working for a local paper and cycling twenty-five miles a day around a cluster of pit villages, interviewing anyone who would stand still for two minutes.
The gap between the glamorous Hollywood image of a newspaperman’s life and my own could hardly have been greater and might well have defeated a more sensitive soul. I was oblivious to the discomforts of the job. Indeed, the more I cycled about my area, chronicling the births and deaths of the community, reporting the functions at the local chapels, detailing the doings of the Mothers’ Union, the more I became convinced that I
In homage to my hero, I topped my uniform of trench coat and bicycle clips with a pearl grey, snap brim fedora and further adorned it with a label in the hat band marked ‘Press’. I solved the inevitable problem of cycling into a wind while wearing such headgear by making a chinstrap out of knicker elastic, a measure that appeared incongruous but was, in fact, generally speaking, a practical solution. The only drawback occurred if I sped downhill into a fierce wind, when I was in danger of being lifted from my seat as the hat billowed backwards, the elastic threatening to yank my head from my shoulders. On such occasions my fedora must have looked like the arresting parachute on a space shuttle.
Thus attired, from sixteen to nineteen, acned, brilliantined, tireless in limb and imagination, I belted through my pit villages, embracing everyone with my foolish ambition. I bought a typewriter, a battered portable Corona, and every evening would translate the contents of my bulging notebook on to copy paper.
When I had finished I would sometimes read aloud my efforts to my parents. My mother, an avid reader and a woman of great natural style, would nod approvingly at some particularly fine phrase. My father, who liked the court reports best, would supplement the telling of the misadventures of some well-known ne’re-do-well with his own assessment, which would be either: ‘Not surprised about him. Never could play cricket.’ Or, ‘Fancy that, I mean he’s a good opening bat, that fella.’
The next day I’d present my copy to the senior journalist whose job it was to supervise my work. His name was Stan Bristow and I could not have had a finer teacher. He was a proper journalist, methodical, meticulous and, above all, patient with the vagaries of my prose style, which varied according to the particular author I was reading at the time. Some weeks I would present him with, say, a report of a wedding written in the style of Hemingway: ‘It was a good wedding. You could say that about it. It was a very good wedding.’ On other occasions he would have to point out that a review of a local drama group’s production of
An Inspector Calls
in the style of Dorothy Parker might be unacceptable in the columns of the
South Yorkshire Times
. Thus: ‘
An Inspector Calls
is a production which begs the question, why did he bother? Come to that, why did we?’ – which seemed to me all that needed to be said and sufficiently witty to get me an immediate invite to the Algonquin Round Table – was gently blue pencilled and replaced with a proper review.
About this time I thought I would specialise in showbiz interviews, which, given the area I worked in, would make me the most underemployed journalist in the world. No matter. Instead of interviewing Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and all that lot, who, as far as we know, had no plans to visit Barnsley, I decided to make stars of the more exotic club acts.
My first victims were a couple called Denis and Sylvana, or some such. He was a dark, slim man who wore make-up all the time. She was blonde, prettily plump and perpetually sad. Together they belted out the popular songs of the day to audiences whose attitude to an entertainer was: ‘I won’t bother you if you don’t bother me.’ I don’t know what attracted me to them but I do remember that at the time I believed they were the most glamorous, fascinating people I had ever met. Not only did I give them a rave write-up on their debut before two hundred drunks at a local working-men’s club, but I invited them home for Sunday lunch. Denis’s make-up was a definite obstacle to free-flowing conversation, particularly with my father who, although not a censorious being, had never been confronted by a man wearing mascara and rouge with a mouth full of Yorkshire pudding.
In the main, the job of being a local reporter meant sifting through the minutiae of village life, involving oneself in the daily rituals of a mining community. The dramatic moment was when the siren sounded, meaning there had been an accident at the pit. Then the village paused – the world suspended – while women at home wondered if the victim was their loved one.
One of the most vivid images of my childhood is hearing the siren at Grimethorpe and my mother pausing while ironing and looking out of the window towards the pithead. When you are sixteen or seventeen, grief and loss are hard to imagine, never mind come to terms with. Yet as a junior reporter I soon learned about the sorrow of death and the theatre of mourning.
I worked my nest of pit villages with a good journalist from the
, Don Booker. The job we hated was following up reported deaths and getting details of the departed for the obituary page. We developed a quiet, almost unctuous manner, more like undertakers than reporters. We would invariably be invited to view the body, which was always laid out in the spare room, designed it seemed for no other purpose than to be a temporary resting place for the departed. We became experts at viewing dead people and assessing, by the way they had been laid out, which firm was in charge of the funeral arrangements.
We would inspect the rigid, shiny face of the deceased and mutter things like, ‘He looks at peace,’ while noting the cake frill around his neck, which was most certainly the work of the Co-op undertakers. In the winter, with bad weather and a ’flu epidemic, we would visit four or five such scenes every day.
One day I received a message from head office that a local lad had been killed in an accident abroad. I went to the address to collect the details and my knock was answered by a woman about the same age as my mum. I introduced myself, expecting her to invite me in. Instead, in a puzzled voice, she asked me how she could be of assistance.
‘I’ve come about your son,’ I said.
‘What about my son?’ she said, warily.
I realised there had been a terrible mistake and that I had been informed of her boy’s death but she had not. She made me tea. I fetched a neighbour to sit with her. When I left she took my hand and thanked me. I went to our house and stayed in bed for the rest of the day.