Authors: Paul Daniels
This book is dedicated to the memory of Handel Newton Daniels and with love to Nancy Daniels
And to those close to my heart. There is no order to this, I love you all in different ways.
Debbie, the very best wife I could ever have wished for.
My sons, Paul, Martin and Gary.
My brother Trevor and all his family.
Debbie’s family for putting up with me.
There are also so many people that I would like to thank and, again, in differing ways I owe them all so much.
The Man who wrote the Magic Book.
My first wife, Jackie, for my three sons.
Graham Reed, Barry Murray, Ali Bongo, and the late Gil Leaney.
Timothy Reed for research material.
And to my grandson, Lewis, who is the future.
he nation is on the brink of catastrophe as World War II approaches and Prime Minister Chamberlain promises ‘Peace in our time’. 1938 also sees John Logie Baird demonstrate his first colour television set in the UK, whilst fluorescent lights, a non-stick substance called Teflon and Superman are invented in the USA. The first children’s zoo in London’s Regent’s Park opens to whoops of delight three weeks after Hitler claims Austria; Paul Daniels enters a troubled world with a shout.
A couple of years ago Debbie, my wife, and I lived in a beautiful house set in 12 acres of formal gardens and stunning woodland. We held a garden party for showbusiness people at our home. My brother-in-law, Simon, wasn’t feeling too good so he went upstairs to have a lie down. While he was there, he heard some of the guests in the upper corridor going on about how wonderful the house was. ‘This place is fantastic.’ Another voice cut in with ‘if you want to know how fantastic this place is, you should see where he comes from …’
I was born in South Bank, a small industrial town between
Middlesbrough and Redcar in the north-east of Yorkshire. Surrounded then by steelworks and docks and later by the gigantic ICI chemical works, it was the most polluted town in the country. That didn’t bother us much because we didn’t know. The streets were laid out in long blocks of terrace houses with no gardens. In fact, you couldn’t see much greenery anywhere except in the far-off hills. When you are a child, everywhere you travel is a great journey. The hills turned out to be about four miles away.
My grandmother’s house, 51 North Street, was the venue for my opening night. The date was 6 April 1938. I was instantly lucky because I had wonderful parents and I’d like you to meet them. Before she married, my mother was called Nancy Lloyd and she is still a small, attractive, fiery redhead, although as I write the hair is lighter. Mam has always insisted it is auburn and never liked being compared to Katherine Hepburn. My dad was called Hughie and he was a small, happy man with a disposition that made everyone like him.
Hughie was not his real name. His full name was Handel (for music), Newton (for science) and Daniel (for religion). The ‘s’ in Daniels was, apparently, caused by the slip of the registrar’s pen.
Despite the threat of war, my parents were blissfully happy. Dad had certainly worked hard at his courtship. Mam was in service in Bradford and Dad used to court my mother by pedalling a bicycle from South Bank, in the north-eastern tip of Yorkshire, all the way to Bradford about 65 miles away. Just getting a bike out of the hills of the Tees valley is hard enough and there is still a long way to go after that. He must have been in love because he did it every Saturday night after he finished work.
When he arrived, he was allowed to sleep in the greenhouse until my mother was released from her daily duties. They strolled around Bradford for a couple of hours and then Hughie rode all the way back. Determined lad, my dad.
Unlike most people, who worked in the ‘works’ (we pronounced it ‘werks’), Dad was a cinema projectionist. When my parents married, Dad had landed a job in a cinema in Mablethorpe on the East Coast and that’s where they set up home. After the long terraced streets of South Bank, Mablethorpe must have seemed like heaven on earth.
As was customary in those days, they went back up North to Nancy’s mother for my birth and then returned to the bungalow a few days later on a tandem with me in a sidecar that Dad had built.
The stamina of my parents, especially my mother, was wondrous. Dad, who was nicknamed Hughie, had been in training for this trip ever since he started the weekly pedal pilgrimage to see his loved one.
Of course, I cannot remember anything of this, or Mablethorpe, but I know that they were deliriously happy living in their bungalow called ‘Lulworth’. The stories I know about the area are ‘hand-me-downs’; the one-legged champion cyclist and the strange, very rich man whose garden was full of rubbish seem to be part of my own experience. Strangely enough, however, when I took Mam and Dad back to Mablethorpe many years later, I could remember that there was a greengrocer’s shop around a particular corner with a strange metal and glass extension over the pavement. When we turned the corner it was still there, and that was my first proof that children in prams are already learning stuff.
My father was a projectionist by default. Having served his time as an apprentice electrician, the man who was supposed to sign his qualification papers made a pass at Mam, Dad got mad and the documents were never signed. I rarely saw my father lose his temper, maybe three or four times in my life, but when he did you had to watch out. He was a short, stocky man of incredible strength and I never met a person who didn’t like
Hughie Daniels, but then, I never met the man who made a pass at Mam.
Another amazing fact about Dad was his ability to be able to turn his hand to anything and achieve an incredibly high standard. Whether it involved working in wood, metal, plastic, decorating, toy-making, electronics, plumbing, or car mechanics, he seemed to be a master wizard. ‘If a man made it or created it, son, then he only had the same number of fingers and thumbs as you have, so you can do it, too,’ was a very early lesson.
Everything was logical to Dad if you thought about it long enough. Wisdom and calmness seemed to surround him. ‘Always measure it twice, then you’ll only have to cut it once,’ he said. ‘That will apply as much to your life as it does to woodwork!’
Soon, the threat of war was upon England and my parents believed, like everyone else, that Hitler and his Teutonic hordes would attack us on the beaches of Skegness and Mablethorpe. They packed up and headed back to South Bank where Dad got a job at the local cinema and we settled into Pearl Street.
The bombs of war had already started to drop and there was a new sense of danger every night. I have vague memories of getting under the kitchen table when the sirens went off, warning of a possible air raid by enemy aircraft. Being surrounded by steelworks made us a prime target for the Luftwaffe and our town received a pretty good pasting. It didn’t feel safe at home, but there was nowhere else to run when an air attack came. Everyone just prayed the bombers would pass overhead and give the town a miss this time.
One night, the prayers didn’t work because the sirens screeched their deadly warning and Mam stood terrified wondering what to do with her toddler son. Then there was a shout from the elderly couple who lived across the street. They invited Mam and I to come and stay with them during the
onslaught, knowing that Dad was at work. As we crossed the street we heard a loud whistle above us. Grabbing me, Mam started to run and as we burst through the front door, the couple threw themselves on top of us as the bomb hit our house. We were covered in dust and rubble but were unhurt. Bombs were smaller in those days. The Germans killed my budgie, though, so they were the bad guys. I can still, quite clearly, hear the sound of the descending whistle.
In an instant, our home and all our possessions had disappeared and we were taken to Granny Lloyd’s house a few streets away. Dad had heard the bombs dropping all around him, but kept the film rolling. When he arrived in our street after work the sight was terrifying. Where there had been an entire row of houses, only a pit of broken bricks remained. Even worse was the thought that Mam and I were still buried under the rubble. The elderly couple were quick to spot him, however, and report that we were still alive. It must have been awful for him and the relief must have been enormous. Will someone explain war to me? I cannot see the glory or sense in it at all. What a waste it all is.
Several weeks later, we were rehoused at 10 Lower Oxford Street, South Bank, Middlesbrough, and it was there that I began to grow up.
* * *
There weren’t many cars around. Milkmen still used horses and carts, as did the rag and bone man who collected your unwanted clothes and gave you a balloon for them. Another old chap used to come round and had a strange sort of grinding wheel attached to a treadle which made it spin round at high speed. He used to sharpen knives and scissors on it and I loved to watch the sparks fly out as he honed the metal edges.
We could play quite safely in the streets, games with milk bottle tops and sticks and balls, and cricket with the stumps marked on a wall. The rules were not exactly MCC. If you hit the ball over the back wall of someone’s house you had to decide whether to be ‘None and stay in or take Six and be out’. A lack of traffic made games possible that simply aren’t played today. I can’t remember most of them but Levo and Tag were games with cans and sticks. We used the sticks that had been chopped to start a fire in the grate, about an inch square and six inches long, and an empty food can was placed in the middle of the street. Two sticks were laid on the top of the can, then two more at right angles and finally two more again at right angles on the top. Eventually, a pyramid of tin and wood took shape and wobbled precariously. Two teams stood on the pavement edge and alternately threw a ball at the can. Whichever team knocked it over were ‘it’ and had to rebuild the can and sticks before the other team could hit them with the ball by throwing it at them as they ran about. Many years later, I was amazed to see the same game being played in Venice in the streets, because again, they don’t have any traffic.
Our house was exactly the same as all the others. The front doors were usually painted in a simple way, the favourite colour being ‘nigger brown’. Nowadays, that word is not used among white people. It is supposed to be wrong. When the fuss blew up about the use of the word ‘nigger’ I was confused. Having been brought up on this beautiful colour I couldn’t understand why the word was supposed to be bad. Later in life, when I went to a grammar school and found out that it derived from the Latin for ‘black’, I couldn’t see any point in changing from the same word to the same word. If the claim was that it was said in a derogatory fashion then that, too, is confusing because you can turn just about any word into a ‘bad’ sound. I suppose it is because I don’t understand racism. I think you have to be
pretty stupid to say you don’t like any particular race. There really are good and bad in all races, so I just think of us all as World People. The question is never about your colour or creed, it is about whether I like you or not.
Having stepped off the street and through the whatever colour door, you found yourself in the front room, where every Friday we had a bath in front of the open grate. From the front room you went through into a scullery with an open-topped coal boiler in the corner. It was a magical thing, that boiler. It boiled the whites on washday, it heated the water for the baths and boiled the fruit when Mam made delicious home-made jams and marmalades. Just as Dad could make anything, Mam could cook anything. Her pastry is still the best I have ever tasted.
The stairs bent upwards from this rear room to the two bedrooms upstairs. I find it strange that I have no memory of my bedroom at all, only the downstairs, and I can still sense the wonderful feeling of sitting in the tin bath in front of the fire, immersed in hot water and soap bubbles.
Going further back from the scullery you went out into a small lean-to kitchen and then into the back yard. At the far end of this small yard was a toilet in a small brick outhouse and a door that went into the back alley. Going to the toilet in winter toughened you up no end. Perhaps it was just your end it toughened up. The lower part of the toilet wall, which was the back alley wall, still had the low door in it that, in previous times, had enabled the sewage men to pull the bucket-like container out and tip it into a lorry for spreading on farmers’ fields. By the time I was using the toilet we had mains drains, but I often used to wonder what happened if they pulled it out whilst someone was still sitting on the seat.
At all times of the year, however, it was very, very important that, when you flushed the toilet, you had to get back into the house before the toilet stopped flushing or, according to legend,
the witch would get you. I used to have nightmares about that witch. Opposite our back alley door was another door that would let you into the opposite back yard and then the scullery and eventually out into the next street. It was a mirror image of our house. This mirror imaging went on for street after street.
There was a great deal of pride to be gained in how your house looked inside and a lot of time and energy was taken by Mam to keep it spotless. The fire grate in the front room was jet black and polished regularly with black lead and the brass knobs shone brightly on the side oven doors built into the walls. These grates were another source of wonder. You could hang a kettle over the open fire, cook in the side oven and hold bread on long forks to make delicious toast. Toast was the cheapest form of food we had ready access to and Mam joked that we were so poor she should take me to the park and let the ducks feed me! I never seemed to go without anything I needed though.
Shortly after we moved into Lower Oxford Street, Dad was called up into the Royal Navy and went off to fight in the war. He finished up in India for the next four years. We were soon on rations and all the neighbours, mostly women left behind while the men went to fight, used to help each other and keep each other company. These women were amazing, making, mending and cooking with hardly anything to live off and working as one ‘unit’ to support each other. Their dedication and resourcefulness meant that us kids were protected from all the harshness of the conflict.
I have vague memories of seeing air-raid shelters built and filling the back alleys between the back yards of the houses. They had thick concrete roofs and offset doors to stop shrapnel flying through them. Mam, who was the size of nothing, wanted to be a part of the war effort, too, so when I was at school she would mix cement and run wheelbarrows of the mixture along the side of railway lines in order to erect fences.
For years afterwards, we would walk along the Black Path by the railway lines and see her initials in the concrete posts.