Thursday, 15 March 2018

Greta Thilthorpe, A Friend From The Past

There are definite positive aspects to having a Facebook account, although at times I agree that the negatives can be weighty. Without FB I would never have known of the recent passing of Greta Thilthorpe that erstwhile best friend of my early teenage years. It was Dawn who told me, a friend I have never actually met but I feel as if I know. Without FB I would not now be starting this Friday with a rather heavy heart full of sombre thoughts about the Meaning of Life. Does it have any meaning? I was rather hoping Stephen Hawking would finally reveal the answer to this exasperating question but alas he too is now recently beyond recall.

Greta was the remarkably sensible Only Girl in a large family featuring a clutch of moodily handsome boys and a rather exotic mother with a penchant for red chiffon and heavy jewellery. Well so it seemed to me at the time but then you have to bear in mind that when I first became Greta’s friend I had only very recently celebrated my thirteenth birthday. She on the other hand was seventeen and in her final year at Wombwell Hall as I was about to start my first. I think our slightly unusual friendship came about in the first place because my mother had just started to work for Peggy and Vic Troke at their shop in Shepherd Street where Greta’s mother had been employed for several years. I was to inherit Greta’s outgrown school uniforms though for me they were uncomfortably tight around the waist and chest because I was fast becoming what my Uncle Harold described as a Fine Specimen of English Womanhood and Young Harold, his elder son, described as Fat. My mother claimed that I was not fat at all, but merely Stout. I could not decide which of the trio I hated most. In any event, as we certainly did not have Money to Burn on trivialities like school uniforms I was required to wear the cast off skirts and blouses whether I liked the idea or not. At the same time I became Greta’s friend though being several years my senior my mother did wonder if it was a good idea. The one thing she did not want was me being corrupted by an older girl because a few months before the advent of Greta into my life I had become friendly with yet another seventeen year old, this time one called Shirley who worked for Ripleys the greengrocers. Shirley had permed hair and pierced ears and a boyfriend who was doing his National Service. She introduced me to cigarettes and gin and so a halt was called to the friendship quite rapidly.

Greta was an entirely different kettle of fish who wore no make-up and her school shoes at weekends and there was little danger of me becoming corrupted which I could not help thinking was a pity but nevertheless there were definite advantages in the friendship. Shirley had been more than willing to talk about sex and How Far she had Gone with her absent boyfriend whereas Greta had not yet developed an interest in the opposite sex and her attitudes were closer to those greatly applauded by my mother who commented that you could say what you like about Greta but you couldn’t say she was Fast. She may not have been Fast but Greta was canny and had a knack of saying rude things to older women (like Peggy Troke) with a guileless expression in both voice and face that led them to believe she was just being refreshingly truthful. She was also exceptionally generous and my cousin Connie who was not known for her own generosity, said that’s simply what happened within large families and it was an experience I was unlikely to encounter in my own because I was only blessed with one brother. Both Connie and Greta had been blessed with a large number of brothers and of Greta’s I remember Michael clearer than the rest of them because he was dazzlingly good looking and fifteen. For his part he failed to notice me at all even when I wore Evening In Paris to his parents’ twenty fifth wedding anniversary.

I remember Greta as having an extraordinarily good work ethic and during the years of our friendship she seemed able to locate all the local farms that largely and quite illegally employed child labour for harvesting work that the adults in the area were beginning to avoid and paid what my grandmother said was a Pittance. Greta was unconcerned with pay rates and simply lined us up for work that usually began at five am each morning of the school holidays. This meant that unlike many of our acquaintances she and I for a time had money to spend on sweets, ice-creams, Smiths Crisps and bottles of Tizer. My brother, who already spoke longingly of owning a pair of binoculars was, at the age of seven, considered even by Greta as being just a bit too young. Old Nan, not known for having a good word to say about teenage girls was wont to shake her head and admit albeit in a low voice that when all was said and done, Greta was a Grafter and no Mistake!

She was also something of an adventurer and that was an attitude that greatly appealed to me. Although I was quite unable to persuade Molly Freeman to embark upon a train trip in the general direction of London, and when I suggested the idea to Joan Bennett she simply looked dazed and said she’d have to ask her Mum, it did not occur to Greta that mothers should ever be asked for permission to do something as ordinary as get on a train. Mothers were busy people, she said, and had more on their minds than train trips especially when their youngest two, like their Stephen and Christopher both had Mumps. She had an idea, she told me, for getting to London without paying a proper fare, simply with the aid of a platform ticket. In the end we got as far as Woolwich Dockyard where even Greta began to doubt the practical aspects of the plan and she deftly led the way to the correct platform that pointed us back towards Gravesend where we nonchalantly handed in our crumpled, sticky platform tickets and exited the station. And over the next month she and I embarked upon a number of similar outings to Maidstone, Gillingham and even Whitstable. These were adventures unfamiliar to most of my Wombwell Hall classmates and because of Greta I managed to gain a certain amount of kudos among the girls of 1SC.

Following Dawn’s message today I’ve thought a lot about the time when Greta Thilthorpe was my friend and have come to the conclusion that she may not have been a particularly sophisticated seventeen year old but she was never simply Run of the Mill or Ordinary. It’s a pity we seem destined to lose touch with the friends that populated our past.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

The Cobbler of Shepherd Street

Throughout my childhood and teenage years Mr Hammond was the person we took our shoes to when they needed mending. Later on I learned that he was proficient in a wide range of repair services including watches and jewellery but our relationship with him only concerned footwear. He was an old fashioned cobbler and at times was heard to claim that theoretically he should not be called a cobbler at all, but a cordwainer because he was a skilled artisan. Not so very long ago he said, he had on a daily basis constructed luxury footwear and back in those days the cobbler was simply the person who repaired the shoes that men like him had made. And warming to his theme he was heard to add that back then the cobbler was actually forbidden from working with new leather and even had to use old leather for repairs. The difference between these two trades had once been considerable to the extent that to call a cordwainer a cobbler was to greatly insult him. In Mr Hammond’s opinion the long and proud British tradition of shoe-making was slowly Going To The Dogs. None of this was of any interest to my mother or grandmother when they handed in items to be mended, the latter remarking that in her opinion he talked a lot of Twaddle which was probably on account of him being Chapel rather than Roman Catholic.

When I was a pre-schooler my extra special black patent round toed shoes with traditional ankle straps were handed over to this Cordwainer-turned-Cobbler simply to see if he was able to stretch them a little. I had outgrown them long before my mother considered it to be Normal and as they had cost a Pretty Penny and the soles showed evidence of plenty of remaining wear, stretching might solve the problem. Mr Hammond was not enthusiastic and said that in any event he was not a fan of stretching children’s shoes because in the long run it did their feet no good at all. My mother’s neck bristled with annoyance as she thanked him for his advice and later told Mrs Bassant next door that not everybody was Made of Money and new shoes for kiddies of my age not only involved expense but were hard to come by in wartime even if you had the required coupons. A few days later I inherited ankle strapped footwear that had once been red but were now a strange sludge colour, from my cousin Connie who lived in Waterdales.

No one could say that Mr Hammond was not obliging and on occasions he went above and beyond the call of duty in service of the public. When my father came back from the war, later than his compatriots because of the debilitating illness he contracted in North Africa but by mid 1946 looking hale and hearty once more, the first local shop he visited was Mr Hammond’s. His black Sunday shoes needed attention if he was to attend Mass the next day at the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption looking his best. Cognizant of the importance of the situation, Mr Hammond did not allow his own religious affinity to stand in the way of his obligations and my father’s shoes were attended to in record time causing him to remark to my mother that the Shepherd Street Cobbler was a decent chap. My mother did not respond except to sniff a bit but the good thing was that at eleven am Mass my father looked very dapper indeed in his pin-striped demob suit, white silk scarf and the newly mended shoes that had been shone to perfection. Mrs Judd whose husband had been Lost at Dunkirk, two of the Campbell girls and Sister Camilla all commented upon the fact that he was a Very Pleasant Chap and it was good to welcome him back into the Roman Catholic community.

There was no doubt that Mr Hammond was a committed Christian despite his unfortunate association with Chapel. On a number of occasions when delivering footwear to him as we grew up, he would talk to me and my friend Molly about the life of Jesus, a topic which clearly absorbed him – and to a lesser extent also interested us. He was convinced that Jesus had visited Great Britain and probably even spoke English, perhaps almost as well as we did ourselves. When we exchanged glances and wondered how The Reverend Gunner at St Botolph’s might view this information, he warmed to his theme and asked us if we agreed that Jesus would have been a strong and adventurous young lad. Molly nodded a little doubtfully and Mr Hammond turned to me and wanted to know if I believed that Jesus was the nephew of Joseph of Arimathea. I nodded enthusiastically anxious not to display my ignorance about who this particular Joseph might be. Mr Hammond became more animated because didn’t this Joseph trade with the Tin Islands? Were not the Tin Islands the very land on which we stood? Wasn’t it plain common sense to accept that a healthy and adventurous twelve year old lad would have been desperate to accompany his uncle? Yes, yes, yes we agreed! But later it turned out that The Reverend Gunner was less enthralled with the information and so I chose not to mention it to Father O`Connor or even to my own father.

The last time I remember calling upon the services of Mr Hammond was when I was twenty years old and had returned from a somewhat illicit period in Amsterdam in the company of a man who had assured me that he thought extremely highly of me but turned out to have a wife he was even more fond of in a suburb of The Hague. Although I had been forced to reluctantly relinquish him and the future we were going to have together, I was not required to surrender the very expensive shoes and matching shoulder bag he had bought for me in a pleasingly upmarket Amsterdam store. The Cobbler of Shepherd Street was on my To Do list upon my return and I was more than pleased to be told that mine were the finest shoes Mr Hammond had seen in many a long year. Fashioned from the very best leather, superbly crafted, they had been a joy to repair. He recognised their excellence he told me because of course he had begun his working life as a cordwainer rather than a cobbler and he carefully and at some length explained the difference between those two terms. Not that there was shame in simply being a cobbler of course he added, but over time the profession had diminished and leant itself to less than perfect work. Standards had fallen everywhere. Which of course, he said, half shaking his head as he handed the shoes back to me had led to that ungenerous term – Cobbling Something Together.