The National Health Service started in 1948 when I was seven years old. It was about this time my mother first took me for dental treatment. I do not know the circumstances of my first visit: whether it was for a check up because it was free or because I had toothache. Until the NHS, ordinary people rarely saw a dentist except in extreme circumstances. My mother and grandmother had false teeth: false teeth were more natural than natural teeth.
However, it was decided I had to have a tooth removed, a prospect I did not relish, and my mother took me to the dentist's practice in the middle of Armley, a town which has stuck in my mind for three things: it's wonderful public library, the place where Armley Feast was held, and the dentist.
This may have been the early days of the NHS but the dental surgery was more like a frontline medical centre from the Crimean War. There were few niceties and the dentist appeared to be on piece work. I was given gas, and that distinctive smell of rubber has stayed with me ever since. When I came round I was without a tooth, without my mother and had a mouth full of blood.
I had been taken into a side room that contained a bath into which a cold tap ran continually and around which sat or crouched several children, like refugees from civil war. All had had teeth pulled and the water in the bath was red with their blood. We each had a tin mug and were required to rinse and spit, rinse and spit until the bleeding slowed or until we were drained and died.
It was a such a scene of horror that I would not have been surprised if one or two lifeless bodies had been discovered at the end of each day. The experience was appalling. No wonder Hammer Horror films in later years failed to frighten me. I had been face to face with hell in a dental surgery in Armley.
My other medical experience as a child occurred when I was about nine years old. I was running in the playground of the Holy Family school when it felt like I had been shot in the eye. Two boys had been playing conkers and one had scored such a tremendous hit that it had knocked the other from its string and into my eye. I screamed. At first, the teachers did not realise the severity of the injury. Finally, a junior teacher was assigned to take me to a local doctor's surgery. I was in agony and sat in a waiting room blubbing. As soon as the doctor saw me, he sent for an ambulance and I was taken to Leeds General Infirmary.
My parents were informed, although I don't know how. No one had a telephone in those days, but I remember them being at the hospital that evening. My eye throbbed and was covered by padding. It was only later that I was told what almost happened.
A specialist wanted to operate immediately and remove the eye but they didn't have a bed. So I was sent home for the night. By the time I returned the next day, the damage was judged not to be as severe as first thought. I kept my eye but had months off school.
Thank goodness there had been no bed available.
The practice in those days was to put in a glass eye and I had a friend with one of those. He looked permanently pissed, even at nine.
This year I had a cataract operation on that same eye. The consultant said it had probably been caused by the accident with the conker.
Occasionally, someone, somewhere will try to ban playing conkers because it's dangerous and the Daily Mail will run a health and safety mockery story. Mine is one of the few voices that supports such a ban. In fact, never mind a ban, let's burn down every horse chestnut tree and solve the problem once and for all.
Or perhaps, in today's litigatious society, I can claim compensation instead?
Maria and I had to wait until the end of Blackpool Illuminations before we could get married. If we hadn't, half the guests wouldn't have been able to attend because they ran businesses that were dependent on the tourist season.
End of the lights, end of the season.
Which is how we came to be wed on this date (November 4) in 1967.
We met in the early hours of January 1, 1965, all because I had become roadie to comedian Lennie Bennett. He was a Blackpool lad and a journalist at the West Lancashire Evening Gazette, where we met.
He played Manchester Southern Sporting Club on New Year's Eve that had packed the bill with second rate variety acts and a Scottish piper. Lennie, top of the bill, had to follow the Scottish piper. The audience was drunk and full of Auld Lang Syne and were in no mood for sophisticated comedy. He bombed.
We were both despondent as I drove us back to the coast and he said he would take me to a party. I was knackered and didn't want to go but he insisted. It was at Kingsmede, a big detached house that was actually not that far from my flat, so I thought: why not?
It was being held by Louis Colaluca. Lennie's wife was related to Pat Colaluca and it was Pat I first met. She was seeing someone off in a taxi as we arrived. I was introduced and she wrapped me in her arms and I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. Mrs Robinson didn't enter into it. I was 23 and she was 40 and glamour personified. She was pure Hollywood.
Then I saw Louis at the top of the steps in the main hall. He was five six and built like a bull. He was pure Mafia.
I realised that clinging too close to his wife was not a good idea and released her swiftly to shake his hand. I didn't know the family background then, but my immediate impression was of strength and charisma. He wouldn't hesitate to break my legs.
Thankfully he didn't.
His mother, Mary Colaluca, who I came to know as Little Grandma, put her King Edward cigar on one side to hustle me into a huge kitchen and told me to help myself from the remains of a buffet that could have fed the 5,000.
Half an hour later, his 16-year-old daughter Maria arrived home from a neighbour's house. Our eyes met across a crowded room and that was it. It sounds cliché but it's true. We had our first kiss in the snooker room and arranged a date.
When Louis discovered the arrangement, he sent for Lennie Bennett.
'This mate of yours. Is he birder?'
'No, Louis. He's a good bloke. Really.'
Which is when five foot six Louis took five foot ten Lennie by the throat and lifted him off his feet against the wall and said: 'He'd better be. Because if anything happens, it's not just his legs, it's yours.'
Which was a hell of a welcome into the bosom of the family.
Mind you, it had side benefits. The Winter Gardens coffee room out of season attracted some of the town's movers and shakers and they suddenly took me seriously when Lennie introduced me with the line: 'He's going out with Louis Colaluca's daughter.' Instant respect.
Our meeting was dramatic, fortunate and unforgettable which is why we celebrate two anniversaries. Our wedding 46 years ago was at St Kentigern's Church. Sadly, Louis didn't see it - he died a year earlier from a heart attack aged 39. The reception – both lunch and dinner for 200 – was at the Norbreck Castle Hotel.
My best man was Lennie Bennett. It was a good deal. He introduced us, organised the wedding and even did the cabaret.
But that night, after the party was over and Maria and I prepared to retire in our flat in St Annes, who turned up and let himself in with a key, but Lennie Bennett with three mates who proceeded to dismantle the bed.
I always thought my Grandma Hannon was history personified because she was born in 1876, the same year Custer made his last stand. There were stories from her family that involved tragedy in the Boer War but they were told when I was too young to take notice and they have died with her and her children. There is no one left now but me and I didn't listen.
Her husband, John Hannon was a boilermaker and died early, leaving her with five sons and a daughter to bring up. Another son died as an infant.
Uncle Johnny was the eldest, he was a dapper chap who always reminded me of Fred Astaire. He liked to dance and was married to a small attractive lady. They lived in a small rented cottage in Wakefield that had a Victorian cast iron kitchen range.
Uncle Joe was next, a bluff Yorkshireman of wit and devious ability. He got a job once in maintenance at the Fire Station and was asked to leave when officials discovered that not only had he painted his own council house a delightful shade of fire engine red, but was offering the same colour of paint to his neighbours. I liked my Uncle Joe.
He was not a keen gardener and had a simple way of maintaining the back lawn. He covered half of it with a sheet of lino. When the grass of the exposed half was long, he dragged the lino over it to kill it, exposing the dead half to the sun and weather, allowing it to recover.
We had one particularly deep and insightful conversation when all the brothers and my mother gathered at the old Wakefield Workhouse, which had been converted into what I believe was called the Central Hospital, where my Uncle Austin was dying. It was a horrendous place that wreaked of its appalling history.
Joe invited me outside to walk in the sunshine away from the others and reflected on life and Austin's passing. He reminisced and told me stories of his past. Said he'd not had a bad life, although money had always been tight. I was surprised when he eventually got round to what he wanted to say: "I'm frightened of dying."
I made the usual responses about everyone had to go sometime but he was disturbed.
Austin died within the hour with everyone standing round the bed. Within months, Joe was on the same ward, fear in his gaze, but trying not to show it, as he waited his turn to die.
My Uncle Austin was a boilermaker. He was not the brightest tool in the box and not particularly interested in the birds and the bees. Sex seemed to pass him by; it was perhaps something that was unmentionable and unnecessary. He was engaged to my Auntie Doris for 18 years, an arrangement that suited him until my grandma told him it was about time to get married.
My Auntie Doris had been an attractive girl in her youth and still liked fun, if you know what I mean. It was rumoured she had more than a passing knowledge of the Batley rugby league team, during the few years she and Austin lived in the town.
Austin's mind did not age well. There was the night he sat up in bed, struggling with his pyjamas, his arms outstretched.
“I think I've had a stroke,” he said to Auntie Doris. “I can't move my arms.”
“You daft sod,” she said. “You've got them down the leg holes of your pyjama bottoms.”
He developed Alzheimer's and would occasionally escape and head for the local Catholic club where he had would plonk down an old fashioned penny and ask for a pint of Tetley's. Someone would invariable say, Poor old soul. I'll get that, before the steward phoned home and Uncle Eric would go and collect him.
Not that Austin was all that daft. He worked the trick enough times for people to become wary of paying for his ale.
Uncle Eric was my favourite. He had a brilliant sense of humour and a sharp intelligence that should have taken him into higher education. He was offered a scholarship to Wakefield Grammar School (a prestigious place of academia) but the family were too poor to send him. His mother's priority was finding enough money to buy her children food and shoes, not education.
He joined the Post Office telecommunications departments and, when war broke out, the army put him in signals and sent him to North Africa where he faced the enemy from the top of a telegraph pole. He had driven into the desert, found a breakage, climbed the pole and was mending it when two Arab gentlemen on camels arrived and pointed rifles at him.
“Come down,” they shouted.
“No,” he said.
The stand off lasted until the Arabs got bored and rode off. Uncle Eric then climbed down, drove back to Cairo and soothed his nerves with several beers.
Uncle Eric was good at drinking beer. He retired early from the Post Office with a decent pension and made his living horse racing. His friends were bookmakers and he was shrewd at betting. He didn't make a fortune but he made enough to live on. His pub of choice in Wakefield was The Redoubt and, on one memorable night, he arrived home to the Lupset estate council house where he lived with my grandma, Auntie Doris and Uncle Austin, in a taxi, drunk as a lord.
He couldn't get his key in the lock and banged on the door until a bedroom window opened.
“Let me in,” he shouted.
“No,” came the reply.
“Because you live next door.”
Uncle Ken went into retail and was manager of the shoe department of the Wakefield Co-op. Then he met Sheila Robinson who, at that time, had been Eric's girlfriend. Eric didn't seem to mind that she preferred his brother. Ken and Sheila were married. She was the daughter of a well known sweet confectioner in Wakefield with several shops and they ended up running one of them.
My mother was the youngest of the family, although my grandma had previously had another boy who died as a baby.
Growing up as a child, I remember the house in Cheapside where I was born and where my grandma lived for many years until they moved to the luxury of a council house in Lupset.
My wife, Antonietta Maria Colaluca, can trace her ancestors back to Hanging Judge Jeffries (1645-1689) through an English strand. Not that many people would want to. Through her father's side, she can go via Naples to an ancient hill town in Tuscany. Another branch are said to come, not surprisingly, from Sicily.
Her story includes strong Irish connections, a romance to rival Lady Chatterley, a war hero, a pink Rolls Royce and gangsters.
Maria's mother was Pat Wadlow. Her mother was Bridget Breen from Blackrock near Dublin. A Breen took part in the Easter Rising of 1916 and was among those who seized the Dublin Post Office. Bridget's sister married an American called John Pope and emigrated to New York; Bridget went to Blackpool.
The link to the Hanging Judge was through Pat's father, Charles 'Pop' Wadlow. Pop's mother was a member of a titled family; his father a gamekeeper. They had an affair and she became pregnant and she was sent to Australia to break the relationship. It didn't work. When she returned to England they got back together and had more children.
'Pop' Wadlow travelled the world working on passenger liners before settling down and marrying Bridget. They had a corner shop in Blackpool, selling groceries and sweets. They also had a son, Leo, and a second daughter, Eileen. In retirement, Pop lived next door to Little Jimmy Clitheroe, a star of radio, music hall, Blackpool seaside shows and television. Everybody over a certain age remembers The Clitheroe Kid. He was a nice bloke and they looked out for each other.
Eileen – known as Lee – married an American serviceman Monty Mountford during the war and became a GI bride. She travelled to the US to join her husband at the end of hostilities. Monty made his career in the American Air Force and retired a Lt Colonel. They travelled to different postings, including Alaska, and at one time he was in charge of the security of Air Force Two, the vice president's aircraft.
Monty was a lovely, well educated gentleman, full of wonderful stories and possibly my favourite American. Sadly he suffered a form of dementia in older age and, when Lee could no longer cope, he went into a military residential home for former officers. It was no surprise that he escaped.
Leo also went to the US and made his home in the Tacoma and Seattle area of Washington State. Their son Charles was still in school when my first book The Dark Apostle was published. I had partly set it around Seattle because I knew the area and this was probably why his teacher produced it in class one day.
“Sir. My cousin wrote that book,” said Charles.
“Sit down, Wadlow, and don't tell lies.”
He probably thought Charlie was fibbing because he was well known for the pride he took in his English and Irish connections, as well as his American heritage. The next day he took to school his signed copy of the book and the teacher apologised.
After the death of her husband, Louis Colaluca, Pat followed her brother and sister to America, with her second husband, Alex Cameron, a Scot from Sterling, to live in Tacoma. She always said she had been extremely lucky to find two such great loves in her life.
My family were much less exotic. In fact, they were more crackers than exotic. But that's for next time.
First posted: December 17, 2013
Forty nine years ago this week in December, 1964, I drove to Paris in my Austin Mini to visit a girlfriend. This being the start of the swinging 60s, I obviously stopped off in London for a Friday night party at the house in Swiss Cottage which my cousin Maureen shared with four other girls. Maureen had a rock singer as a boy friend.
The party was long, loud and a little on the wild side. I woke up in a strange bed in a strange house with a rather attractive young lady. We had walked to this basement flat in the early hours and in the cold, damp, pre-dawn morn, I hadn't a clue how to get back to Maureen's where my car was parked. And I had a ferry to catch from Dover.
I ran up and down umpteen streets until I recognised a landmark and eventually found the car. Fortunately the early morning traffic through London wasn't too bad although the weather was miserable. I hurtled down the A2 (before motorways) to Dover, a place I had not been before, and followed the signs for the docks. I thought I was bound to have missed the crossing. But there was the boat with the last cars driving aboard. I joined the end of the queue and was the final vehicle on board. Phew. A close run thing.
The ferry was sparsely populated and I took a seat at the bar and bought a beer.
'What time do we arrive in Calais?' I said.
'We don't,' said the barman. 'We're going to Ostend. We dock in about three hours.'
That was just the start of a nightmare journey. We docked at dusk and I attempted to map read myself to Brussels with the intention of turning right for the French border. The road signs confused me and after a couple of hours I ended up back in Ostend.
Merde, as they say in France. Shit, as they say here.
I arrived in the suburbs of Paris knackered. A Mini is not the greatest form of transport for long distances. I knew the area I needed to get to; I had visited it before. The apartment was in Rue Cail in the 18th Arrondisement. It was at the bottom of the Boulevard de la Chapelle. Not a very fashionable area of town but it was walking distance to Montmartre and la Chapelle led to Pigalle.
But I was tired and fed up and, within striking distance of my destination, ended up on the Peripherique ring road going the wrong way. I got off and tried again and when I saw I was repeating my mistake, I foolishly attempted to do a U turn. Right in front of a police van.
The gendarmes at that time were not noted for their patience and good humour. The trouble in Algeria was going on and even the ones on duty at the bottom of the Champs Elysees toting submachineguns stood behind sandbags. So these chaps were wary and angry.
When they discovered I wasn't a terrorist but a 22-year-old stupid Englishman they shouted at me. 'Idiot!' they said, but with a French accent, and I was inclined to agree with them.
They let me go without the use of rubber truncheons and I made it to my destination after midnight, avoided the concierge, and was finally united with my girlfriend in a top floor one room flat that was both a garret and a haven.
I spent a week there. My girlfriend worked in a bank in the Place Vendome. I drove there only once; I had forgotten how bad Paris traffic was and I still judge it to be the most challenging city in the world in which to drive.
We met for lunch every day and I discovered never to argue with a Parisian waiter when he rejected my 10% tip and insisted it should be 15%. No one wins an argument with a Parisian waiter.
I spent the rest of the time walking around Paris until it was time to meet my girlfriend from work, discovering the place on foot. The weather was cold but dry and I rarely used the Metro. There was a lot to discover and I soon came to love the place. The smells, the sounds, the shops, the markets, the people, the vibrancy. It has élan, class and style and it remains my favourite city in the world.
The return journey back to England went a lot more smoothly. My girlfriend came with me in the car to Calais; when I took the ferry, she took the train back to Paris. It was a smooth, and much shorter crossing, going back to Dover. But in England, the weather changed and a pea soup fog descended. It was so bad, many drivers stayed off the roads which was just as well.
I was young, impatient, and certain of my immortality: I drove far too fast, especially along the M1, and it was a miracle I made it home to Blackpool and another 50 years of life.
As I have said, I come from survivalists and poverty: in the main, agricultural workers driven from Ireland by famine. But my wife's ancestors have enough glamour, heroes and underworld connections to populate a series of sagas. I wrote about one strand in The Limit. Maybe I should write more.
Even my wife's name is grand: Antonietta Maria Colaluca.
Her father was Louis Colaluca, a Blackpool businessman, her mother Pat Breen, one of the town's acknowledged beauties of the war years and courted by RAF and American servicemen who were billeted in and near the town in their thousands. It took a local – an Italian local – to win her.
Louis was the son of Diamond Tony Colaluca, who also became known as Little Caesar when a major big city gang tried to move in on Blackpool businesses in the 1940s. Silly boys.
As well as Diamond Tony, who had a string of fish and chip restaurants along the Fylde Coast as well as other undeclared interests, and an army of heavies to enforce order, they faced Jack Pye, heavyweight wrestling champion of the world who ran a gambling club. They didn't have a chance.
Diamond Tony drove a pink Rolls Royce and bought Beryldene, a mansion near Poulton le Fylde, a few miles from the resort, from musical hall star George Formby. It had a swimming pool in the back garden and Tony, a man of taste, had his initials TC crafted in mosaic in the bottom. It went well with the pink Rolls Royce.
My wife Maria was born there and recalls falling in the fish pond and being dragged out by the heel by the gardener. She also remembers lying on the floor of the garage and enjoying the smell of the oil spills from the motor cars. Yes, a strange girl.
Tony started out making money in Manchester. The Colaluca family had come from Naples to live in Little Italy around the Ancoats district in the city. Many Italians went into the ice cream business. The Colalucas were wine importers and opened a factory making wafer biscuits in partnership with the Rocca family in 1919. Louis Rocca was the man who named Manchester United, twice saved it from bankruptcy by bringing in wealthy sponsors, launched its scouting policy and signed Matt Busby as manager.
As I am a George Formby fan and a dyed in the wool Red, how could I not fall for Maria?
Diamond Tony moved to Blackpool in the 1930s and became a millionaire selling fish and chips in a string of restaurants along the west coast. He was about five feet four and, despite marrying Mary Kelly of Ancoats, he liked the ladies. Elsie Glass, a business associate, was also his mistress and when she died, Tony's wife had her buried next to him.
'He couldn't help loving two women,' she said.
She never mentioned the others.
Elsie left her shares in the business to Tony and Mary's son Louis.
During a visit to London, Tony attended a boxing match and had an argument with the man sitting behind him, who liked his aggression. He likened him to a pit bull. This was a man who knew all about aggression: he was Jack Spot, the London gangster who ran the West End before the Krays. The Krays served their apprenticeships with him. Jack and Tony became firm friends. There are aspects of Tony's business dealings that are still best left in the shade.
Business was good in Blackpool and Diamond Tony and his wife Mary had a string of high profile guests at Beryldene, including George Raft and Peter Lorre. Colonel Sanders also came for dinner when he was looking to launch the British franchise of his Kentucky Fried Chicken empire. The first restaurant he opened was in Preston. The second was in Blackpool, in property belonging to Diamond Tony.
Because he was born in Italy, Tony was interned for a short time during the war on the Isle of Man.
He also fell out with a different branch of the British Government – the Inland Revenue. And as everyone knows, no one wins a fight with the Taxman. Mind you, Tony did his best.
He had sold Beryldene and was living in another mansion called Kingsmede in Blackpool, which he thoughtfully put in the name of his wife. She was also the major share holder of his main restaurant on Central Drive – Palma Cafe (named after his mother) which is still there. His mistress was also a shareholder.
Tony had declined to pay any taxes during all those good years and declined to pay any when the Inland Revenue made a polite request. He was declared bankrupt but remained living in Kingsmede and the business continued. He died in 1955 at the age of 52 of a heart attack.
First posted: September 28, 2013.
My daughter Siobhan was born on this date, September 28, in 1970 in St Anne's War Memorial Hospital, Lancashire. This entitles her to claim the title of sand grown'un, meaning being born by the sea in that rather upper class section of the Fylde coast. However, I don't think she uses it very often.
This was in the days when fathers were kicked out of maternity wards and I had been so dismissed the night before, leaving my terrified 22-year-old wife Maria in a spartan side ward in pain and wondering what the hell was going on.
One minute, we had been a hip couple about town. She had been wearing Mary Quant dresses and mini skirts from Biba, and we had been leaving our swish St Annes flat to go the Town and Country Club in Blackpool at 10 at night, two or three times a week, and driving home in our red Spitfire sports car at half past two.
Now she was in pain and frightened and I had been sent home when visiting finished at eight.
Siobhan arrived about midnight but the nurse recorded it as the 28th so she would always be one day younger.
I visited the next evening, resplendent in flared trousers, cuban heels, beads and an afghan fur coat that smelt like it had just been through a sheep dip. The nurse didn't know whether to isolate me or allow me in. She allowed me in, probably out of sympathy, as I was carrying flowers.
“Mackeson would do her more good,” she said.
“A couple of bottles of Mackeson. Builds up the strength.”
I didn't known whether she meant for Maria or Siobhan but I nipped to the offie across the road and returned with two bottles of the black stuff.
In actual fact, Siobhan arriving at all can be blamed on decimalisation. Maria was secretary to an accountant and also did the wages at the family restaurant business in Blackpool that had a staff of 30. She was extremely able with PAYE in pounds, shillings and pence and didn't fancy having to start all over and learn a new system.
“Why don't we have a baby?” she said. “I've seen a lovely pram in denim.”
So we did and we got the denim pram and Maria was soon an eye catching sight pushing Siobhan around St Annes in hot pants and suede knee boots.
We had given up our swish apartment when she became pregnant and bought a three storey Victorian house 100 yards from the sea. Well, I use the term sea euphemistically, as anyone who has visited St Annes will know. First there are sand dunes, then there is beach; a lot of beach. And then there is the sea.
The house was in a great position but in need of repair and conversion. The concept was to turn it into three luxury flats. Which was basically a silly idea, considering we didn't have the money. Instead, we sold it when Siobhan was nine months old, bought a campervan, I resigned my job on the Evening Gazette and we headed for Europe.
Love and peace, man.
Maria had relatives near Naples and I fancied living in Italy. Siobhan would grow up speaking Italian. Not bad for a sand grown'un.
But being hippies with a nine month old baby is not a lot of fun. Siobhan became ill after I took her in a lake at a camp site in Belgium. The doctor would have liked to have me committed as an idiot. “You took her where? At her age?”
We came home and the van broke down and I was out of work. We spent the house while I tried to make a living as a fiction writer. I wrote the worst novel in the world but got short stories published at £30 a time (which was a week's wage) with various magazines, including Mayfair and Men's Own, but not enough.
Our break for freedom had been ill-timed. We now needed stability for Siobhan and a proper income and we ended up in Huddersfield, a town built on seven hills, just like Rome. Well, not just like Rome, although we do have the site of a Roman fort and our own coliseum in Leeds Road, where gladiatorial displays are still provided by Huddersfield Town and The Giants rugby league team.
It is, believe it or not, a handsome town that sits astride the Pennines and is surrounded with amazing countryside, great pubs, the grandeur of the moors and some fine people.
Not a bad place to grow up for a sand grown'un.
First posted: October 24, 2013.
I was brought up a Catholic and made the decision to stop being one when I was 15. I made a point of telling my parents on a Sunday morning. This was not to get out of going to Mass, it was the result of being taught by blinkered men of faith throughout my education. They were undoubtedly sincere, but the blinkers remained and faith was unquestioned.
When I or some other stroppy fourth former did pose a question, the answer was never satisfactory. How come only Christians who had been baptised were to be allowed into the Kingdom of Heaven? What about the Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs and Zarathustrians? Were they to be condemned through an accident of birth, even though they never had the chance of baptism or heard the word of God?
Yes, was the answer. Poor sods get born into third world poverty and don't even have heaven to look forward to. Of course, they have their own version of heaven but that's just fallacy and make believe.
Other religions were wrong and the Catholic religion was right. Full stop. No room for argument. This was 60 years ago, so maybe church philosophy has changed. It seemed acceptable to be scornful of the way others worshipped as long as we accepted the body of Christ in a wafer, his blood in wine and eternal damnation to die in mortal sin. I used to come out of confession as a 12-year-old and hope a bus would kill me in a state of grace on the way home before I had the chance to sin again.
All this based on a religion started by a Jew in the Middle East 2000 years ago. If Emperor Constantine hadn't accepted Christianity in Ancient Rome in the third century, Jupiter could still be a major god in the western world and we could be paying respects to Mars, Venus, Apollo and Diana. I continue to pay homage to Bacchus three or four times a week.
Despite my disillusionment with religion, I might point out that my experience of men of the cloth has largely been positive. There have been many stories of paedophile priests in recent years but I never heard any allegations about them during my childhood and schooldays – I was taught by Jesuits and De La Salle brothers.
The parish priests were invariably kind, good natured, occasionally fond of whisky (or maybe that was just the Irish ones), and the teaching brethren were strict and believed in corporal punishment. Given the chance, a couple might have enjoyed capital punishment as well.
I remember a young priest at St Hugh of Lincoln in Timperley with particular admiration. A gang of a dozen Teddy Boys appeared at the front door of the youth club wanting to punch out the lights of me and two friends. The priest told us to sneak out of the back door and do a runner while he took off his thick leather belt, wrapped it around his right fist and went out the front door to smite the enemy.
We escaped and they dispersed.
The other priest who sticks in the memory, performed the baptism of our first child Siobhan. We used to drink with him and he drove a red Spitfire as I did. A few weeks after the service he ran away with a choir girl (who was over the age of consent).
I became an atheist at 25, later tempered to agnostic, and then reverted to atheism full time. In recent years I seem to have a season ticket for the local crematorium as friends, relations and colleagues die and each time I reflect on the here and now and thereafter and nothing has led me to change my mind.
However, I will not mind, when my time comes, if anyone of any religion says a prayer to their god on my behalf – just in case.
First posted: October 20, 2013.
My paternal grandmother died giving birth to my father, William. My grandfather, John Kilcommons, remarried and started a new family. He was a miner and took William along to the pit in Normanton when he was 15 but, after one day below ground, William refused to go back. He went, instead, to live with Aunt Agnes at The Chemic pub in Woodhouse, Leeds. As alternatives go, this must have been like winning the lottery.
Aunt Agnes was his mother's sister and had a soft spot for him. The pub, named after a chemical works that was once located in the district, was successful. William's sister, Eileen, lived just round the corner with her husband, a big handsome bloke called Ernest Clarke. Their house had an inside loo with two seats side by side and a long drop.
I remember Uncle Ernie. He served in the war and was on the beaches at Dunkirk when the small boats came in to take off the remnants of the British Army. Because he was big, he stayed in the water up to his chest for hours helping smaller blokes. He was one of countless quiet heroes. After the war he got cancer and died. I remember him bed-ridden, still cheerful. He left my Auntie Eileen to bring up four kids.
My mother's best friend was Nellie, another sister of William Kilcommons. She married Frankie Britton, who was in the Water Department at Wakefield. My mother and father met because of this friendship, and married before the war. As he lived in a pub and wore flash clothes and she came from poverty, she must have thought the marriage was like winning the lottery.
Aunt Agnes helped my father get a job at the Yorkshire Post as a printer. He was also a semi professional runner in the days before TV when athletic meetings attracted big crowds and on course bookmakers. He was so good that he was eventually banned from some events. On one occasion, Uncle Frank took his place, with my father as his pacemaker, and won.
Uncle Frank was only small but, when the war started, was playing rugby league for Wakefield Trinity. He ignored his call up papers until he could no longer avoid the pull of patriotism. Particularly when two MPs turned up at the rugby ground and he was hauled off at half time to go and serve king and country.
My father served in the RAF during the war, mainly as groundcrew in Lincolnshire.
At the end of the war, Aunt Agnes gave him the deposit for a house in Albany Terrace, Wortley, Leeds. It was a nice terrace at the posh end of the poor up Whingate Road, with little gardens at front and rear. My first girlfriends were Jennifer White, who lived next door, and Valerie Norman, who lived two doors up.
At the top of the road were open fields and a main railway line. Times were hard and in the winter my father would go across the fields and walk the railway line collecting pieces of coal that had fallen from passing steam trains and put them in a shopping bag. He was chased more than once by railway police but was never caught. He was still too quick.
There was a state school at the top of the road but, being Catholic, I was sent to Holy Family Primary School which was a tram ride away in nearby Armley. It was cheek by jowl with Armley Goal, another place with a long drop. I recall morning prayers on more than one occasion being dedicated to the bloke on the scaffold being hanged. If my memory is correct, we waited for the gaol clock to strike nine. Happy days.
It was at this school as a nine year old that I confided to my teacher that when I grew up I wanted to be a priest. I didn't; but I knew she would be pleased. She told the local priest who was a frequent visitor and he often patted me encouragingly on the head. Fortunately, the encouragement went no further, considering the bad Press the priesthood has had in recent years. I dropped the pretence that I had a calling when I passed my 11 plus and went to St Michael's College in Leeds.
I spent maybe seven years living in Wortley but, as I was a child, they were long years when summers were endless and snow never turned to slush and the rhubarb field at the top of the road held strange delights (in the right company). The most striking memory is of the sense of community. At that time, the street was at the end of urbanisation. The back of the houses faced, in an L shape, onto an open space we called The Hollow. A windowless chapel wall enclosed one side, and two ruined cottages and a low wall the fourth, Beyond that was a mill where my mother worked part time.
Everybody knew everybody. A man came twice daily with a long stick to light the gas lamps each night and turn them off again in the morning. No one was well off. No one had a car. But there was a sense of shared hardship that meant everyone was ready to do a good turn and I never experienced any spite in that small space.
It particularly came alive on Bonfire Night when the kids of The Hollow went chumping and we kept guard over our haul of wood, broken furniture, pallets and bits of trees. It was a natural working class amphitheatre and the night itself was always wonderful. The adults took charge and rows of tea chests and card tables were set up and pie and peas, parkin and toffee apples were dispensed in the glow of the flames and sparks and the fun and fire lasted all night and was burnt into the memory.