Or Are You Just Very Small?

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Before beginning this week’s blog I feel compelled to make mention of the Grenfell Tower Fire.  and the terrible tragedy that happened there; at least 30 dead and 70 missing  overall (including the 30).  If this blog is about anything – aside from loss of one kind or another – it is about the working class neighbourhood of my childhood and youth, it is about people living together, striving together and struggling together as well as laughing and learning and growing.  It’s about camaraderie and love.  I feel that I was lucky to grow-up in such a neighbourhood: it has shaped my sense of shared purpose and given me an understanding of endeavour, graft and belonging that not everyone gets to encounter.  It was not perfect and I spent a part of my life afraid of who I might run into around any given corner and another part worried about what my middle class friends who I went to school with might think of me, perhaps even something close to shame about not being quite like them. That’s what a dominant narrative does to people – it keeps them in their place, and it makes them feel bad for not being the same as those who have privilege, and then offering tempting sign-posts and pathways that not everyone can take. And calling people failures when they miss the chance – perhaps a single chance – on offer to them. I have been lucky. I was lucky that when I fell through a greenhouse and nearly died, the NHS patched me up, I was lucky because although we were poor we had enough food and a house that was warm, and that was our own. I was lucky I had somewhere decent to live. I was lucky that I was educated in the 70s and 80s before we imposed a curriculum that stopped people thinking for themselves and I was lucky to be able to go to university on a grant and fees paid (and just as lucky to receive bursaries for my MA and PhD).  I was lucky to get a good job, and have a career. No one gets to be that lucky now. Working class people have been marginalised and demonised – and options are increasingly limited even if they are educated, even if they have a job, even if they have a sense of place and community. But fundamentally people need to be safe in their homes because none of those other things can happen if they are not. David Lamy had it right in this video. People need somewhere decent to live – that’s the first and last of it.  People were crammed into that tower block – families of five and six sometimes, in two bedroom flats that were just 75.5 metres squared.  Families with young children and older people on the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th floors.  And higher still.  It beggars belief.  This was an accident waiting to happen and now that it has the only saving grace is that the community is angry and rising.  I hope they can translate that anger into real change so that this does not happen again.  So that political change will enable this working class community and others to expect a fair chance, and the power to effect positive outcomes in their own lives.

Or Are You Just Very Small?

Vera met her husband-to-be on a bus.  It was not the most romantic of venues and she was not the most romantic of people.  She thought she was on the shelf.  I asked her which shelf once, and she said, “The one at the back of the cupboard, where there’s all the stuff that you never really use.  Like tinned potatoes. And Spam.”

The reason she was on the bus was that she was a conductor.  They had to make a special cut of the uniform for her because she was short, very short (and not as slim as she might have been.)  It was grey and even with her child-bearing hips she looked dashing. And taller, elegant even. But she could climb up and down the stairs quicker than you could say Jack Robinson and never missed a fare.

“You’d always get folk trying it on, even in the good old days, but no-one passed me by.”  She would snap away the faces in her photographic mind and then whizz round each and everyone checking the fares. She enjoyed the power of her ticket machine.

Her husband was a bus driver and it was love at first sight.  Unfortunately, Alan was already married.  “He was unhappy, you see, Love.  He’d got married in the war, lots of people did and then lived to regret it.  Folk didn’t expect to live.  She was nice enough, but they weren’t well matched…but I’m bound to say that, aren’t I?”  Vera laughed.

Alan was more than 20 years her senior, almost in his 50s.  An old man really, by those standards, but she loved him anyway.  Right from the off – it was the way that he smiled.  Shyly.  He’d fought for his country – in the RAF – flying all sort of raids and was immediately a hero in her eyes.

They spent their dates dashing around on a motor-bike, Vera riding pillion.  “He used to go so fast, like a super-hero.  He was in my mind.  I could picture him in the bomber, flying low, battling…”

“Killing people, Vera?”  I smiled.

“Well, it’s alright for your generation,” she said, “Getting all moral about it.  You don’t know what it was like.  Hull was trashed.  Alan and his mates saved this city for such as thee and me.”

I shut up then.  Unlike most adults Vera had a habit of talking to you about everything and anything: she didn’t pull any punches.   We used to go together to the swimming pool to supervise the Cubs and Scouts who were doing swimming badges.  Not quite sure how I got dragged into that – must have been something to do with T, my brother, and my reputation for swimming with David Wilkie, I only did this once (on a sponsorship event) but you only needed to do something that often where I lived and then you were located there forever.  Mary Brearley, swimming sensation.  Not true.  I remember saying to Vera once, in the pool, “Are you kneeling, or are you just very small?” And she laughed a lot, and repeated it to anyone who’d listen.  “You’re funny, you,” Vera said. I wasn’t

I used to wait for T at the end of the Cub meetings where Celia Worley, the Akela*, seeing me, would make some disparaging comments about the Guides. I’d just smile. Mostly, I’d chat to Vera who was bringing her lad, Steven, to the Scouts.  The others used to tease him about the presence of his mam – but she liked to wrap him in cotton wool. And Steven didn’t mind.  He was a mummy’s boy.

“We never expected to have him.  But I was very careful until the divorce came through, and that took forever because she didn’t want to let Alan go, and you wouldn’t, would you?  I mean even now that he’s in his later 70s, he’s lovely isn’t he? So tall and handsome.”

It wasn’t a word I would use to describe him.  He just looked like an old man to me.  A bit like Michael Foot – the politician, thin as a pin and a shock of white hair.  I didn’t answer Vera, but she didn’t need me to, she’d just carried on.

“But eventually he came and we couldn’t love him more.” She smiled, and looked wistful.

They lived on the Boulevard and I used to be awestruck by the amount of Lego Steven had on the table in the front room.  I once asked what he was building and Vera just shrugged.

“That’s his dad’s department.  Sit in there for hours, they do, building away.  I don’t interfere – it’s important that he has time with his dad.”

There was a silence then, and I suspected that I was supposed to fill it but I didn’t know how to. I knew his dad was old. And that he might die soon. Steven was 13 going on 14 and people used to tease him for playing Lego with his dad.

“Alan won’t last forever, I know that.  I really do.  I knew that all along.  He wasn’t a mistake you know, even though I wasn’t a spring chicken by the time he came along – nearly 40.  But we love him.  Steven is the best thing that ever happened to us.” She paused, “We’ve talked about it.  He knows.  He knows his dad will die sooner rather than later.  And I know too.  It’s not like we’re prepared but it means that we take each day as it comes, and we love each other through every minute of it, because that’s all you can do.”

A few months later, when I walked past their house on my paper-round, the curtains were tightly shut in the middle of the day.  Upstairs and downstairs: shut against the world. I knew what this code meant.  Alan must have gone – he must have died over night.  I had sort of half been looking out for it. I felt for Vera who loved him very much and Steven too.

Then the news came through. At four in the afternoon, the day before, Steven had made his way home from school.  Normally, his mum would have been loitering somewhere close but she hadn’t come.  No worries, he’d just taken himself home.  He’d opened the front door, calling her, and then his dad, and still nothing had alarmed him.  Maybe across his mind, he’d thought about his dad and that maybe something had happened but surely his mum would have come to school and told him? But it was Tuesday and on a Tuesday his dad visited an old friend who was ill.  Maybe his mum had got caught up at the shops?  She liked to chat, that was true.  Many an hour he’d stood beside her as she’d told a tale or two.  So Steven walked in.  Through the hallway, into the kitchen and there, half into the pantry was his mum, on the floor: dead.  Of a brain hemorrhage.

He didn’t know what to do.  He rang an ambulance.  He was numb.

Then his dad had come home, and he’d taken over.

I often asked about them in my phone calls home from Universtiy: Steven and Alan.  Within a year or two, before his 16th birthday in any case, Steven’s dad had died too. And he went to live with his mum’s sister in North Hull.

 

*Akela – my aunt Joan – once said to my mum when she was talking about Akela, “That’s weird J, because the woman who runs the Scouts round here is called Akela too.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taken

FullSizeRenderMy most impressive achievement as a young person was the Queen’s Guide Award.  Not many girls managed this and fewer still from the neck of the woods that I was from: there was no precedent for it, and I gained it by sheer force of will and a ton of support from Guiders who came in all shapes and sizes, and who taught me a whole bundle of stuff about women and their power.  There were police officers, nurses, high-powered educators, administrators in the NHS, probation officers – determined women who did not take the world lying down. I can remember their names: Audrey Lord, Carol Selwyn Jones, Kay Button, Bev Smith, Pat Sugden, Mrs Tansey and the Scout leader, Celia Worley.  Those women, and others, taught me how to be myself. I would have been lost without them: working in a factory packing peas or making ends meet between low-paid and unskilled jobs.  This sounds like an exaggeration – it isn’t.

I sucked up the brilliance and madness of this world of women from 1975 to 1981 against the backdrop of a sinister force that gave an entirely different message – one that forced women off the streets, and that questioned our rights to take up space.  One that made us all just a little bit more frightened.

The sequence of attacks began in 1969, but the first murder came in October 1975.  I had just flown up to the Guides leaving the toadstool of the Brownies behind, and was battling my mother for a uniform (she was convinced I wouldn’t stick at it, and made me wear a blue shirt that was not the right colour and made me stand out like a sore thumb; not a position I enjoyed.)

Wilma McCann, a known prostitute, was stabbed in the neck, chest and abdomen multiple times and twice hit over the head with a hammer – her body was left in Chapletown, Leeds.  It barely created a ripple in the news, and I was more concerned with the Christmas Carole concert and singing the descant (badly).

I was bored initially by Guide activities so me and my mate Dawn took it upon ourselves to write Swallow on all of our patrol’s equipment.  Then, we’d try to.  We’d try to swallow the pencil.  We tried to swallow the notebook.  We even tried to swallow the kit box which was bigger than both of us and weighed as much as a grown man.  The Captain told us our antics were ridiculous. We protested: it clearly said swallow notebook, didn’t it?  It clearly said swallow rubber? The Captain was not impressed… we laughed like drains!

Meanwhile, murder number two took place: Emily Jackson, 42. Struggling to make ends meet, she was eking out her slim income by turning tricks. She was also killed in Leeds.

“Something’s not right here,” my dad said, “Don’t you go wandering around at night, you two.”

“Don’t be soft,” my mam threw out, “You’ll frighten them.”

I looked at my sister who looked at me, and then we went to Tuesday club.  We liked it at Coltman Street mission where the Tuesday Club took place because they had a better class of biscuit than the Church of our Guide Company.  It was January, perishing cold.  A woman would need to be desperate to go out on a night like this to be paid for sexual favours.  “Don’t go down the tenfoot*,” our mother yelled after us.  I didn’t like going through there in the daytime and never would at night. One of the Mainprizes once chased me with a Rubber Johnny** on a stick making me divert down the tenfoot, which practically scarred me for life.

In 1977, four more women were killed: Irene Richardson, Tina Atkinson, Jane McDonald (who was just 16 and not a prostitute) and Jean Jordan.  Each of the women were hideously mutilated, and getting careless, the killer had left a boot mark on one woman’s sheets and a crisp new fiver for her services on another, that could only have been in 8000 people’s wage packets: the police interviewed 5000 men in relation to this including the killer.  Still the police could not find The Yorkshire Ripper (as he was now dubbed in the press even though Jean Jordan was killed at Hough End, Manchester, where years later, I often walked my dog.)

1977 also happened to be the Queen’s Silver Jubilee.  There was much talk, as I recall, about the killing of Jane McDonald who was just a few years older than all of us, and like us: just walking home from a night out.  She could have been us.  We had to travel in twos: not wander off on our own. I raced my sister home after Guides to watch Cagney and Lacey, which by a country mile, was the best thing on TV. A street away, women were keeping the wolf from the door by prostituting themselves. I worried for them.

At Guide Camp, that year, the fancy dress theme was ‘I’m backing Briton’.  I can’t remember what my sister did, although it was something to do with arguing about ‘back in’ and ‘backing’ when she proposed to wear her clothes on the wrong way and that would definitely win a prize, but she made me cry.  Our Captain, who was the Quarter Master at the camp, noted this – I saw her watch the scene play out, and a steely determination took hold of her. Later, she said to me, “I was the younger sister, too.”

As 1977 folded into 1978 and bored out of our tiny brainboxes my sister, me and our friends Alison and Dawn wrote “This is crap” and “Wash me!” all over the Captain’s old estate  car.  For good measure, Dawn and I also shoved an old exhaust we’d found up the back of the vehicle to give the Captain a bit of a jolt when she saw it.  This was just high-spirits but a few days later when  Audrey, the Captain, was driving up to Scotland, her actual exhaust fell off.  Of course, this could have been a coincidence but she was a practical woman who would not believe it.

She rang up our mother who listened patiently to a list of complaints about us.  Hanging our heads in shame, that Friday we walked up to the Church Hall.  We began the evening in a circle, and the Captain called us to attention.  She spoke quietly saying that my sister and Alison would be banned for life for their antics, without any hope of return, and Dawn – who she’d never liked – would be suspended for three weeks.  “You,” she said, “Will have your stripes removed.”

I tried to open my mouth to explain that it was me that had actually put the old exhaust up the back of the car, along with Dawn, but she would not hear of it.  In a moment of great pomposity she said, “The older ones should take responsibility.  They should know better!”  I knew this wasn’t fair, but I just stood and looked on sadly as my three co-conspirators left the hall.  “I’m sweeping clean with a new broom,” Audrey said, “I’m making room.”

Meanwhile, two further killings had happened: Yvonne Pearson and Helen Rytka, both young girls, both street workers.  Helen was only 18 years old. As I read the circumstances around her death in the Daily Mail on my paper round, I wondered how a girl barely out of school had found this was the only thing she could do to survive.  I knew nothing of the world of drugs and although we were as poor as church mice (I knew this because of what we didn’t have compared to my peers, and compared to the girls from the better off Guide Companies who enjoyed activities I had never heard of: wind-surfing and rock-climbing and sailing), it was not the grinding poverty of those who have no options at all.

Within weeks, the Captain had restored my stripes and began subtly introducing me to the steps I’d need to take to reach greatness (in her eyes).  I should volunteer at a Garden Party she’d suggested.  So I did. I sold raffle tickets.  And I also bought some too.  And won the main prize, much to my acute embarrassment.

It was more than a year before the Ripper killed again. By this time, he was killing any woman who dared to venture into the night.  His 10th killing was a young woman called Joanne Whittaker who was only 19 and worked in a building society.  His 11th was a student – Barbara Leach.  She was just 20.

By now, everyone was talking about the Ripper – about how he didn’t care who or what you were, that he would kill you if you stayed out late: we were worried, but not in a coherent way.  We learned our lesson well – women needed to watch out. There was a pervasive message right there: girls should not be out at night.

There was extensive coverage of a tape allegedly made by the Ripper, sent by a bloke with a Wearside accent, that tormented the detective in charge of the case and his inability to catch him.  This man – who sent the investigation in the wrong direction – was never caught.

I was coming on in leaps and bounds – something about the responsibility I’d been given suited me.  One Sunday every month, I was responsible for church parade and often carried the colours or the union flag.  I enjoyed this.  And the badges kept on coming: I had an armful.  The Captain said, “We’ll get you that Queen’s Guide Award.” I undertook long-term volunteering.  I cleaned the church brasses.  I wrote, I swam, I cooked, I knitted, I collected, I looked after children, I orienteered, I saved lives, I prevented accidents, I was a backwoodsman, I knew all about the commonwealth. I ticked each badge off in turn.

Two days before my 15th birthday, Marguerite Walls, a 47 year old was killed and three months later the Ripper committed his final murder, that of Jacqueline Hill, 20: another student, this time of Leeds University, on 17th November, 1980.  I vividly remember her mother: the anguish, the anger, how articulate she was in her grief.  (Years later the poet Rosie Garland, who I was briefly in a theatre company with, read a poem about Jacqueline Hill, a girl she shared a regular tutorial with.  Rosie – who is now a novelist and long time member of the band The March Violets, could have been that 13th woman whose life was snuffed out but she hadn’t attended the tutorial that night. It could have been her.  Easily.  On such a small axis of chance do we survive, sometimes. All that potential and promise, all those lives gone and still others who he attacked but who did not die, whose lives where nonetheless destroyed. All those who lived a half life because of what he did: the victims’ mothers and fathers, their children.  Sisters.  Brothers.  Cousins. Friends: the pain rolling out in circles, crashing over whole neighbourhoods.)

By May 1981, I had completed the collection of all the badges I needed to be awarded the Queen’s Guide.  I received a certificate from the Queen.  I was chuffed as mint balls. This was a big enough deal to warrant my picture being taken by the local paper. It was very exciting for me and my family.  The photographer came to the church and he stood me underneath a tree.  I beamed. I would appear a week later. I looked forward to everyone seeing me.

Peter Sutcliffe’s trial began on the 5th May 1981 and lasted two weeks.  He was found guilty of 13 murders and 7 attempted murders and was sentenced to 20 concurrent life sentences.  This verdict set newspapers into a frenzy: he had tried to say he’d heard the voice of God and this had compelled him to act.  Page after page of coverage of this man and what he’d done, then, at the very right-hand edge on page 5 me, a sliver of space, smiling, with my certificate on show. And beside my beaming face, the headline in bold, filling the rest of the page from left to right but for my small triumph, ‘Ripper Victim talks…’  And that was when I really thought: it could have been me.

It could have been any of us.

*tenfoot = an alley, ten foot wide

**Rubber Johnny = a condom

I used facts about the Ripper’s Victims from the Wikipedia entry for Peter Sutcliffe.  You can read the whole thing here

I have written about Audrey before here