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Sidney Hacking was no mug. Editor of The Times when I arrived in the early sixties, he conducted a thorough examination of my credentials as I sat before him, for interview.
Finding Mexborough in the first place was an adventure on its own. Though my home village Kiveton Park was barely 25 miles distant, I had never ever heard of the town which was to become my second home. I arrived on time, conveyed by an ancient black Ford V8 Pilot which my dad, not yet confined to HM Prison Leeds, had bought at auction for forty quid.
Entrance to the Times, offices were situated on the north side of High Street, next to an opticians. As I mounted the steep steps up to reception a very pretty girl popped out of the optical emporium and grinned cheery “Hello”. My heart skipped a beat. What a doll!
As it turned out she was the woman I was to come to know as Christine Eyre, spoken for as wife of one of my best-pals-to-be Terry Eyre, a linotype operator on the SYT. The couple are still alive and well, living on Harlington Road.
By the by, Chris is also daughter of my Albion Inn best mate, Stan ‘Shiner’ Wright, survivor of the memorable wartime naval raids on Narvik. I can’t be at all sure, but I think Shiner told me he was aboard HMS Hardy, flagship of the flotilla confronting the Germans, which ended up beached in flames. Stan survived the carnage to enjoy his later life in good measure.
In appearance he was certainly one of Mexboro’s most distinctive citizens, always immaculately besuited, with ruddy, weather beaten features complemented by a Royal Navy style ‘full set’ of well manicured whiskers, and if you don’t know what that is, try Googling the Players Please Navy Cut cigarettes ads, or better still take a gander at the photograph included here.
I must tell you more about Shiner at a later date. His colourful presence in what was a pretty cosmopolitan community deserves to be recorded, and enjoyed.
But back to my arrival 51 years ago. I was greeted at Reception by another very attractive young lady, who ushered me into the Editor’s office. She was Maureen Rotherham, from Wath, his secretary, who I later dated, but who was destined to marry my fellow reporter Ray Parkin.
Mr Hacking, SCH to his colleagues, sported a warm handshake and a friendly smile. His face was that of a mild mannered gent, cultured, someone who knew his Amadeus from his Elgar. But the eyes were something else, softly brown, yet deeply, sharply intense. Pull wool over these peepers? Think Kleenex tissues and a laser beam.
As for my gentlemanly interrogation, after the educational formalities it got as far as: “So, what did you get up to at Grammar School Robert, apart from study?”.
“Oh, err..I was Captain of Tennis, and played Sheffield Parks League Tennis”.
A twitch of the lips: “When can you start?”
It turned out SCH was non-playing Captain of Yorkshire County Tennis Team, whose players included Brian Sheridan, Sport Master at Woodhouse Grammar.
That was Friday. I started work on the Monday. October 1962 sounds about right. Fine and dandy, except that a condition of my employment was coming to live in the Mexborough area. Que sera sera, I obtained lodgings in Swinton, in a battered terrace cottage owned by a battered old landlady called Mrs Oliver.
I slept on a lumpy flock mattress which appeared to contain copious amounts of wool from which the sheep had not been fully detached. Adding to my woes was a flaming peptic ulcer, lit up by the tribulations of my family’s bankruptcy, and further fanned by the decision of my fiancée to dump me in favour of a flier from the Royal Australian Air Force. I was not a happy bunny.
The final straw, lodgings-wise was a double whammy. Mrs Oliver enquired if I would mind sharing my bed with a Scottish mineworker, presumably imported to improve productivity in the strike-prone local pits. And to cap that my dad got sent to jail, the Sheffield Star heralding that fact beneath a huge banner headline.....I’ll spare you the details.
Dad’s incarceration left my broken down mum home alone with my two year old sister. Moving back to Sheffield was my only course, and SCH agreed.
Not only that. Although my family’s sensational fate could quite properly have been reported in our news group’s Sheffield Edition, since we had lived within its catchment area, Sid Hacking told me quietly that SYT would not be publishing.
What a kind man. This still brings tears to my eyes. More poignant still, SCH’s day’s were numbered. Within a handful of years he passed away, but he left a legacy of talent which he had nurtured, his protégées including Michael Parkinson, who launched his dizzying rise to fame with the Times’ South Elmsall and Hemsworth Edition, Philip Finn, New York Correspondent for the London Times, who possibly started out at Mexborough, and Harry Cooke, our Penistone ace who went on to spearhead the Daily Express’s northern edition..
This short account of my beginnings in your town is unfurled for a purpose. I came to Mexborough having lost my home, my dad, my friends, but that sadness was soon blown away by this brave new world on which I had crash landed.
Though 33 Smalldale Road, Frecheville, Sheffield 12, was where I slept most evenings, my second home was now High Street, Mexborough.......no, no, no! Make that c/o The Albion Inn, High Street, where I now encountered a whole new family of sorts, a handful of them close buddies, but many more ordinary folk to be classed as friendly vessels passing in the night....but not forgotten
.If no-one ever records that these individuals existed, how are future generations to measure their progress? That’s why I tell their story, 40 or 50 years on. A case in point. If the only time in their life your family encounter a butcher is through a picture on a packet of sausages, how are they to know there’s another brand on offer, real people once common place now less frequently visited in the High Street....and its pubs.
Take my Three Butchers who join the cast of a ordinary folk who are being revisited in my anachronistic production: call it My Mexborough Years. The three of them couldn’t have been more different in looks or demeanour, despite their common calling.
First Stan Dennis...I cannot picture him as anything but a cheerful chap, smiling, laughing, a careless dash of auburn hair smoothed back with one hand, a pint mug in’t other, and sporting a rather cavalier red striped butcher’s smock.
Second meat-cleaver was Gilbert Beaumont. Picture everyman’s idea of a Master Butcher, stocky, dark hair, face set firm, black-haired arms folded in muscular fashion across a chest clad in immaculate blue and white striped apron. Steady gaze. Watch it cows!.
Third of the trio, dapper might be one word for George Sinclair, slimmer than the other two, sharp, intelligent, bespectacled face, not unkindly.. Not a man I knew that well, (he’s the only one of my trio not to frequent The Albion) though I did rub shoulders with his son Vaughan. But George chiefly sticks in my memory for one thing....his motor car, a fabulous red Ferrari.
That marque of vehicle in Mexborough at that time, possibly at any other time in its history, was about as likely as finding one of Enzo Ferrari’s Italian vineyards flourishing down Pastures Lane. So, when it trod throatily into town, audibly grumbling at the drab surroundings, this was a newsworthy event for the South Yorkshire Times, with yours truly spending a pleasant hour quizzing the Ferrari’s owner, who at the time was attending to a big tub of blood and ‘stuff’.
I left, bespattered by the tub’s contents, with a spot of two of fresher bloody matter about my person. It was worth it though for the brief ride in that fabulous vehicle. I can see it gruffly growling around the dull South Yorkshire streets yearning for some Mediterranean sunshine to light up its shimmering brilliance like some shrill aria shrieking from the stage of La Scala in Milan. Instead...black pudding.
There was another tradesman/regular visiting The Albion, a man whose services you’d require when shuffling off the skin of your last black pudding....undertaker Dan White.
I record the existence of Dan, who had a suitably solemn fizzog and pallid complexion, on account of one, secret conversation: “Hey Bob,” he whispered. “Follow me. I’ve something to show you. Something really interesting.”
He led me to his undertaking parlour, where someone was ‘lying in state’, then directed my attention to a darkened corner; “What’s that?” asked Dan
“Pretty obvious to be chum.” I replied. “It’s a coffin”.
“Ah but not any old coffin,” said he, smirking slyly. “That’s a PLASTIC coffin”.
Now, dear reader, what would you say to that? This was a conversation-stopper to end ‘em all, and their would be no idle chatter in the SYT columns. I was sworn to secrecy. I’ve no idea if the object of his affection was ever deployed, and I’m still asking the question, “Why?”. Why would anyone want a coffin that would last for ever, or was it a ground breaker (my best ever pun? Shortlisted on a very short list).
I’m tempted to finish on a high note, concerning Polish Bob, and his relationship with Mexborough’s Mata Hari in a leopard skin coat and no knickers. But you’ll just have to wait.
Hopefully Bob will be filing more copy, recalling his days in Mexborough.
Watch this space!
For Part 1, click here
For Part 2, click here