Here’s some more of Bassetlaw MP Joe Ashton’s funny and fascinating memories of growing up in Sheffield, taken from his book, Joe Blow.
The book costs £12 and is available from The Star shop in York Street, Sheffield. All profits go to the Salvation Army.
THE SEASON OF LOLLY AND THE IVY.
Many years ago, kids daft enough to go out carol singing before the 24th December used to get nowt because miserable old men, looking like Albert Steptoe, would shuffle to the door in carpet slippers, yelling: ‘Too early…You’ll soon start carol singing on Guy Fawkes’ Day.’
Others, who left it until Christmas Eve would come up against a benign Alf Garnett, beaming through a haze of booze with thumbs in his weskit pockets, saying ‘Your lot have already been. I’ve paid ’em off once.’
Either way, kids couldn’t win.
Except when big fat Lenny Errol took them under his wing. When Errol’s Angels took to the streets, old pensioners in their houses said ‘Hark’!
And then sat on their cellar head in deadly silence, pretending to be out.
Lenny was born 30 years too soon. If pop groups had been invented then, he would have made more money than Brian Epstein did from the Beatles. Christmas was all about the lolly and the ivy as far as Lenny was concerned.
He was born the King of Fagins and no shepherd watched his flock by night better than Lenny.
Like a Dickensian undertaker, he had an endless supply of waifs. They were little thin kids, looking as hungry as Oliver Twist, and Lenny would make them sing outside back doors, shivering in short trousers and tattered jerseys, while he leaned his bum against the entry wall where the chimney was, and where a warm fire backed onto it.
All Lenny did was to carry the winter warmer, blow on the embers and take the cash. He had the biggest winter warmer in the street.
It was a hollowed-out block of clay with holes in the side, and when he filled it with rags, then lit it and swung it round on a string, the clay kept hot all night. Neighbours could never resist a single plaintive little voice singing “Away in a manger”, on its own. Then, as the door opened and the old dear went ‘Ahh’ at the poor, shivering wretch, out would pop Lenny.
‘I just want to warn you, missus,’ he’d say. ‘There’s some bad lads knocking about tonight. There’s a gang running round putting half bricks down outside lavs and stealing cats and filling up keyholes with pitch and dog muck.’
‘If you’d like us to keep an eye on things and chase them off, it’ll be no trouble.’
‘No, we don’t ask for any money, but a few chips and a fish cake, just to keep us warm, would be a blessing. Thank you very much, missus.’
By half-past seven, Lenny would have made six bob, which just paid for a bottle of Whiteways’ British cream sherry, and then his team would swig the lot, kids as well, inside an old air raid shelter.
After that, he got even bolder. He would stand on the steps of the Moulder’s club with outstretched arms, like Donald Wolfit playing the demon king, bellowing ‘We beg of you, ladies and gentry. Give us a penny, or we’ll pee in your entry.’ And he would, too.
Then at nine o’clock, Lenny would drag all the kids off to the steps of the Philadelphia Non Political Working Men’s Club. It was carefully selected, and at least half a mile from where Lenny lived.
If any of the drunks were daft enough to give him half a crown, in the dark, thinking it was a penny, there was no chance of the punter finding him the next day to claim it back.
Lenny had more collecting boxes than Oxfam. He would rattle a handful of steel washers in an old OXO tin, take the waif under his arm and yell ‘Merry Christmas, mister. This poor little lad hasn’t even got a top coat to his name. His dad was killed in the war and his mam is at home, trying to feed three kids out of a tin of soup with the gas cut off.’
He could have given lessons to Fagin.
One night, when a bloke stopped and said ‘Oh no he wasn’t –his dad lives next door to me,’
Lenny never turned a hair. He simply belted the waif around the earole and said:
‘You little liar. I’ve a good mind to give all this money to the Salvation Army just to teach you a lesson.’
He never did, of course.
Many years after, I saw Lenny again. He was selling hot chestnuts down the market on Dixon Lane, and keeping one eye open for the Social Security man. ‘Happy times them, Joe, weren’t they?’ he said.
If I had taken a copy out on the old winter warmer and sold them on building and caravan sites, I’d be a rich man now. But I was born too early and learned the tricks of the trade too soon.
He even gave me a bag of chestnuts.
When I got home, they were all bad.
FIX IT FRED
The days after Christmas are renowned as the days when lots of DIY disasters occur, as hapless dads try out the shoddy tools they have been bought as presents. Some things never change.
In Christmas 1950, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents published new statistics on accidents in the home.
It was to measure how ex-servicemen were readjusting to domestic life, in homes fit for heroes. They were particularly dismayed at the number of accidents to ex-servicemen using their tools to modernise old buildings.
The Society was astonished to find that every year, 1,600 serious domestic accidents were caused. Most of them involved ex-soldiers and sailors trying to improve on new shop-bought gadgets.
It was a worrying time for Fix it Fred, an old soldier who had fought in the desert, and brought back new skills never seen before.
It all started one night, when his missus was watching the new BBC Home Service Programme, on how to modernise your 100-year-old backstreet house.
Which would soon topple over if the kids didn’t stop banging their football too hard against the wall in the gennel or the entry.
It was Fred’s missus who egged him on, with brilliant new ideas from her Women’s Weekly magazines, and bought him a second-hand electric drill for Christmas.
‘Why don’t you get one of those air blowers and fetch 10 layers of paint off the door jamb with one stroke like the man on the telly?’ she said.
So he did. And then, trying not to set fire to the wallpaper or the wiring, Fred jumped off the chair he was standing on. Onto an upturned, razor-sharp paint scraper, which went through half an inch of shoe sole and an inch of his foot. Leaving most of the old paint inside it. Plus, of course, swearing, dropping the gun, burning the cable, and the carpet and the cat.
Fix it Fred used to live in our yard and if you wanted any help, he was the last person on earth you would ask.
Lovely fella. Very keen and would work for nothing, just to be neighbourly and proud. He put old Mrs Gribden’s new sink in and it looked a treat. Except that the taps were up near her chin and the bowl level with her knees.
Every time she turned it on, she got a shower down her skirt and her legs, whether she wanted it or not.
It was taking the old sink out which led to Fred’s famous discovery.
‘Look at this, Mrs Gribden,’ he shouted. ‘Tizer bottles inside the wall! Just think, they must have had Tizer back in 1857 when the houses were built.
And a Co-op milk bottle as well! The brickies probably left them there a hundred years ago.’
Just then, daylight, and a pair of Co-op swollen ankles in carpet slippers, appeared on the other side of the wall and shouted: ‘What are you doing, smashing through our sink?’
Fred could fix anything!
When he electrified an old treadle sewing machine, it ran backwards. His wallpaper sloped 3” from the ceiling down to the skirting board and Fred had the only television set in Yorkshire which could tune into Radio Luxembourg.
He once put in a new floor in their Sylvia’s house and it sloped so much, they had to keep the handbrake on the pram to stop it smashing through the door.
Everything in his own house, including the fridge, was painted battleship grey because he once bought 25 gallons of it for £10 at an auction.
The fridge he had was six feet high and three feet wide and had been salvaged from a butcher’s shop.
Every hour, it started up like a B29 bomber, with the family on a rota, each holding the TV aerial up in the air until the programme went off. And he all had in the fridge was one carton of milk to keep cool.
Wobbly table legs? Fred went better than that. His bed legs wobbled as well.
When he got fruity with his missus, it sounded like Fred and Ginger tap dancing the Carioca and the whole yard chanted the rhythm.
He loved music, did Fred.
He was the first man we knew to have one of those foreign doorbells, which played ten traditional tunes, ranging from Greensleeves, to Annie Laurie.
Although he could never recognise more than nine. The other one was the Taiwan National Anthem. Mind you, he did manage to wire it up properly, which is more than he ever did with the lights.
Every time the cat went through the cat flap, they switched on and off like a Zebra crossing.
He got away with murder, did Fred. Until the day his daughter got married. That’s when catastrophe fell. His missus tripped up and cracked her false teeth on the top palate. ‘Worry not, lass’, said Fred, and promptly got out his strong glue. Which worked a treat, until she had a quick drink of hot tea before setting off.
By the time they got to the church, her lips and tongue were sealed together and all she could do for the bride was nod, smile and weep.
And that’s when she chucked all his tools in the canal and bought him an Alsatian on a chain, which went for Fred every time he opened his toolbox.
So Fred decided to spend the rest of his life growing chrysanthemums on an allotment on Hagg Hill, the steepest road in Sheffield, at Little Rivelin.
Unfortunately, Fred slipped in the snow, and started to slowly slide down Hagg Hill with nowt to hang onto. And that was the end of Fred.
True, all true.