Tales from End to End
The Journalist’s Tale
The man who caused a row at the Golden Wedding
by Peter Unsworth
Turn back your memory clock if you can – or if you are so inclined – to the mid-1950s. Winston Churchill no longer occupied 10 Downing Street and his successor Sir Anthony Eden had but a few months left in the place before the Suez Crisis sent him scuttling for cover amid worldwide criticism.
Journalism had secured its latest recruit; not a future editor of The Times or a foreign correspondent who would report from the far flung corners of Mother Earth, but a 17-year-old grammar school boy, still wet behind the ears and not sure that the heady world of print was for him.
To date he had attended a funeral collecting the names of mourners, friends and enemies; an ancient gypsy horse fair, and collected the weekly news from the Women’s Bright Hour at the Methodist Church, the report of the weekend entertainment at the working men’s club and the list of GCE successes (the GCSE was still some years away) from his old school.
But all was to change. Innocence was to disappear. The harsh realities of the world were to come tumbling down on and around his head.
“Mr and Mrs Harold Roberts are celebrating their golden wedding anniversary today,” stated the news editor, Mr Frank Smith. (The names of the players in this human drama have been changed to protect the descendants from any pain this story might cause.) They live at 25 Town Street, Batley Carr. Go and interview them, finding out what is their recipe for a long and happy married life.”
Here I must confess who the young reporter was: it was me. The shadow of the damage I caused haunts me still.
Batley Carr, the cartilage between the Yorkshire smoky industrial towns of Dewsbury and Batley, comprised rows and rows of back-to-back terraced houses that were the homes of the textile workers. Number 25 was easy to find: it was the one after number 23. The step to the one and only external door was scrubbed clean with a thick white line highlighting its edge. I knocked.
In less than a minute the door was opened by a large, cheerful-looking man, wearing a collarless shirt, thick, heavy-duty trousers held up by both belt and braces, and a flat cap.
“What are you after, lad” he asked not unkindly.
“I believe today is a special occasion,” I replied. “I’m here from the Batley News to offer our congratulations.”
A female voice from inside struck up.
“Who is it, Dad?” she inquired.
“Leave it to me, Mother,” he replied. “It’s t’lad from t’paper..”
The female voice rose to a squeal of excitement.
“It’ll be our Audrey as told ’em,” she declared. “You’d better ask him in.”
Mr Roberts’ cheerful countenance turned to one of frustration and between clenched teeth he said that was his intention if she would shut up.
Inside, the house was spotless. I say house, but all the ground floor had was one room, a staircase leading to the other storey, a sink in the corner, a black-leaded fireplace and a door to the cellar.
Normally there would be a table in the centre, but today it was pushed to the back wall and the brown leather settee was in its place in front of the fire. What is more, perched on the table was the dreaded potion – a bottle of QC British sherry.
“Sit yer-self down lad. You will take a glass of wine to help us celebrate, won’t you?” He didn’t wait for a reply, but despatched Mother to pour the stuff, saying he would “put the lad right on all he wanted to know”.
After checking their names and ages, I asked my first – and obvious question.
“Where did you meet?”
Mother giggled, Dad told her to be quiet and he launched into a monologue:
“I left school at 12 and started at Ellis’s mill the next day. All I got was six shillings and sixpence a week. [32.5p] I gave my mother it all for my keep, except for a shilling [5p] that I kept for my entertainment. Out of this I saved fourpence so I could go to Dewsbury Empire on Monday nights. Fourpence bought me a seat in the gods [upper gallery]. I call it a seat, but all there was to sit on were wide wooden steps that could have had seats on ’em had the management not been so bloody tight fisted.”
Meanwhile Mother was giggling quietly to herself and wiping the glass ready for the sherry.
“At the interval, I stood up to answer the call of nature, if you known what I mean, lad, and as I passed the lass sitting next to me, she rubbed the back of my leg…”
Here his story was interrupted my a loud clatter as the bottle and the glass hit the stone floor. For a fraction of a second I felt relief at escaping the curse of QC, until the enormity of the occasion struck.
“I did no such thing!” cried Mother, tears already flowing freely. “It was you: you’d been trying to play footsie with me all t’first half.”
“I’d hell as like,” said Dad. “I’d never looked at you. If it had been your sister I might well have tried footsie – or even more.”
“But our Edith was sitting four places away,” said Mother.
“Aye, but I’d noticed her. By heck, she was a good-looker.”
Mother’s sobs became louder as she wished her sister had been in her place. In that event she might not have had 50 years of misery from him. He told her not to be so soft; they had company – me!
I felt it was necessary to change the subject and I searched for a question that might steer us away from leg rubbing and pretty sisters. Unfortunately it was the wrong question.
“Do you like the theatre?” I asked cheerily.
“I did,” said Mother, affording particular dramatic influence to the past tense of that verb.
The couple exchanged barbs and insults for several more minutes until I said it was time to leave. I repeated my good wishes. Neither responded.
It was only as I made my way back to the office that the truth of the event half a century ago dawned on me. Someone had made ‘the first move’, but who was it? And what is more they had never discussed the incident, each imagining that the responsibility rested with the other.
But, of course, times were different then. There were no glossy magazines revealing hallowed secrets and the boring anecdotes of self-deluding celebrities. Such things were private – or more to the point, best left covered, away from scandalmongers.
The incident was not reported in the newspaper. A degree of imagination was needed to make any mention of the golden occasion that was suitable for our discerning readership.
Peter Unsworth was a newspaper journalist for more than 50 years, he is now too slow to chase fire engines, so passively enjoys ‘observing God’s creatures’ instead. He claims the human race is the finest spectator sport in the world, and – speaking as a Yorkshireman – says the added attraction is that it is all free. His greatest achievement? Fathering two sons and a daughter who each in turn have presented him with two wonderful grandsons. “I’m the luckiest chap in the world,” he claims.