Colin Cross, Going Postal

As I get older I find myself, more and more, thinking about how different life was in the 1950’s and 60’s and also how, through the eyes of  a child, things seemed so very simple. Millennials often accuse older people of “living in the past” and being nostalgic for a reality that didn’t exist. I’m not so sure about that. One of the things I have come to realise is that memory is a strange and wonderful thing. Long forgotten episodes from ones past can become like a film in one’s head, triggered by a word or by seeing something that sparks a memory, or a group of memories so vivid that the senses almost come alive.

There is no doubt that for many families, including mine, the familial bonds that existed when people lived in close proximity to their relatives has, for many people, radically changed. I spent countless happy hours with both sets of my grandparents who were always available for child minding before the concept of child minding ever really existed. My grandmothers were very different women but they had lots in common. They were strong, happy and always ready with a hug, a piece of cake or a corner of a pinny when tears needed wiping away.

My granddads were hard working fun loving men, they both liked a pint and they were both immensely proud of their families, between them they fathered nine children who in turn presented them with 16 grandchildren. A big family by today’s standards but my memories, up until the time my parents separated, are almost exclusively happy ones.

 Last weekend my wife and I were discussing the merits of sheds. I like a shed and was mainly motivated by the desire to have somewhere to keep garden furniture, tools, fixings, old tins of paint, half used tubes of mastic, useless lengths of plastic pipe, bits of string, tangled rope, broken door handles, rusty hinges and the like,  all the things that will come in useful one day.

 Mrs C has other ideas. She wants a shed you can sit round a table in and have a cup of tea or a glass of wine on that one summer evening we always get in Cumbria, usually in late June or early July. She wants something with windows (she’s seen it on the interweb); it’s perfect she tells me, as it has a separate locker sized space for my “bits”. Anyway, I don’t think this conversation is finished but what it did remind me of was two sheds from my childhood, two sheds that were as individual as their owners but both, in their own way, real “men only safe spaces”.

Colin Cross, Going Postal
NOT Granddad Joes Shed

Granddad Joes Shed

Joe Penstocks shed was also his place of business, although it hasn’t existed for 40 years or so I can remember it as if I were inside it last week. Constructed from timber, clad with ship lap and lined with plywood it was a place of wonder to a young boy. The entrance was through a porch, constructed to offer shelter to customers who were waiting to be served. The main door inside the porch was cut in half and had an internal shelf. The top half of this door opened at 8am sharp every weekday, closed at bang on 12.30, opened again at 1.15 and closed for the day at 5.30. On Saturdays it opened at 8 and closed at 12.30 allowing Joe, his son Roy and their assistant Wilf Robson one and a half days off a week.

Joe was a cobbler; the first thing that struck you when you came into this building was the smell. Rubber solution, leather, wax, polish and a faint background whiff produced by the friction from the finishing machine. As you entered through the half door the left hand wall was divided into a number of cubbyholes. This was where the repaired shoes and pit boots, each pair in a brown paper bag with a priced name tag attached, awaited collection. I never did know the system; it must have been vaguely alphabetic, but whatever it was it worked.

On the back wall, taking up about half the available space were smaller cubbyholes containing rubber stick on soles, heels of various shapes and sizes, toe and heel segs, nails, balls of waxed and unwaxed string, sticks of hard black and brown wax and all the other ephemera required to run a business of this type. Stacked below these shelves were sheets of leather, if I breathe in hard enough I can still smell them now. Some of them had sole shaped pieces cut out and some of them were still whole, waiting for their first visit to the cobblers’ bench.

Next to this area was a window and in front of it stood an industrial treadle sewing machine. This fascinating piece of equipment was strictly off limits to young hands. Before I was born my mother had talked Roy into putting his finger on the metal pad under the needle. The needle, threaded with waxed string passed through his nail and finger quite easily, or so the story goes. It ceased to be a plaything following that incident. Watching Wilf or my granddad “welt” a leather sole onto a boot or shoe never ceased to fascinate me, no matter how many times I saw them do it.

The left hand side of the building was taken up with a wonderful contraption that had numerous wheels and sanding belts arrayed along its length. This was used, primarily by Wilf in those days, to finish off and polish the repaired shoes. Nothing ever went out of the shop, whatever condition it arrived in, without being spit polished to within an inch of its life.  This included the pit boots which Joe and Roy re-soled and heeled with as much care as they applied to the local doctors’ brogues.  Joe and his team firmly believed that if a job was worth doing it was worth doing well.

The front of the shed was where the cobbler’s bench stood. It had three work stations; each one with a metal holder firmly fixed which could accommodate a range of “lasts”. A last is a piece of steel, shaped vaguely like a foot, which a cobbler uses to hold the footwear that he is working on. Two wide deep drawers held the hammers, pincers and sharp knives used for cutting and shaping the leather and rubber. Hanging between the drawers was a leather sharpening strop above which, again firmly affixed to the bench was a carborundum stone. At the end of the bench, next to Joes workstation was the till, a rectangular wooden box, with one drawer with a brass cup handle. It had a brass lined glass plate on its lid, which had an open section allowing for the latest sale to be written onto the till roll.

This building was where I spent much of my childhood, I would run to see my granddad after school and would nearly always be with him when he tidied up on a Saturday, this was the day, if I was lucky, that he took me and my cousin fishing. Joe loved to fish and one of the things I remember was that hanging over the shed door was a perfect miniature glass case with a tiny fish in it and a tiny fishing rod above.

Colin Cross, Going Postal
NOT Granddad Wilfs Shed

Granddad Wilfs Shed

My granddad Wilf had trained as a joiner/cabinet maker and, by the time I was old enough to understand such things he had worked his way up to Works Manager at the Doncaster Co-Operative Society. He was responsible for ensuring all the maintenance work in the shops and warehouses was done, a pretty important job at that time. He had a company car, a black Ford Zephyr 6 Mark 2 (I think), the poshest car in his street.

My dad’s parents lived several miles away from us and we generally went to spend Sundays with them if we weren’t all going out in convoy to Clumber Park, Bridlington or Theddlethorpe for the day (but that’s another story). Granddad Wilf liked to make things, I think he also liked his shed because even though my dad and his eldest brother had married and left home there were still three lively young men and a teenage girl living at home with him and my grandmother. I guess that in today’s parlance it was his “safe space”.

Those Sundays, especially in the summer, followed more or less the same pattern. We’d arrive after Sunday dinner had been cleared away (that’s lunch for the southerners amongst you) and spend the afternoon with my grandparents and my uncles and aunty before having a proper Sunday tea. I was the only grandchild at the time and to say I was spoiled rotten is putting it mildly. I rarely got involved in the three a side football though, my uncles were a boisterous bunch and my being 10 years or so younger didn’t really matter to them. I still have a scar on my left shoulder from when my Uncle Mick shoulder charged me into the wire fence. Competitive buggers, the lot of them.

Wilfs shed was an altogether smaller affair than Joes, more what you would expect a shed to look like. It was made of timber, painted a faded light blue and stood on sleepers, which meant it had to be accessed by climbing three steps. I remember the door had a round Bakelite handle and, unless my granddad was in there, or had given permission it was always kept locked. This was a practical shed, on the left as you entered there were shelves holding cardboard boxes jars and cans of nails, screw and staples along with bottles of wood glue, sanding paper and other things he might use in his woodworking.

The wall facing the door held his saws. They were suspended either on hooks or nails and their outlines were drawn on the wall to ensure that each saw, after use, went back in its rightful spot. Two wooden chairs which my granddad had made stood below the array of saws, one of which had been made especially for little people to sit on. Under the window was the workbench, complete with vice and a decent sized tool box for hammers, screwdrivers, pliers, pincers, clamps, files and his small planes, adzes and other specialist tools. On top of this were a couple of box planes, I’m not sure whether or not he still used them, but I suppose he must have. The workbench was open fronted and a selection of pieces of wood were kept under there. I suppose, given his job, sourcing decent timber wasn’t much of a problem.

We had recently moved into our own home, a brand new three bedroomed council house on a new estate in Rossington. I had been at school for a couple of years and was already fascinated by books, of which I must have been starting to amass a collection, although who they were written by and the type of content I have long forgotten. I’m pretty sure that this summer I’m thinking about must have been 1958 because I believe that was the year that I watched my granddad build me a bookcase. I watched him, over several weeks, create joints and clamp and glue sections together before sanding it down very carefully and varnishing it. I might have been given it for my seventh birthday or maybe that is wishful thinking now, either way it still sits in my house and it still gets used. A simple lovingly crafted piece of practical furniture that gives me a link back to my childhood.

My Granddad Joe passed away suddenly in 1961 following a massive stroke and at the time I thought my world had ended, he had spent as much time with his grandsons as he could and for us to lose him before we were 10 was a massive blow. Politically he had been what you might call a small “c” conservative and had been a member of The Conservative Club if not a member of the party. He didn’t like being interfered with and although he never owned his own home I don’t believe he minded much that other people did. He spent his life serving his community and making a living but always, at the heart of what he did, was his family. My grandma kept the business going until Wilf could no longer manage and she moved into sheltered accommodation.  

Granddad Wilf survived my grandma by 9 years and lived to be 80, because of where he lived I didn’t spend as much time with him as I did with Joe when I was a child but the times we did spend together were always enjoyable. After years of hardly seeing him following my mum and dad splitting up and me being stupid we became good friends for the last five years or so of his life, something I’m very grateful for. We had missed a great deal but families can be like that. Wilf was old school Labour, through and through, he believed in the Co-Op with a passion but he was also aspirational for himself and his children. I wonder what he would make of the current state of the Labour Party.

There you have it, two men, two sheds, a thousand memories.
© Colin Cross 2018