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A Shout From The Attic: Knives To Grind

In this slice of autobiography Ronnie Bray recalls some of the tradesmen who came hawking their services down the street where he lived.

To read more of Ronnie's evocative life story click on A Shout From The Attic in the menu on this page. Read also his good humoured column Letter From America.

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Some forgotten things
of days almost remembered.

There is so much of my childhood that I have forgotten that sometimes I wonder if I was there at all. They say that when a person reaches old age, their memory of childhood events is recovered. I am not sure I can wait that long because I am well into old age, but the lost memories have not crept or even trickled into my recollection. If they do, they will be made welcome, be they good or bad, because I would really like to know where I have been.

During one of our bedtime talks, I mentioned to Gay how I remembered the old knife sharpener who used to come down Fitzwilliam Street with his contraption, a long box mounted on two pram wheels. When he stood it on its end by lifting the shafts he wheeled it with, like the handles on a wheelbarrow, there was a treadle inside the box which he pressed with his foot, working it up and down, and that rotated his grinding stones.

At his cry, “Knives to grind! Knives to grind!” housewives took their blunt knives choppers, and scissors, and the middle classes who owned gardening shears – a sure sign of independent or renewable wealth – took them to him for him to put a sharp edge on iron or steel implements that soon lost their sharpness. He was a godsend to anyone who could not sharpen his or her own knives.

We had several butchers’ steels on which our big knives were sharpened by anyone who wanted to take on the job. Nanny or Mother sharpened either the most popular kitchen knife by stropping it on the back step. This sharpened the knife, but it wore down the sandstone step, and in time, the knife was as worn down as the step. You knew when a household stropped their knives on the step by the hollow in the middle of its front edge. All our steels went rusty and were discarded.

Umbrella repair men used to do their rounds. Their cries of “Umbrellas, parasols to mend!” brought out everyone with a parasol or umbrella that had been ravaged by time, punished by inclement weather, roughed up by unruly children, or maltreated by the family pets. We didn’t have any umbrellas, so it didn’t matter when he called, because umbrellas and sun shades are only for people who go places.

Billy Rhodes drove his horse and cart through the streets selling greengrocery, and Tony, who worked for Gabriella’s pushed a wooden barrow filled with ice cream – any flavour as long as it was vanilla – through the streets near our home. Buying from street vendors was convenient and their prices were usually cheaper than shop bought goods.

Tony’s ice cream barrow, like Gabriella’s pony-drawn ice cream kiosk, was highly decorated and attractive, with red, blue, white, cream and gold carved posts that supported a four sided pyramid made of some kind of vellum, with the name Gabriella’s Prize Ice Cream written in fairground or gypsy style around the undulatingly carved crown that sat atop of the posts. Buying an ice cream was more than a treat for our taste buds; it was an adventure in folk art.

Horse drawn transport and street vendors lasted well through wartime because horses and barrow pushers did not consume rationed petrol. I suppose that, in my innocence, I expected those days to last forever. They were important markers of my childhood; the sure signs that nothing would change or get worse, and that is significant to children who don’t always like the way like things are, but who also know they could be a lot worse. Nevertheless, as the screen short used to tell us, “Time marches on and our realities slip away in its stream, for good or ill, and we cannot hold it in place, which reinforces our powerlessness.

Knife grinders got out in time, before cheap knives, better and sharper than knives had ever been, did away with the need for sharpeners, and when electric sharpeners were fitted to electric tin openers, and people bought things in different ways with their one stop shopping that closed down all the little shops, because supermarkets sold things for less than shopkeepers could buy them at wholesale cost.

Billy Rhodes put away his horse and cart, and sat in his shop after the war, and people in motor cars and locals with good legs and big baskets called in and bought from him without him having to stir his pins. He sold his shop to Barry Heap’s parents who turned it into an antique shop and lost their savings.

The clip clop of the rag and bone man and his cry of “Rag-a-bone!” and balloons for children who rushed out with a bag of rags and old clothes, gave way to dying men with broken down perambulators, like Admiral North, who struggled to make enough from their collections to buy a pint of anaesthetic from a local hostelry. The potman, Norman Hopkinson of Shore Head, sold crockery and cooking utensils from his horse drawn cart, then faded and was gone in the swirling mist of a passing age when old conventions meant nothing because its time was up.

Tony disappeared and we never saw him again. With him went his barrow, the umbrella mender, the knife grinder, and a whole way of life. The milkman’s daily early morning clanking bottle visit was threatened because supermarkets sold milk cheaper than milkmen could buy it from the cows, and away went another marker. Eventually the breadman stopped calling twice a week since supermarkets sold loaves for less than bakers could make them, and the small bakers who made good bread and delicious cakes and fancies closed one by one, and the world I knew turned around again and I didn’t recognise the world any more.

The choice was either change with it, or become a fossil. I have chosen fossilisation in some matters. I believe that gentlemen stand for ladies, hold doors open for those behind them, say “Thank you” and mean it when someone holds the door open for them, they always say “Please” when asking for something, precede ladies into darkened rooms, and are polite and well mannered at all times. Good manners are the oil that makes the wheels of existence run a little smoother.

I know that life has to change. But when I marked these changes so suddenly and so revolutionary, they took me by surprise. Now, I try to mix the best of the old with the best of the new. Change, but not for the sake of changing, only to make something better in place of what was inferior. There is much of grace and gentle manners from the past that still makes the daily round of our association with others more pleasant than the modern rudeness of shove and scrabble, of “me first and the devil take the hindmost!”

Archie Medley, the red faced man from the Pru’ came down our cellar steps every Friday evening for more than a hundred years, but he has gone, and with him have gone the Liquorice Allsorts he gave René and me every visit. Where has Archie Medley gone? I get the feeling that if I went looking for him I would find him somewhere in a dark, old fashioned setting along with Tony, Billy Rhodes, the umbrella man, the milkman, the breadman, the rag and bone man, the potman, and a man shouting “Knives to grind!” Ah, well!

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