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A Shout From The Attic: George Frederick Bray

...My father was George Frederick Bray. I have few early recollections of him that help me to understand what he was really like, except to note that he was often spoken of by grandmother and mother in pejorative terms that were doubtless justified. I did not know that at the time, and often felt wounded by their hurtful remarks about him...

Ronnie Bray paints a word portrait of his father.

To read further chapters of Ronnie's autobiogrpahy - a work in progress - please click on A Shout From The Attic in the menu on this page.

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If I chance to talk a little wild, forgive me;
I had it from my father -William Shakespeare


My father was George Frederick Bray. I have few early recollections of him that help me to understand what he was really like, except to note that he was often spoken of by grandmother and mother in pejorative terms that were doubtless justified. I did not know that at the time, and often felt wounded by their hurtful remarks about him, that only a boy in my situation could understand.

The aspects of him that he permitted me to see were, with a couple of notable and revelatory exceptions, benign and benevolent. It is a strange thing to have someone described with monotonous regularity in negative terms and yet feel so much warmth toward him, as if he was real, wonderful, and within the limits of my experience. Perhaps boys need fathers to be heroes even when experience shows them that they are not. If our fathers are not good fathers, we reinvent them to be able to face the world on equal terms.

I must have negated all that had been transmitted to me about my father over many years to continue to hold such a warm place for him in my heart. Maybe it is simply that the absent and idealise is preferred over the present tangible mediocrity. That may be the reason that step relationships are scattered with so many of the moribund and dead.

My father has always been a shadowy figure and much of his history is unknown to me. He may have been born in Manchester or Oldham, a place my grandfather Oliver used as a bolthole when he was fed up of family life in Huddersfield, with grandma Lena, and with his many children.
Grandfather Oliver was a master bootmaker, known anciently as a cordwainer, also a poet and songwriter who occasionally trod the boards as a comedian going by the name of Willis Gray. Willis because it was grandma’s maiden name and Gray because it was close to Bray. He allegedly wore a frock coat and a stovepipe hat and after long and frequent absences would walk in on Christmas day with the grave pronouncement, “I’ll have the Parson’s Nose!” - Grandma always had him back.

My father, when he was young, once worked for an ice-cream maker, possibly one of the Coletta family, pedalling a box-bicycle with a sign inviting people to “Stop me and buy one.” He said that his job didn’t last very long because on his first day business was slow so he gradually ate his way through the inviting stock to relieve his boredom. Since employers take a dim view of that sort of thing, he was required to seek an immediate change of employment.

My father gained no small skill in bootmaking and cobbling, as he also did in writing and composing songs. It is told that he learned music by watching the keys of Nanny’s Pianola going up and down. What truth may be in that story I cannot say, but entertain some doubt.

My mother also blamed my father for writing the song, “Nobody’s Child,” but, of course, he did not. He was the kind of person about whom grow apocryphal stories. I have heard some such about myself, so I do know that somewhere in the dark recesses of families such a mechanism for invention exists. When my mother or sister told such stories in my presence, I remained silent when the invention cast me in a good light, but volubly declined the brickbats so tendered.

The Huddersfield Daily Examiner, carried an article about my father in which it referred to the “Singing Cobbler,” who was my grandfather Oliver Bray.

The only thing Father told me about his cobbling skill was that once he mended a pair of boots with the help of his brother Sam. Due to lack of capital, the boots were resoled with a joint across their middles where two scraps of leather were used. They were embarrassed at the poor job they had made of them so they left them on the customer’s doorstep, knocked at the door and ran away without collecting payment. I know there’s something wrong with the way they ran the business, but I just can’t put my finger on it.

Mother says that George was a master bootmaker, as was his father, Oliver. I don’t know how significant this is, but George’s maternal grandfather was also a bootmaker.

Cobblers were a breed apart. Their shops were usually dark but fascinating places with a varied array of machinery and lasts, and shelves full of boots and shoes to be either repaired or collected. They had a reputation for never completing the repairs by the promised date.

The story is told that Colonel Fawcett, who was lost in the Amazon Jungle, returned home after 25 years. He decided to tour his old haunts to revive the memories of his early life. He was encouraged to note that his old cobbler was still in business and decided to pay him a visit. As he entered into the shadows of the shop the cobbler looked up from his last, took a moment to recognise his visitor, and with a curt “They’ll be ready tomorrow” returned to his labour.

My father often told me that he had several good ideas for making lots of money - which he said he wanted so that he could give it to me (music to my ears), but that was prevented from making my fortune by lack of capital. Apparently, he had not been introduced to the twin values of continued employment and thrift.

I know very little about my mother’s childhood and early years except as it became bound up with my father and stepfather. The former always referred to as ‘your father’, the latter as “your dad.” René probably knows a lot more about her than I do but she’d probably be unwilling to tell what she knows.

Following my early infant memories of the horrors of my father, the next memory of him does not include him except by his absence. When I was young, I was told that my father was coming to take me out. My sister did not figure in this treat. I was up and dressed early that sunny Saturday. I waited out at the front of the house on Fitzwilliam Street.

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