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A Shout From The Attic: Forgive My Roughness

....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 he 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...

Ronnie Bray confesses that there is much he did not know about his father. To read earlier episodes of Ronnie's life story please click on A Shout From the Attic in the menu on this page.

My father, George Frederick Bray, 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 bolt-hole 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. He was 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 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. That’s what wives did back then. And that’s all I know about my paternal grandfather, except that in 1937 he loved at number three Turnbridge Road, when Grandma Lena Bray lived in Abbey Road with her children.

When my father – George Frederick Bray - was seventeen, he worked for an ice-cream maker, pedalling a box-bicycle inviting people to “Stop me and buy one.” 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 and his employers took a dim view of it.

Father gained no small skill in boot making 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 as the paper roll wound over the pneumatic machinery. The Huddersfield Daily Examiner carried an article about him, calling him “The singing cobbler.”

The only thing he ever told me about his cobbling days was that he once 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 so 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. There’s something wrong with the way they operated the business, but I can’t put my finger on it.

Cobblers were a breed apart. Their shops were usually dark but fascinating places with a varied array of machinery, 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, 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 he 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. He once confided in me that he would like to open a pie shop but lacked the capital to set it up. I never tasted his pies.

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.



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