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A Shout From The Attic: Thank-You Alfie

...His catchment area was the whole world of need. He understood the imperatives of good physical health and a correct mental attitude - mens sanum in corpus sanum was his watchword. He invented and advocated Positive Mental Attitude long before it became a multi-million dollar business. All sorts and ages of boys were welcome there, and each received Alfie’s individual attention. He tutored each lad with infinite patience and care, dispensing advice like a machine gun...

Ronnie Bray pays tribute to a man who had a big influence on his early life.

In between Leeds Road and Wakefield Road ran Quay Street; a short road paved with narrow cobbles that led to the dread region of Turnbridge, named for the archaic bridge that straddled the Liverpool-Leeds Canal at that point. The bridge is a substantial steel-bound wooden cradle that is hoisted in the air by means of chains that wind around capstans housed inside two huge upright cast iron cylinders that resemble steam boilers. The mechanism is activated by a hand-wheel to raise and lower the bridge after the barges have passed on their way into or out of the Aspley Canal Basin, which is the dockland of Huddersfield. In former times, the canal traffic was commercial freight. Now it is adventurers and weekend sailors in small motorised craft and increasingly popular barrow boats.

No horses walk the towpaths pulling their loads from here and there. Narrow boats went to engines a long time since and the clip clop of the horse was replaced by the steady mechanical clunking of the inboard single cylinder diesel that doesn’t get tired or have to stop for a fill-up of oats and water, and they are almost as interesting to watch and you are guaranteed a return wave from a bargee and his crew.

I got as far as the other side of the fifteen-foot long bridge once and even dabbed a scruffy shoe toe onto the Turnbridge cobbles before resuming a safe position on the Town side of the bridge. No small boy – or large one for that matter – could pass the big hand-wheel without putting a turn on it. Many have had motor cars honk at them to let the bridge drop so that spoked-wheel cars did not have to risk terrible damage by running into the foot high roadway that suddenly appeared in front of them. Now the wheel is fastened with a chain of nautical dimensions and a padlock that would outwit Houdini. Motor cars hitting the bridge at high speed from the Turnbridge side still take off some feet onto the air. The landings can be instructive and painful.

Alfie Cleaving lived in Turnbridge, in St Andrew’s Road. What can I say about Alfie Cleaving? Whatever I do will be inadequate to express the greatness of the man because my impressions of him, although gained over many years, are only one subjective calculation of this interesting and important character. He was blessed with a profound sense and sensibility that easily exceeded his attenuated education. It can rightly be said that he intuitively knew more than his education and understanding permitted him to express. We met when I began to attend a "Health and Strength" club run by Alfie up Union Yard off New Street.

Like everything about Alfie Cleaving, the club operated on absolute basic essentials. It was not a club for the sons of rich families. The ring was a makeshift constructed with ropes that had seen better days. The equipment was old and worn out, yet still serviceable to the needs of the club. The huge pillow boxing gloves that we trained with smelt of generations of sweaty hands, and the weights were paintless and polished rust.

His catchment area was the whole world of need. He understood the imperatives of good physical health and a correct mental attitude - mens sanum in corpus sanum was his watchword. He invented and advocated Positive Mental Attitude long before it became a multi-million dollar business. All sorts and ages of boys were welcome there, and each received Alfie’s individual attention. He tutored each lad with infinite patience and care, dispensing advice like a machine gun:

‘Tuck your chin in.’

‘Keep jabbing with your left.’

‘Turn your body sideways to make a smaller target.’

‘Not too hard, take it easy.’

If a boy was injured, Alfie tended him with his bag of potions, lotions, and liniments. His gruff, soothing voice indicating the lad’s condition and Alfie’s prognosis. He healed everyone: persuaded them to adopt the better life of honesty and uprightness if that was appropriate, and had a cheerful word for all. I do not recall him ever smiling. He was not jovial and did not look particularly happy. His lugubrious elongated face looked no better after a shave because of his ineradicable blue-black stubble. His hair stood in a shock, untamed and unashamed.

For Alfie, the measure of manhood was not outward appearance, rather the character of the secret heart - what he was when unobserved and unaccountable. Top show and splendid dressing do not change the nature of a rogue. Nor did Alfie’s dour roughness and unarticulated, seemingly emotionless, common sense, hide the greatness and stature of this good man. His wisdom was not learned from books. It is possible that he never read a book, but he knew about health, strength, boxing, and character. He dedicated his life to these objectives.
For Alfie, the measure of manhood was not outward appearance, rather the character of the secret heart - what he was when unobserved and unaccountable. Top show and splendid dressing do not change the nature of a rogue. Nor did Alfie’s dour roughness and unarticulated, seemingly emotionless, common sense, hide the greatness and stature of this good man. His wisdom was not learned from books. It is possible that he never read a book, but he knew about health, strength, boxing, and character. He dedicated his life to these objectives.
Whatever small measure of success Alfie enjoyed in his life came only through what he taught to his lads. He was a short, stocky and ungainly man, bow-legged with an ambling gait. He had the exaggerated features of a dwarf and was not a handsome man. He was not cultured except he that understood the need for 'please' and 'thank you' and while he was rough in manner and short on schooling, he was inoffensive, his natural gruffness hiding a sweet and generous heart. He was a man that strangers would not approach, because he was unattractive and looked like the common idea of a ruffian.

He had no children, except in the way Mr Chips had children. He was not a man who had close friends. I was fortunate to get to know him better than most because of my friendship with his stepson Eric. He married to provide a home for an unfortunate woman and her tragic son to whom he became a reasonable stepfather. The marriage was not a love affair: he was a man who understood his limitations. His marriage was rather an opportunity to give a hand to someone in distress.

All the time I knew him he lived in a front terrace house on Turnbridge Road in a house without electricity. It was lit by gas and cooking was by gas stove. The kindest way to describe the house and its furnishings would be ‘a bit of a tip.’ Gracious living was not what Alfie enjoyed. His was a make-do world that recognised poverty as the normal state of things. Alfie’s trousers never matched his jackets and I can never recall him wearing a shirt or tie: he was a jersey man. Even when he was cycling (his other passion), he wore long trousers and a jersey. His short but powerful form could propel a road cycle at an amazing speed.

Alfie’s mission was not to make the world a better place to live in, but to make men better equipped to live in it. He was no philosopher, and, as far as I could tell, he had no political philosophy or agenda. He was a denizen of the real world at the point where you either muster your wits to survive, or else submit, and go under. I do not know what Alfie did for a living or even whether he worked. His wife worked as a cinder sorter at the town gas works further down the road where it was known as St Andrew’s Road.

Her son, Eric Hindle, joined the same class as me at Spring Grove. He was a likeable, self-effacing and modest lad. His mother was, it is said, of a ‘good’ family that disowned her when she turned ‘a bit funny’ and had a baby out of wedlock. That’s the sort of thing ‘good families’ did with their embarrassments in those days, and as society applauded, some of us felt no small disquiet that ‘goodness’ should be so meanly employed against those who most needed goodness and generosity of spirit in their lives.

The last time I saw Alfie was in High Street, Huddersfield, and we were both in a hurry. He told me only that he was now living in Halifax before rushing for his bus. I never saw or heard of him from that day. How many lives he touched for good we may never know but when the great scorekeeper makes the count it will be surprising if he is not among the highest ranked of saints.

During my association with Alfie Cleaving, I passed from boyhood to ladhood. Although I had anticipated with joy this part of the growing up process it went by unmarked, like a traveller who has slept past his stop and finds himself at another destination I discovered that |I was older without the sense of so becoming. Being grown up was more difficult. I considered that when I was grown up the quality of my life would improve. It was disappointing to miss that rite of passage. I grew older but not wiser. Yet, my life is richer in so many ways because it was touched by Alfie Cleaving.

I shall not look upon his like again


Thank you, Alfie.

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