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Feather's Miscellany: Antics And Antiques

...Though now grey-haired and wrinkled, he never lost the habit of looking at himself in every mirror and shop window he passed, smiling his horsey, long-toothed smile of self satisfaction and sleeking back his oiled hair. He kept his lanky figure, dressed impeccably and had his suits made by the best Leeds tailors...

But can fancy dresser and Keighworth’s biggest rogue be taken in by a crafty art dealer?

John Waddington-Feather tells a tale with a surprising conclusion.

There was no bigger rogue in Keighworth than Simon Grimstone. He wasn’t one of those ill-educated, coarse rogues that you might find, say, in the shady scrap-iron trade or dubious building businesses. No. He was well educated, smooth-tongued, knowledgeable and cunning; a man of the world. He was a lawyer.

From childhood he’d been nurtured in deception, and as he grew up he conned hundreds of his clients, some for their last penny. His parents, Jabez and Leah, had been employed as tailors in Leeds, but came to Keighworth early on in the twentieth century to set up home in a pawn-broking and antiques shop after Jabez had been left a bit of money by a bachelor uncle.

They started right at the bottom, renting a one-up and one-down shop on Bradford Road across the road from Albert Park, where they were well placed for trade.. The rows of poor terrace houses running off Vicar Lane, a tributary of Garlic Lane, provided them with a steady source of pawn-broking income; and house sales of the middle-class and the occasional upper-class home brought in a steady flow of good antiques at knock-down prices, which Jabez was able to sell on to his contacts in Leeds for a healthy profit.

Then he began buying houses for rental; first one or two cheap ones down Garlic Lane, then all over Keighworth. In time he owned half the town. So successful was he that by the time Simon, his only child, was born shortly after the Grimstones arrived in Keighworth, Jabez and Leah were able to move into middle-crustia and leave their cramped dwelling over the shop. That they converted into storage for the expanding antiques side of the business.

They moved up-market across the railway bridge into Fieldhouses, a neighbourhood which marked the boundary between under and middle-crustia down Garlic Lane. Their house was a newly built, three-bedroomed, spacious terrace house on Skipworth Road, shaded by a long avenue of trees which gave the area an air of gentility. Although there was stream of traffic going past their new home, there was enough garden in front of the house to cushion any noise; and in 1915 when the Grimstones moved in there wasn’t all that much traffic compared with later, and most of it was horse-drawn then. Crag Castle and its grounds just across the road also gave the terrace a genteel air, which made it much sought after by doctors, lawyers and their ilk.

You see, it was rubbing shoulders with Keighworthian self-made aristocracy, for the Butterworths who had built the castle had made their millions in the textile trade in Britain and elsewhere. There were rumours they’d run guns for the South in the American Civil War, but I wouldn’t vouch for that. Certainly the heir to the Butterworth millions had brought back an American wife on one of his trips to the States and played the aristo with her at Crag Castle and in Paris where they also had a house.

They installed a stained glass window in their castle depicting the Butterworth family as Tudor gentry, which guests had to pass on their way to their bedrooms. If you can’t become real aristocrats overnight, at least you can pretend; and unlike many aristocratic families at the time, the Butterworths had wealth.

Their dynasty didn’t last long in Keighworth for the town wasn’t designed for lordly living. People who had ‘edge’ didn’t last long there and barely a century later, the last Butterworth married into real aristocracy, sold up and departed south to her new estate there. Crag Castle was bought by another Keighworth millionaire and presented to the town. It became open to the public as a first-class museum, art gallery and park.

But back to the Grimstones. Having established themselves in middle-crustia they sent their son Simon to the local Grammar School. He did modestly well there but was excused all games and P.T. because of a bad chest. The same chest years later got him out of the War in the 1940s; a time which he put to profitable advantage.

When he left school he was articled to a respected firm of Keighworth solicitors, Leach and Leach, run by two elderly bachelor brothers. They’d moved into a former dwelling house in the centre of town and turned it into their office. When he’d completed his articles Simon Grimstone was given a tiny box-room upstairs as his office, but he spent a lot of time down in the cellars sifting through the records there, file on file of Keighworth’s family secrets, which, having a photographic memory, he memorised well.

Before he’d left his teens he’d unearthed generations of skeletons in various family cupboards, scrutinising, as he did, for hours tightly- bound packets of yellow papers and letters and noting them for future use. I wouldn’t say he ever openly blackmailed clients, but later he certainly made them pay up. By the time he was in his twenties, he could make or break anyone in the town – and he wasn’t even a Freemason!

He took over the firm when the Leach brothers died, and the business flourished. His father left him a wide range of houses and he continued dabbling in the property market all his life. He also kept on the antiques shop but let the pawn-broking side go. He put a manager in the old shop, but he never lost interest in antiques and became quite a connoisseur.

Came the time in the 1960s, when he was well and truly an upper-crustian in Keighworth, he bought a large house in Utworth to entertain his clients – and girlfriends, for he never married; he fancied himself too much. Though now grey-haired and wrinkled, he never lost the habit of looking at himself in every mirror and shop window he passed, smiling his horsey, long-toothed smile of self satisfaction and sleeking back his oiled hair. He kept his lanky figure, dressed impeccably and had his suits made by the best Leeds tailors.

As he grew older, antiques collecting became his passion, primarily because they were a visible sign of his great wealth and never lost their value. His father, Jabez, had been in cahoots with a local antiques dealer called Foxy Feather, who had a large shop and a dubious reputation to match in the middle of Keighworth. Much of his stock was reproduction furniture which he sold off as genuine antique items to naïve buyers, especially American tourists to the town. He must have shipped crate-loads of sideboards and writing desks purporting to have come from the home of three sisters who became very famous in the nineteenth century as novelists and lived inside the borough in the rectory where their father was parson. Throughout the year, tourists visited their village and vicarage by the hundred, and rich Americans bought their desks and furniture to be shipped back home as trophies.

Now, Foxy had been dealing for years with a partner over the Pennines in Bolton; an elderly middleman who for years had brought quality art and antiques to Foxy for re-sale at a huge profit. Some of Foxy’s customers were well-heeled mill tycoons who, like Grimstone, wanted to vaunt their wealth; so when Grimstone acquired his new house in the fashionable suburb of Utworth he wanted to fill it with expensive antiques and paintings.

One day, Foxy came hurrying urgently to Grimstone’s office to tell him he thought he’d made a ‘killing’. His contact in Bolton had brought him a painting which had been stored for years in an attic, and a pair of solid silver candelabra. He thought the painting was a Van Gogh!

Grimstone was sceptical but excited and immediately left what he was doing and accompanied Foxy back to his shop, where Foxy uncovered the painting reverentially. It was a vase of flowers on a Dutch table with Van Gogh’s signature in the corner. Foxy had provenance: a letter from an art expert and an old sales catalogue dating from the 1850s when a Lancashire mill magnate had sold up. Foxy said that his contact’s grandfather had bought the painting for a song and that the painting and silver candelabra had languished in his attic ever since. He’d only found them when his granddad had died and they were emptying the house.

Of course, Foxy had snapped up the painting and silverware at once and they were on display for Grimstone to admire. When he saw them, he just had to have them and asked the price. “Just for you,” said Foxy with his disarming smile, “twenty thousand.” And he didn’t blink and eyelid; but his weasel eyes gleamed brighter.

Grimstone didn’t haggle. He was too rich to haggle now. “Done!” he said, and shook Foxy’s hand. So pleased was he with himself he threw a party to show off his new acquisitions, inviting among his guests the director of Crag Castle Museum and Art Gallery. But the longer the director looked at the painting and candelabra, the more sceptical he grew and asked an alarmed Grimstone if he could bring a leading art critic, a friend, to look at the painting.

Well, to cut a long story short, the Fraud Squad became involved and Foxy Feather’s Lancashire contact was hauled before a court, leastways his son was and found guilty of fraud over a long period of time. However, there was a rather sad side to the story. The son was autistic and lived with his aged parents and an elderly spinster aunt. He’d had an education in art and metalcraft, but was very withdrawn and spent the whole day working by himself in a large shed in the garden; and there he forged masterpieces, so expertly that some of them are still in circulation today.

For years his cunning old dad had battened on him as his agent, flogging off his forgeries for vast sums of money on the strength of old sales catalogues he’d had re-printed or forged letters of provenance. The poor lad admitted his guilt and took the rap calmly and was sent down for five years, years he spent profitably continuing to paint, and making thousands legally when he left jail. When his father died shortly before he left prison, he employed another agent to sell them – Foxy Feather!

As for Simon Grimstone, he’d been well and truly taken in for the only time in his life. Yet he wasn’t one for dwelling on past mistakes and went from strength to strength making more shady deals throughout Keighworth and beyond.

In the 1970s he got into the overseas property market and opened up an estate agency in Brighton to sell land and developments all down the Spanish coast. He built himself a huge villa in its own grounds in Benidorm, where he also built masses of new holiday chalets; selling his house at Utworth for a huge profit and moving permanently to his villa along with his collection of paintings, antiques - and girlfriends.

When he moved there, Grimstone got in with a criminal lot. Not really surprising. There were many ex-pat scoundrels hiding in Spain then. They used his yacht for drug-smuggling from North Africa, but somewhere along the line he crossed them and his body was found on the beach near his villa with a bullet in his head.

John Waddington-Feather ©


(You can read more about Simon Grimstone’s doings in the “Chance Child” trilogy of novels. Details from Feather Books, P.O. Box 438, Shrewsbury SY3 0WN U.K. or john@jjwfeather.co.uk)

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