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Feather's Miscellany: Tom Marsden

John Waddington-Feather’s tale confirms that it doesn’t pay to bet with a canny Yorkshire lad.

Yorkshire folk have a reputation for being canny, as well as being brash. I know, because I’m a Tyke, born in the shadow of Ilkley Moor, which has given Yorkshire its famous song. There’s an overweening saying in Yorkshire: “You can always tell a Yorkshireman – but you can’t tell him much” - and it makes me cringe. Yet there’s an element of truth in it, like another saying: “You can’t pull wool over a Yorkshireman’s eyes because he weaves it.”

Tom Marsden was the epitome of Yorkshireness. He’d been in textiles all his life and travelled the world buying wool and selling cloth from the family mill in Keighworth. He was self-assured, dour and canny. About average height and stocky, and what hair he had left was grey but he was bald on top. He’d been a good cricketer and sprinter when he was young, but had gone to seed. His belly carried good living before him. As a wool-man he dressed well and his suits were made from the best worsted cloth. He always wore a waistcoat which sported a gold watch chain and three Masonic seals which hung conspicuously across his expanse of gut.

Most striking about him was his piercing grey eyes, trained from youth to look you straight in the eye and read you, especially if he was doing business. He was canny all right and was rarely done down. When he was, he tried to make sure it didn’t happen again. He spoke slowly, with the broad heavy vowels and well struck consonants of Yorkshire; moreover, he weighed his words carefully before he spoke. When he’d nothing to say, he kept his mouth shut.

He’d few interests outside his business. He liked the theatre, for he’d gone to the Hippodrome before it was demolished in Keighworth as a boy; now he went to Leeds or Bradford with his wife for she liked to see a good play. Once a week he dropped in at his Lodge to sink a pint and yarn with his pals; mainly business talk, but sometimes how the local cricket and rugby teams were faring.

As I said, he travelled widely in business and one day was returning on a long-haul flight from Sydney where he’d been attending the wool sales. He was a great man for comfort and always travelled executive class on long flights. On that particular flight from Australia, he found himself sat across from a garrulous international lawyer who was full of himself and let everyone know it.

He was a slick hyperactive guy with a mid-Atlantic accent though he was born and reared in England, somewhere near London, and like Ted he was very self-assured. He was also a gambler, and after an hour or two into the flight, when he’d jaded Tom to death with talk, he decided Tom was easy-meat for a wager. He asked Tom if he’d like to play a game to while away the time. Tom had had a hard day at the wool sales and was tired out. He desperately wanted a snooze but out of politeness said he’d play. The lawyer assured him it would be fun and might even be profitable. Tom looked up. Anything to do with profit interested him. “What’s the game,” he asked.

“Quite simple,” came back the glib reply. “I ask you a general knowledge question and if you don’t know the answer, you give me ten pounds; and if I can’t answer your question, I give you fifty pounds. Fair enough, eh?”

Tom looked up. The odds were certainly in his favour and he agreed to play. “O.K., fire away,” he said.

The smart-alec across smirked and said, “What’s the nearest planet to Earth?”

Tom knew he should have known but didn’t and pulled out a ten pound note. He could see he was going to lose a lot of money if he wasn’t careful and wished he hadn’t agreed to play. He waited a minute and thought deeply before asking his question. “Nah then,” he said finally, looking the lawyer straight in the eye: “What goes up a hill wi’ three legs an’ comes down wi’ four?”

The lawyer was nonplussed and consulted the lap-top on his knees. He tried Google, Yahoo and all the rest but no answer. He even got through to the British Library, but no luck there either; and he was so long searching the internet, Tom dozed off.

After an hour’s searching the lawyer gave up and nudged Tom awake. “I give up,” he said, handing over a fifty pound note. “What’s the answer?” he asked irritably.

Tom opened his wallet and placed the fifty pound note carefully inside, extracting a ten pound note at the same time and handing it to the bemused lawyer. “I don’t know,” was all he said – then went back to sleep.

John Waddington-Feather ©

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