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It's A Great Life: 6 - The Nearest We Got To America

...The nearest we ever got to America was when we went to the pictures, which we did often. We were then transported to another world, the world of Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, Betty Grable, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland...I could fill another page with names...

John Merewood continues his engaging autobiography.

The firm I worked for actually had two bakehouses. The main one was in Devonshire Street, Lockwood, where most of the baking was done, and there was another small one behind the shop in Swan Lane not far away, where they iced the buns and decorated the cakes. Devonshire Street at that time was a rough unpaved road. Near the top, for some reason I never knew, there was a line of big posts like railway sleepers blocking access from that end. Now the bakehouse is no more. In the area where it once stood, surrounded by old houses, there is now a block of flats, the road is paved, and the guardian posts across the top are long gone.

The flour was delivered in 10-stone (140 lb) sacks by horse and cart.
These were big strong horses and one carrier used to leave his horse and cart round a corner at the bottom of the street, out of sight. Then the carrier, a little ginger-haired man who wore a flat cap, covered in, flour dust like the rest of his clothes, walked the 150 yards or so to the bakehouse to announce his arrival. We all came out to watch as he gave a whistle and round the corner would appear the horse and cart. The huge horse then came charging up the street and stopped, snorting, in front of us, a spectacular sight which we always enjoyed and admired. The sacks were then carried into the bakehouse on the shoulders of the bakers.

When I was eighteen I was old enough to work nights, which from time to time I was required to do. When we were on day shift, on Fridays we finished at 4 p.m. and then went back alternately at 8 p.m. one week and 10 p.m. the next, working to 5 a.m. or 6 a.m. on Saturday morning. Those nights we made nothing but bread, tons of it! And it was hard work.

Sometimes we were required to work in the smaller bakery. In the shop worked a lady by the name of Elizabeth Taylor. Miss Taylor had once been to America, something quite beyond the experience of any of the other employees, or indeed of anyone else I knew, and I held her in awe and admiration. The nearest we ever got to America was when we went to the pictures, which we did often. We were then transported to another world, the world of Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, Betty Grable, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland...I could fill another page with names, but top of the list for me were Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. When I was seventeen Top Hat came to the new Ritz cinema. I went straight from work at 5.30 p.m. without tea, joined the film halfway through, saw it to the end, then twice more as it came round again and again, and left when the Ritz finally closed about 11 p.m. My bedroom walls were adorned with pictures and cuttings of the famous couple. I wrote to Ginger Rogers asking for a photograph and sent a shilling postal order to pay for it. To my delight the picture, signed by her, arrived in due course, with my postal order fastened to it with a paper clip.

One day Miss Taylor asked me if I had ever read any Zane Grey books. I hadn't. I had never heard of him, and in fact in my ignorance thought that Zane Grey must be a woman. Miss Taylor put me right and loaned me a book of his, Riders of the Purple Sage. I thought it was marvellous, and from then on I couldn't get enough of Zane Grey. It was a penny a year to join the library; I joined and on every visit tracked down Zane Grey books. Relatives knowing of my enthusiasm bought his books for me for birthdays and Christmas, and so far as I know I collected every book he had written, and still have them.

Before I went abroad, during the war, my mother and I invented a code made from the names of Zane Grey books. It was something like this - if I wrote I'd just read Riders of the Purple Sage it meant we were in Egypt, The Rainbow Trail meant Tunisia, and so on. I don't know if Ultra ever cracked our code! Once, on the boat to South Africa, I discreetly wrote that we had just passed a well-known island, and my mother replied with similar discretion 'I know the island you meant, it would be StH.'!

I had always liked to draw, and spent hours in my bedroom with a card-table set up, paper pinned to it and drew - anything and every-thing. I also drew in drawing books, a few of which have still survived. I liked music too. I had a good singing voice and joined the local church choir. I wished we had had a piano, for I would have loved to have learned to play, but that was out of the question. I used to look longingly in the window of Charlie Shaw's music shop in Huddersfield - if only I had a saxophone. But I bought the only instrument I could afford, a mouth-organ, for a shilling (5p).

My mother's youngest brother, Leonard, only a couple of years or so older than I, was in a mouth-organ band and said he could 'get me in'. He introduced me to the lady who ran the band, Mrs Small. She heard me play and I was 'in'. We had two accordions, six mouth-organs and drums, and Mrs Small made a brilliant turn playing on the 'bones'. Her son Albert played the drums and sang, and we had two young girls who tap-danced. We were called 'The Pioneer Harmonica Band' and we wore white satin blouses with a black line at the cuffs and the neck, and black satin trousers. In my teenage years I really enjoyed playing with the band. We got lots of bookings at local clubs and cinemas where they didn't show films on Sundays but had Sunday night concerts. Once at the Huddersfield Holidays at Home week we were in the procession going to Greenhead Park on a float. Later in the evening we took part in a concert in the park. Once Leonard and I entered a talent competition at the Ritz cinema - he used to give whistling solos. We played duets, then Leonard whistled while I played 'Let's All Sing Like the Birdies Sing'. Unfortunately we didn't win, we were outclapped!

Two years in succession the band played at the Railway Queen carni¬val at Belle Vue, Manchester, in the circus ring. On one occasion there was a big snowman in the middle of the ring and we stood in a circle round it. Above the snowman was a mirrored ball as one sees in ball¬rooms, and as this rotated it gave the effect of snowing. The whole scene was extremely effective. The carnival was held at the end of September, and we were booked to play there again in 1939. On Sunday 3 September we had a rehearsal planned. Before going there, I first listened with the rest of my family to the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, on the wireless at 11 o'clock gravely informing us we were at war with Germany. My mother was in tears. I went to the rehearsal, but the carnival was cancelled. Leonard, who was in the Territorial Army, was immediately called up. I was called up next month, and that was the end of the band.

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