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Feather's Miscellany: Keighley Characters

"In the Keighley of my youth, there were characters wandering about the town who were clearly retarded and today would be residents of care homes. Then, they lived goodness knows where but earned their livings selling cheap wares. I donít recall any of them begging as junkies or alcoholics do now,'' writes John Waddington-Feather in his evocative article.

In the Keighley of my youth, there were characters wandering about the town who were clearly retarded and today would be residents of care homes. Then, they lived goodness knows where but earned their livings selling cheap wares. I donít recall any of them begging as junkies or alcoholics do now.

Sally Matchbox was one such character. I never knew her real name but she stood just outside the general post-office in town selling boxes of matches. She was a small wizened lady who wore cheap Woolworth spectacles and old-fashioned clothes, probably bought from a second-hand shop. On her head was a large black beret. Though she stood outside in all weathers she always gave you a smile and had a twinkle in her eyes.

My father, Ira Feather, a well known Keighley auctioneer and valuer, bought his matches from her and after a brief chat he always raised his fedora hat to her and wished her good-day. One day I asked him why he treated her so courteously. After all, she was only a matchbox seller. He replied quietly, ďSally is a lady and I hope Iím a gentleman.Ē He didnít elaborate and the answer stayed with me the rest of my life. My father was always courteous with people whoever they were; never patronising, no matter what their station in life and Iíve tried to be the same.

Another well known character was Freddy Gramophone, who each night shuffled along the cinema queues, shabbily dressed in a long black overcoat and wearing a greasy cap. He pushed an old pram in which was a gramophone and pile of crackly records which he played as he shuffled along holding out his cap at the same time. Woe betide you if you didnít put a coin or two into his cap! Heíd stand before you and call you a skinflint and much else, much to the amusement of the rest of the queue.

Then there was Old Mothballs, a dumpy little man with a cheery smile who had a string of mothballs hanging from the rim of his bowler hat and drifted round the town selling mothballs to regular customers and passers-by. Those were the days when clothes were made of pure wool and not artificial yarn like nylon. Consequently mothballs were in great demand to stop clothes being ravaged by moths which laid their eggs in clothes stored in wardrobes, which reeked of mothballs when you opened them. So did the dresses of elderly ladies, who doused themselves in lavender water to hide the smell.

Being an auctioneer, my father attracted many down-at-heel buyers and onlookers to his house-sales. These poorer clients varied from scrap-iron dealers to Irish labourers who picked up bargains to sell on. There was rarely anything left over after a sale. Even the broken furniture had buyers; so had the old iron bedsteads rapidly being replaced in the 1950s by more modern furniture. So as I approached my late teens, I travelled round his sales sometimes acting as his clerk and got to know many of the characters in my fatherís orbit.

Much to my motherís embarrassment, I suspect, he invited some of these badly nourished people into our house for a meal, for he was very open-handed, especially after a drink or two. One guest was a neighbour down the street called Janie. Sheíd lived for years with a bachelor brother and had worked as a well qualified secretary somewhere in town till her brother died. Then she went odd and became a recluse. She wouldnít be seen for days and hung onions on sticks out of her bedroom window to ward off evil spirits!

There was a good community spirit down our street and I suspect Janie was monitored by her neighbours; but my father whoíd known her and her brother for years one day invited her in for an evening meal. She surprised us all by turning up in her motherís wedding dress, holding an expensive three-branched silver candlestick, which she solemnly placed in the middle of the table and had my father light. For the rest of the meal, my younger brother and I sat in wide-eyed silence, listening to Janie tell tales of her early life as she solemnly ate her meal. The way she carried herself and spoke, she might have been a duchess.

Among other guests my father invited in for meals was a poor family who lived on the other side of Victoria Park in a run-down area called Eastwood Square. The father was well known in the town collecting odds and ends which he sold from a handcart or to metal dealers. He was also well known in the annual Hospital Gala procession, dressed in an outrageous costume walking on foot with a collecting box for the local hospital making fun of spectators by the roadside till they put something in his box. On the occasion he dined with us he brought his large unwashed family, who crammed into our little dining room to eat the fish and chips and mushy peas my father had ordered. I remember that occasion most of all for the smell!

I could write at some length about other characters in Keighley when I was growing up: newspaper sellers, oatcake vendors, rag-and-bone men and host of others who came round the street hawking their wares; not to mention the shopkeepers in the area. But then, when I was a boy every citizen of Keighley was a character of some sort and many of them are in my Keighworth Tales. However, I must mention our butcher in town who was of German stock, which settled in Bradford and district at the end of the 19th century as pork butchers and wool-merchants. The composer Deliusí father was one of them.
Our butcher was a large florid-faced man like many butchers who ate too much meat. He dressed in the conventional blue and white apron but wore a bowler hat in the shop. He was passionately fond of the theatre and knew many well known actors and actresses whose autographed photos he had hung up in his shop. They made interesting viewing while you were being served. Many famous music-hall turns were there like Dan Leno and Charlie Chaplin, George Formby and Arthur Askey as well as classical actors like Lawrence Olivier and John Gielgud.

Our butcher was among the members of the Conservative Club and the Cycling Club, patronised by professional middle-class clientele including my father. They met for a drink every Saturday morning in the Conservative Club and put the world to rights. One of their number was a vet, Donald Campbell, a tall, dour man from the Highlands who spoke Gaelic and had a fund of vet stories. He was a died-in-the-blood Conservative unlike his son, Alastair Campbell, the spin-doctor of the former Labour prime minister, Tony Blair. Donald moved to the Midlands where his son went to school and later Cambridge University, so we never heard what he thought of his sonís subsequent career in politics. Just as well perhaps!

Lucky indeed I was to be raised in Keighley in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. It was a Golden Age in which the town flourished before the collapse of the textile trade and subsequent decades when many immigrants settled in the town bringing with them their own languages and cultures. The wealth of characters I grew up among made a lasting impression on my young life and Iíve tried to capture some of them in my short stories. One of these stories is currently being used by the British Council in one of their educational projects, BritLit, in Russia as part of a programme to introduce young Russians to contemporary British literature. I suppose those old-timersí place in Keighley life has been taken by other characters now, but they wonít be quite the same as the loveable eccentrics of my youth.
John Waddington-Feather ©

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