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A Shout From The Attic: Admiral North

...To those who did not know him he was a worthless thing: a broken man, a penniless tramp who smelled rather ripe, especially on wet days after twenty minutes under the café’s fan heater. Yet inside him was a residue of the gentleman he had once been...

Ronnie Bray tells of a man who stood alone.

Admiral North was a well-known figure in and around Huddersfield years ago, and there were few that didn’t recognise his rolling gait as he toured the highways and byways in search of something to sell.

He pushed a battered perambulator, trundling it through residential and industrial areas hoping to pick up some scrap metal or rags of old clothing that he could sell to a waste merchant. This was his only income. He couldn’t be bothered with Social Security and didn’t keep an address long enough to get himself into the welfare system.

In the words of Isaiah:
he hath neither form nor comeliness,
and when we shall see him,
there is no beauty
that we should desire him.

I hesitate to describe him as ugly but he was decidedly unattractive. Every painful experience of his life showed on his face and in his neglected appearance.

Although I had seen Admiral – that was his Christian name, and it is derived from the Arabic for Prince – around Huddersfield for some years, I inherited him when I bought the small café on Colne Road from Geordie Robson with money from the sale of our house in Heckmondwike.

Admiral called in most mornings, especially during cold weather, and bought a cup of tea that he sat and drank whilst reading his newspaper. Geordie considered him an unprofitable customer, likely to put off better customers, and laughed as he told me how, to get rid of him, he would turn off the heater that Admiral hogged to drive out the cold from his old bones.

I left the heater on and gave him free refills. He brought things he had salvaged and offered to sell them to me cheap. However, most of his stuff was either scrap or two days away from it, so I never bought from him.

It is said that he had once been a gentleman and held down a good job, but that when his beloved wife had died he could not cope with the loss, and grief turned him to drink. He drank away his savings, his home, his job, and his future. Finding himself at the bottom of the pile, homeless, jobless, friendless, and destitute, he started to collect scrap. Whatever cash he turned from day to day went straight on beer.

He never spoke about himself and did not engage others in conversation. He was alone. It was impossible not to feel overwhelming pity for this poor shadow of a man, whose only feelings were want and sorrow, and whose lonely death earned him two lines in the local paper.

To those who did not know him he was a worthless thing: a broken man, a penniless tramp who smelled rather ripe, especially on wet days after twenty minutes under the café’s fan heater. Yet inside him was a residue of the gentleman he had once been.

When I bought the café, I employed Hazel to run it while I worked as a psychiatric nurse at Storthes Hall Hospital. One day, Admiral was sat in his usual seat when a young man who had been a friend of Hazel came in. He was unhappy that Hazel had finished their friendship and was angry, shouting, and threatening violence to her. Admiral rose from his seat and tacitly positioned himself between the young man and Hazel.

Although a foot shorter than the would-be assailant, Admiral stood his ground until the young man left the café. His nobility was exposed and several people, especially those who had witnessed his courage, revised their estimations of him.

Around this time, Admiral was sleeping in a derelict house on Victoria Road, Lockwood. The houses were scheduled for demolition prior to the area being redeveloped. At pub closing time one night, Admiral made his way through the dimly lit street to the door of his chosen dormitory. Thrusting his shoulder against the door, it opened into blackness. Admiral stepped inside and promptly fell eight feet into the cellar. Unknown to him, workmen had stripped the floorboards from all the condemned houses in the row. A few days in hospital nursing his cuts and bruises and Admiral was back on his rounds.

So passed his time until his race was done and he was called home. He died younger than he should, broken by life, degraded through drink, and unmourned by friends. There is none to tell his story, and few would feel it worth the effort to do so.

But what of the hero lingering in the man? What of the spirit of gallantry that had not deserted him along with the rest of his gentility? Are these not worth the telling? Can we not learn anything from a man who had descended into the darkest depths that dehumanisation can lead?

We can make fun of his relying on the floor to support him when he needed it, but not taking care to make sure that it was there before he placed his reliance on it. But that understandable foolishness has to be balanced against his heroism when a lady was in danger. However benighted he had become, the light was not completely extinguished.

In the musings of memory, when I think of Admiral North, I do not remember the sad figure huddled in the wraps of his big black overcoat, endlessly sipping tea whilst taking advantage of my good nature and heater.

I remember him in that moment of greatness when he stood in defence of someone weaker than himself, and the vital sense of honour that shone round him as a glory, as he stood in silence but unflinchingly against a younger and more powerful adversary in the steam-filled air of Ron’s Diner and Butty Parlour, one cold and wet November day.

In that moment, Admiral raised himself from the pit of self-deprecation to the pinnacle of humanity to be a saviour to Hazel. In so doing, he emulated the love and concern that the Saviour Jesus Christ has extended to each of us, who might otherwise be overcome by a powerful and merciless adversary.

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