A Grandad’s Life launched in Oldham

A Grandad’s Life was launched on the evening of 19th May 2008 at Oldham Local Studies and Archives, 84 Union Street, Oldham. Normally a place of peaceful study, the Centre was for a couple of hours given over to a throng of family members and old friends of Jimmy’s from the locality, all intent on meeting up with him again and getting their hands on their signed copies of his book. Five of the seven grandchildren to whom the book is dedicated were present, including Ben, Sam and Emily, all aware that this was their special day as much as Grandad’s, though babe-in-arms Elliot may not have realised. Stealing the show was the eldest grandchild James Paterson. His fame as a portrait artist now assured by the publication of the book and his cover illustration, he sought to further his career by taking on fresh commissions, as well as showing a striking versatility by moving into catering and purveying a plethora of soft drinks.

Andrew Swift welcomed everyone on behalf of Cockasnook Books and invited Robin Holden, who had flown in from Sydney, Australia for the event, to offer a personal view of Jimmy. Robin responded in verse, declaring that “To describe our Jimmy/There is not any trick/Very competitive/And enthusiastic.” Jimmy had the option of remaining silent and saving his energies for signing books but rose to the challenge by delivering a full-length speech which even contained fascinating material not included in the book.

Jimmy’s speech
Thank you Robin, for your Australian rhyme and for flying all the way from New South Wales to be here in Oldham just for this evening. In fact I’m amazed, astonished and flattered so many of you, friends and family, have ‘fronted up’.

This account of my life was not originally designed for general consumption, otherwise it would have been significantly less frank and revealing, and less embarrassing to people mentioned. But ‘hey ho’… How could I resist when my eldest grandson James Paterson designed a picture for the front cover? He captured my mood so exactly. A chip off his mother’s block. Great! Thank you. Well done.

I should explain that the record is not a collection of miseries and abuse, and it certainly doesn’t contain the vitriol of Prescott, Cherie Blair and Lord Levy (currently in the news). It was expressly written for my grandchildren to read, not necessarily now, but in forty or fifty years’ time when they might have a keener interest in the activities of earlier generations. Certainly there were many questions I would have wished to have asked my grandparents before it was too late. Many of you might feel the same.

I am also particularly delighted that Cockasnook Books have chosen to have this launch in Oldham, this wonderful town, so full of character, which has always been the joy and bedrock and compass of my life!

A joy because I married the Mayor’s daughter. (He was Alderman George Frederick Holden, father of Freda and Robin.)

A bedrock because my paternal great-grandfather William Wright was Director and driving force behind Oldham Brewery: our interest continued until the residue of our family shares were sold to Boddingtons in 1981. And because my maternal great-grandfather George Sykes was the contractor who built the steps in Alexandra Park and put the two lions on their plinths. There was no doubting who was the more meritorious in the minds of my family: the lions won, hands down.

The places I lived – Werneth, Coppice, Clarksfield and The Suburbs – provided the compass and bring back hosts of happy memories, as do East Oldham High School, Counthill, Froggarts, The Gaumont, Tommyfield, The Hole in the Wall, Hill Stores, Keb Lane, St John’s.

As a boy I never thought the environment of Oldham uncongenial until we moved to the brand new Counthill Grammar in 1951. Every night we walked down from those sunlit heights into a thick black pall of smoke which covered every corner of the town. I remember the birds – the sparrows – pitch black with soot. But perhaps that is what made us all so tough, uncompromising, determined and warm-hearted.

And… I guess I knew the geography of Oldham more than most.

As a Weights and Measures Inspector, probably the youngest ever appointed in the UK, I walked every street, visited every shop and store, every market, market stall and every pub, all 365 of them – a feat that many of you Keb Laners may have tried, but failed, to emulate. But then I wasn’t doing the drinking, just checking the measures.

I visited every factory, warehouse, workshop and mill,
• scorched by the furnaces at Platt Bros on Featherstall Road
• nauseated by the foul and pungent smells of the Hide, Skin and Fat Works at Rhodes Bank
• deafened by the incredible volumes of noise at Oldham Rope and Twine, where staff communicated by sign language and by mouthing to each other. It’s the place Les Dawson got his inspiration…
• and, worst of all, asphyxiated by dense clouds of cotton dust in the ‘Fanny Holes’ of most of the cotton mills in the town. After testing scales we emerged from those choking hell-holes as a cross between Father Christmas and the abominable snowman. Good job they bred tough lungs!

And I knew every place in Oldham to shelter from the rain, to get a cup of tea, knew every public loo and was known by the watchmen and scouts guarding the illegal pitch-and-toss games in a deep culvert on Oldham Edge. Fifty or sixty gamblers at a time. When I was a trainee, my mentor Jack Stainthorpe made regular diversions and was a welcome and accepted addict.

But I always felt lucky. ‘Jammy Jimmy’ was my name in the family. I was lucky to have Harold Bailey as teacher at Werneth School at a critical time. He seemed to devote every minute of every school day practising IQ test after IQ test – to ensure we passed our 11+.

I spoke with Harold about this some twenty years later. He was quite unrepentant. He explained his sole purpose had been to get us to grammar schools and enhance our life opportunities. He wanted to give us a competitive edge.

I was lucky to alight on the career in trading standards, which has been good to me and which I have so much enjoyed. All I wanted was a short-term holiday job that paid 32 shillings a week instead of 28 as casual labour. And then I was lucky to pass my professional exams first time, when all I wanted was a first attempt, a trial run, in London.

Lucky to have been a sportsman in the rum-soaked, sea-legged Navy. Throughout my two years’ National Service, sport exempted me from every duty, dogwatch, job or unpleasant chore. It was just a fantastic extended holiday and fitness cycle.

Lucky to have been signed as a professional rugby player by Leigh, for far more than my dislocating ‘glass’ shoulder justified – a story echoed today by sprinter Dwain Chambers and Castleford Tigers. In 1959 Leigh had signed Olympic Sprinter MacDonald Bailey. He played one game and never recovered his wind: a failure. The directors had to save face and find a winger to fill the hole. They filled it with overpaid, but lucky, me.

And that decision gave me relative financial security for life. Then there was Freda, my wife, and my three lovely daughters, and my grandchildren… Lucky me… But I say rather more about them in the book.

My good fortune didn’t end there. I was in Nigeria for four years during its only peaceful phase between the struggles for independence and the devastating Biafran war. It was a cultural shock – Sharia Courts and pagan markets – but a quite fantastic experience. The book contains extracts from letters I wrote at the time.

Back in the UK I returned as Deputy Chief and was extremely lucky as my Croydon boss was possibly the greatest scallywag in local government. Why lucky? Because he did nothing absolutely nothing, had no strategy, no management, and took no responsibility. But his omissions allowed me to take control of the department and experiment with new forms of consumer protection: talk to the press, abandon routine annual checks and concentrate on fraud – ideas very radical at the time.

As a result, I was lucky then to be chosen as national spokesman for trading standards when the Trade Descriptions Act became law, and exposed as a broadcaster/commentator on radio, TV and in the news media, with Esther Rantzen, Jimmy Young and Bernard Braden. It was a world full of promise and excitement.

That public profile got me a post near to the top of our esoteric civil service at the Office of Fair Trading. Certainly I was perked to be told by the ‘Head of Establishments in the Treasury’ that I must be the only rugby league player ever to penetrate the refined top levels of the Eton/Harrow/Oxbridge atmosphere of Whitehall.

I guess he really meant I was a bit of a rough guy, but I liked that and capitalised on my ‘Oldhamness’. I was sometimes loved as a consumer champion then hated as Director of the Metrication Board, but I was never never never disappointed. And in writing my memoirs I just wanted my family to know that these were my experiences, my perceptions, and my life, my world.

Thank you.

Articles From the Press : Oldham Evening Chronicle, Weds May 14, 2008