Jingling James – An Annabelle Harper Story

It’s a week on stories on the blog. Maybe because The Lean Heart has been out for a fortnight and I want to remind you all to buy it. Or I like revisiting these pieces.

Strictly speaking, this isn’t an Annabelle Harper story. Before she met Tom, Annabelle was married to Harry Atkinson, who owned the Victoria public house on Roundhay road. He died in 1887, leaving her a widow to look after the place alone. This is what happened that Christmas…

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Leeds, December 1887

 

Annabelle Atkinson didn’t want Christmas to arrive this year. She didn’t feel any of the joy or the goodwill this December. It was barely three months since her husband Harry had died; the earth had barely settled on his grave.

They’d had a few good years before the heart attack took him. Now she had to look after the Victoria public house as well as the two bakeries she’d opened. On her own, sometimes she felt like she was drowning.

On Christmas Eve, once the last customer had gone, she’d bolt the door, close the curtains, and keep the world away until Boxing Day. She’d never been one to wallow in sadness; if you had a problem you took care of it and carried on. But the last few weeks…she’d been slowly sinking and she knew it. She felt like one of those jugglers in the music halls, trying to keep all the plates spinning in the air. Too many of them.

‘Come on,’ she said to Willie Hailsham, taking the empty pint pot from his hand. ‘You’ve had enough. Get yourself off home so your wife can remember what you look like.’

The same with Harelip Harmon, Donald the Steel Man, and Jingling James, always moving the coins around in his pocket. They’d stay drinking all night if anyone would keep serving them.

‘Don’t you have homes to go to?’

It was the nightly routine, almost a comedy act after so long. They drained their glasses, said their goodnights and then the bar was empty. She locked the door, drew down the bolts and let out a long sigh. Glasses to wash, woodwork and brass to polish.

Better get started, she thought. The work’s not going to do itself.

 

Up a little after three to supervise the baking in the kitchen at the other end of the garden. The last day before Christmas, orders to fill, plenty of demand; the two bakeries she owned would be little goldmines today. And the Victoria would be full from the moment the factories closed.

Gossiping with the girls as they all worked together, mixing, kneading, baking, the smell of fresh loaves filling the air and making her hungry. Back in the rooms over the pub she made breakfast.

This was what hurt most: the silence. There used to be so much laughter when Harry was alive. It seemed like there was always something to set them off. Now just being here was oppressive, all the weight of ghosts around her.

 

Dan the barman and Ellen the servant were already working hard with polish when she went downstairs. Sleeves rolled up and plenty of elbow grease, they’d be done soon enough. Nothing for her to do. The dray from the brewery was due at ten, but Dan could take care of that.

Annabelle put on her cape and picked up her purse. Go into town and have a poke around the shops. Happen an hour or two away would perk her up. But there was no magic in December this year. The pavements were full of people jostling around, weighed down by packages and bags. She felt removed from it all. The displays in the windows of the Grand Pygmalion didn’t make her want to part with her money. She was low, she knew it; a lovely gown or a good hat could usually tempt her. Today, though, there was nothing. No cheer.

Even a stop at the cocoa house for something warm to drink and a slice of cake didn’t help her mood. She trailed back out along North Street, through the Leylands and past Jews’ Park, back along to Sheepscar.

Soon enough the Victoria was busy. She took her place behind the bar, smiling, flirting the way she always had, and for a few minutes at least she could forget why she hurt inside.

‘Give over,’ she told one man who insisted he’d make a good husband. ‘I’d wear you out in one night, then I’d have to send you home to your missus.’ It brought laughter. As she walked around, collecting glasses, she brushed hands away, giving the culprits a look. It was all part of running a pub. A game; if you played it well, you were successful.  And she had the knack.

Annabelle promised old Jonas free beer for the evening if he played the piano in the corner, and soon half the customers were singing along the favourites from the stage. It gave her a chance to breathe and Dan could look at the barrels.

By eleven she’d had enough. The pub was still busy, the till was overflowing. But all the noise made her head ache. She wanted peace and quiet for a while. She wanted the place empty.

‘Come on.’ She rang the old school bell she kept under the bar, next to the cudgel for sorting out the unruly. ‘Time for you lot to see your families. They probably don’t believe you exist.’

Slowly, the crowd thinned. Another five minutes and it was down to the usual four still standing and supping. Donald the Steel Man, Willie Hailsham, Jingling James, and Harelip Harmon.

‘That’s enough,’ she told them. Her voice sounded weary. She knew it and she didn’t care. They were regulars, they’d probably been coming in here since they were old enough to peer over the bar. ‘Let’s call it a night, gentlemen, please.’

James slipped off to the privy while she was ushering the others out, wishing them merry Christmas and accepting beery kisses and hugs until they’d gone and she turned the key in the lock.

Then James was there, looking bashfully down at his boots. He was a gentle soul, a widower with grown children. Fifty, perhaps, his hair full white, jammed under his cap.

‘Are you seeing your family tomorrow?’ she asked.

‘Not this year.’ He gave a small shrug. ‘They all have their plans. It’s different now, everyone’s so busy. Are you going to your sister’s?’

‘A quiet day.’ Sometime before the new year she’d slip over to see her sister and the wastrel husband she had. Take some presents for their children. But she wouldn’t pop over to Hunslet and see her brother. He could take a running jump; she’d told him that a few years before. ‘Maybe it’s better that way.’

‘When my Alice died I carried on, same as I always had. The bairns were grown and gone but I still had to work and put a roof over my head.’

‘I know,’ she agreed. The everyday tasks that carried on like a machine. Without thinking, he jingled the coins in his pocket.

‘Then her birthday came around. We never made a fuss when she was alive, well, who could afford to? First we had the little ‘uns, then it didn’t seem to matter so much.’

‘We were the same,’ Annabelle said. ‘Harry’s birthday or mine, there was still the pub to run.’

‘Any road, the year she died, on her birthday it suddenly hit me how alone I was. Not just then, but for the rest of my days. Because no one could replace Alice. I had all them years in front of me.’

‘What did you do?’ she asked.

‘I sat there at the table and made myself remember all the good things. How she looked when she smiled, how she sounded when she laughed. The way she were pretty as a picture when we got wed. I said it all like she were sitting there and I was talking to her.’

‘Did it help?’

‘It did. But I can tell you’re feeling that way. I can see it in your eyes. I just thought it might help.’ He gave her a smile and bussed her cheek.

‘You said you’re not going anywhere tomorrow?’ Annabelle said.

‘That’s right.’

‘Come round for your tea. It won’t be anything special, mind.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘Yes,’ she said with a smile. ‘I’ll probably be sick of my own company by then anyway.’

She locked the door behind him, hearing the jingling of his coins as he walked down the street.

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104 And Counting

Last week – November 2, to be exact – my father would have been 104. He died in 2001, but as the years pass, I understand how much I owe him and how much, for better or worse, I’m like him.

He was born and raised in Leeds, lived here most of his life. Back in the 1930s he was a musician with his own jazz band, playing dances around town. After World War II, the family story goes, the BBC offered him a job with one of their bands. He turned it down, scared he wasn’t good enough.

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He wrote. He had a short story published in the late ‘40s, based in part of an incident from the war, and he liked spending time with writers and reporters – in the early 1950s he’d occasionally drink with Keith Waterhouse and Barbara Taylor Bradford, then both young reporters in Leeds.

Sunday mornings were his time to write. A fire would be lit in the front room, and after we’d taken the dog to Roundhay Park so it could run for a while, he’d settle down and work in longhand on his novel in that front room, the air warm and inviting by the time he settled there.

I don’t remember what he wrote back then, but I saw some of his later work which drew from his childhood, from family, people he’d known growing up in Cross Green, a grandfather who was the landlord of the Victoria public house at the bottom of Roundhay Road. A woman who started out as a pub servant and later own the place as well as a few bakeries. Anyone who’s read my Tom Harper Victorian series will probably recognise some elements in there. While Annabelle Harper is very much her own self, part of her will always be an homage to my father.

No-one wanted to publish his books. After his business as a manufacturer’s rep for knitwear went broke in the late 1960s, he began selling laundrettes for Frigidaire. After that ended, he took another job to keep food on the table, and a correspondence course in writing for television.

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The first couple of plays he pitched didn’t go anywhere. But he did have two aired in the early 1970s: Audrey Had A Little Lamb and A Wish For Wally’s Mother. Back then there was a market for one-off TV dramas (and if anyone has video of either play, I’d love to see it).

He could have done more. He should have done more. I have a faint recollection that he was offered a job on Coronation Street, but he turned it down?

Why?

I have no idea, but in retrospect it fits the pattern of him turning down the BBC music job. But I’m not the right person to analyse my father.

He always encouraged my writing. He was proud of it, happy once I began making my living as a writer – which was music journalism and quickie unauthorised celebrity biographies. Both my parents were proud of what I did, but as my two focuses had always been music (as a very ordinary musician) and writing, I tended to see my father in myself.

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Maybe I still do. There are things that happen when my first thought is ‘I wish my parents could see this,’ but I suppose I mostly mean my father. Not because I didn’t love my mother; I certainly did. But perhaps because there was an unspoken affinity between us, a similarity.

Bits of him come into my books. Dan Markham’s office on Albion Place in Dark Briggate Blues is the building where my father had his office. The after-hours drinking clubs, the shebeens, were places he’d go occasionally. It was written quite a few years after his death. But perhaps that’s the beauty of writing. Words can be like candles, lit to keep the spirit of someone there. Sometimes those are people who died with memorials, lost in time. Sometimes they can be someone close.

And once in a long while I wonder if I’d be doing this if I hadn’t had his example and his encouragement. I’ll never know the answer to that. It probably doesn’t even matter.

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I am and I did. That’s all that counts.

On Rhubarb Fields and Urban Agriculture

I had the pleasure of talking to a University of the Third Age group yesterday. I talked about my different series of books, including the importance of the old Victoria pub at the bottom of Roundhay Road (for anyone who doesn’t know: in my Victorian books it’s owned by Annabelle, the wife of the main character, Detective Inspector Tom Harper). From the 1920s to the 1940s it was actually run by my great-grandfather, and my father, who lived in Cross Green, used to go there regularly. Up where the family lived he could play piano for as long as he wanted, which was bliss to him.

After the talk a woman came up and told me she’d grown up on Manor Street, which is right by the Victoria in Sheepscar. Nowadays most of the area is builders’ merchants or light industry, but in those days it was streets of back-to-back housing. Except, she reminded me, the rhubarb fields. My father had mentioned them, although they’re hard to image when you go by on the bus now. He said they were part of the Victoria’s garden, but perhaps he misremembered (or I did). Maybe it was a proper rhubarb farm that belong to someone; I don’t know. After all, Leeds nudges against the famous Rhubarb Triangle.

It set me to wondering how many empty spaces within Leeds were cultivated. Not the Dig for victory campaign of World War II or the austerity years that followed, but long before that. Back-to-backs and terraced houses didn’t have anywhere to grow food. The allotment system as we know it today really started in the 19th century. The intention was to have plots for those without gardens, where they could grow food. A grand idea (I have an allotment myself), but there weren’t enough for everyone. Inevitably there was waste ground, and almost certainly people used it, just as people almost certainly kept pigs. There are records of the Irish on the Bank doing that in the first half of the 19th century – in their houses – and think of the film A Private Function.

Unofficial urban agriculture was almost certainly thriving. For some it was probably the only way to ensure their families received an adequate diet. Remember, too, that from the late 1700s there was a constant movement of people from the countryside to Leeds in search of work. These people and their children would have been used to growing things and many would have sought out spaces where they could do just that.

I’d be very interested to hear stories and memories of empty spaces in Leeds that were put to this kind of use. Please send them, or if you know of any articles/books relating to this, let me know. Perhaps we can put together a map of sorts.

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The photo is courtesy of Leodis. It shows Sheepscar Sctreet with the large Appleyard garage. At the corner of Roundhay Road (towards the top left) you can see the Victoria pub proudly wearing its Tetley sign. The space behind the garage, and probably much of the area where it was built, would probably have been rhubarb fields.

I’m sure you’re sick of me telling you, but…yes, I have a new book out, set in Leeds in the 1920s. A crime novel based on the first policewomen here. It’s called Modern Crimes, and Lottie Armstrong is front and centre. You might like it (and the ebook is very cheap).

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