Dark days when you had to be polite to bankers


I am old enough to remember the last slump -- I was three in 1932 and lived in the Potteries in North Staffordshire, always a precarious area economically, and badly hit by slack trade.

Most of the workers in the pot bank were women and girls, traditionally paid low wages, and now subjected to pay cuts. The men worked in the pits, if they were lucky. My mother, who came from Lancashire, and had a song for everything, used to sing:

Colliery lads make gold and silver.
Factory lads make brass.
Who would marry a hand-loom weaver,
When there's plenty of colliery lads?

In the wasteland not far from our house, there were curious piles of stones and boulders, making a lunar landscape. They had been put there to make the roads for a big new housing-estate, planned in the prosperous 1920s, now abandoned. Unemployed men sat among them, smoking briar pipes of shag or cigarette butts, or with just an empty clay one clamped in their mouths. Lanky young men kicked aimlessly at an old football. A small private railway ran at the bottom, carrying coal trucks to the main line. At that point, there was the concrete skeleton structure of a big new Primitive Methodist church. Only one brick wall had been built. Then, I suppose, the money ran out and all work ceased. There were big pools of rainwater among the foundations, up-ended rusty iron trucks, bits of broken machinery, a forlorn pile of unused bricks. It was a haunted place, where earnest people had once hoped to pray but the Almighty had turned a deaf ear.

If you followed this little railway line in the opposite direction, into the countryside, you eventually came to the Chatterley Whitfield coal pit. There was some activity. The wheels spun vigorously on the giant lift, and black-faced men got out of what were called 'the cages', as the early morning shift came up from the coalface. They were glad to be out of the darkness, and in the fresh air, and were friendly. ''Ello, ginger,' they'd say to me. 'Can I warm my' ands at thy fiery locks?' I and my big sisters used to wander around the place. No one stopped you in those days. Miners, waiting their turn to go down, squatted on their heels, took out tins in which they kept shreds of tobacco from fag ends, and made themselves what they called 'bonfires', very skilful work. A notice said: 'No Hands Required.' This puzzled me. What did they want hands for when they were required? And were they chopped off and packed in bundles, like firewood? My sisters explained: 'It means there's no work.'

To get work was the end of existence in those days.

To get work was the end of existence in those days. My father, who ran the Burslem Art School, was hag-ridden by the need to find work for his pupils as they approached 16, and leaving-time. A few brilliant ones got scholarships and went on to the senior college, learning sculpture, or oil painting, drawing from the nude, the 'life class' -- the lucky ones. Most just longed to work in the pot banks as designers, decorators and skilled hand-painters. He would say: 'Jobs are gold now,' another phrase that puzzled me. When not teaching, he would scurry round the various offices, of Doulton's, Crown Derby, Royal Staffs and so on, hoping to pick up news of vacancies before they were advertised and 'snapped up'. (Another good term: I imagined wide-jawed crocodiles waiting to gobble a 'vacancy'.) He made it his business to know all the managers and be pleasant to them, retailing gossip from 'the London studios', then slipping in a casual query: 'Like a good teapot designer? There's a clever girl called Molly Trentham. She draws a beautiful curved line. Neat colour-work.' 'Oh, aye? Why not send the lass along and we'll give 'er a try.' The girl would not get more than £1 a week. But that was a big help in a Thirties household, which might be home to what was then called 'a long weak family' (meaning three or four children under ten).

To amuse these important men, my father would call for paper and get me to draw caricatures of prominent politicians. By then I was seven or eight and could do Hitler, with moustache, baggy eyes and quiff over his brow, swastika armband and thumbs stuck in his belt. Or Musso with his huge chin. 'Ee, lad, that's grand. Can'st do the Russian man, then. Stalin. Eh?' Certainly I could do him, with his huge, down-turning moustache and eyebrows, hair swept back. And Churchill: button nose, cigar, bow-tie. 'Ere, Neville, cum and look at this. The lads drawn Mr Churchill. Can'st do the Labour bloke, Attlee, lad?' But Mr Attlee was beyond me. So was Ramsay MacDonald, not yet an extinct volcano.

There was hardship, as I could see, but no destitution. I never saw anyone begging. My mother used to say: 'Oh, the poor people. They are so patient.' They were: and cheerful too. There were smiles and laughter; a lot of jokes.

I followed the cartoonists avidly in such newspapers as came my way. Strube, in the Daily Telegraph, had an agricultural figure, labelled 'Idle Acres', leaning on a scythe. 'What's that?' I asked my sisters. 'A very dangerous instrument indeed. Never touch one.' There was also a tall man labelled 'Five million unemployed', lanky, downcast, hands in pockets. I saw such men at the street corners. Too poor to go into the pub. Not allowed to sit around in the reading-room of the library. Their mothers or wives would drive them out: 'I won't have you under my feet.' I dimly perceived that someone who had no job suffered not just want but loss of manhood, as opposed to someone in work, or what my mother called 'a good position', who was often referred to by his wife, in Potteries speech, as 'the Master'.

I never saw anyone selling matches. Chestnuts, yes, in winter: a cheerful sight with a brazier, and men clustering near to keep warm: 'Ere! Don't block the customers, thou!' Then there were Sandwich Men, another mysterious term, walking up and down with a board: 'Woodbines: Fourpence for Ten.' It was beneath the dignity of a grown man to collect horse-manure to sell to allotment-holders at a penny a bucket. But boys did it, pathetic urchins, glad to earn sixpence in a day's smelly work. Sixpence was real money then. It was the highest price ever charged in Woolworths, then in its heyday, a store in every town, however small. You could get a toy there for a penny; a good one for tuppence.

There was hardship, as I could see, but no destitution. I never saw anyone begging. My mother used to say: 'Oh, the poor people. They are so patient.' They were: and cheerful too. There were smiles and laughter; a lot of jokes. Good comedians. Elsie and Doris Waters. Old Mother Riley and Her Daughter (a husband-and-wife team). George Formby and his ukelele, singing: 'If you could see what I can see/ When I'm cleaning winders.' (My mother disapproved of him.) The cinemas did well. It was their heyday too. When Disney's Snow White came to town, the queue stretched all round Waterloo Square into Nelson Street. There was no crime, that I ever heard of. No demos. Nothing. Just resignation. Out with my father, he introduced me to Mr Perkins, a squat little man, manager of the Midland Bank. 'He's walking tall,' said my father mysteriously. 'He can decide whether a firm goes under.' 'Goes under what?' 'Don't ask so many questions. And remember: always be polite to bankers. You never know.' Bankers were much respected in those days.



Paul Johnson. "Dark days when you had to be polite to bankers" The Spectator (December 12, 2008).

This article is from Paul Johnson's "And another thing" column for The Spectator and is reprinted with permission of the author.


Paul Johnson, celebrated journalist and historian, is the author most recently of George Washington: The Founding Father. Among his other widely acclaimed books are A History of the American People, Modern Times, A History of the Jews, Intellectuals, Art: A New History, and The Quest for God: Personal Pilgrimage. He also produces brief surveys that slip into the pocket, such as his popular The Renaissance and Napoleon. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Spectator, and the Daily Telegraph. He lectures all over the world and lives in Notting Hill (London) and Somerset.

Copyright © 2008 Paul Johnson

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