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Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Mum's Little Bear

I’ve written about all kinds of objects, documents and other treasures my dad kept squirrelled away, but hardly anything of my mum’s. This is mainly because she rarely kept things. She was hardly ever sentimental. When belongings had served their purpose they were either given away or thrown out. It was the fate of many of my toys. So anything she did keep must have been very special.

When they closed the church where she had been a Sunday School teacher during the early years of her marriage, where she began to build a social life for herself having escaped the suffocating village of her childhood, I was surprised to find she had brought home one of the children’s tiny wooden chairs from the church schoolroom. It must have been associated with many happy memories.

Looking at the bustling supermarket and car park that now occupies that site you would never know a church had once been there, or imagine the happy community it supported through not only worship and other religious activities, but also coach excursions, children’s groups, tableaux depicting Biblical scenes in Whitsuntide processions, a youth club and a very active drama group. Small towns used to be like that, although to me, catching the tail end, it seemed just as claustrophobic as my mother’s village must have been to her. She put the little chair in the loft where it stayed for several years. I don’t know what became of it. It would be satisfying to think it still in use, the favourite chair of a small child somewhere.

She also had three small toy figures, each around four inches tall, which she kept in a tin high on a shelf in the built-in kitchen cupboards that seem to have been constructed with the house in the 1920s because the neighbours’ kitchens were all exactly the same. One of the figures was a wind-up clockwork monkey with a red coat and beret, a yellow scarf and black trousers, which banged a tin drum hanging from its waist with drumsticks held in its hands. Another was a blue-uniformed toy soldier that came with a tiny knife which you used to cut the soldier in half, except that after the knife had passed all the way through his abdomen, the soldier remained intact. I’ve no idea how it worked, possibly some combination of moving hooks and magnets. There seems to be nothing like it on the internet but the drumming monkey was very similar to ones made by Schuco in Nuremberg during the 1920s and 1930s.

Schuco mohair teddy bear powder compact 

Again, I have no idea what happened to the drumming monkey and the immortal soldier but the third figure I still have, a delightful miniature golden mohair teddy bear which was definitely made by Schuco before the war. Its head turns and its arms and legs move at the shoulders and hips, but it also has a secret. When you remove its head it opens out to reveal a mirror, powder compact and lipstick holder. Traces of powder remain in the oval metal recess behind the powder puff. The lipstick holder slides out of the neck tube. Evidently, being in such good condition, with its original felt puff, it’s worth several hundred pounds.

Schuco mohair teddy bear powder compact

Assuming that at least two but possibly all three of the toys were made in Germany, then how did my mother acquire them? Presumably they were given to her when she was a girl, but I cannot think of any member of her family who travelled abroad. Living close to a sea going port there were other local men who did, but I know of no one who would give her presents like these. Or were they bought in England? If so when, and by whom. I wish I’d asked when I still could.

Egyptian leather handbag

The little bear was inside the last of my mum’s objects I still have, a nineteen fifties Egyptian leather handbag where she kept her notebook and diary and birthday lists. I’m not sure she liked it, and don’t think she ever used it as a handbag, but she kept it because it was present from my aunt and uncle’s period in Aden.

I remember at the same time they gave me an Arab man’s silk headband known as an agal (a bit like this), and a large square of white cotton material known as a keffiyeh, which are still worn together by Saudi kings and throughout the Arab world as protection from the sun, dust and sand. I don’t know what happened to them either. I wouldn’t have been seen dead in it. Not even in a Biblical scene in a Whitsuntide tableaux.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Philately will get you nowhere (unless you’re Dennis J. Hanson)


 Universal Stamp Company Eastrington

The ads were irresistible: 
ALL FREE OVER 200 STAMPS PLUS THE FAMOUS PENNY BLACK & CAPE TRIANGULAR FACSIMILES The famous 1840 British “PENNY BLACK” and the 1853 “CAPE TRIANGULAR” facsimiles (originals worth about £45) plus a genuine dealer’s mixture of 200 unsorted stamps (Catalogued over 30/-.), all ABSOLUTELY FREE! Just ask to see our New Approvals. (Please tell your parents.)
This old PENNY RED and approx. 500 stamps for only 1/-. Here’s a super bargain that no collector can afford to miss! Send only 1/- today for this guaranteed and unsorted collection of about 500 stamps, often containing scarce and unusual stamps, plus this Great Britain 1d. Red issued 100 years ago. ... This very valuable offer ... is to introduce our Latest Approval Books. Please tell your parents when sending for Approvals.
This famous BLACK SWAN plus 213 stamps all FREE! The 213 are all DIFFERENT and include 14 Special Stamps (catalogued at over 10/-) such as the 80 year old British ‘Penny Lilac’. Whole collection is catalogued at over 45/-, yet it will be sent FREE to all who ask for our New Approvals. Please tell your Parents.
Wow! Two hundred FREE stamps! Five hundred for a shilling! ‘The Children’s Newspaper’, ‘Meccano Magazine’ and most comics were full of such offerings from a massed approval of stamp dealers – heaps of stamps free, or for just a few pence, if only you would ask to see their Approvals. The most prolific pedlars were the Bridgnorth Stamp Company and undoubtedly the best because it was just along the road from where I lived, Dennis Hanson’s Philatelic Services of Eastrington. Some of his promotions took the form of a super stamp quiz. 

Philatelic Services Eastrington

The quiz is from 1963 but for anyone who fancies submitting a late entry (I believe the business still operates) I’ve added my answer attempts below at the end. I suggest you increase the value of the 3d. stamp to take account of inflation (second class should do it), and oh yes, don’t forget to tell your parents.

Dennis Hanson Eastrington

Dennis Hanson started buying bulk stamps while still at school in Scarborough in 1935, sorting them into small packets, and selling them to his school friends and through his father’s general store. He moved to Eastrington two years later and over the years has traded under a variety of names including Philatelic Services, D. J. Hanson, The Stamp Club and The Universal Stamp Company. He was still in business seventy-five years later although he has never gone online. Over this time, dozens of Eastrington ladies have found agreeable employment fixing stamps into Approvals booklets and posting them out to customers.

Dennis Hanson Eastrington
Dennis Hanson and his staff in 1993 (from Howdenshire History)

As one of those customers it’s not easy to explain the appeal of stamp collecting to the screen-fixated youngsters of today, yet it used to be among the most popular childhood hobbies for both girls and boys. You could spend hours in exaltation, sorting through piles of stamps, carefully separating them from their envelope corners in a bowl of water, and drying them out between sheets of blotting paper.

The attraction was of course in the sheer beauty of the stamps, their vivid colours and stunning art work, and the way they captured the imagination by association with the history and geography of the world - conflict in Europe, communist revolution, African exploration, colonial independence. Looking again at my old stamp album (having just retrieved it from the loft where it was in a brown paper parcel wrapped up long ago by my dad). I’m amazed to see how much time I must have spent drawing little maps and transcribing information about different countries.

Aden postage stamps
Stamps from Aden, where my aunt and uncle lived for a time, overflowed their page very quickly

Approvals: Philatelic Services Eastrington 

Dennis Hanson clearly had a great knack for marketing. The whole purpose of the give away offers was to entice you into spending your pocket money on his Approvals which were mouth-wateringly presented in little chequebook sized booklets. Even when you managed to resist and return them all unpurchased it wasn’t too long before another booklet arrived, and then another, and you had a job to stop them coming.

A wadge of approval booklet pages from which the stamps have been removed show that I didn’t resist. I spent a small fortune – around 60 empty pages with a total value approaching £5 (which would have a purchasing power of around £100 today, and more than double that in terms of earnings): “Very scarce set of 6 mint & used Albania 1917 Koritza Eagles 2/-”, “Complete fine-used set of 2 Hungary 1952 Railway Day (catalogued 1/6d.) 9d.”, “Handsome set of 6 mint Paraguay 1958 President Stroessner 1/6”. And then a page in red ink: 
Superb stamps given Free. They are not for sale they are FREE . . . Set of 3 unused Herm Island 1954 Triangular Sea-Birds, local stamps with a face value of 1/2d., from part of the United Kingdom. Now obsolete and scarce. . . . YES, ABSOLUTELY FREE OF CHARGE. If you purchase 5/- worth or more from this Approval Book you may take this page right out of the book and keep it. These grand stamps will add lots of value and interest to your collection! It’s our way of showing our appreciation of your valued patronage.
This doesn’t count yet more pennies expended at the corner shops that also plied philatelic produce in racks of cellophane packets.

Clifford Moss Stamp Shop Leeds

Very soon, my spring-backed, loose-leafed Movaleaf Stamp Album, bought one afternoon from Clifford Moss of 31 Woodhouse Lane on a trip to Leeds with my dad, was bulging with stamps from all the old countries, many no longer in existence, such as “Jugo-Slavia”, the Weimar Republic of Germany, and British colonies such as Northern and Southern Rhodesia, and Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika. 

Still more interesting is my dad’s 1930s Triumph stamp album where among many other surprising things we find Queen Victoria’s head adorning stamps from the six Australian territories which issued stamps separately until 1913. It’s also surprising to note that my dad must have continued to collect stamps into his twenties and thirties because his album contains lots of Elizabeth II issues.

As with most people, my interest waned as I grew older, although losing myself in my album now, in reverie, I could easily imagine taking it up once more, becoming expert in a specific area, something unfashionable and politically incorrect, perhaps stamps of the British Empire, assimilating all the lessons from history they bring with them.

What began to turn me off was in fact the antics of the very same Dennis Hanson who so altruistically cultivated my interest in the hobby in the first place. His bulk packets of unsorted stamps contained far too many cheap and flimsy ones from far eastern countries, and a disproportionately high number portraying the grim bespectacled face of King Baudouin of Belgium who looked like the dad of one of my friends.

Even more unforgivable were the Approvals that weren’t really proper stamps at all. The Herm Island stamps mentioned above were one example, used only for a private postal service from Herm to the nearest official post office on Guernsey, and obviously printed as a commodity to sell to tourists. But it was the stamps of South Molucca that really annoyed me.

Approvals: Philatelic Services Eastrington

“These Stamps will never be catalogued” it said on the front of one booklet. On another “Stamps of the South Moluccas Republic and the Forgotten War. ... although not listed by Gibbons, they are undoubtedly of philatelic interest.” And although they may have looked magnificent with their colourful images of the mammals, birds, fish, butterflies and plants of a small group of Indonesian islands, the republic never gained independence. Some stamps were issued by a would-be government in exile in the Netherlands, and others were produced without authorisation by a German stamp dealer. None were ever postally used and no reputable dealer should ever have touched them. Four pages crammed-full of bogus Republik Maluku Selatan stamps in my album show I was well and truly taken in. 

So, Mr. Hanson, having worked up a fury over being diddled fifty years ago, I’ve decided to send in my quiz answers even if you are over ninety. I’ve just now posted them off. It will be interesting to see whether I get any response. Sadly I can no longer tell my parents.

Postage Stamps: Republik Maluku Selatan issued by government in exile

My quiz answers: 1 – Twopenny Blue; 2 – No; 3 – British Guiana 1 cent Magenta; 4 – Yes; they are produced for collectors but many avoid them; 5 – Sweden; 6 – Yes, they bear the name Grønland; 7 – Yes; 8 – Hungary; 9 – Yes; 10 – No, they are for guidance only.

POSTSCRIPT  - No reply at all. Not even a facsimile.

SECOND POSTSCRIPT
In early August 2015 I received the following email:

My name is Charlotte Hanson I was googling my Grandad Dennis Hanson and came across your recent post. My Grandad sadly passed away on 29/07/2015. I know he would have loved to have read your post and give you a personal response to your quiz questions if it wasn't for his ill health this year. It makes us proud to find so much information about him on the Internet so thank you.

I replied to say how sorry I was to hear of her grandad's death, and thanked her for not jumping on my rather irreverent post. Dennis Hanson made a go of doing his own thing – an example for us all I think. A notice appeared in the Yorkshire Post and other regional newspapers, and an obituary on the East Yorkshire Local and Family History blog.


Here is someone else who had a very similar mixed experience of Eastrington Philatelic Services: Part 1; Part 2

Friday, 13 March 2015

Knockout, Knowledge and Arthur Mee

It was a stroke of good fortune to grow up in a home full of books where reading was a normal everyday activity. My eleven plus pass and later career owe much to the simple fact I became a regular reader early on, even though the first thing I ever managed to read fluently was a comic called ‘Knockout’.

Knockout Comic 1953

I’m sorry to have to admit that my dad’s dark brown bookcase of around a hundred books, his set of Dickens in their separate bespoke bookcase, and my two grandfathers’ similar sized libraries, could not match the temptations of brightly coloured comics. One pair of my grandparents had a small shop where they sold a few newspapers, and so I had regular access to Dandy, Beano, Knockout, Film Fun, Radio Fun, The Eagle, Swift and Topper, and the black and white British versions of the American DC comics Batman, Superman, Flash and Green Lantern. Instead of growing up with great writers such as Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Kenneth Grahame and C. S. Lewis, as we are told every aspiring author should, my earliest literary models were the likes of Desperate Dan, Korky the Cat, Dan Dare, Beryl the Peril and Deed a Day Danny. The comic-strip personas of Laurel and Hardy, Terry Thomas, Arthur Askey, Charlie Drake and Benny Hill were familiar figures long before I saw them on film or television. Wow! Hmph! Yikes! Blam! - it never affected my language development.

But in time there were books I came to treasure.

The beautifully-bound Children’s Encyclopedia was one – or strictly speaking ten. This was the brainchild of Arthur Mee (1875-1943) who originally published it in fifty fortnightly parts at 7d (seven pence) each, beginning in 1908. It was subsequently expanded and published as a whole, translated into most of the world’s leading languages, and sold in the United States as ‘The Book of Knowledge’. Our ten-volume set had been bought for my dad and his sister in 1927.

Arthur Mee: The Children's Encyclopedia 

The encyclopedia made Mee’s name and fortune. He had started out as a journalist at fourteen and risen to editor of the Nottingham Evening News by the age of twenty. He then moved to London to work on various national newspapers and periodicals, but from 1905 he turned from daily journalism to the editing of educational and reference works, particularly popular educative literature for children. When he died in 1943 he was worth £43,500, equivalent in purchasing power to around £1.75 million today.

Mee’s introduction to Volume 1 imagines a small child (actually based on his daughter) forever asking questions - What does the world mean? Why am I here? Where are all the people who have been and gone? Where does the rose come from? Who holds the stars up there? What is it that seems to talk to me when the world is dark and still? – until her mother, unable to bear any more cries out “Oh for a book that will answer all the questions!”

“And this is the book she cried for,” writes Mee. 

Arthur Mee: The Children's Encyclopedia

The encyclopedia is arranged into fifty-seven chapters of nineteen divisions each (although some chapters omit some divisions in later volumes, and the terms ‘chapter’, ‘division’, ‘group’, and ‘section’ are used inconsistently). Again, though, I wish I had paid more attention to the whole. I mostly ignored the literary and arts sections, little more than glanced at the geographical bits, and spent only slightly more time on the science and industry divisions. The most-thumbed pages reveal I spent most of my time in division 18, ‘Things to Make and Do’. 

Universal Book of Hobbies and Handicrafts

I taught myself to tie knots, made model gliders (the heading implies only boys can make them), tried to learn morse code and semaphore, and experimented with invisible ink and pin-hole cameras. This stuff is timeless as demonstrated more recently by Conn and Hal Iggulden’s best selling book ‘The Dangerous Book for Boys’ (2006) which recycled the same kind of material (as did the follow-on cashing-in-on-a-good-idea daring book for girls, and the dad’s and mum’s books for the dads and mums who are best at everything).

I’m not convinced though that the dangerous and daring books were quite as dangerous and daring as Arthur Mee’s encyclopedia. If the instructions on how to make an assagai spear* don’t win it the crown – it was basically a metal-tipped, flighted cane released sling-like from a length of knotted string with such lethal force that mine pierced a solid wooden fence forty-five feet away – then the drawing with the caption ‘Mohammed Dictating The Koran’ definitely settles the matter. It would be much too dangerous to post it here. It led to the encyclopedia being proscribed in the Kashmir in 1973 following riots in protest against its sale. Two Western hippies with the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time were only just saved from being murdered by the mob by the arrival of the police.

Universal Book of Hobbies and Handicrafts 
A second treasured book, which came from my grandfather’s bookshelf in the room next to his shop, is a real gem, ‘The Universal Book of Hobbies and Handicrafts’ (Odhams, 1935), edited by the prolific Sid G. Hedges. The chapter on Bathing and Swimming seems likely to have been the work of Sid himself. Like other books of its time, it is undated, but I knew it must be from the 1930s before I googled it because it contains a chapter on television. This tells us:
Any amateur with access to a supply of wireless parts and some mechanical skill can make a simple “televisor” which will give moderately good reception.
Really! But yes, more careful reading reveals that this is mechanical television based on spinning perforated discs synchronised between camera and receiver, i.e. the Baird system used in early B.B.C. transmissions between 1929 and 1937. The chapter challenges us:

Any amateur mechanic can make the discs, the chief skill needed being accuracy and patience in marking out and cutting the holes.

I’m afraid I was unable to rise to the test, lacking access to a supply of wireless parts you understand, but I probably spent as many hours poring over the hundred chapters of hobbies and handicrafts as over the whole ten volumes of ‘The Children’s Encyclopedia’.

The book reminds us of a pre-television time when the maxim “every member of the family should have a hobby” went uncontested. Its content, from Appliqué Work to Wood Carving, deserves much lengthier attention, if only for its quirks – self-defence tips on how to tie someone up and how an elbow can be used to knock an assailant from a motor car running board; photographs of bad mouth opening and good mouth opening when singing; advice about what girls should wear when hiking; and instructions on how to drown or chloroform unwanted kittens in the chapter on pet keeping. The chapter on poultry keeping is much more tactful. Its standard treatment for poorly chickens is to kill them, but it doesn’t tell you how. Perhaps a few cross references to kitten drowning were unintentionally omitted. A series of posts on Estelle Hargraves wonderful blog ‘The Skittish Library’ eulogizes Sid G. Hedges book in much more detail – possibly her choice of book for that fictional radio desert island.

By the time I was ten, both the Universal Book and The Children’s Encyclopedia seemed squarely old fashioned (even though revised editions of Mee's encyclopedia remained on sale until 1964). My edition of Arthur Mee did not even know about the existence of the planet Pluto (although as the guy was so clever I would not be surprised to find that he did in fact know about it, even before it had been discovered, and had decided not to include it in anticipation of later opinion that it is not a true planet). I was released from their antediluvian clutches by the appearance, in January 1961, of Purnell’s new magazine ‘Knowledge - the new colour magazine which grows into an encyclopædia’ (despite its modernity, Knowledge used the digraph spelling which had been dropped by Arthur Mee after the very earliest editions). 

Knowledge: the colour magazine which grows into an encyclopædia
An issue of Knowledge Magazine and the cover of one of its volume binders

‘Knowledge’ was a British version of an attractive Italian educational magazine called Conoscere. Every page, especially the cover, was adorned by sumptous illustrations, the most prominent signed by Alessandro Fedini. The editor, John Chancellor (1927-2014), was incidentally the father of actress Anna. The idea of a British edition had first been pitched to Fleetway publications who were the successors to Mee’s publisher the Amalgamated Press, but they turned it down fearing it would damage their sales of The Children’s Encylopedia and the related Children’s Newspaper. Purnell’s tremendous success with ‘Knowledge’ forced Fleetway into a change of mind a year later when they hurriedly brought out ‘Look and Learn’.

As with Arthur Mee’s 1908 magazine, the weekly instalments of ‘Knowledge’ were collected and bound into volumes, twelve in each. At 2/- (two shillings, the pre-decimal equivalent of 10p; a later re-issued run was 2/6 or 12½p) it wasn't cheap (Knockout was then 4d  or four old pence, equivalent to 1.67p). Initially sixteen volumes were planned but two extra volumes were added at the end (thinking about the price further, it might have seemed expensive for a weekly, but a complete collection at a total cost of £21.60 excluding binders was very good value for an eighteen volume encyclopedia). Surprisingly, considering its circulation of 400,000, there is currently little online information about it apart from old copies for sale – a stark contrast to the numerous repositories devoted to children’s comics. I am clearly not alone in choosing easy infantile humour over learnèd virtue.**

We collected the full eighteen volumes – over four years’ worth – and although my dad was the only one to read it assiduously, some of it must have it rubbed off on me because I’m still a whizz at answering questions on University Challenge. Not so long ago there was one about the Phoenicians, the ancient Lebanese civilisation, which I distinctly recall from one of the articles in an early issue, but sadly my answer didn’t come out quickly enough to beat the student on the programme.

I lugged the volumes of Knowledge around with me from one house move to another for twenty years (as well as the eighteen main volumes there was also an alphabetical guide which filled four additional slightly smaller yellow binders), but finally in a moment of rash stupidity decided they were too heavy, bulky and juvenile, and left them in a loft in Hull. They might still be there. Fortunately, thanks to my dad and his dark brown bookcase I still have The Children’s Encyclopedia and The Universal Book of Hobbies and Handicrafts (and the bookcase).


* I was certain the assagai spear was in the encyclopedia, but having searched through again I can’t find it, so perhaps it was somewhere else.
POSTSCRIPT: I've now found it in Eagle Annual 8  

** I have now sought redemption by creating a Wikipedia page for Knowledge encyclopaedia.

The images reproduced in this post are believed either to be out of copyright or cover images permitted as fair use under copyright law.


Sunday, 1 March 2015

A family tragedy

I thought very carefully before posting this. It’s here because, firstly, I found it upsetting at the time having known some of those involved. Secondly, the story has warnings for us all as to what we are capable of when things become too much to bear. I have omitted details that might identify those concerned other than to people who already know.

                                                *                           *                           *

Leaving home can be a testing rite of passage. This is true even in cocooned university or college environments where there are organised social activities and lots of others in the same boat. But it can be relentless when you’re on your own.

My first few months were particularly difficult and depressing, marooned in an unfamiliar city, struggling to understand the uncertainties of a new job where nearly everyone at work was older or with very different lives, and expected to begin a demanding, time-consuming correspondence course in a new and alien subject. There was also something strange about where I lived, a pervasive sense of shame hinted at in surreptitious glances, hushed whispers and neighbours watching behind twitching curtains as I entered and left the house. It was some months before I found out why, and some years before the truly dreadful story reached its terrible and tragic conclusion.

We had placed an advertisement in the Yorkshire Post, “Trainee accountant requires lodgings in Leeds, Monday to Friday, bed breakfast and evening meal,” and quickly received a reply from a widow with a vacant room. She lived in King George Avenue, a couple of miles North of the city centre, where Chapeltown Road and Harehills Lane merge to become Harrogate Road. It looked comfortable when we went to look, and so one Sunday afternoon in September, 1968, my dad took me in the car and left me there. 

Although King George Avenue lies at the end of the notorious Chapeltown Road, by the time you get there you are in Chapel Allerton, a green and pleasant suburb where substantial family homes nest in well-established, tree-filled gardens. It looks much the same today, an agreeable place to live. Near the entrance to the avenue, twin stone arches with wrought iron gates mark the gatehouse of Chapel Allerton hospital, then the ‘Artificial Limb Centre’. The weathered remnants of its sign are still on the wall next to the right hand arch today, almost legible in the Google Street View image of June 2008. Just into the avenue, the leafy Gledhow Park Drive leads off on the right. My landlady never tired of telling me how, not so many years before, they had become accustomed to seeing the young actress Diana Rigg pass by, whose parents lived in the Drive.

My landlady lived with her youngest daughter Helen, a lovely, gentle, long-haired Jewish girl some five or six years years older than me. Three older children had married and left home. There was also another lodger in the house, a girl who had a room upstairs, but I hardly ever saw any of them. My own room was downstairs where the house had been extended to make it wider. There was a door at one end out to the hall and front door, and a door at the other end through which the landlady brought my breakfast and evening meal from the kitchen. There was a bed, a table and dining chair, an armchair and a built in cubicle containing a washbasin and toilet, and that was it. I came in from work, had my meal, and was then left undisturbed until next morning.

It sounds ideally suited to getting on with the accountancy correspondence course I was supposed to be working through, and so it should have been, but I couldn’t apply myself to it at all. After leaving for work before 8.00 a.m. and not getting back until 6.30 p.m. it was hard to study with much enthusiasm (the office hours were 8.45 a.m. to 5.30 p.m., with an hour and a quarter for lunch, making 37½ hours per week). I tended to fall into an exhausted torpor worsened by boredom and loneliness. At £6 per week, the rent was more than I earned, so I had to be subsidised by my parents and couldn’t afford to go out. I can’t emphasise enough how much I looked forward to the 17.35 train home every Friday, and how much I dreaded the early Monday morning train back.

After some weeks, when they had got to know me a little better, I was invited to watch television with the landlady and her daughter at agreed times, such as ‘Top of the Pops’ on Thursdays. They asked me about my family and talked a little about theirs, and I began to feel more at home and started to like them, but the feeling remained that they had something to hide. They spoke in Yiddish whispers as if not wanting “the goyim” to hear their “tsuris” (the gentiles to know their troubles), and the evening meal became increasingly slapdash and hastily prepared. From meat, potato and a vegetable at first, it was now beans or eggs on toast. One night I went back to a tin of Heinz spaghetti hoops in tomato sauce for my tea. One week I got tinned meals every night. I might have starved but for being able to get something more substantial during the day – a least a good sandwich or a proper pub lunch on expenses when working out of the office.

I began to look for somewhere else to live, and one of the seniors at work put me in touch with an elderly couple at Kirkstall who were looking for a new lodger. I arranged to go there from the beginning of the new year and was surprised by my parents’ reaction: they seemed keen for me to move as soon as possible. After I’d left King George Avenue they told me why.

They had noticed a report in the newspaper that a thirty-three year old man of King George Avenue, an unemployed company director with the same surname as my landlady, had been found guilty of incitement to murder. It transpired he was in fact my landlady’s eldest son and his awful story had been unfolding for over a year.

The previous year, after six years of marriage, his wife had divorced him and gained custody of their only child, a son then aged four. The divorce mainly seems to have been due to his obsessive and unstable personality. He had been worried about the health of his father, who had died, and about his business where he worked excessively long hours, often seven days a week. There was also a mutual dislike between him and his father-in-law. After the divorce he became gripped with hatred for his ex-wife and her parents, and the man she later married, and made disturbing and graphically violent threats towards them: his ex-wife was a model and he wanted acid thrown in her face to ruin her looks; he wanted his father-in-law’s tongue torn out so he would never speak again. His obsession culminated in a breakdown and treatment as an in-patient at a psychiatric hospital. 

In December, after leaving hospital, he snatched his son from outside his ex-wife’s home and attempted to take him to Eire, presumably because this would have been beyond the jurisdiction of the custody order, but was apprehended in a taxi in Northern Ireland, three miles from the border, and jailed for two months for contempt of court.

While in prison, he attempted to find someone to murder his ex-wife for money. He put a proposal to a man he thought could arrange it, but the man was actually an undercover police officer. When after his release he tried to put the plan into operation, he was arrested again. He was convicted of incitement to murder by attempting to employ two men he thought were London gangsters to kill his ex-wife and her parents, and her male friend, and given a further three-year prison sentence. It would have been longer had the judge not taken into account his mental state and medical opinion that he was no longer dangerous.

My parents had decided it best not to mention any of this while I was still at King George Avenue, and as I rarely read the newspaper in those days I had missed it completely. The week I got tinned things every night for tea was the week of the trial. There is little wonder my landlady and daughter were so preoccupied.

Four years later, long after I had moved on, there was a most terrible and tragic sequel to this story. After serving his sentence, my ex-landlady’s son enrolled as a mature student in sociology at Leeds University. Now, I have experience of this and can tell you that becoming a mature student is not something you should undertake without being mentally and emotionally robust enough to handle it. Mature students have high and sometimes unrealistic expectations of themselves. They take their studies very seriously. They stretch the limits of their mental powers. But students also have long free hours for deep thought and reflection – that’s what being a student is all about. If you have any hidden demons they will jump out and come for you. I have seen this so many times in different forms and in different degrees of severity. The case of my ex-landlady’s son was the worst imaginable

One Sunday at the end of January, he and his son spent the day together under access conditions which allowed contact once per month in the presence of a chaperone - severely restricted in light of previous events. They had played darts and football and then driven to a golf club to the North of Leeds at Shadwell. They had all enjoyed the day tremendously. My ex-landlady’s son then tricked the chaperone into leaving them briefly by telling him he was urgently needed on the telephone inside the golf club, and drove off with his son. At first it was thought to be a further abduction attempt, but it was far worse. He parked nearby in a quiet country lane, shot his son three times, and then turned the gun on himself. Their bodies and a shotgun were found in the car around tea time. His last wish was to be laid to rest with his son but perhaps understandably he was buried alone. He was thirty-eight.

Police later found he had left a tape recording at home speaking of his anguish at being allowed access to his son only once per month. The inquests returned a verdicts of murder and suicide, with indications that the tragedy had been carefully planned. This was long after I had moved on, but when I read about it I thought of the house in King George Avenue, and my landlady, and her daughter, and her son’s poor ex-wife, and could not begin to imagine what they must be going through. 

POSTSCRIPT
Around the time I left King George Avenue I remembered an odd incident which I have always wondered whether it had any bearing on where I was staying. On my very first morning at work, I caught the bus along Chapeltown Road into town, and was walking along the Headrow a little unsure of my bearings when a voice behind asked “On our way to work then are we?” I was surprised to see someone I knew vaguely from my home town wearing a police cadet uniform. I could not remember his name and didn’t get chance to ask because the whole of our fairly brief conversation was taken up by his questions – where was I working, when had I started, where was I living, how long had I been there, how had I found it, and so on. I’ve often wondered since whether it was just coincidence or was I being checked out. I did remember his name later but never saw him again.