When you get to know and like an author or performer, there’s a concern when you get a chance to review their latest work that you won’t be able to give an honest appraisal. But within a couple of pages of Mike Harding’s early years memoir, I realised that wouldn’t be an issue.
I already knew this Manchester-born singer-songwriter, comedian, dramatist, poet, broadcaster and multi-instrumentalist was a born storyteller, but he proves here he’s capable of turning anecdotes into entertaining prose too. And while highly lyrical in places, it’s never pretentious.
There’s plenty of honesty and humour too, this Yorkshire-based jack of all arts not out to over-egg his working class roots either. And it’s so much stronger for not being some kind of ‘By ‘eck, we had it hard …’ chronicle, Mike steering away from being portrayed as a victim, despite a potentially-scarring post-war Catholic education.
On the other hand, neither does he pretend that the latter did him no harm, the section relating to his later school days leaving this reader outraged on Mike’s behalf. Yet you get the feeling that – thankfully – his grounded family background and plenty of community spirit carried him through the darker moments.
Mike certainly tells his tale with plenty of colour, and over 250 pages provides valuable glimpses into a lost world of terraced red-brick houses and long-since sacrificed open spaces, in a highly-likeable portrait of a working-class nipper from the back streets of Manchester who went on to successfully find his feet.
There are parallels with Danny’s Baker’s Going to Sea in a Sieve, recently adapted into the BBC Two hit, Cradle to Grave, and to that end the TV companies would do well to take an option on this memoir. And like Danny, Mike is almost apologetic in stressing from the start how his was largely a happy childhood, despite his later school woes and losing his Dad before he was even born.
As he puts it, ‘I tried my best to write this as a work of miserabilia, part of that staple of today’s literature that my local Waterstones has titled ‘Unfortunate Lives’. But I failed. I wasn’t kept in a cupboard with nothing but a sponge to pee in. I wasn’t sent down the treacle mines at the age of six months, and I didn’t spend my days on my hands and knees fighting the dogs for their Spratt’s Ovals. I don’t want to make light of the terrible lives that some people have led, but mine, while far from being being that of Little Lord Fauntleroy, wasn’t all that bad. We were poor – but not as poor as the starving children in Africa (as my mother reminded me when I said I didn’t want to eat my stewed tripe and onions).’
We certainly get a valuable insight into austere post-war Britain, North Country style, and a nation looking to ‘rebuild itself, physically and emotionally‘. But it’s every bit as much about ‘childhood days consisting of sunshine and lemonade and leapfrog‘ too, and Mike paints a vivid picture about home life with his widowed Mum, her sister, his great-grandma, and two uncles not long out of the Army.
Of those, the stand-out character is 80-year-odd Dubliner Nanna, one of the key female rocks that helped raise Mike while his Mum looked to earn a crust to top up a war widow’s pension. And Nanna – who many moons before rescued Mike’s mum and her siblings from a Nun-led home in Dublin – is a formidable woman, washing her hair in paraffin in front of the fire in winter, cooking Mike bubble’n’squeak and sitting him on her knee teaching him nursery rhymes, music hall songs and Irish street ballads, while firing his imagination with tales of tinkers’ curses, the banshee, saints, blessed martyrs, and rebellion.
Conversely, Mike’s male peers flit in and out, not least the Grandad who appears at Christmas and Easter while seeking out old drinking pals around Manchester. Yet they play a part too, the author acknowledging how his Grandad’s stories and jokes were responsible more than anything else for his future career choice.
As well as his uncles’ war tales from India and North Africa, there’s an unseen male character who clearly left a huge impression – Mike’s Dad, the Devon boy killed returning from a Lancaster bombing raid in late September 1944, a month before his birth, leaving the love of his life ‘a bride, a widow and a mother within a year’. Fans of the 71-year-old may already know that sad tale from the poignant Bombers’ Moon, and while only part of that story is retold, you can see just how much ‘Curly’ Harding meant to the family.
There’s another male influence too, one Mike – like most wayward lads – didn’t seem to truly appreciate at the time. But it becomes clear that his stepdad, Polish ex-serviceman Lou – ‘a kind and good man‘ – who valiantly fought Hitler only for Stalin to take his place, made many sacrifices to help his new family get by. And while Mike tells us, ‘there are no skeletons in our family cupboard; they’re all out there in the street dancing the double jig‘, there’s no warmth when it comes to ‘Mad Uncle Len‘, the severe teetotal Methodist, bigot and General Strike-breaker who marries his Aunt Julia. There’s even humour there though, in the tale of the Christmas trifle his aunt secretly pours a bottle and a half of sherry in to get around Len’s alcohol ban.
I mention a glimpse into a lost world, and Mike fills us in on the days the rag and bone man, the milkman and the ice cream man cometh by horse, including daily battles to reach the fresh shit first to help cultivate Nanna’s rosebush. And just past the doorways where the donkey-stoning women on hands and knees we reach the sweet shop and relive Mike’s first school days, not least his horror on realising the latter wasn’t ‘an optional, one-day event, like going to the park or the zoo‘. Instead we witness Mike ‘moaning and wailing‘, being ‘dragged through the Crumpsall streets, howling my grief at my mother’s treachery to the chimney pots and the heavens beyond‘.
Then there’s the author running away from home, aged six, planning to board a ship at Salford Docks to ‘sail away to make my fortune‘, aiming for ‘Nover Scosher‘, Canada, but ‘getting no further than Barney’s Croft‘. Other characters shine through too, not least his pal Wharfie, who sets himself ‘up as a barber with his mother’s scissors and an upturned bucket, inviting all the girls from the streets around up‘, female customers soon queuing, ready to sacrifice their long hair in favour of ‘Wharfie’s convict chic‘.
Away from the public trauma of Mike’s first communion and priestly insistence that all roads lead to heaven, hell or purgatory (with ‘limbo’ and the Holy Ghost to explain the trickier stuff), we witness Mike’s Green Hand Gang roaming the streets, climbing trees, kicking balls, seeing ‘who could pee the furthest’ and generally getting up to mischief. And on the days when he’s found out, there’s Nanna sat ‘by the fire shaking her head‘, muttering ‘something about how it was all because I was playing with Protestants‘.
There are also the secret playgrounds where he spends school holidays, weekends and long summer evenings in the era before public health and safety legislation, prevalent diseases still stalking, when ‘everybody knew some kid who had died, or knew somebody who knew somebody‘. And all are told with humour but also sympathetically in the case of Uncle Bernard, losing his little girl in one such tragic accident.
While Mike credits his Mum for reading him Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verse, there’s praise too for the BBC’s Singing Together radio show, name-checking ‘well-known leftie‘ Bert Lloyd’s influence as a folk singer and song collector as well as a writer and broadcaster – qualities it’s fair to say the author himself has since achieved.
Mike doesn’t see everything with rose-tinted NHS specs, as seen in sections about the meals he was raised on, the lack of clean air that led to ‘the Manchester chest’ and descriptions of the harsh winters of his youth. But there are still idyllic spots nearby, not least the country around Besses o’th’ Barn where he visits relatives, further retreating from a world of Catholic guilt, masses, benediction and plenty of holy water (‘Nanna’s WD40‘).
There’s nostalgia for a spell in the Scouts too – camping in the wilds of Whittle-le-Woods – and days scrumping, carol singing, visiting his local cinema and swimming baths and charabanc day-trips to Blackpool, Southport and Llandudno, all happy substitutes for family holidays. But puberty is catching up with Mike, and with it a successful 11-plus that essentially catapults him into a whole new chapter at Manchester’s St Bede’s College.
And this will be no Tom Brown’s Schooldays drama. As he writes, ‘Anybody who was slightly different or had a little spirit, particularly those boys who came from poorer, working-class families, found the college a very different place. the collective experience of many of the men I meet now who were at St Bede’s in the ’50s and ’60s is that it was a grim place run mostly on the principle that boys were elementally evil and had to have the evil beat out of them. It was a school ruled over by a number of damaged men who went on to damage a number of the children in their care … the only women to be seen anywhere near the place was a legion of whiskery nuns who cleaned and cooked and did the laundry‘. And then there was Matron, ‘a large lady of indeterminate sex who gave you aspirin and yellow ointment for everything from earache to leprosy‘.
As with tales of public school beatings, I can’t help but feel sad for the little boy within as Mike recalls sadistic masters and physical and sexual abuse from so-called men of God. Thankfully though, a few inspirational teachers help him through, as do key outside factors like Lonnie Donegan’s music, Bert Weedon’s play-in-a-day guitar handbook and his stepdad shelling out for that first guitar. And then there’s education elsewhere, not least from the North Manchester Girls’ School pupils he meets and a revealing film at The Globe, plus summer days and evenings cycling as far from Crumpsall as he can get, a love of travelling aided by the YHA.
Music-wise, an initial love of skiffle is replaced by rock’n’roll – his NHS specs given a Buddy Holly makeover – and Mike’s first paid gigs follow, his early days with The Stylos including a residency at the Dover Castle, ‘close enough to the Salford border to be in bandit country‘. He also paints a portrait of that era’s Working Men’s Club circuit, ‘dark, damp places with glitzy stages, cold dressing rooms and outside toilets‘ that ‘stank of chicken in the basket (the Matterhorn of sophistication in them there days) stale cigarette smoke and even staler beer‘.
Meanwhile, Mike revises for his O-levels while his bandmates fit carpets, sell cotton or make specs, his education elsewhere further improved by the local girls watching the band. And beyond his exams and a summer job packing ball-bearings, we oversee his switch – as a sixth former – to The Manchester Rainmakers, by which point a discovery of Jack Kerouac – with hitchhiking to London soon on the agenda – and The Beatles – instinctively knowing ‘the three-chord trick, drainpipe trousers and Teddy Boy sneers were not going to cut it now‘ – changes the rules again, this young beat further distanced from his college environment at such a happening time for musicians and writers.
We also witness Mike’s drift from home, ready to move away from his parents and their growing family in search of his own destiny, his midnight rambles around town making for compulsive reading, on nights when ‘Manchester was dead as Dixie’s dog, the pubs (apart from any late night drinking dens where curtains were drawn and lights and voices were low) were all shut, the clubs had finished and the butty van on Cannon Street, where you could get a sausage sandwich and a mug of tea for a bob, had shut up shop‘.
At times those descriptions are nothing short of evocative, whether he’s talking about ‘Nick the Greek’s‘ (The Oxford Snack Bar on Oxford Road) and its colourful clientele, the old Manchester before the developers got at it (‘The town hall did more damage than the Luftwaffe‘), or a sense of being part of a world changing in such a ‘wild and interesting time to be a teenager‘ for that ‘first generation of Welfare State kids‘, when ‘there was full employment and free education and unlike our parents we didn’t have to leave school and get a job in a non-unionised sweatshop.’
But life is about to change for Mike again, and we soon get the hook that sets us up nicely for book two. And I for one can’t wait.
The Adventures of the Crumpsall Kid – A Memoir by Mike Harding (Michael O’Mara Books, £18.99), is available now.
For a writewyattuk interview/feature with Mike Harding, from April 2015, head here.
And for more details about Mike, his internet folk show and forthcoming dates and engagements, head to his website here.