History & biography

Variety – the Spice of Life

Bernard Peter Atha

Variety – the Spice of Life

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Prologue

You are old Father William the young man cried
And pleasures with youth pass away
And yet you lament not the days that are gone
Now tell me the reason I pray.
(Robert Southey)

I have been greatly blessed by being given the opportunities to enter a number of different worlds such as the worlds of the stage, ballet, arts council, Paralympics, sport, the theatre, local and central government to mention just a few. I have been pressed by a number of individuals to record and reveal these various worlds. I started to do this when I was asked to relate the work of the development of sport for disabled people and in my search for this, was struck by the variety of life which I have been lucky to experience. As I too rapidly approach my ninetieth birthday I hope the reader shares some of the pleasures and sadnesses of a long and varied life and that future generations have a document which is a form of social history. I have recorded in some detail the appointment of artistic directors, major building schemes, the role of the local council leaders and certain sections so that those who are interested specifically get a fairly dispassionate flash shot picture of things as they were.


The way to success, disappointments and life’s double entry system

I have been fortunate in that over the past five or six decades I have been associated with the success of a number of major ventures such as bringing the Northern Ballet Company to Leeds in a world class dance house, developing the new two-theatre Leeds Playhouse, creating the Yorkshire Dance Centre, the creation of the British Paralympic Association, the UK Sport Association for People with Learning Disabilities, Sport Aid, et al. To claim more than an involvement with these successes would be untrue and offensive as in each case the achievement was that of groups of determined, talented people. When being asked during a BBC interview, what is the secret of my “success” I answered jocularly but in all honesty: Decide what one wants to achieve, find someone who can make it happen, give that person his or her head and sit back and claim personal success.
The truth is that the so-called successes so generously attributed to me in many different fields are the success stories of a large number of men and women who have shared ambitions and have turned them into reality. I have felt it a great honour to have been associated with so many brilliant and honest men and women who have achieved so much. For instance: The Playhouse – William Weston; Northern Ballet – Mark Skipper; The UK Sports Association for People with Learning Difficulties – Liz Dendy and Tracey McCillen; The British Paralympic Association – Barry Schofield; three remarkable women who came up with the idea of the Yorkshire Dance Centre, to list just a few. They deserve our admiration, recognition and respect. For much of my life, 57 years as a Labour-elected representative and member of council in Leeds, I have been honoured to work with some outstanding public servants and volunteers. “Honour” in this case is not a fulsome hyperbole. Quite early on in my life I realised that if one was to achieve anything one had to have access to the source of power whether it be in local or central government or in the private or voluntary sectors. Thus I became a Leeds City Councillor, stood twice as a parliamentary candidate and was thrice generously recommended for the House of Lords by Denis Howell, Lord Dean and later by Lord Merlyn Rees. If you have the power or just enough influence, you have the chance to make a difference and that is what I believe we all are on this earth to do.
I was born in 1928, a year which someone wrote facetiously was otherwise an uneventful year, a year in which train drivers earned £ 3.50 a week in the old currency (240 pence to the pound), female cotton workers earned £ 1.25 a week, a pint of beer cost 2p and a postage stamp cost 1/2p. In that year in Leeds, 53 cases of smallpox were recorded, 351 of scarlet fever, 36 whooping cough, 21 measles, 634 diphtheria, 105 child deaths from diarrhoea and 485 cases of pneumonia. Doctors would normally charge two shillings and six pence before they would see a patient. For many families this was a sum they could not afford. Often doctors would not demand the two shillings and six pence. Local remedies were deployed, like taking a child with a whooping cough to a neighbouring gas work to breathe the ambient air. Specifics like antiphlogistine, brimstone and treacle, Indian brandy and Fennings’ Fever Cure were common. The working class in cities lived in appalling slums and the number of pawnshops in an area was a barometer of local poverty. The greater the poverty the more pawnshops there were.
Had I been at birth a sentient creature I might have had second thoughts about entering this pestilential place and life. I was enormously fortunate in being born into a marvellous family living in the centre of Leeds, the third child of five born to father and mother of blessed memory, Horace Michael and Mary Elizabeth. We were an exceptionally happy and argumentative family, a family of great love and tolerance. The first home I remember, a stone’s throw from the present Civic Hall, had four bedrooms, a bathroom, toilet, two living rooms (the front room only to be used on special occasions, visitors or musical evenings), front and back doors and a small garden at the front and a yard at the back. It was a house surrounded by slums, where middens were the norm as were homes with no hot water system, sharing a toilet with other families and homes often lit by gas lamps. Leeds had some of the worst slums in the UK. Poverty was stark.
I remember an incident which has stayed with me for my whole life. A lady who knew my mother called to ask if she could borrow a toilet roll as she was expecting some relatives to call and did not want them to have to use the normal toilet paper which was torn sheets of newspapers. It is a strange memory to have retained as I must have been no older than five at the time. I find it poignant as it shows someone trying to put a brave face on their adversity. Another memory also remains and that is of families being literally turned out of their homes into the street because they could not pay the rent and of learning what was meant by the term moonlight f lit: leaving without paying the rent arears.
It was, however, an interesting place to live. We were poor in the sense that money was extremely tight but by comparison with those living in the neighbouring slums we were well off. Just a hundred yards or so from our house was a blacksmith’s shop which fascinated me as a small child to see the forge burning so hot and bright and roaring when the blacksmith used the bellows. I was immensely impressed by his courage and ability to shoe the big dray horses. I always wondered why they did not kick him over the road instead of patiently letting him do his job. The horses seemed enormous to me and I never went near their rears expecting quite stupidly that they would kick me. The blacksmith was a jovial man and was always ready to give me a smile and let me look at what he was doing. Just opposite the forge was a factory making men’s clothing. Little did I know then that many years later I would be of great assistance to the lovely Jewish family who owned the factory and wished to relocate to other premises. Just a bit further away was a large clothing factory called Hepworths and in a slightly different direction but close to home was a factory called Zanuk which was a medical/chemical factory with a pervading smell of ointment at a hundred metres. We used to say if someone led us blindfold from home to the city centre we could tell from the smells or noise where we were: fish and chip shop, Carlton pub, Zanuck (smell), Hepworths and Woodhouse Lane (tram cars sound).
We lived in and enjoyed 19 Carlton Mount, a large end of street house with full toilet and bathroom facilities which the surrounding homes did not have. My dad had got a local builder to dump a load of sand in our small front garden which became a playground for the local small children who would never have the chance to go to the sea side. Carlton Mount was different from the surrounding streets for they all were “through houses”, the condition of some not so great but they were palaces compared to the back to back houses all around. Our home too had electric light in an area where gas lamps were the norm. The local poverty was a scandal. We moved from Carlton Mount and years later the area was cleared under a massive slum clearance programme. By one of those weird coincidences, decades later I was asked if I would agree to my name being given to a residential block to house students at the Leeds Polytechnic/Met University. I agreed most willingly and found that Atha House was built almost on the same spot as our old home. I found the brief ceremony quite affecting.


Blandford Gardens

The move to our new home was only a distance of a few hundred yards but in terms of environment it was a move from purgatory to heaven. Our new home was a well-built house, two attics, two bedrooms, one bathroom and two ground f loor large rooms, a front room – preserved as a Front Room – and a living room with a quite large kitchenette attached plus a tiny back yard. Situated close to the Leeds University, the house still stands and is in an area which has been taken over by people presumably on decent salaries who wish to be within walking distance of the two universities, colleges, shops and offices. I never pass the end of the street today without glancing in the direction of 11 Blandford Gardens, our home for three decades. By one of those remarkable coincidences, three or more decades later I was chairman of the Social Service Committee and we were looking for a suitable home for young lads leaving care. I was asked to visit a house and to my overwhelming surprise it was 11 Blandford Gardens. The house was being decorated and the front room had been stripped to the plaster and there on the plaster were the pencilled names Paul, John, Bernard and Sheila, marking our individual heights. I was quite moved by this remarkable coincidence. It seems that my dad marked our heights on the plaster before applying the wallpaper at which he was quite adept. I cannot quite remember what my feelings were – very mixed I am sure. Opposite the end of our street was a long complex of Leeds City Council buildings: a council school, Blenheim for boys and another for girls, a school for the deaf and the dumb (sic) and another building to train the blind. The presence of Blenheim Boys Council School so close meant we could get there in a matter of seconds which meant we should always have been there on time but that was not always the case. It was an exceptional school in those days because it had a special relationship with the university which was five minutes’ walk away. The school admitted on a regular basis men, I do not remember any females training to be teachers and this had the effect of making the school rather more academic than so many others. Why we were not exposed to the good ministrations of trainee women teachers I know not especially as we had two women teachers on the staff.


Miss Kelly

As a little boy I looked on one of them with the admiration I would show for some lady of the silver screen and the other appeared to be a strict tyrant and more associated in the film metaphor with a witch. She was the formidable Miss Kelly who did not need the ubiquitous stick, i.e. the cane, to maintain discipline and who became friendly with my mother not surprisingly as she had taught my brother Paul, then John and finally me. In many ways she was remarkable. She lived in Arthington, a tiny village on the opposite side of a wide valley. There was no direct route from there to Leeds, the roads being quite circuitous given the terrain except for the train which crossed the valley by a great viaduct. Miss Kelly lived in a lovely old cottage right at the end of the viaduct. Walking on the viaduct was illegal and prosecutions were not uncommon. Miss Kelly however, received permission to use the viaduct as a pathway so saving her considerable time and effort in those days when cars were a rarity and bus services extremely rare. She was never late for school and never left early unless we all did. As part of my mother’s entente cordiale with this Madame Desfarge I was delegated to perform certain duties in support of the lady. One of the duties was to take her discharged accumulators to have them recharged and then later collect them after they had been charged. Accumulators were basically wet batteries which could be recharged over and over again and were a blessing to those who lived too far out to be connected for electricity or gas. They were glass and contained a liquid, an acid, the formula for which escapes me.
Baxter and I, Baxter being my closest friend then and in the future, formed a deep affection for this vinegary spinster hiding behind a reconstruction of one of Macbeth’s witches and for at least a decade and a half we would go over on our bikes, then motor bikes and then by motor car to see the old girl, cut her grass and tidy her hedges. I never saw anyone visiting her nor did she ever refer to relatives or friends.
We were often given a jar of her home-made jam or marmalade, the ultimate sign of her affection or appreciation. I often wondered was there some past affair which had turned out badly and that caused her to live the solitary life, my imagination creating a picture of another Miss Faversham. Who knows?
One of her most enduring characteristics was her passion for making jam or marmalade which was not like any marmalade I had tasted. She had cupboards full of this delicacy, each jar standing upright in ranks order by year so one could see that some had been made twelve years or more ago. Some of the early vintage jams seemed to be rebelling by growing their own whiskers. As during the war and for many years after food rationing, a jar of jam would have been greatly appreciated but not if it was of the older be-whiskered vintages.

Format: 13.5 x 21.5 cm
Number of Pages: 556
ISBN: 978-3-99064-325-9
Release Date: 24.04.2019
GBP 20,50
GBP 12,99