Repay and play

Robert Edric’s childhood in Sheffield was one of scraping to get by, money anxiously saved in envelopes on the mantelpiece for gas and electric and getting into debt to pay for school uniforms

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Following 30 years of writing reasonably well-received novels ranging from the melodramas of PT Barnum’s American Museum to the disappearance of John Franklin’s Arctic expedition, the lives of Branwell Brontë, the demonologist Aleister Crowley and the asylum-incarcerated Great War poet Ivor Gurney, I turned finally to compiling a memoir of my working-class upbringing in Sheffield in the 1960s and 1970s.  

We saved coupons from cigarette packets, dividend stamps from our Co-op spend, and sheets of Green Shield stamps

I say “compiling” because during the first lockdown, my usual routines completely upended, I started writing down the kaleidoscopic array of memories that have remained with me of that childhood for the past 50 years. I compiled these in no particular order, my only guide being to keep them as true and as honest as memory ever allows, to keep them brief, and to keep them, hopefully, interesting and reflective of that world and society as a whole.

These are memories of a working-class existence in a large, industrial city enduring difficult times. The giant steel and heavy engineering industries of Sheffield were already on the wane when I was a child, unemployment was rising, and little else was then suggesting itself as a way forward for the hundreds of thousands of men and women employed in what they must surely have assumed were jobs for life.

Sheffield was a city still much affected by the war. Bomb sites and vast empty, rubble-filled spaces filled my childhood and were much appreciated by me and my friends. Homes and public buildings were still propped up by baulks of timber and acres of strewn rubble were hidden by swathes of rosebay-willow herb, which to this day I still refer to as “matchstick flowers”.

There were a few emerging signs of modernity in the city – vast estates of high-rise flats were starting to appear, and the busy centre was remodelled to create a giant subway, the “Hole In The Road”, complete with an enormous aquarium filled with equally enormous fish – but these meant little to me as a child until, as a teenager, I started frequenting the city centre pubs and venues, and that giant and utterly exotic aquarium became a reliable meeting place.

I was born just outside the city in the – then – village of Ecclesfield, and when I was six we moved to a terraced street in Page Hall, half a mile upwind of all those fading industries. At night, the pounding of giant forge hammers carried on the wind, and a train journey into the city centre station ran close to open sheds, inside which the furnaces themselves could be seen, surrounded by the silhouettes of men shepherding the rivers of liquid iron and steel into their moulds. The proximity of all this historical, heavy industry and the hard lives lived out there had a lasting effect on me, if only to convince me that it was not what I wanted for myself.

Both my parents worked, and like millions of other children across the country, I was left largely to my own resources, coming and going from the small house, preparing my own meals, making my own entertainment – invariably known as “playing out” – amid the gangs of, mostly, boys who lived all around me.

It was a childhood of routine and repetition, of strict timetabling, and an order which was seldom altered. There was a heatwave most summers and deep snow and frozen pipes most winters. Or that was how it seemed. There were long, empty, tedious Sundays, relieved only by the prospect of a black and white cowboy or war film, and the anticipation of Sunday Night At The London Palladium.  Every Monday morning provoked only anxiety as the school week returned and as I packed my satchel with my sport kit and meticulously completed homework; as I polished my shoes and laid these out; and as my fingernails and various other dirt-concealing nooks and crannies were examined, ties tied at a regulation length and socks pulled up.

It was also a precarious existence where money was concerned – a family of five surviving on two small working incomes that had to be stretched and juggled from one week to the next; and the bigger and much-anticipated events of both Christmas and a solitary, week-long annual holiday in a caravan at the coast long prepared and saved for. My mother, in addition to her work as a clerk in a ready-made cement business, also ran a Freeman’s catalogue and became an Avon Lady – “Ding dong, Avon calling” – to help make ends meet. My father worked as a lorry driver and then as a store manager in a branch of Kenning’s in the city centre.  

Budgets – though I doubt any of us called them that at the time – were carefully calculated and observed. Jars and tins around the house filled with loose change, envelopes on mantelpieces – always on mantelpieces – held their pound and five-pound notes ready and waiting for their respective bills. It was always a great occasion when either the gas or electricity man arrived to read and empty the meters and hand back the designated percentage of coins, almost as though we were being rewarded with a fruit-machine win. Once a year, a man with a commodious briefcase arrived to collect a historical ground rent on an already mortgaged house – a century-old piece of sleight of hand that even PT Barnum would have appreciated.

The mortgage repayments were, of course, our first priority, and my mother made these, in cash, monthly, at the city centre building society office, always careful to get the paying-in book signed and stamped and to check on the slowly dwindling sum still owed.

After this, perhaps our second greatest expense was my grammar-school uniform, paid off monthly, again with regular visits and tally book to the Co-op. It was a debt that never seemed to end as I grew upwards and outwards and as items of clothing had to be replaced and could not be reused. And after this came my cub and scout uniforms – again uncomplainingly bought by my mother from her increasingly and worryingly stretched budgets. Some repayments could always be delayed; some could not. Debt and commitment forever floated over that small, overcrowded house like dark, drifting clouds.

We saved coupons from cigarette packets, dividend stamps from our Co-op spend, and sheets of Green Shield stamps every time my father put petrol in the car. But whatever came into the household by all these various means, it was seldom equal to our growing outgoings.

I worked as a paper boy (and I use the word “work” advisedly – morning, night and Sunday mornings carrying a bag half my own weight up and down Sheffield’s steep hills, grateful only that most of the homes I delivered to were back to back terraces and so the hundred or so letterboxes were close together and swiftly filled).  

After that, I stacked shelves at a local supermarket, working there two days during the week directly after school until eight or nine at night, and then all day Saturday, and even Sunday when required. Everything was then shut on Sundays, and so a great deal could be achieved without all the inconvenience of actual shoppers forever interrupting. I enjoyed the work – my first actual pay packet with its cellophane see-through window and all its unfair-seeming, though minuscule, deductions. It was my introduction to the working life. I was amid another gang of boys and we enjoyed our own company. Some of them, they confided, handed over their small wages as a kind of premature board-and-lodgings payment to their mothers.  

This particular indignity – yet another unfairness imposed upon me and my hard-earned cash – was something I was able to delay until a couple of years later when, back from Hull University for the summer, I worked in a small engineering firm, Richards, at the bottom of The Moor, where, protected from head to foot I tumble-washed stamped-out pieces of metal in caustic soda before these were miraculously shaped and then polished by master cutlers into knives, forks and scissors. It was dirty, depressing work, but at least I only had to endure it for three months, and I did at least get to keep most of what I earned, only then to fritter it away on the usual expenses and obsessions of the usual 1970s teenage boy.

I lived among several tribes of people, but the one thing they all had in common was the need to be frugal and to carefully harness and calculate their outgoings.  Food and drink were forever a great expense in growing families, pounds and pennies were counted, bargains sought. “Look after the pennies,” people said, “and the pounds would look after themselves.” There was always a great deal of satisfaction to be had in finding a good – that is, cheap – deal, or coming in at a lower cost than anticipated.  Expenditure and loan repayment was a calculated risk, but one which few could avoid.  

Edric: “We were kept clean, healthy and well fed”

There was an even greater satisfaction to be had in avoiding debt, in knowing which higher-purchase arrangements – the tick, the never-never, the slate – were to be avoided and which to be embraced. The world seemed always to be watching those at its edges, those who might stumble or fall; and keeping an admiring eye, too, on those who coped, on those who managed their intermittent and uncertain finances and who struggled to avoid the stigma of poverty or debt.

We children were kept clean and healthy and well-fed; we were made presentable and respectable, trustworthy and reliable. We endured in a world where we were seldom exhorted to spend more and more on less and less. We may have forever been keeping up appearances as a family, but we were seldom mired in any debt that was absolutely unnecessary or avoidable. It was called “cutting your cloth accordingly” and it meant that if you had money to spend, you spent it; if you didn’t then, well, you didn’t. It was a sound and fair education in the world of limited finance, and one which, albeit often unwittingly, has stood me in good stead ever since.

I started writing in my mid-twenties and persevered for five years – roughly an unpublishable novel or two a year – after which my submissions were accepted and I went back to all those untidy, often untyped, manuscripts in search of the nuggets of later books. I became a writer at a time when there was little academic provision for progress into publishing, when there was certainly no notion of creative writing as a university discipline (with the sole exception of the University of East Anglia) and when the submitted typescript, always accompanied by a pre-paid return envelope (was there ever any more dispiriting necessity?) disappeared for months into a void before the seemingly-inevitable letter of rejection popped back through the post.  

But the waiting was never dead time. I wrote while I waited, and the succeeding novel was invariably ready in at least a first draft by the time the preceding one finally saw the light of day. I would still recommend this as a way of working for anyone starting out today. The whole procedure now, of course, is far more straightforward – the internet, correctable programs, instant printing – but I still prefer to do all my thinking on paper and first drafts in pencil – Staedtler Tradition HB, since you ask – consumed daily at a rate of 30 or 40 sharpened leads. And sharpened, moreover, using a tiny, pipe-cleaning pen-knife (there’s a clue in the word) made by another of those Sheffield master cutlery firms, Armytage and Jones, probably long since defunct.

With a constantly low, variable and unpredictable income as a writer over the past 40 years, I am neither thrifty nor profligate, though I enjoy – and, yes, the word is appropriate in each instance – being both when the need or opportunity arises. I do at least understand that the greatest financial con trick of the late 20th century was to conflate the word – and hence the understanding of – “debt” with “credit”, thereby channelling willing, and all too often desperate borrowers into the hands of waiting credit companies. To many, these may be necessary evils, but to others they are all too often presented as friendly and welcoming alternatives to either “thrift” – and since when did that become a dirty word? – or financial independence of even the slightest degree. 

Increasingly, and especially now with the soaring cost of living, everyone’s finances are becoming more and more stretched and the people earning the least or least able to cope with these rising costs are yet again the ones bearing the heaviest burden. Perhaps the people supposedly in control of these rising costs could begin by considering “cutting their own cloth” or by devising ways of providing cheaper credit to those other than the already wealthy and thriving. It would be a start. After all, Mister Micawber, trimming his own cloth and watching the pennies, was one of the happiest men in the whole of Dickens’ fiction. It’s just a thought.

My Own Worst Enemy by Robert Edric is published by Swift Press

Photo: Kids at Park Hill Flats, Sheffield, 1970 (Mick Jones/

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