Unseen Britain - A Brief Encounter in Tewkesbury Library
By Alan Russell
Too often in life we lock ourselves away in self-imposed bubbles that contain our worlds with all of their worries and cares. These worries and cares sometimes seem so great that they leave little room in the bubble for perspective about how big they really are in the greater landscape of life. My particular bubble this morning was crowded with thoughts of not having enough time to finish research in the library before having to check out of the hotel and be on the way to Bath.
Occasionally our self-imposed bubbles are punctured and we suddenly realise that things are not that bad after all. This happened to me a couple of days ago in the reference section of Tewkesbury Library.
I was tucked into a corner by all the shelves of books on local history to do some research on the alleys of the town. James Bennet, a local book binder and publisher from the 19th century, published a three volume history of Tewkesbury from which I was hoping to glean a couple of kernels of historical anecdotes about the alleys. In the index there was no reference to ‘alleys’ so I looked for references to specific alleys such as ‘Well Alley’ or ‘Clark’s Alley’ but without success.
The dangerous part of doing this type of research is that it can lead to looking into other subjects tangentially related to the original subject. This day was no exception and I ended up reading about ‘mustard balls’, more on the subject to follow, rather than the original topic.
I was hunkered down in the corner at a table flicking through various pages of Bennett’s book, making notes on ‘mustard balls’ and what little I could find on the alleys. While I was doing this I was aware of a man in his late fifties or early sixties sitting down opposite me. He was wearing a blue and white horizontally striped football jersey, carrying a purple cloth shoulder bag and a newspaper. When he sat down we both acknowledged one another with a softly spoken ‘good morning’ and went into our own worlds.
A few minutes later a not so young lady trounced up to ‘our’ table and without a word took the second newspaper the man had brought over away. We both looked at one another.
‘She does that most days….doesn’t say a word and just takes the Independent away before I can read it’.
While he was saying this the culprit lady was trouncing across the reference section to a table on the far side.
‘Are you studying local history?’ the man asked.
‘Sort of, I am trying to get some information on the local alleys from this book’ I replied as I pointed to the volume I had been skimming through.
By now as he had finished the Daily Mail the man pulled out one of those big annuals that boys and girls used to be given for Christmas that were loaded with pictures of their favourite sports or movie stars. This one was bright red and shiny.
‘What are you reading?’ I asked.
He showed me the big red book which was a football annual from a few years ago. There were pictures of footballers from the 1940's, 1950's and 1960's from the days when men, even sporting superstars, still wore flannel trousers, shirts and ties when kicking a ball around with their children. One of the pictures gave me a flashback to a story Michael Parkinson told in his autobiography of when he was a cub reporter in Barnsley. He would catch the bus from home to the football ground and en route the bus would collect most of the team on the way. No fancy sports cars, just a public bus and a duffle bag of kit.
‘Look, on the back here the cover price was £20, I picked it up for £3 in Devon last week…..and have a look at this’.
He showed me a book slightly smaller than a postcard which was filled with pictures and autographs of footballers. There were pictures of players like Peter Shilton and Ray Wilkinson pasted on one open page and opposite were their autographs. The pictures were on cigarette cards or were cuttings from newspapers.
I noticed as he handed me the book that his hands had a slight tremor. Parkinsons I thought.
We chatted for a few minutes about his collection and I could see the logo on his shirt was for Queens Park Rangers. He gave me a detailed history of some of the transfers the club had made and like all avid football supporters was keen to let me know that if he had been in charge he would have done things differently
He was interesting to listen to and I asked him if he would like to go for a coffee.
He also told me that I should go and visit the John Moore’s Museum near the Abbey. Did I know the abbey was the second largest in England, second only to Westminster Abbey. I then asked myself ‘when does a church qualify as an abbey?’ More tangential research.
‘No thank you. Since I was diagnosed with Parkinsons I haven’t been able to drive and my bus goes in five minutes. I’ve got Alzheimer’s as well which doesn’t help much…..not even sixty yet’.
He wasn’t bitter or cross about the lot in life he was dealing with, at least with me. He packed his annual away in the cloth bag along with his autograph book and left the library to catch his bus home.
My bubble had been punctured and instead of bemoaning the fact that I had to move on I began to look forward to having the freedom unhindered by bad health to travel to Bath. Travelling across part of the country I had never seen before and to be able to have a few hours exploring the city. Oh, and the sun was shining as well.