Harry Turner's Episodes of Personal History
Early Memories #8    | HISTORY Page | Obituary Page |

8. When I was 17 . . .

"This is going to be a great year," I thought as I stood freezing on the doorstep, clutching a lump of coal. In the distance the sound of the town hall clock striking midnight was overtaken by the sound of impatient revellers. I gave the doorbell a ring. It was whipped open before the sound had died away and I was ushered in to the warmth of the kitchen party. Mother, father and Aunt Molly were there, drinking a toast, and the cat was enjoying the warmth of the oven built in to the massive cast iron range...

When I Was 17 ...
... I went to life classes held at John Bold's studio down Grosvenor Street, on the way to the city centre. In those days the All Saints area of Manchester was something of a Bohemian stronghold, a haunt of artists, students from the nearby School of Art, and cultural layabouts. A place where visiting stage pros and entertainers found congenial digs.

John's studio was in one-time commercial premises, long abandoned by the garment-makers and since invaded by artists looking for low-rent airy studios. You entered from the street, climbed ill-lit flights of wide stone steps, crossed gloomy landings with smelly dustbins and over-flowing coal bunkers, up to the third floor. John's room was large, the full width of the building, with tall windows on either side; a working room, with spartan furnishings, the model's dais beside a heavy iron stove, a screen across the end providing storage space for canvases and the paraphernalia of painting, and a small kitchen-cum-changing room.

The studio on the floor below was occupied by Miss Barbara Niven, a lady given to supporting worthy radical causes--and there were plenty of them in the thirties: marches and rallies for the unemployed, support for the hardpressed Spanish Republican government and the International Brigade, anti-Mosley demos.

The air of quiet concentration prevailing in John's studio as we attempted to catch the essentials of a pose would occasionally be broken by the noisy intrusion of vigorous debate below the floorboards. Often I would arrive to find the Niven landing cluttered with banners and placards, either stored in readiness for the next outing, or just dumped by returning marchers in the rush for refreshments. These props came in useful on windy wintry evenings when we surreptitiously borrowed a banner or two and blocked the draughts that whistled round John's entrance door to spare the model from goose-pimples.

Once I pounded up the stairs late, and bumped into a shadowy caller forcibly expressing frustration at Miss Niven's absence, to be informed by a chuckling John that I had just met the Reverend Étienne Watts, the notorious Red Vicar of nearby All Saints Church.

At home the results of my labours were occasionally scrutinised in a slightly embarrassed silence. I recall returning one evening when my grandmother was visiting us, and being coaxed into opening up my portfolio. Gran studied my pencil sketches without comment, lips pursed, exchanging occasional glances with my mother. "Don't the models wear anything--not even a wisp of tulle ?" she asked finally. I blushed, gathered up my work, and retreated to my room, aware of a ripple of laughter behind me as I closed the door. ■

When I Was 17 ...
... I discovered Jazz. For years I'd been a regular listener to broadcasts of British dance bands – Carrol Gibbons, Jack Hylton, Henry Hall, Roy Fox, Harry Roy, Nat Gonella. For me, discovering jazz wasn't a blinding revelation, hearing some hot lick that held me enthralled for evermore. Rather it was a growing appreciation that lurking in the sound of the popular entertainment of the day was something with real feeling.
   My ears were, in large part, opened by the enthusiasm of a fellow-worker. Harry Nelson played trombone in his free hours in a working band and went off on occasional small group gigs. He lived for his music and he initiated me into the concept of improvisation, led me from Nat Gonella to Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller, to Johnny Dodds and Sidney Bechet.
   As I recollect, Harry's brother also played in the band and some of his many relatives handled bookings and transport. At times, it sounded as though the Nelsons had the Oldham dance scene in the palm of their hands. ■

When I Was 17 ...
... I'd seen the Wells-Korda film Things To Come twenty-seven times and still thought it was marvellous despite the anachronism of the Space Gun. ■

When I Was 17 ...
... The Rector of Stiffkey was mauled and killed by Freddie the lion at Skegness Amusement Park. ■

When I Was 17 ...
Harry Turner the hiker, 1930s... I was an enthusiastic member of the Youth Hostels Association, as were several workmates, who accompanied me on regular weekend forays into the Peak district to recuperate from the pollution and tainted air of our workplace in Clayton.
   Two or three weekends every month, we would make the dash from work with rucksacks and supplies to London Road Station (Manchester) – scrounge off early from work on the Saturday morning, shoot to Hayfield, or Chinley and stop overnight at Bennetson Hall, or with Miss Booth, the warden, in the Goyt Valley.
   Even in the depths of winter, we would take trips over mount Famine when wind was whistling up our shorts and out of the back of our shirt collars. In those days the YHA was still a minority cause – you could usually get a bed at a hostel without booking (apart from holiday periods). ■

When I Was 17 ...

Harry Turner with George Ellis and Eric Needham

I gaze at the snapshot of my 17-year-old self – I recognize the lopsided grin, still with me, the gold-rimmed specs glinting in the sunlight, hands stuck firmly in the pockets of grey flannel trousers, a sports jacket which I recall as heather green, a grey striped tie borrowed from my father, hair brushed back, darker then, even a wave in it.
   Alongside me are two friends of the time – George Ellis, serious of expression, bespectacled, hair slicked down, in a blue, double-breasted suit, and Eric Needham, grinning happily at the camera with open-necked shirt, pullover, and suit jacket and flannel pants. ■

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