One of the best things about this time of year is the chance to take stock, reflect, remember……and have a good rummage in the loft. I found all sorts of interesting things this time including a folder with some photos and papers from my times in Stoke.
Almost everyone who lived in the Potteries in the 1980s or early 90s will have walked or driven past Ronald Smalley at some point or other.
He was probably sitting on a wall on the edge of town with a bottle of cheap cider and a rather ruddy complexion.
Or perhaps he was stood near the exit of a Kwik Save or Fine Fare store swaying gently from side to side trying to engage passers-by in conversation.
More likely though you saw him selling small items like note books, knitted hats or pens. I think Ron rather liked the way many referred to him as ‘the pen man’. Ron was ahead of his time. Long before the Big Issue was invented, Ron operated his very own version of street entrepreneurship, selling small items he had found, bought cheaply or been given by friendly strangers. His big seller was the biro. He would often have a line of different coloured pens spread out along the wall next to him and his friendly banter would eventually convince someone to buy one for three or four times its worth.
Sometimes you’d be lucky and Ron would have some of his amazing passport sized selfies for sale. He would write short messages on pieces of old card and hold them up in front of himself in a photo booth in Woolworths; or he would adopt a different character and pose for one of his impromptu photo shoots.
You might bump into Ron almost anywhere in the City. He walked miles in a day. He was often out before most people were up and not back until late at night. If he’d had a good day he’d come back slightly the worse for wear and with a tale or two to tell.
No one seemed to know much about Ron. He would turn up at one of the various hostels or temporary housing schemes in the City for a while then drift away (or be asked to leave for some minor indiscretion). I was lucky enough to get to know Ron quite well through contact at two such establishments in the late 80s. I have many enduring memories of Ron. I used to carry a small sketchbook with me all the time in those days and I often drew Ron. He’d get me to photocopy some of the drawings for him to sign and sell……in return he’d let me have some of his wonderful selfies.
On New Years Eve 1988 I was doing the night shift at the Nightshelter. Most of those staying there then were young and they were all out celebrating New Year at some night club or other. A few of us spent the evening sat around drinking cheap coffee and smoking even cheaper cigarettes; talking about music and the songs we liked. Ron had a lovely, fragile singing voice full of melancholy. Every song had a story attached – some funny, some sad – and he would sing each one beautifully. At some point he asked for a piece of paper and in his rather flamboyant style he wrote me a list of his 8 favourite songs. I thought I’d lost it or thrown it away years ago but came across it this week.
I don’t know how old Ron was but to my youthful eyes he seemed quite old. Still he would periodically phone his mother and have a rather surreal conversation which involved him shouting down the phone and her obvious deafness leading to some terrible misunderstandings as he recounted one of his rambling tales. I turned one of my small drawings into this painting “Is that you mother?” which I think is still knocking around somewhere.
My other special memory of Ron also involves his singing. It was my last ever night shift and again it had been an evening filled with warmth and laughter….and the repeated strains of Sinead O’Connor’s ‘I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got’ album coming from the speakers of a ghetto blaster owned by a tall, Sinead obsessed, skinhead. The front door was locked at 1am and almost everyone made their way up to bed, including me, and the CSV volunteer. Shortly before 2am we were rudely awoken by the sound of Ron’s voice belting out “We’ll Meet Again”. I rushed downstairs and found the ghetto blaster propped up at the bottom of the stairs….Ron’s voice recorded at the end of one side of a C120 cassette. A wonderful memory.
Ron’s favourite saying was “the streets of hell are paved with good intentions”.
I just read John Popham’s Blog ‘365 Goodwill’ about the forced jollity of this “season of goodwill”. It’s a thoughtful piece (as always) and I sort of agree with him. But I do think that there is something special about Christmas and New Year. They do make us slow down a bit and reflect a little. That can’t be a bad thing.
But I do think we should all take heed of John’s plea and if promoting “goodwill to all people every day” feels like a big ask then perhaps we could all try to promote goodwill to a few people most days…..and definitely share our stories of ordinary people just being kind or decent to each other.
Happy New Year.