Wednesday, 4 April 2018



As the bus travels along Cargo Fleet Lane towards Ormesby I see two tower blocks to my left. Big W lived in one of them. I don’t know if he’s still alive or not but if so he’ll be 85 some time this year. Given his hard-drinking lifestyle you’d think it unlikely but this man had the constitution of an ox and – unusually for one of his background – never smoked a single cigarette in his life. It’d be nice to think he’s still around.

He lived on the twelfth floor of the sixteen storeys high block and had a view of two cemeteries, catholic and non-denominational, from his window. Big W wasn’t a religious person, either of faith or of bigotry, but as a transplanted Glaswegian he used to tell the same old hackneyed story that he would convert to the ‘other side’ on his deathbed on the grounds that “better wan o’ thaim goes than wan o’ oors.”

Everyone pretended they had heard it for the first time.

Big W would eschew the view of the cemeteries – “I’ve never looked down on anyone in my life – never been anyone I could look down on – so I’m not looking down on them.” Instead he would glance straight out the window and there, overlooking the entire Tees valley were the Eston Hills, with the striking promontory of Eston Nab – almost 800 feet above sea level – and Roseberry Topping beyond. Over 1,000 feet high and a magnificent view all year round. Even in winter. Some might say especially in winter.

Big W hailed from Shettleston in Glasgow. Hence the ‘Big’ in his name. For in that city it’s not unusual for men of 5’ 5” (1.675 metres) to be heralded in the street as ‘big man.’ Big W was actually around 5’8” (1.77 metres).. But he was almost as broad as he was tall. He’d been a professional middleweight boxer in the 1950s. Not, as he himself admitted, a very good one, winning just two of his seven pro bouts with his career ending when he had to have an eye removed after that seventh fight.

He always wore tinted glasses so his glass eye wasn’t immediately apparent. But its presence afforded him another timeworn joke to tell. “Ah’ll keep an eye oot fur ye,” he would say to a friend and when he next encountered that same person in one of his drinking haunts would promptly place his glass eye on the table, exclaiming “telt ye ah’d keep an eye oot fur ye.”

The expressions on the faces of those unaware of his visual impediment were tailor-made for capture on mobile phone camera. Sadly it was twenty years too early for that.
Roseberry Topping in winter

Big W’s sense of humour wasn’t restricted to the hackneyed. Sometimes it bordered on the malevolent. He was never overtly political, not so much as stuffed an envelope during an election in his life. Not even during the ones I was standing in – the bastard – but in 1983 he played one of the funniest – and I suppose if you were on the opposing side – wickedest – practical jokes I ever saw.

During the general election campaign that year I was delivering Labour Party leaflets. When I got to Big W’s he invited me in for a cup of tea – though I distinctly saw him add something stronger to the one he poured for himself. I’d told him I’d seen the Tories out leafleting in the area. This had never happened before. The large council estates of East Middlesbrough weren’t fertile ground for them. This time they thought it might be different. That the sales of council houses might make tenants-turned-owners more amenable to Margaret Thatcher.

They were wrong. Many of those who had bought their council houses had only done so on the back of their redundancy money as Thatcher’s economic policies led to huge job losses in steel, petro-chemicals and the docks – the backbone of industrial Teesside for over a century. They did better than usual, but that was on account of Labour infighting and a revulsion at a large section of the Labour Party’s opposition to the recent Falklands War. Working class East Middlesbrough was also patriotic and couldn’t understand why leading Labour figures were opposed to liberating the unarmed, defenceless Falkland Islanders from unprovoked aggression and invasion by the far right military junta in Buenos Aires.

That, as they say, is by the by. Big W was as much in favour of the Falklands War as anyone else but neither it nor anything else would turn him Tory. He asked me to keep watch to see when the Tory leafleters entered the approach to the flats. When they were on their way he left the flat, called up the lift and placed a large hardback book along the floor of the lift so that the door couldn’t shut.

I knew from long experience the way to leaflet high-rise flats is to take the lift to the top floor and work your way down. Now this poor Tory, designated to leaflet this block, had to struggle his way up fifteen flights, leafleting as he went. By the time he approached he was knackered, we could hear him wheezing and puffing as he made his way up the stairs.

Before he could reach the twelfth floor Big W dashed out, removed the book, stood at his front door and started to converse with the Tory. He told him he’d always been Labour but was thinking of switching this time. Could he be persuaded? This went on for fifteen minutes before Big W said he was convinced and he was marked down as a Tory voter.

As the weary Tory trudged his way up the four remaining flights I took the lift down and wedged Big W’s book tight at the bottom, forcing the poor old Tory to make his way back down the stairs. As I heard him near I removed the book and took the lift back up to the twelfth. Back inside the flat I howled with laughter as Big W opened his window and shouted down to the Tory now making his way out, “Haw, pal. Huv ye got a poster fur ma windae?”

The weary but eager Tory made his way back to the flats and the process was repeated. At the end of it all Big W turned to me, beaming with pride, and said “That’s an oor he’ll no be wasting onybody else’s time. And he’ll need tae sleep when he gets hame. Don’t’ tell me ah nivvur dae onythin’ fur the Labour Party.”

He wasn’t always as ‘charitable’ as that day he volunteered his services ‘free’ of charge. Two years previously my TV went on the blink the day of the European Cup Final, one of the rare football matches broadcast live in those days. I phoned Big W to ask if I could watch it at his place. The reply was short and to the point. “Nae bother. Ye know whit the admission price is.”

When I arrived at the flats and pressed the buzzer, he hung out his window and cried “Huv ye got the admission price?” I pointed to the bottle of whisky in my hand and to this day would swear on oath that I could see a broad grin on his face from twelve floors below.

That was Big W – the only man I ever met in my life who could burn boiled eggs, a man who, on a long distance bus journey refused a woman who asked him if her crying son could have a drink of his Irn-Bru. He said he felt about six inches high but couldn’t bring himself to confess that although the bottle was labelled ‘Irn-Bru’ and the contents were the same colour as the famous beverage, and the liquid within even bore the name Barr, there was a subtle difference. The bottle Big W was carrying wasn’t a carbonated soft drink but one whose contents were arrived at via a process of distilling.
There wasn't usually a police van outside the flats
Well, not all that often anyway

For his fiftieth birthday in 1983 he told all who would listen that as a present he would like ‘a rubber woman,’ his term for an inflatable sex doll. Whether he got one or not I do not know but I do know why he found himself alone as he approached his half century.

Two years previously on the occasion of what was at that time the annual international football match between Scotland and England Big W decided that he would fulfil a lifelong ambition and go to Wembley to see the game. I had been to the famous old ground several times, including a couple of internationals, and was never one to turn down the opportunity so agreed to join the motley travelling crew.

There was myself, Big W and two friends known as ‘Little & Large.’ ‘Little’ being another Glaswegian, a former jockey around 4’ 11” (1.5 metres) and ‘Large’ a 6’ 4” (1.93 metres) local. ‘Large’ was the only one of the four of us who possessed a driving licence. Three Scots being chauffeured 250 miles to London by the sole Englishman was, we thought, a good pre-match omen.

I remember the game reasonably well. A John Robertson penalty giving Scotland a 1-0 win. Big W could give the story of the entire 90 minutes though he never saw a single one of them.  For he mysteriously vanished from our company pre-match. Amidst the thousands making their way to Wembley it was easy to get lost. The rest of us assumed he’d just got separated by accident and in any case we had all agreed a post-match venue to meet up as ‘Large’ had no intention of spending the match in the company of 30,000 Scots fans.

We met in the designated club but it was an hour later before Big W arrived. His first words were “Whit wiz the score?” Big W, it transpired, hadn’t been separated from us or got lost in the crowds. Rather, he had gone into Central London and headed straight for a massage parlour. Bemoaning, as he told us (and all within earshot) the tale of his exploits that it had cost “£7 for a fucking wank.”

We stopped on the way back in Nottingham for the night in a place ‘Large’ knew. This allowed us all to take in a live Boxing world title fight on TV and gave ‘Large’ the chance to enjoy a few drinks, relieved as he was of his chauffeuring until the following morning.

As we set out Big W excused himself for a few minutes and returned with a clutch of Sunday papers. This was, he explained, in order to read the match reports and be fully au fait of the events of the day before, lest his wife ask any questions about the game. By the time we returned to Middlesbrough he knew more about the match than the rest of us did – and we had actually been there.

The three of us were sworn to secrecy over Big W’s assignation and there the story should end. Except that Big W’s wife had the occasional habit of going through his pockets when he was sleeping. A few days after the match she came across the massage parlour card he had picked up from a Shaftesbury Avenue phone box. One almighty row later she packed her bags and headed back to Glasgow.

That then was how it came about that Big W was looking for the ‘companionship’ of a blow-up doll as his fiftieth birthday approached.

Big W and his wife had always had a feisty relationship. Both were at times over fond of the bottle and they continued to see each other a few times in the years following this incident. There were more comings and goings and whether they ever got back together permanently I do not know. But I do hope they enjoyed a happy ending of a rather different variety to the one which cost Big W £7 in Soho.

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