My Brother Warren: A Letter from Michael Chalk

My parents owned two modest photo-albums, one red, one blue, in which there were snaps taken with their box Brownie, usually at holiday times. These photographs, two to a page, represent the period between moving North during the Great Depression of 1929 to the beginning of the Second World War in 1939. During the summer the Family regularly went camping by car; often fair distances. Dawlish was one destination. There would be hazy shots from tent openings, the car and family members in floppy hats. Another of Father, striding ahead, wearing holiday clothes: plug-fours and flat-cap. It was an adventure. One or two taken in the garden at Brentwood. Mother, in a print-dress, against a rhododendron, holding a baby. One photograph showed four young children sitting round a low table. It was taken in the North’s garden, who lived further up Joel Lane. Probably their daughters, Avis and Hillary, and Warren, his head a mass of blonde curls.

Early schooling was in the Village (Gee Cross) at Mrs Allens. She taught reading and writing and gave you jelly for tea. Leigh Street was the next school. Hidden behind a large cotton-mill on the way into Hyde. A typical elementary school with a main hall and platform surrounded by glass-partitioned classrooms through which you progressed as the years went by, starting with 2A or 2B, joining the letters together, learning to do real handwriting. Crowding into the Hall for music lessons; mainly singing with the matronly teacher smacking the words on a large turn-over pad supported on an easel, with a long pointer, as everyone joined in Over the Sea to Skye. Circles for marbles, drawn in the mud; conkers soaked in vinegar in the autumn; searching for nits in the classroom; tests at the end of the year; name a famous German composer.

Unfortunately Warren missed a lot of this schooling due to bouts of asthma. Special arrangements had to be made for him to redo his time in Remove B before going on to Hyde County School (the Grammar was added later). [NB: if my memory serves me correctly there was at least a shot of the school railings in a BBC documentary on the photograph and former pupil, David Montgomery.] To get there, you went straight up into Hyde on the Green Linnet (tram) and then up Clarendon Road past the Park gates.

Young staff were absent during the War and so the school was run by the old guard, right up to the mid-Forties. It was a mixed school with a Headmaster (a nice man who knew Father) and a Headmistress, Miss Armstrong, who had taught Geography, Billy Butters who taught Latin (a little man with a completely bald head), Spike Boardman senior Maths teacher, a Spencer Tracy-type and much feared. He wore grey Harris Tweed suits and came to work with cotton wool on his razor nicks Joe Sargeant who apparently was gassed in the First World War and was the butt of much baiting. Shouts of Joe down the corridor. Early morning he could be seen trying to wipe off Joe graffiti from under the staff-room windows with the tail of his gown.

All three brothers went to the same school. Derrick had been a Prefect there and when he left he invited Miss Armstrong to visit an end of term architectural student exhibition at Manchester University.

Warren’s time there must have been spasmodic because he still suffered with asthma up until entering art-school. Two years of that period I did not witness because I was away but I imagine it was a good time for Warren with his friends out of the classroom.

He mixed with boys like Bob and Brian Cheal from the Garage on the Old Mottram Road and Noel Godley from the Grouse Inn who was prone to epileptic fits. They took a spoon out with them to plunge into his clenching fist. There was Brian Jones, Philip’s younger brother. They formed a dance-band before they left school with Warren on drums. Beautiful snare-drum, wire-brushes that retracted into the handles, smashing the cymbals and a bass-drum lettered-up. They played all the local dance-halls.

One Sunday afternoon, Warren came back from Belle Vue Amusement Park (halfway between Hyde and Manchester) with a concert programme; on the cover was Jack Parnell behind his drum kit wearing a slim-jim tie with horizontal bars. We used to see him at the Winter Gardens in subsequent years. It was the rise of band celebrities. The sound popular with the young was that of Gene Krupa: loud, fast drumming. Warren played Stan Kenton records, arrangements by Pete Rugulo, solos by Boots Mussulli.

The time came when the Headmaster at the County School told Father that Warren wouldn’t ass sufficient subjects in his School Certificate and advised an extra year, somewhere else, to achieve this aim. So Warren was packed off to Stockport College, in the opposite direction to Hyde. At Stockport College, Warren used a Palgrave’s Golden Treasury reprint from 1943. When asked to choose four poems to read to a group of people unaccustomed to poetry, he chose Gray’s Elergy, Cowper’s To Mary Unwin, Black-Eyed Susan by John Gay and another girl, Henry Carey’s Sally in our Alley.

The influence of eldest brother, Derrick, at Brentwood, cannot be overestimated. He was five years’ older than Warren and went from the County School to the School of Architecture, Manchester University. Similarly, the staff were too old to be on active service and the teaching remained traditional (watercolour renderings of the Parthenon on double-elephant Whatman). Even so, one side of Derrick’s taste was for the Modern and he changed the front-room that he had as a ‘theatre’ with footlights and velvet curtains into an up-to-date drawing office-cum-living-room. Heavy drawing benches were constructed and placed opposite each other in the ‘stage-space’ (to the right of the door). The walls were painted dove grey, the original door made flush with plywood painted cream and two horizontal quadrants top and bottom painted blue and blue-green. Aluminium lever-handle.

All the low-lying bookcases that surrounded the rest of the room were handmade and painted blue-green. Large plate-glass mirror on the chimney-breast, flush electric fire set into a sheet of asbestos, cream square electric clock, Keith Murray-style ceramic, general-purpose light fittings. Warren may well have helped in this transformation.

Although Warren had a definitely independent social life away from the Church activities, he was fully involved when it came to Church stage-productions. Derrick had designed a workman-like stage in the Sunday School building and took on the role of stage manager. Working alongside him were several local men: Eric Platt, an electrician (they had a small electrical shop in the Village) took care of all the lighting; Ernie Read who did carpentry lived higher up Joel Lane from our house. Cora’s father, Mr Wilson, also gave a hand.

In the basement there was a tall scenery-room under the stage where all the scenery was built and painted. During a run-up to a production we would all work there until two in the morning painting all the flats. It might be a white fence with green grass and blue sky on eight flats 10 feet high 4 feet wide.

Following from a tradition of operettas the stage productions went into decline, apart from the annual pantomime; shows became variety bills of singing and short sketches with dreadful scripts hired from a Manchester agency. Sensing this, Father sat down and wrote a short play with a simple plot called The Bell-Rope. Basically, a mother and child were being held captive in a bell-tower by the Nazis (uniforms had to be devised and armbands painted) and they were to escape, carried to safety via the bell-rope. The hero was Warren.

I suppose he was some kind of SAS disguised as a fisherman. He wore a dark-green jumper, the sleeves pushed up and wardrobe had tanned his face and arms – for a few nights our local Richard Burton. On another occasion, after working all hours on a production, both Derrick and Warren caught chicken-pox from me (Derrick said I shouldn’t have got up during my quarantine period and stirred the custard). In the evening before the show began they blackened their faces and hurried through the streets. They gained access to the ceiling above the Hall, known as the Big Room, and watched opening night through the ventilator, lying on their stomachs. Warren bore feint pox-marks on his forehead as a result of this recklessness.

During the War, petrol was severely rationed to the private motorist and bicycles were an important form of transport. Derrick had a huge sit-up-and-beg dark-green Raleigh, a handsome machine; while Warren owned a BSA sports model with drop handlebars and the three crossed-rifles emblem. He and his friends did quite a lot of cycling. One weekend he came home covered in blood and bandages, he’d come off freewheeling down Thorpe Cloud.

In contrast to the drawing-office the boys bedrooms were tacky. Derrick had a narrow room at the top of the stairs where he often lay prostrate from some illness or other. Warren occupied the front-room, this room and the bathroom were over the drawing office. It was always half-painted yellow with the metal decorative fire-surround a cobalt blue. A desk bureau was pushed into the far corner covered in open books and tin-lids of Potter’s Asthma Cure smouldering. A bed was pushed into the other corner opposite the door. There was nothing on the floor. We slept together, we fought together. Once over a missing cycle-cape that had been carelessly swept into the inspection chamber in the garage. The room was like this when Warren was at Stockport and he would make use of it for drawing studies.

While he was at Stockport College, Warren made new friends. One boy was invited for Sunday tea. He appeared in a blazer and clean shirt but unfortunately his reputation as a convicted bicycle thief preceded him, so the atmosphere at teatime was rather subdued.

By this time Warren was more focused and he went on to Manchester College of Art, starting with the Basic Course and the design influence of Olive Sullivan who eventually left to work for Browns of Chester. At home we had the Daily Mail and as boys we were fans of Rip Kirby and Flook on the back-page. The artist Wally Faulkes was a cartoonist and jazz musician. Warren produced a small square book of comic drawings, in the hope of making some ready cash, and styled himself Joe.

Clothes have to be mentioned. Suits were a big deal. Warren had a pair of Naples yellow shoes with white flashes (the flashes were eventually taken off for the sake of good taste) and thick crepe-soles.

While Warren was at Manchester, many of the students were slightly older as release from the armed forces was starting to happen. At lunchtime they would wander up to Pauldens, a department store just up the road from the art school, for a welsh rarebit. Warren recalls sitting with a larconic friend who looked down and in a deadpan manner asked, ‘What is that slug under the table?’

Gee Cross had a hat factory and there was a young guy who worked there and lived in the terrace houses near the Sunday School who Warren knew and from whom he purchased a soft brown Stetson with a wide brim.

Warren drew the attention of some of the prettiest girls in town. I remember going to have my teeth drilled and as soon as I sat down in the dentist’s chair, the nurse asked, ‘How’s Warren? What’s he doing now?’

Warren scandalised the grown-ups by dating Arkela, a buxom and attractive girl and a little older too.

We sat in a circle and we dib-dib-dibbed and dob-dob-dobbed, knowing full well that Warren was standing outside the swing doors waiting for her to finish. Later, when we were at Croydon, Marjorie Souter came to visit with her daughter (by then married, I guess). The child ran up the corridor making a loud noise and Warren teased Marjories saying the child was like an elephant and took after her mother.

Eventually it came down to one girl. A red-head called Mary Sanders (see photo of Derrick’s wedding line-up), manageress of the poshest dress-shop in Hyde, just a little lower down than Dawsons, the camping shop, on the left-hand side, on a corner, as you entered Hyde from Gee Cross. It was a Deco-looking shop clad in black melanite with the name Nanette standing out in eau-de-nil script. Mary was a town girl not connected to Gee Cross and the Church in any way. She had relations in Devonshire and Warren spent a summer holiday with her, on a farm in Bude.

When Derrick finally left home and moved into University accommodation at Didsbury, the front room became vacant (Derrick’s Gee Cross friends dispersed too_ and Warren and Mary would spend Sunday evenings at Brentwood. Mother and I prepared them delicacies, like beetroot on toast.

In 1949 Father felt the need to return south; hopefully to a church that was not quite such a demanding institution. (Despite other churches in the village, Hyde Chapel was the dominant one, holding the community together). He was offered a post at Croydon and that summer we moved.

The day we left Gee Cross, we stayed at the Regent Palace. After dinner and before going to bed we went out into the warm night air, crossed Piccadilly Circus and stared for a long time at a small collection of gold jewellery displayed in a lighted-box, set into the wall beside the Adelphi Theatre.
In the morning there was something we had to do before going on to Croydon. Visit the Finshbury Health Centre. Of course, this was Warren’s eagerness to see some of the buildings that had been highly praised in the architectural press.

Warren came with me to make enquiries at the local art school but, by this time, he stared to feel the need to be earning, so he accepted a job with the Architects’ department of Croydon Borough Council.

For at least two years, Warren and I returned to Hyde to visit our respective girlfriends. In 1951, Mary attended Derrick and Miriam’s wedding. Cora couldn’t come because of exams, but they both came down in the summer to stay at Campden Road and we visited the Festival of Britain. Ralph Tubbs, the designer of the Skylon, became one of Archigram’s heroes.
(See Reyner Banham’s article in the Art News and Review, 18 November 1950.)

It was at the Architects’ department, Croydon, that Warren met co-worker Phyllis Adams, who had studied architecture at Queens College, Belfast University.

1. I used to enjoy riding pillion on this bike too. Warren would simply tear out of the side drive and down the hill and swerve on to the gravel in Arnold Avenue. We used to hang out in the empty garage Saturday morning with a couple of friends and sing Chattanooka Chou Chou a cappella.

2 What was a particular treat for me was when Father, Derrick and Warren sat up late after supper and fell into a deep discussion about some topic and I was allowed to stay up and listen. These sessions were often triggered off by some book or other that had been brought as a present and which had been in the news. A popular book like Colin Wilson’s The Outsider or the latest book on existentialism. When Warren bought Father a copy of Laurence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons he laughed and said I don’t think Warren knew it was quite salacious. Cinema, of course, was the main source of entertainment. Even a small town like Hyde had at least five cinemas. American films, especially, were a stimulating source of fantasy. We went to see the Picasso/Matisse travelling exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery in 1945/46 which stirred up controversy in the papers. Lots of talk and some laughter over The Lady in the Fish Hat.

3 As young boys we took to hiking across Kinder Scout and camping. Here is an extract from my account of Earl Sterndale sent to Derrrick in 1996:

One year my brother Warren came with us.
The others (friends of my age) objected on account of his age and supposed authority, but he wanted to come and I think it worked out alright. We were burning an old tree-root that glowed in the flames and looked like an animal skull. It seemed indestructible, turning up each night in the fire. We named it Moose-Head. Over twenty years later, when we were living in Tettenhall, I received a picture-postcard at Christmas from Warren. It was a reproduction of Durer’s famous watercolour drawing, Head of a Stag. On the back Warren had scrawled, ‘remember the Moose-Head?’