All towns have in their midst “characters”, not those whose strength of personality has forced them into the public limelight, but the select few, who, by their idiosyncrasies, project something that is totally against the norm, whose special brand of behaviour sets them apart. In this respect, Swansea was enlivened and enriched.
THE GREAT VITOSKI or VITOSKY, dependent on which spelling he was using at the time, was barber supreme. He was a fat, robust figure, with a bald head, who had a fiery temper and he was liable to erupt at a moment’s notice. His place of business was in Salubrious Passage, a misbegotten name for a narrow alleyway off Wind Street, which even in its most halcyon moments was neither salubrious nor inoffensive. This was a place, when darkness fell, that only the brave would venture in to, being as it was frequented by drunks, dope addicts and other kin of the twilight world. But during the day it proved to be a convenient short cut to the Mumbles Railway at 21 Street, so it became a well used thoroughfare.
Here, in a tiny shop that changed little for many years, the Great Vitoski would, first thing each morning, put on display his bills of advertising. These were many and colourful, but all hammering the same theme – what a splendid barber Vitoski was – and how fortunate was the person who frequented his premises for a short back and sides. The word was graphic – I have cut the hair of the crowned princes through Europe.......personal barber to the Russian royal family.......the world’s finest barber.....and so forth.
You might easily miss the barber’s shop, owing to the voluminous number of signs on display outside it, yet it always seemed to be busy. At quiet moments he would venture in to the passage, and in a thick guttural accent would chat away to all and sundry. The stories surrounding this man were many, apparently hardly a week passed without him exploding and chasing a customer, who had obviously incurred his wrath, out of the shop, wielding a cut throat razor in his mighty grasp. What his real name or nationality was, is lost in the mists of time. He became a legend that old timers still recall with a little awe.
HOLY JOE was a different kettle of fish. An elderly man of happy disposition and benign countenance, he roamed the streets of Swansea at all hours, armed with nothing more than a Bible and a gentle smile. He was a religious fanatic who stood in line. His knowledge of the Bible was vast, verse after verse of encouraging words would pour from him, all of them tinged with undoubted sincerity. In the main he was a loner who, paradoxically, loved people. When he died a memorial plaque was erected in a bus shelter opposite the slip at Swansea Bay. I believe his real name was Tom Rees, a person whose gentle manner was mourned by many.
MR PENNY was the uniformed guardian of the portals of the Swansea Empire. He was not large in size, but his grand deferential manner always made him look taller than he was. He had been on the Empire scene, apparently, since time immemorial, known to all who frequented the theatre, as the man who could guarantee to fix things for you, for example obtaining good class seats, no matter how many “House Full” signs were up. Of course, Mr Penny did not do this for the betterment of the human race, it went without saying that those favoured by his all seeing eye would be expected to give him a little something for his trouble. When an avid theatre goer made his intention crystal clear, that he had to gain admission to the Empire at any cost, the uniformed chief doorman would discover that suddenly someone had returned their tickets to the box office, just a few minutes ago. Mr Penny was a star in his own right. A student of human perception, he could tell the learned professors a thing or two!
OSSIE VANSTONE lived in a world of his own, where the eternal promise of untold wealth and recognition reigned supreme. In his early days, he had gained local notoriety as a photographer par excellence, but somewhere along the way, the bottom fell out of his livelihood, so he promptly turned his nimble mind to other means of earning a crust of bread. His favourite dress, depending on the weather, was either a straw hat and a striped ornate blazer, or else a series of colourful clothes, surmounted by a ten gallon Stetson. He was a short, fat man, with a loud voice, which he used to telling effect. He would stand outside the market in his peacock garb, jabbering away until the usual crowd gathered. Then he would use all his expertise in trying to sell them his “Elixir of Life” or special “Indian Snake Medicine”. It was probably the same thing, whatever he sold, and was guaranteed to cure anything from gout to snow blindness, raging headaches to arthritis, dandruff to impotence. The man must have been a genius because people, by the score, actually paid good money for his concoctions and went on their way smiling. Ossie was a spell binder, a master of words, who launched a range of money getting schemes. But he was also a gentle soul, who people laughed at but did not ridicule to any great extent. Maybe the touch of charisma only briefly touched him, instead of taking over his whole personality.
HAROLD, who was never known by anything else, was a broken figure of a man, with a perpetual heavy stoop, who was known in just about every quarter of the town.
His main mission in life appeared to be the selling of copies of the “War Cry” for the Salvation Army, before they adopted the title of the “Citadel”. He had been associated with Sally Ann for many, many years. AT one time, I believe he played in their band. He was a person of few words, but must have had remarkable leg strength, the number of miles he covered in a week, selling his papers. Friday and Saturday nights were his favourite moments, because the pubs would be full of boisterous, boozing men. But oblivious to the surroundings, Harold would venture into the smoke filled atmosphere, with sawdust floors and spittoons, and methodically work his way around the room, to sell the War Cry to all and sundry. When he had exhausted sales in one pub, he would drift along to the next. In many respects he was a remarkable man, who did not appear to have a private life. At one stage he worked as a carriage cleaner on the LMS railway, even then continuing to wear the red jersey of a Salvationist. But, when duty ceased, he was off on his rounds, or would be associated with his fellow members at their gatherings.
HARRY HOLMES was better known as the Great Cyclino, a name given because of his dexterity and ability to ride bikes of all descriptions. At his peak he smashed bicycle records galore, performed his trick cycle acts all over the place, and even pedalled all the way up Constitution Hill, cobble stones and all. His cycling fame lasted for a long time, until he eventually slipped into a less public role, becoming commissionaire at the Civic Centre.
REVEREND LEON ATKIN was a preacher with more tricks up his sleeve that the best card players, yet they were designed for a purpose, to help the poor and needy. His church was St. Paul’s, and to those who lived in the Sandfields area, the streets surrounding the Civic Centre, he was regarded, by many, as the nearest thing there was to a modern day saint. He was a man, who though wearing his dog collar, would frequent public houses, greyhound tracks, horse racing or almost anywhere the cash flowed, in his quest to obtain funds for one of his many charitable causes, and seldom did he fail in his mission. As an orator he was excellent. Standing on a soap box outside the Guildhall or on the sands at Swansea Bay slip, he would give forth on a host of subjects, always eloquent in style and clearly defined in spirit. He stunned local religious bodies when he showed films inside St. Paul’s Church after services on Sunday evenings. The ensuing uproar went on and on. He established a home in the vestry of the church for any tramps who cared to share Christmas with him, and by his unstinting efforts in collecting money, provided them with several days of good food, warm surroundings and clothing. In his latter years he stood as a councillor for the ward, and swept aside the opposition like confetti. He proved to be a stormy petrel in the Guildhall precincts. But ill health eventually saw him slip away until he faded from the scene. He was not liked by everybody, especially those who felt that preachers should act in strict accord with the accepted religious principles and creed. He was flamboyant and a touch of show business surrounded him, but his contribution in the poorer quarters has seldom been matched, let alone exceeded.
CLIFF DAVIES , OR BETTER KNOWN AS Cliffie, was a bookmaker, when they were regarded as being “not nice people”, by the respectable. His haunt was around orchard Street, where he would shelter in the lee of a doorway, taking little bits of paper bearing horses’ names and the accompanying cash from hopeful punters. At either end of the street would be his protecting angels, the loo-out men, who would endeavour to let him know when the police were about, street betting being strictly illegal. He must have had thousands of pounds pass through his hands, especially on Derby Day, when a straggling procession of people, armed with their horse racing selections would roll up to place their bets. I never heard tell of an instance when his paying out obligations were not met in full. Eventually, when licensed betting shops became legal, he moved into the era of respectability. He swapped the street corner for more comfortable surroundings, but, somehow, the thrill of placing a bet on the nags was never quite the same.
Those were the days when most parts of the town had their own private eccentrics, people who broke with tradition and did their own thing. I well recall a cobbler, Willie Jones, living not far from my home, in a small road called Jones Terrace. His shop was attached to his house and while you waited to collect repaired shoes, he would regale you with a fund of stories, the majority untrue. But it was early evening when his character altered. A pair of shoes repaired by then would cause him to down tools, shut up shop and make a bee line for the home of the shoes’ owner. There he would expect to be paid on delivery and thus armed would promptly dash off to the nearest boozer. Such service surely earned its just reward.
In the town centre, beggars of all types were to be seen, although they were never referred to in such a derisive manner. These were people who did not want work, or were unable to work, but nevertheless had to earn money to keep body and soul together. It was common to observe a small group of street musicians belting away in wild abandon and with little pretense for quality music, on a motley collection of musical instruments. These were mostly ex-servicemen from the Great War, many missing limbs, some in wheelchairs, but all playing away with gusto, if not harmony. For many years, an elderly man and woman used to parade the streets of the town pushing a battered pram. The top was boarded over, and on this makeshift plinth was a gramophone player. The couple would stop at street corners, oblivious to passing traffic, wind up the record player until the spring almost jumped out of the box, place a record, frequently of military marches, on the turntable, and, as the music oozed forth, would stop passersby, asking for a copper to be placed in tin mugs which they carried.
On a somewhat higher spiritual plane was the band of the Salvation Army, and their lady members with bedecked tambourines. On Sundays the main band would split into smaller groups and would wander into the residential areas, where they stopped and played a selection of hymns, while other members knocked the doors for a donation.
All this became an accepted part of the town scene. No-one found anything unusual or different about the goings-on. If it happened today, the long arm of the law would swiftly intervene, or people would protest that their television viewing was being disturbed.
I suppose every era brought forth its share of characters, though somehow those of today appear insipid and colourless. We still have a surfeit of tramps lolling about in public gardens, but unlike their earlier counterparts, there is little of the majestic form or air pervading them. Today is the age of the meths drinker, the cider gulper, the drug addict. They are just as dirty and scruffy as those of other generations, but in the main these degenerates of society linger on without purpose or hope. Not for them the rolling up of tattered sleeves and settling down to carry out a few hours hard graft for a handout of cash, clothes or food. The outward aspect remains unaltered, but missing is the sense of pride that for many down and outs of yesteryear formed an integral part of their makeup.
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