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Rant & Dawdle Cover


Rant & Dawdle

The Fictional Memoir of Colston Willmott

Without the handful of sepia photographs found in a tattered cardboard shoe box at the back of Lil’s bedroom cupboard I would be unable to conjure up much of an image of Percy. The earliest of the photographs – where he is possibly in his twenties – is a studio portrait in which he is attired in a wide lapelled dark coloured three-piece suit with a folded handkerchief protruding from the breast pocket. A striped shirt with a polka dot tie that is held in place by a collar pin completing the picture of sartorial splendour. There is a pensive look about his face, a certain sadness in his grey eyes and already the inkling of a smile has a sardonic twist. He was not a big man, five feet nine inches in height, but his demeanour projected a certain toughness emphasised by the wide-banded light-coloured Fedora hat fixed firmly on his head. If it were not for the large protruding ears, a family trait, he could have passed for a mild mannered gangster, a public enemy in the style of James Cagney.

However all that remains in my mind is his hair, what little he had, Brylcreemed flat on his head, and the wide leather belt with a large brass buckle, fastened tight about his baggy trousers, in combination with a pair of suspenders. On rare occasions, when I had upset him in some manner, he would loosen the belt and say – “see this my boy, you’re going to get it if you don’t stop!” In truth he never physically harmed me in any way. In light of memory Percy turns out to not be the ogre I have painted him, perhaps he was trapped in the convention of marriage with me, an unwanted mistake, being the reason for the beginning of his downfall. There seems to be much more to him than I had at first imagined, a soft and caring side that encouraged me to participate in what are now long elapsed pursuits. Among them the joy of cycling.

If it was the voices emitting from the speakers of the radio that were nourishing my brain, then it was owning a bicycle that was enlarging my world outside of 64 Romney Avenue. The daily journey to and from school took me through a variety of districts all with distinct personalities; the multi-culturalism of Stapleton Road with its endless rows of immigrant owned shops filled with exotic products from everywhere in the world, paraphernalia of all kinds in the second-hand shops of Newfoundland Road, the market places of Old Market Street and the glass roofed Corn Exchange, swimming in the quarry at Snuff Mills, or on another route which would take me through the district of Ashley Down, past Mullers Orphanage, where if chance had taken another turn I would have been an inhabitant. Eastville Park where we fished for tadpoles under the bridge that crossed the Frome River, collecting them in jars and watching as they changed into newts and frogs. Close by was the home of our beloved Bristol Rovers Football team. Or occasionally I rode through the drab cobbled streets of my birthplace in the Dings.

Percy realising that this was a sport I was seriously interested in, possibly the first indication that I was interested in anything, helped me purchase my first “real” bike from Fred Baker’s on Cheltenham Road. As I was underage and unable to come up with the money required for such a grand machine he put down the deposit and signed the papers allowing me to pay for this weekly. On the tick – just as the furniture had been purchased from Mister Jenkins. In the same box with the photograph of Percy was the payment book from the T.I. Cycle Credit Facilities Ltd. hire purchase company of 14-18 Low Pavement, Nottingham, the cost of the loan being £14.10.0 with a deposit of £2.19.0 leaving an outstanding balance of £11.2.0 to be paid by consecutive weekly payments of £0.4.6. It would seem, upon checking the payment book, that it was considerably more casual than the contract demanded as the payments were of a more irregular nature and not always in the correct amount. The vendor was more trusting in those days.

My first machine had a legendary Claude Butler frame complete with Campagnolo gears, a Chater Lee double clanger chainset and pedals, 27” rimmed wheels with Pirelli tubular tires running on Harden sealed aluminium flanged hubs, centre-pull Mafac brakes and even a Brooks racing saddle. The frame was painted black with salmon pink forks.

Nothing of course came easy, the weekly payments being my responsibility, and because the money that I earned from delivering the morning newspapers was inadequate, another job had to be found. There were a number of part time jobs available, the one that paid the most being the delivery of meat for the local butcher. After school and on Saturday mornings I rode my grand racing machine to the butchers shop and swapped it for the clumsy black painted butcher-boy bike that weighed a ton. This contraption was designed specifically for the purpose of transporting goods in a tubular framed basket situated over the half-sized front wheel. There was a pull down stand that supported the front of the bike so that when it was loaded up with choice cuts packaged in brown paper parcels tied up with string to be delivered to wealthy patrons it would not topple over. There was no cross bar and it looked like an ungainly version of a ladies model with down angled stays that allowed the rider to step through rather than cocking a leg over. Everything about the butchers bike was, in comparison to the Claude Butler, exaggerated; the crude calliper brakes inefficient, the stiff wide leather saddle seated upon heavy duty wire springs chapping the thighs, forcing one to pedal bandy legged, and the single speed free-wheel for propulsion was, because of the weight of the bike and the contents of the packaged meat, low geared. Apart from earning enough money to purchase my dream machine this job also assisted me in putting muscles on my skinny legs, and quite possibly giving me my first lesson in work ethics and independence. Hanging down from the stays was a hand painted sign, the classiest feature of the whole bike. It read, on both sides, Giles Lamb & Son – Purveyors of Fine Meat.

There were numerous gathering places for cycling enthusiasts including the other bicycle shop which was just up the road from the school in Boot Lane and owned by Les Cassell who designed a most original frame called the “Silverlight”. The silver soldered frame, made from either Reynolds “531” or Accles & Pollock “Kromo S.A.Q.” tubing, was a visual and engineering marvel made unusual because of the seat and head tubes being parallel to each other, as were the down tube and seat stays. At the point where the cross bar and down tube met at the seat clamp a triangle was formed by the seat stays crossing them both. Where the seat and down tubes met, making a ‘V’, a Bayliss-Wiley bottom bracket set was cradled and supported underneath by the chain stays. Forming another triangle. At the intersections of the tubing the joints were finished off with hand filed ornate lug work, the design forming an ‘S’. For Silverlight. Only 401 of these machines was ever built. It was beautiful. I could never afford one of these exceptional machines as they were twice the cost of more popular models produced by such as Claude Butler and Freddie Grubb. The sign above the shop read: Thanet – Designers of the World Lightest Racing Cycle – Bristol’s only Hand-Made Cycle.

Les Cassell was an unusual man who in his youth, at the tender age of nineteen, worked at the Chislet colliery at the time of the 1926 General Strike which lasted nine days and ended on May 12th, the day, twelve years later, on which I was born. The strike was called by the General Council of the Trades Union Congress in an attempt to force the government to act to prevent wage reduction and worsening conditions for coal miners. Their action was unsuccessful. This experience had a profound effect on Les, causing him to become a socialist and trade unionist. He continued to be influenced by this experience for the rest of his life even making the Thanet logo a five pointed red star. Being an outspoken chatter and a natural salesman he would unknowingly become a major influence on my life, and I suspect it is more than coincidence that I would eventually have so many interests in common. He was a self-taught loner who was an avid reader, especially of Karl Marx, loved music and had more than a passing interest in photography.

Soon cycling would occupy every minute of my waking day. The freedom filling me full. Now instead of the limited world of the factory class, new and exciting terrains were being discovered, for which in many ways thanks must be given to Percy. Gradually the Sunday races and jaunts into the country replaced the family outings, trips to Weston-Super-Mare and the like becoming evening training runs for a more serious endeavour. Among the newly acquired friends were jazz fans who collected records and attended concerts, introducing me to an art form that would obsess me for the rest of my life.

One of the gathering places was the Swiss Chalet, a cafe where there were often as many as two dozen cyclists congregating on the pavement, talking shop, discussing who had broken what record, the daily results of a major tour, which company had come up with an advancement in technology that would improve our machines, for example the Italian Gnutti company who had invented a cotterless spined crankset. Opposite the cafe was the Colston Hall (in no way related), which featured most of the big name musical attractions that came to town, where, a few years later, it would be possible to witness the genius of Miles, Monk and Milt.

An extract from Chapter 12 (pages 108 -112)


Rant & Dawdle is a fictional memoir comprising thirty-eight interwoven stories from the perspective of a grumpy old man living on a small island off the west coast of Canada and an expectant young boy born into the poverty of WW2 English working class. The old man dreaming in retrospect, the young boy living a developing history, both to eventually rendezvous in the eighties. Filled with the humour and history of a post war generation nurtured on comic books, the Goon Show and jazz.

Rant & Dawdle: The Fictional Memoir of Colston Willmott
As Imagined By William E. (Bill) Smith (Charivari Press – 482 pages)

There’s nothing straightforward about Bill Smith’s life and career, and his rambling, chaotic memoir is no different. It’s not just that it jumps all over, provoking even the author at one point to comment, “You may be wondering where all this is leading, as indeed I am.” For reasons Smith never actually explains, he presents this memoir as a work of fiction, telling the life-story of an imaginary character, Colston Willmott.

The life recorded here has been spent in extremes, driven by an obsession with jazz, and fuelled by an irrepressible imagination. But whose life is it? If it actually differs from Smith’s — and we suspect it doesn’t — we don’t find out here.

But as merely the author, and not the subject, of this “fictional memoir,” Smith gets to assume the voice of a third-person narrator. The text alternates between his narrative and that of his fictional doppelganger. It’s a clever device. Smith can call Willmott a “grumpy, doddering, old sod,” and Willmott can indulge his feelings of self-pity about everything from his declining health to the loneliness that possesses him.

As he moves into his seventies, Willmott takes pleasure in his considerable professional achievements, the books he reads so voraciously, the musicians he still listens to on disc, like Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Anthony Braxton and Albert Ayler, his enduring and rewarding relationship with the woman he calls Essjay, and his abiding love for his two daughters, here referred to as Bones and Giggles.

It’s been over twenty years since Smith retreated from Toronto to Hornby Island. But he remains an essential presence on the Canadian jazz scene as a musician, photographer, record producer, radio host, editor, film producer and writer. This book provides a neat counterpart to Smith’s previous book, Imagine the Sound, which documented his life in jazz with poetry, photos and reminiscences of family, friends, and the extraordinary musicians Smith has played with, photographed, interviewed and recorded. They’re all here — in spirit, if not name. And so is his “old mate and business partner,” fellow Brit John Norris (here called Welman), the founder of Coda Magazine. Together they produced Coda, started Sackville Records and ran the Jazz and Blues Record Centre. Smith was the avant-gardist of the team; Norris, who died in 2010, the traditionalist.

This is such a hilarious, poignant, and thoroughly captivating tale that typos, repetitions and misspellings seem not to matter. The assortment of fonts used may be confusing, and it’s frustrating not to have the photos (many by Smith himself) identified. But better to preserve the rough edges than risk toning down and smoothing out the singularly authentic voice so brilliantly captured here.

Pamela Margles – Whole Note Magazine