Martin Coles (1944-2015)
Martin Coles passed away on 14th April in the Northern General Hospital. He had been ill for a very long time with Parkinsonís (strongly suspected but never absolutely confirmed) and a related problem which took him off his feet altogether during the last eight years of his life. He was at KES from 1956 to 1963. It was there, in form 1.2 that I first met him. I donít clearly remember what brought us together but it wasnít the proximity of our desks. We were arranged alphabetically, with Coles at the rear of the second line and Smith at the front of the fourth. I do recall a shared penchant for playing †King of the Castle, and we would spend many lunch breaks throwing each other off the steep part of the school close where it fell away to the swimming baths. Perhaps that was the beginning of our friendship but whatever its origin and despite the fact that we never again shared a form, it was to endure throughout our school days, and thence for life.
Professionally Martinís career was insecure and not very happy. In youth he had experienced some problems at home and the paternal fault lines whose eruptions and consequences were largely to blame, all too soon proved to be hereditary. After failing to achieve the educational successes he was unquestionably capable of, he was to lead an even more precarious and parlous existence than his father had enjoyed. A few years with the MOD ended when Martin could no longer take orders he disagreed with, dished up by those he thought his intellectual inferiors. Decades later I was to join ROF after its takeover by BAe, and for the first time I understood the frustrations Martin must have experienced. But of course the hierarchy must be respected and one must await the call to higher office which will empower oneís own intellect. But for Martin, waiting was unthinkable and a job for life was cast away as casually as an old sweater. Dole years followed, punctuated by a few years with the Gas Board, which terminated again by his own hand, this time because the clerical work was beneath his dignity. The future looked bleak and indeed was to contain nothing beyond a yearís job experience with the Central Library on Surrey Street. Here at last he had found his metier but the role by its nature was available only for the year. Health problems would come to the fore shortly afterwards and the work front retreated beyond reach even had he been more disposed towards chasing it.
For all the world he reminded me of Harold Skimpole. With a few minor changes to the text Dickens might have been describing him -
He is grown up Ė† but in simplicity, and freshness, and enthusiasm, and a fine guileless inaptitude for all worldy affairs, he is a perfect child. He is a naturalist, an amateur, but might have been a professional. He is an archaeologist too, an amateur, but might have been a professional. He is a man of attainments and of captivating manners. He has been unfortunate in his affairs, and unfortunate in his pursuits, and unfortunate in his family, but he donít care Ė heís a child! His wants are few. Give him the papers, conversation, music, mutton, ale, landscape, fruit in the season, a few sheets of Bristol-board, and a little claret, and he asks no more. He is a mere child in the world.
If Martin was Skimpole, the Jarndyce role was taken first by his parents, later by the state, and in so far as his social life was concerned, much of it fell to me in the form of providing free transport, subsidised beer and unrequited loans. In later years we met Stewart, who was not a KES man but he became another life-long friend and fellow chauffeur. This is not the place or time to dwell further on the details. I would prefer to remember our friendship and since neither of us married we had more opportunity than would normally be the case to spend time in each otherís company.
Towards the end of our school careers we began meeting in the evenings or on Saturday mornings. In those days Sheffield had little to offer its youth beyond the cinemas and on Saturdays a coffee shop or two. We saw a few films, including one or two soft porn French flicks at the Wicker. Once, as we came out we found ourselves face to face with one of our sometime French masters, who was just going in. He recognized us and cheerily said ďBeen inproving your French lads?ď On Saturdays we started using Davyís rather old world restaurant on Fargate (Chapel Walkís Sidewalk and Bramall Laneís Ocelot had not yet opened) and made one of their coffees spin out for an hour or more. On one such occasion I had a brainwave and suggested we go to Faulknerís billiard hall at the top of Cambridge Street. I remember that it took us an hour and a half at a cost of three shillings to complete a single frame, but we were hooked and became regulars at various snooker halls until some 20 years ago when Martinís Parkinsonís hampered his cueing action and we had to give it up. We became, and remained very evenly matched, just on the wrong side of hopeless. At Faulknerís we met and were briefly tutored by the legendary Sheffield amateur Charlie Simpson who was by then retired but keeping a foot in the snooker camp by ironing the cloths. Many years later we were playing at Mike Wattersonís new club on Glossop Road. Watterson and big Bill Werbeniuk were practising on the adjacent table. It had been custom and practice at Faulknerís whilst playing a shot to place oneís cigarette on the edge of the table, burning end protruding an inch or so. Martin had just place his cigarette in this position and bent down to play his shot when suddenly Wattersonís cue came crashing down on the table and with a deft flick sent the offending weed arcing through the air. A livid Watterson then lectured us on our disrespect for the furnishings. We thought that banging a cue with full power onto the woodwork and sending a cigarette to burn itself out on a distant piece of carpet would have done far more damage, but to say so would have cost us our membership.
Once working, Martin chose to travel abroad extensively. I joined him on a couple of occasions. Although our friendship was of nearly 60 years duration, I can find very few photographs showing us together. One was taken in Tunisia in 1971 (Martin is in the middle). We had made friends with a group of local school teachers who liked to hang around the hotels in the hope of chatting up European ladies. If they failed, as more often than not they did, they were happy enough to make drinking partners out of the men. On the occasion of the photo, Eddy Azour (I cannot vouch for the spelling) had invited us to his home to sample an authentic Tunisian lunch. The second photo shows Martin and Eddy with the remains of the delicious meal. When it was time to catch the plane home† we had hoped to say goodbye to Eddy but he was nowhere to be seen and we reluctantly boarded the coach outside the hotel. Suddenly Eddy appeared and knocked on the window. We got off and were treated to French embraces of the type which are common enough now but were certainly not then, at least not to the English eye. The watching coach load of fellow travellers variously displayed raised eyebrows or embarrassingly looked the other way.
Within five or six years Martin could no longer afford the continental trips and we contented ourselves with a few days touring in England, whistle-stopping cathedrals, churches, abbeys, castles, and other aspects of the English Heritage. On one such trip (1978) we both had our first experience of the RSC in Stratford. It was Loves Labours Lost with a cast of actors who were or would become big stars - Michael Pennington, Jane Lapotaire, †Richard Griffiths, Carmen Du Sautoy, Michael Hordern, David Suchet, Ian Charleson, Alan Rickman and a very young Ruby Wax. Much later, as a Christmas present, I would take Martin to the theatre every year, either in Stratford or London. When the venue was Stratford Martin would take particular pleasure in star gazing at the Dirty Duck after the performance. I donít believe he went to Stratford except in my company, but for me 1978 was the first of more than 200 visits.
I have lived since 1967 in Lancashire but have made frequent trips to Sheffield to see relatives and friends. Martin and I invariably spent each evening together, mostly in the pub. For a while there were two other KES friends on the team, Richard Meakin, who married c.1970 and disappeared from our scene, and Martin Young who very sadly died in 1999 at the age of 55. The two Martins and myself are all on the 1.2 class photo of 1956 and (John) Richard Meakin appears in the photo for form 1.1. We favoured† Derbyshire pubs, the Fox House, Maynard Arms, Sir William, and from the late 80s, the Barrell at Bretton Clough. For many years I was the only one with a car and had to provide a taxi service, but later we recruited fellow driver Stewart Morton. There is just one photograph depicting the full A team. Taken at the Sir William c.1985, it features, from left to right, me, Martin Young, Martin Coles and Stewart Morton. Sometimes other friends joined us, most notably Martin Youngís elder brother David, another KES man, who on this occasion is holding the camera. We had met Stewart whilst we were hunting (mostly with limited success) for young ladies at the Union or Nether Edge Hall (later Turn-ups). I might mention that in his youth Martin had been quite a ladiesí man. His facility for dropping on his feet was an annoyance to the rest of us, but we had to acknowledge that there was a degree of skill complementing the luck, and to be sure, he had a head start. I believe he was thinking girls when the rest of us were still playing cowboys and Indians. I remember our first trip abroad when our coach party contained two girls who were travelling with the parents of the elder girl. Martin immediately commandeered Sue, who was 18 years old, leaving me with her 15 year old companion. Whilst we were spending a few days in Tangier, by good fortune our room was next door to the girlsí, and there was a communicating door. Sadly it was locked. Suddenly, we heard scratching noises from under a bed and when I looked I found a body of politic cockroaches holding a conference there. With juvenile delight we managed to shoo them under the communicating door and then sat back, waiting for the squeals. When they came we were able to win Brownie points by galloping to the rescue and were rewarded with views of our girlfriends standing on their beds in their nighties. My diary for that trip bristles with unprintable assessments of Martinís selfishness as well as potted summaries of our fellow travellers. I had always intended to read these entries to him as amusing diversions in the pub or to cheer him up when he became bedridden, but that chance is now lost for ever. In fact Iím sure my comments were tongue in cheek and I enjoyed my celibate friendship with the younger girl whilst as a foursome we got on well enough. I suspect Martin enjoyed a rather more tactile relationship with Sue, and the romance continued for some time after the holiday. Whilst searching for Martinís will I came across a collection of letters whose post mark of Whitby told me they were probably from Sue. I looked inside the first one to confirm my suspicion. I did not read it but my own name leapt out of the final page and I could not resist reading that part. It said ďIím glad you showed me Vincentís drawing, which was very amusing. So he has a sense of humour after all, despite the grim, couldnít care less exterior.Ē Martinís effortless success with the ladies continued but all too soon his lack of transport shortened many a promising relationship and his impecunious situation put a premature end even to the process of hunting.
In the early days, before he met Stewart, if I wasnít in town Martin had to settle for drinking locally, usually at the Brincliffe Arms which was within easy walking distance. There he struck up a friendship with another drinking group which included at least three more ex-KES friends, John Goodwin (also on the 1.2 photo), Dave Ellum and Dave Gunson (form 1.1 of the same year), but as soon as I blew into town he wanted to sample the delights of Derbyshire. The Barrel, which we first frequented in the time of legendary tenants Phyllis and Fred, became our permanent watering hole during our last 15 or so drinking years. It is the third highest pub in the country and getting there was often hazardous. We have been up there when gales were felling trees before our eyes, when snow or ice necessitated numerous attempts to slalom up the Sir William Hill, and when fogs were pea-soupers. In 2001 I bought a new Rover 75 Tourer and gave it a Sheffield christening by taking Martin to the Barrel in a snow storm. At the end of the evening the car was not much responsive to brake, steering wheel or gear change, and to my consternation and Martinís amusement, it slithered in its own precarious manner down the hill towards Eyam. We particulary enjoyed a period of about 8 years when Derek and Penny were the tenants. They were extremely friendly and knew us all by name. Penny was a talented artist and I still have one of her paintings of the Barrel on my wall.
Martinís parents died more than 25 years ago but he continued to live in the substantial house he inherited at Nether Edge. His mother had been a promising actress, her small collection of personal memorabilia including photos of herself on stage with Donald Wolfit and Bernard Miles. She had abandoned her career to raise the family. Martin was also interested in theatre and more especially in cinema, and he became a great collector Ė of programmes, CDs, DVDs and books. These ranged over his many other interests, which included cricket. His books include runs of cricket magazines and copies of Wisden. He was a lifelong cricket fan and had even commentated extensively on it for the local hospital channel. In the years of his confinement to the house his collections extended to models from the military (another interest), including guns, soldiers, tanks, aeroplanes and ships.
During his final illness I was in Sheffield and saw him in the hospital three days running at visiting time. On the fourth day I was in town and had just boarded a bus home when I received a call from the hospital, relayed via Stewart and my sister to tell me he was dying. I got off the bus at the hospital but arrived too late. He was still in the private room and I was allowed to sit with him for half an hour or so until the doctor arrived to write the death note.
I have many very happy memories beyond the few I have recalled here. It remains to me to enjoy the memories and to discharge the instructions Martin left me in his will, namely the dubious pleasure of disposing of his assets and distributing the proceeds equally amongst various wildlife charities. This I will perform with a most Christian care, but with sadness too, that not a living soul, neither distant cousins, dedicated carers, life-long friends, nor even fellow sufferers of the diseases which carried him off, will benefit in any way from his passing. That came as no surprise to me as Martin had shown me his will after first drafting it 15 years earlier, but the thought Iíd had then came into my head once again - Harold Skimpole to the end!
"It's only you, the generous creatures, whom I envy. I envy you your power of doing what you do. I don't feel any vulgar gratitude to you. I almost feel as if you ought to be grateful to me for giving you the opportunity of enjoying the luxury of generosity. I know you like it. For anything I can tell, I may have come into the world expressly for the purpose of increasing your stock of happiness. I may have been born to be a benefactor to you by sometimes giving you an opportunity of assisting me in my little perplexities."
He was indeed a child in the world. But he was my friend.