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Weird in Woolton – A Short Story

Actually, it is a fictionalised account of my first job after leaving school, with some embellishments towards the end! Some names have been altered…

 

Strawberry Fields Forever

School leavers in Liverpool in 1980 had little to look forward to. Unemployment was high. Maybe the depressed City was moody at being made to pay for its stubborn resistance to the new Conservative Government philosophy, but not me. I was in a good mood as I cycled past Strawberry Fields, where a young John Lennon had once climbed trees, on my way to start my first job. OK, not a real job – a Youth Training Scheme placement as a trainee reporter with local newspaper, The Woolton Weekly News. I climbed the hill, leaning forward on my handle bars – a familiar journey as I past Saint Francis Xavier College, inching up the ever steeper road to the top of Woolton Hill, the highest point in Liverpool.

Freewheeling down Church Road into the village I made my way to the run down industrial park, brimming with youthful optimism as I took my first step on a glittering career ladder. After all, John and Paul had first met in Woolton at the church fete, and look how far they went. Perhaps there’s something in the air here, something that inspired the young Lennon and McCartney to write so many memorable and successful pop songs that have reverberated around the world. Maybe my writing would one day do the same.

“Ahh, young Tim! Welcome to what was formerly the Bear Brand factory, now The Woolton Weekly News!
Bill Brightside was a portly bearded man who looked more pirate than editor. I followed the direction of his pointing hand and took in the splendid decay and broken windows of a disused factory floor in an abandoned industrial complex, with two lithographic printing presses failing to fill the football-field-size floor space. He pointed to a chipboard partitioned cubicle.
“This is the dark room. I’ll show you how we develop film and make plates for the presses. I print black on this first machine, and do spot colour on the second. A bit overwhelming at first, but don’t worry, you’ll soon pick it up.”
So I was ushered into the shoe-string business of a commercial printer who ran a weekly news magazine as a sideline, pedalling local gossip, village news and advertisements. The paper was the shop window for his other commercial activities – printing leaflets and stationery for local businesses. He had taken on two YTS trainees – Graham and I – for 12 months at no cost to him. We were paid the princely sum of £23.50 a week (a rise of £5.50 from unemployment benefit). To me this was a fortune, to be spent on records and going to gigs, as I was still living at home. Above all, it was a chance to get some experience and make a name for myself as a journalist.

We were on a steep learning curve from day one, gaining an understanding of the full process of producing a news magazine. Graham had an interest in photography, so we made a good reporting team, sniffing out the tittle-tattle around the shops, pubs and churches in the village. I reported and typed up the stories on an electric typewriter, cut them into galleys, and stuck them on to paste-up boards, with black windows where photographs would appear. Bill showed me how to make the plates and fix them to his precious machines. He fussed and fretted around the printing presses, adding a touch of ink here and there, like an artist creating a masterpiece. The printing presses could only print A3 size, so the news magazine was a folded A4, with a spot colour on the outside cover and centre spread. It retailed for 15p in the village shops, and one of our jobs was to carry the new copies around the shops and recover the unsold old ones. My brief was clearly much wider than news reporting.

One day Bill called me into his ‘office’ – a wooden bench in a dark corner with a grubby curtain for privacy.
“Tim, there’s a dilapidated stately home on the other side of the village called Woolton Hall. Heard of it?”
“Erm, no, Bill.”
“Well, it’s been empty for some time; was last used as a school by the nuns but has just been acquired by a local businessman, Alan Ashford. I’ve just heard that he’s been given planning permission to convert it into a hotel and restaurant. I want you to get over there and see if you can find anyone to give us a story. Try and find out how much he intends to spend on doing it up, and ask about the restrictions due to the fact that it’s a Grade Two listed building.”
“Do you have any background information on the history of the Hall?” I asked.
“I’ve only got this leaflet about the architect Robert Adam, well known in his day, who did some work on the building in the 18th century. Here. You’ll have to dig around in the library to find out what you can about its history.”

Great! At last a real story I could sink my teeth into. I read the leaflet but it only mentioned Woolton Hall briefly. Adam was one of the leading architects and interior designers of the late 18th century and a pioneer of the neo-classical movement. He had been engaged to re-design the interior and create a signature room. He came up with an octagonal-shaped room, with neo-classical decor and his trademark fireplace. One of Britain’s most famous interior designers had left his mark here, in sleepy Woolton. There was nothing about the owners of Woolton Hall. I decided to get over there with Graham and see what we could find out. I could follow up with some research later.

Woolton Hall front c.1990

Imposing sandstone gate posts hinted at an illustrious past. We squeezed through a gap between plywood boards and crunched our way up the weed-strewn gravel drive. Graham snapped away at the shabby exterior that included a skip with a rubbish chute from an upstairs window. I ventured in through the open front door. No one was about so I wandered around the large and empty ground floor rooms, carefully watching where I trod on creaking wooden floorboards. It was in a deplorable state of dilapidation, with peeling wallpaper and ceiling paint, broken window panes and tatty curtains.

I stood in the centre of the octagon room, marvelling at the clever change of shape of a once square space, by the addition of four triangular shaped cupboards. The centrepiece was a Robert Adam fireplace, and the neo-classical decor included crumbling cornices and a circular ceiling design for a chandelier. There would have been four classical scenes painted on the walls, and I wondered if they were still there beneath the peeling flock wallpaper.

I felt a cold draught on the back of my neck and was startled by a voice behind me. I spun around to see an imposing middle-aged man wearing a buttoned-up suit jacket, white shirt and a cravat tie.
“Young man, will you be joining us for the ball?”
I stuttered a reply: “Erm…I’m a reporter from the local paper, hoping to meet the owner or his representative for a story. Are you the owner?”
“Avail yourself of the cloakroom, sir, and join us in the octagon room for drinks. Mister Adam has completed his decor to the satisfaction of my wife – he is the talk of high society, I can assure you.”
“Ahh…I’m OK with my coat on. Can I ask your name, please?”
He seemed to waver at the door, perhaps unsure of whether to stay or go. His voice became weaker as he moved backwards from me. “What news of my ships? I hear rumours of piracy at sea. Come and tell me more, Sir.”
How odd, like he was enacting a scene from a play. “Are you practicing for an opening night speech? When do you expect to complete the renovations, and at what cost?”
My words fell on an empty room, as the man had gone. I was about to follow him out into the corridor when Graham appeared.
“Did you see a man in the corridor?” I asked.
“No…no one, Tim. But I’ve got some great pictures of the exterior, the entrance and the hallway.”
“OK, good. Can you photograph that fireplace, please. I’ll be back in a minute.”
I walked the length of the corridor but found no one.

Postcard of Woolton Hall depicting a painting from the 18th century

We returned to the office, and Bill ushered me into his cubby hole. An unpleasant odour hung in the air, an unwholesome mix of wood glue and body odour.
“Young Tim. I’ve got something for you. A friend of mine at the central library has faxed through some background information on Woolton Hall. Here, go through it. Did you find anyone up there?”
“Erm, yes. I had a strange encounter with a man dressed in Victorian gear who seemed to be practicing a speech. I got very little from him.”
“Well, swot up on some of the history and try again in the morning. Tomorrow’s the last day before deadline for the next issue, and I want to lead with this story, so get busy.”

I moved to my work bench and started to read through the faxes, making notes as I went. The estate’s history dated back to the 1180s when the religious order and crusaders, the Knights of St. John, were granted the estate by the feudal Baron, John, Constable of Chester. In the early 18th century the estate was acquired by Viscount Lord Richard Molyneux who built the present house. Later that century it was bought by local shipping magnate and philanthropist, Nicholas Ashton. It was during his tenure as owner that Robert Adam was engaged for interior design work. Bill wandered over to see if I had found anything interesting. I didn’t hear him coming as I had frozen in horror at seeing the next fax page.
“Are you alright? You look like you’ve seen a ghost!” Bill said.
“You know what. I think I have,” I mumbled, showing him a shadowy black and white image of a painting of Nicholas Ashton. “I think this was the man I tried to interview today.”