If a ragman had a hard day, he would say “I pushed my cart up hill and down dale all day long and never found even a feather”.
Some days it would rain and yet he still had to go and try to find some rags to pay for the rental of the handcart and the cups and saucers he had purchased to trade for rags.
In the 1940s and early 1950s, Liverpool still had horse-drawn carts carrying coal and other goods. Powerful Clydesdale horses pulled huge wagons, their broad horseshoes like heavy metal plates echoing through the streets. Even as big petrol and diesel lorries replaced beasts of burden, my father continued to use a little pony and cart to ply his trade as one of Liverpool’s many Ragmen.
When the pony went by the wayside, along with the great Clydesdales, my father rented a handcart, and from then on he bore his own burden. “I have traveled up hill and down dale today, and I did not find a feather.” My father often made this statement in hard times, and these were hard times indeed.
One early morning, we entered a tough section of the city referred to as The Holy Land for its many biblical street names: Isaac, Jacob, Moses and David. In a small shed on a tiny back street, my father bought cups, saucers and plates, which he would trade for woolens and rags. Hours later, we stood at the bottom of Northumberland Street.
By this time the cart was full of rags from the day’s collection. As usual, it began to rain without warning, and we were caught in a heavy deluge. Huddled in a doorway, we watched the noisy rain pelt the streets. As quickly as it had started, the rain stopped, and my father moved to pull off the top layers of the rag pile, shaking the water to the ground so as not to get the rest of the load wet. If the rags were even slightly damp, the load was “knocked back” – rejected until it was dry – which meant no wages for that day, sometimes longer, weather permitting.
Northumberland Street was very steep, its slick granite cobblestones proving a challenge even on foot. This day, the freezing rain made the ascent all the more treacherous. Together we pushed the loaded handcart, and as we began to climb I felt its great weight resisting. Just when I thought we might slide backward, my father gathered a great strength from out of nowhere. The cart began moving smoothly; the great burden seemed lighter now. The Ragman had used his “common denominator” – intelligence – to traverse a difficult terrain, and in the process he taught me one of the many survival skills I would need later in life.
The hill was so difficult it took quite a while to get to the top, but my father tackled it as sure-footed as a mountain goat. By using a steady switchback, or zigzag pattern, we reached the top quickly and almost effortlessly. Looking down, we watched others slowly inching their way up behind us, often stopping to rest before resuming.
My father went inside a tenement building. I stood outside protecting the cart – its load and crockery stock would have been pilfered instantly if left unattended – when a scruffy street gang happened by.
Four toughs surrounded the cart and began goading me into a fight. They mocked the fact that I was the son of a lowly Ragman, which both shamed and infuriated me. The leader, a loudmouth with a basin haircut, pushed too hard and soon we were embroiled in a fistfight. My father emerged in time to hear the gang urge their leader to “kick his fukkin’ ‘ed in!”
Sadly for him, this was not to be, as my mother would later enjoy telling everyone who walked into our house. Like a raging pit bull, I had to be pried off the gang leader. I felt as light as air, the adrenalin rushing as I pounded the bully, chopping his neck with my open hand like an axe. He scrambled away like an animal freed from a trap, his eyes wide and scared.
When I was dragged off him, I held onto his shirt. He wrenched free from my grip but left the scene minus a collar and with his shirt and reputation in tatters.