In the six years between 1982 and 1986 I ran weekly punk and indie gigs in Keighley, Bradford and Leeds. Often the bands I’d booked and their entourage would stay overnight at my terraced house in Bradford. In all, more than seven thousand people stayed during that time. How do you feed them? Had I been on better terms with God, I guess I could have got by on a few loaves and fishes. Instead, I came up with a couple of less miraculous solutions.
One was an all-night bakery on Leeds Road, about a mile from my home. The other was a super-cheap worker’s café just off Thornton Road near the centre of Bradford which we always called ‘The Greasy Spoon’.
Straw’s Bakery was a tiny shop with an even smaller one-room bake-house at the rear. The shop was only open during the day, but the baking went on 24-7. Through the night the bake-house was staffed by the same one guy, occasionally assisted with a young apprentice on work-experience. This baker made tray after tray of loaves, buns and pastries (including my favourites: almond slices and vanilla slices) most of which were sold on to shops and cafés throughout Bradford. The boredom of the job drove him mad so he liked visitors. If you’d stay and chat for a half-hour or so, he’d sell you entire trays of his produce for a pittance.
After gigs, en route to mine, at around 2 a.m., me and a van-load of musicians and roadies and fans would regularly park up down the cobbled alley at the side of his shop and troop down the unlit ginnel, through the paved-over back yard, and up the steps to the ever-open bakery door. Out of his loathing for the voiceless loneliness of his night-long labour, the baker had cultivated an ongoing presence of people. All comers would be made welcome, ushered in, urged to talk, not just to him but to one another or to simply reel off our stories. He himself wasn’t a chatty man. A naturally taciturn character, he’d neither the time nor inclination for conversation, often responding with grunts or monosyllables. No, he just loved to listen, in our case to hear about gigs and travelling, incidents and experience, opinions and arguments. Most of all, though, he just liked the simple sound of human conversation while he worked dough, loaded trays, slid them in or out of an oven, racked them for cooling, wrapped and packed them.
So we’d turn up and there’d almost always be others there, nattering while they waited for their promised portion of whatever was about to come out of an oven at the time. We were all part of his human rota. When they left, we’d take over, squeezing into the heated intimacy of the tiny space between step-top, racks and oven doors. We all-night in-comers were the cast of his oddball accumulation of nocturnal companions which consisted of a motley mix made up mostly of prostitutes and police, pissheads and publicans, passing neighbours and my punks. He’d greet us all with something akin to relief, as if we were the very last folk left alive in this dying night. And we’d just talk. And he’d be there, bent over his ovens, thin and ageless, looking exactly like some Dickensian character, glorying in the eccentricities of the company he kept. One day, during the 1990s, I drove past and the shop was empty and the sign was gone and I found myself genuinely upset.
And then there was The Greasy Spoon, also long gone. It was a place that I’d first discovered back in 1970 when, as a student, I’d had a summer job as a labourer at Haley’s Foundry which was just the other side of Thornton Road. Late mornings, once everyone was up who’d stayed after the previous night’s gig, we’d pile into one or two vehicles for the three mile drive down into the valley, through the city and a quarter-mile out the other side for one of the cheapest and best breakfasts in Bradford.
A favourite memory of mine is of taking a visiting American band down there. It was always a busy place. We’d queue to order our food and drink. On this occasion, one of the American guys stood waiting immediately ahead of me. Eventually, the man behind the counter turned to him and said: ‘Yeah. What’ll you have?’ I heard the reply ‘Eggs over easy on rye’. There was a brief pause before the café-owner grinned and said: ‘Listen. What we do is fried eggs on toast. And ‘ere’s your choice, mate: you can ‘ave ‘em or not ‘ave ‘em!’
To get to that café, you turned up a short cobbled track off Thornton Road. One morning I was taking the band Conflict there along with several fans, roadies and members of their support bands. We were all in a large transit driven by their singer, Colin. I was in the passenger seat beside him to give directions. We’d turned into the cobbled track which was quite narrow. There was another van coming the other way. It didn’t slow down as it approached us and scraped the side of ours as it passed. Both vans stopped. Colin got out and walked back to the other van. Moments later, he returned, climbed back in and drove on to the café.
As we were all piling out, I said to him ‘You were quick swapping details with that other driver back there.’ Without even looking at me, Colin replied ‘Swapping details? I didn’t swap any bloody details, I just waited till he opened his door and then punched him full in face.’ As we went into the café I thought of saying something about it being break-fist time, but thought better of it and just joined the queue.