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FUNNY OLD GAME POLITICS (Part Five)

05-05-2007

In this latest, “hot off the press” first draft of from the memoirs of Hugh McCallion, the Labour veteran recalls the career of Birmingham’s first female Mayor - and fierce Tory rival - Freda Cocks (OBE, JP, and still going strong at 90).

I had never served on the housing committee prior to taking over as chair in 1975 and I have to confess I found the prospect quite daunting. On the Labour side we had two ex chairmen and also the Leader of the Council, Clive Wilkinson.

The Tory members were also predominantly experienced people and the Liberals, as they then were, had a youngish Paul Tilsley, complete with mop of brown hair, leading for them. As was the way with housing, all 19 members regarded themselves as experts.

My feelings of trepidation were short-lived. The first meeting had scarcely begun when rooms 3 and 4 turned into a virtual battlefield and I found myself joining in with gusto. A casual visitor could have been forgiven for thinking these people must all hate each other with a vengeance, but that most certainly was not the case. Outside the housing committee the members were usually quite civilised towards each other and the quality of the repartee was first class.

The Conservative leader on housing was Freda Cocks who, even then, was something of a legendary figure in the city. She and her husband, Don, had kept a number of public houses in the city including The Dolphin in Acocks Green. She had chaired the committee on two occasions and, as you can imagine, she was no shrinking violet.

Although Freda and I knocked spots off each other in committee, in council, in the press and on radio, there was never the slightest hint of malevolence between us. In fact we developed a close friendship which exists to this day.

Freda had set up Hospital Radio and done many of the initial broadcasts, so she was a natural when it came to that medium. A shy young lad named Doolan was getting his feet under the broadcasting table at that time and Freda and I used to do an hour long phone - in programme with him at least once a month.

Freda had a tremendous capacity for de-bunking, which, if the timing was right, was often more effective than a political comment. On one occasion I had her on the run at committee after she had tried to rescue one of her colleagues. Eager to press home the advantage, I made some comment which pleased my lot.

Freda, whose matronly figure was ensconced directly opposite me, just wagged an admonishing finger at me and said: ”Any more smart-ass comments from you Chairman and I’ll put you across my knee.”

When an ungrateful electorate decided to turf my party out and put the Tories back in control, Freda was once again in charge of housing. As I prepared to leave the edifice that was Bush House with its notorious “Chairman’s Office,” one of the last things I did was leave a hand-written note for Freda which read: “Health and happiness on a personal basis but may your policies be a dismal failure."

A couple of years later, the Conservatives chose Freda to be the first Conservative woman to hold the office of Lord Mayor in the city of Birmingham. She asked me if I would do the nomination speech on the big day, a request with which I was more than happy to accede.

I had already heard some stories from Freda about her and Don’s experiences as Host and Hostess of a number of public houses in the city. Nevertheless, as the person doing the historic nomination speech I had a responsibility to make it as interesting as possible, not forgetting that there would be civic dignitaries present, including Bishops, not just from Birmingham but further afield.

My wife and I, together with Councillor Arthur Walker and his wife Rose, met with Freda and Don for dinner. I had already prepared the Council service bit and I was putting together some anecdotes. Boy did I get my money’s worth.

Don was a natural raconteur and they tumbled out one after the other, a few however that were definitely not suited to the chamber on such an august day. I needn’t have worried though for a couple that I had taken a chance on had their Graces rolling in the aisles.

I still recall some of the anecdotes so, with your indulgence, here goes.

In those days the laws were very strict regarding certain things such as signing and the writing of betting slips in public houses. There was the occasion when a little Irishman who was a regular, asked Don if he could borrow his paper. He then went off and seated himself by a table and began reading. A few minutes later he came back to the bar and asked if he could have a pencil and a piece of writing paper. Don duly obliged and back he went to the table.

After a few minutes Don went over to the table and it was very obvious what the little Irishman was doing. “Can’t you read?” asked Don. “Of course I can read. I just borrowed your paper, didn’t I?”

Pointing to a large notice on the wall Don said, “Read that notice out to me.”

“Jaysus,” he said. “I thought I was coming to the pub not the opticians.”

Don tried again. “Come on, read that notice out to me.”

The little Irishman eyed him quizzically for a few seconds then read, “THE WRITING OF BETTING SLIPS IN THIS ESTABLISHMENT IS STRICTLY FORBIDDEN.”

“Well?” asked Don.

“Ah don’t worry gaffer,” said the little Irishman, with a dismissive wave of his hand. “That means horses, these are dogs.”

On another occasion, one of their regulars called Maloney was rather worse for wear and he had spent all his money. He asked Don to let him have a drink on the slate but Don refused. “You know we don’t give drink on the slate - and anyway, you’ve had enough already.”

Maloney waited until Don had moved to the top of the bar and Freda was within earshot. “Ah come on maam,”he pleaded “You know I spent all my money in here. Just one more drink.”

Freda was a softer touch than Don and slipped him half a pint saying, “Don’t let the gaffer see you.”

Not long after, Maloney began to half sing, half hum, “It’s a long way to Tipperary.” Don, who was well aware of what Freda had done, came down and tapped the bar firmly saying, “Now pack it in Maloney. You know there’s no singing allowed in here - and anyway you have a terrible voice.”

Quick as a flash Maloney retorted: “What do you expect for half a pint, bleedin’ Joseph Locke?”

Like most Councillors, Freda did regular advice Bureau in her ward. On account of her association with housing, she tended to get more than her fair share of customers.

On one occasion an agitated lady rang and Don asked her to call back later as Freda was at the advice bureau. She called twice more but Freda still hadn’t returned.

When Don probed what the nature of the problem was, she snapped, “Well, if you must know, my bleedin’ shithouse wont work!” To which Don retorted, “Well make him sign on the dole then.”

There was the occasion of a Queen’s visit and Freda was covering the event for Hospitals Radio. Unfortunately, the Queen’s entourage was nearly half an hour late and Freda was forced to ad lib for what seemed an eternity.

There was a magnificent white horse with a mounted policeman in full regalia, stationed just below the balcony where Freda was struggling. Suddenly this impressive animal lifted his tail and deposited a heap of manure in the well-swept road. As if from nowhere, two men appeared with shovels and brooms and within seconds the evidence had disappeared.

Freda was delighted. She started a whole new thread about these men having the contract and being famous for having the most fantastic roses.

When the Queen finally arrived and Freda had finished her stint, she said to the security man, ”I was relieved when that horse did his business.” To which he replied, “Not half as relieved as the horse ma’am.”

Finally, my favourite political story about Freda, is one that received some notoriety. Freda was up for re-election and she was defending a fairly slim majority. This being the building boom era, her pub regulars consisted of a large percentage of Irish workers.

One particular evening when she returned from a long electioneering stint, a gang of these boyos was loudly enjoying the craic. Freda chided them half jokingly saying, “After all the running around I do after you lot and not one of you has offered to give me a hand with my election.”

The men took the comment seriously and a few minutes later Freda noticed they were in a deliberative huddle. She began to wonder what she might be letting herself in for.

One of the men approached the bar and asked Freda what she would like them to do. She explained that the Committee Rooms were near to the swimming baths on Moseley Road and that her agent would explain to them the kind of work that needed to be done. “Tomorrow’s Saturday maam, we’ll be there in the afternoon,” he said cheerfully.

True to their word, the gang arrived on Saturday afternoon but they had their own ideas about what should be done. The agent wasn’t present at the time and a couple of his bemused assistants watched as the men unfurled a banner and strung it from one side of Moseley Road to the other.

Bearing in mind that the candidate’s name was Freda Cocks, a frantic search began to locate the agent. Eventually the poor man drove down Moseley Road to be confronted with this huge banner bearing the powerfully persuasive slogan: “GET COCKS IN.”

Try as he might, the agent couldn’t convince the men that their beautifully crafted banner and slogan wasn’t a good idea. In desperation he called Freda and asked her to get there as soon as possible.

Although Freda saw the funny side of it she finally persuaded the boys to take it down.

Freda duly won the election with a slightly increased majority but the boys were convinced that she would have won by a landslide if she had kept the banner up.

There’s already a lively thread on the Message Board about Hugh’s memoirs. Feel free to add your voice.
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