Not many of us can claim to be a singer, songwriter, composer, comedian, author, poet, broadcaster and multi-instrumentalist… an impressive CV for a Lancashire lad born in the back streets of a Manchester suburb.
But Mike Harding, perhaps best known as the Rochdale Cowboy after one of his hit records, has been shooting from the lip since he made his first ‘appearance’ in a red-brick terraced house in Crumpsall early one autumn morning in 1944.
For his mother Eileen it was a bittersweet day… within the space of a year, she had been married, widowed and given birth. Her husband, Louis Harding, a navigator on a Lancaster Bomber, was killed on a night raid just a month before Mike was born.
The boy’s journey through his childhood years, from birth ‘in the shadow of a dark, satanic cream cracker factory’ through a grammar school education to rock ’n’ roll in ‘the bowels of Manchester’s club land,’ forms the backdrop to a funny, warm and very personal memoir.
The rollercoaster tale of Harding’s early years in an Irish Catholic household in post-war Manchester proves to be as eccentric and engaging as the man who has been entertaining us through song, comedy, the written word and film for over 50 years.
Brimming with nostalgia, stories to make you laugh out loud and some wry observations on England past and present, Harding transports us back to an age of lemonade, leapfrog, cobbles, Children’s Hour, tanner ‘spends’ and gobstoppers.
It was a very different childhood to today’s world of mobile phones, iPods, Xboxes, trainers, home cinemas, computers and foreign holidays. To travel anywhere, you walked, cycled, got on a bus or boarded a train.
A suit had to last for years, fashion was something you read about in magazines, you bought your food every day from a local shop, churches were almost full and most women were virgins when they married, ‘though a great number of men did their best to correct this aberration.’
Happiness was spending your pocket money on sweets like Flying Saucers and wooden liquorice, ‘which tasted nothing like liquorice,’ and ‘picking tar out from between the cobbles with a lollipop stick’ on hot mornings.
Regular visitors to Harding’s street, surrounded by other streets that ‘looked exactly the same,’ were the rag and bone man who blew a warning note through his bugle, the milkman and the ice cream man who all arrived by horse and cart. Young Harding’s task was to collect the horse muck left behind for the single rose that grew in their ‘scrubby’ back garden.
After surviving years in the ‘gloomy old building’ which served as his primary school and a terrifying reception class teacher, ‘one of the fearsome giants of the grown-up world,’ Harding won a place at the local Catholic grammar school run by priests.
It was here that his membership of the Church began to lapse and he finally realised that there was a whole tribe of people who went on holiday to places like St Ives, had Aga stoves in their kitchen and ‘put Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce in their soup.’
By the age of 15, the schoolboy with a passion for music was the lead guitarist for the Stylos, a beat band named after a shoe shop (‘good job they hadn’t picked Freeman, Hardy and Willis’).
It was the start of a multi-faceted career on stage for the teenager who learned from an early age – courtesy of his Irish nanna who sang him songs and had the gift of the gab – that music and storytelling are a winning combination.
The only real disaster of Harding’s formative years came shortly after he took his A-levels, an event which cost him a place at university.
How he rose to the top of his profession despite this early setback could well be the first chapter of the second book of Mike Harding. In the meantime, we’ll all hang high for the cowboy’s return!
(Michael O’Mara, hardback, £18.99)