“A Man of No Consequence”
Coppersongs (No ISBN)
“I likes you, Barb, you be such a happy man. I’m so glad that you turned out to be a man of no consequence.” Enos White
Enos was talking to Bob during his time working for the BBC collecting folk songs in Sussex and Hampshire in the 1950s. Of course, Bob covers his meeting with Enos in great and loving detail in one of his previous books, Songs and Southern Breezes, and he refrains from repeating himself here. In fact, we know a good deal about Bob from his five previous books.1 In this book, he writes about times in his life that are not covered in his previous publications; in the main, times away from his area of the Sussex coast and away from the family songs. This is not to say that this is just an ‘odds and ends’ autobiography. It is not; it is much more than that. His writing is as vibrant as ever, perhaps more reflective than previously and there is certainly a great deal to learn about this important figure, even for people who knew him well.
He starts with a couple of chapters from his boyhood and there are some quotations from Tom Sawyer and these include youthful jobs of rook scarer, lather boy for the local barber then working first as a tea-boy and later junior labourer in his own native area of the Sussex coast. Despite having what he calls “a singular lack of ambition or desire to ‘better myself’”, he had a desire to see something of the world. Having rejected the romantic notion of the French Foreign Legion, the 18-year-old Bob applied and was accepted to join the Life Guards and we are treated to five really vibrant, at times hilarious, chapters on the training of recruits and then a young soldier’s life in Knightsbridge and Windsor. Clearly, Bob was enjoying himself there but a change was not that long in coming. Comparing notes with a lifelong friend who had joined the police force in West Sussex, Bob became increasingly convinced that this was where his future lay. Bob writes lovingly of the way his parents “managed to scrape together the money necessary to purchase my discharge.”
Before him lay another period of training (to become PC Bobby Copper!) but in the interval before that Bob was a barber in Holborn and worked for a boss who was also a very strong literary influence.
In the longest section of the book, Bob deals with his years in the police force. After training, he was based in Worthing, first as a bobby on the beat and then as a detective constable, then something else came along:
The army and the police experiences are all described in lively, animated prose; Bob’s writing at its best, but they do provoke some chilling thoughts. What would have been Bob’s chances of surviving the second world war as a professional soldier? And another If Bob had not decided, in the end, that an all-hours, all-embracing police career was not for him, would he have ever moved back to Rottingdean and Peacehaven? Would he have been able to spend the time with father, uncle and cousin that renewed his interest in the regular singing of the family songs? If the iconic figure of the Copper family had not been around when the collectors and other enthusiasts popped up in the 1950s, would we all have been able to gain as much as we have from the Copper Family as we have done? It is certainly a strong possibility.
Here is an extract from the long obituary that I wrote about Bob for Folk On Tap. It refers to the long years that I was involved in the BBC Radio Sussex folk music programme, Minstrels' Gallery:
She takes a central place here. We learn in a beautiful section how bowled over he was at his first sight of her. He was writing some sixty-odd years after this happened, but in his vivid description of her looks and his feelings, he could be writing about something that happened very recently:
Something happened - though I cannot say what it was. It was a transformation.
Most of Bob’s previous books have included a small smattering of his poetry. These have led me to believe that Bob was a man who had an extraordinary and varied way with prose who also wrote poetry, with the latter somehow being of a lower quality. There is more poetry this time, again some of it is somehow lacking, but this time there are others whose power leaps off the page and grabs you; sets you thinking; as good poetry should. The longest is probably also the finest; Ancestors has the strength that sometimes came across in conversations with Bob about his predecessors. Here is a short extract:
In my last job before retiring, I was at a special school only a few miles away from Peacehaven and it was a frequent occurrence for a very angry young child to be brought into my office by an adult telling of their outrageous behaviour. It was my task to try to give a firm reminder of what was acceptable whilst not destroying fragile self-confidence and trying build trust. It was also my job to find why they were so angry and what could be done to deal with it. Tears often followed a period of calming down and at this stage there were occasions when I heard, “I don’t even know who my dad is!” Invariably, I reflected on the Copper Family after these situations.
That first example comes from his Worthing police days. The other example is comes after his return to Peacehaven and managing the Central Club. Bob was really enjoying life again, but having to face the dilemma that all in the licensed trade have to face; that of how far they should join in with the social drinking of their customers. There would seem to be a line that should not be crossed and, following what he describes as a “monumental bender”, Bob realises this and gives us some honest self-assessment in a poem called Awakening:
I stand erect to breath the sweeter air
Fresh from the fields of Arcady and home,
Wondering does the gentle flock still roam
Up the steep hillside in the evening there?
Do dragon-flies still hover by the stream
And schoolboys still love strawberries and cream?
Finally, there ought to be a mention for the 30 or so pages of lovely photos that help so much to augment the text. These vary from the really well-known, familiar images such as the one of Bob, Ron and their fathers Jim and John at the Albert Hall and of the same four leaning on a wall through to ones that I had not seen before and I have seen many photos of Bob from the years when I was preparing multimedia shows with the man himself and subsequently with Shirley Collins. The book is now available from Amazon, priced at £15.
Vic Smith - 26.7.13
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