WE COULD BE HEROES
Born in 1927 Lawrence “Larry” Cooke was one of twelve kids who grew up at 44 Juliet Street, Bootle. He was my grandad and as with every other grandson my grandad was god.
He was a typical “old school” bloke who, just like a huge percentage of men of his era lived his life between home, the docks and the alehouse. He married my Nan, Joan Wilson, in 1946 a lucky man who, so the story goes, fought off his biggest rival and walked out of a dance at Blair Hall winning the hand of his beautiful Joan.
I know when tales are re-told and passed on the romance often outweighs the reality but in my mind I see Burton and Taylor, walking hand in hand down Fountains Road, straight from that dance and into 8c Stanley House (the billogs) to raise a family and do all the things every other couple who lived in god’s own tenements did, but they, in my eyes, did it better.
In 1933 Liverpool signed a South African player who is still regarded as one of the greats by anybody who saw him. He helped the reds to the title in 1947 and was known for his pace and, for an inside right, great heading ability his name was Berry Nieuwenhuys. Apparantly Larry was a decent player himself and the similarity so striking, I can’t see it in the looks so he must have been a belter of a player, that for the rest of his days he would share Berry’s nickname and would be forever known as “Nivvy”.
What were you like grandad? – “see that scar, on me head, that’s a plate, like Dixies”…christ, he was amazing my grandad.
Were you in the war grandad, what did you do – “I went away to sea, a cabin boy, what did I do…peel fucking spuds”…so, he could have played for Liverpool AND been Jim Hawkins…seriously amazing.
Now obviously these were the things as perceived by a young lad. A lad who would sit and watch as he tinkered away in the back of somebody’s telly. People would bring broken radios and telly’s and he’d fix them. boxes ands suitcases full of valves and a room stacked high with more telly’s than a telly shop…he was cleverer than anybody. He did all that and still had time to breed budgies…men have been beatified for less.
He loved “the arl cowies” and not just the films. He would have a stack of Zane Grey books usually the cover of which was a cowboy, shooting at something (usually a mexican or an injun) whilst holding a beatiful woman….just like he did with my nan in Blair Hall.
He worked on the docks and I remeber him coming home from work, if he was lucky enough to get any, walking along the landing…overcoat, cap and a Sammy scarf tied around his neck and, always, a rolled ciggy and a plume of blue smoke….he was ace, I reckon he even smoked in the bath.
Now I am not so naive to be completely blinded by the power of the grandad/grandson thing and I am sure “the arl bastard” moniker was often warranted but to me he was just Nivvy, my grandad.
When I was old enough he would take me with him to The Roundhouse or Melrose and smack my arse at darts and let me watch the men play “nap”, a card game which to this day is still beyond my comprehension…just as it was then..when I was thirteen. He was a great dart player and I think most of the family will still have some bits of cutlery knocking about from one of the many sets he won. Did Phil “the power” Taylor ever win a wooden biscuit barrel? did he shite…my grandad did, THAT’S how good he was.
In 1974 my nan passed away, taken by that bastard cancer, and life was never the same again for Nivvy, or indeed all of us. The words “one off” are often used but ask anybody who was lucky enough to know her, she was a 100% bona-fide, one off. I think he basically just gave up then and over a period of a few years was not so much facing the inevitable but more begging for it. Heart attacks, liver failure, you name it the drink enabled him to get it and he didn’t stop…the quarter bottle of scotch under the pillow of his hospital bed bore testimony to that, my grandad was no quitter!
There are a million and one things that made Nivvy so ace, from his close up magic, his ability to make a tank from a cotton reel, two matches and a lazzie band, to being able to take a great scam and, bless him, fuck it up (that appears to be the only gene that was passed down to me). There was more bits of photo-negative in the lekkie meter than Max Spielman has ever seen and my arl fella once found him laying on the floor in the lobby, hair like Ken Dodd and a screwdriver welded to his hand “fucking hell lad, I think I tried to switch the wrong one”….he could even pull his thumb in half , no shit, and tug on a ciggy then make the smoke come out of his ears…he was magic and hard as fucking nails my grandad.
He taught me phrases that were in, gone out and some have come around again..things like “under the arm”, “hurdy gurdy” and “whadderyermercallit” and he could belt out a tune, his signature being the David Whitfield “Mardi Gras” or “Buddy Can You Spare A Dime” “On The Street Where You Live” he passed down to our Larry who has been known, on occasion, to sing it just as well. Nivvy didn’t just sing these songs it was heart and soul affair, full on, he was “a cracker”…you didn’t have to ask for order when he sang, it was given freely.
The reason I post this today is becauase after a bit of digging I found out although he may have just “peeled fucking spuds” he did it somewhere in the Pacific and I have the medal in front of me now. I don’t know if I will ever know what he did, where he went, who he sailed with but I know it must have been worth more than a piece of cast zinc with a ribbon on it. Yet he wasn’t arsed, he never said a word much the same as he never spoke about what happened on this day, 17th October 1964.
“Yer can take it iof yer want” was how I came by the framed Certificate and the Bronze medal. I don’t even recall what he said happened on that day and I honestly believe it is because he didn’t bother to tell anybody. You didn’t ask questions like that to men like Nivvy becauase for all the things men like him don’t do, and get slaughtered for, they will never allow pride to allow any balance. These days people walk up a flight of stairs for Cancer and get their name mentioned in the paper. Not these fellas, not my grandad…first rule of Hero Club? they never talk about being heroes. Any man that comes home used and abused, left to rot a lifetime skint, having faced death in war is a true hero and the mark of that being you will never hear REAL heroes brag, it’s just what they did, they had to.
So here it is…and it is all it is. Over the past 30 or so years I have imagined all kinds of things happened this day on the dock, what he did, he was like his my brother Sylveste, John Wayne and Popeye rolled into one.
He was Jolson, Lanza and Nat King Cole he was Dean, Lawton, Mercer but he was even better than that.
He was, and always will be, my hero, he was Nivvy Cooke.