A ‘Notable’ book of legendary local folk
When John Sparry's timewarp house featured in a 1991 edition of style magazine The World of Interiors, behind him, above the fireplace hung a distinctive picture.
The well-groomed black horse, pictured at Newmarket, sported a bobbed tail, so John knew it was fairly old. A light patch on the frame hinted at a missing nameplate. And whenever locals questioned him about the eye-catching photograph, he would give them a knowing response: "I bought it from Mrs Fisher."
Jean Fisher, who kept a famous second-hand shop in Tipton, is one of a number of colourful characters who feature in John's latest book, Notable People. It is not an account of the rich or famous, the movers-and-shakers who led the Industrial Revolution, or the sons and daughters of the Black Country who went on to enjoy glittering careers. There are plenty of books about them already.
Notable People is a celebration of the local characters, the "world famous in Wombourne" types, the people who everybody knew within the close-knit communities of yesteryear.
Mrs Fisher, who John portrays as a real-life Auntie Wainwright from the Last of the Summer Wine, was certainly one of these characters. His book paints an evocative picture of a shrewd, razor-sharp operator, with a talent for selling anything to anybody.
"There were three floors seemingly packed with a confusion of old bits of furniture, decanters without stoppers, piles of plates, cups without saucers and clocks without keys," says John.
He recalls that the choice items rarely made the way into her shop though. These were stored in sheds at the back of her home in Penn, Wolverhampton, and were reserved firmly for those in the know.
It might be said that John, who enjoys something of a celebrity status for his 'untouched since the 1940s' cottage and bookshop in the village of Wall Heath, near Dudley, fits perfectly into that category, although his work as an historian, jazz musician and interesting raconteur has actually seen him enjoy national fame, with regular appearances on BBC Radio 4.
Back in the 60s, when the spotlight was firmly on The Beatles, Twiggy and Swinging London, John was known as "Johnny the Junkman", scratching a living by wheeling a pram around the village collecting old books, rags and any other household junk that he might be able to make a few bob out of.
He recalls 1967 being a particularly tough year, when his father Alfred was seriously ill in Wordsley Hospital following an operation.
"Funds were getting low, so I had 'weighed in' my collection of old car batteries at a scrapyard in Tipton," recalls John. The batteries made a quite impressive £45, so his next challenge was to decide how to reinvest his windfall, to make even more money. Which meant a visit to Mrs Fisher.
This was when John bought the picture of the horse – "a pound to you dear" – although he never did manage to turn a profit on it. His mother Daisy, took a shine to it, and it has been on the wall of his home ever since.
Notable People is the third in a series of six books about local characters John has encountered over the years. If follows on from Crazy Rhythm, a tribute to the musicians who have played at legendary jazz pub The Trumpet in Bilston, and They All Were, the first in a trilogy about the noteworthy former pupils of his old school, King Edward VI Grammar in Stourbridge. He is now working on his second book about the school's alumni, including Sir Maurice Wilkes, the first man to develop a computer with a memory.
As well as Mrs Fisher, Notable People also includes tales about Clent historian, campanologist and narrowboat aficionado Carole Hodgson, transport author and motorcycle collector Jim Boulton from Wombourne, and scrap dealer and horse breeder Paul Thornton who was famous for riding through the streets of Tipton and Gornal on his horse and cart. There is also a chapter on former Grenadier Guardsman Jim Passmore and his wife Sheila, who were well-known for the stunning garden at their home in Wall Heath.
*Notable People, Crazy Rhythm and They All Were are on sale priced £7.50 each from John Sparry's bookshop at Ridge Cot, 15 Enville Road, Wall Heath, near Dudley, DY6 0JT, or by telephoning John on 01384 359109.