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My Special Book

I received a special book last year. It was some time past midnight in the early hours of April 18th 2011, when the echoing vibrations of my phone rattling furiously, on my bedside dresser, awoke me abruptly from my deep slumber. It was my mum; she never rings, ever, especially not at this ungodly hour. ‘Hi mum’ was my answer, unappreciatively accepting her late night call. Given the fact that I always plan my sleep to incorporate at least 8 hours of unconsciousness, I was not in the most jovial of moods when I answered. ‘Hiya Ste, I have some bad news’ she began. ‘Go on’ I said, still half asleep but curiously anxious for a rapid reply. ‘Your dad’s died’ she replied in a regretful manner. There was a long silence. Feeling numb, without emotion or any sensation, I thanked her for letting me know and promptly put the phone down. I remember just standing there in the bedroom, not having a clue how to react, what to say, or how to display any relevant body language to express any feelings that would reflect the news I had just been given. ‘What’s up darling?’ Jen asked, ‘my dad’s died’ I answered. Another silence occurred. ‘You ok?’ she asked, ‘Yeah’. ‘Just going downstairs for a smoke’ I nonchalantly replied. I had to phone my mum back, how did she find out? How did my dad die? Where did it happen? My mum confirmed that she had had a phone call off her sister, my aunty Jacky. Apparently Margaret, my dad’s sister, contacted my cousin Danny at the pub that he was the landlord of, via a phone call with a brief message asking him to pass the news of my dad’s death to me. How could she have? How could Margaret know to get a message to me via Danny? I had never even met Margaret and neither had Danny. It was very bizarre and didn’t quite add up. My dad is Irish and originally from Mullingar; he was one of eight brothers and sisters who were brought up at 47 Grand Parade. They are now all scattered around Ireland, England and John his brother is in Germany. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep much that night; I had so many questions that needed answering.

The following morning I informed work of my dad’s death and they told me to take as much time as I needed. I was only going to have the day, if only to get some questions answered. I phoned Danny at his pub, he confirmed that Margaret had phoned him and left her number for me to contact her. In the hustle and bustle of a busy pub he didn’t really have time to stop and chat to her so he couldn’t tell me anymore. Great, I thought, I was amazed that she had found me and the grief from my dad’s passing was being slightly overshadowed by the anticipation of contacting my aunty Margaret, but how the hell did she manage to track me down? I had the number that Danny gave me and entered it into my phone. Nervous, anxious and slightly apprehensive I awaited the ring tone. It never came, it was an unknown number. I tried it again, same, dead. I rang Danny back and he confirmed the number, I tried again, in vain. Fuck! This is typical of Danny to get the number wrong I thought, what an idiot. I was fuming, what could I do now? I wasn’t even sure if my dad was still in Rochdale, I could hazard a guess that he was as I saw him 2 years previously walking across a road…

It was just after dinner time one day that I spotted some old guy with a carrier bag in each hand blatantly holding a case of cider in each. I chuckled as I let him cross in front of me until I realised it was my owd feller. I pulled over, got out of my van and shouted ‘Derry’ and made my way towards him. He was dressed in dark blue jeans and green bomber jacket. His shoes looked new and his dark wavy hair was neatly groomed, he looked well and healthy. I was in my work gear and had just been doing some construction refurbishment, so I was covered in dust. That may have been the reason he didn’t recognise me at first.

Derry is short for Dermot, I didn’t find out his real name until I was an adult. We weren’t the closest; in fact we had no relationship at all. My mum kicked him out when I was about six. He liked a drink and certainly wasn’t a jolly drunk. After my mum became a single parent I saw my dad on 3 occasions as a child, and probably another 3 times as an adult, each time wasn’t a pleasant experience. Unfortunately the booze was his life, he was an addict, and it undoubtedly brought out the worst in him. He had previously given my mum 8 years of hell and in all honesty I can’t recall any happy memories of his time with us. I am not saying that there wasn’t any, they just escape me. However, he can’t have been all bad, my mum obviously saw something in him to marry him and have his child. He was sent to London from Ireland as a 14 year old to live with his aunt. He knew nobody, his aunt treated him poorly and he used to spend his days and evenings sat in his bedroom drinking bottles of cider, it was no life and it clearly laid the foundations of what was to become of him in his later years. It must have been hard for him, he had anger issues, and maybe these issues stemmed from his time as a youth. I was often the brunt of this anger and was frequently over-punished for wrong doings. His weight lifting belt was regularly my retribution for being a cheeky 6 year old, the buckle end too. And it wasn’t just me who he took his anger out on; I remember the single glazed living room window stood no chance as he hurled the wireless through it and onto the front garden. The police thought that he deserved a night in the cell for that episode, one of many.

I chatted with him on the pavement for a few seconds. I told him I was working; he told me he was going to his pals for a drink, a sign that times evidently don’t change much. He asked me if I knew of some guy that he knew of who was a builder; he had just died and my dad thought that I would know of him. It was very random and quite odd, what a thing to ask your son after you hadn’t seen him for years I thought. I confirmed that I didn’t know of him. ‘Ok then I will see you later’ he said, he didn’t ask for my number or mention that we should meet up, he never asked how I was doing, what I was up to, how my family was or anything. ‘Ok yeah, see you later’. Strange, that was my dad, you wouldn’t have thought so. Maybe I should’ve asked him for his number, but I thought surely it should be him to make the move, it weren’t to be. I was angry that he just didn’t seem to care that he had just bumped into his son after years with no contact. Oh well, his loss. I wondered what could have been going through his mind, was he desperate to get to his mates to crack open his case of cider, or was he just lost for words at seeing me?

So, what could I do now? I can’t contact Margaret as I don’t have her number. I had a feeling she lived in Stockport. My mum had spoken of her before and I have recollections that she said that Margaret had moved there a few years back. Margaret was a nun that found love and moved over to England to leave the church and be with the love of her life, John, but that was about as much as I knew of her. Directory enquiries had no listings for a Margaret Roche in Stockport, but I wasn’t sure if Roche was still her surname anyway, another dead end. I couldn’t just leave it at that, more than anything I wanted to make contact with Margaret. I had to do more, I didn’t want her to think that I was ignoring her or wasn’t bothered about my dad’s death. I phoned the infirmary and enquired as to whether they had any information for me, surely if he had died in Rochdale they would know, and thankfully they did. The chap on the other end of the phone checked the information that I gave him. His records matched what I had said and he then gave me details of where my dad had lived; it was a sheltered accommodation in the town. Brilliant, I thought, I now had my dad’s address and a contact name for the accommodation manager, Nisa. I set off and headed for my dad’s flat; hopefully Nisa could shed some light on things.

The Spencer Arms Pub, Lower Richmond Road, Putney, London

It was a downtrodden part of town within a council housing estate, certainly not a place that you would want to spend any time at all. I pressed the buzzer on the door of the main entrance, a friendly voice answered, ‘hello, how can I help you?’ I replied, ‘hi, my names Steven, I believe that my father Derry Roche lived here?’ After a slight silence a reply came, ‘hello Steven, come in’. The door buzzed and unlocked. I followed the shabby carpet round to the manager’s office where I was greeted by Nisa. Nisa looked bemused, ‘Derry never mentioned that he had a son’. Why didn’t that surprise me? ‘Really?’ I answered. Nisa frowned apologetically and shrugged her shoulders. I was rather saddened at that but not overly stunned. ‘So can you tell me what has happened?’ I asked, and showed her some ID to put her mind at rest that I was in fact his son. ‘Well Derry, your dad, liked a drink and was very poorly. He had stopped eating and had basically given up on life’. I took a deep breath, sighed and asked what the protocol was now and did she by chance have any contact details for Margaret, his sister. She said that she never did but that she did know of Margaret; however, she only had details for an Eileen. I remembered Eileen; she was an old woman that my dad used to live with. He took me to her house once when we met up when I was younger. I think he rented a room off her; he never went into any detail as to why or how he became to be there, or even how they met. To be honest, I can’t understand why he ever stayed in Rochdale after he split up with my mum, he had no ties here.

My dad and his mum in Ireland

 

My dad met my mum in London in 1976. My mum went off on her travels around the country as an 18 year old working in Blackpool, Cornwall and London. She worked at many places like Butlins and various holiday camps until she finally arrived in London where she worked mainly in bars. She met my dad in one of the bars she worked, they hit it off, got together, and eventually they became landlord and landlady of The Spencer Arms in Putney, South-West London, and were soon married. I arrived in the May of 1978. The pub was at the end of Lower Richmond road by Putney common. The pub was frequented by many undesirable characters and apparently there was never a dull moment. Many famous and infamous individuals enjoyed drink in there and my dad became good friends with Gordon Goody, they had regular drinking sessions and poker schools after closing time in the vault. Gordon had previously served a long stretch in Wandsworth Prison for being heavily involved with The Great Train Robbery. Alongside Bruce Reynolds, Gordon was one of the masterminds behind the whole operation. The robbery was done in August 1963. The named robbers all got caught, eventually. Buster Edwards was the last, I think, to be captured, and has since had a film made about him, ‘Buster’, documenting his time on the run after the robbery. My dad used to tell me that he had a book signed by all of the Great Train Robbers except for Ronnie Biggs, as he escaped from prison and fled to Rio De Janerio amongst other places. My dad said that one day the book would be mine and that I should try to get Ronnie’s autograph in it to complete the set. I always wanted to see the book as I was intrigued by the whole story, but often thought that my dad had probably sold it or lost it on his travels. I have no recollection of my time in London as we moved back up north to Rochdale when I was two.

Nisa gave me Eileen’s phone number so I phoned her from the sheltered accommodation. I introduced myself and she remembered me. We didn’t really chat, she seemed quite upset. Her and my dad must have been quite close. She did however have a number for Margaret; it was a digit different from the one that Danny gave me! I rang the number but it rang out so I left a message on the answer phone, at least I now hopefully had the correct contact details for her. What was I to do now? Nisa informed me that his death was being registered at Fairfield Hospital in Bury and it would be likely that Margaret would have to go there to do this. I decided to make the journey over to Bury, as I couldn’t get hold of Margaret I hoped that maybe she was over there. I thanked Nisa for her help and she requested that I pass any details of the funeral on to her should I get any, she also asked me to give her a date as to when I could come back to clear out his flat and move his belongings, I told her I would contact her later in the week, we said our goodbyes and I headed to Bury.

As I arrived in the foyer of the hospital I approached the lady sat behind the reception desk and asked her if a ‘Margaret’ had been in with regards to the death of my father, Derry Roche. The lady informed me that Margaret had been there but had since left for the Town Hall to register his death there. She confirmed that it was earlier that morning but she wasn’t sure exactly of the time. Wow, I will meet her there at the Town Hall I thought. Unbelievable, I was so glad that I had made the journey, however I had no idea where the town hall was. I sped off in search, and was looking out for a grand building like that of Rochdale’s Town Hall; surely it couldn’t be far from the centre. I stopped a passerby and he pointed me in the right direction. I parked illegally and ran up the cobbled road to the Town Hall, not quite as grand as Rochdale’s but pleasing on the eye nonetheless. I went through a small entrance on the near side of the building; it didn’t look like a main entrance but it was the first I came to. At this point I was a bit flustered and sweating. As I banged through the door and into a small corridor I was approached by an unimpressed lady marching towards me in a dark red suit. She looked shocked at seeing me and rather perturbed, god knows what her initial thoughts were, but it must have appeared as if I was up to no good. I explained my situation and she guided me to the reception desk where I explained my circumstances again. At this point I was on edge, I didn’t want to miss Margaret and nobody seemed to know what was going on, until finally, a nice young lady informed me that Margaret had been there earlier and registered my dad’s death, I had missed her again. ‘You could try the funeral directors?’ she said, ‘I am sure that she left for there from here, I think she is using Dixon’s in Rochdale’. ‘Thank you very much’ I replied. Back to Rochdale it was then. Dixon’s is literally 1 minute from where I began my journey at the sheltered accommodation! I headed back to Rochdale at some speed.

I approached the undertakers and pulled onto the car park at Dixons and just had a feeling that she was still there. I composed myself and walked towards the main entrance. I was really anxious at this point. It’s not every day you enter a funeral directors looking for your long lost aunt. As I approached the large mahogany double doors I passed a pleasant looking elderly couple who appeared to be waiting for somebody, I wondered if it was Margaret and her husband. I smiled and nodded and they acknowledged me back with a smile. I looked at the lady and said ‘Margaret?’ in a questioning manner. ‘No, she’s inside’ she replied looking quite dumbfounded that some strange young man had just asked for her friend. I had made it! I entered the foyer and was greeted by a large ginger haired fellow who asked how he could help me. ‘I am looking for my aunty Margaret; she’s here regarding my father’s death, Derry’. ‘Ah, in here’ he replied and opened a pair of large double doors and guided me in.

‘Hi Margaret’ I said. She was sat down at a table with her back to me facing the undertaker. She turned in shock. ‘Steven?’ she replied, ‘yes’ I said. Margaret stood up with a huge smile and offered out her arms and we shared a hug for a few moments and I sat down next to her. I had found her, my aunty Margaret. She was very petite with dark wavy hair; I could see the ‘Roche’ in her immediately. It was the first time in my life that I had met somebody from my dad’s family. ‘I am just sorting out the funeral details for your dad, do you have any requests?’ she asked in a broad Irish accent, she was clearly one of my dad’s I thought. I couldn’t understand my dad most of the time such was his dialect. ‘No,’ I replied, ‘just carry on as you think fit.’ We spent the next half hour or so agreeing details on the funeral with the funeral director. It was going to be a short service at the crematorium and a no-frills affair. I certainly didn’t have the money to splash out on elaborate coffins or horse-drawn carriages, and I doubted that my dad had any policy in place to give him a big send off. I hated it in that place. The funeral director was being overly nice; I couldn’t warm to him at all. I realise the need for delicacy in these situations but to be completely over the top and patronising was unnecessary. I just got the impression that after we had gone, he would just kick back in his chair with his feet crossed on his desk, and light a cigarette whilst counting the cash that he had just made from another death. You don’t get slumps in business for undertaking, however with this guy I got the feeling that he would snipe at any new medicines created that could lead to a longer life such was his persona. It is possible however, that he could have been a really nice man; it may have been the situation that clouded my judgement.

Once the details of the funeral were complete, Margaret and I thanked the undertaker and went outside. The couple that I saw earlier were waiting for Margaret; they had driven her over from Southport as she didn’t drive. So it was Southport not Stockport after all. Margaret asked me excitedly how I found her. I told her of my travels that day and the directory enquiries I made, she appeared shocked but I think she was pleased that I did my best to track her down. I asked her how on earth she knew to contact my cousin Danny in his pub. She was aghast and had no idea at all of what I was talking about. She insisted that she didn’t phone the pub and had never heard of the pub. Still to this day we are not fully sure as to who phoned Danny that night, or how they could possibly know I had contacts there. Margaret told me that she did try to find me but that it was via Rochdale Police Station, so if it was an officer from the Station, which seems like the only plausible explanation, then fair play to them on their detective work, I am very grateful for their efforts. Danny has since confirmed that he may have miss-interpreted the telephone conversation that night and thinks that it is feasible that the caller may have asked to pass a message from Margaret to me rather than the message being directly from Margaret herself.

I told Margaret to leave the organisation of wake to me, the least I could do was to manage my dad’s send off. It was never going to be a large affair; to the best of my knowledge my dad never had a big group of friends, and if he did I would have no idea how to contact them. I just hoped that Nisa from the sheltered accommodation would contact anyone she knew he was close to.

The date of the funeral had been set as the following Thursday. I wanted to spend some time with Margaret now that I had found her, but she understandably didn’t want to put her friends out as they had booked a table at a restaurant which was on their journey home. I gave Margaret my phone number and she told me she would ring me during the week to confirm details of the wake. She was going to contact my dad’s brothers and sisters and arrange travel and accommodation for them all in Manchester. And then Margaret mentioned Jason. Jason was my dad’s other son from his previous marriage. I remembered my dad mentioning him many times but had never met him. He was a few years older than me and apparently now lived in Scotland. Margaret asked if I knew of him and where he was, I confirmed that I knew he existed but had no idea of how to contact him. Margaret also had no idea of his whereabouts and hadn’t had contact with him since he was a baby. I told Margaret that I would search for him online, he was, after all, my half brother and it would be great if I could track him down. I wished her a safe journey home and shook hands with her friends.

We spoke through the week on numerous occasions to confirm the details of the wake. Margaret was happy with my plans and was looking forward to seeing me and my mum again. My mum always spoke very fondly of Margaret and often said that she was a lovely lady, and she certainly appeared to be so. I offered to put Margaret up on the night of the funeral so that she wouldn’t have to make her way to a hotel after the wake, she gladly accepted my offer. I was really looking forward to meeting my dad’s family, however slightly apprehensive; it was just a shame that it took a death in the family to bring us all together. I was having no joy in the search for my half brother. I had messaged every Jason Roche that I could find on facebook from Scotland to New York, but every response that I got was a negative one. I told Margaret that I would keep trying but as I wasn’t sure of his exact age or whereabouts it was always going to be a tough task. I am still to this day trying to contact him and have yet to have a positive reply.

The day of the funeral arrived. I had arranged with my aunty Margaret, via numerous phone calls in the week, to pick her and the rest of my dad’s family up from a hotel on the morning of the funeral. I had informed her of the wake arrangements; Our Danny had said that it would be fine to have the wake in his pub and my mum offered to make the buffet, something at which she is more than a dab hand at. All that was left for me to do was to get the flowers for the coffin. My dad’s family were staying in a hotel in Manchester city centre. My dad’s brother John had flown over from Germany, his brother Pat and his wife Marlene had travelled up from London, Anne his sister had made a shorter trip over the Pennines from Yorkshire and his sisters Bernadette and Evelyn, brother Noel and nephew Colin had flown over from Ireland. I arrived at the hotel just before lunch time and entered the lobby. The only time I had met my dad’s family was when I was 6 week old, I had no pictures of any of them so had no idea of what they would look like. I scanned the foyer and noticed that there was a group of people sat in the bar area, I was looking out for Margaret, she wasn’t with them but I was 99% sure that they were all Roche’s, I headed over to them. They were all looking at me as I approached; I took instant notice of Noel, Bernadette and Evelyn as they were in my direct eye line. Noel was a longer haired version of my dad. Bernadette was a female edition of my dad and Evelyn was immaculately presented and very attractive. I was wearing a dark suit and as I walked towards them I just asked for Margaret as I didn’t know what else to say, their initial thoughts, they later told me, was that they assumed that I was a porter for the hotel! They realised who I was and welcomed me into their circle and informed me that Margaret had just gone for coffee. Evelyn’s son Colin was around my age and a lovely feller, he told me that his work entails studying earthquakes, wow I thought, what a job that must be. Margaret joined us and was delighted to see me. Margaret is the type of person who always makes you feel welcome and shows an interest in everything that you do. We all chatted for some time; it was great to finally meet my dad’s side of the family. In amongst the tears that were shed, they did all appear to be good natured and jovial, all be it slightly subdued considering the situation, and I got the impression that they were also pleased to finally meet me. I informed them of my hunt in vain for Jason which was greeted with a tinge of sadness.

We agreed that Margaret, Evelyn, and Bernadette would come with me to Rochdale and the rest would travel over in a taxi, it’s only a 25 minute drive. As we left the hotel I walked them over to a yellow Ferrari in the car park and pretended to try and get in it, the look on their faces was a sight for sure! Unfortunately though, they had to settle for Jens Audi A3 as my Alfa Romeo was in its second home, the garage. The drive was pleasant enough however but I think it was sinking in that we were actually here for my dad’s funeral so there was the odd quiet moment. I pointed out some of my building work as we drove through Manchester and into Rochdale and gave them a bit of a guided tour. We travelled via Heaton Park and through Rhodes on to Heywood and then finally down Bury Old Road and into Rochdale town centre. They were impressed with the leafy suburbs of the journey and appeared to like the area. It’s not often Rochdale receives many compliments, I am just glad I took the route I did as any other maybe wouldn’t have welcomed such a response.

We arrived at the funeral directors; all of my dad’s family were now here together. We entered the building and sat quietly in the waiting room. I think most of the family viewed my dad in the coffin, but I refused, as I did for my Granddads and Aunty Mary’s funerals. I can understand why people do but it just doesn’t appeal to me. I think it would unsettle me somewhat to actually see a dead body. I cover my eyes when there is blood and guts on TV; god knows how I am going to react when Jen is in labour! I decided to go outside for a smoke and was soon joined by John. John appeared to be taking my dad’s death harder than the others. The atmosphere was understandably sombre on the car park as we waited for the coffin to be taken in to the hearse. There were a few tears, Evelyn was very upset, and Margaret was distressed that news of my dad being sick hadn’t been passed to her so that they could visit him before he died. Pat also was clearly very upset. Questions of ‘why?’ were being asked that nobody could answer. Surely it is the responsibility of the manager of the sheltered accommodation to inform any family members should the health of any tenants deteriorate? It obviously wasn’t to be.

Taken at my dad’s father’s funeral: From left to right: Anne, Pat, Noel, Bernadette, John, Margaret, my dad and Evelyn

The undertakers placed my dad’s coffin in the hearse and set off to the crematorium. We followed; it’s only a short journey up Bury Old Road, but a long one when you are driving at 15 miles per hour. We arrived through the stone Gothic Arched entrance and travelled down through the gardens and towards the crematorium building. There were a couple of small crowds at the front of the building. To ensure that my dad’s family could all fit in the funeral cars I offered to drive. I had driven with Jen and followed the cars. I parked up and the hearse and the car with my dad’s family in it drove down towards the crematorium. As we walked down towards the gathering I noticed that Eileen was there with a scruffy looking young lad. There were also staff who introduced themselves to me from Barnardo’s, and Nisa from the sheltered accommodation was there. My mum was there with her partner Steve, and a couple of my cousins where there. There were also a few people from the Salvation Army who had befriended my dad amongst a few others that I didn’t recognise. It was the kind of turnout I expected.

The service was short, my dad wasn’t religious and the vicar had no idea who he was. Nobody made any speeches and we didn’t sing any hymns. I sat at the front with Jen and couldn’t wait to get out of the place. I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me that my dad had died and I certainly didn’t want to be the centre of any kind of attention. We chatted outside to the woman from Barnardo’s, however I can’t remember a single thing that was said. I met a young lad who was from the Salvation Army who had been given the task of befriending my dad. I hope I didn’t seem aloof to anybody there, I just didn’t feel like making small talk about my dad, that I hardly knew, to people who probably knew him less than me. I was, however, actually quite shocked to see a friend of my cousins there who had done some gardening work with my dad through the Salvation Army I think it was he said, he had a few nice words to say about my dad which was pleasing. The whole service is a blur, I can’t really recall much of it or what was going through my head, I may have missed out people’s names that were there, I just can’t fully remember. We thanked the vicar and said our goodbyes and the family headed for the wake at our Danny’s pub, The Donkey.

My mum had done me proud with the spread she had put on. Fair play to her for doing that for her ex husband! My dad’s family seemed to be happy with it and were all glad to see my mum who they hadn’t seen for over 30 years. My mum always commented that my dad’s family were a good bunch which I often found hard to imagine given the memories that I had of my dad. They were all very nice to me and thanked me for organising the wake and putting Margaret up. I said it was the least I could do and was happy for Margaret to stay with me and Jen. For the next few hours there were many tears and many laughs, everybody seemed to get on and it was like an old reunion, but there was that nagging factor that it was my dad’s funeral and it was a shame that it takes something like this to warrant a family get together. My dad’s brothers and sisters don’t see much of each other either as they are scattered all over the place. The last time they all met was at their dad’s funeral some years back which seemed to annoy them. Everybody promised to meet again soon without it having to be for such a sad reason. They all appeared to get on so well and there was some good banter flying about, typical Irish banter! I was stood at the bar just taking it all in.

It was coming to the time when people were about to start making their exits, there were planes and trains to catch, it was unfortunate as I could’ve stayed with them long in to the night. Pat approached me to say goodbye and was holding a carrier bag with an object in it. ‘Here Ste, this is for you, your dad would’ve wanted you to have it’. I opened it. It was the book! The book that I thought probably didn’t exist, the book that I had always wanted to see. Wow, I was utterly astonished and completely lost for words; I literally could not get a word out as I was so choked up. I couldn’t even see the book as my eyes had welled up so much. I kept my head down just staring at the book so nobody could see that I was filling up. The book hadn’t crossed my mind for years and certainly didn’t in the last week or so. And to be honest I never thought that I would see it. I was and still am so grateful to Pat for passing it to me. We shared an embrace and exchanged contact details and promised to stay in touch. He apologised for having to make his exit, he told me that all the signatures were in the book apart from Ronnie Biggs’s and if I was to ever have the chance I should try and track him down to complete the set. My dad used to say to me that that would be my job when I got the book. I told Pat that I would do my best. I was overjoyed; I think it was because I had heard of the book many times before and it was related to a part of my life that I can’t remember.

I am always intrigued as to my early life in London as it seems a world away to me as I can only recall living in Rochdale, it even seems untrue almost. I have no evidence of me ever being there, I have no pictures of me, my mum or dad in London so it’s hard to imagine what it ever could have been like. I had always wanted to go down and visit the pub to see if it brought back any memories and decided that I would spend the turn of the Millennium down there. I flew down with my ex. I remember at check in at Manchester Airport handing my passport over, only for the lady behind the checkout to frown, ‘you’re not passing any ports, sir’, she said in an extremely sarcastic manner. I had clearly not travelled by plane within England before. We had booked in at the Royal Gardens Hotel in Knightsbridge and were travelling down on 31st December 1999. I was really excited to be spending some time in the capital, the only other time I had been down since I lived in Putney was for a couple of trips to Wembley.

The hotel was a posh one and cleared out our savings but it was the Millennium, and we may as well remember it! I recall getting the tube from Heathrow Airport to Kensington and then got in a taxi from there to the hotel. ‘The Royal Gardens Hotel’ I asked for proudly to the driver. ‘Are you two the cabaret?’ he asked. We laughed, he knew and we knew that we were going to be well out of place in here. I was wearing my usual jeans, trainers, t-shirt and denim jacket and my broad northern accept was probably going to be slightly out of place in this 5 star hotel. I tipped the driver handsomely as we pulled up outside the hotel and we climbed the marble steps and headed towards the grand entrance. I had only been on the streets of London a matter of seconds when somebody tried to mug me. I couldn’t believe it, I felt a tugging at my suitcase and a hand grasp the handle, I snatched it back harshly and turned to see a middle aged fellow dressed smartly in tails and a large top hat, he was the porter, I apologised and allowed him to escort us to the reception, crumbs, you could say I was like a fish out of water. We had no idea of what our plans were for this evening. I thought it may be an idea to find a nice restaurant or bar and spend the evening in there and see the millennium in. We hadn’t booked anything, the internet wasn’t in our home then, so we just thought we would wing it and see where we ended up, that turned out to be not such a great idea. We checked in and were directed to the bar area as our room wasn’t quite ready, it was fabulous. It was full of people covering their faces with broadsheets, not a person made eye contact with you. I walked up to the bar and asked for a pint and a half of lager. ‘We don’t serve pints sir’ the bar tender exclaimed in what was possibly a Russian accent. What sort of bar was this? I thought, but noticed bottles of lager in the fridge, ‘I will have 2 bottles of Becks then please’ I asked in my most eloquent northern voice. ‘Certainly sir, I will bring them over to you’. At this point a few broadsheets had twitched as I made my way past them to my seat. I lit up a cigarette and puffed away taking in the scenery. It was a lovely place and was full of rich people, they just oozed money and class, and you could feel it. The bar tender was in no hurry to bring my drink and first came over with an ashtray. He placed it on top of the ashtray that was on the table and carried them both off together before putting the new ashtray on the table on its own. A whole lot of fuss to change an ashtray I thought, and I had only had one cigarette! Back in Rochdale you had to wait untill the cigarette ends needed greedy boards on the side of ashtray to keep them in before they got emptied. How uncultured was I? I didn’t mind, I wasn’t trying to pretend that I was something I was not. I was only 21 and was going to enjoy my time in luxury. Our room was ready, a porter called for us to show us to our room, but first I went to pay the bill at the bar. ‘Seven pounds sir’ the bar tender asked, seven quid for 2 bottles of bloody becks, that’s £3.50 EACH, £7 a pint!! I can get a pint in Rochdale for £1.50 I thought. I handed him a ten pound note and with gritted teeth told him to keep the change, which wounded me somewhat. We made our way to the porter and I asked him what the plans for tonight, millennium eve, in the hotel were. He informed me that in the ‘Tenth’ there was a 7 course meal with cabaret and various entertainments all through the night and into the small hours. ‘What’s the Tenth?’ I asked. ‘It is our restaurant on the 10th floor that has panoramic views over Kensington Gardens’ he answered. ‘Brilliant, I think we will have a bit of that then’ I exclaimed. ‘Good choice sir, you can book at reception, it is £1500 per couple and the required attire is evening wear, suits and ball gowns, we look forward to seeing you there’. You bloody wont, I thought, I smiled and nodded, he knew that we weren’t going to show!

We ended up spending the night next to a traffic light outside Big Ben with 4 cans of Stella Artois each in the pouring rain, a world away from what we had hoped to do, but it was an extraordinary evening nonetheless. There must have been over a million people there. It was frightening. If we had lifted our feet off the floor we would have just been carried in the direction of the crowds so much so was the sheer busyness of the streets. It was a good night, but not what we expected, but I had got my taste for London and loved it, however I was more looking forward to heading for the Spencer Arms on New Year’s Day. We got back to the hotel around 2.30am drenched to the bone and walked into the hotel foyer only to be surrounded by men dressed to the nines in expensive suits and women looking a million dollars. It was like a scene out of one of them films where someone bursts through the saloon doors, the music stops and everybody turns to look who has entered. We just walked through the crowd, my trainers’ were squelching and Rachel’s makeup was all over her face. Luckily the porter recognised us and smiled as we made our way to the lift. We watched the celebrations from all over the world on TV for a while in our room and then got some sleep ready for the next day.

We got up early and enjoyed a fine breakfast in the dining area of the hotel. My mum had previously told me to get the tube to Putney Bridge and find Lower Richmond Road as the pub was on there. It was around lunch time and we had made our way into Putney and found Lower Richmond Road. We walked down a few hundred yards and came across a pub on the right hand side of the road. It was white and was called ‘The Cyclists’. I had been told off my uncle that he thought that the pub had been taken over by a chain and had changed its name so I thought that this could possibly be what was once The Spencer Arms. I phoned my mum to get confirmation but she said to carry on down the road to the end and the pub was on the other side next to Putney common and the bus terminal. We crossed over and carried on walking and approached what looked like a pub. As we got nearer we knew it was the pub. I had made it. It was a grand looking place and still called the Spencer Arms, I was overjoyed. It looked amazing and all that I had hoped for. I pushed against the door to go in but it was locked. Oh no, it was shut, there was no sign of life, I was gutted. I stood outside just looking at the building in awe. Then the strangest thing happened. A man appeared at the bedroom window, it was my dad! Blimey, I thought, shivers went down my spine and the hairs on my neck stood up. Rachel had met my dad once and she thought the same. I stared at him for what seemed like ages. He had black bushy hair and a large moustache and was in his fifties. It wasn’t my dad but it bloody looked like him, how strange! I shouted up, ‘what time are you open?’ ‘Seven’ he mouthed. Right, I told Rachel that we would have to come back later on.

We had a stroll round Putney for a while taking in the sights and then got back on the tube to get in some more sightseeing round Trafalgar Square amongst other places. It was great, it was so busy and fast moving and the sun was shining. We then made our way back to the hotel and got dressed up for the evening and had dinner in the hotel restaurant. I hoped that once I was in the pub all the memories would come flooding back, I don’t know why because I was only two when we left but I just thought it would stir up some deep rooted memories I may have had, kind of like being hypnotised.

We arrived later in the evening at the pub, it was around 8pm. We walked in. All I could do was look around everywhere. I stood at the bar turning in a 360 degree motion looking around scanning everything and everyone in the pub to see if anything struck me. It didn’t, I wasn’t too bothered as I wasn’t really expecting it too. We ordered some drinks and sat under a window facing the bar. It was a proper pub, just what I had expected. The bar area was what I expected and the clientele was exactly as I had imagined. I just kept looking around in amazement picturing myself as a two year old running around with my big curly blonde hair bouncing around everywhere. God knows what the look on my face must have been like. The landlady came over to our table and asked me if I was alright. I obviously wasn’t a regular and it wasn’t really a tourist’s nightspot. ‘Yeah, fine’ I answered. ‘Oh, ok’ she replied. She turned to walk away. ‘In fact’, I shouted, the landlady turned her head, ‘yes?’ She said. ‘I don’t suppose you have any memorabilia from the late seventies do you?’ I asked in the most northern of accents. They were my exact words. Memorabilia? Did I think the place was a bloody craft fair or something? ‘What like?’ She replied. ‘Pictures really’ I said. ‘Sorry love we haven’t been here long so we don’t have anything from that long ago, why do you ask?’ ‘I was born here, 18th May 1978, this is my first time back here and just wondered if there was anything still here from when I was here’. ‘Sorry love, I can’t help you. You’re not from round here are you?’ ‘No, we’re from Rochdale and have come down for the Millennium and I wanted to come back to where I was born.’ ‘Why don’t you ask those ladies?’ She said, and pointed to our left. There was a group of woman from their mid-forties through to their sixties sat against the same wall as us just a few seats down. ‘Pat?’ Said the landlady. ‘Can you help this young man out?’ ‘Course lav’, she replied and turned to me, ‘what canna do for ya sunshine?’ she asked. This was a lady called Pat Churchley, The Spencer Arms had been her regular all her life. I explained to her my reasoning for being there. I told her I was born in Queen Mary’s Hospital but lived in the pub from my birth until I was 2 years old. I told her my parents were Derry and Sue. She thought for a moment and asked, ‘blady hell, you’re not Steve are ya lav?’ Oh my god, I thought, I couldn’t believe it; this woman remembered me and recognised me! It was unbelievable and I was completely astounded. The other women looked at me and raised their eyebrows in a knowing manner and nodded. ‘Yes’, I answered. ‘Blady hell, where’s all ya blonde hair gone?’ she quipped. I laughed and told her that I preferred it more manageable nowadays. They invited us over to sit with them and spend the rest of the evening with them. ‘So, how’s Susan and your Dad, Derry?’ She asked. I was gobsmacked that she could remember. It seemed a world away to me but was only a small part of her life for Pat. I told her that my mum was good but was unsure of how my dad was doing as they separated some time before. ‘I could tell you some tales about your dad Steve, he was a character for sure’. Pat then proceeded to tell me about a time when my dad got into a fight with a regular over a game of cards after hours in the pub. My dad had only decided to argue with the biggest guy in the pub. This bloke punched my dad, knocked him clean out and broke his jaw in 3 places, he had to have it wired and could only consume liquids for 6 weeks. My mum later confirmed this story and told me that she remembered Pat well. We had a great night. Pat and her friends were reminiscing about the good old days and spoke fondly of my mum. I mentioned the fact that Gordon Goody’s mum used to take me for walks round Putney Common in my pram; they all confirmed this and told me that she had recently passed away. What a lovely bunch of ladies, they made us feel so welcome; it was the best night of my life. I was over the moon that we had found the pub. In a weird way it confirmed my early years. I am not saying that I doubted the fact that I was born in London and spent two years in The Spencer Arms, but because I had no memory of it and no pictures I didn’t feel like it was my life, it did now.

After the funeral, Jen and I brought Margaret back to our house. Jen went to bed and Margaret and I stayed up for sometime drinking wine and talking about my dad and the Roche family. Margaret was such a lovely lady, a genuinely nice person. She was overjoyed to have made contact with me as I was to have found her. She asked if we could keep in touch after she had gone home; I promised that we would, and we have. We have since been over to see her in Southport twice. On the first occasion she booked us into Liverpool footballer Steven Gerrard’s hotel, The Vincent, and took us out for a meal at his restaurant, The Warehouse. She wouldn’t let us pay for a thing, no matter how hard we tried; I didn’t want to insult her so we happily accepted her generosity. And the second occasion she asked if my mum would also come over and we all had lunch with her at the Bistro Verity, again in Southport. On both visits we had a lovely time.

The day after the funeral, Margaret and I visited my dad’s flat in the sheltered accommodation. We had to clear it out. He didn’t have many possessions, it was mainly clothing and pictures and the furniture belonged to the building. Eileen’s nephew, the scruffy looking lad at the funeral, turned up when we were there. He had come to take some belongings that were apparently Eileen’s. It was rather odd; he took the radio, a leather jacket and numerous other items. It didn’t feel right, how was I to know that what he was taking was actually Eileen’s? I had no choice but to let him, he was like a scavenger. There was a large picture on the wall of me on my wedding day, which was nice to see, I don’t remember giving it to him to be honest, but at least I was probably in his thoughts more than I imagined. And surely Nisa would have seen this picture and asked who it was, maybe she didn’t. We cleared the flat out, Margaret told me to take all the pictures, there was more than I imagined. There were pictures of his mum and dad and all his brothers, sisters and nephews, and some pictures of holidays that he had taken in Egypt. To be honest I didn’t think he would have any; he must have carried them around with him for the last 30 years, fair play to him. We said our thankyou’s to Nisa and I left my number with her should she need to contact me for anything else. I was going to take the clothes to a charity shop but myself and Margaret thought it best just to skip them.

So that was it, all over, done and dusted, we had done everything that was needed to be done. It was great finally getting in touch with and meeting my dad’s family, my family. It was just unfortunate that it had taken such sad circumstances to unite us all. I headed for Piccadilly with Margaret so she could get the train home, she wouldn’t allow me to drive her to Southport, typical of Margaret, always thinking of others. She asked if I would try and get Ronnie’s autograph in the book, I promised that I would do my best. I dropped her at the entrance of Piccadilly train station and we said our goodbyes and promised to keep in touch. I felt sad driving home; I didn’t want the last couple of days to end. I know that my feelings of sadness should have been more to do with my dad’s death, and they were probably, but I had enjoyed finally meeting my family and was worried that it may never happen again.

Ronnie Biggs in Brazil 1992

My mission now was to track down Ronnie Biggs, I had made promises to everybody that I would do my best and I was determined to get his autograph in the book to complete the set. I wasn’t even sure if he was still alive and if he was, was he in England? I thought it should be a fairly easy task, with the powers of the internet at my fingers I was confident of a positive result. I searched and searched but could get no definite leads until I found one newspaper report that stated that he was staying in a hospital in Barnet. According to information I uncovered, he was still in England. According to his Wikipedia page Ronnie had escaped from prison in 1965 for his role in the Great Train Robbery and lived as a fugitive for 36 years in various parts of the world. He handed himself in to the police in 2001 and spent several years in prison. He was released on compassionate grounds on August 6th 2009 due to bad health. I discovered that Ronnie had a son, Michael, and he deals with any publicity for his father. Michael has his own website which I emailed detailing my reasons for wanting to meet up with his father but I never received any reply. So I decided to contact Barnet Hospital, I wasn’t holding out much hope as I realise there is a need for patient confidentiality. Here is my email:

Hi, I am seeking to contact one of your patients’ sons if at all possible. I am ultimately after contacting Ronnie Biggs but realise due to his health that this may not be possible, so I would be grateful if you could please forward the attached letter to Ronnie’s son Michael?

If you have any contact details for Michael that you could pass on to me that also would be appreciated.

Please find attached a letter, a response to which would be greatly appreciated.

Many thanks

Steven Roche

I sent that email along with a letter detailing why I wanted to contact Ronnie or Michael, here is the reply I received:

Thank you for your e-mail but I regret it will not be possible to assist you with this request.

Our role is to deal with concerns and complaints about services provided by Barnet Hospital and it would not be appropriate for me to look up patient details for reasons such as the below.

Regards

Nikki

My reply:

Hi Nikki,

Thanks for your reply. Could you inform me of a procedure I could maybe go through to pass a letter onto Ronnie’s son? I understand the need for patient confidentiality and realise that you can’t put me directly in touch, but if I was to send a letter to Mr Bigg’s c/o Barnet hospital, would it eventually get to him?

Their reply:

Dear Steven

Unfortunately I think it’s unlikely the letter would eventually get to him.

Staff would not open or forward mail for a patient and it would probably be returned to the Royal Mail Office to return to the sender.

I’m sorry that I can’t be of more help regarding this matter.

Kind regards

Nikki

So was she saying that Ronnie was or wasn’t there? I couldn’t be sure so I proceeded to carry on researching him on the internet. I eventually came across an article somewhere that mentioned that he was in a care home in Barnet. I decided to just ring them and thought that I would just come out with the question. ‘Good morning Carlton Care Home, how may I help you?’ ‘Hi, could you please tell me if Ronnie Biggs is one of your residents there please?’ I asked politely, not thinking that I would receive any positive reply. ‘Yes, Ronnie is a resident here’. Brilliant, I thought. I had tracked him down, that was the easy part I guess. I explained my story to the lady on the other end of the line. Linda Simpson was her name and she was very polite and helpful. I explained that I had a book signed by all of the Great Train Robbers except for Ronnie and would really appreciate it if Ronnie would agree to sign it for me. She confirmed that she has a number of requests from the general public on a regular basis due to Ronnie’s notoriety and they all get refused permission. I briefly told her my story of how I came about to be in possession of the book and asked her if she would at least ask Ronnie if he would sign it. She reluctantly agreed and informed me that she would get back to me in a few days with an answer. At this point I wasn’t holding out much hope and there was nothing else I could do. I just sat and waited. 2 days went by without a reply so I called Linda again. ‘Hi Linda, it’s Steven, I am calling regarding Ronnie signing my book?’ ‘Hi Steven’ she replied. ‘I am just waiting for Ronnie’s parole officer to get back in touch with me. Ronnie has agreed to sign your book but now we are awaiting permission from the powers that be’. Excellent I thought, that is one step closer, I just hoped that Ronnie’s parole officer would agree to let Ronnie sign my book. I thanked Linda for her help and she said she would contact me soon. I was making steady progress reading the book, it was very interesting. I doesn’t really paint Ronnie in a good light and the reason for his infamy was more to do with his exploits following the robbery rather that his involvement at the time. Ronnie had a very minor part to play in the robbery; he was just providing a driver for the train to take the train from where they were stopping it to Bridegow Bridge where the robbers were going to unload the sacks of cash in to an awaiting lorry. The train driver that Ronnie provided ultimately couldn’t even get the train moving so really there was no need for Ronnie’s input in the first place, however he still received an equal share of the money!.

A couple of days had passed when I received a phone call from Linda. She was phoning with good news! Ronnie was allowed to sign the book and I was given permission to visit him in the care home and get the autograph in person, result! We agreed on the 6th of May for me to go down and meet Ronnie. I read in the book that Ronnie was a big fan of jazz music so I went to HMV and purchased a Miles Davis CD to give to Ronnie as a thank you and I got a nice box of Thorntons chocolates to give to Linda to show my appreciation for her efforts.

I booked the day off work to drive down to Barnet; I had the book, CD and chocolates. I was actually going to meet Ronnie Biggs. I couldn’t wait. I was excited and was looking forward to telling my dad’s family that I had actually got the book signed by Ronnie. I wanted to get a picture of me and Ronnie also to send to them all. Somebody mentioned that I should inform a newspaper as it was a great story. I contacted a national tabloid with my intentions and they thought it would be a good story for their paper. That would be fantastic if I could send the newspaper clipping of me and Ronnie to all my family. The newspaper told me to contact them once I had the book signed and I was to give them the story and the photograph and they would publish it.

As I approached Barnet my car started to lose power, I had just pulled off the motorway and was only a few miles from the care home. I couldn’t believe it; my car was going to fail me again, today of all days. I crawled along some country roads at 30 miles per hour and eventually got to Ronnie’s residence. I was just glad that I had got there, god knows how I was going to get home, but that was the last thing on my mind at the moment. The place was very nice, as care homes go. It was quite a large building and looked like it had been built recently. I entered the foyer and rang the bell. A lady came to help me, I explained who I was and she went to get Linda. Linda came and welcomed me with a large smile, I thanked her and handed her the chocolates, she appeared grateful; it was the least I could do. Linda warned me that Ronnie was unable to communicate verbally, he was fully aware of what was going on around him and could understand everything that is said to him; however he is unable to speak. I had no idea that he was so ill. She told me that he was in a bad way and very poorly and had to communicate via a laminated piece of card that had the alphabet printed on it. She led me to Ronnie. It was around lunch time and she told me that Ronnie was in the communal room where there would be a few others; they spent their afternoons in here watching TV and playing games like cards and dominos. As we approached a pair of double doors Linda asked if I had a camera. ‘Yes’ I replied. ‘Well you mustn’t use it; we aren’t allowed to let anybody take pictures of Ronnie’, she exclaimed. I pleaded with her as I wanted to send a picture to my family, but she refused point blank. Well, never mind, I thought, at least I was here, and a picture was an afterthought anyways. It did put paid to my tabloid story though, as I guessed the tale would be no good without a picture. Linda led me through the double doors, I first noticed an old man on a large chair with white hair, he had a square bandage on his forehead. It was Ronnie. His chair was in the corner of the room so that he had a panoramic view of everything that was going on and he was the first person that anybody would see as they entered the room. I guessed that Ronnie was positioned there at his request. I walked over with Linda and she introduced me to Ronnie. He offered his frail hand and I shook it gently. I gave him the Miles Davis CD to which he raised his eyebrows and gave me the thumbs up. He thanked me using his laminated card. This card had all the letters of the alphabet on it and half a dozen or so words across the top, one of which was ‘BOLLOCKS’, it had obviously been thumbed often and was quite worn! I was rather star struck. I had realised my dreams in a way. If my dad could see me know I am sure he would be made up. I know that I shouldn’t be happy at the fact that I have just met a criminal, but there was more to it than that, much more. I offered Ronnie my book. He held it softly, he obviously didn’t have much strength and any movement was a real effort. He looked very ill but at the same time appeared to be in good spirits. Linda mentioned that he had been looking forward to meeting me and seeing the book. I asked him if he had ever signed a similar book with all the gang members’ signatures in, he confirmed that he had signed similar books but never with all the signatures in. I was glad of that as it meant that mine was the only book of its kind to be signed by all the train robbers. We chatted for some time, it was difficult and it was often hard to interpret what he was trying to get across to me. He often used thumbs up and thumbs down to display his thoughts on my questions. I don’t think he liked the book too much, as I mentioned earlier, it doesn’t paint him in a great light. The book was written with the assistance of many of the gang members and as Ronnie was a fugitive at the time he obviously had no input on it. He kept spelling out on his laminated board ‘Odd Man Out’. I thought that he meant he was the odd one out because he was the only one not to have signed the book. He was actually referring to his own biography, he said that I should get this and he would gladly sign it for me. I asked Linda again if I could get a picture with Ronnie. She told me that she was going to make a phone call to his parole officer to seek permission and left me alone with Ronnie. The camera was in my pocket; I got it out and held it in my hand. Ronnie could see it and gave me a ‘thumbs up’, should I just crouch down next to him and get a picture? I was really tempted but Linda had been so good I didn’t want to go behind her back, and she would have probably got in to a bit of trouble should the picture be made public. I put the camera away just as Linda walked in, good job I didn’t risk it then as I would have been busted and evicted. Linda came back with bad news; his parole officer wouldn’t let me have a picture with Ronnie. Ronnie then pointed at the word ‘BOLLOCKS’ on his laminated card. He clearly wanted his picture to be taken, he probably knew it would end up in a tabloid and would raise his profile a little more. It is the 50th anniversary of The Great Train Robbery in August 2013, I had a feeling that he was holding out for that time to have one more moment in the limelight, and I bet he makes it! I had been there for about half an hour and Linda said that she thought that Ronnie was getting tired and that it may be a good idea to get Ronnie’s signature in the book now. I directed Ronnie to the first page where all the signatures were. He recognised all of the names. He did a ‘thumbs up’ for most, but a ‘thumbs down’ for a few. I will keep that between myself and Ronnie! I handed him a pen and watched as he signed the book. I had got it! You would have no idea that it was Ronnie’s signature, it just looks like a random scribble as he could barely hold a pen straight. I thanked him for his time I said I hoped he enjoyed the CD, we said our goodbyes and I thanked Linda for all her efforts and left.

 

The Train Robbers Book, signed by all the Great Train Robbers, including Ronnie Biggs – the squiggle half way down on the left hand side.

I had done it, I had got Ronnie’s signature in the book. I phoned Margaret up from the care home car park; she was delighted and couldn’t wait to see it. I took it with me when I went to visit her in Southport; she was amazed and thrilled that I had done it. I sent pictures of the book to Pat showing Ronnie’s signature, we exchanged email addresses at my dad’s funeral and he knew of my intentions. He too was over the moon. I had an enormous sense of satisfaction. I just now had to make my way home in my knackered car, but that is another story altogether…