I do love a local legend; the affectionate term for the group of characters who, combined, can be defined as the people who make our communities unique; whilst, individually, they can be summed up as that nutter who lives down the road. I once found a national website called Local Legends, compiled from local contributions, which chronicled some of these hardy heroes who clog up our high streets. Looking up the local area the most amusing feature seemed to be someone called Mad Denis who had a biography which lets the reader know that he’s mad, and that he’s ginger, and that he’s well known for “showing off his large belly and shouting “I am the Lord” at the top of his voice”. I like it how his biographer felt compelled to finish off this Who’s Who entry with: “Not to be approached”.
A man who wasn’t featured on this site, despite him being by my reckoning the most famous local character, was a gardener that’s been around for many years who I’d absorbed from some sort of local morphic resonance that he was famed for being “the man who had his coat handed to him by Hitler” along with the tales of his gardening exploits because he’s often seen locally hefting his lawnmower around the streets of North Manchester on his bicycle.
I love local myths, cast adrift to grow on the grapevine and then splashed across the internet, and I’ve often seen this character and once encountered him in the flesh, coming at me down a narrow lane by the river: his lawnmower blades advancing upon me through his Flymo being balanced over the handlebars as he cycled along.
He was still wearing his German Moleskin military jacket, of course, which he’s seemingly had for decades now and, as we all know, was handed to him by Hitler. In my mind’s eye I can see this transaction taking place; in black and white, being carried out for the benefit of a local newspaper photographer, both frozen in a pose for the camera with each party having a hand on the shoulder of said jacket, like a footballer being welcomed to a new club.
Whether this is true or not you surely have to admire a man whose motto, as I interpret it, is that there’s no need for any gardening equipment which you can’t fit on your bike along with you. Sticking out of the back when I encountered him he had an upturned plastic rake, standing aloft, looking like a radar dish.
The cycling gardener may not have been listed on the Local Legends site but it was a delight to discover that, unbeknownst to him, he did have his own fan Facebook group – The Man that rides his bike carrying a Flymo – which had the tagline “Who is this, gardener or spy, you decide” and was full of comments from local illiterates which included the opinion: I was brought up to believe he’s a serial killer who buries his victim’s bodies in his customer’s gardens! That may not be 100 % true though.
It shows how much a part of Whitefield folklore this man has become how it was also reported how he once beat the Olympic gold medal-winning cyclist Chris Boardman in a race around the Hillock Estate and, if that wasn’t an impressive enough feat, he did this with his Flymo tucked under his arm! It just shows how local characters can unite strangers in the community with such wonderful common cultural touchstones.
The Hillock Estate seems to have a proud bicycling heritage which I only found out about after finding a surprising reference on a local Olden Days website to my local community centre, five minutes down the road where I had my sixth birthday party, which I discovered had been a thriving disco and youth club which The Sweet once played in 1971. I only remembered it as a place for jumble sales, and where I went to Play Group one morning every week, so it was even more bizarre to then read the local chatter about the events of one dark Wednesday night where the “Skinheads” from Hillock clashed with the “Greasers” from Manchester over a girl with blonde hair called Lynne who was stood in the middle, begging them to stop, as the two mobs set about each other with bicycle chains. It’s like the Mods versus Rockers, on my own doorstep, except none of them could afford scooters. And they all probably had to push their bicycles home that night.
I was out around Whitefield one day, walking the cat to the vets, and I ended up behind a gnarled topless pension, his tee-shirt tucked into the back of his shorts, who traipsed along the main road in front of me and tapped the lampposts with his stick. In retrospect, as I crossed the road outside the Forts of India, I remember seeing him shouting hello to guys in the Camilla Carpets van who were waiting in the traffic light queue. It barely registered at the time.
As I followed along on the pavement in his slipstream a blue van went past beeping and he waved back to the occupants, before tapping a road sign with his stick. Outside Antonio’s Italian Restaurant was stood a surly man, seemingly deep in contemplation surveying his kingdom, and he got a greeting too. I then realised that this topless guy seemed to know everyone who was anyone; it was like rolling with the Mayor of Whitefield.
Passing the pretentiously re-titled Montecristo bar and restaurant, it used to be the more traditional Bull’s Head pub, the Mayor greeted the concealed proprietors within through the large patio doors, yet when I passed by and peered in I could see nothing in the darkness but plush furniture. And all along the road he tapped his stick at every object he passed, although thankfully didn’t rattle it along the metal fence like a child with a stick would’ve done. This old guy didn’t need Facebook to collect his friends as he was a living social network.
On the way back from the vets, still hefting a big ginger cat called Rupert about, I saw that the contemplative guy was still stood outside the restaurant and as I passed I couldn’t help but stop and bother Antonio to ask him, like you do, if he actually knew that old gnarled topless guy; to which he replied: “No. Every day he goes past. Every day he says hello, he bangs his stick.”
Completely coincidentally, a few days later, I was woken up by some nearby commotion and looking out of the window to find that my neighbour who resembles a beetroot Roy Kinnear had brought in the man with the Hitler coat to do his garden; but then some fan comments did refer to him talking to his plants. This only spurred me on to look him back up on the internet… and that’s when I discovered his website. Not his fan Facebook group, but his own webpage which he’d put there for the benefit of Hollywood producers who may be interested in his story because, as well as being a grumpy-looking local gardener by day, by night he was also the self-styled Dousing Detective.
Forget any rumoured gentlemen’s outfitting encounters with the Third Reich because apparently Colin the gardener has a lot more Scooby Doo adventuring running a part-time psychic detective agency in which he so far claims to have pinpointed the body of a missing jogger through astral projection, tracked down a kidnapped cat, and that he was once employed by the Burmese government in the hunt for some missing World War 2 Spitfires. And if that wasn’t enough on his website he’s pictured with famous spoon bender Uri Geller after he hunted him down when he was visiting a local kitchen showroom.
Two words: Local legend.
It turned out that choosing to carry Rupert around the streets of Whitefield might not have been such a good idea as he was diagnosed by the vet with possible heart problems and was recalled the following day to have his lungs drained of fluid though being stabbed in the chest with a syringe like in that scene with Uma Thurman from Pulp Fiction. Having learnt from the follies of the day before I took the cat in a taxi, and later on I brought him home on the bus, but such transport meant no more encounters with The Mayor or the possibility of finally discovering Mad Denis or any other Local Legend; although, saying that, as at one end of town I was usually to found sitting outside the toilet in Costa Coffee whilst at the other I’d introduced a large ginger cat to all forms of public transport in the Whitefield area, then my greatest fear is that on some website, sometime soon, I may well becoming one of them.