Percy Youd, Tales from a Sporting Life (Leonie Press, 2003)

This is an extraordinary autobiography, which came to print in an unusual way. After Percy's death in 1963, his daughter Phyllis and grandson Ken Bazley were "clearing out" Percy's home and discovered a lot of hand-written stories in a blue hard-backed exercise book. They were "lumped together," all without punctuation or paragraphs. In his later years, Percy had written about the major events in his very colourful life. Ken Bazley, a folk singer and dancer with the Chester Morris Men, took the trouble to turn this into a typescript and proceeded to have these memoirs of his grandfather published. Some 22,000 words of Percy's random memories of a "mersey man who made his mark" (his sub-title) are recorded. Although they have been sympathetically edited, Ken has stayed faithful to Percy's telegrammatic style of writing, which added interest in small doses but was impossible to read at length.

His story is an amazing insight into a long gone macho Victorian world, set in and around his native Cheshire (Frodsham) and Wirral home. No one today could cram into one life what Percy did, from being a cable wire factory worker, to publican, to auctioneer and much more. As a bare-knuckle fist fighter, athlete, and marksman with anything from a catapult to a 12-bore shotgun, Percy did the lot. Beautifully illustrated with old photographs, the book is unusual in that Percy's tales are reproduced as written (often in the Cheshire dialect), on the right hand pages. The left-hand pages are reserved for photographs and news reports relating to each particular story. As Percy was born in Frodsham and later in life lived in Birkenhead and Ellesmere Port, local folk — or indeed anybody — will enjoy reading about "how it used to be."

The tales are not set in any chronological order. In fact, they seem to have been randomly written down as and when the old man could remember them, but thatís the charm of the book. It tells of the construction of the Manchester ship canal by the navvies, and is punctuated by some "Cheshire" humour, along with some humorous tales that would have been told in the bar of the pub. One of the most gruesome accounts is of him drowning a litter of kittens his cat had just produced in a bucket of water in the yard. Watched by his 8-year-old son, who was inquisitive, he said, "We will keep just one kitten so the mother can suckle." Two weeks later, his wife gave birth to twins. When he presented them to his young son, he said, "Here you have got two new baby brothers, what do you think of that?" His son replied, "Are we going to keep both of them, dad?"

On a more pleasant note, Percy was a member of the Frodsham soul-cakers and played the part of the "old woman." He was instrumental in passing down the original script of the play to the present-day soul-cakers. The script, such as it is, is detailed in the book. As an added bonus, Ken Bazley's mother (Percy's daughter) tells her own story of her childhood with him in the 1920s, after he abducted her from his estranged wife. Their landlady had a crystal ball and never gave the girl a proper meal.

Tales from a Sporting Life is an extraordinary description of a vanished world and what must have been an extraordinary man. Ken Bazley and his mother Phyllis are to be congratulated for bringing this in to print. It is well worth a read. The book was edited by Anne Loader and published by Leonie Press of Northwich, Cheshire, England. They specialise in publishing local history and novels of Cheshire. The story of Percy Youd is one of an excellent catalogue of local Cheshire works they have put together. To obtain a copy contact Leonie Press by telephone at +44 (0) 1606 75660, or see their Web site for details on how to buy online.

[Peter Massey]