Dad’s authority at home was unquestionable. One evening, as I lay upstairs, I heard an argument brewing between my parents. Voices slowly raised until Eric’s temper boiled over. “Don’t you ever tell me how to raise my children!” The floorboards were vibrating. “Nobody tells me how to bring up my kids.” His face probably looked like Alex Ferguson’s after I had sorted out Roy Keane.
Eric was equally uncompromising at large. On one of the many school holidays when he took me out on the scrap metal round, we picked up a consignment of aluminium ingots in central Southend. The vendor, Ron Wylie, had business premises at the side of a narrow one-way street somewhere near the Top Alex pub. Eric’s Luton van blocked the road completely as he loaded the cargo.
Dad told me to sit on a nearby wall. A car pulled up behind his van. An expensive vehicle. Maybe a top-end Rover. A big guy got out, tight-faced, looking around for the bastard who was blocking his way. He strode over. Big chest. “Who’s that van belong to son?” Loud northerner’s voice.
Informed that it was my father’s, he ordered me to fetch him. A minute later, I watched two titans square up. Nine inches apart. Voices lifting. No backing down on either side. Eric was the slighter of the two, and I worried for his well-being if fists flew. The other guy started effing and blinding, but that wasn’t my father’s style. He had his way, insisting the bloke would wait until the van was fully loaded. The car backed all the way down the street and disappeared.
The heavy scrap metal action was in London. Dad had played football with Charlie Richardson, of the infamously violent South London Richardson gang. He began to buy metal from the Richardsons, much of which was probably stolen. Then hooked up with the even more notorious Krays, again to help offload dubiously acquired cargoes. He told me years later that if you traded in a straightforward manner there was no question of coming to harm from these London gangs.
The police were less impressed. They opened the back of his van at a Hadleigh petrol station, and accused him of acquiring stolen goods. Mum told me years later that they made preparations for him going to prison for several years. Neil and I would be told that he had found lucrative work abroad. I think Eric escaped on a technicality linked to a receipt.
In my first few weeks at Westcliff High School, we suddenly took a 2-week family holiday in Brixham, Devon. Eric drove at a ferocious speed, overnight. Decades down the line, he opened up about the reasons. He had brokered a metals deal between London and Irish-Birmingham gangs. The deal fell through, but the Brummie boys still wanted their cut, and had come looking for him.
I had arrived home from school one afternoon, to find a strange car sitting in the driveway. Two men in suits. “When does you dad get home son?” No idea, but asked them to wait, and went out back to kick a ball around. When he returned, they demanded the profit that they had been expecting. As an incentive, they let him know they had noted which routes Neil and I took home from school.
They gave him a short period of time to find the dough. On the day that they returned, waiting, he parked the van. But didn’t get out. They strolled across, and asked if he had the money. He said it was in the back. He jumped out, opened the sliding side door, and went across to a sack. Extracted the contents, turned round, and poked the shotgun in their faces. “If you ever come near me or any of my family again, I will kill both of you. Now get lost.”
And they did. Presumably the risk was seen as not worth the effort. Eric admitted that his fear had been huge, but had been overcome by the knowledge that any capitulation would probably be exploited beyond any one-off payment. He returned the gun to Ron. The same night we made the flit to Devon.
You have to admire his courage.