Just before Christmas a new bench was officially unveiled at the top of Courthouse Street in memory of John Napier, better known as John The Cobbler. During the ceremony Bishop Peter Wheatley blessed the bench and Jonathan Mendenhall gave an emotional speech with Sandra, John’s partner, being invited to be the first person to sit on it.
Hastings’ Deputy Mayor and local councillor for the old town James Bacon said at the time: “Thank you to the High Street Traders, the Old Town Carnival Association and other generous local people for making this happen.”
John’s death not only marked the loss of an old town character, for his friends his passing left a big hole in their lives. Here Jonathan Mendenhall – a long time friend of ‘John The Cobbler’ – shares with us his own very personal tribute to a dear friend.
‘Back In Two Minutes…’ the yellow dog-eared announcement hanging in the window of the door was greeted by those of us who knew John with a sort of resigned amusement.
It was never, ever, just two minutes. Just nipping across the road to the newsagents to pick up his Sun newspaper was always at least 20 minutes. If it was out of the shop and a few yards to the bakery for a bread roll you could then add on another ten minutes. “…stop and yak…stop and yak” and on the occasional hot summer’s afternoon, two minutes morphed into two hours if John had spotted a couple of friends in Porters Wine Bar and then scampered over to join them for a few vodkas, “Bugger the customers…” they could wait, anyway, ‘Back In Two Minutes’!
John could natter for England, or should I say Scotland, and he would do so at the drop of a hat. Everyone seemed to know him and he had plenty to say or add to any discourse or social interlude. Although he could strike up a warm conversation, even with a total stranger, I always thought he was an appalling listener. John was one of those people whose mind, when in conversation, was going round and round as he waited to come back with extra knowledge. He rarely allowed anyone to have the last word on any subject and had to feel he knew more than you did. This is not a criticism of a dear friend, I merely felt it was a personality trait of someone who fundamentally wanted to be liked.
It was no accident when he cheekily named his shop Cobblers To The Old Town when it opened 25 years ago. It was destined to become John’s world, and the social hub of the old town as much as it was his business.
There was the red bench outside on which he would sit for hours in the sunshine watching the world go by exchanging saucy repartee with locals passing by.
It was somehow reassuring to see that John ‘our rock’ was in situ, gassing away and ignoring his mounting pile of leather work, buckles and belts. So well known was he and so knowledgable about Hastings that any newcomer could be forgiven for believing that John Mclean Napier had lived here all his life.
In fact he arrived in Hastings only around 1994/95. He was born in Maryhill in Glasgow in 1950. It was a tough place to live in those days. In the 1950s Glasgow was enveloped by smog and when John was just seven there was mass inoculation of the population to eradicate tuberculosis. During the 50s 32,000 homes in Glasgow were pulled down as part of post war slum clearance and it was this backdrop that went some way to forge John’s resilient and sometimes fiery temperament.
He was one of three sons born to Alex and Mary Napier, his siblings were Alex and Robert. Robert now living in Canada.
John’s early love of rock music was made manifest when he played bass in a group called Sad and he was always so proud of his brother, Alex, who was drummer for Uriah Heap a well known English rock group that hit the charts in the late 1960s.
He ended up in Bromley where he had many uncles and aunts and it was around this time that his parents split up. John often spoke to me about the difficult relationship he had with his father and how he cherished his beloved mum, “my old mum..” he wistfully used to say.
For 22 years he ran a shoe repair shop in Bromley and then, when his brother Alex opened The Crown Pub in Hastings’ Old Town John came down to help run it… or at least do a few sessions behind the bar.
I remember his first two jokes about his birth place; in Glasgow, he said, a pint of lager with a dash of lime was considered to be a cocktail and up there they thought Hepatitis B was a vitamin tablet!
He met the lovely Sandra and with her enjoyed a wonderful social life in those early days, often spending lively and occasionally – as John put it – raucous Sunday afternoons in the East Hastings Sea Angling Clubhouse accompanied by their friends Alan and Freddie who ran the old town flower shop.
So Cobblers To The Old Town opened and John settled down to running what was then one of only two shops providing a service, as such, the other being Butler’s Emporium in George Street, now long gone.
Being the only shoe repairers in the area and selling a wealth of accompanying accessories he had collared the market and was sitting on a gold mine. He was superb at his craft but was constantly distracted by his naturally ebullient social intercourse and frequently a repair was not ready on time. We who knew the way John worked understood that if he said ‘come back on Wednesday’ the question should have been, ‘which Wednesday?’
Quite often I would be sitting at the back of the shop when one of the new London weekend intake to the old town would come in and made no attempt to hide their displeasure with John because he had not completed their shoe repair. He would point to the shelf groaning with jobs waiting to be done and say ‘…give me and hour and come back,’ as they walked out the door muttering he would stick two fingers up and say under his breath ‘fuck off.’
He felt he was often patronised and spoken down to by the new second home monied people and it was blatantly obvious to me that he was occasionally regarded as a mere tradesman. I felt very defensive of John’s good nature and used to boil with rage. Once I verbally tore in to a particularly stuck-up and arrogant popinjay who raised his voice to him, John having remained courteous, even though he was fuming inside. When the man walked out John turned on me: “thanks Jonathan, now that’s more business I’m going to lose.”
John and I did not always see eye to eye, we had very different personalities and clashed on certain matters, particularly when it came to ‘the DFLs’ moving in to the old town. Once he mistakenly accused me of sneering at him and ordered me, in no uncertain terms, to leave the shop otherwise he would he throw me out. Needless to say I knew I had to make the first move and so the next day I bit the bullet, strode into ‘The Cobblers’ and gave the old Scots git a hug.
John was exceptionally kind hearted. His generosity of spirit and incessant acts of benevolence were to be the nemesis of a business that should have thrived. I will remain eternally grateful for the patience and kindness he and Sandra showed me during a particularly turbulent time in my life some years ago and when I lost my mum to whom I was very close.
So a kind heart but with it I often sensed a smattering of childlike naivety. He was particularly vulnerable when it came to women. I know for sure John would never have been disloyal to Sandra who he loved very much, a chat on the phone with her during the day would always end with ‘och eye the noo… oche eye the noo’. But if a woman came in and put on a ‘helpless act’ he was putty in her hands, discounts from John fell like manna from heaven when an obviously conniving pair of eye lashes were fluttered in his direction. One pair of eyes were always welcome in John’s life though, those of his daughter Lindsey, ‘my Lindsey’ he would say with pride about the woman with whom he was reunited in more recent years..
He was obsessed too with anyone who he regarded as remotely famous and treated them with awe, hence the photographic showcase of B-list celebrities pinned above the counter. That collection included one of me with an ITV cameraman, it was a photograph he got hold of and would not take down even though I implored him to do so. As a news reporter I had become cynical when it came to so-called stars and overrated television personalities but John adored all that stuff.
Of course as a collective species he did not like the human race and his love of animals was legendary. All dogs made a B-line for his shop and his plentiful store of marrowbone biscuits, John being responsible for many a prematurely portly pooch.
As for seagulls he thought nothing of closing the shop on a busy day to go to the rescue more often than not ferrying them up to the RSPCA’s animal sanctuary in Fairlight. He once even removed part of a chimney stack to rescue a stricken Seagull closing his shop for five hours.
Okay he sang out of tune, he enjoyed a good rant and was critical of almost everybody, even his friends, and it has to be said the keys he cut more often than not didn’t fit. But this wonderful Scotsman got into the hearts of so many in the old town and beyond.
His had an eclectic fan club and it is quite remarkable that such an outsider came to define the old town for so many. Even Amber Rudd our MP, when she became Home Secretary, made it one of her first jobs to pop into the shop, accompanied by her police security to give John a personal Christmas card and a hug.
It’s an overworked word but John McClean Napier was a legend. It will always hurt for many of us who walk past his empty shop – it is soon to become a solicitors office I believe.
He showed extreme courage and strength of character throughout his protracted and cruel illness, winning so much respect. He will never fade in our memories – how could he?
Now there’s the bench placed opposite the Jenny Lind on which we will pause and say thank you to John for all that he was, the words inscribed on it say it all, “John The Cobbler finally soled and heeled”.