Lives & Times of Valley Folks: Steve Sparks, Interviewer (Interviewed by his wife, Patty Liddy)
by Steve Sparks, April 29, 2011
Many people have asked Stephen over the past couple of years about when he was going to be in the ‘other chair’ and be interviewed himself. Well, as we were in the UK recently, visiting his family and our friends for a couple of weeks, we decided that the time had come. So, on a warm April afternoon, we sat down at the dining table in his parent’s home in Birmingham (a big city — the second largest in Britain) with a pot of tea and some chocolate biscuits (cookies) in front of us, and a bottle of wine and two glasses in reserve, and I began my interview of the Interviewer.
Stephen was born in Birmingham (Brum), England on February 14th (Valentine’s Day) in 1957 to parents Alan Sparks and Margaret Dean. The Sparks family had been in the City for a few generations, and as such are called ‘Brummies’ — the name given to anyone from this fine city. They had been in the city since at least the 1850s before which time Stephen has surprisingly not researched that side of his heritage. In the latter part of the 19th century, as a working class family during the upheavals of the industrial revolution, which was centered in and around this part of England, they learned various trades — Birmingham is known as ‘The City of a Thousand Trades.’ The Brummies are quick to tell you that their city has seen the manufacture of ‘everything from a nail to a train’ although the heavy industries have now mostly disappeared. They also proudly, and truthfully, proclaim that they have ‘more canals than Venice!’ — canals being a key mode of transport for goods and services back in those times.
His paternal grandparents were both from Brummie families, with his grandfather, Herbert George Stephen Sparks, born 1896, the eldest of ten siblings. He fought and was wounded in World War I before settling into a lifelong job at the post office. He was a “bit of a scallywag,” often in the local pub, wheeling and dealing, bartering his home-raised chickens for whatever might be available. He was also a master of the monologue, an art that has virtually died out now, and Stephen’s earlier memories of him are of his grandfather's renditions of various tales to a respectfully silent and enthralled crowd in a packed bar or club. “He virtually chain-smoked unfiltered cigarettes, two or three of his fingers on both hands were brown with nicotine stains, and he often had a bottle of beer when sitting around the house. Yet despite the drinking and smoking he took care of his family well and during the rationing years of World War II, as a result of his many successful ‘deals’ in the pub, the family ate well and my Dad tells me that during those difficult years they were the only ones on the street with bananas!”
Stephen’s paternal grandmother, born in 1900, Gladys Hunter, or Nanna, as Stephen called her, was a “salt of the earth” type, never complaining, always working. She came from a very large family, some of whom were professional soccer players. She even washed the local professional team’s uniforms in the 30s. Gladys and Bert had three children, Roland, Barbara, and their youngest, Alan, Stephen’s father.
On his maternal side, the story goes much further back. Thanks to the research done by Stephen’s Great Auntie Doe (Dorothy, his grandfather’s sister) they have traced their roots back to the English Civil War in the 1640’s, at which point the Dean family, strong supporters of the Parliamentarians, had fled to Wales to escape the Royalist forces. Stephen’s great, great grandfather was George Stephenson, who discovered the steam engine and this side of the family were all well educated. The family was from the more rural Leicestershire, about an hour outside Birmingham, but they had settled in the City before the First World War. Stephen’s grandfather, Frederick Ralph Dean, was born in 1891 and he and his two brothers and two sisters all served in the Great War (1914-18) on the Western Front, either in the trenches or as nurses behind the lines in the case of the two girls. After being shot and wounded during the slaughter at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, he rehabilitated back in England and, following graduation from college in Birmingham, he became a music teacher. Stephen’s maternal Grandmother, the extremely caring and kind Ada Mary Smith, called Mary, was born in 1900 into a working class Birmingham family and she and her two sisters and brother were very close. “I can remember spending many happy summers at my Great Auntie Rose’s home in Oxford and there were lots of other family gatherings at which my Grandma and her sisters would laugh and laugh as they told story after story of their times together. My maternal Grandparents were married in 1924 and they had one child, Margaret, my mother.”
Stephen’s parents were born in 1929 and grew up in the city of Birmingham, although both were evacuated to the countryside, along with thousands of other children, to avoid the German air raids on this important industrial region during World War 2. It was where the fighter planes, the Spitfires, were being built, together with so many other things necessary for the war effort. “My mother and her mother were gone for two or three years, boarding with a family in rural Leicestershire while my Grandpa spent much of the war with the students at his school who were unable to be placed with families in the countryside. My Dad was also sent away but after repeatedly running away back to Birmingham from his ‘new country home’ he was eventually allowed to stay in the city.”
“My Dad had left school at 14 and did odd jobs before doing his compulsory national service in the army from 1946 for a couple of years. He then worked in various factories and was a draftsman for a brief time, before finally settling into a steady job in 1952 as a fireman in the City of Birmingham Fire Brigade, a job he was to do for the next 30 years. My mother went to a good school but despite having the ability to go on to college very few girls did at that time and so she entered the workforce as a shorthand typist and later a secretary. I think she always felt she could have bettered herself career wise but it was not to be.”
Alan and Margaret met at a dance and dated for a year or so before marrying in 1954. Stephen was born in 1957 with his sister Judith coming along in 1960. “We lived at Grandad Sparks’ house at 4 Western Road in the Erdington district of Birmingham. It was an old house with coal fire heating, outside toilets, and no phone until 1968. Ice on the inside of bedroom windows in the morning was a common occurrence in the winters. We lived on the north side of the city and as a child from a sports-playing family — my father had been a semi-pro football player and my mother a club tennis player, I was playing football (soccer) as soon as I could walk. With a public park a matter of yards away, I would play all day long, until it was dark, and as a result I made many friends in the neighborhood. I also played for my school — Birches Green Junior and Infant School from 1964-68, where I did well academically too, and at the age of eleven I passed exams to go to Handsworth Grammar School, one of the top three ‘junior high/high schools’ in the whole city. After Nanna died in 1960, Grandad stayed with us before dying of lung cancer in 1971 when I was 14. The house was sold and we moved about two miles away to 12 The Mount, still in the Erdington district but only half a mile from Europe’s biggest traffic interchange — known as ‘Spaghetti Junction,’ at the confluence of some of the country’s busiest roads.”
As a young boy, and until he went to the Grammar School, at which point his studies would take preference, Stephen was expected to help around the house with the tidying up and dishwashing chores, but most of the time he was outside, playing sports, riding his bicycle, playing ‘war’ games with friends, or walking the dogs. “My Mum and my aunt rescued abandoned Border collies (sheepdogs) from various farms outside the city and found homes for them. We always had those dogs around and I fell in love with the breed from an early age. Obviously in the city they were not working sheep but they were great with tennis balls and nipping at the ankles ('herding') of kids on bikes my friends and I didn’t like.”
Stephen also liked to read a lot and would spend hours in his room reading mysteries, war books, and encyclopedias. This studious side to his nature had paid off and at the age of eleven, in September 1968, he began what would be a very important period of his life at Handsworth Grammar School. “The school was a few miles from home so I had to take public transport — no school buses in Brum, and I have lots of not very fond memories of waiting for the bus in the freezing rain or really thick fog — smog actually, that was so prevalent in Birmingham at that time — before the ‘Clean Air Acts’ were introduced. It was a very different experience from the idyllic one I had enjoyed to that point in my young life. The school was very old-fashioned, reminiscent of something out of ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’. It was all-boys, the teachers wore caps and gowns, adherence to school uniform was very strictly enforced, everyone was called by the last names, it was ‘Yes, Sir’, ‘No, Sir’, and ‘Please, Sir’, and after-school detentions and a liberal use of the cane/stick were very common as forms of punishment. That first day was awful — I remember waving goodbye to my Mum who had come on the bus with me. She was crying and I was trying my best not to. I was scared to death that whole first year. The older boys were bullies and the very strict teachers terrified me. Fortunately, sports came to my rescue, not for the first or last time. I had played football and cricket for my previous school and this continued in the new school where each year or grade had its own team, although football was my main sport. I played on the team representing the whole district at 15 and then got to play for the School’s First Team when I was 16, becoming the team captain in my final year, during which I also represented the County (State) of Warwickshire in three games.”
Stephen was not only school soccer captain, but he played for the school at cricket, cross-country, and athletics (track) where he set a school record in the mile of 4 min 34 seconds that was to stand for several years. He also performed well in his academic work. His favorite subjects were History, Geography, English Literature, and Latin, and although he did well at the sciences and mathematics he was not nearly as interested in those subjects. He was also a House Captain and a Senior Prefect and in his final year won the school History Prize.
“Over those years, when not studying or playing sports, my passion, and one which remains to this day, was following the local professional football team, Aston Villa. I could write a book about my experiences watching and following the team but suffice it to say here — with my whole extended family being Villa fans too, I will be a Villa fan from conception to the grave. Meanwhile, I was driven to succeed academically by a desire to please my Grandfather Dean — Grandpa. He and my Grandma were major influences and we saw them all of the time. My Grandpa had played sports at a high level and was a highly regarded teacher so his interest in my activities in those areas led me to try so hard — I desperately did not want to disappoint him. I was also gifted in some ways but if he had not been around, encouraging and enquiring, perhaps I would not have done so well. My parents were very supportive too although not nearly as imposing, and ultimately if I did poorly at a test or in sports I was not too concerned about their reaction or that of my Grandma — they would have said ‘bad luck, better luck next time’ but my Grandpa may have show disappointment and that would have been a heavy cross to bare. Looking back, he was a very strong character and tough for some to deal with but he was most certainly the biggest influence in my life and as he lived until he was ninety-four, dying in 1985, his presence has been felt in whatever I have done since.”
In Stephen’s final 2 years at Grammar School, 1973-75, he had a steady girlfriend. As a result he went against his family’s better judgment and decided he was going to a local university to study something yet to be determined — despite the fact that he had been accepted, pending final exam results, by Oxford University to study History. Then the girl became pregnant and, without telling anyone, the 2 teenagers paid for and went through with an abortion. They stayed together for several more months but in the summer before his first year at Aston University in Birmingham, where he had decided to study Business, the girl ended their relationship and Stephen found himself studying a subject and attending a university, neither of which would have been his first choices in different circumstances.
“That was a tough summer. After so much had gone right for me for my whole life I found myself floundering somewhat. My parents as always were there for me and had instilled in me a good sense of what was right and wrong, a sound base for making good judgments and now I had taken a ‘wrong turn’ somehow. I know my Grandpa was disappointed about me not going to Oxford — he was a bit of a snob and would have loved telling his friends in the world of education about me if I had gone there. However, in his defense, he was very supportive and inquisitive about my studies and sporting activities at Aston. Speaking of sports, in that autumn of 1975 I tried out for and made the University football team in my first week at Aston and that ‘saved’ me once again. I had a lot of instant and like-minded friends and I was one of just two first year (freshmen) players that made the starting line-up. I was readily accepted as the only ‘Brummie’ on the team, but therefore had to deal with a constant barrage of good natured verbal abuse for being a ‘townie’ on a team of students from all over the rest of the country. To make matters better, we went on to win the National Championship that year (1975-76) — the 35th anniversary of which I was celebrating last weekend at a reunion in Brum.”
The drawback to this was that, after his six years of hard study and discipline at Handsworth Grammar, Stephen had now spent a little too much time at play and not at his studies in the far less rigid and structured environment of a university in the mid-70s. As a result he failed his first year and had to repeat it. “That was a shock to my family but not entirely unexpected on my part. I had discovered the wonderful world of University sports, beer, and college girls. However, a year after being accepted by Oxford, to find myself failing at Aston was certainly a bit of a comedown to say the least. I obviously take the blame for it but there were 'extenuating circumstances.' The football was great and the celebrations after each victory were extensive — I missed lots of lectures. Then, on top of the University social scene I was also still very much a part of the activities of the friends I had grown up with over the previous years — my local Brummie friends — ‘The Lads’ as we referred to ourselves — who were at that time, and continue to be, my closest friends of all. I’d go out with them one night and the University football team the next, sleeping on friend's floors often and therefore failing to go home where my patient parents were still being understanding, but not as much!”
The good news was that Stephen got to play five years of top quality football, still graduate with a degree in “Managerial and Administrative Studies,”, and remain close to his family. “I had the ability to do well but did not like the course very much. I continued to lead a full social life but always made sure I did a sufficient amount of studying to get by. In that period, and during the final couple of years at the Grammar School prior to that, I had really become interested in America’s recent history and its films made during that same period — the 60s and 70s — JFK, his assassination and those of M.L. King and Bobby Kennedy, the war in Vietnam, Nixon, Watergate, etc; and the early films of DeNiro, Pacino, Nicholson, Eastwood, Hoffman, Jane Fonda, etc. These interests, coupled with the fact a close friend of mine on the football team, Jim Reid, had been to the States for a summer and shared his experiences with me, led me and some of my similarly interested Brummie friends to go over there in the summers of 1978 and 1979.”
“What a truly fantastic time we had. On the first occasion we had Greyhound bus passes for two months and traveled from New York, where one of the lads had relatives, via Niagara Falls, on to Chicago — more relatives to stay with and show us around, on to St Louis, Denver, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, where we stayed one block off Union Square at a youth hostel and went to Baker Beach to catch some California sun and had to keep our jackets on in the freezing fog, to LA where we stayed with more relatives — some gay show business-types, to the Grand Canyon, to Austin Texas — more relatives, and finally to New Orleans, where our tickets expired. There were four of us — me, Mick, Moz, and Graeme and we split into pairs, with Mick Cusack and I hitch-hiking back to New York City. It took us four days and over thirty rides — a story for another time.”
In 1979, Stephen, Mick, and another Brummie, Tom Mannion (who had come over with other members of ‘The Lads’ the previous year too — Austin, Eugene, and Brendan) returned and rode Amtrak trains from New York to Chicago and then down to Austin again — a place they had fallen in love with, and where a number of the local women “seemed to like us almost as much as we liked them!”
Stephen graduated in June 1980 from Aston with a 2nd Class degree and before he had even heard the results he was in New York once again. “I had signed up for a student exchange work program with a friend of mine at University — Andy Hall. We had been offered legal work through this program on the Boardwalk in Asbury Park, New Jersey and I started as the guy in charge of the bumper cars — ‘treat these like your babies’ said the owner Mel. He was as close to one of the ‘Sopranos’ as anyone I have ever met.”
Stephen and Andy worked the Boardwalk that summer before Andy returned to the UK and Stephen headed down to Austin in the September. “That was a great few months. I played football on a local pub team, worked for a landscaping firm, had numerous dates with some lovely Texan girls, and even got a job on an oil rig in Giddings, an hour or so east of Austin. There I worked alongside the most redneck and ultra-macho men I’ve ever met. My job was as ‘the Worm,’ so called due to the amount of watery mud you get covered in every time a new length of pipe is added. They never once, in two months, called me by my name — it was always ‘Worm’ — ‘Hey, Worm, get me a beer’; ‘Hey, Worm, fetch me my gun.’ It was fun, I think, and very well paid so I dealt with it.”
By December, following Ronald Reagan's victory in the Presidential election and with Stephen's visa about to expire, it was time he headed back to England, via New York on a Greyhound bus. During that trip, as he peered out of the bus window at the headlines on a newspaper stand in the bus stop in Memphis, Tennessee, he learned of the shooting of John Lennon. He returned to Birmingham that Christmas and after a few months at his parents home he got a three-bedroom flat with two more of his Brummie friends, Paul and Gregg, in Erdington once again. He could not find work; it was Margaret Thatcher’s England and the industrial Midlands of the country was suffering from unemployment as badly as anywhere. He received unemployment money, read books, and regularly visited the pub with his close circle of ten or so friends. He played some semi-pro football to earn a little of his beer money and did get some temporary jobs for the local government and then spent six months as a psychiatric nurse in a hospital where both his mother (as a secretary in the social work department) and his sister Judith, as a Ward Nursing Manager, also worked. He bought some drums, learned to play, and formed a band with friends, eventually doing gigs around the city and making a couple of CDs, or tapes as was the case back then. “We were quite good I suppose, and I even transported my drum kit to the States when I moved back there, but being in a band was never a priority or major part of my life.”
In the spring of 1982, Stephen started to date another unemployed graduate, Marie Morrissey, who lived nearby with friends. Marie wanted to find a teaching job, but in the meantime, as a talented seamstress, she, Stephen and a friend of hers started to design and make fashionable women’s clothes and sell them at the indoor market in Birmingham’s City Center. The business was a big success over the next year or so, and by that time Stephen had convinced an unsure Marie that they should take a break and spend some of their savings on an extended visit to the States and down to Central America — a region both had become very interested in, particularly Mexico and Nicaragua. Little did he know at the time that he would be leaving England for good, apart from annual visits, and that his home for the next 27 years, half of his life to this point in time, would be the United States.
To read the stories of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at www.avalleylife.wordpress.com. Next week the interview with the interviewer will conclude.