Jason Goodwin: ‘Kieth knew three men who died by falling — it would have been four if he and his mate hadn’t caught the fellow as he toppled from the oversail’

Jason Goodwin tells the tale of his friends Kieth and Maureen Cockroft: steeplejacks, roofers, tilers, trailblazers and Hell's Angels.

I am thoroughly news averse these days, but I did enjoy a feature that appeared in the Bradford Telegraph & Argus 20 years ago, under the headline ‘My life on the tiles’. In it, my friends Kieth and Maureen Cockcroft explained how they became Mr and Mrs Roofer, tiling and slating their way from Bradford and Bournemouth to Bodensee and beyond, with Maureen overcoming her fear of heights to help her husband out and him steeple-jacking his way around all the chimneys of the north.

They are still at it, 50 years since they started. I have a photograph of them, fresh off a job, looking like a pair of rock stars. Kieth, in denims and T-shirt, has ruffled white hair and square-framed shades; under her black trilby, Maureen wears pigtails and a mile-wide smile. They radiate devotion to each other.

Times have changed — not every builder in the 1970s welcomed Britain’s first lady tiler on site. When one told her she should be at the kitchen sink, not up on the roof, Maureen gave him what the Telegraph & Argus calls ‘a dressing down’. I suspect it may have been backed up by her notorious left hook.

Several of their stories involve Maureen’s left hook, which she will deliver after a feint with the right. ‘I wasn’t going to let that bull rub up against our caravan,’ she remarks, concluding a remarkable story about a caravan holiday and a broken field gate. ‘So I belted him one, right on the nose.’

“Different chimneys move in different ways. Round ones sway around and square ones move from side to side in the wind; hexagonal and octagonal chimneys move like a cat’s cradle”

She and Kieth rode big bikes together all over Europe, raced Mini Coopers at weekends and belonged to Skipton Hells Angels (or Satans Slaves). Maureen has a notebook crammed with recipes gleaned from friendships with the early Indian restaurateurs of Bradford, where their first house (outdoor privy, tin bath, mangle in the cellar) now lies under the foundations of the local mosque.

To hear Kieth talk, you’d think the whole north of England was mapped out in steeples, spires and very tall chimneys. He has climbed up hundreds of feet to fix them or brace them or even to knock them down, raking out joints between the bricks, whacking in the iron dogs to hold the next ladder, ascending rung by rung, ladder by ladder, to the top.

At the top, way up in the air, different chimneys move in different ways. Round ones sway around and square ones move from side to side in the wind; hexagonal and octagonal chimneys move like a cat’s cradle. Sometimes Kieth was lowered inside the chimney, praying that no one would think to open the soot door at the bottom, lest the sudden updraft catch him and fling him to the skies. ‘Up there,’ he says, ‘you slip an inch and it feels like 10ft.’

He knew three men who died by falling — it would have been four if Kieth and his mate hadn’t caught the fellow as he toppled from the oversail. They grabbed him by the collar of his overalls and urged him, as he dangled in space, to reach up and take hold of their arms. ‘I can’t,’ the man said. ‘Well, we can’t keep this hold much longer, so you must.’

‘But if I lift my arms,’ he said, ‘I’ll fall out of my overalls.’ This absurd possibility gave Kieth and his friend the giggles and it was all they could do to hang on.

I am news averse because it isn’t enough about people like Kieth and Maureen. It doesn’t matter. As Shakespeare said about his friend:

Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate.


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