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An unconvertible rebel

February 5, 2018

constance-markievicz

It was October 1981 and we were coming towards the end of a week long trip up the west coast of Ireland – a kind of early version of the Wild Atlantic Way. From Kerry to Clare, Conemara, Mayo and Sligo, we had meandered, following side roads and interesting routes, always drawn towards the strands, and heading eventually for dear old Leitrim and my family’s homeplace.

Towards the end of the week, we were in Sligo and had “passed by” at Drumcliff Graveyard to visit Willie Yeats. We were headed for Mullaghmore and wondering if there was a route along the coast, so at Ballygilgan we turned left on what seemed to be a seaside route which might also provide a view across to the Rosses.

As is not unusual, the road hesitated, faltered, and then, close to the strand, seemed to run out of ideas completely. There were a couple of ruins in the trees to our right and the sea to our left. We decided to park and go for an exploratory walk in the woodland which was tangled and overgrown and quite out of control, it seemed – with ivy gripping gnarled trees, and mossy banks of rocks and vegetation undulating below in the shadows.

It was a strange landscape – it seemed it had clearly been man made at some point, but there was little sign of any meaningful husbandry. Was this yet another remnant of the Anglo Irish ascendancy in this part of Ireland? Would we come across a great, burnt out, manor house somewhere ahead?

Well, in a clearing, there was a house – and a grand size it was. It was grey and looming and looked possibly deserted, but there was no sign of fire or damage to it and it certainly didn’t look abandoned.

We wondered if it might be open to the public, or if there was any information about it and so we circled the building: huge windows with blinds and hangings, closed wooden shutters, gravel under the grass under our feet, doors with flaking paint, rust appearing on gutters and pipes.

Gradually, we became aware that it might still be inhabited. There was that feeling you sometimes catch – a feeling of being watched, even though you can see nobody. More daring in my twenties than I would be now, I approached one of the ground floor windows and tried to see through it. The window was cloudy with dust and age, but there seemed to be furniture within.

All of a sudden we were a little apprehensive. We had no idea whose house this was or what their attitude would be towards a couple of trespassers. A little shaken, and still with that feeling of eyes being upon us, we retraced our steps, returned to the car and appreciated the free and open air of the strand for a while.

In pre-internet days, a map search needed an actual map, but the basic copy we had in the car  did not name this house. We had to wait till we returned home.

And there I discovered that we had been wandering around the environs of Lissadell.

At this point in my life I was at the beginning of my study of Irish history and politics. Born into an Irish family in Edinburgh, I received most of my education in England when we moved there when I was 7 years old. The English only teach English history. So, when I returned to Edinburgh to university one of my subjects was Scottish history, and, in my twenties, I was catching up on Irish history.

So I knew of Madame Markiewicz and that she came from Lissadell – but, as yet, I had no knowledge of where Lissadell was situated, so I had never considered that as a possible identity of the house we had stumbled across.

With research came further realisation.

I discovered that the house was indeed still lived in – and still occupied by the Gore Booths – Angus and his sister Aideen, who would be Constance’s nephew and niece. As “Madame” had become rather a hero of mine, it was quite a shock to realise that not only had I peered through the windows of her house, but that any eyes I had imagined peering out at me may well have belonged to such close relatives. Stranger still was the discovery that the house was actually open to visitors during the Summer months. I can only imagine how haunting such a tour would have been, as by the seventies the family had retreated to a small suite of rooms and the greater part of the house, despite being in disrepair, was very much as the Countess would have remembered it.

Somehow, it seemed a suitable “introduction” to Madame Markiewicz, whose life is a continuum of enigma and non sequiturs – on a scale which only tends to increase one’s admiration.

A member of high society, a debutante, and Slade art student, her father had been a hugely philanthropic member of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy, providing food and work for the hard pressed local population in the late 19th century: a concern for the poor which she inherited, and which motivated her Irish Republicanism and her fight for women’s rights – the latter alongside her sister, Eva Gore-Booth.

She famously offered as advice to revolutionary women:

“Dress suitably in short skirts and sitting boots, leave your jewels and gold wands in the bank, and buy a revolver.”

It is a form of words which sums up this remarkable woman, brought up in privilege, wedded to ideals, and saved from mystical irrelevance by a hard won practicality.

She was no mere “cultural nationalist” in the shape of a Lady Gregory, but was to be found, literally,  where the bullets were flying; her philanthropy propelled her to sell many of her possessions, to open and operate soup kitchens and to work so closely with the wretched poor that she may well have exposed herself to incurable tuberculosis, and an early death at 59.

Her background gave her no right to be a friend to the poor, but she was; her fin de siècle romantic pacifist ideas should have precluded her from active involvement in the Easter Rising, but they didn’t; those who started by ridiculing her military uniforms and her Anglo-Irish ways, finished by using her as inspiration. If Edinburgh born socialist James Connolly could accept her, there is a little doubt that her heart, like her actions, was in the right place.

She stands as a reproof to all those who would stereotype, compartmentalise, or dismiss those who appear “different”. In Constance’s  case, idiosyncrasy disguised commitment rather than replacing it. She was, in every way, an outstanding woman: unique, driven, and both of her time and “modern” in a most unlikely way. Despite first impressions, she was not a dilettante on what we would now call a “poverty tour”, she was a committed revolutionary – in the most revolutionary of times, and her actions matched her ideals.

What takes some understanding is that she was simultaneously a creature of her own upbringing – a reflection of that almost forgotten strand of Ireland’s history – the Anglo-Irish. They were often free thinking, unpredictable in their choices, and influential in the development of the Irish land around them, despite their sense of being apart.

When we consider the insular and inward looking Free State established by De Valera, a state which marginalised the Anglo-Irish and gave them no sense of being welcome in the new country, it is hard not to suspect that had they been included in a more inclusive and pluralistic state, it would have been to the benefit of all – a widening of perspective and cultural input, an acknowledged part of Ireland’s history, much as Northern Unionists are now becoming viewed.

Instead, the burning of the great houses in war time was followed by a fate which was just as cruel in some ways, the ignoring of the occupants and the creation of a new order in which they were neither despised nor persecuted but merely ignored, as if they had no role, no history, or no future. Not being “Celtic Irish” they were considered as having nothing to offer – an egregious example of cultural myopia, the result of  political insecurity and immaturity.

In many of his stories, Leitrim’s John McGahern mentions the big house, its inhabitants an elderly father and his bachelor son, condemned to look after each other as the house fails around them, only leaving to tend the bees in their garden hives, industrious to the last, driven to work.

They welcome him in, the young village lad who brings their groceries, they give him the run of their vast library. It’s how he becomes educated, cultured, thirsty for knowledge,-  and no reader can miss the contrast between these gentle, harmless, ostracised people, and the brutality of his own ignorant father, charged as one of the new Civic Guards with getting the new state off to a start of law and order, allegedly at the heart of a community, which regards him with fear and mistrust.

How Madame would have despaired of contemporary Ireland, with the homeless dying on its streets and the desperate poor driven into criminality. What a thorn she would have been in the side of the Irish establishment, a reminder of their dereliction of duty, an embarrassment of a half English aristocrat with more feeling for the dispossessed than those charged with their care as “children of the state”.

Even Lissadell itself reflects the position of the Gore-Booths – for decades at war with the Irish state over ownership and management of house and lands, till eventually the last remaining siblings who lived there were allowed to remain until the end. The house by then almost past saving – at least for any reasonable sum – the State was encouraged to buy it “for the people” when the family put it up for sale. More controversy, no offer from official Ireland, until finally it was sold into private hands, and there followed more conflict over public rights of way on the estate.

Now the house has been restored to much of its former glory, the owners live there, but it is open to the public in the Summer months again, there are exhibitions, events, and tea rooms and the owners aim to make the house and grounds  self sustaining and a tourist draw for this part of Sligo.

Though it is good the house has been saved, I cannot help feeling that our visit to the haunted grey presence in the tangled woodland was more in keeping with the strange, engaging, and unpredictable Constance, whose memory and deeds are still  inspiration for Republicans and women activists. The house I happened upon in 1981 seems, somehow, more representative, of the “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” Countess.

She would be delighted at the discomfort she still causes a British Establishment, pledged to celebrate the election of the first woman MP, distressed to realise it was not the impeccably connected Nancy Astor, but this renegade debutante with the military uniform and the waving pistol.

Constance Gore-Booth was born 150 years ago this weekend, she lives on in many a politicised mind and household, and her words still resonate, just as surely as the echo of birdsong on the grey walls of that big house I wandered around nearly forty years ago:

“But while Ireland is not free I remain a rebel, unconverted and unconvertible. There is no word strong enough for it. I am pledged as a rebel, an unconvertible rebel, to the one thing – a free and independent Republic.”

 

 

 

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It was fifty years ago today

January 27, 2018

2-Everton-FA-Cup-Joe-Royle-goal

It was fifty years ago today that my then local team, Southport, took on Everton in the third round of the FA Cup. My family have supported Hibernian for over 120 years, since we first arrived in Edinburgh from Ireland, but, for ten years in the sixties, I lived in Southport, and it was there I caught the life long habit of attending  football matches each weekend.

Half a century seems a decent period to gain some perspective on that bright January day in 1968, when the football aristocracy from Goodison Park, containing World Cup winning heroes, Alan Ball and Ray Wilson, and iconic players like Howard Kendall, Joe Royle, and Colin Harvey, came to the homely third division ground at Haig Avenue.

My first Southport game had been five years earlier – another cup tie, against Walsall, in November 1963. I had scoped the experience by attending reserve games in the Lancashire Combination – against Rossendale and Netherfield. Southport’s attendances that season were around 3-4000, so it was felt it would be safe for me to attend alone. In time, I was even allowed as a teenager to cycle to the game – a method of transport shared by a large number of fans and even some players. There was a grassy area in the middle of some houses just across from the ground where we all left our bikes – the image I retain of men in overcoats carefully laying down their bicycles in that circlular space dates me as much as anything I suppose.

My timing was unusually perfect. Southport had enjoyed a mixed history, largely in the bottom, or fourth division,  but their current situation was as good as it had ever been, largely due to the influence of former Everton and Northern Ireland player, Billy Bingham.

He had brought belief, footballing ability and technical know how to the playing side of the club and hugely raised its image and following in the town. This was no mean task, as Southport was in easy distance of Liverpool, Everton, Manchesters Utd and City, as well as Preston, Burnley and a host of Lancashire clubs. Despite that, supporters like me preferred to go to Haig Avenue to see the Port than make the journey to Old Trafford to see Best, Law and Charlton. Whether you think that is crazy or admirable will, I suppose, reflect your attitude to football.

Two years before, Southport had enjoyed a cup giant killing run, beating Division 2 (Championship) sides, Ipswich and Cardiff on the way to a fifth round tie against Hull City at a Boothferry Park crammed with 38000 supporters. At that time I had school on a Saturday morning, and when I climbed on to the special train at Southport’s Chapel St station it was the only time in my life I had been off school without being ill.

So the Cup was a big thing in the town, and, of course, the competition was still taken seriously by all the clubs, irrespective of status. The build up was intense: local and national press, television and radio – all elements of publicity which the team normally had to struggle to access. It had all the necessary ingredients for a classic cup story – local rivalry, the Everton connections of manager and some players, the thin possibility that Southport might actually do it – or at least achieve a money spinning replay at Goodison.

I was almost sixteen, and so at an age where football and the team were of overwhelming importance to me. As I will go on to write, the connection between club and supporter was entirely different in those times, especially in the nether regions of the league, so it is no wonder that concentrating at school, especially once I had managed to obtain a match ticket, was not easy. In addition, I went to a school in a Liverpool suburb, so there was constant patter from teachers and pupils: the Reds wanting us to win, the Toffees saying what their team was going to do to us. Normally, my support of the Port was a case for amusement or indifference, so all the attention only raised my excitement prior to the match.

At the time I was a cross country runner at school and we had races on Saturday mornings. This meant I normally went to bed nervous on a Friday night, so the addition of the cup match resulted in little sleep. I remember being quite relieved that there was something to distract me on the Saturday morning – but can remember nothing about the race. With more life experience I would have been worried that any delay on train or our team coach would have risked me missing the game, but as a teenager I just assumed I would get to Haig Avenue on time.

It was quite a job to get to my normal place to leave the bike. The whole street was thronged, there were television vans, mounted police, and lots of Everton fans wandering about in this strange environment. The atmosphere, even outside the ground, was electric and I remember being very proud of Southport and all the attention the club was receiving.

The biggest crowd I had been in at Haig Avenue was around 15, 000 for the Cardiff City cup tie two years previously, so the nearly 19, 000 packed into the ground was a sight to behold, with extra police and stewards trying to control the surges and the chanting crowds.

If I’m honest, the match itself was a little underwhelming. As always on such occasions, the major emotion was dread of Everton getting a goal, especially early on in the game. Southport had elected to play a stuffy defensive game – understandably, as Everton were not just top flight but a class outfit. It was emotionally draining – that feeling of holding your breath for 90 minutes. A young Joe Royle scored the only goal with a header eleven minutes from time, and that was it.

There was an inevitable feeling of deflation afterwards, which was only added to when Bingham departed for Plymouth Argyle and a stellar management career with Greece, Northern Ireland and Everton. Southport won the 4th Division Championship four years later, but I was older and back in Edinburgh at university then. Of course, I made the trip down for the game v Hartlepool when an Alex Russell free kick clinched the championship, but it was never quite the same as when the Bingham Boys were making the headlines. Things were not right at the club, and a mere decade after the Everton game they were voted out of the League – a tragedy for supporters and, though some were slow to recognise it, the town – with all that free advertising each Saturday lost, and its media absence adding to the resort’s decline.

Back in Edinburgh for good and, naturally, following Hibs, I was no less supportive of the Port and came down to games whenever I could, aided in those pre-internet days, by local press cuttings faithfully posted my my mother.

The club has not had a good time in the three decades since, with very few highs amongst a landscape of under investment and reactive management.

However, what was important, and could not be taken away by non-league status, relegation, or poor results, was the life long impact that team of the sixties had – on my approach to football and supporting and enjoyment.

By the time I was thirteen or so, Saturdays were for going to the match, and supporting was what you did for your team, irrespective of results or personnel. Sometimes it was hard, often downright miserable, but they were your team, and when things went right, it was the best feeling on earth. Actually, if I’m honest, just getting up on a match day and knowing there is a game to anticipate is a magic feeling – no matter how the team is playing. The matchday routine provides a comfort which is lifelong and unchanging – it’s what you do and it’s what people know you for. I was lucky that was my introdction to football, in the days before live games and changed schedules and television and marketing led “initiatives”.

Some of the players I watched at Haig Avenue were at the club for a decade – they became a part of your life. They earned no fortunes and certainly didn’t  “live in a  bubble”, but, in a strange way, that made them even more admirable than today’s cossetted multi milionaires. There was “a connection”: Colin Alty was a local lad, Alan Spence taught PE at the school behind the stadium, you might get something printed by Alex Russell once his apprenticeship was finished.

When our red setter died and we wanted to replace it, I remembered that goalkeeper, Brian Reeves, had setters, and so we phoned him up to ask where he had got his dogs, and were able to source our new setter from the same breeder.

Long serving captain, Arthur Peat, gave me an interview for the school magazine, probably one of the first independent pieces of writing I ever did. I included the sentence: “Peat is a ‘one club man’, having joined Southport from Everton’s youth team.” I knew what I meant, but my pals slagged me rotten. Last Saturday, half a century later, I was at Haig Avenue with a couple of old school mates for Southport’s game v Stockport County. Midway through the first half, one of them leaned towards me and asked, straight faced: “Have they got any ‘one club men’ playing for them today?”   The connection is enduring!

On November 14th 2013, I took my son down to Haig Avenue for  a game v Hereford. They lost 3-0 and played abysmally – but that wasn’t the point. It was the fiftieth anniversary, to the day, of my first Southport match. At the end of that week in 1963, John F Kennedy was assassinated – which is what most folk remember it for. I remember Dallas, of course, but equally important to me was Southport v Walsall on the Saturday previously.

It was a great anniversary day – made even better by the fact that my son, a fourth generation Hibs fan, also supports Southport, and gets my love for the club and what it represents for me. Club stalwarts, Rob and Julia Urwin, had arranged for me to meet my two big heroes Eric Redrobe and Alex Russell. I was way beyond the level of excitement that is reasonable for a man in his sixties, and a retired deputy headteacher at that!

Of course, nostalgia is powerful and the loves of our childhood resonate even more strongly as we grow older, but to meet these two heroes, even after fifty years or so, was a real highlight. I couldn’t help giving “Big Red” a hug and both he and Alex Russell seemed to understand that connection.

red alex

As we grow, our priorities change, and football is never quite so all consuming once you have a career and a family and other concerns. After a lifetime in teaching, I now work as the Education and Welfare Officer with Hibernian FC, continuing a connection with the club forged when my uncle played for them in 1928. Obviously, as a supporter, to walk into the Hibernian Training Centre, to pass Head Coach, Neil Lennon, and first team players in the corridors is a joy, chatting to heroes is a perk of the role,  and helping with the development of the young players is a brilliant way to give something back to a club my family have supported for generations.

However, with age comes balance, and I have to admit that I am able to act my age when I’m at Hibs. I’m there to do a particular job and I’m a bit old to be starstruck.

Except, of course, when it came to Southport, Eric Redrobe, and Alex Russell. That was different – when I met them at Haig Avenue I was sixteen again.

Football has, of course, moved on. It is now an industry, and the elite players exist in a bubble which presents them as celebrities to the television viewing public – and to the ever ready marketing moguls. This brings its own problems, not least to those players without the ability to withstand the pressures. We also have generations of youngsters who believe that football is something you watch on television or play on a computer. Indeed, sometimes, when the players are almost as shiny as the giant screens which embellish their every move, it’s hard to differentiate between the computerised version and the televised, mega glamorous, version.

Although it’s the lot of older guys to shake their heads about the state of the world today, I don’t spend much time bemoaning football’s future direction. Once multi-millionaires become involved in anything, only money counts, and the emotions of supporters become more or less redundant to the “business model”. There’s precious little we can do about it. Before long they will spin off into a worldwide marketer’s dream of a super league where the oligarchs and television giants will get richer and exert almost total control over the game, while the idea that it was ever played for the fans to enjoy live and at their local ground will be quietly forgotten.

However, there is an alternative vision, to be found in what the media now call “grass roots football”.

Smaller clubs, freed from the pressure of megabucks and stock market flotations, can continue to offer live entertainment on a Saturday afternoon or under the lights midweek, so that those fans who want the real deal, who still seek that “connection”, who want their sons in fifty years time to recognise what was important about a team of men on a cold afternoon a lifetime ago, will still be able to access that opportunity.

The good news for Southport, after generations of decline, is that the future is starting to look brighter. After a summer of turmoil, an investor with vision has joined the Board. Phil Hodgkinson, a guy well schooled in the nuances of football, has come to the same conclusion that many Southport fans have come to through the years. With a catchment of more than 100,000 and with local Premiership and Championship teams pricing themselves out of the family market, there is a real niche for Southport to fill if they can invest wisely and make a return to the Football League.

The initial signs are good: an ambitious and thoughtful manager appointed in Kevin Davies, plans well advanced for ground reconstruction, and a thorough revamp behind the scenes.

Perhaps crucially there is the appointment of a CEO, Natalie Atkinson, with a fine track record and experience in football administration. If she has the impact that Hibs’ CEO, Leeann Dempster, has had in her first three years at Easter Rd, Southport will really be going places. After 114 years, Leeann’s reconstruction of the club, on and off the pitch, led, at last to a Scottish Cup win, and then there was promotion back to the top league. Who is to bet against Phil and Natalie getting Southport back into the League?

As I write these words, kind of making my point, Newport County, in Old Gold, have just held Spurs to a draw: they were three or four minutes from a win, all those years ago, Southport were eleven minutes from a draw. I’m looking at youngsters in the Rodney Parade crowd on my television and thinking: “They’ll be telling their kids about this in fifty years time.”

Last Saturday, as part of the revival, Southport beat Stockport 3-1 – a result in a fixture which was always a benchmark in the old league days. With a couple of old school mates and my son, I had enjoyed a great day out, well worth the 400 mile round trip.

As I walked down Haig Avenue, I passed a familiar looking face. When I realised who it was, I turned back and approached him. At my age, you don’t miss opportunities. I went up to Phil Hodgkinson and shook his hand: “I’ve been watching Southport since the sixties, Phil,” I said, “Came down from Edinburgh for the game today. Thank you for all you’re doing for the club.”

Then, daft old bugger that I am, I filled up.

That’s how much Southport means to its supporters. That’s the importance of the “connection”.

Fifty years is nothing!

 

 

Who knows where the time goes?

January 1, 2018

Back in February 2012, in a blog called “Being Bill”, I reflected on the death of the father of one of  my oldest friends. He had been a complex man, and, understandably, rather peripheral to my adolescence, but, on the occasions he had been there at my friend’s house, or given us a lift home from a concert or other outing, his kindness and sociability had left a big impression on me.

Now, Joyce, his wife, has died, and I am left to consider the loss of both these  adults who were an important part of my childhood, and in the establishment of my lifelong friendship with their son, his siblings, and the succeeding generations of a family.

Joyce had not been in the best of health in the last few years, dementia encroaching on her relationships and the feasibility of independent living, so there are comforting words available to describe her passing – a release, a relief, a long journey completed. They are all true, and do carry an element of comfort, but fail to assuage the knowledge that a life has ended  and the love she gave and engendered has moved into a different reality.

Whereas businessman Bill was frequently absent from my pal’s house when I called round, Joyce was always there. She was younger than my own mother and I saw her as a highly glamorous figure – in looks and style and demeanour. As a teenager I was very shy and often going to friend’s houses was an ordeal for me – I never knew how to address their parents or family, and was always unsure if my behaviour was appropriate for a guest.

However, alongside her attractive poise, Joyce possessed the skills of hospitality to put me at my ease, and steered a careful balance between providing our group with tea and biscuits, and leaving us to our own 60s devices – with loud music emanating from a darkened living room. We aways looked forward to going to Steve’s, never really pausing to recognise that the presence of five or six music listening teenagers in the front room rather sidelined the normal routines of the house. She was always welcoming – and knew us by our bizarre nicknames. I got off quite lightly with “Jock” in a company which included “Rat”, “Worm”, and “Cube”.   However, one of our teachers had mistakenly identified Steve as a lad called “Sid”, which naturally we had adopted with delight,  and Joyce would always correct us if we referred to him thus in her company. She was no less pleased when we went through a phase of calling him “Fred” after  discovering that was his middle name. Oh the wit of youth! To Joyce, he was always “Stephen” or “Ste”.

However, Joyce was remarkable.

Not in terms of fame or highly rated public success, nor even in terms of being different to others of her generation.

Though my mother and her were very different in many ways, they shared a similar background. They grew up  in a Liverpool Irish Catholic community which was dealing with the emotional and physical ravages of the second world war. Their Faith gave them the positives of love of neighbour, compassion and acceptance of hard times – but it also produced a generation which was repressed, and in possession of a sense of duty and responsibility – particularly in family life – which at times must have bordered on the  overwhelming.

Joyce brought up four very different children, giving each of them her love, attention, and support. For her generation, the sixties must have been a bewildering time. After growing up with the phrases “after the War” and “if we are spared”, they were to find that their post war relief at survival, and the better world available to their children, was tempered by the apparent “youth revolution” – which seemed at the time to seek a different way forward, rejecting the stolidity and calm  that their parents had fought for, looking to “change the world”. With perspective, we can see that the “revolution” was a chimera – a mere pause while the Establishment worked out how to best regain control and resist change – but it must not have felt like that to our parents’ generation. They must have wondered if their efforts  had all been in vain.

When we look back on the journey towards equality – limited though it still is – which women have followed since the sixties, we are often in danger of promoting an unintended corollary: the idea that those women who did not pursue careers outwith the home, or who chose to be homemakers rather than follow their own careers, faced fewer, less formidable challenges.

I don’t believe this is true. Their middle age was caught between the achievements of radical women and their own need to fulfil what many saw as their duty within the family – for, while many women had changed in attitudes, far fewer men had taken a progressive route, and homemaking was seen by most as a women’s task.. I have no idea if Joyce was satisfied with the route she took through life – I’m sure there were moments when, like everyone,  she wondered if there could have been another way. What I do know is that she never wavered in commitment to family. Apart from raising her children and supporting her husband – and as I wrote before, Bill was not always the easiest of partners –she also took care of her own  mother, bringing her to live with the family in her final years. One can just imagine the tensions brought by caring for an elderly parent in a house full of school aged children.

She was a remarkable woman, then, in the way so many of her generation were remarkable – maintaining a sense of what was right in a world which changed and evolved in many different directions. Like so many of her peers, especially the women, she was a rock to those around her, often to her own detriment. The women of her generation are still not properly recognised for what they achieved and for the families they helped to flourish. In a sense that is the story of their lives.

Joyce was blessed to enjoy the love of her own grandchildren, and helped them through the joys and disappointments of adolescence and young adulthood. They in turn loved their nana.

When Joyce died, Steve and his partner  and his three daughters were in New Zealand, the homeland of his partner, and where the two older girls now live. They had been at the glacier at Mount Cook – a place of universal and timeless beauty. Knowing that their nana  had not long, the girls had  brought from their garden a sprig of lavender, which they placed on the moving ice of the glacier to ease Joyce on her final journey. When they were young, Joyce had placed lavender on their pillows to help them into sleep. It was a powerful symbol of all that this remarkable woman had achieved  – that her granddaughters would acknowledge her in this beautiful, thoughtful, personal,  and sensitive manner.

In one of those quirks of this time of year, Joyce died in the final hours of the old year in England, while Steve was already in the new year in New Zealand – a suitably timeless  start  and end to her journey.

Later tonight, I’ll scan through my now digitalised album collection and select a track. I’ll crank up the volume on the headphones and switch off the lights. For a moment, as Sandy Denny’s haunting voice echoes through the years, with that understated but perfect Fairport backing,  I will be seventeen again, and in Steve’s front room, enjoying the unobtrusive hospitality of the woman of a thousand welcomes.

I’ll remember her for her attractiveness and her style, but most of all I will honour her for her strength.

 

And I am not alone while my love is near me

I know it will be so, until it’s time to go.

So come the storms of winter and then the birds in spring again

I do not fear the time.

For who knows how my love grows

And who knows where the time goes?

The old familiar places

November 28, 2017

Television Quiz show, University Challenge, first broadcast in 1962, has switched question master and channel and has reflected the changes in academic institutions and their students – but one thread has remained constant.

Ask a question centred on the culture, history, or geography of Scotland, Wales or Ireland and, unless a team contains a student from those far flung corners of the world, there are liable to be blank faces. Place Aberdeen on the map? Sorry, mate. In what century did Owain Glyndŵr live? Haven’t a clue. Where is the Hill of Tara? Nope.

Now, you might wonder why a young person brought up in, say, Warwickshire, should have the information to answer questions centred within three or four hundred miles of his upbringing – if you were rather insular. And maybe it isn’t important.

But then, ask students from Ireland, Wales, or Scotland similar questions about England and you are liable to find they know the answers. Place Bristol on the map? There ye go. In what forest did Robin Hood live? No problem. Where is Stonehenge? Pinpointed immediately.

So, if these young people represent the brightest and the best, and are capable of answering loads of questions which many of us don’t even understand, why this Celtic blind spot? And why does it not operate in reverse?

The simple answer, of course, is that, in educational and media terms, information about the country of 50 million souls outweighs the information provided about the countries of 5 million and 3 million. You may say this is just the way of the world, the consequence of comparative size – except, it doesn’t seem to work that way between France and Germany or Belgium and Holland. Let’s not get into the question of autonomy here, but clearly, that has an effect, and one which Ireland still has to fully offset even after  nearly a century of independence.

However, this is not merely a question of self government. It is more a question of whether education is inward or outward looking, and the signs are that, in England, popular knowledge of these islands is, geographically, rather limited.

How else to explain the acceptance of the Brexit promises, so obviously based on falsehood? Why are “values” based on wars from a century ago, and the suggestion made that this shows the best of the “British people”? How come the ignorance of the harm done by colonial exploitation, or the easy stereotyping of “foreigners”? Why the generally unchallenged view that “British fair play” and “English Justice” are the best in the world – when the evidence suggests both claims are dubious at best?

It is perhaps ironic, or inevitable, that it would be a Scot who wrote the wise words:

“O wad some Power the giftie  gie us

To see oursels as ithers see us!”

Lack of self awareness can be annoying in those yet to mature, and has caused many an embarrassment or mistaken decision. That can be coped with – what is more worrying is when it is a feature of the body politic, as it seems to be at Westminster just now: a  lack of self awareness and an ignorance of, or disdain for, the impact of decisions and actions.

If the apparently “best educated” in the land grow up with a general blind spot when it comes to other countries – especially those in these islands, and if they go on to make crucial decisions in governance, then we can all suffer. It is interesting to note that, whilst English exceptionalism can lead to a kind of xenophobic nationalism, in Scotland and Wales, there has developed a more outward looking civic nationalism, where independence is not about flags and superiority but about an effective, connected governance, and a welcome to citizens from elsewhere as part of the nation.

The reason this is particularly important just now is to be found around the Irish Border issue as part of Brexit. As seems to be their general approach, those charged with effecting Brexit apparently take an “It’ll be alright on the night” approach to the problems that would follow the construction of what would  become a hard border on the edge of the EU.

Well, it won’t be alright.  And the fact that they think it will be betrays a long recognised  aspect of British politics: they know nothing about Ireland – and don’t particularly want to remedy that state of affairs. There are a whole swathe of folk in England for whom, sadly,  Ireland is no more than Terry Wogan, Guinness, and leprechauns.

As always, history is involved, and we only need to go back as far as the creation of the Border in 1922.

When arrangements were being made for Partition, there was an understanding on the Irish side that a border would be drawn round areas of Ulster which contained  largely a Loyalist/Protestant majority. Though demographically this could never be exact, it was fair to expect that Co Antrim, North Down, North Armagh and East Derry would remain under UK control – roughly a third of the current 6 county state. Free State politicians were confident that this would not prove to be a viable entity in  the long term. This optimism was abetted by an agreement that there would be a review of the decision by the Border Commission after some years of operation to see if the borderline should be adjusted.

However, the Commission proposed  a border not just around “loyalist” territory but one which included the largest area of land that could maintain  a unionist majority, thus stranding thousands of nationalists within a state which was openly set up as “A Protestant State for a Protestant People.” The promised reappraisal was never carried out.  After the “initial” border was operational, the absence of the chance for restructuring was a particular blow to nationalists living in Fermanagh, Tyrone, Derry, South Down and South Armagh.

Behind this lies much of the angst that the border has caused through the years – even when there were no “Troubles”. What most English politicians fail to realise is that the Border Commission’s partition of Ireland was so  incompetently carried out that it led to a novel and film: “Puckoon”, by madcap humourist, Spike Milligan, who admitted even he could never have thought up anything as bizarre and unworkable.

The border cuts through fields, houses and businesses. Even more tellingly, it cuts towns off from their hinterlands: Derry’s natural hinterland is Donegal, folk in Leitrim and Longford are as likely to shop in Enniskillen as they are to go to Sligo; Donegal folk receive hospital treatment in Derry’s Altnagelvin Hospital. It is, in every possible sense an “unnatural” border, and as such is porous and, without military intervention, basically impracticable.

Generally speaking, English politicians are either ignorant of these facts, or dismissive of them. And, without being overly alarmist, as has been said today, if you put up customs posts, as EU law requires, then  they will be attacked as well as  circumvented, and that will require military protection, and that will offer an excuse to some for “retaliatory” action.

The vast majority of meat exports from the six counties are processed in the 26 counties, so how would a border impact that trade? Thousands live in one jurisdiction and work in another. Virtually everybody who lives along the border crosses and recrosses it many times every day. There are well over 300 crossing points. No wonder the people of the six counties voted decisively to remain within the EU.

None of this information seems to have reached, or at least resonated with, anyone in Westminster.

The Brexiteer claim that this is some sly trick by the EU and Ireland to force a re-unification of the country is laughable. Anyone with any knowledge of contemporary Irish politics knows that, no matter what might be said in party manifestos, neither Fianna Fáil nor Fine Gael are keen on re-unification, and all the challenges it would bring. Both parties, and many in the Republic, are happiest with a 32 county state remaining an aspiration: it would be nice, but maybe not yet. Leinster House politics is shambolic enough without adding another 6 counties into the mix.

The truth is that the current situation, where the border is of little import to those who live on either side of it, suits nearly everybody. The DUP can claim they are still “British”, and nationalists can  point to the invisibility of the border and the many cross border initiatives to demonstrate that unity is steadily approaching.  Like the original Partition and various initiatives through the years, the Good Friday Agreement was the familiar model of the British “kicking it into the long grass”. It will do for now  – and then we can go back to forgetting about Ireland.

Those of us who remember the start of the Troubles have a clear recollection of the ignorance in England about the six counties, an area they had forgotten about since the 1920s, with a short exception during World War 2.

The vast majority of people in England, including politicians, had no idea of the voting system, the housing allocation, the gerrymandering, the employment practices, or the bigotry which permeated the  six counties of the province,  and were flummoxed at the growth of the Civil Rights Movement in the mid sixties.

Ironically, the incumbent Prime  Minister of the statelet, Captain Terence O’Neil, either by temperament or political instinct, was of a mind to meet at least some of the Civil Rights demands, but was hounded out by extreme members of his party. An informed Westminster Government might well have come to his aid, insisted on changes, and possibly avoided the escalation to paramilitary warfare. The irony, of course, was that the extremist loyalists were arguing against their six counties becoming the same as Britain; they preferred their position of inbuilt electoral and social superiority.

The reaction of Home Secretary James Callaghan, as he later admitted, was one of bewilderment, yet, despite the admonishments of the likes of Gerry Fitt – far from being a militant Republican –  the UK government was hopelessly ill informed about the realities in the six counties. They repeated the mistakes of ignorance by permitting Internment in August of 71, which, possibly  more than any other event, promoted the state of unrest from protest to full scale armed insurrection – with the tragic consequences.

Though it roils easily off the tongue, the oft repeated aphorism is deadly accurate: “Ireland’s trouble is that the Irish can’t forget their history and the English won’t remember it.”

The only solution to such a situation is skilled negotiation and a willingness to adopt a means of progress that all sides can live with. The dropping of the territorial claim by the Republic from their constitution, and the acceptance of “unity by consent” were two very important examples of this. It’s informative to note that the meat of the Good Friday Agreement was ground out by the American George Mitchell, and Irish politicians, rather than Westminster knowledge.

In the Brexit situation, a deal to allow the six counties (and Scotland who also voted heavily to retain EU membership) to maintain their position in the single market and the Customs Union, would be best in terms of the impact on people’s everyday lives.

Unfortunately, the politics of the situation means that Westminster, and the DUP, are unlikely to accept this.

Brexit was conceived as a party political strategy to allow David Cameron to face down his right wing Eurosceptics, and it failed miserably when the vote went against continued membership. Its toxicity lingers on, as the Westminster Government, ill-prepared and seemingly without a strategy, find themselves beholden to the DUP, and reduced to ill founded hopes that all will turn out for the best.

Without informed and skilled negotiations, this will not happen.

Of course, the people who will suffer from this incompetence are not the Tory politicians in Westminster, nor the hopelessly divided parliamentary Labour Party in opposition, but the people of Leitrim, Donegal, Sligo, Derry, Monaghan, Fermanagh, Louth, Armagh and Down, as well as the farmers of the six counties in general and those dependent on trade on the island of Ireland.

There’s a danger that English politicians will again pay the price for their ignorance of the Irish situation, be it in a veto, or in the support of the other EU members for the Irish position.

And this time, it seems like someone has cut the grass, and it’s no longer of a length to cover a fudged solution.

What became of the people

November 22, 2017

Back in the sixties, life – and television, seemed  simple.

People would write to Granada Television, makers of Coronation Street,  seeking the tenancy of houses vacated by actors leaving the soap  opera. They sent in wreaths when Ida Barlow was hit by a bus, and couldn’t understand how Z Cars’ Jimmy Ellis was unable to help them with a crime because he wasn’t actually PC Bert Lynch.

Of course, they were all bonkers.

And me?

Well, to be honest, I’ve never really managed to convince myself that Bob Ferris and Terry Collier – The Likely Lads – were not real: a couple of mordantly witty Geordie guys, whose lives were somehow followed and recorded by documentary cameras.

There were many reasons for their success, all brought poignantly to mind by the death of “Bob”, Rodney Bewes, this week,  and many of them were about time and place. When we heard of his death, there were many of my generation shed a tear – and, if I’m totally truthful, I was howling. It felt a bit like the loss of an old friend, but, really, it was about the loss of a part of our youth.

When they first appeared on our screens as 21 year old factory workers, we lived in a land of monochromed, dual-channelled television, but limited channels was not the only determinant of choice. Few had central heating, so leaving the living room, especially on winter evenings, was a brave decision. In the unheated bedroom, cold lino and ice decorated windows awaited – better to stay put and subject yourself to “family television”.

Television viewing reflected life. Theoretically, the choice of shows was patriarchal – dad knew best. In reality, mum kept the peace by arguing for shows likely to appeal to the youngsters. It wasn’t an altogether bad arrangement. With a potential for more than 20 million viewers,  tv companies had to be focused, and viewing possibilities obviated  the lazy option of “niche programming”. Quality was paramount, with the BBC needing  to prove it was worthy of its iconic position, and the ITV  newcomers trying to show that being “commercial” wouldn’t affect standards. For a time, in drama and documentaries, it was a golden era – enhanced by the knowledge that half the country might be discussing last night’s programmes at any given time.

Perhaps it was the shared experience that made these television shows so iconic. Adults watched shows – like “Top of the Pops”, which they may not otherwise have viewed, while youngsters gained an appreciation of drama with “Dr Finlay’s Casebook” or “The Wednesday Play”. Family discussions often ensued, issues of the day were given an airing.

Moreover, as became apparent decades later, the memory of evenings spent together in front of the television would form an important part of happy family memories for my generation. This is ironic, as, at the time, the idea that television was killing conversation and interaction in the home was much posited. In hindsight, it’s maybe fortunate we had no idea of the future  impact of iPhones and personal computers.

So, it was into this scenario that Bob Ferris and Terry Collier first stepped in 1964.

They had the advantage of a couple of young, edgy  and, non- metropolitan writers, in Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. This was also the age of the angry young northern man and there are echoes of this – especially of Keith Waterhouse’s “Billy Liar” – in “The Likely Lads.”. Indeed, Rodney Bewes was a friend of Tom Courtney’s and appeared alongside him in the film version of “Billy Liar.”

So, compared to the “French window” types of television comedy which were common previously, the “Lads” sought to take a more realistic look at life. Indeed, it’s hard now to recall how “exotic” a setting of Tyneside was for contemporary viewers, when “London and the south” was generally accepted as the centre of everything. It is interesting reading Brian Epstein’s 1964 autobiography “A Cellarful of noise” to note how he gets most pleasure from the fact he has brought fame to four boys “from the provinces.”

Clement and La Frenais had the knack of fitting gags into realistic situations, and inventing recognisable characters. Their dialogue was easy on the ear and jazzed up with the odd Geordie phrase, and, most importantly of all, the situation in which the two main characters found themselves promoted that comedic necessity: conflict.

Bob is aspirational – he wants to be a “young professional”, while Terry cussedly sticks to his working class roots and sees being “upwardly mobile” as a betrayal. Of course, because the characters are so well conceived, the situation is more complex than at first appears. Bob is never totally happy with his aspirations, while Terry is envious of elements of a middle class lifestyle. Such is the human condition.

This conflict – between accepting your lot and wanting more – has long provided effective comedy. Originally, in popular television terms,  an internal conflict within Tony Hancock, it was later represented externally by Harold and Albert Steptoe, and, later,  by Fletcher and Godber in “Porridge”. In all these situations, the comedy is heightened by the characters being trapped – either socially and economically, or, in the case of “Porridge”, physically. Ultimately, you could say Bob and Terry are trapped by their friendship – a state of affairs which is at once tragic and touching.

For my generation, the timing was important too. For  the original series, in 1964, I was 12 years old, so Bob and Terry were like big brothers, living in a world we could only dream of – with beer, girls, and other adult pursuits. When they returned ten years later, seeking to establish themselves, heading towards middle age, we were just starting out on our independent adult lives. My first car was even a Viva, like Bob’s! Apart from being funny and endearing, they were relevant.

Equally crucial  was the fact that things went wrong for them, they seldom achieved the result they sought, in any part of their lives. We could identify with the slings and arrows of misfortune, that feeling of being tossed about by fate as we tried to appear as mature adults.

And, of course, there were the comic misunderstandings and madcap adventures: Bob’s constant battle to broker some kind of peace between Terry and Thelma, the classic attempts to avoid the football score, and Bob’s middle name, to name a few.

In truth, they felt like an extension of ourselves: we recognised them and they had our empathy and often our sympathy.

We would discuss with pals whether we were Bob or Terry. It was a worrying reflection: am I ever as soft and sentimental as Bob? Do I ever act as thoughtlessly as Terry? Who would I rather be? Who do I fear I might be?

Of course, the answer, and a huge part of their success, was that all of us were both of them – Bob and Terry exist in us all, and what we were watching was the playing out of our own inner conflict. We can all be charming or rude, soft or cynical, honest or dissembling. How, and when,  we choose to control that conflict is what decides our personality.

Most of us, I guess, identified more with Bob than Terry – whilst admitting he could be a right prat at times!

The final three questions remain: could the series have returned with them as old men? Would we have wanted it to? Should it have happened?

The first two are relatively easy to answer: given the well documented rift between the two actors, it’s unlikely that it could ever have come to pass. Though Rodney Bewes remained keen, Jimmy Bolam was not, although he did point out there were instances of actors who didn’t get on playing best friends on screen. In this case,  I think the absence of chemistry would have been fatal to the feel of the show. Bolam  appears to have semi-retired in any case.

Would we have wanted it to?

Well, of course we would. When characters are as well drawn  and well loved as Bob and Terry, whether in literature,  or on screen, there is always the feeling that they live on after the story ends, part of our lives, always just out of sight in the corner of our eye, and we speculate endlessly about what became of them.

Should it have returned?

“Going back” is often a mistake. Clement and La Frenais have lived for some time in California, their writing style and approach has developed in a certain direction, and they had hinted at an unwillingness to risk  spoiling the legacy. It may well be that Bob and Terry could only have been effective in their particular 60s and 70s setting.

Because the characters were so complete, it is not too difficult to project a future on to the old men they would have become. We can also factor in the political, social and economic events of the past forty years.

Would we really want to see Terry as an embittered old Brexit voter, railing at foreigners and the state of his beloved Tyneside – and particularly at the fact that Newcastle became a  “party central” city, decades too late for him to enjoy it? He may well have been an extra in “I, Daniel Blake”.

How would we take to Bob in 2017? A terminally disappointed ex-pat in a gated community on the Costa del Sol, surviving on what’s left of his much diminished pension – feeling as out of place there as he was in his three piece suit at Thelma’s mother’s?

I think perhaps Jimmy Bolam was right, whatever his reasons, and that it is better to leave them out there, still chums, and much loved in our memories.

However.

It’s impossible not to speculate………

Terry has never left Tyneside and never had a closer friend than Bob. For a time he was the favourite wild uncle of Audrey’s kids, but they have all moved away. He still maintains his loyalty to the working class, but remains incandescent about the manner in which the workers of the north east were duped by New Labour.  The world, he believes, has not rewarded his “honest” approach to life.

Bob continued to aspire, often more to please Thelma than from his own convictions. They ended up in London’s suburbia, Bob visiting upmarket housing developments for the firm, aware he could never afford to live in such opulence. He makes a number of “clever” investments based on “sound” advice at the badminton club, but the financial crash, just as he was retiring, almost wiped him out. The couple had no children, but he and Thelma grew even closer as the years passed, and when he was widowed he was devastated.

Luckily, he had paid off the mortgage on the house and rented it out through the years, giving him an additional income. He decides to leave a London where he had never really fitted in, and return home.

Needing a lodger, he reluctantly approaches the recently evicted Terry (something to do with a late night chip pan fire) who becomes his housemate  on the Elm Lodge Housing Estate. Terry often forgets to pay the rent, Bob seldom reminds him. Both make a show of hating the arrangement: “Only till I find somewhere else, mind!” – but are secretly comforted by it.

After all these years, their conversations are reassuringly familiar – about their schooldays, the wrecking of old neighbourhoods, pubs long lost, and the exploits of their teenage years. Both are near apoplexy over Mike Ashley’s ownership of Newcastle Utd.

The highlights of their week come from visits to the local social club, where they play dominoes, drink beer, and have a hot meal. Predictably, Bob tries to fit in with the other members, ever polite and obliging, whilst  Terry sneers at them all and their “social manners”, not always sotto voce.

What really rekindles the spark of Bob Ferris and Terry Collier, though, is their fierce competition for the favours of the club’s social convener – one Deirdre Birchwood.

Lads as likely as ever.

God bless, Rodney!

Southbound on the Highway of Memories

November 21, 2017

Popular music takes hold of you. It provides the accompaniment to all the occasions of your life – the special and the mundane, the memorable and the forgettable, those of import, and the everyday routines – and it never really goes away.

At least, that’s how it seems to those of my generation, for whom music in the sixties was a wrap around experience – enjoyed with friends via radios and stereos, concerts and discos, or in your room as a background to thought and reflection – and the occasional shout from down the stairs to “turn it down”.

Eventually it was possible to listen through headphones – maybe to that special tune at a special time, or to appreciate some amazing new stereophonic development, but, most of the time, it was – really – why would you want to listen alone, when you could sit in a darkened room with your best pals, listen together, join in, work out the chords, and discuss the album’s merits or otherwise?

Or you could put a stack of 45s on the Dansette and dance and sing along to them, – pausing for breath as each liquorice coloured disc dropped on to  the turntable.

Music was just THERE. Life was inconceivable without it. And, as a result, it earwormed its way into our brains and memories. Give me a month and a year and I’ll give you a song – and I’ll probably be able to tell you what label it was on, who the band members were, and who produced it. Give me an important moment in my life and there will be a soundtrack – a holiday, passing exams, meeting a girl, going round to a friend’s house, leaving school, starting university, graduating, getting a job, and so on, year after year, decade after decade.

As adulthood took over, with added responsibilities, family, and career, perhaps the knowledge became a little less encyclopaedic, but there were still albums to be bought, concerts to seek out, musical memories to share with those who had known us longest.

Eventually, we accepted that our music would be forever there, an audio reminder system, a route to recapture emotions and memories, the sentiment in our souls. Part of who we were, really, an aural identification – a reality acknowledged in Sally Magnusson’s excellent  “Playlist for Life” initiative for dementia sufferers.

Some songs, heard live in concert, have the ability to bring tears, to me, at any rate: – Paul Simon singing “Homeward Bound” or “Sounds of Silence”, Glen Campbell with “Wichita Lineman” or “Galveston”, James Taylor with “Sweet Baby James”, and, less obviously, Thin Lizzy and “The Boys are Back in town”, The Stones with “Paint it Black”, Mary Chapin Carpenter with “This shirt”, Fleetwood Mac with “Go your own way”, Fairport Convention with “Meet on the Ledge”,  and many others.

It’s often something to do with the quality of the song, but more often it is the link to its personal associations, a sudden realisation that you are hearing, live, a song and an artist which you have heard on record so many, many times, in so very many different situations – and which you have carried through  life, often as an emotional support, for good times and bad.

And often – and perhaps this is the real beauty of it – it catches you unaware.

Last Sunday night we were driving down the A9 from Aviemore to Edinburgh. It’s a journey of around  two and a half hours, made less scary now by the average speed cameras. The selected playlist was Paul Simon’s “Graceland” followed by “Simon and Garfunkel’s “Live in Central Park” – an album I’d not listened to for a few years, freshly added to the car’s  iPod system.

The music made the trip feel like about an hour’s worth of driving – but the remarkable element was provided by that being “caught unawares” moment.

The Tom and Jerry of American folk music launched into Paul Simon’s  “American Tune”:

And I don’t have a friend who’s not been battered,

I don’t have  a friend who feels at ease;

I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered

Or driven to its knees.

But it’s all right, it’s all right,

For we’ve lived so well so long-

Still, when I think of the road we’re travelling on

I wonder what’s gone wrong,

I can’t help it, I wonder what’s gone wrong.”
The relevance of this lyric from the early 70s hit me with an almost  physical strength

I have a great love for America. Three  of my grandparents spent time there, later generations emigrated there,  and their children and grandchildren remain. I’ve never been to the USA – the mid West, New England, New York, or DC,  without hooking into that feeling of excitement and energy that permeated the country.

I’ve always been well aware of its many faults, and we’ve been uneasy political bedfellows since 1968 and the death of Bobby Kennedy, but there was always an optimism about the place. As a young country, one always felt that it aspired to be better, to espouse democracy, to challenge its inequalities and iniquities. Though the “American Dream” may have been based on a palpably false capitalist assumption, the very suggestion of equality in their constitution spoke of an awareness that there was a better way.

Under Obama, for all the diminished delivery of his vision, for all the drones, and the stuttering foreign policy, there was a sense of a nation seeking to put its own house in order, rather than trying to prioritise imposing its will on others. There was a hope that a new modern age was coming, where smart politics and genuine understanding might at last start to outweigh the pork belly and the bellicose immaturity.

Until now, when the incumbent of the White House seems hell bent on encouraging the worst of the nation to do their worst.

I find myself struggling with the idea that I could even visit the country during the present presidential term.

And Simon’s hymnal lyrics seemed to illustrate the awfulness of America’s current situation:

“And I dreamed I was flying

And high up above my eyes could clearly see

The Statue of Liberty

Sailing away to sea.”

 It became difficult, driving through that dark night, with these forty year old lyrics ringing so true, as a kind of prediction of how the great could fall so low, of how material prosperity can instigate a social poverty that wipes out spiritual compassion.

I don’t know what will become of the USA. Once you unlock greed, and manipulate fear, it can be difficult to steer back to a more civilized route. Appealing to the worst in people’s nature inevitably encourages the lowest dregs of society, and they are unlikely to willingly forego their new found attention.

Attitudes that all decent folk hoped were buried in history, or had at least become  unacceptable to the point of invisibility, are freely and openly espoused, with the encouragement of a wealthy elite who seek only to utilise the poor and dispossessed for their own advancement.

The final miles to Edinburgh on Sunday night were driven in a sombre frame of mind. Sometimes you don’t really want to hear what the music is telling you:

“We come on the ship they called the Mayflower,

We come on the ship that sailed the Moon;

We come on the age’s most uncertain hour-

And sing an American Tune.

But it’s all right, it’s all right,

You can’t be forever blessed.

Still tomorrow’s going to be another working day,

And I’m trying to get some rest,

That’s all, I’m trying to get some rest.”

 

Lyrics Copyright Paul Simon. Universal Music Publishing.

 

 

A different kind of Eden

November 20, 2017

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Around twenty years ago, I wrote a piece in the Times Educational Supplement  about Hunter Davies – long one of my favourite writers. He had coaxed his wife, the late novelist and biographer, Margaret Forster, into  being interviewed, by him, at the Edinburgh Book Festival. I loved her writing almost as much as his, and that, added to the novelty of a husband interviewing a famously fiesty wife, made for much anticipation.

It was a glorious event, Margaret never missing an opportunity to put Hunter affectionately in his place, and both handled it well. In my TES review, I mentioned  that Hunter, with his Scottish/North of England background, although he was older, had always seemed very accessible and recognisable to me. His first novel,  set in Carlisle, “Here we go round the Mulberry Bush” has long been the only realistic account of “my” “Swinging Sixties” that I’d ever read, and his “boyish” love of football – like me he continued playing well into his fifties – cemented the attraction. His account of a year in a comprehensive school: “The Creighton Report” was published at the end of my first year as a teacher –  in a comprehensive school.

However, in my piece, I did comment that his appearance at the Book Festival in a white suit, was possibly stretching our connection a little too far. I’d tried such attire briefly myself, and it doesn’t work!

He was kind enough to reply to the article – sending a postcard of his lovely Loweswater house, now sadly sold in the wake of Margaret’s death, with a note of thanks and signing it, exactly as I would have wanted: “your chum, Hunter.” Because, without a doubt, that is how I think of him. Something to do with background, style, subject matter. While other favourites like John McGahern, Brian Moore, Blake Morrison felt like “writers”, Hunter felt like a “chum”.

It was only when reading the second episode of his autobiography: “A Life in the Day”, I realised how blessed I had been. Hunter plays up to being famously careful with money, and in the memoir he deprecates his wife’s habit of sending those “expensive postcards” to fans “with first class stamps”! So I guess I was honoured!

I read “A Life in the Day” – which commences at the start of the sixties – straight after the first volume of his memoir “The Co-op’s got bananas” which tells his story from childhood, he was born in 1936 – till the end of the fifties. In that way, as he intended, I not only read of his life, but gained a kind of social history of the post war years. Hunter is fifteen years my senior, but change came pretty slowly between 1945 and 1960, and so much of his childhood rang true, as did his childhood move from Scotland to England which I experienced in 1958.

The “grammar school” education system, small numbers gaining university entrance on a full grant, the feeling of isolation from “the world” in small town north west of England – I shared all of that too.

And there is the additional friendliness of familiarity throughout the books, almost as if I’d been there with him. This effect was gained through Hunter’s freely admitted habit of recycling stories from previous books and columns. Some of his revelations were not new to me, but all  the more enjoyable for being recognised and placed within the context of his life.

I realised as well that I had been closer to him than I thought in the late 70’s when a university pal of mine had moved south to work for the Times and rented a flat in the Dartmouth Park area where the Davies’s already were living – so the walks to the pub in Highgate were there in my memory.

Coincidentally, I had just read Claire Tomalin’s autobiography “A Life of my Own”. I  finished it with a distinct understanding of the differences between life in Scotland, or even the north of England, and Ms Tomalin’s experiences.  The widow of war correspondent Nicholas Tomalin, now married to playwright, Michael Frayn, she had been to Cambridge University, and fallen into a lifestyle where every house guest and dinner companion seems to have been a student  mate or part of the highest level of English literati, and frequently both.  It was a world of shining achievement and influence which is far away from the experience of the majority of citizens, and seemed very particular to London, and, indeed, a  definite part of London, socially and geographically speaking. It was as if her whole life had been a preparation for the excesses of Tony Blair’s “Cool Britannia”!

So I was surprised when she made a brief appearance in Hunter’s memoir. Apparently, she was a near neighbour and there was   mention of one dinner party chez Tomalin. Furthermore, her husband, Nicholas,  had originally edited the Sunday Times “Atticus” column with Hunter as his assistant, and she herself had also worked at the paper.

There is only a brief  mention that I can recall of Hunter in her book, when he helps with the children after the news of Nick’s death cam through, and, generally,  the contrast between the two memoirs is illuminating.

Hunter affects to downplay his own successes and to promote his amazement and enjoyment at finding himself in the company of the famous. His cover photo really could have been a picture of him standing with his arms stretched wide saying “Why me?” It’s an appealing approach, though most of us who have followed his career know that he works bloody hard and has a deceptively “easy to  read” style which belies the craft that lies behind it.

Luckily for him, for fifty five years until 2016, in Margaret, he had a wife who was so opposed to the whole “literary darling” lifestyle that, not only did she refuse to do book signings and promotions, but she steadfastly avoided the kind of showbusiness junkets that Hunter lapped up, and was even absent from  his OBE investiture on principle. They appear to have come to an arrangement over their differing approaches, but there can be no doubt that she kept his boyish enthusiasms in check and ensured he remained on the palatable side of star gazing.

And that, really, is the joy of both these books of his autobiography.

From the moment Margaret is first mentioned (as a schoolgirl, she organised a protest when the city’s schools were given an afternoon off to watch a cup tie between Hunter’s beloved Carlisle United and  Arsenal) it is clear that she is the love of his life. Being Hunter, there is much bloke-ish reference to this: “I married the cleverest woman on earth”, and the repetitions of her  many disapproving comments, when  he overegged his enthusiasms, but he fools nobody. If ever there was a confirmation needed that opposites attract, their more than half a century of  marriage proves the point conclusively.

Of course, having followed Hunter (and Margaret) so avidly through the years, I’m not quite sure that Hunter is as different to Margaret as he claims. He certainly played a particular role convincingly: interviewing the stars, holidays with the McCartneys, January birthdays in the Caribbean – but it’s hard not to believe that his happiest times were at their beloved house in Loweswater with Margaret and family, far away from the north London celebrity frenzy. Even in Dartmouth Park, it’s clear he recreated some of the homeliness of Carlisle and Dumfries and his earliest years, and strenuously promoted a real community spirit, as opposed to courting the trappings of fame.

That these two volumes of memoirs are actually an unassuming tribute to his dearly loved wife, is not, of course, an accident. It’s a very “Hunterish” way of doing it. Had he said to Margaret: “I’m going to write about our love”, there is little doubt there would have been a rolling of eyes and quite possibly a throwing of objects. When he said he was going to write his autobiography, the response would have been: “Well, that’s all you’ve ever done!”

So he manages to get the last laugh, disguising the story of their love as the story of his life.

Which, of course, it is.

I think the best summary of these two books about two special people, and one I believe they would have appreciated,  is that both of them are a huge credit to their upbringing and their home place: the city of Carlisle, fortuitously situated on the River Eden.

Hunter and Margaret were always great walkers. It was yet another facet of their life which Hunter turned into writing: “A Walk along the Wall”, “A Walk around the Lakes”, “A Walk along the Tracks”, and others, are classics of their type.  I understand Hunter still walks, especially on Hampstead Heath. I hope he doesn’t feel alone on these walks now, because, like countless others, through his books and columns, for almost fifty years, I have enjoyed walking beside him.

Like Margaret, in spirit, we are all with him still.

He’s a very good companion.