Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Dem stones

Towards the end of True North there's a section on the numinous nature of the region's wild landscape. Religious or not, visitors are seldom unmoved by landscapes such as Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, and shrines such as the little chapel of the 'Four Cs', saints Cedd, Chad, Caewlin and Cynebil, at Lastingham. One regular walker is the rock musician Julian Cope (The Teardrop Explodes, Brain Donor et al) who is greatly interested in other rocks - the mysterious monoliths and stone circles left by our ancestors in the distant past.
Penny and I, and a group of friends from my old Bradford Telegraph & Argus days, discovered the excellent circles and other remains above Boot on a week's walking holiday at the end of last month. Take the path through Eskdale Mill (run by a delightful family and still grinding flour with its two huge waterwheels), climb the fellside through an abandoned group of farm buildings and loop gently to the left. At least three circles lie in the tawny grass with views of Harter Fell one way (above) and the Scafells another. Certainly a numinous place.
Cope doesn't describe these ones but he has a good selection from the North in The Modern Antiquarian,  (Thorson's 2000), including some in places since disturbed by modern man, such as fields by the M6 at Shap. The book's only disadvantage is its vast size, a monolith in itself and impractical to take on walks.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Walk cheerfully over the world

Cumbria's fells are associated with my great namesake, Alfred Wainwright, whose seven guides to the Lake District mountains contain much interest beyond his meticulously detailed, spidery ways to the summits. As a person, alas, he holds very little appeal for me. Read Hunter Davies' biography Wainwright (Orion 2002) and I think you'll see why. More appealing in character, although not so inspired an author, was his immediate predecessor William Palmer, whose output was even more prolific than AW's. So prolific, indeed, that some suggested of his more far-flung walking guides that he might not actually have been to the southern parts of the UK which he described.

I spoke about Palmer to a meeting of the Wainwright Society a year or two ago, after a friend lent me one of his early books which had handmade drawings on the lines of AW, although nowhere nearly as accomplished. Was Palmer an influence on the great man, I speculated? Anything he could do, AW could perhaps do better? And if something such as the Palmer book could get into print, then why not Alfred's own work? It cannot be proved, I don't think, after working my way through assorted Palmer papers in the Cumbria county archive. But books such as Wanderings in the Pennines (Skeffington and Son 1951) froms whose endpapers I took this map, are an enjoyable read and have odd treasures, rather as the Pennines' barren wastes do too.

A walker really after my own heart was Benny Rothman, the Manchester Communist who played a robust part in the opening-up of miles of previously private footpaths, notably on Kinder Scout where he was arrested at the Mass Trespass in 1932. I devote a long section in True North to the radiant idealism of men such as Rothman and the joy which they took not only in the hills and wilderness - something eloquently shared by Wainwright - but more important, in seeing their fellow human beings indulging in the same delights. AW surely had that deep down, but he knew how to hide it. Rothman and his pals feature deservedly and heroically in Freedom to Roam by Howard Hill, published by Moorland in 1980. Does anyone recognise my title for this post btw? It's George Fox's famous instruction to Quakers, which continues: "answering that of God (or we might also read Good, MW) in everyone."

Lights, action, lakes, mountains...

When you get to Cumbria, one of the joys is the Theatre by the Lake in Keswick, the classy phoenix which rose from the ashes, or at to be more mundanely accurate, the departure of the famous old Blue Box mobile stage. My family and I had a memorable evening in the latter during its final Cumbrian days, swaying in the wind as we gripped our seats in the curious assembly of a convoy of lorries which adapted - like one of the 'transformer' children's toys which were a fad at the time - into a full scale theatre, complete with auditorium and ice-cream girls. Alan Hankinson tells the story of this Northern wonder in The Blue Box, published by Bookcase in 2009. My illustrious colleague on The Guardian in the North, David Ward, has brought the story up to date in sparkling style with Encore!, also published last year by Bookcase, which tells how the fine new building came to be. The original Blue Box is now at Snibston, near Coalville in Leicestershire, no longer mobile but up and running under its proper title of the Century Theatre -  see 

Much instruction and joy is to be had from both, as from a plethora of local histories of West Cumbria, the Lake District's plain sister, where I hoovered up booklets such as this The Parish of Lamplugh, edited by Betty Marshall and Anne Lister and published in1993 by Lamplugh parish council. I was enjoying a week with friends in the serene beauty of Ennerdale at the time. Reading the booklet at night, after crawling up to bed following a day on Pillar or Gable, reminded me usefully of the great industries which flourished - Seker, Marshon et al - and still flourish - Sellafield notably - so close to the quiet paradise of the fells. And of those which flourished and still flourish in the heart of the National Park, such as the slate-mining at the top of the Honister Pass. The sky doesn't really look like that at Lamplugh, btw, Sellafield nothwithstanding.

North-Westward Ho!

No one has complained (yet) but the last few posts have been shamelessly Yorkshirist. Time to go somewhere else, and how better than on the Settle and Carlisle railway line? The southern extension of this to Leeds, and ultimately London, runs below my house in the Aire valley near Apperley Bridge; and I was looking at the most dramatic point on the whole line only on Sunday, when a group of us strode in bright sunshine from Ribblehead to Oughtershaw. The famous viaduct and the ghostly site of its once swarming 'Navvy Town' was behind us all the way.

It is hard to believe, nowadays, that the line very nearly closed in the 1980s. The Battle for the Settle & Carlisle by James Towler (Platform 5 Publishing 1990) tells how determined and knowledgeable community activists saved the day. Towler, who died in 1999, was a mighty warrior who was once told by an opponent: "The trouble with you is, you travel on too many trains." How pleased he would be, today, to see how the line which he helped to save, as the dogged and learned chair of the north's regional transport users' consultative committee, has become a thread connecting regeneration between the West Riding and the Cumbrian-Scottish border.

Cumbria. That means floods, and much has been written about recent ones, from Carlisle's inundation in 2005 to Workington and Cockermouth's devastation last year. Coincidentally this excellent study Floods in North West England: a history c.1600-2008, came out from the Centre for North-West Regional Studies at Lancaster university in December, the 16th, impressively, of their occasional papers. I must collect the other 15. It was providential to me, putting some of the more dramatic headlines and analyses into a long, soaking context of unruly rivers and rain. I apologise to the joint authors for my inept scanning which has removed their names. They are Sarah Watkins and Ian Whyte.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

God's own council

One of the great shames of modern life is the absence of the West Riding county council, which was probably the best local authority ever known. Its combination of Labour members from what is now South Yorkshire, Liberals from the textile belt and Tories from around Ripon made for an atmosphere of vigorous but co-operative debate; a sort of coalition atmosphere before its time. As mentioned several times already on this blog, it also employed the greatest local authority education officer ever known in the UK, Sir Alec Clegg. I was reassured (with justification as it later turned out) when my two sons went to our local high school, Benton Park, and I read that it was originally commissioned by Clegg (who, typically, used a leading firm of architects, Sir John Burnet, Tait and Partners. In Sheffield, he commissioned a comprehensive from Sir Basil Spence. Shades of Zaha Hadid designing the new Evelyn and Grace Academy in Brixton; trying to raise everyone's game).

I read anything I can about the WRCC, and declaim at talks, to the point of tedium, my nostrum about schooldays when I was proud to come not only from England's biggest county (Yorkshire, of course) but also its second biggest (the West Riding, which was larger on its own than rivals such as Lincolnshire or Devon). The West Riding County Council 1889-1974 by Brendan Barber and Maurice Beresford (published by the successor West Yorks Met County Council in 1979) is a concise introduction. Its cover may inspire you to go to Wakefield where the original County Hall is well-maintained, down to the proud stone collars carved with WRCC which hold in place its mighty drainpipes. Meanwhile publications such as Leeds Archives 1938-1988 (West Yorkshire Archive Service 1988) show the continuing lively existence of some services which the WRCC ran so well. The splendid Headingley Test ground lawnmower and other ancient material shown in the picture at the top come from that.


Leeds has an interesting tradition of thoughtful architects, from Cuthbert Brodrick who built the mighty Town Hall (and then retired very young to live with a mysterious woman in a Paris suburb), to the current Civic Architect, John Thorp. John is the last person in Britain to hold this title, and has lived to see the city's architecture department shrink to himself from over 400 staff - such has been the reduction of directly-run municipal services in the UK. John's book on his skilful and patient 'urban dentistry' in modern Leeds is due out in the next year and much anticipated. Meanwhile, I have made use of, and much recommend, these books: Leeds, the back-to-front, inside-out, upside-down city (Stile Books 1979) a short but typically original series of ideas about the city by the late Patrick Nuttgens, who was professor of architecture at York university before becoming director of Leeds Polytechnic, now Leeds Metropolitan university. And How to be a Happy Architect (Black Dog Publishing 2008) a similar sparky collection of notions from Irena Bauman, who stirs up things architecture and planning-related most successfully in contemporary Leeds.

Barnsley chaps

The Aspects of... series is one Britain's biggest and best collection of books on local history and - Hooray - its publishers Wharncliffe are based in Barnsley. Their excellence lies in commissioning local historians to contribute examples of original research which build up fascinating local histories, free of the endless recycling and repetition which - however useful for an introduction or general knowledge - limited the use of guidebooks for True North. This volume on Barnsley itself, for instance - and note that it's the fourth - has pieces on a shepherd, a Victorian 'magnetic healer' called The Superlative Professor Best, and mediaeval stained glass. There's also a fascinating piece on two brothers called Illingworth, sons of a Barnsley farm labourer, whose energies were released by emigration to the United States where both became steel-making magnates and millionaires. The cover of this volume also points up the way that the series reveals the whole context to cliched images of placess. You wouldn't maybe think that this vast mansion was in Barnsley. But it is, Wentworth Castle, sister stone elephant to Wentworth Woodhouse mentioned three posts below. It now flourishes as the Northern College, which gives a second chance at higher education to those who missed out first time. The gradual restoration of its gardens (one of the best rhododendron collections in the UK, among other things) has also won many awards.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Breaching the peace

Considering the strength of the average Yorkshire Tyke's sense of identity, it's interesting how many battles have taken place across the county. I remember being taken to Marston Moor (1644) when I was still at primary school - actually because my father was campaigning at the time for Parliament to be moved there from Westminster (it's a nice open space close to York and a move would still be an excellent plan). A street in east Leeds called Penda's Way recalls the elusive battle of Winwaedsfield (655), whose supposed site shifts about wildly depending on archaeology's latest metal-detecting extravaganza. Wherever it took place, it was hugely influential in Britain's progress from paganism to Christianity. The Northumbrians beat the Mercians ten-nil. Yo!

Another great local battle always fascinates my mother, ever since she was told as a child that the Cock beck on the outskirts of Leeds, towards Tadcaster, flowed red with blood for days afterwards. This probably was the case, since the Roses battle of Towton (1461) was the bloodiest ever fought on British soil. Some 26,000 men died (but the Yorkists won, so that was all right). We've also got Stamford Bridge (1066) and a sea battle off Flamborough Head (1779) which I've written about in the Guardian many times because divers are always trying to find the main ship involved - the Bonhomme Richard, whose commander Paul Jones was the buccaneering first 'admiral' of the American rebel fleet which won the engagement. Even more embarrassing for the Royal Navy than HMS Astute's recent problems off Skye. Yorkshire Battlefields by Ivan Broadhead (Robert Hale 1989) has been a trusty friend.

Well met by moonlight

There was a time when many people would have been unable to complete the artist's name on this catalogue, which I have only managed to scan in part. Not any more. Just last week, a painting by the Leeds policeman's son John Atkinson Grimshaw went for over £100,000 at auction in Alnwick, Northumberland. The couple selling the moonlit study of Liverpool's Salthouse dock had bought it for £100 in the 1960s. That was in London's Burlington Arcade whose dealers always charge premium prices. The value of money has changed since then, but only enough to mean that the £100 is worth £1440 today.

What is it about Atkinson Grimshaw? Easy, most people would say. The moonlight. And there is another example of a point I bang on about in True North: the fact that easy cliches about dark grimness in our region are tosh. The book gives lots of examples of Northern light, from Leverhulme's Port Sunlight on the Wirral to 1930s Fresh Air & Light schools in colliery towns all over the region. Grimshaw is another example and I specially like his work because, as the introduction to the book featured in my picture says, "Grimshaw's moonlight fell on all his subjects, from landscapes to city streets. Always, though, there are people about..." Their presence (even though I have failed to scan in the oarsmen and other figures on my picture, maybe because it's of London...) is another attraction of the True North. The book, incidentally, is the Catalogue of Leeds City Art Gallery's exhibition in 1979 which gave the AG revival legs. The introduction is by Dr David Broomfield who was then head of art at Liverpool Polytechnic, and a Grimshaw specialist.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Making do

I argue the case in the book True North that the tradition of inventive manufacturing up here is alive and well. The story of the late Jimi Heselden is an example which I would like to add to future editions: a charismatic inventor who used his mining redundancy after the 1984/5 strike to set up a hugely-successful business making his Bastion gabions which defend NATO bases and hold back floodwaters all over the world. He also illustrated another argument which I try to make - that many of the industrialists were great philanthropists too, a tradition obscured in both social history and - especially - fiction by the dramatic struggle of the workers against less enlightened employers. I don't mean to plug my operations generally, but I recently tried to make this point on Comment is Free on the Guardian's website - see - after attending Heselden's funeral, held at his factory. The thread was interestingly sympathetic.

Anyway, here are a few books relating to this subject. First, from the very non-industrial paradise of the Hambleton Hills, comes Robert Thompson, the Mouseman of Kilburn by Peter Thompson (Dalesman 1979) which tells the story of the famous woodcarver whose mice delight children (and others) who hunt them down in churches and other places where Mousey's work is to be found. The skill is what normally excites people about Thompson, but I also admire a man, son of the village joiner, who set up a lasting business and prompted many others to start. I remember doing a Guardian piece about the remarkable cluster of furniture-makers which has grown up around Thirsk, including Antony Gormley's older brother John, sadly deceased, who started the firm of Treske, by Thirsk train station.

I referred to Sir Titus Salt in my Comment is Free piece, and I have mentioned some of the many, instructive books about him in posts below. Less well-known is Sir James Roberts, who bought and rescued Salt's (and the village of Saltaire) when the mill went bust in 1892. He revived both and is properly remembered by Roberts Park, on the far side of the river Aire from the village. I've got this excellent article from the Yorkshire Journal about him, Silk-hatted Bradford Millionaire by Peggy Hewitt, which she sent me in a photocopy. The YJ was a beautiful and interesting but short-lived production in the 1990s and early 2000s by Smith Settle of Otley.

Finally for now, you can still find excellent bargains at the works outlet shops of Northern businesses. This Factory Shop Guide by Gillian Cutress and Rolf Stricker, who first published it themselves in 1987, is out-of-date now and such things are largely replaced by the internet. But we used it to our advantage, as sweeping velvet curtains bought at a bargain price from the factory shop in Lister's titanic old mills on the hilltop in Manningham, Bradford, remind all visitors to Wainwright Towers.

Get ready for a bit of reading

Aaah... Bit more time now, with my companion moths blog just gone into hibernation. So I will try to catch up after the very erratic progress of True North in recent months. Sorry.

I was on the M1 near Rotherham this week and just caught a glimpse of Keppel's Column, one of the four great follies on the Wentworth estate (above, from above and beautifully betrayed to GoogleMaps by its shadow), whose history and beauty - as a great dark hole at night amid all the lights of urban South Yorkshire - is so well described in Catherine Bailey's Black Diamonds, praised in a post some time ago. Follies are always fun to see and explore, but they almost always have a deeper interest; in the case of the Wentworth ones, they introduced me to the strength of support in 18th century England for the American rebels. The Wentworths, including the Marquis of Rockingham who was twice Prime Minister, were staunchly in this camp. Their own, Northern, sense of independence was one of the reasons why. As for Keppel, he was another sympathiser with the Americans, a highly political admiral who was also an MP and would, I am sure, be full of comments about British foreign policy were he alive today.

Follies and similar curiosities are everywhere in the North. Just two examples of books which have helped me with them, for now, but I'll add others. The Story of Nun Monkton by Rosemary Enright, a beautifully-produced and characterfully-written book, published by a group of local villagers, has this nice picture of the Payler monument in the Priory's grounds. It serves as an excellent introduction to the dead end community near York, where the Alice Hawthorn pub, named after a racehorse, has - thank goodness - reopened after a period of closure.

The East Riding Treasure Hunt by Howard Peach (Smith Settle 1995) is full of goodies in this, often-overlooked part of the North. My favourite is the Waggoners' Memorial at Sledmere, erected by Sir Mark Sykes to honour 1200 farmworkers from his estate who formed an expert battalion of horse-handlers in the First World War ( a similar operation to that so eloquently dramatised by Michael Morpurgo in The War Horse). I especially like it in part because it gave me the chance to fulfill one of my ambitions - to get the word 'wainwright' into The Guardian as a common noun. Sad, I know, but we all have these whims.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Drewe fails to draw

Just a short note. I'm away from my books but want to recommend some film-related ones. The prompt is going to see Posy Simmonds' story of Tara Drew enjoyably turned into a film, albeit one which struck me and Penny as more 'TV-sized' than up to the big screen. We went to see it in its first week of release at the Leeds-Bradford Odeon in Thornbury. Do you know how many other people were in the cinema? Six. Guess how many giggles there were apart from our own, fairly regular ones? One.

It was an interesting cultural experience which I haven't yet worked out. I'm sure it packs them in amid much hilarity at the Screen on Islington Green. But I think that it is a very metropolitan subject and world, seen with a very metropolitan eye, for all that its very metropolitan characters are operating, uneasily, in a region of great distinction, Thomas Hardy's Wessex; specifically Dorset.  They didn't really seem to be there. The landscape was just scenery, and that would have been still more the case had Posy chosen instead our Northern Cotswolds such as the lush county swathes of the North Riding or parts of Lancashire's Furness. 

There's a bit in True North about the way that Hardy's land is affected by superficial imagery as badly as the North, and Tamara Drew is further evidence. No offence to Posy. She, Penny and a colleague once played cricket for Cosmopolitan against the New Statesman, and the Guardian's then, delightful, film critic Derek Malcolm, also batting for Cosmo, wrote a poem which started: 'Penny, Pandora and Posy - a trio of which to dream.'  I only dream of one. The match was also notable for Martin Amis's playing for the New Statesman and being determined to win at all costs, bowling at the heavenly trio as if they were Test players.

Welcome blaze of colour

No I am not dead. Sorry once more for another lacuna (the title btw of the excellent Orange Prize-winning book I'm reading by Barbara Kingsolver). It just takes too long to do the cover-scanning etc to add to the bibliography in these busy times. Fear not, though, it will be completed. 

For now, I just want to hail a new set of postcards available at Leeds tourist office in the station. The colour may be a bit over the top, but I sympathise with that, so relentless is the tide of grey, grim Northern images. Still. Yes, I am perhaps becoming obsessesd and will maybe go mad, but it is lovely that another publisher has seen the bright, light, exciting side of Leeds (as Keith Waterhouse does in City Lights, very warmly recommended many posts below).

It is not a minority view. London publishers exert far too powerful a hold and they want a grim North, troubled childhoods and the rest. But the very cheerful woman who sold me the cards was as delighted as I was. We also compared notes on the city's new open-top sight-seeing bus (a blindingly obvious butt of metropolitan scorn but excellently previewed by the Guardian's Leeds blogger John Baron on and agreed that the commentary is ace and told us both things we didn't know. Hope they're true...

You can also tour Leeds at weekends by canal and river boat.  So bin all that stuff about 'capital of empty flats' etc and come and enjoy. The two cards I've featured show (below) St Paul's House, which is that colour, and (top) offices in Park Row, which aren't quite, except during outstanding sunsets or when you've been smoking something you shouldn't have been. The sky above St Paul's House is also genuine. Leeds is dryer than Barcelona, remember.

Sunday, 4 July 2010


Sorry to have so rubbish about keeping this up to date recently. My companion blog about my moth trap has kept me busy, and there's always a little light journalism for the Guardian to get done. But I have to post today, after one of the most extraordinary experiences in my Northern reporting life: Penny and I spent the day at Castle Carr and saw its amazing fountain come to life.

I'm blogging about this on my True North blogspot because it is a wonderful example of the 'green and the grey' Northern countryside which forms one of the chapters in the book. The ruined Victorian hunting 'lodge' (actually a 17-bedroom castle which makes the Devonshires' place at Bolton Abbey look like a cottage) is at the head of a lovely, lovely valley which is also full of monuments to Calderdale's great industrial past. Some bring tears to your eyes, such as the gravestones of 'orphan child workers' at Wainstalls mill (now converted into flats), but others like Castle Carr have you jumping up and down with glee. The estate belongs to a characterful farmer and retired magistrate called Frank Schofield, a piratical figure with an eye patch and long white hair, who opens it every now and then for good causes.

The fountain is its glory. Even at Chatsworth, I have not seen a plume to match this - a vast column of peaty spray thrust upwards by simple gravity descent from a reservoir on the moors high above. On the way home with our friends Brian and Elaine Craven, to whom unlimited thanks for inviting us along, we went through little paradises such as Jowlers (see pic above) and Booth. I could die of happiness but won't. Here are some more pics...

The ruined castle from across the valley:

And here it is close-up (a previous owner seems to have had ambitions to use it as a quarry, but what's left is in good hands now):

Here's the ground-plan when it was sold in 1874 after the poor guy who built it, Captain Joseph Priestley Edwards of Fixby Hall, near the M62 at Ainley Top, died in a train crash and his family weren't interested in keeping it on. Thanks to the very nice gentleman who lives nearby and brought these plans along to the Cat-i-th-Well pub where we ended the walk with Timothy Taylor's and a hog roast:

Now, this is what the fuss is all about. Looks quiet, doesn't it?

But what's this?

And this?

and THIS?

No wonder that brollies sprouted like mushrooms....

Because here's the fountain at its glorious peak (and it lasted for 15 minutes, until the moor-top reservoir was almost drained):

I'll find out when it's next going to be open and will post here, to let you know and spread the word. Oh, and further to prove my True North points, P and I and the Cravens saw a notice at a farm on the way back saying Eggs For Sale. A lad appeared and we asked to buy half-a-dozen. "We've only quails' eggs left," he said, apologetically. New North - True North - or what?

Thursday, 13 May 2010

A mighty dynasty

Kitson is a famous name in Leeds, and in many spheres. The family founded the famous Hunslet Engineering Works whose trains are still to be seen all over the world, some of them puffing up the Andes to Lake Titicaca. There's another one on the Snowdon Mountain Railway and we've got this nice picture of a retired loco slumbering away at Kirkstall, where enthusiasts run a narrow gauge line through the woods from Kirkstall Abbey. By the way, if you are in those parts, the Abbey House museum is great - as is the abbey itself, of course, plus its excellent new interpretation centre, and the cafe/restaurant at Abbey House is just tremendous. Delicious food and really nice staff. See 0256E1B0043190A.
Anyway, the Kitsons also entered politics as Liberals and produced two sons who were great patrons of the arts. Sydney was an architect who designed a number of villas in Leeds and the original building of the College of Art whose alumni include Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth (check out the new Hepworth gallery opening in Wakefield next year - He became the biggest collector of Cotman watercolours in the world and left the bulk of them to Leeds city art gallery although the Victoria and Albert, which was bequeathed a smaller number, fought a desperate but I am glad to say unsuccessful battle to get hold of Leeds' allocation. The story is well-condensed in Cotmania & Mr Kitson by David Boswell and Corinne Miller (Leeds City Art Galleries 1992) which accompanied a very good exhibition.
Sydney's brother Robert was an equally generous patron of the arts, responsible for the wonderful mosaic by Sir Frank Brangwyn in St Aidan's church. This was originally to be a fresco, but Brangwyn declared Leeds' atmosphere too mucky and insisted on the much more expensive tiles. St Aidan's got their own back in a Yorkshire way only ten years ago, when the congregation organised their own cleaning of the mosaic with off-the-shelf materials and a ladder lent by one of them, who worked for the fire brigade. Art experts were in fits, but they did an excellent job.
Robert retired to Taormina in Sicily on his doctor's advice (what a nice doctor to have) and built the famous and wonderful Casa Cuseni there, with more work by Brangwyn. He was so popular that during the Second World War, the locals hid his valuables while he was in exile, and chose him as their mayor when he returned as soon as Field Marshal Kesselring and his Nazis had cleared out. The Kitsons' story unites many aspects - enterprise, philanthropy and art - which deserve a greater prominence in the history and image of the North. For the Casa Cuseni, which until recently has been for sale, though you'd need oodles of cash, see The little pocket book at the top incidentally, is for 1885 and was given to me by the marvellous Enid Lakeman, lifelong campaigner for proportional representation, when I worked with her at the Electoral Reform Society in 1971. She must be strumming her harp at the moment, with Britain's fab new reforming coalition. Her father worked at Hunslet Engineering and the book belonged to him.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Cinema gris

The North has its own version of Cinema Noir, best summed up by Beryl Bainbridge's remark, when filming a documentary on Tyneside, that only a TV crew would choose to go to the beach at Whitley Bay in December. Rain, mist, all continues up to the present day, vide the recent exciting but grimissimo TV adaption of the Red Riding trilogy by David Peace. I have a bash at all this in True North and I have been helped by many books which explore the wider and much benign overall tradition of films about, and made in the three regions.Talking Pictures, The Popular Experience of the Cinema, edited by Colin Harding and Brian Lewis (Yorkshire Art Circus 1993) was one of the first, excellent publications to come out of the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television (now the National Media Museum) in Bradford - a brilliant location for such a place, with many of the locations used in the film of Keith Waterhouse's wonderfully celebratory Billy Liar nearby. Sorry about the blue line on the cover; that's my incompetence with Adobe Photoshop.

An even better look back is contained in the 324 pages of Movie-Makers and Picture Palaces by G.J.Mellor (Bradford Libraries 1996). A treasure trove.

Finally Dorothy Newlyn's Theatre Connections (Newlyn 1995) is an autobiography by a woman who was instrumental with her husband Walter in getting us the fine West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. Apart from telling the story of that campaign, she is also enjoyable and interesting on the theatre and cinema of her Yorkshire youth.

Not dead, just busy elsewhere

Goodness, sorry (again). It's been more than a month. I really apologise; it's been the election and this and that and the fact that the moth trap is up and running again and I can't resist doing blog entries for Martin's Moths (check out via the profile section on this page, and enter a new world).
I'm also a bit de-motivated by the lack of controversy about my assault on the Grimsters. This isn't just here on the blog, but I've been surprised at talks I've done in Newcastle and Hexham, that there hasn't been more of a fightback by the old Northern guard. At Northern Stage, they put up a lot of the gritty grey photos which have so dominated the Northern canon and we had quite a good discussion about that. But most people seem to be taking my Cheer Up Everyone trumpet calls like lambs. I must just show you my own grim and gritty slide which I showed at Newcastle (satirically, in the same breath as telling everyone how unsurprised I was to be staying at the Grey hotel in Grey Street). That was unfair, mind. It just happened to be Earl Grey rather than Earl Light, although his tea is notably lighter than the standard dark brew.

I took this pic in March and when I went back at the end of April for the Northern Stage talk, the slogan had been sprayed over. But it is a good question. I must find out why the hideous but strangely beguiling walkway below the High Level Brdidge came to such a sudden stop. The metal edge of the HLB, far above, is encrusted with dead pigeons incidentally. I wonder if the Kittiwakes got them.

However, the bibliography must press on, and here are another three publications which I have learned from and enjoyed. Some years ago, I went for a walk in Buck Wood, above the river Aire and Esholt sewage works near here, an area much pleasanter than it sounds. My stumbling across some old foundations led to making a Radio 4 programme on open air schools, because the concrete traces are all that is left of Thackley Open Air School. The programme in turn reinforced Christine Alvin's intention of writing a book on the place, about which she knows much. The result is The School in the Wood, Friends of Buck Wood 2008, which you can get direct from

Thackley is a comfortable and lovely spot. The centre of Bradford has notorious problems, with a huge hole where the Westfield development has run out of private cash. The easing of the recession (fingers crossed) should see work start again, but meanwhile the city council is bravely pressing on with its plans for a mirror pool the other side of the City Hall. Excavators are already at work. You can read all about the underlying thinking in Bradford Centre Regeneration Masterplan, Will Alsop Architects, 2003, probably not easy to get hold of but Bradford council or Alsop's should be able to point you in the right direction.

Finally for now, I like detailed books by enthusiast for recondite subjects, which often contain unexpected wider social issues overlooked by more general historians.
One such is Bradford City Tramways 1882-1950 by D M Coates, Wyvern Publications 1984. It helped me, too, when I was tracking down the former workshop of Bill Cull, the man who made Issigonis' Mini work with his continuous velocity joints - see A Mini Adventure by myself, Aurum Press 2009, if you want to know more...

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

A little bit of this...

..and a little bit of that... Here's a foursome of books from the North East which show the diversity of life in that part of the North, for better and worse. Gary's Friends by Adrian Clarke (West Pier Press 2007) is a photographic essay on a group of drink and drug abusers on Tyneside and Teeside which may sound off-putting but is actually a riveting social document. It shows how closely a dismal way of life may be related to something quite different; one of the people who bravely agreed to be photographed and tell a summary of their life story is a cousin of Bob Crooks, the marvellous, long-standing chairman of Durham county council who features in True North. Another of his relatives was Sammy Crooks, the England footballer, and a third was Mayor of Durham city. The role played by family breakdown in creating individual disaster is desperately apparent in this book.

There's more gritty material in A Hole Like That - 13 Cleveland Poets, edited by Mark Robinson (Scratch 1994) and just one of shelves of excellent verse to come from the North East's grassroots (which are, after all, the home of the famous Bloodaxe imprint - - among others. It isn't only grit, though. The poets also reflect on the beautiful countryside which surrounds the industrial heartland by the Tees.

Off to the coast next, in the company of All Her Glories Past by David Phillipson (Smith Settle 1994), which tells the story of the Zetland lifeboat and her immensely long service at Redcar where she remains a visitor attraction.

Similar, lesser-known attractions abound in The Hidden Places of Northumberland and Durham by Emma Roberts (Travel Publishing 2003), which also has handy recommendations of places to stay on a visit. I have more than half-a-dozen Southern friends, who are otherwise staunchly metropolitan, but never let a year go by without a visit to Northumberland, both inland in the lovely and lonely National Park, or along the sensational coast. Alnmouth is the second best treat from the East Coast mainine after Durham and Holy Island is extraordinary. The pub there is the only place in the UK where I have listened to compatriots speaking English and been unable to understand them. Emma Roberts' book is one of a 'county' series and I've made good use of the Yorkshire volumes as well.

Oh, just as a PS to this post, I had a wonderful time at Headingley LitFest, helped by knowing almost every inch of that distinguished suburb. This is a genetic thing. My mum, who came to the talk and enjoyed the scones and butterfly buns (as I did), was born in St Michael's Villas and was also left wailing as a toddler in Shire Oak Road - where the talk was - by my Grandad who thought she'd shut up if he pretended to abandon her and hid behind a wall. She claims it just made her bawl louder than ever. The Litfest has posted a generous account of proceedings on their blog at I immodestly like the title of that link...