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...

Tales of the Unexpected

One of the characteristics of a journalist, or at least of this one, is an eye for the odd or unusual. In terms of the North, this is also a good way of getting stories from the region into the national media, so I have built up a major sub-section of my Northern book-collection on the Unexpected. Take for example The Sailing Ships and Mariners of Knottingley by Ron Gosney and Rosemary Bowyer (Ron Gosney & Sons undated but 1990s ISBN 0 9534696 0 3) which I recall reading with astonishment when the author gave me a copy. Fifty miles from the North Sea, the little town near Wakefield built and launched ships on the Aire and Calder Navigation which sailed as far as South America. The book is a model of its kind, with maps of where Knottingley ships were wrecked and extracts from masters' logs such as 'It was my painful duty to secure Charles Sayes by putting him in irons'. In terms of my wider arguments about the North, the book illustrates how major industries can come and go, with an emphasis again on the unexpected. When times are bad, we need to remember how the next invention and source of employment often takes us all completely by surprise.

By contrast, a long-standing success story is William Santus & Co of The Toffee Works, Wigan, who make the legendary Uncle Jo's Mint Balls. For a precis of how a good product, well-made and marketed, stands the test of time, get A Sweet Story by Fiona Lydon (William Santus & Co 2005). It's a very slim booklet but has excellent material on how it paid to be a Methodist if you wanted a job at Uncle Joe's in the early days, and the words and music of Mike Harding's memorable anthem They Keep You All Aglow.

Cemeteries next. What a wonderland they are for the historian - and for imaginative primary school teachers, like our boys' John Coates at Rawdon CofE who had his classes roaming St Peter's graveyard and listing the many strange (and ordinary) names and fates to be found engraved there. A paragon in this world is Undercliffe in Bradford. My vicar uncle in the city, Rev Chris Hollis, excited my interest early on by telling me there was an entire row of memorials on the cemetery's fine hill, with its excellent views over the city, to steam laundry proprietors. The cemetery is very well-recorded in Undercliffe - Bradford's Historic Cemetery by David James and the outstanding Northern photographer Ian Beesley (Ryburn Publishing 1991).

The Lake District has been meticulously charted, nay trampled, by historians and writers, but it too can still come up with little-known or overlooked treasures. One of the best, and duly becoming better-known as a result, is Blackwell, the wonderful Arts and Crafts house outside Windermere built for the brewer, Lord Mayor of Manchester and philanthropist Edward Holt. He rings all the bells in my chime about such Victorian magnates often having a very strong social conscience. Among the many good things he did was provide holidays at Blackwell for underprivileged children from Manchester. All this and much more is described well in Blackwell - the Arts & Crafts House by assorted and modestly un-named members of the Lakeland Arts Trust which published the book in 2005. I very strongly recommend a visit - see

Monday, 15 March 2010

Heads and Hudds

I'm just off to talk to the AGM of Huddersfield Civic Society, where I'll pass on a couple of gems from Phyllis Bentley (see post below). One is the brief observation of one of her characters in Quorum, a talented and sensitive teacher who has chosen to stay in the North in spite of tempting offers in London: "There is colourful truth about the West Riding textile industry as well as sombre truth." This hits precisely one of the nails which I have also tried to strike in True North, on the need for a wider picture of the industrial North than cliches about trouble at t'mill. As Bentley also describes well, every great industry had - still has - a fine artistic and design section, which has played a part in the flowering of art in the North, from the Gregory Fellows at Leeds Uni, to the Northern Arts Prize.
I knew a real-life Northerner who made the same choice as Bentley's fictional teacher - John Walker who died last year at the age of 97. After getting a sky-high degree at Cambridge, he was invited by Maynard Keynes to take a job in the Treasury, but returned instead to run the family blanket mill in Cleckheaton. He never regretted it, and enjoyed curious moments such as his return to the mill after presiding over the committal of the Yorkshire Ripper as a Dewsbury magistrate. "Before I give you any other information," he told the workforce, who were agog at a time when near-hysteria had gripped this part of the world, "Let me say first that the blanket covering Sutcliffe as he went into court was one of ours."
Bentley also makes a quite different observation, elsewhere in Quorum, which appeals to another of my lifelong campaigns. I've it tucked away in my folder entitled Those Were Not The Days/There's Little New Under The Sun: "Teachers nowadays had so many administrative tasks, so many forms to fill, so many responsibilities for the physical and economic welfare of their pupils, that they hardly had time to teach, much less to live any private and personal lives." That was in 1950! If you meet a teacher grumbling away in this vein, much as farmers do, read it to them.
Meanwhile, here's a puff for the current Headingley LitFest in which I'm playing a humble role - lots of draws including David Peace, excellent writer but sadly a King of Northern Noir, and Prof David Russell on Phyllis Bentley, yo!. I hope you can read the programme if you double click on the pic, but if not, check out Actually, my bit's a bit blurred due to my incompetence, but it's on Sat 20 March at the Yorkshire College of Music and Drama in Shire Oak Road at 3pm. As I mention far below, David Hall's Far Headingley, Weetwood and West Park (Headingley Village Society 2000) gives you an idea of the incredible amount of interest - people, places, history - to be found in this one suburb. And that covers only part of it...

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Sorry, Phyllis

I was over at my Mum's at the weekend and noticed that she'd just finished reading a battered old novel with a blue binding. I picked it up and have subsequently been engrossed. It is Quorum by Phyllis Bentley, and it has made me realise that I should have done more about Bentley in True North. Here she is, in the pics above, holding the same pose some 30 years apart. She is mentioned in the book, but overshadowed by Lettice Cooper. Let me put that right now, online, and hope that I get a chance to add a bit more about her in future editions of the book. She has the same powers of accurate observation as Cooper, and a similar warmth and sympathy with the views of the different protagonists in Northern industrial dramas. Her best-known book is Inheritance and here's a picture of John Thaw and his leading lady in a 1967 BBC TV adaption which also starred Michael Goodliffe and James Bolam. This sort of 'regional novel' was upended by the much sharper, angrier and therefore more widely appealing books of the 1950s Northern literary renaissance - John Braine, Stan Barstow & Co. But, as I argue in the book, their talents distorted the rounded image of the North as portrayed by the likes of Cooper and Bentley, who to my mind are also much subtler than their more famous contemporary J.B.Priestley. I enjoy his work, but its Dickensian exuberance takes several steps away from real life at the time. We need contemporary Bentleys and Coopers to dispel the last tatters of Grimness Up Here. Helen Cross (My Summer of Love - Bloomsbury 2001) is one such. I'm keen to find and read others, and would be grateful for being pointed in their direction. If anyone knows the name of the actress in the picture with John Thaw, I'd be grateful too. It's either Madeleine Christie or Judy Wilson, I think.

Shanks's pony

By far the best way to get to know a place is through walking. The North has produced some especially famous pedestrians: my great Lakeland namesake, for example, and his predecessors Mountford Baddeley and William Poucher. The latter drew routes on photographs which he waited hours to take, to get the best possible light. He was helped in this by his job as a senior research chemist for Yardley, whose cosmetic products he sometimes wore as extra protection against the cold. There's more in True North, plus a paen to Benny Rothman, the great trespasser, whose buoyant good humour contrasted with the dourness of Wainwright, whose lightness of touch was confined to his writing. I quail and retreat at the task of listing all the walking guides which have influenced True North. There are scores of them. Nay, hundreds. Click on the picture above of just some of my regulars and note the regularity of the word 'pub.' Without one of these, no walk is complete.
I don't bang on too much in the book about the Grade 1 countryside such as the Lakes and Dales, for the simple reason that so many other people have done that, many of them brilliantly. Instead, I've tried to highlight the joys and interest of walking in cities, towns and connurbations. So here's a big thankyou to Walks around Red Brick by Maurice Beresford (Leeds University Press 1980). Anything by Maurice Beresford is worth reading and re-reading). His book deals with Leeds. A comparable study for York is A Walk around the Snickelways of York by Mark W Jones (1983 and often republished). Snickelway is Yorkese for what we in Leeds call a ginnel and Londoners an alley, or occasionally, if not versed in medicine, a back passage. Another good guide is Walk the Kirklees Way by Nigel Patrick and Peter Williamson (Huddersfield Examiner 2002). I also like Footpaths of Leeds Book 2 by Hilary and Peter Dyson (Leeds Civic Trust 1998), which wends through the suburbs, often scorned but crammed with the fascinating and unexpected.

Monday, 8 March 2010

When we were very young

Northern childhoods form a famous and wonderful canon of literature. An excellent example from it, which I discuss at some length in the book, is William Woodruff's celebrated The Road to Nab End - an extraordinary Northern childhood, and its sequel Beyond Nab End. The 'extraordinary' thing for me is not the almost Pythonesque setting of Woodruff's birth and upbringing in Blackburn, but the way he describes the cheerfulness as well as the hard knocks. He put this positive attitude to good effect himself, becoming an internationally respected historian before the books brought him a different sort of success relatively late in life. Nab End has an interesting history; first published as Billy Boy by Ryeburn in 1993, it was a slow burner, until it took off, renamed, in a Little Brown Abacus edition in 2000. The original subtitle was also more subdued, and accurate: A Lancashire Childhood. Beyond Nab End is good but not as good. Little Brown Abacus published it in 2003. Talking of Blackburn childhoods, Hunter Davies' biography of the fellwalker Alfred Wainwright (no relation of moi) is fascinating. AW was an extraordinary character, although to be honest, not one with whom I'd have wanted to have tea. That's Wainwright, the Biography (updated edition, Orion 2002),
Another and more famous Northern writer now: Lewis Carroll, Child of the North by Anne Clark Amor Lewis Carroll Society 1995) is a handy account of the Alice man's upbringing at Croft, where William Hague and Tony Blair's constituencies used to face one another across the Tees in the days when one led the Government and the other the Opposition. Edge of Darkness, Edge of Light (Souvenir Press 1977) is a moving autobiography of his childhood by R C Scriven, the blind and deaf writer who amassed enough powerful images of the world during the eight years before deafness struck, followed some 20 years later by blindness, to colour marvellous radio plays and much other writing. Finally, for now, a long-standing Guardian reader, Marjorie Jones, sent me her Count Up to Ten, an account of a Bradford childhood in the Twenties (MJ 1987) which I thoroughly enjoyed. I think that everyone should set down their life story, and get a tax rebate for lodging it in the British Library.

A bit of fun

There's quite a lot in True North about the region's comic tradition, both the conventional comedians of the past and their successors such as the League of Gentlemen who have made such excellent hay with all the terrible cliches still believed in too many quarters down South. Alas, I don't think the awful goings-on in Royston Vazey have helped us that much though. I have - genuinely - met half-a-dozen people in London who think that our life really is, more-or-less, like that.
On a less well-known level, I've had endless pleasure from the witty work of John Morrison - for example his View from the Bridge trilogy (Pennine Pens 1998 onwards) which plays pop with the upper Calder Valley. Hebden Bridge is disguised as Milltown, with a recognisable cast of types congregating at the Grievous Bodily Arms. I also much enjoyed Women are from Venus, Men are from Mytholmroyd (Mutton Stew 2000). John's moved to the Lake District now but continues to write, not just humour but good guidebooks too. Another jolly scale on Northern cliche is The Thoughts of Betty Spital (Yorkshire Arts Circus 1987). Read, for example, of her work through the Sheffield Pensioners' Liberation Army to promote youthenasia. There is much more in this genre, and I'll return to add titles as I creep along my shelves.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Straight talking

Continuing from the post below (Do you sometimes feel that blogs should be read standing on your head?), Neil Henderson has written from France, picking up on the book's section on music and kindly sending me a copy of the Christmas 1975 hymn sheet for the 'pub carols' which maintain a venerable tradition north and west of Sheffield. He also picks up a mistake which, alas, has become part of my genetic code; I always belt out 'Hail Shining Morn!' in the car on my own, when it should of course be 'Smiling'. Sorry. Duly noted and passed to the publishers. It's a very fine hymn sheet, including not just HSM and the other old favourites, but the Holmfirth Anthem Pratty Flowers with its Napoleonic reference, surely unique to carols: 'Wilt thou go fight yon French and Spaniards?' (Double-click on the pic to make the words large enough to read). I'm also hugely indebted to Mr Henderson, as all Northerners will be, for his reminding me, and now us, of the motto of his alma mater Penistone High School: Disce aut discede - Learn or Leave! You don't get plainer or blunter than that.
While on the subject of music, a bit more bibliography: An Improbable Centenary by Adrian Smith, Slaithwaite Philharmonic Orchestral Society 1990, tells the story of the said orchestra in wonderful detail. A Voice of Singing by Arnold Taylor, Horsforth Choral Society 2003, does the same for these singers. Neither book is likely to have a vast readership, and yet both tell you much about a century of Northern life in the first case and 78 years in the second. Another sort-of-musical delight is the affectionate portrait of the late Derek Enright MP, The Man Who Sang Yellow Submarine in Latin, Pontefract Press 1996. If you don't already know the reason for the title, you'll have to borrow or by True North to find it out.

Readers write

As well as providing much-appreciated corrections, readers of True North so far have sent me lots of excellent new material which I hope to use in future editions. One of the first, from Edwina Clements of Kilnsey, picked up on the book's passages about garden estates in otherwise industrial towns and ended marvellous reminiscences of her own, from childhood in Oldham. I had not heard of the 1909 Beautiful Oldham enterprise, although Mrs Clements makes it sound like an exercise absolutely out of my own heart. Her parents moved in 1940 into a semi on one of its consequences: Oldham Garden Suburb. The house backed on to Bell Fields, a wild, green area between the estate and Bell Mill, and she writes: "This was our playground where I once found a skylark's nest and lots of wild flowers including an early purple orchid." I remember finding my first early purple orchid, in north Leeds, and being amazed that a flower with such an exotic name (and associated then only with the lavish hothouses of wealthy businessmen such as Isaac Holden of Oakworth - see True North), could be flowering wild near our house. Mrs Clements says "I've never lost my interest in nature that started there." Same here.
This isn't all nostalgia either. Mrs C was Rose Queen in the Oldham Garden Suburb Tenants' Association festival of 1956, and she went back to the 100th festival last August. "It was a joy to see the present community thriving with the same great enthusiasm," she writes, adding only a small old-North coda: "despite the heavy rain." Oldham GS has got an absolutely excellent website,, from which I have pinched this picture of street cherries in full bloom - eat your heart out, Surrey - plus the Rose Queen Festival in 1936. To prove the robustness of the tradition, just check out their 108-picture slideshow of last August's festival, which you can even watch in 3D. Mrs Clements will be in there somewhere.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010


Rivers play a more dramatic part in defining the landscape of the North than they do in most other English regions, thanks to the long spine of the Pennines (hills whose distinctive inhabitants will get a post of their own shortly). Rain comes down in torrents on the watershed and so we have big, big rivers snaking away on either side, leading respectively to the Irish and North Seas. Sentimentally, I hanker after the latter's old name, widely used until the First World War, of the German Ocean. There's a very good recent collection of essays on one of the grandest waterways in Mersey - the River that Changed the World (Bluecoat Press 2007), including one by my long-standing Guardian colleague David Ward, whose retirement triggered True North when, incredibly, not a single colleague in London applied to fill his shoes. On the Yorkshire side, I have made much use over the years of the reprinted series on Yorkshire Rivers (Old Hall Press 1998), originally written for the Yorkshire Weekly Post at the turn of the 20th century. I have a lot of other books on the subject, which I'll add here as I rediscover them, but for now I'll mention Yorkshire's River Aire(Terence Dalton 1976) by John Ogden (not the pianist), with a chirpy introduction by Jimmy Saville who reveals a plan to kidnap the whole world and bring them North. Also A Ball - A Square by John Springer (Richard Netherwood 1996) which introduces the waterways of the North, inlcuding canals, to younger readers, plus those young at heart, through the adventures of a fictional group of children on a narrowboat in real-life settings.
Finally, for now, I have used a trove of leaflets such as Public Art Walks in Tyne and Wear (TyneWear Partnership 2006 {I think}) which concisely introduce their users to possibly unexpected waterside beauty in the North East. Click on the pic to see details.

Back in action

Many apologies for the long delay - I haven't died or broken my leg in the snow. I've been on four weeks' sabbatical, a very civilised practice which the Guardian still offers for every four years' service in spite of its financial challenges. Penny and I were in Sri Lanka, where the North-South division has had terrible consequences. Like everyone who visits the beautiful island and its great people (to at least half of whom we now seem to be related through my older son's marriage) we hope that they find a way to go forward together.
One thing which has helped bridge some of England's infinitely gentler division has been a fair distribution of well-paid and talented medical people across the country, a point highlighted in True North. As with the universities, but in striking contrast to the media, medical excellence is as common in the regions as in London and several books on my shelves explain why. Pig in a Suitcase, the Autobiography of a Heart Surgeon (Smith Settle 1999) is one, describing the remarkable career of Geoffrey Wooler. The way he saved the life of Lord Woolton at the Conservative party conference in Scarborough in 1952 is strangely gripping. Another very significant Northern doctor was Sir John Charnley, inventor of the hip joint operation which keeps so many of us pottering along. John Charnley: the Man and the Hip by William Waugh (Springer 1990) is a very good biography, and Charnley's career is well set in its wider context in Opposite the Infirmary by Penny Wainwright (Thackray Medical Research Trust 1997), which describes in detail Charnley's collaboration with the Leeds medical company which made the artificial joints to his extremely demanding specifications. Penny - none other than my wife, so I declare a very strong interest - also tells the story more briefly as one of the contributors to Leeds City Business (edited by Katrina Honeyman and John Chartres, Leeds University Press 1993). It was significant, and wholesome, that Charnley required any surgeon wishing to carry out the operation to spend a couple of days with him at Wrightington hospital near Burnley, where this ground-breaking process was pioneered.