Saturday, 7 January 2012

Elvis Presley 16th August 1977

For one person I know they heard the news while at the age of 12 sitting before a mirror combing her hair. Her mother told her the news at their home in Zimbabwe.

Another was working at a Residential home as a vacation job in the south of England. A fellow member of staff burst into tears and was distraught when she heard.

One friend was in Suva in Fiji when a shopkeeper asked him "Do you know Elvis Presley". He said "Not personally". The shopkeeper replied, "Well, he's dead".

For many Tuesday 16th August 1977 will be one of those global moments alongside the JFK assassination and 9/11. Everyone old enough will recall his or her response to the news.

As far as the death of Elvis was concerned I was having a drink in the Conservative Club in Glebe St, Stoke. It was the one and only time I had been in there visiting after playing a game of rounders in Hanley Park against the Young Tories. I went to the Club after the match and was engaged in heated discussion with them on the issues of the day. The news broke for the Ten O’clock News. The presenter Leonard Parkin was interviewing the DJ Pete Murray and striking a superior tone in discussing Presley’s work." What has he done to be remembered? " the haughty Parkin queried. That was not a view shared in a place like Stoke on Trent where Elvis was regarded with devotional awe.

Presley was discovered by a girl friend unresponsive on his bathroom floor at his mansion Gracelands in Memphis. Attempts to revive him failed, and death was officially pronounced at 3:30 p.m. at the Baptist Memorial Hospital. He had died from heart failure. The truth of the matter was the singer was seriously overweight and drug dependent. His glittering career was a shadow of its former self and he was not the force that he had been in pop music. But a dead Elvis proved to be a great asset.

I have to say that his death meant little to me as did John Lennon's killing three years later
But his legion of fans his death came as a huge shock and thousands flocked to Memphis to pay respects at his funeral.

In North Staffordshire he had always enjoyed a huge following. And demonstrations of grief were soon manifested. Ian Jenkins of Louise St Burls turned his terraced home into a shrine with pictures and posters adorning the windows. He said, " We are completely numbed at the news. None of us have been able to sleep or eat since Elvis died".

Jenkins, a young fan of 23, continued his obsequies by customising his car with Elvis memorabilia including a plaque bearing a Red Cross fixed to his car.

Mr Jenkins said that he had been playing records at all hours but the neighbours have not complained.
Two churches in Longton held memorial services for the King in the immediate aftermath of his death. 600 people packed into St Paul’s in Longton and Christ Church in Normacott. At the former Ron Bickerton paid tribute to the star. The Rev David Woodward greeted mourners as they left the Longton church.
Local record shops noted that Presley albums had sold out.

The Sentinel was inundated with letters and tributes. Angela Pegg of Alma St, Fenton wrote a poem, which began

" Elvis is gone, but his memory stays real
Only the true fans know the heartbreak we feel"

The newspaper also carried an interesting letter from, Phyllis Turner of Goldenhill who was one of the few local people to have met him.

" I found him sincere, thoughtful and warm who loved and respected the loyalty of his British fans.
With my late husband Albert Hand who was founder and President of the Elvis Presley Fan Club I met him on three occasions. He was presented with a leather album, which contained the name of thousand’s of his British fan’s names printed in gold lettering. His eyes welled up"

And the tributes and commemorative events continued through out that year. A memorial concert was held in the autumn at Jollies with Elvis impersonator Amazing Rupert.

It was not uncommon to come across homes that were also shrines to him and for may he will always be "the King"

The impact that Elvis made on the collective psyche of the nation still continues. He remains a charismatic figure, as widely recognised as a Macdonald’s logo. And he is still ripe for admiration and exploitation. His impact on the consciousness of many of the British public has never left the building.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

The weaver and the Old Etonian- two left wingers in Leek

"At Leek we rested during an hour, took some refreshment and then resumed the journey towards Ashbourne. In passing through the streets we noticed a number of weavers at their looms and obtained permission to go into the weaving places and see them. The rooms where they worked were on the upper floors of the houses; they were in general very clean; the work was all in the small silk ware line, and many of the weavers were young girls- some of them good looking, most of them neatly attired, and many with costly combs, earrings, and other ornaments of value showed that they had earned sufficiency of wages, and had imbibed a taste for the refinements of taste… the girls being dressed in a style that two hundred years ago would have deemed to be rich for a squire’s daughter, was to me very gratifying; whilst to my travelling companion it was equally surprising".

The words are those of Samuel Bamford who visited the town in the spring of 1820. The sort of houses can still be seen in parts of Leek today in King and Fountain Streets. It says something of Bamford strength of character that he could make that observation about Leek when other things must have weighed oppressively on his mind. He was on his way on foot to London to appear before the Court of Appeal after being convicted of involvement in the incident known as the "Peterloo Massacre which occurred in Manchester the previous August. On one point in the proceedings there was a possibility that he could have faced a trial for treason. Such was the tenor of the times when to hold radical opinions could lead to a lengthy prison sentence or worse. On his way towards the capital Bamford visited the grave of Jeremiah Brandreth in Derby a colleague who had been executed for his part in an uprising two years earlier.

Bamford’s account of a pleasant April day in Leek is in his book "Passages in the life of a Radical" published in 1842. It was a widely admired book of its time and he had numbered among his adherents writers as diverse as Mrs Gaskell and Tennyson.

Bamford was born in 1788 in Middleton during the most part of his life he followed the occupation of his forebears as a weaver. The political events that followed the end of the Napoleonic wars of poverty and repression of a Government frightened by the after effects of the French Revolution lead Bamford to become a radical champion of causes such as granting working people the vote. It was a working class vastly expanded by rapid industrialisation in towns and cities of the north and midlands. He was present at some of the major political events of the years that led to the demand for deep seated political and necessary change. Samuel Bamford had been earlier on of the "Blanketeers" so called because they wore blankets to protest about unemployment and the poor living conditions suffered by the textile workers of Lancashire who had attempted to present a petition to Parliament in March 1817. Many of the protesters were stopped by the authorities in Stockport although about 20 got to Leek before the march petered out at Ashbourne. Bamford’s literary style is immediate and powerfully descriptive and this from a man who lacked a formal education. His description of the aftermath of the Peterloo massacre in 1819 is terribly moving and evocative.
"the Yeomanry had dismounted- some were easing their horse’s girth, others adjusting their accoutrements, and some were wiping their sabres. Several mounds of human beings still remained were they had fallen, crushed down and smothered. Some were still groaning, others with staring eyes, were gasping for breath and others would never breathe no more. All was silent save those low sounds, and the occasional snorting and pawing of the steeds".

To read his account is to enter a world of long distance hikes through the countryside and of chance meetings. Bamford was a poor man and in order to get to London he got there before the days of the train and cheap public transport he walked. One thing that is apparent form the narratives of people of the past were the vast distances they covered on foot.

This brings me now to the second literary character of the left- George Orwell who passed through the Moorlands in the harsh winter of 1936.

The hundred years that separate the lives of Bamford and Orwell have seen a transformation of the political rights of the majority of the population and some of these changes had been played out on the streets of towns and villages of the Moorlands. The political movement of Chartism which demand nothing more than a root and branch transformation of the constitution reached its zenith in the 1840s. A man from Leek was shot dead in the streets of Burslem during the Chartist riots of August 1842. Leek was witness for the demand that women got the vote in the 1890s and into the first decades of the 20th century when principle speakers such as Charlotte Despard came to the town. And regular visitors to Leek in those years included some of the founding members of the Labour party.

Bamford and Orwell came from completely different social classes and experiences. Bamford the working class skilled worker from Lancashire and Orwell the southern Eton educated scion of colonial administrators. And yet there were similarities and both had a keen sense of the need to address injustice and the ability to use their powers of communication to tackle inequality and repression. Both witnessed hard times.
Orwell came through the area on his way north. He had been commissioned by the left wing publisher Victor Gollancz to write a piece of extended reportage on the social conditions in the unemployment wracked north of England. The research would eventually produce "The Road to Wigan Pier". Orwell being an observant writer picked up material that he hoped to use latter in the book as he progressed northwards. He passed through the area on foot in February 1936. It was bitterly cold as he came through Hanley and Burslem. He noted in his journal that the streets were full of poorly dressed and desolate looking people. The shops looked meagre and were scantily provisioned. Staffordshire like Lancashire and Yorkshire suffered badly during the recession of the 1920s and 30s. George Orwell stayed a night at the Youth Hostel beside Rudyard Lake. The lake was frozen over and ice had formed into blocks which gave off a clanking sound as they collided into one another. Cigarette packets bobbed up and down amongst the ice floes and Orwell felt it was one of the most depressing images he had ever witnessed. The Youth Hostel was freezing and lit only by candles. It was so cold that he thawed his hands over a fire in the morning to get warm. He walked on towards Macclesfield arriving in Manchester penniless by the evening. He pawned his scarf and spent the night in a doss house before meeting people who put him in contact with people from Wigan.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

In memory of Jim Johnson 1956-2011

My old friend Jim died before Christmas. He took his own life by drowning in a river near his home. I had known him for over 36 years since University. I have been through the feelings that anyone who has experienced a suicide of someone who was close goes through. The feeling of guilt, the belief that I could have done more and above all the most incessant question of all- why. It seems that he spent no more than one day in his new house, he had lunch with a group of old work colleagues on the day of his death. It seems that it was a completely spontaneous act. He left his mobile phone and house keys beside the bed and no note before he set out on that solitary walk to the river. I try to make rational sense of this illogical act and fail.

The funeral was a green one and officiated by a humanist. The chapel was full and person after person came forward to lavish praise on Jim’s character. His integrity, his commitment, his intelligence and his loyalty were all alluded to. Someone spoke that Jim with his courtesy, his way with words and his unvarying consideration for others was a throw back to a gentler age. " He never spoke ill of anyone". There was a guffaw of laughter when someone mentioned Jim’s definition of the word " tangentially" was quoted as " sunbathing without trunks. He probably did not miss a beat when he came up with that one.

We lined up at the graveside in woodland to throw berries and greenery on his coffin before the earth claimed him. There were many tears shed

Afterwards someone mentioned that the local authority that got rid of him in 2006 because he did not suit their 21st century image. Jim with his precise grammar, with his gentlemanly manners and his constant principles was declared redundant borne away by a world of superficiality, of artifice, of gobbledegook and targets. I mourn for Jim and the realm that we have become.

 He will be missed.