Wednesday, 29 August 2012

In praise of Blackpool

I’m very fond of Blackpool and so have been many people in Leek according to the newspaper accounts of the visitors to the Lancashire town in its pomp after the war. The Post and Times of July 1956 carried an advert for the attractions at the Central Pier with Jimmy James, Ken Dodd and Jimmy Clitheroe all starring. And at the beginning of Wakes weeks pictures of cheering groups waiting to leave from local railway stations.

Blackpool for the working class holidaymakers was the principle destination for those seeking thrills on their annual holiday. The Golden Mile, its landladies, the Tower, its circus with the popular clown Charlie Carioli, the Big Wheel, the Pleasure Beach, the piers, live shows with a range of the best entertainers, the Illuminations, Madame Tussauds, the trams, as well as it being the home of Stanley Matthews and George Formby.

All just a couple of hours away- a secular heaven for millions.

When I go to Blackpool I like to sit in the rococo splendour of the Tower Ballroom. It’s the place for the ghosts of the thousands of people who enjoyed themselves in their precious time off the mill, the mine, the factory and the shop.

While I was there recently I went to a photographic exhibition at the local art gallery. It showed a potted social history of Blackpool though the lens of some of Britain's greatest documentary photographers such as Bert Hardy. The photographs portray a town, which at its peak in the 50s was attracting 17 million visitors a year. The decline of traditional industries and the birth of the package tour put paid to Blackpool 's long pre-eminence as a holiday destination.

Blackpool now is decaying with mouldering B and Bs which are now benefit hostels, a forlorn looking front and drab looking shops. The Political parties don’t come to Blackpool for their annual conferences anymore. It’s a pity that they don’t as it serves as a metaphor for the decline of a dignified way of life based on work and a world that has been allowed to wantonly disappear.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Daisy- the Socialist convert

I was flicking through a 1970s copy of the Post and Times and came across an interesting tale by George Lovenberry about the opening of the William Morris Labour Church in December 1896. The church- the Quaker Meeting House- was a monument to Morris in the town and was established shortly after his death by Larner Sugden. The artwork in the church owed a great deal to many followers of Morris in the Arts and Craft movement. The church had red painted walls with stencilled tracery. Woodwork was painted green and the curtains that hung there were blue velvet of one of Morris’s designs. Much of the work in the Church was carried out from designs by Walter Crane who signed Morris’s obituary in the Leek Times the previous October.

The Church was the centre resulted in the first Principal of the Nicholson Institute Kineton Parkes remarking that " intellectual and semi intellectual activity flooding the town".

It attracted the founders of the early Labour Movement, but it was the identity of a glamorous and very elegant woman who attended the opening that intrigued Mr Lovenberry. Originally he assumed the woman was Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland of Trentham Hall a well-known supporter of radical causes. It was not so as a later correspondent, a very young girl in 1896, disclosed. She wrote to the Post and Times revealing the true identity of the enigmatic beauty. It was Daisy Countess of Warwick a former lover of King Edward VII and a recent convert to Socialism.

The year before on reading an attack on her and her opulent lifestyle in the radical publication Clarion. Daisy rushed to London leaving a house full of guests to challenge the writer of the article Robert Blatchford. She explained to him that during difficult times that the events she held at Warwick Castle provided employment. He demonstrated to his lovely caller the nature of productive labour and the principles of Socialist economic theory. She returned to Warwick in a daze of new ideas and thereafter devoted her wealth and energy to propagating them to the acute embarrassment of her circle.

It also seems the 1892 popular song Daisy, Daisy was inspired by her. The song was famously used in the film 2001- a Space Odyssey

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

On memorable tombstones in the Moorlands

Taphophilia - the study of gravestones might be considered a gloomy subject, but there are many gems to be uncovered in country churchyards. The Moorlands has a number of excellent examples, which cast an interesting light on the lives of people of the past. In Longnor lies the celebrated William Billings an old soldier who fought with Marlborough at Ramillies and distinguished himself at the Siege of Gibraltar in 1704
"Billeted by death, I quartered here remain,
When the trumpet sounds, I’ll rise and march again.

If longevity is merit than there is the tombstone in Horton raised by public subscription to perpetuate the memory of Mary Brooke who died in 1787 at the age of 119 having lived through the reign of 7 monarchs. In Endon there is another ancient Billy Willet who as a hale young man bragged that he began dancing at "Mester Fordo’yon bonk about se’en o’clock at neet o’ the second of September and never stopt whiole daylee to th fourteenth. The trick is that he danced during the old calendar replaced the new on the 2nd September 1752 which was followed by the 14th September to make up the gap in time.

In Leek Church there is a rare monumental Elizabethan brass to John Ashenhurst with his 4 wives not forgetting his many children dressed in the clothes of the time. The churchyard holds the bones of French servicemen of the time of Napoleon.

 And there is a momento mori from 1749.
As I was so ye be
As I am so shall ye be
That I gave that I have
That I spent that I had
In Rushton Spencer there is a monument to Thomas Meaykin who was buried on 16th July 1781 as the inscription reads " As a man falleth before united men so fell I" Two words in the Greek alphabet follow bia thanatos meaning to die violently

I have to say my favourite and very witty memorial is in Suffolk at Bramfield in concerns Bridgett Applethwaite who died in the 1740s

"After the fatigues of a married life bravely born by her with Incredible Patience for four years and three quarters bating three weeks; and after the Enjoiment of the Glorious Freedom of an Easy and Unblemish't widowhood, for four years and upwards, She resolved to run the risk of a second Marriage-bed".

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Bomber Command

I knew that my former Geography teacher at Carmountside Mr JJ Williams was in the RAF, but until a recent conversation I had not realised what a hero he was. JJ was in Bomber Command during the Second War and was in a pathfinder squadron whose task was to mark targets for bombers to follow to obliterate. Mr Williams’s Lancaster was shot down over Berlin during the later stages of the war and he spent several days on the run before being captured and ending his war in a POW camp. The person who told me this has some of JJ’s wartime documents including his prisoner of war papers.

I thought of him after the Queen unveiled a monument to the 55,000 young men of Bomber Command who died. This branch of the Armed Forces suffered the heaviest losses. Tailgunners particularly had the lowest survival rate of RAF aircrew, with an average life expectancy of just four missions.

This was a very controversial aspect of the war with many civilians dying in the firestorms of Dresden and elsewhere. There has been much debate on the effectiveness of bombing. The Americans produced a report at the war end that assessed bombing and concluded "Allied air power was decisive in the war in Western Europe. Hindsight inevitably suggests that it might have been employed differently or better in some respects. Nevertheless, it was decisive".

A number of Leek men were tragically involved in the campaign and did not return home. Men like Sergeant Harry Cook of Grove St, a navigator in a Lancaster in 626 squadron. Aged 20 he died in a raid over Leipzig in February 1944. James Beech son of the landlord of the Queens Head in Stanley St died when his plane crashed into the North Sea in July 1944. Both men’s bodies were never found. Flight Sargent James Gordon’s family was well known in the town. They lived in Westminster Rd. His father Eddie was a sweep. James was a very experienced rear gunner and was only a few missions short of rest. His Lancaster crashed in a south German town returning from a mission over Stuttgart in the same month as Beech. He lies in a Bavarian cemetery. Heroes all.