Calico and Silk by Christine Evans

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This is the final book in Christine Evans’s “Gorbydale” (Rochdale?  Or maybe Oldham?  Or somewhere in the Rossendale Valley?) trilogy – completed not long before the author’s tragic sudden death last January.  The Cotton Famine and the American Civil War are long over – although we see how the effects of an economic shutdown last for many years – and there’s not that much history in this final book; but it’s a very readable family saga.  And it’s interesting to see Elizabeth Blackwell and her sister Emily make appearances, and also to see disabled character Matt lead a fulfilling personal and professional life.

There are more daft names (Hadrian) and slightly daft plots (man thought to have been eaten by alligators comes back from the dead but then collapses and dies of alcohol poisoning in the street, wife accidentally kills husband with laudanum overdose).  The alligators are in Louisiana, BTW: there are no alligators in Rochdale.  At least, I hope there aren’t.  But it’s generally a good read.

If you haven’t read the first two books in the series, it might be rather confusing, especially as there are two different families involved, and two different branches (plus assorted relatives by marriage) of one of those.  But all three taken together aren’t bad, and there are so few books about the Cotton Famine (my dissertation topic) that I get very excited whenever I find one!   I was just so sorry to hear about Christine’s sudden death, and am glad that she was able to see her work, or at least the first two-thirds of it) published whilst she was alive.  I was also very sorry to hear about the recent death of Sharon Penman, one of my all time favourite authors.  Sad news.  But their books live on, at least.

Britain’s Most Historic Towns: Manchester – Channel 4

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This was one of the best programmes I’ve seen all year.  There should be programmes like this on every day.  On every channel.  At prime viewing time.  What more could anyone ask for than to watch a TV programme which says that “Manchester is as great a human exploit as [ancient] Athens” (Disraeli), talks about Manchester “pumping the rich blood of economic vitality and revolutionary identity around Britain” and points out that Frederick Douglass was “fascinated” by Manchester because of the number of people here working to change the world for the better?  And it showed a picture of Old Trafford.  (OK, OK, it also showed a picture of the Etihad, but never mind that.)  And it talked about the Cotton Famine.  The Cotton Famine was my dissertation topic.  I get very excited when people talk about it.

We got Peterloo.  We got the Anti Corn Law League.  We got the Manchester to Liverpool Railway (the Huskisson incident was not mentioned).  We got Engels and Marx meeting up at Chetham’s (the fact that Engels’ office was in what’s now Kendals, which always amuses me, was sadly not mentioned).  And, of course, we got the suffragettes.  I just need to mention for the ten billionth time that I went to the same school as Christabel Pankhurst and her sisters.  Then, at the end, we were shown a picture of Marcus Rashford.  Marcus, being a very modest young man, is probably rather embarrassed at being mentioned alongside the likes of Richard Cobden, Elizabeth Gaskell, Emmeline Pankhurst and the organisers of the meeting which sadly ended in the Peterloo Massacre, but I thought that that was rather lovely.

This really was brilliant.  Alice Roberts was so enthusiastic and so totally biased in favour of all the radicals and reformers of 18th, 19th, 20th and now 21st century Manchester.  I got all excited, like I did when I was a teenager reading books by Asa Briggs et al about the role of Manchester in the Industrial Revolution.  Yes, I really, genuinely am that sad and that weird.  Always have been, always will be.  Indulge me, OK.  Christmas has just been cancelled.  I needed cheering up.  This cheered me up.  So has United beating Leeds 6-2.   Well, somewhat.

We started off with canals, cotton mills and railways – and a drone flying over the city to take pictures.  This was obviously filmed recently, but they managed very well with social distancing – Alice Roberts met various historians, but only one at a time, and they stood well apart.  Then we heard about the difficult conditions under which the mill workers lived and worked, and then moved on to the mess which was the constituency system pre 1832, and, of course, the electorail system too.

That, obviously, brought us on to Peterloo.  We heard about the radical press here, notably the Manchester Observer, and then about the Massacre itself. If Mike Leigh hadn’t made such a mess of the film, we might hear a lot more about Peterloo: I’m still narked about that.  Anyway.  Even now, we get people saying that it wasn’t really a peaceful protest, or that it wasn’t really that bad.  This, using documents from the time, kept in the wonderful John Rylands Library, made it quite clear that, yes, it was a peaceful protest, and, yes, what happened was that bad.  We heard about the Peterloo Relief Fund set up to help the injured and the families of the dead.  And we heard about the “fake news” put out about it all.  It was all very, very much on the side of the peaceful protesters.  And quite rightly so!

Strangely, there was no mention of the Chartists.  That was a very odd omission.

However, we did hear about Richard Cobden and the Anti Corn Law League.  Possibly a teensy bit of political agenda pushing here, the only bit of the programme I wasn’t keen on.  Or maybe I imagined it.  But let’s ignore that, and focus on the fact that the Anti Corn Law League eventually succeeded in bringing down food prices – at a time when, even during the Potato Famine, landowners were only interested in keeping prices up, and never mind the fact that people were going hungry.   And, oh, how I wish that the Free Trade Hall had never been sold off and turned into a hotel!  It’s such a big piece of our history. We used to have school Speech Day in there.  It was always very boring, very hot, and at the same time as a crucial match at Wimbledon, but the fact that it was in the Free Trade Hall rather than the school hall was rather exciting.

On to Marx and Engels, and the interesting point was made that Elizabeth Gaskell probably did more to draw public attention to “the condition of the working classes” than Engels did.  Lucky Alice Roberts got to visit her house, and also Chetham’s Library: both are sadly closed to the public at the moment 😦 , thanks to bl**dy Tier 3 regulations.  Charles Dickens also got a mention, but I find Hard Times unspeakably annoying.  Mrs Gaskell’s books are much better.  And, yes, they would have reached a far wider audience than the Engels book did.  Both them were rather patronising, quite honestly, but those were different times.

Then on to the Cotton Famine.  I’ve just read an utterly ridiculous book which claimed that everyone in the Lancashire textile areas supported the Confederacy.  It also said that the Confederacy only had six states, when it had eleven, so the author was clearly pretty clueless.  And he said that Prince Albert was gay, which seemed a rather odd comment.  But it annoyed me that a supposed history textbook has gone on sale spouting such rubbish.  Yes, there was some support for the Confederacy, but the general feeling in the Lancashire textile areas (I’m saying “textile areas” because it was a whole different ball game in Liverpool) was pro-Union because of the slavery issue.  Whether the war was actually about slavery or about states’ rights is a debate for another time, but there’s that famous letter sent to Abraham Lincoln from “the citizens of Manchester”, and the equally famous reply.  And there’s a statue of Lincoln in the city centre … close to where one of the Christmas markets should currently be being held.  Given the damage done to the regional economy by the Cotton Famine, that was a very big thing.

We were also told that Frederick Douglass was fascinated by Manchester. Well, of course he was.  Anyone would be 🙂 .  But I love the fact that he was.

And then to the suffragettes.  Emmeline Pankhurst, of whom there is, finally, now a statue in town.  Alice spoke to a woman who’d actually changed her surname to Pankhurst!   That’s rather extreme fangirling, but it’s fascinating that someone does find Emmeline Pankhurst so inspirational that she’d do that.  And we saw the Manchester – First in the Fight” banner which now lives in the People’s History Museum.

First in the Fight!   “We are a city of changemakers.”  “Greatest Hits of Radical Movements.”  I actually Googled Alice Roberts to see if she had Manchester connections, but, as far as I can see, she hasn’t.  She was just being gloriously pro-Manchester.  We take all this as a compliment, obviously!   We are very proud of being involved in the Repeal movement and the Suffragette movement and everything else.  And, as I said, I thought it was rather lovely that that picture of Marcus Rashford was shown.  We’re having a tough time at the moment.  But we’ve had tough times before.  We’ve come through those and we’ll come through this.

And this programme was brilliant.  Not that I’m biased or anything …

 

 

Twist of the Thread by Christine Evans

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This is the sequel to Song of the Shuttle.  Much like that, it’s well-researched and quite entertaining, but a little far-fetched!  I’m not sure how realistic it is that a housemaid from a Lancashire mill town would persuade a former Confederate soldier to marry her, and then take over the running of his ruined plantation, insist on paying all the former slaves a fair wage, and become close friends with all the former slaves, giving everyone else in their district of Louisiana a salutary lesson in race relations and equality, during Reconstruction.  Nice idea, though!  The fictional town of Gorbydale doesn’t match up exactly to anywhere, but it’s probably closer to Rochdale than anywhere else, and Rochdale was particularly well-known for its anti-slavery stance.

Meanwhile, the dodgy husband tried to murder his wife’s ex-employer’s cousin, accidentally murdered her friend instead, spent a lot of time gambling on Mississippi riverboats, faked his own death, and then turned up in Liverpool.  As you do.  As I said, it wasn’t particularly realistic, but, apart from a quibble over the demography of Cheetham Hill, and possibly some confusion over the date of the opening of Strangeways (I’m not quite sure what year it was meant to be in the book by then), the actual history was fairly accurate.  And it was a good read.  I need distracting, at the moment.  I’m sure we all do.

This was meant to be a series, but, sadly, the author died suddenly.  She’d written the third book before her death, but obviously there won’t be any more.  There wasn’t as much history in this book as in the first one – that, despite the rather bonkers storyline, appealed to me because it was about the Cotton Famine, my dissertation topic, and the American Civil War, one of my great and long-term historical loves, but this one was more about the personal lives of the characters.  As well as the story of Dolly, the housemaid, we heard about Jessie, the main character in the first book, and how she coped with having a disabled child, and also about Jessie’s friend Honora (whom Dolly’s husband tried to murder!) and her medical studies in America.  It was all quite interesting, but a bit more about Gorbydale’s recovery from the Cotton Famine would have been nice.

During the Famine, of course, there was state assistance via the Public Works Acts, but there was also a huge privately-organised relief effort, with money being raised from all over the world, and local committees distributing it, and organising, for example, sewing schools, which feature in this book.  With Andy Burnham launching the OneGM fund today, and Marcus Rashford doing so much to raise money to provide meals for disadvantaged children, I’ve been thinking a lot about this.  And my house is built on the site of what was a Cotton Famine Public Works programme.  Anyway, that’s beside the point.  This isn’t the greatest book ever, but, as a 99p Kindle download, it was well worth reading!

 

Manchester Happened by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (Facebook group reading challenge)

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This is a collection of short stories by a Ugandan author living in Manchester, about the experiences of Ugandan immigrants in and around our city.  If you know the area, you’ll recognise all the street names 🙂  :when the author first moved here, she lived near Platt Fields Park.  I’m not normally keen on short story collections, but this one works really well because it makes the point that everyone’s experience is different.  The author herself is from a middle-class family who suffered at the hands of Idi Amin, and some of the stories are about upper-middle-class Ugandans who grew up in big houses with servants, and were sent to Britain by parents who felt that there were few opportunities in Uganda and that a degree from a British university would set them up for life, but fully expected them to come back after a while … which most of them didn’t.  That’s probably not most people’s typical image of immigration from East Africa to Britain, but the book is making the point that there can’t really *be* a typical image.

The stories in the second half of the book are mostly about Ugandan people who’ve settled in the Manchester area going back to Uganda, either permanently or to visit – and finding it difficult, especially if accompanied by a partner and children who’d never been there before.  Once you move away, to a different society, can you go back?   This isn’t something which is often discussed.  There used to be the idea of, say, moving from southern Italy to America to make your fortune and then moving back, but migration to Britain has historically been permanent, unless it was for a particular job or course of study.  It’s interesting reading.

It’s a lovely book.  The style of writing’s very informal, which isn’t really for me, but that’s an observation, not a criticism.  There’s no agenda, very little politics, and plenty of humour.  It’s just telling the story of the different experiences of different people.  It’s very positive: the characters’ main quibble about Manchester, and Britain in general, is the weather!   And, whilst it’s specifically about Ugandans in Manchester, so much of it applies to any group of immigrants moving from any one place to any other place – getting used to a new home and a new way of life, and trying to find your place in amongst two different cultures.  And that place is going to be different for each individual person.

Within most waves (for lack of a better word) of immigration, there are people from different countries.  That does seem to be being forgotten.  How often do you hear anyone talk about “the Ugandan community in Manchester” or “the Ugandan community in Britain” (unless they’re talking about Ugandan Asians, which this book isn’t doing), rather than “the black community” or “the Afro-Caribbean community”?  There are people from different regions and cultures within those countries, and, within those sub-divisions, from different socio-economic classes.

If we’re looking at immigration into Manchester in the 19th century, are we going to take the story of a person leaving rural Ireland because of the potato famine, a middle-class German professional coming here for work reasons, a working-class Bessarabian Jewish person fleeing a shtetl because of the pogroms, a middle-class Austrian Jewish person leaving a Viennese suburb because of concerns about prejudice and an Italian person moving away from the Mezziogiorno because of poverty, and talk about  “the white immigrant experience” or even just “the immigrant experience”?  No.  And we shouldn’t be doing it with immigration in the second half of the 20th century or in the 21st century either, and that’s what she’s saying.  In one of the stories in this book, a white British woman is concerned about how her Ugandan husband’s family will receive her when she goes to Uganda for the first time, and is told that, yes, she’ll be seen as an outsider, but no more so than if she were black British or Nigerian.  The cultures are completely different.

There are people who want to move permanently and people who intend to return.  There are people who move to a new country as children, people who move as young adults, and people who move as older adults: I’ve known families where siblings have had completely different experiences because the younger ones have gone to school in the new country but the older ones haven’t.   And there are people who want to assimilate into the culture of the new country, and people who want to continue to live by the culture of the old country – there’s a story about the Manchester born and bred son of a Ugandan man and a British woman choosing to go to Uganda for an adult circumcision ceremony – and prefer to socialise only with people with the same heritage, and want their children to do the same.  People even within one nuclear family can feel completely differently.

There may also be many different waves of immigration within a community.  In this book, we’ve got, amongst others, a war veteran who moved here in the early 1950s, an upper-middle-class girl who moved here in the 1980s, and a family who came here as illegal immigrants in the 2010s.  There’s also one story told from the viewpoint of a dog, which I could have done without, but never mind!

There’s a lot of general human interest, as well – like the story about the woman who found out that her husband had another wife back in Uganda.  And, whilst it’s specifically about Ugandan people, a lot of it’s about the general issues of settling into life somewhere completely different.  It took the man who came here in the early 1950s a while to realise that you could tell a lot about someone’s background from their clothes and from their accent.  So much of it would apply to any minority group, such as being in a crowd of people and looking around for someone whom you can tell or sense is from the same cultural group as you are.

And the positivity’s great.  One of the big problems we’ve got at the moment is people who seem to think that the way to prove how “woke” they are is to abuse Britain or America or France or any other Western country.  Those sort of keyboard warriors really won’t like this book, because it doesn’t do that!   That then puts other people’s backs up, and just creates more problems.  Another problem is people who expect everyone from a particular ethnicity or culture to act in a particular way, and abuse them when they don’t, as we’ve seen with the Guardian‘s racist attacks on Priti Patel.  As this book shows, everyone’s different, and everyone has their own way.

But most people want to belong, and that can be very challenging when you’ve moved to a new country.  Which way do you go?  Integrate and assimilate?  “Stick to your own kind,” to quote West Side Story.  And, if you’ve only moved temporarily, how easy will it be to fit in when you go back?  The answers are going to be different for everyone: you can’t generalise.  Books like this, where the focus is narrow, where it’s about people from one country moving to one city, are a very effective way of reminding us of that.

There used to be a lot of immigration novels.  OK, most of them were about people moving to New York, but there were also plenty about people moving to British cities. They seem to be increasingly rare these days, though.  That’s a shame.  This is a great book.  It’d be good to see more like it.

Song of the Shuttle by Christine Evans

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This is local history month, and, in any case, I’m always on the lookout for books about the Cotton Famine, my university dissertation topic.  There aren’t many of them around, so I was very pleased to find this one.  The author had obviously done a huge amount of research into the subject: there was a lot of information in this, and a lot of lovely descriptive passages as well.  The storyline got rather far-fetched, with everyone whizzing backwards and forwards across the Atlantic in the middle of a war, and marrying people from different backgrounds, and there were a few other niggles too, but, overall, it was an entertaining read, for a 99p Kindle download.  My house is built on the site of an old reservoir, which was constructed as one of the Public Works projects which provided employment for people who were out of work as a result of the Cotton Famine.  That has got absolutely nothing to do with this book, but I like telling people about it 🙂 .

Our characters live in a town called “Gorbydale” (odd choice of fictional name!), somewhere on the moors near either Oldham or Rochdale.  There are a lot of references to an old Roman fort, and the only one I can think of round there is at Castleshaw, near Oldham; but the fact that it’s a weaving area rather than a spinning area, the use of “dale”, and the reference to an outing to Hollingworth Lake suggest that it’s more the Rochdale side.  And some of them live in “Doveton”, which I think’s meant to be more towards Oldham, maybe round the Delph area.

Whilst I’m not entirely convinced that a family of weavers would have been entertaining guests in the parlour and serving tea in the best china cups – although you never know, as wages in the cotton industry were pretty high in the 1850s, and this family was clearly meant to be relatively prosperous -, there were some excellent descriptions of the town, the mills, the homes, and Methodism which was (and is) quite big in the area.  Our heroine is Jessie, the daughter of the family.  Also featured are the family who own the local mills, which have glorious names like Invincible Mill and Endurance Mill.  Perseverance Mill was the more common one, but same general idea!  The millowners have got a handsome but idle son, Robert, and a spirited niece, Honora living with them.

There’s an unpleasant sub-plot in which an American business associate visits the millowners, and rapes their maid, who becomes pregnant.  The narrative makes out that it was all the maid’s fault.  Whilst that’s how people would probably have seen it at the time, I wasn’t very impressed that the narrative seemed to go along with that.  Another niggle was the mis-spelling of Fort Sumter as “Fort Sumpter”, but that can be forgiven.  The attitude towards Dolly the maid can’t.  One of Jessie’s brothers, Arden, is wrongly accused of being the father of Dolly’s baby … whereupon he takes off to America to fight for the Union, the war having begun by this point.

OK, there were certainly cases of men from Lancashire going to fight in the war.  So that was fair enough.  Less realistically, Robert, who’s got a bit involved with Jessie, then also takes off to America, to run the blockade and get himself to Louisiana, so that he can get some cotton and bring it back!   Twice.  This was where it started getting rather silly.  He then gets press-ganged into the Confederate army, is seriously injured, makes his way to the rapist business associate’s plantation, and is cared for by the slaves there.

Back in Gorbydale, it’s all rather more realistic – and very well-portrayed, with a lot of narrative about the problems caused by the infamous Surat cotton, and also about the establishment of sewing schools for unemployed women.  Jessie and Honora both get involved with a local sewing school and become friends.  They then head off to America, to look for Arden and Robert!   They just happen to find Arden.  Then they find the rapist business associate, who’s lurking around Washington as a spy, and help Allan Pinkerton to catch him.  And then they volunteer as Union nurses … despite the fact that Dorothea Dix was after women who were plain, over 30, and, presumably, American.  To be fair, it did mention that they didn’t exactly meet the requirements!  And who should somehow end up in their hospital but, you guessed it, Robert.

Robert recovers, and returns to England with Jessie (chaperoned by one of the former slaves, who then goes back to America.  There wasn’t half a lot of to-ing and fro-ing across the Atlantic, in the middle of a war!), everyone is apparently OK about him marrying a mill girl, and they get married.  Honora stays on in America to train as a doctor, as you do, and gets together with Arden.

By this time, it’d all got so far-fetched that I wouldn’t have blinked an eyelid if Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S Grant and Robert E Lee had all rolled up in Gorbydale, to be served tea in the best china cups in the parlour.  However, it was a nice enough read, and the information about the effects of the Cotton Famine, the damage that it did it to the regional economy and the efforts that were made to ameliorate them, had obviously been researched in a lot of detail.  It really isn’t easy to find novels set during the Cotton Famine, and, for 99p, this one was certainly worth a go.

 

 

How the Victorians Built Britain (Blackpool!!) – Channel 5

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There’s a song by The Beautiful South which goes “Blackpool help me out, Scarborough see me through”.  There’s no football, there’s no tennis, National Trust tea rooms are closing, theatres and cinemas are closed, Tesco are no longer opening 24 hours (and they included an important reminder in their e-mail about how this is a very difficult time for their staff, and saying a few extra “thank you”s would be much appreciated) and Coronation Street‘s going down to three episodes a week.  No toilet roll is one thing, but no sport and no National Trust scones … this is serious. However, we still have the seaside.  And, if you’re not going out at the moment, there are some lovely videos on You Tube showing scenes of Blackpool through the ages.  But to get back to this programme, which was on before all this really started …

The other episodes in this series were about things like trains and bridges and ships, which are very nice, especially if you’re technologically-minded (which I’m not) … but this one was about Blackpool, which was far more exciting. The Victorians democratised the seaside. If you watched the ITV version of Sanditon (if you didn’t, don’t bother, because it really wasn’t worth it), you will have seen lots of posh Georgians (some minus their swimwear) frolicking about on the beach, but not an ordinary working person anywhere in sight. It was the Victorians who turned the seaside into a place for everyone – and it was great fun watching Michael Buerk discover how such incredibly important institutions as Blackpool’s piers, the Illuminations, the Winter Gardens, the Tower and Empress Ballrooms, the Tower itself, the trams, and, last but not least, Blackpool rock, came into existence.

First up, a lot of it had to do with the railways. Well, there were charabancs as well, but they were more for day trips. And then there were wakes weeks – which were still going strong when I was a kid, but sadly seem to be dying off now. So, off everyone went to Blackpool, for some nice healthy sea air! And, back in the 1860s, when the first two piers were built we had a bit of class … well, not class conflict, but there were class issues. To this day, the North Pier’s the “posh” pier. There was a really nice tea room there for a while, but it closed down 😦 . However, it does still have a sun lounge where you can listen to music, and deckchairs to lounge on. The Central Pier (the South Pier came much later) is the fun pier, though … and also the, shall we say, “less posh” pier. That’s where there are rides and stalls. And it’s where you get the best chips. They don’t sell chips on the North Pier.

And, also up at the north end, is the Imperial Hotel, for those who don’t want to stay at one of the less expensive hotels. Very nice. I went there for a posh afternoon tea as a birthday treat, once. And the Victorians had a sort of Turkish bath set-up there, which was forgotten about for years but has now been rediscovered. It looks amazing!

Anyway, hopefully we’re past the seaside class conflict stuff now. Blackpool is for everyone! But sometimes it’s cold and wet, so you may prefer to go indoors – and they didn’t have all those arcade machines in Victorian times, so they opened the Winter Gardens. And it gets dark at night, when it’s not high summer, so, in 1879, the Illuminations started. Yep, 1879!  “Blackpool’s artificial sunshine.” Making excellent use of electricity!  Six years later, the trams, the first electric tramway in the British Isles, opened. How clever were the Victorians? They’d never have got into all this mess over HS2, I’m telling you. Furthermore, they didn’t go around mithering that everything you were eating was bad for you. Victorians liked sugar. So they invented rock.

So, by the early 1890s, you could head there on the train, ride around by tram, go on the beach, walk along the pier, go in a Turkish bath if you were too snotty to join the crowds down by the sea, eat lots of rock, look at the Illuminations, and go in the Winter Gardens. But the symbol of Blackpool is the Tower. Even now, at my advanced age, I get excited when the Tower first comes into view as I head along the M55. When it opened, in 1894, it was the tallest man-made structure in the British Empire. High-rise buildings were not a thing in the 1890s! How amazing for people to be able to go up the top of Blackpool Tower and look all around them. And it’s perfectly safe, even in nasty storms like the ones we’re getting at the moment. The Victorians built things to last!

Then, rather amusingly, there followed what Michael called “the Battle of the Ballrooms”, as the Tower Ballroom and the Winter Gardens’ Empress Ballroom vied to outdo each other. They’re both amazing. So ornate and glamorous. I’d love to dance in both of them, although, if I had to choose, I’d go for the Tower Ballroom. No offence, Winter Gardens.  They look as if they should be in some grand royal palace somewhere … but they’re in Blackpool, for us.

And that’s Blackpool. If you want glamour, you can have glamour. If you want chips on the pier, you can have chips on the pier. However down I’m feeling, Blackpool always cheers me up – and I am so chuffed that Channel 5 devoted an hour’s TV to talking about how the Victorians invented the modern seaside resort.  Yes, trains and bridges and ships are very important, but, hey, where we would be without our seaside resorts 🙂 ?  Loved every minute of this!

The Co-operative Revolution: A Graphic Novel (Facebook group reading challenge)

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I have to admit that I don’t really understand the fashion for graphic novels and film adaptations of them.  They make me feel as if I’ve gone back to primary school and am reading “Mandy” or “Nikki”.  However, not wishing to shirk a reading challenge 🙂 , I decided to make it as appealing as possible by finding one about local history.  Well, at least, that’s what I was expecting.  In the end, only part of it was about the Rochdale Pioneers.  The rest of it was about, well, everything from jellyfish to Richard Dawkins to FC Barcelona … and how to change the world by making biscuits in Crumpsall, which is certainly an interesting idea.  And the prospect of a spaceship travelling from Rochdale to Mars, which is an even more interesting idea.  I suppose I did enjoy reading it, and it gets a big gold star for mentioning the Cotton Famine, but graphic novels just aren’t for me.  A page of pictures doesn’t say anything like as much as a page of words, and I didn’t feel like I’d read very much.  But, to be fair, I enjoyed what there was.

There were a few pages of cartoons (sorry, graphics) about the Rochdale Pioneers, and how they famously set up the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society in Toad Lane in 1844.  The author (author? artist?) got rather carried away with going on about the “corrupt, dictatorial” order, but I didn’t mind that because it meant that he went on about the Peterloo Massacre and the Chartists as well as the actual issues of dodgy shopkeepers ripping people off.  As everyone knows, I love to talk about the Peterloo Massacre and the Chartists … nearly as much as I love to talk about the Cotton Famine, which also got a mention.  Minor black mark for referring to Angel Meadow as “Angel Meadows”, but never mind.

However, it then went on about other co-operative movements, which I hadn’t really been expecting.  Some of this involved pictures.  Some of it involved things that were handwritten rather than typed: I’m not quite sure what the idea of that was. But it was quite interesting.  FC Barcelona.  Indian snake catchers.  Bees, of course.  And Portuguese men o’war, which are apparently made up of different parts which all work together as a co-operative … or something like that.  And a lot of comments about nature and Darwinism and Richard Dawkins, and how it’s better to operate as a co-operative than to work on the principle of the survival of the fittest.  I think it would have been better to have stuck to the Rochdale Pioneers, New Lanark, et al, TBH, but I think that people who are into graphic novels are probably more likely to be scientifically-minded than historically-minded.  Then there were more cartoons, this time showing a spaceship heading off from Rochdale to Mars to mark the 200th anniversary of the establishment of the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society.

By this point, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or just to put the book down – but then, hooray, at the back, there was a nice historical timeline.  No graphics, no spaceships, no jellyfish – just a proper historical timeline, including interesting facts such as the fact that the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS) Factory in Crumpsall was the first biscuit factory in the UK to introduce an 8 hour day, and the first ship to sale the length of the Manchester Ship Canal was the CWS’s SS Pioneer.  I really enjoyed reading that bit, but it did rather prove that, with all due respect to the writers and readers of graphic novels, I am better with the ordinary printed word!

The Keeper

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This was a rather romanticised and Roy-of-the-Rovers-ised version of the Bert Trautmann story, and it certainly wasn’t historically (or geographically) accurate, but it was an entertaining film and all the main points were there. In summary – I always thought everyone knew this story, but I gather not everyone does! – Bert Trautmann, a 22-year-old German soldier, was taken prisoner in 1945 and brought to North West England as a POW. He chose to remain here rather than be repatriated, and began playing for St Helens Town as a goalkeeper. In 1949, he was signed by City, and there was an almighty row: people were genuinely very shocked and distressed that a top-level club, especially one in a city with a large Jewish community, had signed someone who’d fought for the Nazis. There were big protests, a lot of letters of complaint were sent, and season tickets were returned. Rabbi Alexander Altmann, who’d come to Manchester as a refugee and lost both his parents and many other relatives and friends in the Holocaust, wrote a very courageous letter to a local paper, urging people not to blame one man for the war and the atrocities carried out by the Third Reich.

Things calmed down here, although for a while Trautmann continued to be abused at away matches, but eventually he won widespread respect, especially after he famously played the last 17 minutes of the 1956 Cup Final, which City won, with a broken neck. Tragically, a few months later, his 5-year-old son was killed in a car crash. Despite everything, he carried on playing, is regarded with great respect in Manchester by City fans and we United fans alike, is seen as one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time, and was awarded an honorary OBE for his work in improving Anglo-German relations. It’s a hell of a story even without film-makers romanticising it! Very watchable film, and wonderful use of Abide With Me, the Cup Final hymn which means a lot to so many people. I missed this at the pictures, but it’s out on Sky now, and is recommended viewing.

The timescale was all a bit bonkers in this – one minute it was VE Day, then the next minute the prisoners were being repatriated, and a minute after that it was 1949 – but, OK, you can only fit so much into a two-hour film, and I understand that they didn’t want to spend ages showing him in three different camps. It was all very romanticised, though! In this version of events, he was showing off his goalkeeping skills at the POW camp (as you do!) when his future wife and future father-in-law turned up to deliver some goods from their shop, and his future father-in-law talent-spotted him for St Helens Town, and invited him to work at his shop and move in with his family!  Then drove home through miles and miles of stunning open countryside, up hill and down dale … between Ashton-in-Makerfield and St Helens.  The East Lancs Road does not look like that, believe me! It is, however, true that he played for St Helens Town, and married the daughter of the club secretary. And, OK, it was all very Roy of the Rovers this way, especially as they had him saving the club from relegation, so I suppose it made for good viewing.

Then he signed for City. There’d been some unease at St Helens Town, but they, with all due respect, were a small non-league club.  City were a First Division club, and one with thousands of Jewish fans to boot.  The film did show the protests, and it did mention the rabbi’s letter, and show the famous scene in the dressing room in which the club captain said that there was no war there, but … well, whilst we all know what happened during the war, I thought it should still have made it clearer just why people were so upset. Some clips from the radio broadcasts of the Nuremberg Trials would probably have been the best way of doing it, along with some shots of the damage done by the air raids.  It did, to be fair, show flashbacks to him witnessing a young child being shot dead in the Nazis in Ukraine – but, in fact, he saw a full-scale Einsatzgruppen massacre.  Maybe it would have been too much to have shown a re-creation of that in the film.  And yet maybe they should have done – as much to show how much he had to cope with as to show how much City fans and everyone else had to deal with.

They did mention his having won the Iron Cross, and there were some vague references to “war crimes”, but I just didn’t feel that it fully got across the depth of anti-German feeling in the UK at the time and the reasons for it. I don’t know how people at the time came to terms with the Nuremberg Trials, with the details of what the Nazis did. I appreciate that it wasn’t meant to be a war documentary, but I thought it could have tried harder to show the effect that that hearing about the Nazi atrocities had on people, and why that made it so difficult for everyone to accept a former Nazi soldier joining a leading club. There was a lot of very 21st-century sounding talk about forgiveness and someone trying to find a new home, but I did feel that some more explanation was needed.

And I think they could also have done with, rather than just going on about how he had no choice, talking more about how he went into the Hitler Youth at the age of 9.  Because of Jojo Rabbit – although obviously this film predates that one – there’s quite a bit of talk at the moment about the indoctrination of children.  Lads like Trautmann joined the junior branch of the Hitler Youth as if it were like joining the Cubs – it was somewhere where they could get involved in sports, have fun with their friends.  So they were indoctrinated from a very early age.  It’s important to understand that.

However, you can only get so much into a film.  And it wasn’t meant to be a documentary.  And, as I’ve said, the main points were there.  It was a difficult time.  It was brave of Trautmann to stand his ground, when he was getting death threats, and being abused at every match.  And braver yet of Rabbi Altmann to get involved, after everything that had happened to him. He really was a hero.

Anyway, after that, we got lots of football, some of it actual film from the time. I think there was a bit of Bertie Magoo-ing going on here, though! Come on, how do you make a football film set in Manchester in the 1950s and not even mention the Busby Babes?! They could at least have shown Trautmann’s testimonial, when he captained a combined United-City XI. Or maybe it was just that the film didn’t have much sense of Manchester at all. Most of it was filmed in Northern Ireland!

I’ve always been quite sad that I was born too late for that era, when many United fans would go to watch City when United were away, and many City fans would go to watch United when City were away, without the unpleasantness that developed in the rivalries between different clubs later on.  We still get that Wider Football Family feeling sometimes, especially in times of trouble, but it’s not like it was then.

Heigh-ho!  But the way they showed the legendary 1956 Cup Final was great. And then … I could hardly watch the bit where the little lad was killed, knowing what was coming. Then … well, there was a strange scene in which Trautmann had a fight in a cemetery with a sergeant from the POW camp, whose wife and children had been killed in the Christmas Blitz, and who persuaded him to carry on playing. And then it showed flashbacks to his time as a soldier in Ukraine, and showed him telling his wife that he felt that their son’s death was his punishment for not intervening to stop the murder of a child there.

I don’t know where the idea that he felt it was karma came from, and I’m assuming it was fictional, but it was very powerful, especially with “Abide With Me” playing in the background, and it was a reminder of how difficult it must have been for those who fought for the Nazis to deal with it all.  There’s a lot of tension over Holocaust remembrance at the moment, and the authorities in some countries seem keen to play down aspects of what happened.  That’s wrong in so many ways.  We need to keep talking about it.  All aspects of it.

The film didn’t tell us that the Trautmanns’ marriage sadly ended as they struggled to come to terms with the loss of one of their children, but it did tell us about all the awards Trautmann received, both for his football and for his work in the community.  His story really is incredible.  Carrying on playing in a Cup Final with a broken neck would be story enough, but the story of the Nazi soldier – and he was initially classified as a Nazi whilst he was a POW – who became a hero in English football is something that you just couldn’t make up.

Football can do that.  It can bring people together.  It’s not always Roy of the Rovers.  It’s often anything but.  But it does throw up some absolutely amazing stories, and this is one of them.  Don’t go expecting historical accuracy, or indeed geographical accuracy, but, if you get chance, this is still a very good film to see.

Mrs Lowry and Son

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This film, set just three and half miles down the road from me, has the wonderful message that there is always beauty in everything.  Even bare bottoms (there seem to be a lot of these on our screens lately) in Agecroft 🙂 .  And mill chimneys, railway viaducts, canal bridges, and, of course, people. On the face of it, it’s a rather bleak film about a woman who can’t accept her loss of financial and social status, and deals with it by controlling and constantly putting down her lonely middle-aged son.  But there is that message there; and it’ll particularly mean a lot to those of us who know Pendlebury, Agecroft, Farnworth, Chorlton-cum-Hardy and the other places mentioned, even if we don’t remember the days when Victoria Park was a posh area!  Superb performances from Timothy Spall and Vanessa Redgrave.  They even do pretty well with the Lancashire accents!

They aren’t today’s Manchester/Salford accents, but accents, like places, change over the years, and they work for the 1930s.  It’s 1934, and L.S. Lowry is living in Pendlebury with his mother Elizabeth – working as a rent collector, and painting in the attic in his spare time.  I’m not good with art, but I can always tell a Lowry. Matchstalk men and matchstalk cats and dogs 🙂 . We’re proud of him.  The Lowry Centre is – obviously! – named after him.  There are songs about him. There’s even a statue of him in Sam’s Chop House. Unfortunately, his mother wasn’t very proud of him.  She resented the fact that the debts left by his late father meant that they had to leave Victoria Park, quite a posh area in the 1930s, and move to a two-up two-down in a working-class part of Salford (I’m not quite clear on how a two-up two-down comes to have an attic, but never mind), she saw her son as a disappointment, and she controlled and dominated him.

I don’t think she was as bad as she’s shown here, and I don’t think he was anything like as downtrodden as he’s shown here; but it works for the sake of the film, and there was certainly a fair amount of truth to it.  The film is almost entirely about the two of them.  No-one else has more than a handful of lines, and much of the action takes place in her bedroom, which she rarely leaves.  They even eat their tea in there.  She stays there all day, whilst he goes around the area working as a rent collector.  She complains about his job, even telling him to wash his hands when he gets in, and demanding to see if they’re clean as if he were a little boy.  And she keeps on telling him that his paintings are no good.  It’s partly to put him down, to knock whatever confidence he’s got, but it’s also because most of them are of the industrial landscape and its people, our people, and she doesn’t want that – she doesn’t want the life, and she doesn’t want the depictions of it.

But he sees the beauty in it all.  The Hovis advert streets.  I’m not sure where that was filmed: nowhere in Salford actually looks like that!  Looking down on the mill chimneys of Bolton from the moors.  The canals.  The railway arches.  The miner who works at Agecroft Colliery – which was about two and a half miles from me, and, like all the other Lancashire collieries, is now closed – having a bath in the back yard and then getting out of it.  The woman with a beard.  He says that he paints, and he paints what he sees.  And it’s beautiful.

I mean, obviously industrial Lancashire is beautiful 😉 . We all know that!  But he’s got the gift of seeing beauty in everything.  At the moment, it seems as if too many people want only to see ugliness in everything.  I’m so upset about Bury FC being kicked out of the league.  L S Lowry would be too, if he were still alive.  He knew that there was beauty in going to a football match, even if he did support City!  But the beauty in it was all the support from fans of other clubs, and all the people talking about community and history and heritage without some sneering avocado-eater from Islington or Notting Hill calling them racists.  It so often seems now that people want to see hatred and ugliness in everything that anyone else says or does, and in every little thing that they see around them.  Why do people have to be like that?  Walk around the streets, look around you, look at the people around you, and see the beauty there.

She couldn’t – she didn’t even leave the house, and all she could see was disappointment.   He wanted so badly to please her, but he couldn’t.  But he’s pleased so many other people.  And he’s reminded us that there is always beauty all around us – and that’s lovely.

The Peterloo Affair by Lucinda Elliot

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This can be quite accurately described as a Regency romance, although it couldn’t be further removed from the images that that term conjures up. That made me think about how wide of the mark general perceptions of the Regency era are. Thanks to Georgette Heyer & co, the word “Regency” suggests dashing young men in breeches dancing with elegant young ladies in long frocks, at glamorous balls in spa towns or stately homes. However, the Regency was a time of war, unrest, riots, repression, lack of representation, assassination, unemployment, food shortages and high prices for what food there was.  Today, we mark the 200th anniversary of the killing of eighteen people, with hundreds more injured, as they attended a peaceful parliamentary reform meeting in our city. The response of one of the most authoritarian governments our country has ever known was to introduce even more measures aimed at repressing attempts to improve the rights of ordinary people.  It was a far cry from the world of the Bath Assembly Rooms.

This book traces the romance between two people, from a fictional village somewhere on the north east side of Manchester, who were both at St Peter’s Field that day. It’s not the greatest book ever – although it did amuse me by using words like “dandyprat” and “rumpskuttle”.  And it would have benefited from more careful editing: the piece de resistance was when the name of a character called Jimmy Thribble was mistyped as “Jimmy Riddle” (I am not making this up).  But it’s not bad, and it’s got the additional merit of having a woman as the main character: a disproportionate number of those injured at Peterloo were female. For 99p on Kindle, it’s worth a read.

We can’t know whether or not women were deliberately targeted, but we do know that the proportion of women injured, relative to the number of women attending, was considerably higher than that for men.  Women who became involved in political protest risked particular hostility from the authorities – don’t get me started on religious and political leaders who seemed to think that women speaking at Abolitionist meetings was more shocking than the institution of slavery itself – and also, as this book shows, from elements within their own communities.

The community in this book is that of an unspecified and presumably fictional village, seven miles out of town and, given the references to Middleton, Harpurhey and Oldham, presumably on the north east side of town. Our heroine is a young woman called Joan. Her social background’s a bit confused/confusing. The family are working-class, and, due to the socio-economic problems of the time, they struggle to afford food and clothing.  However, Joan and her friends seem to have, or at least have had, access to lots of romantic novels.  And we never actually see anyone doing any work: they seem to have a lot of free time.  And their parents seem very worried about what the neighbours will think about everything!

However, the author’s got it right in that they’re not factory workers.  Not that many people at Peterloo actually worked in mills: it was a Monday, and, whilst a lot of what would now be called self-employed people took “Saint Mondays” off, it was a working day for people in factories.  It’s estimated that over a third of those there were handloom weavers, and many of the others were artisans – shoemakers, tailors etc. .

The language is also a bit confused: the author’s tried to write some but not all of the dialogue in dialect, so we sometimes get “thee” and “thou”, and sometimes don’t; and she sometimes gets the dialect completely wrong – “fash” is a Scottish or Geordie term, not a Lancastrian one! Whilst I’m moaning, there are some irritating grammatical errors, such as the use of “her” rather than “she” and “who” rather than “whom; and the “Jimmy Riddle” thing is just ridiculous!  And the Six Acts were a response to Peterloo, not a cause of it!

OK, enough moaning.  It’s really not bad at all!  Joan and her pal Marcie – how many people in Lancashire in 1819 would have been called Marcie?! – are unimpressed with women’s lot in life, and have decided that they’re going to steer clear of men and become some sort of doctors, treating people with herbs. A term like “wise women” might have been better, but, OK, credit for emphasising the lack of choices for women at this time. Their intentions don’t last very long, when Joan gets involved with a handsome Irishman called Sean and Marcie gets involved with Joan’s brother. Sean actually does have traits of a typical Regency romance character, having a terrible reputation for loving girls and leaving them. One of his exes even went mad as a result: even Sense and Sensibility didn’t go that far 🙂 . However, the way it’s written isn’t too Mills and Boon-ish to be taken seriously, and we learn how Sean’s wild behaviour was triggered by what would now be recognised as PTSD after his experiences during the Napoleonic Wars. Joan dumps him at one point, but, after he’s badly injured at Peterloo, realises how much he means to her, and it all ends happily.

OK, OK, it’s not the greatest plot ever; but we do see the people of the community, led by Joan’s father and Sean, becoming involved in calls for reform, we see their struggles at a time when the Corn Laws are making the price of food very high, and, in particular, we see the insistence of Joan and Marcie and the other girls in the area that women should join the local contingent going to hear Orator Hunt speak at St Peter’s Field.  The part of the book is the section covering the day of the Peterloo Massacre itself is excellent: the events of the entire day are extremely well-described, and it’s worth reading for that alone.

It’s Joan’s story, rather than the story of Peterloo, but the reform movement and the social and economic conditions of the time are very much a part of it; and, as I’ve said, the sections covering the events of 16th August 1819 are very well done, even if some of the rest of the book isn’t.  For 99p, it’s worth a read.

Councillor Luthfur Rahman, executive member for skills, culture and leisure, Manchester City Council, said: “The Peterloo Massacre was a significant moment in Manchester’s history and in the campaign for democracy in the UK. It’s important we don’t forget and that we remember the sacrifices of all those who went before us in the name of democracy and peace.”

There are a lot of events taking place today and over the weekend to mark the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre.  I hope they get the nationwide coverage that they deserve.  There’s been considerable controversy over the importance and impact of Peterloo.  When there’s controversy over something, it’s usually a pretty sure sign that it’s something important.

 

More about the historical background – Peterloo.