No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton


This is a very well-written children’s book, telling the story of a family of Syrian asylum seekers in Manchester in the style of a traditional ballet book, with the Mary Martin/Miss Arrowhead role of the fairy godmother ballet teacher poignantly being filled by an elderly lady who came here as a Jewish refugee from the Nazis.  It really does get across the messages of the situation in Syria and the issues faced by asylum seekers – and also the teacher’s experiences as one of the Kindertransport children eighty years earlier, making the point that there are refugees in every generation – in a way that the intended audience, probably children aged around 9 to 12, will be able to understand. Older readers will get a lot from it too.

11-year-old Aya, her mum and her baby brother have come to Manchester from Aleppo: what’s happened to her dad isn’t explained until later on.  At the start of the story, they’ve already been here for several months, but there are flashbacks to what happened in Syria.  I’m not normally keen on books which jump around like that, but I can see that starting in Aleppo and describing the war there might have been too much in a children’s book.  Like many people fleeing Syria, they’d led a happy and comfortable life there, the dad being a doctor – who’d spent some years working in the UK and spoke fluent English, which he’d taught Aya.

They came to the UK via Turkey and Greece, so, because they should have claimed asylum in Greece, the first EU member state they came to, their claim for refugee status in the UK is complicated. I don’t want to get political – and the issues around the asylum situation are far more multifaceted than the author seems to want readers to believe, even allowing for the fact that she’s writing for children – but I don’t think anyone could argue that the asylum claim process isn’t inefficient and doesn’t take too long; and we see that the family are in limbo for months whilst they wait for a decision.  They receive help from volunteers at food banks and advice centres, but also meet with some hostility from their landlord when they cannot pay their rent.  The author’s keen to make the point that her characters have their pride: when a kind girl gives Aya some old leotards and ballet clothes that she’s grown out of, Aya feels uncomfortable about being seen as a charity case.

The book doesn’t try to explain all the complexities of the war in Syria and who’s on which side and why – does anyone, never mind a child of around 11, actually understand that? – but it explains that attacks on peaceful protests spiralled into civil war, and it doesn’t shy away from describing bombings and telling us that Aya lost friends in the bombings, and that other people she knew were detained and haven’t been seen since.  Children in the intended readership age group are old enough to know about this, and fiction is a very good way of getting the message through.

We learn that Aya was injured by shrapnel and has a permanent scar as a result, and also that her mum is struggling physically and mentally after leaving Syria too soon after the difficult birth of her son.  The combination of that and the fact that she (the mum) doesn’t speak English puts a huge amount of responsibility on Aya’s shoulders.  What can bring joy and hope back into her life?

And that’s where we get this fascinating mix of genres – the title of the book is an obvious act of homage to Noel Streatfeild, and this is a very 21st century story combined with a traditional Girls’ Own story.  In the community centre where they go for advice, ballet classes are being held in another room – and we learn that Aya had ballet lessons back in Aleppo and was very keen.  There’s a moving scene later on in which some of the girls in the class are surprised to learn that there were ballet classes in Syria, a country they only associate with war, and Aya is sad that they don’t initially realise that life there was once perfectly normal.

In true GO style, Aya goes to watch the lessons, is invited to join in, and is so brilliant that Miss Helena, the teacher, offers her the chance to attend classes without paying – but, evidently understanding that she doesn’t want to be seen as a charity case, invites her to pay her way by helping out in the classes for younger children.  We later find out that Miss Helena, who was originally from Prague, came here on the Kindertransport, alone, and became a world famous ballerina.

Having Miss Helena in that role of what I’ve called the “fairy godmother ballet teacher”, a classic ballet book trope, is inspired.  She later tells Aya all about her own experiences – and this again is something that’s so important for children in the intended readership age group to know – and the point is made so well that war and persecution and refugee crises happen in every generation, over and over again.

Aya makes friends with a girl called Dotty, the daughter of another world famous ballerina – who wants her daughter to follow in her footsteps. There’s a sub-plot about how Dotty doesn’t really want to be a ballerina.  That’s very Lorna Hill – think Mariella Foster and Vicki Scott.  And the girls in the class arrange a concert to raise funds for the refugees – that’s very Girls’ Own too.

In some ways it is a classic children’s ballet book, and yet at the same time it’s a million miles away from Ballet Shoes or A Dream of Sadler’s Wells.  It’s all woven together very cleverly.  Aya and Dotty get locked in at the ballet studio after staying late to practise, standard enough storyline … but then Aya has a panic attack, and we learn about how she and her family travelled from Syria to Turkey in a container on a lorry, and nearly suffocated.  And about the conditions in the refugee camp.  It doesn’t spell out the dangers there, especially for women and girls, but there are mentions of it being unsafe to go out at night, of screaming, and of Aya feeling uncomfortable at the way some of the men look at her.

It is a children’s book, despite some of the hard-hitting subjects it covers, and adult readers will need to suspend disbelief over some aspects of it.  If Miss Helena started attending ballet classes before the Second World War, she must be the oldest ballet teacher in the world!  And would Dotty’s posh family, who live in a mansion – in an area near woodland, so does that suggest Alderley Edge? – be sending their daughter to ballet classes in a community centre in an underprivileged area miles away?  But try to ignore all that – it’s necessary for the story!

Dotty’s family have got their own swimming pool.  Dotty invites Aya to swim in it with her … and that brings about another flashback, this time to the flimsy boats making the crossing from Turkey to Greece, and that’s when we find out that the boat Aya’s family were in overturned, as so many did, and her dad drowned.  There are all these juxtapositions – from a ballet studio to a refugee camp, from a swimming pool in a mansion to people drowning whilst being taken across the Aegean in boats that aren’t fit for purpose, by unscrupulous traffickers who care nothing for human lives.

And Dotty, and another girl in their ballet class, are auditioning for the Royal Northern Ballet School.  Sadly, this doesn’t actually exist 🙂 .  But think Sadler’s Wells/Royal Ballet School, but based near Manchester.  If Aya can get a scholarship there, she’ll be entitled to stay in the UK because she’ll get a study visa.  She’s missed the preliminary auditions, but Miss Helena manages to swing it so that she can be seen anyway.

Just as an aside, it doesn’t specify which part of town any of the action’s taking place in, but there are some definite clues on the journey to the ballet school.  They seem to be heading across town on the Mancunian Way, and then out on to Chester Road, past the two Old Traffords 🙂 .  So they must be based on the north side of town, to need to cross town to get to the south side … which suggests the Cheetham Hill/Crumpsall area.  Then they keep going, so that’ll be straight down the A56 in its various incarnations south of the city centre, and it sounds as if the ballet school building is based on either Dunham Massey or Tatton Park.  I just had to try to work that out!

As Aya rehearses for the audition, she remembers dancing in the refugee camp, and thinks about how dancing is universal.  I’ve also seen videos of little kids in refugee camps playing football, just like little kids do in Manchester and Madrid and Munich.  Football, dancing, singing …  they don’t care who you are or where you are.

Of course, the audition is on the same day as the final asylum hearing.  Aya’s overcome with anxiety, and also with feelings of guilt at the thought that, if she succeeds, she’ll be granted a student visa but her mum and brother may still be deported.  And – this is very Girls’ Own, in a very un-Girls’-Own scenario – she faints in the middle of it all.  She doesn’t feel that she can go on, until Miss Helena explains that she lost her parents and sister in the Holocaust and turned round all the survivor guilt into believing that she had to make the most of the chance that she’d been given and that dancing was her way of making something beautiful out of the saving of her own life and the loss of theirs.  The pairing of the two characters who’ve both been through so much, in the traditional ballet book roles of the poor but brilliant student and the fix-it teacher, is a very clever touch, and very well executed.

I won’t give away the ending.  But I will mention the afterword, in which the author talks about “lightbulb books” for children, and how that’s the sort of book she’s tried to write.  She’s certainly ambitious: she talks about aspiring to write something that’s like When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and The Silver Sword and also like Ballet Shoes, The Swish of the Curtain and the Sadler’s Wells books.  Time will tell how this book’s received, but I do hope that a lot of people will read it, and get a lot out of it.  It uses the term “the kindness of strangers” over and over again.  That’s something that we should all aspire to.


The Familiars by Stacey Halls


It makes a refreshing change to read a book which treats the Pendle Witch Trials as what they were, the state-sponsored persecution of vulnerable people, resulting in the judicial killings of eight women and two men, rather than as some sort of Gothic romance or Disneyfied fairytale. I understand the desire to bring tourists into the Pendle area, but I could scream every time I hear the X43 bus route, linking Manchester to Colne and passing within a few hundred yards of my house, called “The Witch Way”, and see silly pictures of pointy hats and broomsticks on the sides of the vehicles. This book, whilst it features real people, is fictitious, but set against the background of the Lancashire Witch Trials of 1612, and ties the story of Alice Gray (or Grey), the only one of the accused to be acquitted, to that of Fleetwood Shuttleworth, the then mistress of Gawthorpe Hall near Burnley.

See what I mean!!


It’s the author’s first published novel, and that does show: it’s lacking a bit in style and polish, and some of the language is anachronistic … but very few people produce Gone With The Wind at the first attempt, and it’s a pretty creditable first effort. The author’s not a historian, but she’s clearly done a lot of research into this particular subject. Whilst most of the characters are real people – including the Shuttleworths, the people accused of witchcraft, Roger Nowell who was the magistrate presiding over the trials, and Thomas Potts who was the clerk of the court – the story is fictional, but Stacey Halls hasn’t really messed with the known facts, and has explained clearly in the afterword that this is a work of fiction. If only all authors would do that!

It’s very much a book about women, told in the first person with Fleetwood Shuttleworth as the narrator. In fact, none of the men come out of it well at all. Fleetwood’s husband Richard Shuttleworth is keeping a mistress (the character is Judith Thorpe, another real person, who did later become his second wife). Alice Gray’s father doesn’t care about her plight. Roger Nowell is more interested in furthering his own prospects than in seeing justice done, and will manipulate anyone and anything he can in order to get a result. It emerges late on that Fleetwood, as a child, was abused by a man her family planned for her to marry. And Fleetwood has a very low opinion of the king.

The question of motives in the Pendle Witch Trials is fascinating, especially as we can only guess at how people’s minds were working. Why did some of the “witches” confess? Were they genuinely convinced of their own powers, or were they tortured to a point where they’d have confessed to anything? Why did some of those involved denounce their neighbours and even members of their own families – were they settling old scores, or thinking that doing so might save their own skins, or, in superstitious times, did they genuinely believe what they were saying? To what extent was misogyny a factor? In witch trials everywhere, the majority of those accused were women. Even now, the word “witch” is often used as a term of abuse against women in positions of power, whereas “wizard” is used as a compliment.

Were Roger Nowell and others hoping to win favour by convicting people of witchcraft, knowing how strongly King James felt about the subject? How much was this about the authorities trying to impose control in what was then a fairly remote area? How much of it was motivated by anti-Catholic feeling? Catholicism remained strong in the Pendle area, as in many other parts of the North, long after the Reformation. And, as is so often the case in any form of state-sponsored persecution – the Spanish Inquisition’s probably the best historical example, and the anti-gay laws in Brunei prove that this is still an issue – religion, in this case Protestantism, was both a motivating factor and an excuse. And, once an idea’s taken hold, hysteria soon sets in, and the situation takes on a life of its own.

We don’t see much of the actual “witches” here, but Roger Nowell features prominently, and is very much shown as being out for himself, whilst other people are caught up in the panic and ready to believe that witchcraft is at work. We all struggle to accept that things can just happen: we want a reason, an explanation. In times when there was little scientific knowledge to provide that, if a family member suddenly died or suffered a life-changing illness, or a horse dropped dead, or a cow stopped producing milk, or a crop failed, it was all too easy and convenient to put the blame on a “witch”. It may have been to settle a personal score or it may have been genuinely believing, whilst distressed and grieving, that someone had done harm. And the reign of James I, and, later, the Civil War period, provided very fertile soil for that.

James I (of England, 1603-1625) and VI (of Scotland, 1567-1625), was in many ways an excellent king at a very difficult time, had a real bee in his bonnet about “witches”, apparently partly due to getting it into his head that witchcraft caused the storm which nearly sank the ship carrying him and his new wife Anne of Denmark from her home country to Scotland. There were witch trials in many places in the period from around 1450 to 1750, but James was particularly obsessive about the subject. In 1597, he published a book called “Daemonologie”, about witchcraft, and apparently he even personally supervised the torture of women accused of being witches. “Daemonologie” is mentioned several times in this book. It was hugely influential.

The Pendle Witch Trials of 1612, part of the Lancashire Witch Trials which also involved alleged witches from other parts of the county, became very well-known because so many people were involved, and because of the publication of the proceedings by Thomas Potts. “The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster” – copies available on Amazon for around a fiver, four centuries later! Then, in 1848/9, William Harrison Ainsworth wrote a “romance” based on the trials – not at all historically accurate, but very popular. And, just over a century later, Robert Neill wrote another one. Today, you can buy “witch” costumes and little models of “witches” from shops in the Pendle area, the Pendle tourist info office by the Boundary Mill car park near Colne will provide you with all manner of leaflets about “witch trails” in the local area, and, as I’ve already said, the X43 bus route linking the Pendle area with Manchester is called “The Witch Way”. I get the desire to bring in tourists to boost the local economy, but I find it to be in rather poor taste. Nine people were judicially murdered (and an tenth in a separate trial, and one died whilst awaiting trial). We’re not talking about Mildred Hubble and Miss Cackle.

So what did happen? The known facts are explained in this book, as part of the story. A young woman called Alizon Device, on her way to Trawden Forest (note to self, must get to Wycoller Country Park some time this spring), got into an argument with a pedlar called John Law, and cursed him. He suffered a stroke shortly afterwards, and his son accused Alizon Device of witchcraft. This opened a can of worms, much of which seems to have been due to a feud between two local families, the Demdike/Device family and the Chattox/Whittle family. Various allegations were made of harming and even murdering people by witchcraft, and then there was a meeting at Malkin Tower, the home of Alizon Device’s grandmother, on Good Friday 1612, which (may well have been a secret Catholic service, but) was alleged to have been a witches’ coven.

Twelve people were arrested. Family members, notably Alizon’s nine-year-old sister Jennet Device, gave evidence against each other, and some of the “witches” confessed. It really isn’t clear why they would have done that, although they may well have been genuinely convinced of their own powers. In a poor area, at a time when it was difficult to keep body and soul together, especially for women – and with the safety net of the convents long gone – being a “wise woman”, or even claiming to have magical powers, was a way of earning a living. Or maybe they were tortured to the point where they gave in and gave the inquisitors what they wanted.

The book suggests that Jennet Device may have hoped to be adopted by the Nowells. Her story’s particularly interesting: a nine-year-old child wouldn’t normally have been allowed to give evidence at a trial, but James I was so obsessed with witches that he allowed the normal rules of court to be suspended in cases of witchcraft trials. It would have been easy to depict her as a frightened little kid being manipulated by powerful authority figures, but that’s not how she comes across here, and she makes a fascinating character. It’s also suggested that the Devices made allegations against the Chattoxes to try to divert attention from their own family, which certainly seems realistic. However, whilst it’s generally accepted that Alizon Device, in particular, did genuinely believe herself guilty, it’s suggested here that those who confessed did so only because of torture. At the end of the day, we just don’t know: we can only surmise. But the account given does suggest that Alizon confessed in court when confronted by John Law – which doesn’t happen in this book, which shows Law as being so badly affected by his stroke that he was unable to speak clearly. Having said that, what’s in the account given by Thomas Potts may not be 100% accurate. It’s not thought to be wildly inaccurate, but it should be noted that both he and Roger Nowell did indeed do quite nicely careerwise out of it all.

The book doesn’t really go into the witch trials and what was going on with the Devices and Chattoxes in detail, though – the focus in terms of the accusations is on Alice Gray, the only one of the accused to be acquitted. Her name’s normally spelt Grey, but it’s spelt Gray in this book … but spellings of names do vary. More annoying, though, is the spelling of Westmorland as Westmoreland: the extra e does appear in some Georgian and Victorian documents, but it’s certainly not used now and it’s unlikely to have been used in the 17th century. I didn’t really need to see “now Cumbria” added to it, either, but that’s probably just me.

A few other things grate, as well. “Mr” and “Miss” were not used in the 17th century, a gentlewoman like Fleetwood Shuttleworth would not have used her first name when introducing herself to complete strangers of a lower class, “Mum” and “Dad” certainly sound far too contemporary, and there’s the odd bit of language in the narrative that sounds distinctly 21st century American – even though the author’s local. And some of the plot’s very far-fetched: the idea of the heavily pregnant teenage wife of a local squire roaming around remote parts of the countryside on her own, going into alehouses and threatening to shoot people has to be taken with an extremely large pinch of salt. But it is the author’s first published book, and it’s far better than a lot of books I’ve read by long-established authors.

There’s a definite touch of the Victorian Gothics about it, especially with the appearance of animals which we’re presumably meant to think could be “familiars”. A house is set on fire, and that made me wonder if the author had, consciously or unconsciously, been influenced by Charlotte Bronte, who’s known to have stayed at Gawthorpe Hall and to have based Ferndean Manor on nearby Wycoller Hall. Just a thought.

We don’t know why Alice Gray, accused alongside Katherine “Mouldheels” Hewitt of murdering a child, was acquitted. In this book, she’s shown as being a midwife, employed by Fleetwood Shuttleworth, the 17-year-old mistress of Gawthorpe Hall near Burnley. It now belongs to the National Trust, and is quite a nice place to visit. It’s got a painting of a meeting of the Cotton Famine Relief Committee, which I always get excited about! In 1612, the house did indeed belong to Richard Shuttleworth, later High Sheriff of Lancashire and then a Parliamentarian colonel and MP. His first wife was Fleetwood Barton, and we know that they had two sons, one born not long after the trials.
There’s no evidence to suggest any connection between the Shuttleworths and any of the Pendle “witches”, or even that Alice Gray was a midwife, but it’s a plausible idea. “Wise women” were often amongst those suggested of witchcraft, and having being spoken for by someone with influence in the area would explain Alice’s acquittal.

The story is that Fleetwood has suffered three miscarriages and has found a letter which she takes to mean that neither she nor her unborn child will survive her fourth pregnancy. She meets Alice by chance, whilst feeling unwell, and, when Alice gives her some infusions which make her feel better, becomes convinced that only Alice can bring her and her child through the pregnancy alive. When Alice is arrested, Fleetwood is determined to save her. The explanation given for the story behind Alice’s arrest is again, whilst entirely fictional, quite plausible – that she found John Law after his stroke and tried to help him, and that the child she was alleged to have murdered had died of what would now be recognised as an epileptic fit, but that the child’s widowed father, with whom she was romantically involved, had blamed her. It all gets completely melodramatic, with Fleetwood threatening to shoot the bereaved father and persuading him to give her a signed testament saying that Alice was innocent, collapsing on the way home, going into labour, and persuading her husband to read the testament out in court so that Alice would be freed and could come to save her life in childbirth!

As I said, it needs to be taken with a big pinch of salt. But I enjoyed it, I was very impressed by the fact that the author explained what was fact and what was fiction – I do wish all authors would do that – and, most of all, I was so pleased to see someone treating a romanticised episode in our county’s history, and our country’s history, as what it really was. The story of the Pendle witches isn’t about pointy hats and broomsticks, or black cats and cauldrons. It’s about persecution.

In some countries, this still goes on – there are still cases of women being put to death for alleged witchcraft. In many other countries, vulnerable groups of people are persecuted for a wide range of other reasons. It certainly isn’t romantic and it certainly isn’t funny. But the Pendle area is beautiful, and well worth visiting. And this book’s worth reading – not bad at all.


For Folk’s Sake: Morris Dancing and Me – BBC 4


Passing through town on the Metrolink on Saturday, I was intrigued to see a group of Morris dancers performing outside Manchester Central (G-Mex). Cecil “the Prophet” Sharp would have been over the moon about that! It turned out that it was part of the Joint Morris Organisations National Day of Dance, launching the 2019 Manchester Folk Festival Programme. Those involved included the Stretford-based Manchester Morris Men, who featured prominently this BBC 4 documentary. Morris dancing in North West England, and in some other parts of the country, traditionally included women, but the “Morris Ring”, founded in 1934, only admitted all-male sides … until last year. With numbers dwindling, it agreed to admit mixed-gender and all-female teams … and a lot of the blokes are not happy about this.

We’re not talking a storm in a teacup here. In one village, a woman who’d joined the local Morris side – not even as a dancer, but as a musician – had been given such grief that she and her husband had moved to another part of the country!  Feelings on this matter run very high. There’s the “adapt or die” issue – new blood is urgently needed. And some men, especially the younger element, feel that society has changed and people now prefer to socialise in mixed gender groups. However, others feel strongly that admitting women to their sides would destroy Morris dancing’s traditions. It’s partly about the actual art of Morris dancing – one man compared it to admitting women to a male voice choir – and partly about heritage.

It’s hard to know how much of the Morris dancing traditions are genuinely historical and how much were the invention of folk revivalists looking for ideas of a mythical Merrie Englande, but the general idea of Morris dancing is thought to go back to the 16th century. The revival of Morris dancing, after it had largely died out amid the social and economic changes of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, is considered to have dated from 1899, and is closely associated with Cecil Sharp – founder of the English Folk Dance Society and known to me and other readers of “Girls’ Own” books as “The Prophet” in Elsie J Oxenham’s Abbey books.

As Richard Macer, the presenter of the programme, explained, Cecil Sharp at one time worked closely with a woman called Mary Neal – who sounds absolutely fascinating, but that’s another story. However, they fell out, and, one way and another, the idea that male Morris dancing was superior to female Morris dancing took hold. It was also explained that Morris dancing had experienced a heyday in the 1970s, but had been declining since then. With a lot of Morris dancers now ageing and approaching a point where they’ll probably have to consider retirement, what does the future hold? Part of the programme involved Richard himself learning Morris dancing, with the Manchester Morris Men, and, at fifty-odd, he was about twenty years younger than the average age of the side.
It would be very sad to see the tradition die out – and traditions, in cultures all around the world, die out frighteningly easily.

So what’s going wrong? I love to watch traditional dancing, in any country or region. And Morris dancing’s linked with other traditions, too. The programme started off by showing Morris dancers escorting a May queen at a procession through a Norfolk village. And, towards the end, it showed the wonderful Saddleworth Rushcart ceremony. At one time, there were rushcart ceremonies all over the area, usually during local wakes weeks, but they’ve pretty much died out. The one at Saddleworth, though, is a really big event, and that’s largely due to Morris dancers.

But … well, the dancers themselves admitted that Morris dancing doesn’t exactly have the coolest of images. Flowers on hats, bells on knickerbockers, brightly-coloured socks and ribbons, waving hankies … it’s often seen as a bit naff. Yet no-one would ever think of Spanish flamenco, Scottish reels, Russian kazatskies or Bavarian schuhplattler dancing as being naff, would they? As one of the men said, maybe we just get embarrassed very easily in England!

Another issue is that, in many rural areas, Morris dancing is a big local “thing” and young lads would traditionally follow their dad, grandads, uncles et al into the local Morris side, and that was how the sides kept going. With more and more people moving away from where they grew up, that’s becoming a problem. And, in towns and cities, that idea of Morris dancing as a community thing doesn’t really exist anyway. I must say that I had no idea that there was a Morris dancing side in Stretford! They train in a church hall which is about a mile and a half from the two Old Traffords. It’s not exactly somewhere I’d particularly associate with folk dancing.

But will women join, given the option? We hear about a lot of arguments over male-only or female-only organisations, most famously the row over admitting women to The Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews. It’s usually a case of members of the excluded gender demanding admission. That doesn’t seem to be the case here. The Morris Federation and Open Morris both admit male-only, female-only or mixed-gender teams, and there was no suggestion that female Morris dancers were all that fussed about being excluded from the Morris Ring, and certainly not that they were lobbying for admission.

The suggestion came from an all-male side, in Leicester – and even that particular side hasn’t actually admitted any women! Whilst the vote on the issue resulted in a landslide majority in favour of admitting women, it was left to each individual side to decide whether they wanted to do that or not. And most of them, so far, have decided not to.

Do women even want to join sides that are currently men-only? Richard spoke to some members of a women-only side – all considerably younger than our Manchester Morris pals – and they said that they preferred to operate as an all-female group. No-one (I hope!) wants to see anyone suffering discrimination, but most of us do like to spend some time socialising in an all-male or all-female environment. There’s an issue with arrogance here, as well. There’s long been this attitude that male-only Morris dancing is better than female-only or mixed-gender Morris dancing. And the Morris Ring, which has been a bastion of that attitude, is only prepared to admit women now because it thinks that its sides aren’t going to survive otherwise, and hasn’t made any secret of the fact.

But I didn’t get the impression that any of the men Richard was talking to were male chauvinists. They just wanted to keep their traditions, and they also wanted to have some male-only time and activities. Richard pointed out that it’s usually male-only organisations which are coming under pressure to admit women, not the other way round. It has to be said that that’s a fair point. You don’t hear of campaigns for men to be allowed to join the WI, do you? And we weren’t talking about the days of the FA banning women’s football, or women being denied access to top level golfing facilities or the best seats at cricket grounds. There are women-only and mixed-gender Morris sides. By the end of the programme, I found myself hoping that the male-only sides would be able to continue, and – hey, I’m the person who’s always reminding everyone that I went to the same school as Christabel Pankhurst! – I hadn’t expected to feel like that.

And Richard had clearly ended up feeling like that as well. He’d got really into it, especially after discovering that his granny and grandad had met through Morris dancing and his great-aunt had corresponded with Cecil Sharp. He was rather upset at being told that, unfortunately, he wasn’t good enough to dance at the Saddleworth Rushcart ceremony, and delighted when he was deemed good enough to dance at an event in Mossley. The guys were really into their traditions – the names used for people holding particular positions in the sides, the annual meet-up to honour the memories of old Morris dancing friends who’d died, and so on. And these were the traditions of a male-only organisation. He observed that some of them felt that there was honour in sticking to traditions even if it meant that the sides couldn’t go on.

A crucial point he made at the end was that male-only Morris dancing was about masculinity and male bonding without any hint of the “toxic masculinity” culture which is sometimes associated with men-only activities. He even said that male Morris dancers could be role models for young men – and, as he said, the idea of bells and whistles and flowery hats being associated with masculinity sounds a bit mad, but it does actually work. And they were enjoying themselves! They were having such fun, and so were the people watching them – and they were also keeping an old and important tradition alive. It would be a tragedy if Morris dancing died out.

But, having said all that, the Manchester Morris Dancers didn’t participate at Saddleworth, because they weren’t able to muster a full side. And they’ve now voted to admit women members, largely because they need to boost numbers, and hope that admitting women will attract more people, especially younger people, both female and male. I really hope they’re able to keep going, and the same with other sides across the country. Morris dancing is not seen as cool, and that’s the big problem – but who’d have thought that knitting and sewing and baking and so on would become cool? Is “cool” still a cool word? I am old and out of touch!! So maybe there’s hope for Morris dancing. I really do hope so. Richard Macer got rather attached to the Manchester Morris Men, and to Morris dancing in general, because of this programme. I did too!



Emmeline Pankhurst: the Making of a Militant – BBC 1


Is this a thing now, having historical documentaries presented by soap stars?  What next – six times married Steve McDonald presenting a programme on Henry VIII?!  Some of the Dingles, who always seem to be feuding with their cousins, presenting a programme on the Wars of the Roses?!  First it was Tracy-Ann Oberman, who used to play Chrissie in EastEnders, presenting the recent series on Queen Victoria, and then last night it was Sally Unwin, best known as Shelley in Coronation Street, presenting this programme about Emmeline Pankhurst.  No offence to lovely Sally, but she clearly knew little beyond the basics about Emmeline Pankhurst and was surprised to hear what the real historians had to say, so wouldn’t it have been better just to have had the real historians doing the presenting?

Oh well.  It was a very interesting programme.  Mrs Pankhurst does have this image as a real battleaxe, and we don’t often hear much about the flesh and blood woman behind that image.  And there is often an image – presented by men – of women who espouse causes, especially women’s rights, as being hard and unfeeling, and Emmeline Pankhurst was anything but.  This programme showed how she had a very romantic relationship with her husband, worked hard to support her children after being widowed, and how deeply she cared about the sufferings of women betrayed by a patriarchal society and believed that giving women the right to vote was the best means by which to help them.

The subject of reform movements in the Victorian era is a fascinating one.  Abolitionism – and British abolitionists continued to work for Abolition in the US, after slavery had been abolished within the British Empire – , prison reform, the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, education reform, better sanitation … that would make several programmes on its own.  Emmeline Goulden was born into a prominent Manchester Abolitionist movement, and was politically aware from her childhood.  In 1867, when Emmeline was 9, a woman called Lily Maxwell somehow accidentally got on to the list of voters in Chorlton-on-Medlock and, supported by the early Manchester suffragist Lydia Becker, went off to cast her vote.  This ended up in court, and the court ruled against her right to vote.  The lawyer who defended her was Richard Pankhurst, so, as Sally and the historians pointed out, he became quite a local hero.  He and Emmeline met at a political meeting some years later, had a whirlwind romance, married, and had five children.

And, as the programme made clear, she could combine the roles of campaigner and middle-class wife and mother.  It even mentioned that she sang at parties.  Very Jane Austen – and what a fascinating character.  One role in public life open to women was that of Poor Law Guardian, and she was elected as a Poor Law Guardian, running soup kitchens during the harsh winter of 1894, and that brought her into close contact with the workhouses, and the terrible conditions endured by women there.  This is what we don’t hear about – we hear about the militant suffragette campaigns, but not all the story behind it, the fact that this wasn’t “just” about equality as a principle but about trying to improve the lives of women in general, especially those at the bottom of the heap.

Then on to something else which we rarely hear about – the Boggart Hole Clough Incident.  Sounds like an Enid Blyton book, doesn’t it?  Boggart Hole Clough is a park in North Manchester.  When my dad was a teenager, he used to play for a local football team.  One weekend, the team had an important match, and Dad and a couple of his mates somehow got the wrong end of the stick about where it was being played, and thought they were meant to be at Boggart Hole Clough playing fields.  They weren’t.  By the time they’d realised that, and got to where they were meant to be, it was too late.  The manager was very cross.  Sorry, that’s got nothing to do with Emmeline Pankhurst!  She held a women’s suffrage rally, and was arrested, on the grounds that local by-laws prohibited the holding of political meetings there – and that was when she first realised the power of court appearances, and the potential of being sent to prison, as a means of publicity.  That was to become so important in the suffragette campaigns.  And it can be traced back to Boggart Hole Clough!  I love that!

Then tragedy struck.  Richard Pankhurst died suddenly.  Emmeline and her children were forced to give up their home and move to a smaller house – and she had to take a job.  No, she didn’t try to live in genteel poverty, or depend on help from relatives.  She got a job as a registrar – and this came up in Thursday’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, when Michelle Keegan, another former Coronation Street actress, found out that Emmeline Pankhurst had registered the births of some of her relatives, and that her own great-grandmother had been part of the women’s suffrage family.  Michelle’s ancestors, like many of the people with whom Emmeline’s work brought her into contact, were desperately poor, and this all proved more and more to Emmeline that women needed power.  Sally read some very distressing extracts from Emmeline’s diary about how she’d registered the births of babies to young girls who’d been abused by male relatives.   No-one tells you that, when they show you the pictures of suffragettes smashing windows and all the rest of it, do they?

After that, it was on to the founding of the WSPU, and the famous incident with Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney at the Free Trade Hall, and all the things we’ve heard before – but we don’t often hear the story of Emmeline Pankhurst’s life before the WSPU, and this programme was fascinating.

And, of course, it ended with a reminder that this was a Manchester story.  The Manchester WSPU banner that’s now in the People’s History Museum – “First in the Fight”. And a reminder that, at last, Manchester will soon have a statue of one of its most famous daughters.  Emmeline Pankhurst, we are so proud of you!  And thank you, BBC 1, for showing this.  It was well worth watching.

Waiting for the Party (the life of Frances Hodgson Burnett) by Ann Thwaite


Word PressHow the same author can have written That Lass o’Lowrie’s, Little Lord Fauntleroy and The Secret Garden is fascinating. The fact that that author grew up in Cheetham Hill and Salford, and that her family emigrated because of the financial problems caused by the Cotton Famine (my university dissertation topic, about which I can merrily waffle ad infinitum!) is even more fascinating :-).   This isn’t the world’s best-written book, but the subject matter’s really very interesting, and it’s well worth a read.

I hadn’t realised that Frances Hodgson Burnett had written so many books, having only come across the better-known ones. And there are such differences in her work – everything from Gaskell-esque works about the lives of the working-class (and written in local dialect) to Victorian slush (I do feel sorry for her younger son, labelled as “Little Lord Fauntleroy” for the rest of his life!) to much-loved children’s novels which are now regarded as classics.

And her own life was pretty interesting as well. Her father owned a furniture shop in town, and the family originally lived in Cheetham Hill. It’s fascinating how Cheetham Hill, along with many other districts close to the city centre, went from being a middle-class area to a working-class area so quickly in the second half of the nineteenth century. When Mr and Mrs Hodgson were first married, they lived in Moreton Street. By the time my great-great-grandparents were living in Moreton Street, towards the end of the century, it was a poor working-class area; and the houses there were pulled down during the slum clearances after the Second World War. The Hodgsons then moved to the area of Cheetham Hill Road near where Manchester Fort is now, and Frances was born there in 1849. Then they moved further up Cheetham Hill Road, towards where Temple School is now. Quite a posh area back then!

However, Mr Hodgson died in 1853, and his widow and children struggled to manage for money. They moved for a time to the Seedley/Pendleton area – near Buile Hill Park, which local tradition says is where Frances later wrote most of The Secret Garden, although that isn’t mentioned in this book – and then to a small house near Salford Cathedral. As best as I can work out, it was between Chapel Street and Oldfield Road, near that horrible junction where Oldfield Road and Adelphi Street aren’t quite opposite each other so you have to turn left on to Chapel Street and then immediately right!   Even in the 1850s, it was a relatively poor area, certainly by the standards that the Hodgsons were used to. They later lived in Chorlton-on-Medlock for a time.

I won’t write an essay about the Cotton Famine ;-), but that finished off the family business, and, in 1865, Mrs Hodgson and her children moved to Tennessee, to join her brother. So Frances had both British and American links – and crossed the Atlantic no fewer than 33 times during her lifetime! In later years, when her books had made her a lot of money, she had bases on both sides of the Atlantic, and also did a lot of travelling in Europe in later years.

Incidentally, what on earth is “one of those tight, forbidding Manchester faces” supposed to mean?! That’s a description of Frances Hodgson Burnett given by her first biographer – who was Marghanita Laski, niece of Harold Laski, daughter of Neville Laski, and therefore herself a member of a very well-known Manchester family! OK, let’s not go there …

In addition to travelling, Frances had quite a colourful personal and social life. She divorced her first husband, which caused quite a scandal at the time – anyone who thinks that the press reporting on celebrity break-ups is a modern phenomenon, think again!! – and remarried in rather strange circumstances, saying that she’d been blackmailed into it. She also mixed with all sorts of literary types and, with several of her books being made into plays, was involved in the theatrical world as well.   And she was involved in a landmark legal case over the copyright for Little Lord Fauntleroy.

Biographers are usually sympathetic towards their subjects and Ann Thwaite tries to present a positive picture of Frances. She does seem to have been a difficult person sometimes, and it’s hard not to feel sorry for her first husband, but a lot of her issues were caused by depression, especially after the early death of her eldest son from consumption. Also, this was the Gilded Age, and there’s always something quite annoying about it in general, and that isn’t specific to any one person! And she did a lot of charity work, as many middle-class Victorian women did, and helped out friends and relatives who were struggling for money.

The book’s called “Waiting for the Party”, and that’s because of the sense that Frances was never quite in there, that she was always just missing out on things. I’m not sure that that’s entirely true. She could have lived a quiet life with her first husband, but she got out there and she got in there!   The success of Little Lord Fauntleroy, whilst it’s seen as rather a joke today (and that’s more because of illustrations than the writing), was phenomenal; and The Secret Garden and The Little Princess are still well-known today. She achieved a hell of a lot. As for Ann Thwaite’s book, it’s very entertaining, and certainly worth reading.


Witch Hunt: A Century of Murder – Channel 5




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I live a few minutes’ walk from the route of the X43 Trans Lancs Express bus service. Whilst buses operating along all the other Trans Lancs Express services have very pretty long-stemmed red roses painted along their sides, the X43 buses, which link Manchester with the borough of Pendle, have broomsticks painted along theirs, and are referred to by the bus company as “The Witch Way”. Call in at one of the Pendle tourist offices – you’ll find one in Barrowford, alongside a café which does very nice jacket potatoes, and one outside Boundary Mill in Colne, opposite a Thorntons chocolates outlet – and you’ll find all sorts of leaflets telling you about “Walking With Witches” and “The Lancashire Witches Driving Trail”. Newchurch-in-Pendle, thought to be the site of Malkin Tower, where the Pendle Witches allegedly held their covens, even has a witch-related gift shop.

It does my head in. The Pendle Witch Trials resulted in the judicial murder of ten people. An eleventh, an elderly woman, died in prison. It wasn’t some sort of Disney film. Hundreds of people were executed for witchcraft in the British Isles, most of them during the mass witch-hunts of the 17th century. All right, all right, the Pendle Tourist Board’s just trying to help the region’s economy and I suppose they can’t really be blamed for that, and Pendle’s probably a special case because William Harrison Ainsworth decided to romanticise it all. But it still does my head in. It’s a horrible part of our history.

And, as this programme, excellently presented by Suzannah Lipscomb, pointed out, it was really James I – James I and VI, I should say – who kicked the mass witch-hunting off. He had this bee in his bonnet about witches, and he was responsible for the North Berwick witch trial in 1591, and then brought his obsession with witches to England when he succeeded Elizabeth I in 1603. He even wrote a book about witch-hunting. There were witch-hunts in many parts of Europe – and, although witch-hunting is associated with Calvinism, witches were executed in areas with Catholic or Lutheran authorities too – but it’s James who really has to take the blame for the witch-hunting in the British Isles and in New England.

Once this sort of thing starts, it’s very hard to stop. People were denounced as witches by friends, neighbours, even members of their own families – sometimes through ignorance, sometimes because people bore a grudge against them. The alleged witches, mostly women, were often horribly tortured. Birthmarks, the supposed marks of the Devil, were seen as a sign as witchcraft, and, although it wasn’t mentioned in this programme, the horrendous sink or swim test was often used. If you floated, you were a witch. So you were killed. If you didn’t, you died of drowning.

James was a very intelligent man, and it puzzles me why he did have this obsession with witches. Suzannah Lipscomb’s argument, one which makes a lot of sense, was that he never intended for any of this to happen: his book argued that witches should only be convicted where there was some sort of rational evidence against them. Although, even then, what sort of rational evidence could there have been?

The second and final episode in the series, to be shown tonight, will focus on Matthew Hopkins, the infamous Witchfinder General responsible for over 300 killings of alleged witches during the Civil War. It’s got to be telling that this did happen during the Civil War, when other forms of authority had broken down, but the practice of witch-hunting took place over a far longer time period.

The word “witch-hunt” still exists in our language today, and it’s generally used to describe attacks, these days usually in the media rather than physical, on people against whom nothing’s really been proven. Things get out of hand. People attack other people sometimes out of genuine belief that they’ve done wrong but without any evidence, sometimes out of ignorance, sometimes because of personal enmity and often because it’s easy to believe what someone else tells you. In the 17th century, in particular, this resulted in torture and, in many cases, in execution. It’s a horrible, frightening part of our past, and one which needs to be remembered, and remembered as what it was.

Probation by Jessie Fothergill


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This book, by the author of The First Violin, is set during the Cotton Famine (I’m so excited at having found another book set during the Cotton Famine!), with most of the action taking place in the town of “Thanshope” – which is so obviously Rochdale that I don’t know why she didn’t just say that it was Rochdale! And it all comes across very, very well :-).

The Cotton Famine, despite the amount of poverty and distress that it caused, does have quite a romantic image – the idea of the brave, hard-working people of Lancashire, imbued with the ideals of self-help and independence, struggling through this difficult time whilst trying not to lose their pride, and, despite everything, staunchly supporting the Union because the Confederacy was seen as standing for slavery. To this day, we’ve got a statue of Abraham Lincoln in Manchester city centre. It wasn’t quite all as noble and romantic and one-sided as that, but there’s plenty of truth in the idea all the same, and Jessie Fothergill got that all across very well, without going overboard in favour of the romantic image as it might have been tempting to do.

Along with the ideas of the cotton workers’ attitudes goes the image of the mighty King Cotton brought low, and, to understand that, it’s first of all necessary to understand just how powerful the image of the cotton industry was at this time, and how successful the British cotton industry had been. I tend to get very carried away when I’m writing about this, and I wasn’t even born until over a century after the Famine ended! However, again, it’s important not to go to OTT, and Jessie Fothergill managed it very well. She also made the point, often ignored, that the problems were due partly to overproduction in the preceding years, not solely to the Unionist blockade of the Confederate ports.

Also, as I’ve already said, it’s an excellent depiction of Rochdale – not only geographically and economically, but also politically. The recent revelations of the horrific abuse carried out by Cyril Smith have unfortunately cast a big shadow over Rochdale’s more recent Liberal history, but let’s not dwell on that: this was Rochdale in the age of John Bright, who was born there, and Richard Cobden, who for a time was the town’s MP. Free trade in those days was known as Manchester Economics (and don’t get me started on the city council selling off our beloved Free Trade Hall to the Radisson group, bah!), and Whig/Liberal/Radical feeling was strong across many parts of Lancashire in the 1860s, but Rochdale probably has a stronger tradition of Liberalism than any other part of the area. Although this was obviously well before the days of universal suffrage, and even before the Reform Act of 1867, there were still strong working-class views about politics, and that came across well in the books as well.

Parts of the book are also set in Manchester, very accurately described as you’d expect from an author who was originally from Cheetham Hill :-). There’s a bit set in Germany as well, but, unlike with The First Violin, there aren’t any names which were “borrowed” for the the Chalet School books!

OK, here endeth the essay on the Cotton Famine! What about the actual characters? Well, we got a broad range of characters – the hard-working cotton operative eager to better himself, his equally hard-working but more down-to-earth sister, their invalid brother, their baddie stepfather, the goodie millowner who was eager to help his operatives when the mill closed, the baddie millowners who were on the financial fiddle, the pretty girl whom two different men were after and the early feminist. I particularly liked Helena, the young woman who was passionate about women’s rights and who was presented very favourably. Of course, it ended up with the goodies pairing off, getting married and living happily ever after, but it took them a while to get there. My one gripe is that there was a two year gap in the middle of the book and I’d like to’ve seen more of what happened during it, but maybe that would have made the book too long.

I really am chuffed about finding this! I don’t know how much it’d appeal to anyone who doesn’t know the area and the historical background, but it definitely appealed to me :-).




Strangeways: Britain’s toughest prison riot – BBC 2


Word PressI probably shouldn’t be saying this, but I rather enjoyed the Strangeways Riot!  I can’t believe it was 25 years ago (and therefore entitled to be classed as historical, LOL).  Our school bus route took us straight past the prison, and, every morning and every afternoon, we’d wave to the rioters on the prison roof and, much to our excitement, they’d wave back at us.  I don’t think the fact that they included some of the country’s most violent criminals really occurred to us!

We must have been off for the Easter holidays during part of the riot, but we were certainly in school for a good part of it.  These days, the authorities’d probably close off the road, but, back then, busy main roads didn’t get closed off unless it was absolutely essential.  Then, as now, I spent a fair amount of my life going up and down Bury New Road … and, all of a sudden, the attention of the whole nation was focused on it!  Compared to the sort of things that normally took place on a school day, this was thrilling stuff.

Anyway, enough reminiscing!  This programme tried to show things from both viewpoints – that of the prisoners, who felt that they were being held in inhumane conditions, and also that of the prison authorities, who were frightened for everyone’s safety and who had to deal with the fact that the place got totally smashed up.  There was a horrendous amount of damage – and, of course, the rebuilding all had to be paid for by the taxpayer.  £90 million, according to Wikipedia.  Not to mention the injuries.

I don’t remember having much sympathy for the authorities at the time.  OK, when you’re a teenager, the idea of people defying the authorities does seem quite exciting, but it was more than that.  This came shortly after the poll tax riots, and Margaret Thatcher’s government was incredibly unpopular in the North of England – and this was a very local thing, with the prisoners contacting the Manchester Evening News – even before the poll tax row.  Yes, it was appalling that so much damage should have been caused, and that convicted criminals, some of them convicted of capital offences, should have been able to gain control of a prison, but, as this programme showed, there were two sides to the story.  Things have probably gone too far now, with all these reports of prisoners having access to Sky TV and being able to claim compensation for minor injuries and what-have-you but, at the time, reform was needed.  And reforms have been made.

I just can’t believe that it was so long ago.  It seems like yesterday.  And yet so much has changed since then.  And I’m afraid that I still, and always will, primarily associate the riot with being one of a bunch of very excited kids waving to the rioters from a school bus!!


The Wonder of Britain: Our Industrial Story – ITV 1


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Last week’s episode, on great buildings of Britain, was good, but this was the episode I was waiting for. Industrial heritage gets me VERY excited :-). Seriously, it does. And Julia Bradbury’s choice of sites didn’t disappoint. First up, we had a few shots of Ironbridge. The last time I went there was on a university field trip, many moons ago! It wasn’t the world’s greatest field trip (we spent most of it in a rather boring village in Shropshire where there was nothing to do, and the weather was crap), but that bridge is well worth seeing – the ingenuity of the later Georgians and the Victorians never ceases to astound me. Then it was on to a coal mine – the National Coal Mining Museum in Wakefield, to be accurate. The Industrial Revolution was, as Julia pointed out, based on coal, and the conditions down the mines in those times, and even in modern times, took one hell of a lot of dealing with. I don’t know how people stood it.

And from coal to canals – another crucial aspect of the Industrial Revolution, and still important, especially here in the North of England. I was rather sorry that she didn’t show the Anderton Boat Lift, because my maternal grandparents lived near there :-). However, she did show the amazing Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. Note to self – must go and see that again next time I go to Chirk Castle. I went a few years back, on the way home from Llangollen one August Bank Holiday. Absolutely amazing. How come something like that could be built 200 years ago, when these days the powers that be can’t even manage to fill in potholes on main roads?! Very, very impressive site.

Coal, canals … and then steam engines. I’m not familiar with the line that was shown, which is in Hampshire, but I’m very familiar with the wonderful East Lancs Railway, and I’ve been on a fair few other steam railway lines as well. People get so excited about steam trains! There are always big crowds to watch them go past, and everyone wants to go on the steam trains rather than the diesel trains. All right, these days they only tend to operate on “heritage” lines, but it’s great that that heritage is being preserved, because the role of steam trains in Britain’s industrial and social history’s hard to overestimate. Then from steam trains to steamships – the SS Great Britain, which now lives in Bristol. There’s a photo of me standing by it in about 1987, with ‘80s hair and wearing a ghastly yellow jumper … er, but that’s beside the point! The point is just how important steamships, like steam trains, were in their day. And, yes, let’s have a bit of jingoistic pride here – it was Britain which led the way!

And the cotton industry which led the way, of course. Eeh, I wrote something gloriously purple prose about the cotton industry in my university dissertation! I even included Senator Hammond’s “No, you dare not make war upon cotton. No power on earth dare make war upon cotton. Cotton is king,” quote … which was a bit unfortunate seeing as it was more about slavery in the Deep South than mills in Manchester, but anyway. Cotton was supposed to be the unstoppable force, the unstoppable industry, onwards and upwards! “The legend of Cottonia” – er, that was what I entitled one of my chapters. Cottonia being Lancashire, and Cottonopolis, of course, being Manchester. Except that Julia decided to show New Lanark. Yes, I know it’s a world heritage site, and I have nothing but admiration for Robert Owen, but still!

Oh well. It was very interesting. And the next bit did show Manchester. Over to the wonderful neo-Gothic civic buildings which the Victorians built – and, specifically, Manchester Town Hall. Gold star for choosing OUR town hall as your example, Julia! It’s just stunning. Not that I’m biased or anything, but it is. Real civic pride stuff. AND you can have afternoon tea there (although she didn’t mention that bit!).

The irony was, as she pointed out, that the majority of people were living in poverty whilst these grandiose buildings were being built. But times they were a-changing, and the growth of “the leisure industry” was an important part of late Victorian society. What’s the greatest symbol of this, as well as being yet another wonderful feat of Victorian engineering? Blackpool Tower, of course! I love Blackpool. Even if I’ve had a rotten week and am in a rotten mood, Blackpool will cheer me up – and that process starts when I get to the part of the M55 from which I can first glimpse the Tower. I love Blackpool Tower. It annoys me greatly that they’ve gone back to stopping you going to watch the dancing in the ballroom unless you pay. One of my ambitions in life is to dance in the Tower Ballroom, even though I am about as good at dancing as I am at sport, i.e. crap. However, I usually go into the Tower every time I’m in Blackpool even so, just to sit by the window for a bit, or have a cup of tea. I don’t usually think of it as a great feat of engineering, but it is. It really is.

And then the programme ended at … Bramall Lane. Home of Sheffield United, for those who don’t know. And once the home of Sheffield FC, the world’s first ever football club – formed in 1855, IIRC, although that wasn’t actually mentioned. And Sheffield’s Julia’s home territory. Manchester’s mine, and, wherever I go in the world, as soon as I mention the word “Manchester” then people will start talking about football. One of Britain’s greatest gifts to the world!

One of many. And a lot of them are to do with the Industrial Revolution. I said that industrial heritage got me VERY excited. See what I mean :-)?

That Day We Sang – BBC 2


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Manchester? Yep, that’s definitely me. Sad middle-aged people with no life? Yep, that’s me too. Having been in a children’s choir? Er, no, that is not me. I have been told by numerous people that I have the worst singing voice they’ve ever heard. Anyway! The idea of this drama/musical – which I think probably worked better on stage, although it worked OK on TV too – was that a reunion was held 40 years after a recording made by the Manchester Children’s Choir in 1929, and that two of the choir members, a man who’d spent his life living with his mother until her recent death, and a woman who was having an affair with her married boss, got together.

It was all rather sweet. It was slightly depressing seeing Michael Ball, whom I remember seeing in The Pirates of Penzance in Manchester when he was a young unknown, playing a part of a man in his 50s, and it was also rather poignant hearing the person playing the choir leader talking about the importance of the Free Trade Hall – I still can’t get over the fact that the city council let the Free Trade Hall be turned into a hotel – but it was also rather touching, in a schmaltzy kind of way. A nice thing to watch over the Christmas period.