Who Do You Think You Are (Ralf Little) – BBC 1

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  A bit of self-indulgence here!   I was delighted to find that much of this episode revolved around Manchester city centre, the Manchester suburb of Prestwich (where I live) and Chirk, a place I love to visit.   I just couldn’t believe that they never mentioned that Ralf’s  footballer great-grandfather had played in the same Chirk and Wales teams as the great Billy Meredith, whose name was clearly visible on the documents shown.   Ralf’s mentioned it in media interviews, but maybe the BBC producers didn’t realise just what a big name Billy Meredith is to Manchester football fans!

Anyway, how exciting that Ralf’s grandparents lived in Prestwich, and got married at the church next door to my old primary school.   Apart from the odd name check in Coronation Street,  individual suburbs don’t generally get mentioned on TV!   They met whilst working at Prestwich Hospital.  Back in the day, Prestwich was best-known for being home to a large psychiatric hospital, and to some extent still is.  When I was a kid, before there was the respect for mental illness that there hopefully is now, you could usually guarantee that someone would yell “Oi [name of kid they wished to annoy], you’ve missed your stop,” as the school bus passed the hospital building.   Ralf’s grandad was local, but it was interesting to hear that his grandma had moved here from Chirk because the hospital had such a big workforce then that it attracted people from outside the area.

We then heard about his grandad’s war service, first as a medic in Orkney, and then as an engineer on board an aircraft carrier in the Far East, and how he took part in the Battle of Okinawa, on board the first British ship to be attacked by kamikaze pilots.   The celebs this series do seem generally more knowledgeable and less hysterical than those in previous series: Ralf was impressed but not overly emotional, and clearly knew about kamikaze pilots rather than having to be given an explanation.

Hearing about his Welsh great-grandfather’s local and international football career was fascinating for football fans, but what a disappointment – well, Ralf said that it was, and I’d have felt exactly the same in his shoes – that he gave it up during the short-lived religious revival!   We heard about how people had burnt footballs, tickets and football shirts, as the revival held that sport was some sort of danger to the soul.  Good job that Billy Meredith never got involved in all that!  We all know that Oliver Cromwell wasn’t keen on football, but the 1904-05 religious revival doesn’t get a lot of coverage.  Hmm, Wikipedia informs me that it was once featured in the BBC series “Bread of heaven”.  Yep, that’ll have been named after the hymn to which we used to sing “We’ll support you ever more” in school assembly, whilst the headmistress sang “Feed us till we want no more”.   No danger of anyone I know giving up football for the sake of religion!

He then looked into his dad’s family, who, apart from being related by marriage to Nottinghamshire gentry, had been amongst the great 19th century Manchester families who were involved in planning and sanitation … might not sound very glamorous, but it was a big thing as the city grew so rapidly.   And it was good to see how pleased Ralf was to find out that his family had played a part in the development of our beloved city.

I really enjoyed this episode.   I’ve enjoyed all of them, but anything local particularly resonates with me, as it clearly did with Ralf too.

The Secret Life of Albert Entwistle by Matt Cain

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   This is another one for Pride month #pridenotprejudice; but I was going to read it anyway, because it’s about a postman in Farnworth.  Well, it’s set in a fictional Lancashire town called Toddington, but it’s very obviously Bolton (BTW, if anyone should happen to read this and be unable to remember the name of the posh department store which closed down, it was Whitakers.  Thank you, Google.), and Albert’s postal round is “the Flower(s)Estate”, which is the Harper Green area of the Farnworth area of Bolton.  It’s that bit you go through if you’re trying to get to the northbound M61 from Whitefield/Radcliffe without going on the M60.  “Toddington Hall’ is Turton Tower, I think – could be Smithills, but the Second World War bunker where teenage Albert used to meet his boyfriend is definitely up near Turton Tower, .

OK, so to get back to the point 😀 , Albert Entwistle is a closeted gay man who’s about to turn 65.  He appears to have no living relatives, and has no friends – which, poignantly, we learn is because he’s always been frightened to get close to people, in case they realised that he was gay and rejected him, or, before same sex relationships between men were legalised, it even resulted in his imprisonment.  As with a lot of things in life, a lot of this goes back to bullying at school.  It’s also, as is often the case with LGBT people, because of the attitude of a family member – in Albert’s case, his late father.  The only things really going on in his life are his cat, his job and Coronation Street.  Then his cat dies, and he’s told that his employers have a policy of compulsory retirement at 65.

Albert decides that it’s time to turn his life around.  He finally comes out as gay, makes friends with Nicole, a 19-year-old single mother who’s got boyfriend trouble, and decides to try to track down his high school sweetheart – a man named George, whom we later find out was arrested by Albert’s dad, a policeman, whilst Albert ran off and left him to his fate.

Some of it’s really very moving, especially Albert’s reflections on thinking that no-one could love him because he was gay, and the flashbacks to discussions he had with George about why their relationship should be seen as wrong.  However, some of it’s a bit OTT.  The day after Albert tells his colleagues that he’s gay, he arrives at work to find that four of them have dressed up as the Village People and the building’s been decorated with rainbow bunting.  However supportive you might want to be of a colleague who’s waited until the age of 64 to come out, would anyone actually do that?!

He then learns that George was working in the Gay Village – i.e. the Canal Street area of Manchester – at one time, and he and Nicole set out to try to find him.  It turns out that George has moved to London and is a drag queen – and, unlike Albert, has always been out and proud and a campaigner for gay rights.  Drag queens were really big in Manchester when I was a kid in the ’80s, thanks mainly to the wonderful and much-missed Foo Foo Lammar.   I don’t see why they had to say that George had moved to London, but maybe it was just to extend the story: finding him so close to “Toddington” would have been too easy.

We then learn that Albert’s dad knew about him and George, and blackmailed him into ending the relationship by threatening to prosecute him otherwise.   Of course, once Albert finds George and explains this, they get back together and presumably live happily ever after.  And Nicole’s relationship with her boyfriend also gets sorted out, and they presumably live happily ever after as well.

The author’s slightly overdone several passages involving George thinking that he’s doing this for all gay men who had to hide their true selves, all gay men who were ever imprisoned, anybody whose life’s been cut short, etc etc.  And the ending’s a bit cheesy and predictable.  But, all in all, it’s a moving story.  It’s a very Northern story, too – Albert, Nicole and George would all fit right into Coronation Street!

Not bad at all, and an important reminder of the issues faced by gay men – including the fact that, even after relationships between men were legalised, the age of consent was higher than that for heterosexual relationships and remained so until 2001 – and the impact of those on people’s mental health and daily lives.  Please always be kind to others ❤️🙏.

Shadow Girls by Carol Birch

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I’m afraid that I was rather disappointed by this book.  I was quite excited by the idea of a book set in a girls’ day school in Manchester.  From the location, I think the school’s based on the old Central High School.  It had closed down by my day, but I know people of my parents’ generation who went there, and obviously I know Manchester city centre and the other locations mentioned.  If anyone reading this *does* decide to try this book, then yes, Boggart Hole Clough is a real place, and that’s its real name!   And, yes, Lewis’s was a real shop … it was a lovely shop, and I can’t quite believe that it’s been twelve years since it closed down.

And I knew that there was a supernatural element, but I thought that that might work quite well.  A lot of teenagers are interested in the supernatural.  I know that some girls at my school did try using ouija boards, although that was possibly due more to the Morrissey song than anything else!  However, unfortunately, the style of writing in this book was rather poor, and the storyline was rather weak and didn’t really hang together.

The book’s had some good reviews, so maybe I’m missing something; but I just wasn’t very impressed by it.

It started off as a poor man’s Judy Blume book, with a lot of talk about X being friends with Y, X and Y not liking Z, parents and teachers thinking that X was a bad influence on Y, and so on.   The protagonist, Sally, was friendly with a girl called Pamela, who was seen as being a bit rough.  They didn’t get on with a girl called Sylvia, and Pamela played a nasty prank which caused Sylvia a lot of distress.  However, there was also some talk about ghosts in the toilets (why would ghosts be in school toilets, of all places?), and Sally started to think that Sylvia had a doppelganger, because she was sure that she’d seen her in two places at once.   Then, apparently under the influence of the fake Sylvia, Pamela took her own life by jumping off the school roof.  Sylvia had a nervous breakdown and left school.  It was clear that something was very wrong with both girls’ home lives, but we never really found out exactly what.

We then fast forwarded through Sally’s university years, to a time when the school had closed down and the building had been converted with flats, and Sally had reunited with Rob, her old boyfriend from her schooldays.  And, whaddaya know, he was living in one of the flats in the old school building.  Sally moved in with him, but kept thinking that she could feel a supernatural presence there.   Rob tried to help by tracking down Sylvia, and it ended up with Sally tripping down some stairs to her death, and Rob and Sylvia getting together.

Sorry, but I didn’t get it.  I think we were meant to feel that the portrayal of Sally’s terror and her uncertainty about what was real and what was her imagination were very powerful, but it just didn’t work for me.  Oh well, we can’t all like the same things!

The Strangeways Riot: 25 Days of Mayhem – Channel 4

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I feel awful for saying this, but my teenage friends and I rather enjoyed the Strangeways Riot.  Our school bus went right past the prison, and we used to wave to the rioting prisoners on the roof.  And they used to wave back to us.  We thought we were *it*.  Classmates who lived on different bus routes were super- envious of us.  The fact that these people with whom we were exchanging cheery waves were some of the most violent people in the entire country, convicted criminals who’d committed horrific offences and ruined innocent people’s lives, in some cases even taken innocent people’s lives … er, didn’t seem to occur to us.  I feel awful for saying it now, as I’ve said, but, at the time, it all seemed quite exciting.

The Strangeways area itself was uber-cool at the time.  The HQ of Joe Bloggs jeans, which, along with black hooded tops, were the Madchester uniform, was very close to the prison.  A few months after that, we went on a school trip to London, and, as it was a trip, we didn’t have to wear uniform (probably so that no-one would be able to identify the school if anyone misbehaved). Pretty much every kid turned up in a pair of jeans and a black hooded top.  We strutted round London thinking that we were the bees’ knees.  Capital city?  Stuff that.  Manchester ruled!

We were actually going to see some boring classics plays, as the headmistress thought befitted a group of Nice Girls from a Nice School, but we drew a veil over that.  It didn’t exactly fit with the Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays.  No-one needed to know that that was what we were in London for, did they?

And, of course, the riot had absolutely nothing to do with being cool.  Two people died.  Scores of others were injured.  £55 million worth of damage was done.  The prisoners’ relatives and friends went through horrendous emotional turmoil as false reports came out that tens of people had been murdered.  There was nothing cool about it.  It had nothing to do with Madchester music, it had nothing to do with the James Stannage phone-in on local radio (which we were all really into at the time), and it had nothing to do with the fact that United had had an absolutely terrible league season but were about to win the FA Cup.  And it certainly had absolutely nothing to do with us.  But, when you’re what school stories describe as a “Naughty Middle”, you can tend to think that everything’s about you and your world; and, when I look back at that time, it’s all mixed up together in my head.

I’m doing that again now, aren’t I?  Making it all about me and my world.  Suppose that I try writing something about, you know, the riot and the documentary …

I was quite glad that Channel 4 played Fools Gold and Step On You as the background to some of the footage, and showed people turning up outside with picnics, as if it were some sort of outdoor theatrical event.  At least we weren’t the only ones who, ahem, rather enjoyed it and got it mixed up in our heads with all the Madchester stuff.

Incidentally, Kay Burley, then a very new reporter with Sky News, even claimed that it was the start of 24 hour rolling news.  I’d say that that was more the Gulf War, which happened later that year, but I suppose you *can* make an argument for it having started with the Strangeways Riot.

In amongst all the music and pictures of people having picnics, we did actually hear from some of the prisoners and staff involved in it all, and we did get the background to the riot.  Crime was rising, for a number of social and economic reasons, and, at the time, it was thought that putting people in prison was the best way to deal with it.  Prisons became dangerously overcrowded, and the way in which prisons were run hadn’t really been reformed for years.  Warders were even allowed to use tranquillisers on prisoners, which seems horrendous now.

Everything built up, and a number of prisoners started a riot in the Anglican chapel, and managed to grab the keys.  The staff, vastly outnumbered and with no way of keeping control, pulled out.  And what tends to be forgotten is that it was only a minority of the prisoners who were rioting.  Others, especially sex offenders who knew that they faced brutal attacks from other prisoners disgusted at what they’d done, were terrified.  Meanwhile, ongoing building works made it possible for the rioters to get out on to the roof.

And that’s what we remember.  The prisoners on the roof.  We had no idea what was going on inside the building.  But all sorts of reports were coming out.  There was talk of massacres.   Of sex offenders being carted off to Crumpsall Hospital (that’s our local hospital, officially known as North Manchester General but still referred to by most people by its historic name) with castration wounds.  A large number of reporters set up shop on the roof of a nearby warehouse, and they were talking to the prisoners.  And the authorities were going mad about this.  The rioters had everyone’s attention.  Everyone was listening to every word they said.

I’m not sure what the wider national, or possibly even international, coverage was like – the national press were also busy covering a major anti poll tax riot which took place in London at that time – but, in Manchester, it was practically all that anyone was talking about.  Well, that and the FA Cup run saving Alex Ferguson’s job.  It seems unthinkable now, but then, a fortnight before Easter 1990, a joke was doing the rounds – “Alex Ferguson OBE – out before Easter”.  Can you imagine if that’d happened?   Don’t even go there!  Anyway, the attention was off Fergie for a while, because the local media were all over the riot.  And the Home Office ended up asking the editor of the Manchester Evening News to go into the prison and find out what was going on.  Not a prison chief, a police chief, a senior politician or someone from the military.  The editor of the Manchester Evening News.

So, once he’d been in and seen what was going on, we knew that the inside of the prison was being wrecked but that, thankfully, the reports of a massacre weren’t true, nor were the reports of serious prisoner-on-prisoner violence.  And, as the programme’s narrator said, it had moved from being a riot to being a siege.  A small hardcore of prisoners remained on the roof.  And someone came up with the idea of using sleep deprivation to try to get them down.  So, the next thing we knew, loud music was blaring out over the Strangeways area at night, a helicopter was flying overhead, air raid sirens were being used, and bangers embedded in potatoes were being lobbed in.  Bangers.  Embedded in potatoes.  It sounded like something from a Carry On film, not an attempt by the authorities to bring an end to a major disturbance.   And all this was going on just down the road, on our school bus route.

Meanwhile, riots were breaking out at other prisons across the country, the last few prisoners wouldn’t give in, it was all just crazy, Maggie Thatcher was really not a happy bunny, and, eventually, prison officers went in, and the last few prisoners came down in a cherry picker, like … I don’t know, a cross between an action movie and a pop video.  They were giving clenched fist salutes to the watching crowds of press and members of the public, and people were cheering.  Looking back on it now, it … well, sometimes fact’s stranger than fiction, and this was one of those times.

Afterwards, prison practices were changed, and the prison was rebuilt.  It’s now supposed to be called HMP Manchester, as if changing the name’s going to erase the memory of the riots.  Everyone still calls it “Strangeways”.  And those of us who lived in the local area during those strange 25 days in the spring of 1990 will never forget what happened – but, unlike the people who worked there, and the people who were imprisoned there but weren’t involved in the riot, we don’t bear any scars from it.

Kenneth Baker, who was the Home Secretary at the time, said that it marked “a watershed in the history of the prison service”.  It was one of the biggest national events of its time.  And we had a close up view of it from the top deck of a school bus.  Strange (pun intended).  Very strange indeed.  Thanks to Channel 4 for this.  I know that it was intended to be a documentary about a very serious prison riot and the very serious things which it told us about our prisons at the time, but, for those of us from North Manchester, it also brought back a lot of memories of a very strange and never forgotten time.

 

Flickerbook by Leila Berg

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I absolutely love the fact that a fellow Old Girl of my school had her books banned from Listen With Mother for being “a corrupting influence” -the issue being that the characters in them did such terribly shocking things as coming down the stairs backwards.  Listeners were so horrified by this subversive behaviour that they complained, and the BBC decided that the books had to go.  Janet and John, and Peter and Jane, would never have dreamt of coming down stairs backwards.  Leila Berg did end up winning the Eleanor Farjeon award in 1974, though, so evidently, everyone had come to terms with kids coming down the stairs backwards by then.

Unfortunately, this book, her autobiography of her early years, doesn’t go that far, only up to when she was in her early 20s.  It’s not very coherently written – I think the idea is that it sounds like a child or young adult talking, rather than “sounding” like prose – and anyone who isn’t familiar with Higher Broughton will probably be thoroughly confused by the first third or so of it.  If you do know Higher Broughton, and know exactly where she means when she talks about Bury New Road, Great Clowes Street, Leicester Road et al, you’ll love this; but it’s very localised and very much a personal memoir.  She hasn’t even changed the names of her neighbours.   If you know Manchester/Salford in general, you’ll love her descriptions of walking round town, especially all the references to Sherratt and Hughes bookshop (sadly no longer with us); but, again, if you don’t, you may just feel rather confused.

The later chapters, about her involvement in the radical movements of the inter-war years, may be of more interest to everyone – although probably particularly so to people who know the area.   Everyone’s heard of the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass, and the National Trust is actually a bit obsessed with it, but no-one talks much about the backgrounds of those involved, and you certainly never hear much about there having been women and girls involved.  And British involvement in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War – Leila Berg didn’t go to Spain, but two of her boyfriends were killed there –  has become associated with either intellectuals like George Orwell or well-to-do people like Jessica Mitford, and there isn’t as much focus as there could be on the many “ordinary” people who joined up.

It’s not a very readable book, because the style’s so rambling, but it’s quite interesting.

She does seem to have been very keen on coming across as a rebel.  “Nice” girls in the inter-war years did not use mirrors to look at all bits of themselves, and did not “carry on” with various different boyfriends and write about it.  Even when she’s writing about herself as a young child, she seems rather obsessed with toilets, which you wouldn’t normally write about – too much information!   Her brother does what he’s supposed to – wins a scholarship to our brother school 🙂 , and then goes on to university.  Leila refuses to go to university, drops out of teacher training college, and spends most of her time hanging around at meetings of the Young Communists.  She does a lot of name dropping, but I’m going to assume that she did actually meet all those people.   She certainly had an interesting time of it.

And I do miss Sherratt and Hughes!  It was originally taken over by Waterstones, so at least it was still a bookshop, but then it was turned into a branch of W H Smith when the main W H Smith had to close because of the IRA bomb.  Then that went as well.  But some of the little bookshops in Shudehill, which she also talks about, are still there.  I think she must have been a fan of E J Oxenham, because some of the books she mentions definitely sound like “EJO”s, and she talks a lot in general about expecting secondary school to be like school stories.  That’s all so conventional, but then she turned out to be very unconventional.   And the Listen With Mother ban really does amuse me!

This is probably of limited interest to people who don’t know the area, but it kept me entertained.

 

(Sorry, double-posted because I messed up the Facebook link!)

Flickerbook by Leila Berg

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I absolutely love the fact that a fellow Old Girl of my school had her books banned from Listen With Mother for being “a corrupting influence” -the issue being that the characters in them did such terribly shocking things as coming down the stairs backwards.  Listeners were so horrified by this subversive behaviour that they complained, and the BBC decided that the books had to go.  Janet and John, and Peter and Jane, would never have dreamt of coming down stairs backwards.  Leila Berg did end up winning the Eleanor Farjeon award in 1974, though, so evidently, everyone had come to terms with kids coming down the stairs backwards by then.

Unfortunately, this book, her autobiography of her early years, doesn’t go that far, only up to when she was in her early 20s.  It’s not very coherently written – I think the idea is that it sounds like a child or young adult talking, rather than “sounding” like prose – and anyone who isn’t familiar with Higher Broughton will probably be thoroughly confused by the first third or so of it.  If you do know Higher Broughton, and know exactly where she means when she talks about Bury New Road, Great Clowes Street, Leicester Road et al, you’ll love this; but it’s very localised and very much a personal memoir.  She hasn’t even changed the names of her neighbours.   If you know Manchester/Salford in general, you’ll love her descriptions of walking round town, especially all the references to Sherratt and Hughes bookshop (sadly no longer with us); but, again, if you don’t, you may just feel rather confused.

The later chapters, about her involvement in the radical movements of the inter-war years, may be of more interest to everyone – although probably particularly so to people who know the area.   Everyone’s heard of the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass, and the National Trust is actually a bit obsessed with it, but no-one talks much about the backgrounds of those involved, and you certainly never hear much about there having been women and girls involved.  And British involvement in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War – Leila Berg didn’t go to Spain, but two of her boyfriends were killed there –  has become associated with either intellectuals like George Orwell or well-to-do people like Jessica Mitford, and there isn’t as much focus as there could be on the many “ordinary” people who joined up.

It’s not a very readable book, because the style’s so rambling, but it’s quite interesting.

She does seem to have been very keen on coming across as a rebel.  “Nice” girls in the inter-war years did not use mirrors to look at all bits of themselves, and did not “carry on” with various different boyfriends and write about it.  Even when she’s writing about herself as a young child, she seems rather obsessed with toilets, which you wouldn’t normally write about – too much information!   Her brother does what he’s supposed to – wins a scholarship to our brother school 🙂 , and then goes on to university.  Leila refuses to go to university, drops out of teacher training college, and spends most of her time hanging around at meetings of the Young Communists.  She does a lot of name dropping, but I’m going to assume that she did actually meet all those people.   She certainly had an interesting time of it.

And I do miss Sherratt and Hughes!  It was originally taken over by Waterstones, so at least it was still a bookshop, but then it was turned into a branch of W H Smith when the main W H Smith had to close because of the IRA bomb.  Then that went as well.  But some of the little bookshops in Shudehill, which she also talks about, are still there.  I think she must have been a fan of E J Oxenham, because some of the books she mentions definitely sound like “EJO”s, and she talks a lot in general about expecting secondary school to be like school stories.  That’s all so conventional, but then she turned out to be very unconventional.   And the Listen With Mother ban really does amuse me!

This is probably of limited interest to people who don’t know the area, but it kept me entertained.

Ridley Road by Jo Bloom

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  A TV adaptation of this will be shown later this year, and, although it doesn’t look as if it’s going to bear much resemblance to the book, I thought I’d read the book anyway.  In the early 1960s, our heroine Vivien moves from Manchester to London, where she finds that all the people she knows there, some old family friends and a young man on whom she’s very keen, are involved in the 62 Group, a militant Jewish group working to counter the threat of the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement.  She also learns that her late father was involved in its predecessor, the 43 Group.

It’s not a particularly well-written book, but it’s well-meaning and it tells an important story.  There’ve been some deeply unpleasant incidents recently: we’ve had thugs from Bradford coming over to predominantly Jewish areas of Manchester to vandalise cars and shout abuse at people, a Labour councillor in Blackburn making comments which aren’t even fit to repeat, and even worse incidents in London and other parts of the South.  Some of the actors have spoken about the importance of the plotline, and I’m sure that Red Productions will have done it justice.

In the book, Vivien’s boyfriend Jack is a journalist who infiltrates the National Socialist Movement and helps to bring its leaders to justice, whilst Vivien works at a hairdressing salon.  Bearing in mind that this is set  in 1962 – and the book is based on real life events – that’s probably fairly realistic, but the TV series has got Vivien also being at the heart of the action and the danger, presumably because the idea of a strong female character was more appealing than one who was on the sidelines.   And there’s a lot of danger – there’s considerable violence in the book, as the two groups clash at rallies, and young Jewish men and young black men are badly beaten up.

There’s a Swinging Sixties vibe to it all as well – the salon at which Vivien works is in Soho, and there’s quite a bit of talk about hair and clothes and music.  And that does contrast sharply with everything that Jack’s finding out about what the neo-Nazis are up to.  There are an awful lot of minor characters, and a rather unconvincing plot about an aspiring musician who fancies Vivien and follows her around.

It’s not brilliant, as I’ve said, but it’s worth reading because it draws attention to the periodic rise of extremist elements in society, and their attacks on minority groups.   I’ll certainly be watching the TV series.  In the meantime, if you fancy giving the book a whirl, it’s currently on offer at £2.99 for the Kindle version.

 

Mental Health Awareness Week

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This is Mental Health Awareness Week 2021.  It’s certainly been a strange old year, and one that’s been extremely tough for many people. We are currently awaiting confirmation, later today, that we will be allowed to hug our relatives and friends as of next Monday.  This will apparently involve making “informed personal decisions”; and Scientific Experts are advising that “hugs should be selective, short, and avoid face-to-face contact”. The restrictions have been necessary, but did you ever think you’d live in a world where you had to wait for permission from the authorities to hug your own relatives and friends, and instructions on how to do so?!  In the meantime,  big virtual hugs for anyone who wants them ((virtual hugs 🙂  ))!

Obviously everyone’s experiences will have been different, depending on their personal circumstances and the ways and extent to which the pandemic has impacted on those, but hopefully we’re now well on the way back to some sort of normality.  However, sadly, the same can’t be said of India, Brazil and many other countries, and, as keeps being said, no-one’s really safe until everyone’s safe.  But we’re out of lockdown now, and, hooray, that means that weekend outings to the countryside and the seaside after a week of being trapped with work are back on.  And I want to raise a very large glass to the Victorians and the Edwardians for providing us with our wonderful public parks, without which, whilst waiting to be let out of lockdown, I’d have gone even madder than I already am.

The theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is “nature”, and the Mental Health Foundation have explained that this is because “going for walks outside was one of our top coping strategies and 45% of us reported being in green spaces had been vital for our mental health” and “even small contacts with nature can reduce feelings of social isolation and be effective in protecting our mental health, and preventing distress”.  Too true.  I don’t know how I’d have managed if I hadn’t been able to go for walks round the local park during the lockdowns, especially the first lockdown when we weren’t supposed to be going more than a few miles from home.

It’s funny how, when I can’t bear the noise of dogs barking or engines revving, I find the sound of birdsong very relaxing.  And best of all are the flowers.  Especially daffodils!   I’m a bit obsessive about daffodils.  The start of the first lockdown coincided with the daffodil season, and being able to see the daffodils and then the bluebells and the blossom really did make it a lot less difficult to cope with everything.

It was so hard not being able to go to the Lake District, though, or to Blackpool, or the Peaks, or the various National Trust, English Heritage and other properties which I usually visit.  I’m extremely grateful to the National Trust, English Heritage and Windermere Lake Cruises for getting things open again as soon as they were able to, even if it was with limited numbers!  I even had a full week in the Lakes last summer, for the first time ever, and having that time there, rather than being in a rush on a day trip or a weekend break, was wonderful.  We’re very fortunate to have so many lovely places within relatively easy reach.  And they really have helped in what’s been a tough year.

Just a few little (well, little-ish) rants here, though.

Firstly, I know all the reasons for lockdown, but it’s been particularly hard on people in densely-populated urban areas.  We haven’t got a lot of green space.  We’ve got high proportions of residents who haven’t got gardens.  And, being densely-populated and having a lot of people in jobs which can’t be done at home, those of us in the old industrial heartlands of Northern England, the Midlands, the central belt of Scotland, South West Wales, and Belfast, were the ones put under additional travel restrictions in the autumn.  It was really hard for us – not helped by media outlets showing pictures of crowds in public parks and tut-tutting.  Yes, of course we were in the public parks.  Where else were we supposed to go?  We’re very lucky to have a very big and very lovely public park near us, and I’m extremely grateful for that, but, more than once, it got to a point where I felt like re-enacting the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass.  Hopefully, the days of lockdowns are over, but it was pretty frustrating.  And as for those local councils which decided to lock all the public toilets …

Secondly, about annoying people who spoil things for others.  Yes, I’m sure a lot of people think I’m incredibly annoying, but at least I don’t make a lot of noise or mess … which is more than can be said for dog-owners who let their horrible dogs bark their heads off and or jump up at other people, bikers who rev their engines so loudly that other people can’t hear themselves think, or anyone who drops litter.  Please, folks, clean up after yourselves, keep the noise down and keep your dogs under control.  Other people do not want your “precious fur baby” (how I hate that expression) jumping all over them or barking so loudly that they can’t hear themselves think.

OK, rant over!  Oh dear, that got a bit longer than I’d intended!   But having access to open spaces is very important.  Yes, you can walk along the pavements, but it’s not very relaxing when you keep having to stop to cross a road or wait for someone to reverse out of their drive, and looking at cars and houses isn’t quite the same as looking at trees and flowers.  And nature’s always there – whatever’s been happening over the past year, the seasons have come and gone as usual, the flowers have come and gone as usual, and the baby animals have been born as usual.  Turn, turn, turn.  There’s something rather reassuring about that.  Something a bit frightening, too, as you watch the months slip-sliding away, but, mostly, something reassuring.

It’s hard to find the time, when you’ve got work and housework to do, and there are traffic jams and queues everywhere, but finding that bit of time to “connect” with nature really is worth it.

If anyone’s read this, thank you!   Enjoy the flowers, enjoy the trees, enjoy the birdsong … but, if you are struggling, please ask for help.

 

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 …

 

 

The Madonna of Bolton by Matt Cain

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I read this (well, apart from the fact that it was on a 99p Kindle offer) partly in honour of the forthcoming Manchester Pride weekend (although the stupid virus has put the kibosh on most of it), and partly (the author being almost exactly the same age as me) as an excuse for a big nostalgia fest about growing up in the North West in the ’80s and early ’90s … never missing an episode of either Coronation Street or Dynasty, reading teen pop magazines, and wearing hooded tops, telling everyone you were obsessed with Madchester music, and hoping that no-one would ever, ever call you either a stiff or a townie.  My entire class once wasted half a Latin lesson discussing how uncool it was to be a townie.  I have no idea why the teacher let us do this.

It’s a novel, but based closely on the author’s own experiences of growing up as a young gay man in Bolton, the issues he faced, and his obsession with Madonna.  How big was Madonna in the ’80s?!  I remember going round to my then best friend’s house for tea on the day that the Like A Prayer video was shown on TV in the UK for the first time, and it was *such* a big deal!   He rather overplays the northern working-class stereotypes; the fact that the book’s written in the present tense is a bit annoying; and the Madonna thing comes and goes rather than being the central theme as the title suggests; but it’s very thoughtfully-written and genuinely moving.

We see how our main man, Charlie (aka Matt) struggles badly due to being bullied at school, and how he feels that he doesn’t fit in either there or at home.  But we’re told that he finds that going to the gay bars and clubs in Canal Street (the heart of the Gay Village in Manchester) makes life a lot easier, which is rather lovely.  We try to be a welcoming city where everyone can be themselves ❤ .  Then we see him go off to university … and then move to London, which is a shame, as I thought the book was going to be set in Bolton.

His life gets in a complete mess, as he struggles to find his place in the world, but it all works out in the end   It could really have done with being a bit longer, to explain it all properly, but it all works out in the end.  And, when he finally meets Mr Right and they get married, the ceremony takes place at Bolton Town Hall and not in London.  Hooray!   And – see what I mean about overdoing the stereotypes?! – they even have Lancashire hotpot at the reception.  This is a really lovely book, and, especially if you can get it on the 99p deal, it’s well worth reading.