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Friday, 21 April 2017

The Pendle Witches


Happiness can come in small, perfectly formed snippets that can be recalled at will many years later. One such moment for me was the summer having just finished my M. A. on Anthony Trollope. I had time on my hands, little money but a bedsit in the Uplands area of Swansea, Joni Mitchell’s Blue album, and three books:
Lavengro and Romany Rye by George Borrow, and Rookwood by William Harrison Ainsworth. Rookwood is worth a post in itself, a baggy, picaresque novel exploring the C18th underworld, Highwaymen and dissolute aristocrats. I re-read it many years later and it didn’t disappoint. On that basis I downloaded a cheap kindle edition of another one his novels: The Lancashire Witches.

Published in 1849, The Lancashire Witches is a fictionalised account of the great Pendle Witch trial of 1612. It also provided ideal material for Ainsworth who was heavily influenced by the C18th gothic tradition. For some, Ainsworth has been seen as a key link between the early gothic tradition and the late C19th ‘Penny Dreadful’ —though the latter connotation does him a disservice. He was quite a substantial writer, a friend of Dickens and almost as popular.

On finishing the book, two things struck me:
a)     How ‘horror’ has changed and
b)    His attention to detail and the durability of the English countryside.

Ainsworth’s ‘horror’ has more in common with the medieval morality play and the starkness of old woodcut prints. Witches range from the dangerously seductive to the more traditional hideous crone. There are familiars and demons and broomsticks. 








It is black and white, one-dimensional and, I’m tempted to say, lacks psychological depth. But this wouldn’t be entirely fair, for Ainsworth was writing for an audience that believed in the eternal struggle between good and evil and the infinite value of the human soul. The stereotypes of crones and familiars, virtuous and beautiful young maidens and doomed heroes are time-worn and have less resonance now, but for a Victorian audience the real horror would have been the corruption of innocence, the real drama damnation, despair and the hope of redemption.

With regard to his attention to detail and the durability of the English countryside, I was struck by the wonderfully evocative Lancastrian place names, some so evocative I had to check they actually existed. But places like Whalley Nab exist and remain largely unchanged since Ainsworth first wrote about them. 



Historical figures are also meticulously researched, and families such as the Asshetons of Whalley and Downham still figure largely in the area as do their houses. 
Painted by Turner, the village of Downham 'nestles' beneath Sir Nicholas Asshton's House adjacent to the Church and just hidden by the trees described in the book.

Whalley Abbey
The Abbey House where Sir Ralph Assheton lived and where much of the action takes place

Whalley Abbey Gatehouse as painted by Turner
The Abbey was bounded by the towering and well-wooded heights of Whalley Nab. On the side of the Abbey, the most conspicuous objects were the great north-eastern gateway.

Rough Lee Hall, home of the witch Alice Nutter

For those who enjoy evocative set pieces, Ainsworth delivers—much in the vein of Sir Walter Scott. His descriptions of an otter hunt, a stag hunt, and the impact of a royal visit to Houghton Tower (James I) are powerful and stay in the mind.
Whalley parish church, exterior and interior exactly as Ainsworth describes. 

Whalley figures prominently in the book. One of the witches, Old Chattox is keen to get to one of three Saxon crosses in the parish churchyard. To the villagers their antiquity and strange carving render them magical. Their magic is confirmed when Old Chattox mysteriously vanishes:
 “She has rendered herself invisible, by reciting the magical verses inscribed on that cross.”….
“What strange uncouth characters. I can make neither head nor tail, unless it be the devil’s tail, of them.”
The crosses are still there for you to decide, as is the Calder where Nan Redferne was molested and brutally ‘ducked.’




And overshadowing Whalley Nab, the village and church, Rough Lee, Whalley Abbey and Downham is Pendle Hill itself. 


For a view of the surrounding countryside from the top, click here. 
For more pictures of the surrounding countryside and in particular the mystery of Malkin's Tower, click here 
And for those curious about Jeanette Winterton's book on the Pendle Witches, click here

Thursday, 13 April 2017

I'm doomed

Never read the papers if you wish to stay optimistic and reasonably sane. All this week I’ve been examining my earlobes, which lets be fair, are not the actions of a well-balanced man. Don’t get me wrong, my earlobes are to die for, and that’s basically the problem. I’ve discovered a faint diagonal crease on each one, which the papers have just told me portend imminent death by heart attack; well, perhaps not imminent. To be fair they hedge their bets with words like ‘may’ and such like, but the figures are damning. 

A recent survey in China indicated that those with diagonal creases in their earlobes were five times more likely to have significant narrowing of their coronary arteries than those lacking those damn creases. As soon as I read the article, I put down the paper and headed straight for the mirror. And there they were, grinning at me like lopsided fools, two very faint diagonal lines, almost unseen unless you were looking for them. 

Palmistry is much more benign. I have a long lifeline . . . or do I? Which takes precedence, the lobe, sneaky and often hidden by hair or random lines on a hand?

More to the point, what is to be done? I already go to the gym, punishment in itself. Perhaps face cream, great dollops of Nivea slathered over the offending lobes. Once you’re aware of these creases, these harbingers of death, emails from the Grim Reaper, you assume everyone else can see them too. Passers-by making sober judgements on whether I’ll make my Waitrose coffee in time.  Suddenly a Niqab sounds quite attractive, though not a Burka. That would be an overreaction.

Greying hair is also a sign, balding too, though I found some comfort on reading that receding hairlines were OK. It was the poor buggers with baldness on the crown that were walking hand in hand with death.

So now you know. I’m doomed, but a problem shared is a problem halved is what I always say. Share it widely enough and it might go away—until another newspaper reports bilateral creases in earlobes are marks of high intelligence and sexual potency.

I’ll keep you posted.


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Meanwhile check out your earlobes. Don’t see why I should be the only miserable bugger investigating coffins 

Saturday, 8 April 2017

When I breathed I clinked

How I drifted into teaching, how I stuck with it for thirty years, still remains a bit of a mystery. Perhaps I just liked teaching history – working with young silly buggers, and on bad days—inertia, the feeling that there wasn’t anything else I really wanted to do.
Marking a register for the first time was an exercise in poetry. Names like Giovanni Ambroselli… Bruno Romola, Rudolpho Velluchi, Mauro Zannotti  rolled off the tongue like incantations, putting me in a good mood for the rest of the day.
Father Hills was a nice entry into teaching and I taught some remarkable boys who’ve gone on to do great things. Things became more challenging when, a year later, we all decamped to the spanking new school adjacent to Tredegar House. The spanking new soon becomes old and it was knocked down some thirty years later.




When I got there I found I’d been given the wildest Form in the school - ‘to break me in’ - an elderly teacher told me in a mournful voice . . . 
It was Christmas, the last day of term. The weather was wintry, the schoolyard crusted in a thin skin of snow. I was on break duty, looking forward to the holiday starting in two hours, twenty-one minutes, and ten seconds time. A member of my Form came up to me. ‘Merry Christmas, sir,’ he said. He thrust a small bottle of whisky at me. My spirits rose. Just Two hours, eighteen minutes and twenty-one seconds to go— and a bottle of whisky!
In the next ten minutes my spirits rose still further as one by one the boys in my Form came up to me, each offering me various alcoholic drinks, each wishing me a Merry Christmas. Teaching wasn’t so bad I decided.
The bell went and we trooped into the final assembly of the year. The hall was freezing, the central heating having been switched off in readiness for the holiday ahead. I stood there in my woollen greatcoat, its many pockets bulging with bottles. When I breathed, I clinked.
My Form was positioned as usual in the front row - staring up at the stage with their usual intentness. In my first week, I’d assumed they were just keen, inspired perhaps by Mr Witherington’s various homilies. In my second week, as I came to know the Head and my Form, I realised this couldn’t be so. In my third week, I discovered the truth. My Form had a sweepstake on how many times Mr Witherington rocked on his feet as he spoke. Real money changed hands. (An interesting side bet was how many times he said ‘umm’ between words.)
But on this occasion the Head had something serious to say and my heart sank. Boys had brought drink into the school. A boy had been caught sick in the caretaker’s cupboard. Everyone— he stared at my Form in particular— would be searched.
The staff swung away from the walls with the same menacing smiles I remembered from when I was a schoolboy. I tried to ensure they wouldn’t be directed at me and so walked very carefully, aware of every tiny clink. I felt like the Tin Man. My Form stood up, impassive, obedient, their gaze fixed intently on the Head’s shoes.
 I patted them down, avoiding their eyes, aware of the smirking behind blank faces. No matter, just over an hour to go.
No drink was found, and I returned to the wall, contemplating an unexpectedly rich and exciting Christmas. The Lord works in mysterious ways. As I walked to the bus stop there was movement behind me, a furtive touch on the shoulder. I turned.
“Can we have our bottles back, sir?”
The optimism of youth.
"What bottles?"  I said

Thursday, 30 March 2017

There are places I remember








It's a funny old thing but I still dream of my childhood, random streets appearing without notice and hosting fantastical events. The reality, as I remember was more prosaic. The picture above is of Eastbourne Road. To the right, just outside the picture was Robinsons sweetshop. (Newsagents were called sweetshops then) from where I did my paper round. The building to the left was a large, redbrick Wesleyan Church. It was tricky and involved several drainpipes, but you could climb on the roof and . . . do all manner of things. 

The picture below is  Heswell Road. Under blue skies, houses like these appeared flat and mundane, but in Irish Sea mist they became otherworldly






In a quiz last week a question asked which road cut through Aintree Racecourse. Heads swiveled in my direction, expectations hight. For a moment I panicked, until it came back to me. Both pictures, above and below, show Melling Road thought at different times. I like to think that the children below could well have been my aunts and uncles, perhaps even my parents. I dream of ghosts, too.



And below is Walton Lane. What still strikes me is how clean and empty the streets were. It was a more leisurely time.




A time when postmen wore uniform



And Park police were issued with Vespa scooters . . .  and were trained how to use them


When they appear in my sleep, I usually wake up.

Before I forget, have you spotted the time traveller 'apparently' using a cell phone?

Friday, 24 March 2017

Pictures from the past: Liverpool women








It was a time before washing machines, fridges or convenience food, when women sanded their doorsteps pristine




and cleaned windows the hard way.



And gossiped through their clean windows. Never a secret slipped by




Enjoyed a port and lemon or three


Dressed up for special occasions (Aintree Racecourse 1938)




Ironed  the hair for special occasions




And now we have everything.

Aintree Races today

Friday, 17 March 2017

The Gym, The Rolling Stones, and me


For some time now I’ve done my 50-minute gym sessions to the sound of the ‘Today Program’ and ‘Any Questions.’ I’m a news junkie, and in some ways it helped take my mind away from the utter tedium of pounding treadmills and stuff. It also actively encouraged dangerous levels of exertion. My blood pressure is a passionate beast, and hearing weaselly obfuscations and obvious untruths from the self-serving and corrupt, I pound  cross-trainers and treadmills even harder, imagining their heads beneath my trainers, their tongues and brains pulping under my feet.

Afterwards, usually in the shower, I feel some Christian remorse, pull them to their feet and brush them down . . . until the next time.  

Just recently I’ve discovered a new and more satisfactory way of passing time in the gym, one everyone else has known for some time, everyone but me with my fixation on ‘news.’
Music—and with the added virtue that no politician gets hurt in the process.

It’s my new iPod touch, and large Bose headphones that unfortunately make me look like Nanook of the North. A small sacrifice.

Since my entire music collection is now on the iPod, I’m discovering albums I haven’t heard for years. My obsession with ‘news’ is one of the reasons for this, that and the fact I can’t listen to music when I’m writing. Some authors can, and to me that is mystery. I can write or I can listen to music. I can’t do both since each have competing demands and my brain has very small processing power.
It doesn’t need much processing to punish your body; then distraction is everything and music a godsend. I feel like St Paul on the road to Damascus telling everyone the news years after everyone knows.

There is though music and music. ‘Dancing with Mr D’ (Rolling Stones Goatshead Soup) is particularly good on the Cross-Trainer. ‘Not Fade Away’ fabulous for fast running on the Treadmill, along with ‘Radar Love’ and most anything by Chuck Berry. ‘Emotional Rescue’ is also quite versatile – useful for the Exercise Bike, Rowing machine and the various Weight Machines that bugger your muscles. Ocasionally Hildegarde de Bingen comes on, but she’s no bloody good at all.

There are pitfalls. You are in your own world, oblivious to anyone else there. A few times I’ve been caught out singing – and the gym quickly empties. Worse though is the occasional Mick Jagger strut from machine to machine. Truly sad. A fourteen year old boy in old man’s body. Me—not Mick.


Then there’s the swim. No music just chlorine. The sauna that follows almost makes it all worthwhile. If I could find some way to listen to Hildegarde de Bingen in the Sauna, that would just be icing on the cake.

Friday, 10 March 2017

A free range childhood.



Sometimes pictures say it better than words


When cars knew their place


A time before cars


                                                        When Bin had sentinels ....

                        (What was going on in their minds? Something richer than a video screen)



Bins without sentinels