Continuing the second series of the offbeat HebWeb column from local writer and story-teller, George Murphy.
Episode 18 includes a lax MP, Mischief and Plots, bonfire nights of yore, Ted Hughes on his yacht, a President Elect and one who won’t leave, Remembrances, Friday 13th, the girl in white and a cautionary tale.
Murphy’s Lore Series Two
Episode 18: Lockdown diary
Monday, 16 November 2020
Monday, November 2nd
I went for a stroll.
Tuesday, November 3rd
Calder Valley MP, Craig Whitaker, recently lambasted the Asian community for having a lax attitude towards the pandemic. Strange that today he voted against a circuit break lockdown - joining the Live and Let Die wing of his party.
Overnight I overdosed on CNN. Trump won Florida and other key states. Lots of postal votes hadn’t been counted, but I went to sleep at 6am expecting the worst. When I woke at 8am the mood had lifted. Arizona was on my mind, and Georgia … oh, Georgia … Then Mary Krell, who has worried about her country for the past four years, texted: ‘Don’t worry!’
Penny for ‘em
Hebden folk sent me memories of plot nights, apple bobbing and bonfires in days of yore. Emma Lira remembers making guys and waiting outside pubs (especially The Albert) “knowing parents would pay cash for feeling guilty about being in the pub.”
As well as Penny for the Guy, Penny Coggan recalled "apple peel thrown over your shoulder to find your true love’s initials, apples on strings - and hot dogs." In London, Ruth Chamberlain "dressed up a friend’s 4 year old brother, with a mask and straw strategically sticking out of his trousers … and told him he‘d best not move! We were complimented on our very realistic guy."
Greta was a headteacher in Grimethorpe in the 70s. One evening, she was walking along with a governor after a meeting when they saw a small group of children asking passers by for 10p for their guy. The governor said, “I hate to see children begging, don’t you Greta?” "Oh yes, it’s terrible," she replied. Then one of the kids shouted "Hiya mum!"
Wednesday, 4th November
Mischief, plots - and raiding parties
Mischief Night was a tradition in parts of the north. Jack Parrett grew up in York, where it was called Miggy Night. Zetta Bear, ‘over Leeds way in the 60s’, remembers "putting syrup on peoples’ door handles and wrapping toilet paper round their trees and bushes." Others recalled tying front door handles together and then knocking on both doors. Joyce Bragg confessed they even had Mischief Night in Harrogate!
Pranks sometimes flipped into vandalism. Garden gates were prized, and when the police were called they told householders to look for them in local ponds. Jill Robinson, an offcumden to Yorkshire in the 70s, remembers seeing orange paint tipped "over a grey car." In 60s Bacup, Yvonne Slater reckoned mischief was mainly, "stealing rival streets’ bonfire wood." Steven Blacksmith also remembers ‘ragging’ neighbouring streets’ plots and "using millband to set fireworks off." To which Helen Trussel responded, "My gang raided other streets’ plots too. Neighbours made hard treacle toffee and Parkin. I loved being allowed to have a piece of slow burning millband. If I was lucky, I got to stay up long enough to bake potatoes in the embers at the end, moving our chairs closer and closer."
Deano versus Alby
The top end of our street in Ellesmere Port was like a raised village green, with council semis all round and a concrete road through the middle. On one side of the road we played football, at the centre of the other green (we called them ‘patches’) was a black wound of scorched earth, where we had our annual bonfire. One year, our street gang stole ‘bomby’ from the plot on Malvern Avenue and at school next day the Malvern gang told our lot they’d be paying a visit to Newnham Drive, and bringing Deano with them.
Deano was a muscular middleweight with a short fuse and a James Dean quiff. Our champion, Alby Finn, was a lanky, soft hearted, soft headed cruiserweight, who sounded a bit like Goofy with a bad case of Tourettes. At the appointed hour, the Malvern gang strolled into our street, like a scrawnier version of the Jets in West Side Story, minus the singing and dancing skills.
Deano mosied up to Alby and said they didn’t want no trouble, they’d just come to take back what was theirs. Alby told Deano to “F-ing F-off.” Deano didn’t take him up on this suggestion and his sidekicks started inspecting samples of our fledgling plot. Deano said, "We’re just looking for us street markings."
He picked up a silver birch stave twice as thick as his wrists, "If they’ve got notches on ‘em, they’re ours." Alby prowled past him, muttering, "I’m not F-ing interested in F-ing notches, none of your F-ing lot is taking nothing." He turned and shouted, "Put those F-ing branches down!"
Deano, both hands gripping his silver staff, swung it over Alby’s head and pulled him back by his neck onto the ground. Then he leapt onto his chest, and pushed the branch hard up into his neck, whilst pinning Alby’s arms with his knees. It was a breathtaking and daring manoeuvre. Alby bucked and tossed. "Just let us take what’s ours," said Deano, cool as you like. Alby groaned like a wounded rhino, but managed to blurt out a reminder of where Deano should take himself.
The rest of us silently adjusted to this sudden turn of events, the big lads in our gang looking on in silent embarrassment, too scared to intervene. At some point, two of us younger lads ran off and banged on Johnny Rice’s door, knowing he owned an air rifle. We waited a few seconds. Then we knocked again, more emphatically. Soon the door opened and down the hall I glimpsed a white haired woman bringing a meal on a tray from the back kitchen, thinking it strange that life was going on as normal despite the drama nearby. An amused young woman popped her head round the door.
“Hey, little men? What can we do you for?!”
Colin said, “Is Johnny in?”
"Sorry, Johnny can’t come out to play fellers; he’s out playing grown up games, but I’ll tell him you called." She smiled and started closing the door.
I said, "Could we just borrow his air rifle, please … it’s an emergency!"
She shut her eyes, then shook her head to get it working properly, but when she looked again we were still there.
"Tell me something lads, how old are youzz two?! Borrow our Johnny’s air rifle? … Mmm, just let me think about that one." She put a finger, curved like a question mark, up to her lips. Err … I’m not sure he’d like that idea, fellers, sorry to disappoint." She shut the door.
Back at the plot, Alby was still swearing at Deano and holding out, his legs squirming like a giant upturned insect, writhing beneath a smaller but deadly predator, as in those nature films at Saturday morning flicks at The Queen’s, before Mask of Zorro came on. I fantasised about taking my jumper off and pulling it over Deano’s head to distract him, like in tag team wrestling, thus allowing Alby to roll away, but, as I fancied living a bit longer, and me mom had knitted it for me, I decided against it. In a wrestling match, Alby could have conceded the first fall, got back to his feet and, like Billy Two Rivers, won 2-1, but no one was reffing this contest.
In the end, Alby submitted. "Take as much F-ing wood as you F-ing like, and see if I F-ing care." Despite this concession, Deano kept Alby firmly pinned down till his gang had nicked slightly more dead sycamore and oak than we’d originally nicked off them. As they dragged the giant woody fans back towards Malvern Avenue Deano jumped up, and without looking back, marched off with his silver staff on his shoulder, as bright as the Lone Ranger’s pistol in the gathering gloom.
Alby sat up and shouted, "You wouldn’t have F-ing won if we’d been in a F-ing boxing ring!" He stood up, rubbed his neck, then waggled his head to see if the two were still connected. Then he slowly looked about and quietly condemned us lot as F-ing, useless cowards." He had a point. Watching the Malvern gang disappear round the corner with their booty, felt like being in a western, but we were the ones in the black hats.
While I was recalling these events, I got a message from Jackie Jones, who lived two streets away back then. She remembers a later year when lads from our street stole the picket fencing from her street. Each day when she returned from school, more fencing was missing, until on November 5th, none of it was left. On bonfire night, the stanchions crackled and burnt fiercely on the beautiful yellow mass of our bomby (as ever, the biggest for miles around), their crimson splinters spiralling up into the cold night sky.
Thursday, November 5th
This year Guy Fawkes was given a break, but in the past, bonfire night was the big night for which we all waited. Freda Pemberton, from Liverpool, remembers "street bonfires and carving turnips, duck apple and bob apple and my mum’s treacle toffee." Dot Sadowski’s family had a joint bonfire in the back garden with the next door neighbours. "It was always held in our garden because it was so overgrown … it was one way of keeping the grass down. No, I’m not making it up."
Freda Davis of Triangle remembers, "We always had a big bonfire in our back garden and fireworks. Lots of friends round. A guy that we stuffed with straw. We made camp cake, just a dish of batter that you scooped up on a clean stick and held in the fire. We put potatoes in the embers too. Mum made gingerbread."
In Haworth, troubadour and storyteller, Wuthering James, ate "parkin pigs and gingerbread men, baked potatoes, in the ashes of the bonfire and pie and peas … the peas were brown ones - can you still get them? Last time I saw some they were classed as bird food!!!" Joan Cook remembers in Stockton on 'Tees, just after the war, when people “had little bonfires on small plots of land … It was years before I realised that the fires were on the sites of demolished houses damaged by wartime bombing."
50 years on, awareness of the damage and casualties caused by fireworks and street bonfires led to bans. We still went to plots in friends’ back gardens, frozen-backed in the blistering heat, but for real spectaculars, crowds started gathering at large municipal bonfires, especially to see the spectacular firework displays.
The most humungous bonfires I’ve seen were in Hebden Bridge. People gathered on the surrounding hillsides to watch the show. We reserved window seats at the Thai restaurant weeks in advance, but lots of people went to the fairground in the park. Money bucketed into local charities. Then one year gangs of tanked up guys arrived from outlying towns, looking for trouble. There were outbreaks of violence and children screamed at their first sight of viciousness and danger. Sirens whined along the main road, police resources were overstretched and, within a year or two, Hebden Bridge Bonfire Night was no more.
Saturday, November 7th
Like the President Elect, there’s times when we all mis-speak. We were watching an item on the Vendee Global Yacht Race when I said, with some authority, "Did you know Ted Hughes was a yachtsman?"
PW looked me directly in the eyes and said, "No he wasn’t."
I said, "For your information, Miss Clever Clogs, he won the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race whilst he was Prime Minister."
“Was Sylvia Plath on board, then?”
Sunday, November 8th
Dave Jackson has written about a Remembrance Sunday in 1960, when he walked along with his grandad Barney. "His WW1 comrades seemed old. Many of them, Barney included, walked with limps or had sticks or wheelchairs. Some had missing legs or arms. I watched him with this group from a distance. It was a very serious occasion. The importance and sanctity of it all drilled into us. But I noticed, what I now recognise as the deep friendships and camaraderie of his companions. Before the march they chatted, relaxed, shared jokes and fags. They had a shared experience and knew that we, the crowd, would never get it and it was a weight that they all carried."
Monday, November 9th
The new Pfizer vaccine has been cautiously welcomed. It has to be stored in a deep freeze, and its efficacy depends on using a double dose, so twice as many vaccines will have to be manufactured and stored. It feels as if the world has received two great bits of news out of America recently. Mind you, Trump hasn’t left the White House yet.
Tuesday, November 10th
The New Scientist has a feature on the importance of touch, and why people find it hard to stay socially distanced during pandemics. Amongst male animals it’s important to signal non violent kinship. So when male baboons meet they bond by performing a kind of conga as they walk along in step with one another, which beats a handshake any day.
Also in New Scientist they now reckon there are 5 billion earth type planets in our Milky Way, indicating that life is abundant throughout the universe. No doubt, on several of those other earths, females are raising eyebrows in consternation right now, as they wait for their menfolk to finish their congas through the shopping arcades, before getting down to some serious Christmas shopping.
Wednesday, November 11th
At eleven o’clock, I joined a silent group of a dozen or so, including men in high viz jackets, a bus driver, two cyclists and a mixture of nationalities, near the memorial in Calder Holmes park, as we stood for a two minute silence, taking my mind back to Grandad John who never talked about the Great War and Grandad George, who belatedly died from it, and my dad, who fought in a forgotten war. Two minutes up, we all quietly moved off and focused on our own lives again.
Pete Jackson, Dave’s brother, has written about another group of fallen soldiers, who were shot by their own side, adding his refrains to an argument that lasted 90 years.*
“We shall not remember them. We shall not remember Herbert Morrison, who was the youngest soldier in the West India Regiment when he was led in front of the firing squad and gunned down for desertion. A ‘coward’ at just 17.
We shall not remember when Gertrude Farr went to the local post office in 1916 and was told, "We don’t give pensions to the widows of cowards." She was left destitute with a three year old and a four month old to feed.
We shall not remember the poor soldier who confessed, "I haven’t been the same since I scraped my best friend’s brains from my face." He too was shot at dawn.”
*Even in 1914 people knew about “shell shock” - what the modern world calls Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The men were eventually given an official pardon in 2006. Their families should also have received apologies.
595 people died of Covid-19 today, as the UK death toll went above 50,000.
Friday, November 13th
Looking at the date, it seems appropriate that Dominic Cummings has lost his place at the heart of government today. Donald Trump came close to conceding the election. There was some other good news, HebWeb’s esteemed Editor ticked up another mile on the clock.
On a night and date like this, storytellers are itching to tell stories. Here’s my take on one I heard from the folk singer and part time storyteller, Keith Donnelly.
The girl in white
It happened on the tops, on a long stretch of road, one of those moorland skirting, bouncy roads where the foundations never quite settle. It was night time and a fog had started to form, but visibility was still a good 30 metres or so, and Ken was keen to get back home to Hebden Bridge for his birthday celebrations. The Big 40! It would have to fall on Friday 13th, mind. Unlucky for some!
His music was booming out of his speakers when he saw her, a girl running out on the road, opposite the isolated cottage he passed every evening, where he always put his foot down, thinking ’10 minutes to home.’ She seemed to be chasing her dog, no more than a puppy, but, when she heard Ken’s Volvo, she froze, stock still, in the middle of the road! He veered to the left to avoid her, but heard a thud a moment before his car took off and flew into the unforgiving trunk of a lonely Scots Pine.
Once or twice he came round in his hospital bed, every limb padded and bound, like in the cartoons, aware of voices around him, the kids, someone quietly weeping and his wife gently pressing his hand as his eyelids fluttered almost open for a moment, but mainly he saw the girl. Her white dress and her face about to scream before he hit her. He told himself, if he survived, the first thing he would do was pay her family a visit. That much he owed them.
So the day came when he pulled in outside the little cottage, opposite a floral tribute wreath on the tree where he crashed after hitting her. It was early evening, but the weather was calm and the light was clear - and, despite the guilty burden he was carrying, he felt light footed and as good as new, and keen to get on with his life after first doing what he had to do. He knocked as firmly as he could on the red painted front door.
A man opened it, about his age, but with a Hebden look to him, with his throw back waist coat and his earring.
“Can we help you, mate?” An offcumden then, from London most likes. Ken braced himself.
“I’ve come to see you … about the accident.”
“Yes, about a year ago. There was an accident on the road just here. I had to see you. I came straight here from the hospital … you must tell me. Was your daughter killed?”
“Oh, no mate. My daughter wasn’t killed!” Relief coursed through Ken’s veins. “Her puppy was though, poor little mite, but that little rascal had a will of its own. No, our daughter’s getting ready for bed upstairs.”
They both fell quiet for a moment and listened to her singing … “I was riding shot gun,” and shared huge grins.
A weight seemed to lift off Ken.
“No, she wasn’t killed, mate,” the girl’s father said. “The driver was though.”
Sunday, November 15th
As I’ve included a couple of quotes from my much missed Jackson friends, it’s fitting that I should respond to Dave being recently bitten by a bull dog whilst out walking, even though the dog was on a lead! He’s also had dog dung dumped in his hedge. A few years ago I went for a walk with Dave and his wife Lin over Erringden hillside, when every other bush and tree was littered by black bags. It seems much improved since then, but our walk inspired this Cautionary Tale.
Finally, thanks to the poet Stephanie Bowgett for providing a continental perspective on festivals and traditions at this time of year.
"I was brought up in Germany and the big celebration was All Saints’ day where the graves in cemeteries were covered in coloured glass jars with candles in them. Being a child of melodramatic and gothic persuasion, I loved it. Also, November 11th was St Martin’s Night and we children would parade with lanterns to the Rathaus where St Martin, a Roman soldier would cut his cloak in half and give half to a beggar. We would then collect sweet bread from the Rathaus. These had white clay pipes baked into them, used till they broke from blowing bubbles in the bath!"
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