Monday, 21 January 2019
This is the fourth of a regular column from local writer and story-teller, George Murphy.
Murphy’s Lore 4
Edging along Burnley Road to collect our grand daughter from school, my wife turns the engine off when the traffic light turns red. One day she sees a couple of green protestors walking along, reminding other drivers to do the same. She gets their leaflet. The group call themselves Calderdale Extinction Rebellion. Scientists reckon 30,000 people are killed each year from air pollution. Children are particularly vulnerable and asthma cases are soaring. The couple say their group will eventually take more direct action.
One day in the 80s, our neighbour Helen called round.
"George, Tony’s away and there’s a large rat on our door-step - and it won’t move!".
I grabbed a long handled brush as my weapon.
The brown rat was sitting sedately on the doorstep of the ancient, many mullioned house, with the air of a meditating Buddha. We imagined its apparent composure was caused by the effects of poisoning. The farmer up the lane had recently been prosecuted for leaving unlicensed poisons in his yard.
Four women looking on from a safe distance. I felt like their champion as I walked towards the creature. I slowly raised the broom up high, subconsciously channelling old films - the rat was Anne Boleyn to my French executioner. I knew I had one chance for a clean kill. I brought the brush down with what felt like controlled and lethal force. But when I hoisted the broom up high again, the creature had vanished. The women gathered round, looking nervously over my shoulder. Where was it?…
"He’s on the broom head!" Helen shouted.
I looked up as the women scattered, screaming. The fat rodent looked placidly down at me. I wondered what to do for a moment.
Then I threw the brush away and legged it.
There used to be a scattering of coalmines in these hills. According to Nature’s Domain, Anne Lister reckoned to earn £300 a year from the shaft at Shibden Hall, employing four colliers to deliver 20 loads of coal per shift. In the Central Library, a Halifax Antiquarian Society year book shows a boy and girl in Georgian times being lowered into a mine shaft over Elland way. Bob Swindells, the Haworth based children’s author, told me he was inspired to write A Candle in the Dark after seeing that picture.
My wife’s a miner’s daughter. The first time I went up to their cottage in County Durham in 1972, I had shoulder length hair and wore a fur coat, spangled T- shirt and yellow flares. When I was introduced to Kath’s dad, he nodded then said, "I just think I’ll go upstairs for a bit of a lie down."
In the 1984 miners' strike, we were at a fund raising quiz near Wakefield when the tie breaker question for 2nd place was, “What is Sturgeon’s Roe?’
Mishearing, I shouted ‘Harley Street!’
Which got a good laugh from the crowd and our mining team opponents. They knew about caviare, even if they didn’t eat it.
We’re halfway through the football season. Despite living near the park I rarely see kids playing impromptu soccer matches. In spring and summer lads congregate at the scateboard park, nonchalantly swooping and clattering across the concrete, but there’s not much juvenile football or cricket. I wonder if today’s kids follow team sports as keenly as we once did?
Before the war, Dixie Dean scored 60 goals in a season for Everton, many of them with his head. My dad told me Dixie was walking through Liverpool one day when he nodded to Elisha Scott, the Liverpool goalie, causing Elisha to dive through the plate glass window of a department store.
My mum remembered a childhood rhyme, "Dixie Dean should never be seen, he tried to score a goal. He missed his chance and split his pants, the ball went up his", which is where she stopped.
So I started brylcreeming my hair and having a centre parting - like Dixie, who by then was landlord of The Dublin Packet in Chester. This had the disadvantage in hot weather of the grease running onto my neck, although it was possible to scrape it off in pale brown welts with my fingernails. I was walking home from school one hot day when a binman called me over and admired my new retro style. So I informed him in some detail about Dixie. The binman was so that impressed he called his mates over to have a proper look at me.
When he was famous, Dixie was questioned about the time he spent as a youth in the custody of the local Borstal. He explained to reporters that he’d never actually been a criminal. His dad had wangled him a place at the Borstal because it had its own playing fields, where Dixie could hone his soccer skills.
The Heart of the Home
One of my household tasks was firemaking. There was skill and patience involved in magicking up a good fire. In winter the fireplace was the only source of heat in the house, once the thin sunlight had stopped warming the single glazed windows. Each evening, our fronts were slowly thawed and then toasted (my mum’s legs becoming mottled blue) while our backs were nipped at by icy fingers from the rest of the freezing house.
Most of our Calderdale houses have had open fires or stoves. Despite central heating and double glazing, nothing compares to the comforting warmth of real fires or their glowing beauty, though their dust settles on books and shelves and in lungs.
For two hundred years, Halifax could hardly be seen from Beacon Hill because of the pall of smog from every mill and chimney fire. Judging by the number of mill and domestic chimneys in old photos of Hebden, the air must have also been dirty and opaque round here. The clean air acts also gave us back our scenery.
But now it seems it wasn’t just smoke that killed. Fires have been quietly killing people all these years with their tarry, too tiny to see ‘particulates’. It seems the smoke from the wet wood sold from petrol station forecourts is even more lethal than the fumes from the cars and the diesel engine trucks trundling along Burnley Road.
My favourite teacher was John C. Evans. He wouldn’t tell us his political allegiance, but he wore a ban the bomb badge and went on marches to Aldermaston. He grew up in Gresford near Wrexham. When he was little, hundreds of men died in a gas explosion and fire at the local pit. Only eleven bodies were recovered. The public enquiry was a whitewash and there’s evidence that poor inspection and management led to the demise of 266 men. Widows received pay up to the time of the explosion - the rest of the wages for that fatal shift were docked from the dead men’s pay packets.
There’s a monument at Gresford and a famous song about the disaster is sung at the annual, much-diminished Durham Big Meeting, where ex miners from across Scotland, England and Wales still gather under their trade union banners. I was minded of this when researching for a song I wrote about the Acre Mill disaster. 30 years of asbestos production at Old Town resulted in far more casualties than even the terrible mining disaster at Gresford in 1934.
And should you walk on t’ old Causeway,
Soon after day’s begun,
When valleys are all full of cloud
But t’ hills stand proud in t’ sun,
And larks exult in t’ sky’s blue vault
An’ silver glints in t’ rill,
Remember those who trod that road
To work at Acre Mill.
If you would like to send a message about this piece or suggest ideas, email George Murphy