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Northern Soul

In a previous job I didn’t have a desk tidy but used an empty Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls tin I’d inherited to store my biros and pencils instead. I can still picture the fire engine red tin complete with its portrait of a smiling top- hatted gent along with the legend Keep You All Aglow.  I’ve never actually eaten one of these mints but if you asked me to list 5 things about Wigan these legendary sweets would be one of them because they’ve been manufactured there since 1898. (To continue with this nostalgia for a little while longer, my tin also contained the obligatory paper clips and drawing pins but also treasury tags. Can you still get these? Are they any use any more? And as I remember they almost exclusively came in green but occasionally they were available in other colours.)

So what other things/people do I associate with Wigan? Well I can’t be the only person who’s pondered this because Wigan central library has a history of Wigan exhibition entitled something like ‘There’s more to Wigan than Pies’. And very good it is too. The World Pie Eating Championships (I kid you not) are held in Harry’s Bar on Wallgate apparently. Uncle Joe’s gets a mention or two and there’s plenty about Rugby League and some chap called Billy Boston.  Although I was always more of a Motown boy myself Wigan is synonymous to me with Northern Soul and the all nighters at the famous Wigan Casino. Check out the film – it’s all tight flares, feather cuts, tank tops and round collar shirts. And I mustn’t forget Stuart Maconie (more of him later although I could see no reference to him in the exhibition) who these days could justifiably claim to be Wigan’s most famous son. Of course, The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft might disagree about this though.

At the time of my visit Wigan is the only English town with a Premier League football club, Wigan Athletic FC and a Super League Rugby League club (I’m probably displaying my southern ignorance in expressing it like that), Wigan Warriors. But I’m guessing most people associate the town with George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier.  Published in 1936 Orwell’s book paints a hellish vision of a broken Britain and today it seems curiously relevant to our own distressed times. An Old Etonian prime minister, in a cabinet stuffed with public school boys, has embarked upon the most radical reduction of public spending in generations, making cuts that have prompted robust criticism of their pace and scale. North and south are pulling apart once more – not yet to the extent where Orwell could describe his journey as if “venturing among savages”, but getting there.

If you arrive by train from the south you pitch out at Wigan North Western. (Wigan has 2 stations – Wallgate is just over the road.) The first thing you see is a sign telling you Wigan Pier is a quarter of a mile away and then you notice the dilapidated parade of shops across the road. It seems to be mostly taken up by a pawn shop but there’s also room in the row for Totally Wicked’s shop selling e-cigarettes and e-liquid. I dread to think what e-liquid is or does? But it does come in 30 different flavours and 6 different strengths.

I’m here first and foremost because I’ve never been before and to do a bit of walking round the town and the surrounding country. I’m also here to see Wigan play Chelsea. It’s long long time since I’ve been to a Chelsea away game outside the capital indeed I might never have seen them play outside London since the Premiership began. It’s a Saturday evening kick-off courtesy of ESPN and as the ground is filling up I’m reminded of one of the best examples of ‘terrace’ banter in recent years. Ashley Cole is one of those players who arouses disproportionate ire amongst opposing fans and as he plays left back he spends quite a lot of the game near these fans. (I can sorta see their point of view though – after last year’s airgun escapade Coldplay’s lyric from Lost: ‘Every gun you ever held went off’ couldn’t be more appropriate.) Anyway the afore mentioned Stuart Maconie, Wigan fan, during a recent game a few years ago, is believed to have spent an entire half bellowing at Cole that he’d sold more books than him . The middle classes have truly taken over the workers’ game. The dismal 1-1 draw (Chelsea were pedestrian and unimaginative) could have done with some livening up by witty instead of inane chants.

Walking along the Leeds-Liverpool canal Orwell reported: “Terribly cold, frightful landscape of slagheaps and belching chimneys. A few rats running through the snow, very tame, presumably weak with hunger.” The mill girls, scurrying to work in their clogs down the cobbled streets, sounded to him “like an army hurrying into battle”. The next day I’m walking alongside a snowy Leeds-Liverpool canal. There are no rats I can see and none of the chimneys are belching. I stop just past The Orwell  – a pub named in honour of the author that I’d visited the night before. I can’t help wondering what the old Etonian would have made it. I can’t help agreeing with Stuart Maconie (last mention I promise) about Wigan girls and sun bed tans. Without exception every young woman in the pub had dyed blonde hair, a tikka tinged deep tan and sounded like Victoria Wood. A visitor from out of space would be drawn irrevocably to the conclusion that the tanning process doesn’t work on men or women over the age of 25. Strange.

The place I stop at is Trencherfield Mill. A very informative display board tells me that a cotton worker in 1910 was likely to say something like this: ‘It’s hot int’ mill wi’ lots o’ noise. On a nice day we’ll take lunch ont’ towpath an’ eat snaps from’t snaps tins’. I’m able to read this just as the heavy driving rain is turning to sleet but am not any the wiser about what a ‘snap’ is. A break from both prompts a rainbow to try its luck. Today the rainbow is formed of seven shades of grey but heralds a pleasant change in the weather. I continue my walk along the canal towards Whelley and then Haigh Hall. I’m ridiculously pleased with myself in discovering this route with only my google maps android app. This smugness is helped by the sparkling beauty of the day when the rain stops. Everybody I encountered was pleasant and chatty. Willing to discuss the best route (following the canal or striking inland) or whether Roberto Martinez was really a first class football manager. (Nobody seemed to rate Chelsea’s new boy manager Andre Villas-Boas!)

On leaving Haigh Hall I headed down towards the town following the River Douglas where I could. J B Priestley, in his English Journey, has this to say about Wigan: “Between Manchester and Bolton, the ugliness is so complete that it is almost exhilarating. It challenges you to live there. That is probably the secret of the Lancashire working folk.” Come on Priestley, Wallace and Gromit live there mate. But I guess if there’s anything worse than a Londoner commenting on Wigan it’s a Yorkshireman. And this Londoner thought the place was well worth a visit and was glad he had made the journey – it’s not everywhere you can get e-liquid and snaps.

Support the work of the Ramblers – sponsor me here:

 Aloe Blacc – I Need A Dollar

New Order – Run

Watch:

Northern Soul – This England

 Read:

George Orwell – The Road to Wigan Pier

Stuart Maconie – Pies and Prejudice

 Listen to:

The Verve – A Northern Soul

The Dream Academy – Life In A Northern Town

Sam Seale – Wigan Pier

Tobi Legend – Time Will Pass You By

Jimmy Radcliffe – Long After Tonight Is All Over

Dean Parrish – I’m On My Way

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All things must pass

I think it was Heraclitus who said: ‘Mortals are immortal, immortals mortal, living their death, dying their life’.  He’d have said it in ancient Greek of course and I’m not sure I fully understand what it means but it often springs into my mind when I’m looking at a scene that seems to be old and new as well as in the process of change all at the same time.

Take a walk down from Tower Hill towards the Thames using the subway system and stop just before the Tower of London. Fix Heraclitus in your mind and think of his aphorism. Here you can see exposed some of the brickwork from the original Roman wall constructed around 190. Lifting your head you see the Tower where building began just after the conquest in 1066. Shuffle around a bit and crane your neck and you can see City Hall, the home of the Greater London Authority, which was opened in 2002. And dominating this, and seemingly every London skyline, is the nearly completed Shard which is due to open in May 2012. This small snapshot of London shows you the physical manifestation of very nearly 2000 years of building. Paradoxically it manages to convey permanence and flux at one and the same time.

I love London and this combination of dynamism and history is an important part of the charm for me. Indeed I think the best way to experience this is by traipsing about at street level soaking it all in by some strange process of osmosis. Even so every so often I come across a change that fair takes my breath away. Last month I went to see the mighty Chelsea beat Wolves 3-0. I’m coming up to my 50th consecutive year seeing at least one home game at Stamford Bridge. Since I’ve been old enough to drink my pre- or post- (or often both) game ritual involved a visit to the working man’s club in Britannia Street opposite the stadium for a few beers. Imagine my shock last year when I found it had been demolished. Perhaps it was the irony of working men in Chelsea that appealed to me but in many ways I’ll be more able to deal with Chelsea moving away from Stamford Bridge than this. These days I start off with a couple of beers in The Atlas in West Brompton.

During that year I’d been walking around Blackheath and discovered that my old school had been demolished to make way for housing. This change pleased me – housing seems a much better use of the land than the hate ridden place I’d been educated in. However, the houses haven’t yet been built and rather disappointingly the Catholic church had built a bigger and shinier new school across the road. (They’ve changed the saint’s name from Joseph to Matthew though – wonder what that signifies.) If you then add in that the place I first worked other than Saturday jobs was the long closed London Evening News in Bouverie Street and that my first job after uni was in the now rebuilt office block above Cannon Street station I was left with the overwhelming feeling that my past was being re-written around me.

Of course it isn’t just landscapes that change around you, organisations need to adapt to survive. But sometimes these actions make you stand back a bit. Admirably The Ramblers are trying to boost membership by entering into arrangements with different partners but I was recently stunned to find that one of them is Bupa. Whilst I accept not everyone agrees with my views (that would be very dull) this doesn’t sit well with me. I’d rather be supporting the NHS not undermining it. And it doesn’t seem to sit well with Inner London Ramblers either who see it as ‘a serious error of judgement’. The Ramblers is a broad church and a democracy and whether you agree, disagree or are indifferent with this decision I was going to suggest you email the Board of Trustees with your viewpoint. However, I was surprised to find there is no central address for you to do this. So if you let me know how you feel I’ll ensure they all get passed on to the Board.

And, of course, it’s not just London that epitomises constant change. (It’s true I’m London-centric but not that much). Whenever I go to Manchester I make sure I visit the site of the Hacienda. The canal side of the new building commemorates the key events of this club. I’m not entirely sure this works for me – it’s almost as if they are apologising for knocking it down.  As George Harrison sang: ‘A cloudburst doesn’t last all day’. Sometimes that’s a bit difficult to believe up in Manchester.

Support the work of the Ramblers – sponsor me here

I completed the Grand Union half marathon in 2 hours 19 minutes. Thanks to everybody who sponsored me.

Aloe Blacc – I Need A Dollar

Moby – Run On

The Rolling Stones – Before They Make Me Run – 2009 Re-Mastered Digital Version

Watch:

George Harrison – All Things Must Pass                              

Listen to:

The Waterboys – All Things Must Pass

The Webb Sisters – Everything Changes/21

The Faces – Debris

Billy Bragg – Glad and Sorry

Neil Young – My My, Hey Hey – Out Of The Blue Album Version

New Order – Blue Monday

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In the bleak midwinter (December 2010)

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Very appropriate except it probably should say ‘just a while ago’ and they’re not kidding with the ‘snow on snow, snow on snow’ bit are they? On Saturday 18th trusting to the weather reports I popped out to the shops for the paper and a spot of panic buying early in the morning. The Met Office forecast snow at around noon. Almost as I shut my front door the few flakes fluttering lazily down from leaden skies turned into a howling blizzard. By the time I reached the main road the snow was crunching noisily under my boots and collecting on my eyelashes. The journey down by the river truly was magical.

The snow abated early afternoon leaving a crisp white even covering of about 6 cms. The birds seeing their chance descended on the feeding pole in our front garden with some relish. It’s a pretty grim time for garden birds; smaller birds like wrens lose the heat from their bodies pretty quickly, so they need to be eating all the time to survive. Trouble is they really need us to be putting food out for them because the berries on trees, the insects and fish in frozen ponds and rivers, small mammals, or the worms and insects in the frozen ground are all inaccessible. But they love grated cheese, porridge oats, fruit, cooked pasta and rice (before sauce), cooked potatoes, and unsalted bacon, cooked or raw. Festive things like pastry and cake crumbs are also welcome.

Sport was another big casualty of the weekend. I’d been looking forward to watching the mighty Chelsea get back on form by beating Manchester U but that game was called off a day early. Post has been severely interrupted as well – not great at this time of year. (Hope of everybody who Amazon’d their presents got their stuff delivered on time – aah the worries of modern life.) But talking about post my favourite Christmas card is without doubt the one that has an Edwyn Collins illustration of a robin on the front.

With the snow largely melted from London on Tuesday evening (winter solstice day) with images of Odin slaying the frost giant Ymir playing in my head I set off to lead a Metropolitan Walkers walk based around Dickens in London. I’m a big Dickens fan me – and Wilkins Micawber always seems appropriate but even more so these days: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery. The blossom is blighted, the leaf is withered, the god of day goes down upon the dreary scene, and – and in short, you are for ever floored.” They don’t write ‘em like that anymore – well sadly not George Osborne’s speechwriters anyway. (You young readers might want to find an old person to explain the vagaries of pre-decimalized currency to you. And anybody who can explain to me whether ‘Oik’ Osborne has any economic theory, however misguided, underpinning his cost cutting programme would be more than welcome.)

After a very enjoyable walk I had a couple of beers in The Dickens Inn at St Katherine’s Dock. I couldn’t find any connection to Dickens himself but thinking it was just a ruse to drag in the tourists I was told that one of his great great grandchildren opened the pub here years ago when the re-development of Docklands began. The journey home was definitely messy. Held up for over 45 minutes at Earls Court while police attempted to clear revellers off the rails near West Kensington I was forced to re-route to Heathrow on the Piccadilly line and catch a 24 hour bus back home. Got in just before 2 am. Ah the problems of winter travel in the UK. So with the modern version of the Nativity apparently being no room at the airport terminal I hope you all had a great holiday break.

Listen to:

Annie Lennox – In The Bleak Midwinter

Edwyn Collins – Girl Like You

Dolly Parton – Santa Claus Is Coming To Town

Darren Hayman & The Secondary Modern – Winter Makes You Want Me More

Charles Dickens – Christmas Ghosts

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Reasons to be Cheerful

I’m lucky enough to have Richmond Park on my doorstep. (Well obviously not literally on my doorstep or else I wouldn’t need to work for a living but it is about 10 minutes away.) This means with relatively little effort I can enjoy its pleasures at dawn and dusk – times when despite the 4 million+ visitors every year, I seem to have the 1000 hectares to myself to enjoy the abundant flora and fauna. In 1625 Charles I brought his court to Richmond Palace to escape the plague in London and turned it into a park for red and fallow deer. His decision, in 1637, to enclose the land was not popular with the local residents, but he did allow pedestrians the right of way. To this day the rights of way along with walls remain, although the latter have been partially rebuilt and reinforced. Perhaps because of decisions like this Richmond Park has changed little over the centuries and although it is surrounded by human habitation, the varied landscape of hills, woodland gardens and grasslands set among ancient trees abound in wild life.

There are 2 separate herds of deer – about 300 Red deer along with 350 Fallow deer – who call the park home. The other evening, having entered using Sheen Gate I came across a huge herd almost immediately. They’re very used to gawping visitors but seem to take even less interest at dawn and dusk when they spend their time heads down relentlessly chewing the grass. Having finally settled down – it was more deluge and swollen river than ‘mist and mellow fruitfulness’ a couple of weeks ago – autumn is its normal dynamically changing self. (Isn’t it strange that many of the sayings that you used to scoff at when young turn out to be true – it really has been nice weather for ducks.) The trees here in the park are a glowingly rich tapestry of reds, yellows, browns and green. The ground is strewn with conkers, sweet chestnuts (these seem to be a bumper crop this year) and exotic funghi.

With the views of London sprawling out in the distance (St Paul’s cathedral is only 12 miles away) offering a constant reminder of the modern urban world I work my way towards Poets Corner. Here you can find the Ian Dury Bench. Take your iPod/mp3 headphones along, plug them into the sockets in the arms and you can listen to many of his most popular songs via the magic of solar power. Definitely a reason to be cheerful. The park is also one of the stars of this year’s BBC Autumnwatch – I wonder if they’ll find time amongst the birds, deer and badgers to visit the bench.

 

And right now everybody who loves the environment needs all the reasons to be cheerful we can find. Just before the Chancellor of the Excheqeur, delivered the coalition government’s Comprehensive Spending Review, Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England said: “The next decade will not be nice”. As we listened to George ‘Oik’ Osborne slash and burn his way through modern life we had many hints of just how ‘not nice’ the near future is likely to be. Amongst other things half a million public sector jobs to be lost, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to see a 24.1% budget cut over the next four years and planning and development slimmed down to remove burdens from the developer. I can’t help thinking that this isn’t being built on any sound economic foundation but based more on wishful thinking like the lyrics from the Deadwood Stage:

There’s a hill of gold just a-waiting for a shovel to ring.
When I strike it rich, going to sit in a hammock and swing,
twiddling my thumbs and rockin’ away.
So, Whip crack-away!, Whip crack-away!, Whip crack-away!

The devil is going to be in the detail and this review has certainly signposted a lot of detail. Speaking at the Nagoya conference in Japan, Environment secretary Caroline Spelman announced a government commitment of £100m for international forestry projectswhich is greatat the same time as stories began to surface back home that thousands of hectares of UK government owned forest land is likely to be for sale through the Forestry Commission – which ain’t so good. With the Environment Agency and Natural England behaving like Victorian children, cowering in the corner and definitely to be seen and not heard, it has proved incredibly difficult to discover much detail about how the environment cuts will affect us all. All this is very appropriate for Halloween weekend but to quote a well known country & western song this looks like it’s definitely going to be a hard row to hoe –   now how do I get to that bench again? 

It’s not all doom and gloom in the Hero household though. Of course there’s the mighty Chelsea 5 points clear at the top of the Premiership and 4 wins out of 4 in the Champions League. There’s Hitsville USA – a history of Tamla Motown currently airing on Radio 6 and these days I’m working for the RSPB as their London Groups Officer.

Listen to:

Ian Dury & The Blockheads – Reasons To Be Cheerful, Part 3

Smashing Pumpkins – Raindrops + Sunshowers

Bombay Bicycle Club – Autumn

The Kinks – Autumn Almanac

Doris Day – The Deadwood Stage (Whip Crack-Away)

Tommy Webb – Hard Row To Hoe

The Miracles – Got A Job – Single Version

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Northern Man

12 July 2010

From the sublime to the ridiculous – not only am I not in London for this blog I’m nearly as far away as you can be and still be in England. I’m 320 miles up north within sight of Hadrian’s Wall outside the hostel at Once Brewed. I’ve journeyed up here to walk a stretch of the Pennine Way – 11k (about 7 miles) from Once Brewed to Greenhead – with the poet Simon Armitage. The 429 kilometre (268 miles) Pennine Way National Trail chases the Pennine Mountain tops along the rugged backbone of England. Its route includes the Peak District through the Yorkshire Dales and over Hadrian’s Wall to the Cheviots and is amongst the finest upland walking in England.

The day started with a poetry reading in the visitor centre but me and Simon had spent the time before chatting about the previous evening’s World Cup Final (he’s a season ticket holder at Manchester United). We were both outraged at the Dutch conduct – total football to total thuggery if you ask me – and fairly happy that this approach didn’t reap any reward. I’ve no idea whether the reading was well attended – Simon seemed happy enough – cos I’ve never been to one before. The weather was great, nice ‘n’ sunny without being too hot but I was fooled into not applying any sun screen and so finished more than a bit ruddy faced in the afternoon.

We were joined by a local – Marjorie – for the first coupla miles. Simon had been saying that he’d seen very few other walkers so far on his journey but today while not teeming with people we saw enough to keep up a fairly regular ‘hi ya’ greeting along the Wall. Right at this point I can hear the more experienced of you walkers out there muttering ‘but he’s walking the thing in the wrong direction’. Well firstly that’d be reason enough for me but he’s doing it from top to bottom  – finishing in Edale – because he lives near there and he likes the idea of walking home. (The existing guidebooks suggest that to keep the weather at your back you should go south to north – aah that would account for my red face then.)

Simon and I have a mutual friend – The Wedding Present’s David Gedge – and although I’m not very familiar with the poetry I’ve read Gig. As a result when we’ve exhausted the football conversation – there’s really only so much a Man U and a Chelsea fan can agree on – we start on music. With its mile forts, funnily enough every mile, Hadrian’s Wall counts you handily along the route. Just outside Greenhead we finally get round to talking about walking (see what I did there – poetry huh?). Just why he chose the Pennine Way for his wandering minstrel begging act? Why walking is important to him and much more. All this will appear in a future edition of walk magazine. Here though in homage to Simon’s interviewing technique is the list of ‘or’ questions along with his answers (underlined) I asked:

 

Walker or Rambler

Right of Way or Right to Roam

Mountain or Moor

Lady Gaga or Madonna

Goal line technology or No Goal line technology

Shelley or Keats

iPhone or Blackberry

Serena or Venus

Beer or Lager

Town or Country

George Formby or David Gedge

He entered properly into the spirit of this only enhancing his answers twice – he was adamant that town did not include city and that Lady Gaga was chosen for his daughter. All in all it was a great day and I end by wishing Simon well for the rest of the walk especially as the weather forecast for the next few days isn’t as favourable as today. (His exploits from the whole walk – including some poetry – will appear in a new book sometime soon.) I blag a lift back to Once Brewed and begin the long drive south.

Listen to:

Detroit Social Club – Northern Man

Johnny Tillotson – Poetry In Motion

Laura Marling – Rambling Man

Morrissey – Sister I’m A Poet

The Wedding Present – Corduroy – Single Version

 The Fall – British People In Hot Weather

 

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