Wednesday, March 22, 2023

The Joy of Six 1119

"'It's time​ for the police to stop virtue-signalling and start catching robbers and burglars,'’ the home secretary, Suella Braverman, said at the Conservative Party Conference last autumn. 'More PCs, less PC.' It’s not surprising that the government’s most committed culture warrior would use her speech to launch an attack on wokery. What’s strange is that anyone could think that the main problem with the British police is a surfeit of political correctness." Daniel Trilling reviews two books on the problems facing British policing.

Heidi Siegmund Cuda explores how Russia joined forces with our own anti-vaxxers to wage biological warfare by proxy against the West: "In this undeclared cognitive warfare - where the human mind is the battlefield - a global pandemic becomes weaponised and too many people have no inoculations against disinformation."

The UK government’s attempt to frighten people into protecting themselves against Covid was at odds with the scientific advice it was receiving, say Stephen Reicher et al.

"Something sinister is going on with cuteness. Over the last five years, we’ve seen the sudden appearance of cute Facial ID Recognition surveillance, cute government health messaging, cute military propaganda, cute identity wars and even cute robotic elder care." Ewan Morrison on the rise of cute authoritarianism.

John Grindrod on the conundrum that is the green belt: "within it lie some of the most curious buildings in Britain, ghosts of long-lost ways of life, thwarted plans and the secrets of a nation running out of places to hide them."

"Without doubt Steve Winwood stole the show with Ginger a close second.  Winwood sang every song (he wrote most of them, too) and his keyboards dominated throughout."  Stuart Penney was at Blind Faith's Hyde Park debut and he remembers it.

Leicester man loses dad's ashes in Tesco bag for life during pub crawl

Our Headline of the Day Award goes to the Leicester Mercury. The judges were particularly pleased the paper had found a clickbait story that had local relevance "unlike most of the stuff it tweets these days".

I asked the judges if, deep down, this wasn't a sad story. They replied that most of our award winners are if you think about them for more than a moment.

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

In search of Birchinlee, the lost village that built the Derwent dams

It's time for another trip to the valley of the wonderful Derbyshire Derwent with Trekking Exploration.

This time we go in search of the Bamford and Howden Railway, which was used in the construction of the Derwent and Howden dams between 1901 and 1916, and of Birchinlee, the abandoned village where the labourers lived.

If you want to go deeper, you can find some photographs of the railway in operation on Public Transport Experience. That site also has a photograph of a building in the nearby village of Hope that was taken there from Birchinlee.

You can support these Trekking Exploration videos via their Patreon page.

Thomas Hardy had nothing to do with The Hardy Tree and its legend dates from the late 20th century

When The Hardy Tree in Old St Pancras churchyard came down last December, I dutifully repeated its accepted history:

When the Midland Railway built it's line from Bedford to St Pancras, part of the churchyard of Old St Pancras Church was sacrificed to make way for it.

The man in charge of clearing the burials in the path of the line was a young Thomas Hardy. It's no wonder his novels turned out like they did.

Hardy had some of the redundant gravestones piles around the base of an ash tree in the remaining portion of the churchyard, and its roots later spread amongst them. It is this tree that has fallen.

But the current issue of Fortean Times suggests that Hardy had nothing to do with the tree and that this story dates from the late 20th century.

In support of its scepticism, the magazine cites an article on The London Dead:

There is no evidence that Hardy had anything to do with the tree named after him but even so I had, like most people, assumed that the gravestones had been arranged around the tree in the first place. 

It was with something of a jolt therefore that I came across a photograph of "St. Pancras churchyard and it’s disturbed gravestones" in 'Wonderful London' a book edited by St. John Adcock and published in 1926. 

The caption to the photo mentions the Midland railway Company obtaining an Act in 1863 allowing them to build a viaduct over the churchyard and says "the rockery made of tombstones is a result of the headstones being removed and 'dumped'". 

The photograph shows the familiar circular arrangement of headstones but with one significant difference; there is no tree! 

In 1926 the Hardy tree did not exist. The tree, presumably self-seeded, has grown since the late 1920’s and is less than one hundred years old.

The article goes on to quote an account by Hardy of his work at Old St Pancras that makes it clear he was not in charge of the exhumations but merely dropped by in the evenings to keep an eye on progress.

So where does the legend of Hardy and his tree come from?

The London Dead says:

In ‘Lights Out for the Territory’ Iain Sinclair tells us that he was working on a long London poem provisionally entitled RedEye and gives an extract from the abandoned work (‘May 16, 1973: at St Pancras Old Church. Drawn against the repetitive boredom of the pavements to investigate the building - its slight eminence....’) which goes onto to mention Hardy and his supervision of the exhumations and "his ever-recurrent interest in churchyards".  

Later he describes the photographer Marc Atkin’s fascination with the Hardy tree "with its cluster of surrounding headstones - like a school of grey fins circling the massive trunk, feeding on the secretions of the dead." 

This was in 1997 which is as close as I can get at this stage to the naming of the Hardy tree - sometime between 1978 and 1997.

It isn't just Sinclair and Atkin who had a deep interest in Old St Pancras in those years: Aidan Dun published a visionary poem about this corner of London, Vale Royal, in 1995. Like Sinclair's early books, it was published by Mike Goldmark in Uppingham.

And in 2007 I quoted a post on BLDG Blog:

I think it's from Dun – but I don't actually know; I just associate this with him - maybe I made it up? - that I heard a legend claiming that St. Pancras Old Church, stranded on its small hill behind the train stations next to the old London Hospital for Tropical Diseases, is actually the secret burial place of Christ.

The church, obviously, was built much later, as a means of marking the site - at the same time keeping silent its little secret.

I suspect The London Dead is right, and the legend of The Hardy Tree originated somewhere in this neo-Blakean, psychogeographic, Sinclairian school of literature. And the idea that his experiences at Old St Pancras had a profound on Hardy and thus his novels does seem to date from 1997 and Iain Sinclair's Lights Out for the Territory.

Maybe the dead do speak to us, but in their own way

As Lord Bonkers might put it, the dead are Terribly Dead. I've had no sense of my mother's presence since she died, even though I've had a couple of naps in an armchair in the room where it took place.


I was in Melton Mowbray last month and looked for the café where I had met Liberator's Simon Titley for the last time before I visited him as he was dying in hospital.

For a short while I couldn't locate it. It's on the first floor and I was confused because the shop below it is currently empty. But I soon found it and was glad I had.

Then as I turned the corner, the bells of St Mary's began to ring out See, the Conquering Hero Comes!

One of the hymns I chose for my mother's funeral was Thine Be the Glory. I chose it because it's sung to that tune, which she loved.

So maybe the dead do speak to us, but in their own way.

Now 19 Leicester Labour councillors are told they can't stand again in May by the national party

We now go over live to the Leicester Labour Party.

From the Leicester Mercury:

Labour members have responded with fury after 19 sitting councillors were told they will not be able to defend their seats in May’s elections. The decision has been slammed as undemocratic, an attempt to silence members, and a demonstration of "utter contempt" by those not selected.

The choice of who can and cannot stand in May’s election was taken out of the hands of local party members after national Labour figures decided to take control. They announced the decision to overrule any local decision making in February, saying "power struggles and organisational issues" could damage Labour candidates' prospects in both the local council and city mayoral elections.

That decision was widely condemned by local members at the time as undemocratic. The national party has now made its decision – and 19 Labour councillors, some of whom have served their wards for decades, will be deselected and not be able to stand for Labour.

Already Patrick Kitterick has said he will stand for the Greens in May, while Rita Patel will challenge Sir Peter Soulsby as an independent in the mayoral election.

Now the Mercury says more of the 19 councillors have

declared they will be standing as independent members for their wards, while others are considering joining with other political groups.

What with the influence of the mayor on a council with a huge Labour majority, and the national party taking control of selections, there doesn't seem much room for democracy in the party in Leicester any more.

Monday, March 20, 2023

"Jennifer Anne and her way with hedgehogs": Joyce Grenfell skewers Enid Blyton

When the editing of Roald Dahl's books was in the news, I wrote:
Successful children's writers generally get a couple of decades in the sun. My own favourite as a child, Malcolm Saville, published his first book in 1943 and got a little longer, but in his last years (he died in 1982) he was painfully aware that he had gone out of fashion. 
Enid Blyton's reputation has not declined to that extent, but there has been a price to pay. Because, for decades, her books have been edited and re-edited so that they can still be sold. So much so that these days you have no idea how many of the words in a book with her name on the cover she actually wrote.

I don't like this process: I would rather publishers allowed books go out of print gracefully than mucked them about in this fashion. But it is inevitable, because publishers and writers' estates aren't going to slaughter a cash cow.
Now it's Blyton in the news, which gives me an excuse to post this wicked parody of her approach to writing for children by Joyce Grenfell.

h/t Chris Brosnahan on Twitter.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Suspended Labour councillor to challenge Sir Peter Soulsby in Leicester mayoral election

Rita Patel, one of the four Labour councillors suspended by the party for supporting the abolition of Leicester's mayoral system, is to stand against Sir Peter Soulsby for the post in May.

You can watch her video here and read more further down the Twitter thread.

I am encouraged by her intention to abolish the city's elected mayoral system. As Sir Peter has so ably demonstrated, it concentrates too much power in the hands on one person.

Meanwhile, Patrick Kitterick, who has left Labour and joined the Greens, for whom he will stand as a council candidate in May, has been talking to the Leicester Mercury:

"I believe the Labour Party has changed for the worse, and, being on the inside, I realise just how bad it’s got in terms of the crushing of any dissent or opinion,” he said.

"Debate has been curtailed. It’s becoming apparent that anyone who stands has to sign a loyalty oath to the city mayor, and the reality is my loyalties are to the people who elect me, not to one man.

"It seems the party is going down a route where you either unquestioningly agree with the city mayor or you leave. So I’m leaving."

He also criticised the decision to bring in national party members to select candidates for the May elections, saying local members were being cut out of the decision.

"I’m just disillusioned with what’s going on in the Labour Party both nationally and locally,” he said. “It’s been setting in for a few years now, but the case of local members being cut out and us being vetted by an outside panel for the elections was a tipping point."

For Mother's Day

It will soon be a year since my mother died.

One of the things I promised her I would keep when I cleared her house was the family photographs. So I thought I would post one of her as a teenager - though I'm not sure they had teenagers in the late 1940s.

She is one the right here. The other person is her cousin June, whose bridesmaid she was.

Did Ed Davey take a page from Paddy Ashdown's playbook?

So let me shout it, yet again: if you want to boost our economy, you have to repair our broken relationship with Europe.

Conference, you don’t need me to tell you what a disaster the Conservatives’ botched deal with Europe has been for our country. You see it every day in your communities: The businesses strangled by red tape. The farmers, fishers and factories, unable to sell to their customers on the continent. The empty shelves in local supermarkets. 

It’s why we campaigned against it. Why, when Boris Johnson brought his terrible deal to Parliament, when even Labour supported it, Liberal Democrats stood alone and voted against it.

And why now Liberal Democrats are the only ones with a real plan to fix Britain’s trade. To tear down the Conservatives’ trade barriers, rip up their red tape, and rebuild the ties of trust and friendship with our European neighbours.

I'm not sure about that "yet again": Ed Davey has been notably quiet on Europe. And there's nothing here that he couldn't or shouldn't have said when he became leader in 2020.

But I'm glad he said it today. The rapturous response in the hall tells you that this is what the party wanted to hear.

In fact, I suspect a deft piece of party management here.

I am reminded of my first Liberal Party Assembly at Bournemouth in 1984. Paddy Ashdown, the dashing new MP for Yeovil, had already made a name for himself by opposing the deployment of US cruise missiles in Britain.

But in the run up to the assembly there had been strong rumours that he had agreed a compromise position with the party establishment.

So when he rose in the hall to speak against cruise, there was an ecstatic reaction.

You can read about that assembly and the defence vote in the New York Times.

I am pleased to see that the Times report mentions Liberator, because Bournemouth 1984 was our finest hour. 

We were the lead item on the BBC evening news because, under the heading 'Should Steel go?', we had printed betting odds on who would become the next Liberal leader, along with a pithy description of each MP.

And the bit about 'Liberal delegates arriving in Bournemouth' was illustrated with footage of me and Stewart Rayment strolling along the sea front.

Iona Zajac: Red Corn Poppies

The Skinny interviewed Iona Zajac last year when Red Corn Poppies was released as her second single:

Your new single Red Corn Poppies is beautiful. What’s it about?

Everything is dry and dead and unclean
And love spits for information’
(Hannah Sullivan, Three Poems)
I kept returning to Hannah Sullivan’s collection when I was living in Woodlands, Glasgow in November 2018. The streets were a mass of wet cardboard and browning curtains, getting anywhere felt like trudging through wet wool. 
One evening I went into a local fruit and veg shop after a very long day, to find everything inside had gone off, just filled with mouldy vegetables and wilting flowers. But for some reason I couldn’t leave without buying something – I think I salvaged a single plum. 
Red Corn Poppies is about the thing that wills you forward when all you want to do is sit down on the pavement, and let it all go.

Saturday, March 18, 2023

A tribute to Neal Ascherson on his 90th birthday

Last October one of my favourite journalists, Neal Ascherson, turned 90. To mark the occasion, he was interviewed by Tim Adams in the Observer:

There are certain writers who seem singled out to bear witness to their times. Neal Ascherson first had a graphic inkling of that fate when he was a small boy in Peterborough, where his father, a naval officer, was stationed at a factory making torpedoes. 

"It would have been the summer of 1940," Ascherson says, "and I was coming back to the village where we lived, from school, on the bus. I must have been seven. This aircraft appeared as I was walking back to our house. Like all small boys I knew my bomber planes and I recognised it as a German Dornier, flying low. I didn’t hear it firing, but my mother did. She was watching for me from a window and almost died of horror. 

"Some fucker in the belly turret of the plane let off some machine gun rounds at me. I was the only person in the whole landscape, a little boy with a school bag. The noise of the engine was so loud I didn’t hear anything, and obviously he missed, but afterwards the trees all along the road had these white scars where the bullets had gone in."

Ascherson is telling me this story, with a characteristic twinkling smile, from his sofa in the tall terrace house near Highbury Fields in north London where he has lived for 40 years with his second wife and fellow journalist, Isabel Hilton. 

The previous night he had celebrated his 90th birthday at the Polish Hearth Club in Kensington where his old friend, the playwright Michael Frayn, a youthful 89, had toasted him as a man of “rare charisma, like a 19th-century romantic hero, with a kind of nobility that has always seemed a kind of human gold standard”. 

Ascherson wears those traits lightly, but you glimpse them all the same. In some ways, that near-miss from the Luftwaffe established the pattern of his life: if European history was happening, he was never far away.

And my graphic? Yes, it was Neal Ascherson who said that and not Tony Benn.

The Joy of Six 1118

It's become evident to some of Putin's propagandists that they may face charges in a war crimes tribunal, but their own words are still strengthening the case for the prosecution, reports Julia Davis.

"Our research is ongoing, and it’s still early. But so far, we have found that these short bursts of independence have led to reduced anxiety in kids and their parents, increased self-esteem and willingness to try difficult things, and more free time for parents, who don’t have to spend every waking moment chasing their kid." Clinical psychologist Camilo Ortiz outlines a new approach to helping anxious children.

Mark Bridge on research suggesting that a harrowing anonymous account by an 18th-century slave trader was written by John Newton, who wrote the hymn Amazing Grace.

"Rod McKuen sold millions of poetry books in the 1960s and 1970s. He was a regular on late-night TV. He released dozens of albums, wrote songs for Sinatra, and was nominated for two Oscars. He was a flashpoint in the battle between highbrow and lowbrow, with devotees revering his plain-spoken honesty and Dick Cavett mockingly calling him 'the most understood poet in America.' Every year on his birthday, he sold out Carnegie Hall." So why, asks Dan Kois, has he been completely forgotten?

Andy Boddington says Shrewsbury bus station is a disgrace: "Whatever the future plans for redevelopment, we can’t wait years for a better bus station in our county town. Shropshire Council should smarten up the bus station and make it an attractive place to wait for a bus and a welcoming place for people coming to Shrewsbury and Shropshire."

Explore a "haunted landscape of abandonment" in rural Leicestershire with Christopher Somerville.

Friday, March 17, 2023

The miraculous remains of the Somerset Coal Canal

The Somerset coalfield is forgotten now, but the last mine there did not close until 1973. And at the start of the 19th century a canal was dug to serve the industry there.

Running from the Kennet and Avon Canal at Limpley Stoke near Bath, the Somersetshire Coal Canal headed 10 miles south west to Paulton and Timsbury. A branch was built from Midford, near the northern end of the canal, to the mining town of Radstock, but this was soon replaced by a tramway.

Paul and Rebecca Whitewick visit the remains of the canal at Combe Hay, and what they find is stunning. The flight of locks there has been closed since the end of the 19th century, yet the masonry from which the lock chambers are constructed is in perfect condition.

So it's no surprise that restoration work is taking place along the length of the canal - see the webpage of the Somersetshire Coal Canal Society for details.

At the start of this video, Paul Whitewick points to the Camerton railway branch line. This is where much of The Titfield Thunderbolt was filmed, but you'll find no mention of coal traffic in the film.

There's more from Paul and Rebecca Whitewick about their railway and canal explorations on their website.

Senior Leicester Labour councillor to stand for the Greens in May

One of the four Labour councillors suspended by the party in Leicester has announced that he will be standing for the Green Party in the city council elections in May.

In a tweet sent at lunchtime today, Patrick Kitterick said:

Ever since being elected as a councillor for Castle Ward, I have always sought to do the right thing. I have now taken the decision to leave the Labour Party and will stand as a Green Party candidate for Castle Ward in the upcoming City Elections.

Kitterick was suspended, along with his fellow councillors Rita Patel, Ross Willmott and Jacky Nangreave, for moving or seconding council motion that would have ended Leicester's mayoral system of local government.

The suspension means they will not be able to stand for Labour in May's all-out elections.

Patel and Willmott have spoken to the Leicester Mercury about their suspension, with Cllr Patel saying:
"I think the suspension [feels] illegal because it breaches our human rights in terms of having the freedom to speak. 
"Councillors are elected to speak up for their residents, and if we can’t do that it begs the question of what are we doing? You can talk all you like about timing, but actually it's a really important debate.

"It’s about real democracy in this city. We’re a democracy; if people feel differently to others they should be able to voice that.

"We’ve had the mayoral system for the last 12 years. We’ve given it a go. I really feel we need a debate [on whether it should be kept]. It’s not working in terms of the concentration of power in one position.

"It’s making councillors almost redundant. They become glorified case workers more than people who are really involved in decision making and being able to feed in the concerns people have and then go back out and let people know how things are changing in response to those concerns.

"We’re being gagged on the city council from speaking up and saying what needs to be said on behalf of the people who vote for us. I’m elected to represent the people in my ward and make sure their voices are heard."

There has been disquiet at the dominance of Sir Peter Soulsby, who has been the elected mayor for 12 years and will be Labour's candidate in May's mayoral elections, among party members in Leicester for years.

It's clear that it exists among Labour councillors too, and these heavy-handed sanctions will do nothing to reduce it.

This is very much a Leicester problem for Labour, but it will be interesting to see if other councillors from the city or beyond follow Patrick Kitterick into the Greens.

Keir Starmer's strategy is based on the belief that he is free to concentrate on wooing swing voters because his internal critics have nowhere else to go. That belief may turn out not to be wholly true.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

More notes on children and bombsites in British films

It's time to add a few more notes about children and bombsites in post-war British films.


I watched The Blue Lamp from 1950 again the other week, this time with an eye to any bombsites that might appear.

And there were bombsites: early on we saw a car chase across one. Later on, a small girl is shown playing with a gun there, though it turns out she found it in or by a nearby canal.

The film also makes the bombsite, which is half flooded, look unappealing, and the children we see on it are grubbier than in the other films with this theme.

As the screenplay of The Blue Lamp was by T.E.B. Clarke, who also wrote Hue and Cry and was inclined to be indulgent towards children who played on bombsites, this confirms my judgement that by 1950 the tide was turning against the idea that they might do so.


Another film I need to watch again is Hunted, a superior Dirk Bogarde film from 1952. Jon Whiteley (who did find a gun on a bombsite in The Weapon four years later) is running away from harsh foster parents when, if I call recall rightly, he goes on to a bombsite and stumbles across Bogarde hiding the body of his wife's lover.


If awful things befell adults on bombsites, there was always the chance they would be rescued by a boy out of Hue and Cry.

At least that's what happened to William Franklyn in Pit of Darkness in 1961. You can see the scene above.

The Joy of Six 1117

"We have obtained an excoriating letter sent to the BBC chairman, Richard Sharp, by the co-directors of the BBC Singers. The letter mentions aggressive acts and inaccurate statements by senior BBC officials, all of whom are named within. It appears that only one member of the BBC executive ever heard the BBC Singers perform before a decision was taken to abolish the ensemble." Norman Lebrecht uncovers fear and loathing at the BBC.

Advocacy groups and human rights organisations have written to Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, and to Stephen Watson, its chief constable, to ask them to investigate discriminatory police practices in the wake of the conviction of ten young Black men who have become known as the Manchester Ten, reports the Open Rights Group.

Zach Boren on the government's decision to ignore the counsel of its nature advisers to be more ambitious in its targets for nature recovery.

"Her alternative proposition is that there is sufficient evidence to suggest that 5th- and 6th-century Britain evolved through a process of adaptation and innovation from a late Roman base, not as a result of imported cultural practices imposed by Germanic elites on a subject people." Chris Catling reviews Susan Oosthuizen’s new book The Emergence of the English, which questions what we think we know about England after the Romans.

Alwyn Turner offers an episode-by-episode guide to Endeavour: "Written by Russell Lewis, it’s been an entertaining and witty show, with a great soundtrack and some jokey cultural references. It’s also provided a potted history of Britain between 1965 and 1972, when society wasn’t as decent and liberal as we are now."

Jim Perrin takes us to Llanfihangel Cefnllys in Powys - a remote church in a long-lost borough.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Aksel Rykkvin at the National Liberal Club

Aksel Rykkvin's voice had already changed by the time I discovered him on YouTube. As I wrote when choosing an aria by him as one of my Sunday music videos:

Though he could do angelic if you wanted it, what really set him apart was his maturity as an interpreter of song. Try the recording of Schubert's Der Hirt auf dem Felsen he made shortly before his voice changed.

As one reviewer of his album said: "I am running out of superlatives."

Last night Aksel gave his first public recital as a baritone in the UK, appearing at the National Liberal Club in London.

He is just as impressive as he was as a treble. Perhaps because is still young to be singing professionally as a baritone, he has maintained the wonderful clarity he had as a boy and the same dignity. There is no overacting about his performance: he allows the poets' words to speak through him.

You can hear him above singing Schubert a few months ago.

Eric Thompson knew my father

Embed from Getty Images

Long ago, my mother told me that my father had been a schoolfriend of Eric Thompson - the actor, director, narrator of The Magic Roundabout and father of Emma.

I wasn't able to ask my father about it - he walked out when I was 11 and I never saw him again - but eventually they invented the internet and it became possible to check such things.

It turned out that he had been to the same secondary school as Thompson, but was a year younger than him. This made me doubt the story, as a year means a lot at that age.

But while I was clearing my mother's house recently, I came across a piece of paper right at the back of a drawer.

Quite unexpectedly, it turned out to be my father's School Certificate - the qualification pupils took at 16 before 1951.

And, reading it carefully, I found that he had taken it at 15. He had been put up a year and could easily have been in the same class as Eric Thompson.

Then, the other day, I turned to the British Newspaper Archive to see if it could tell me anything more about my father at secondary school - I was taking more interest in his schooldays than he had in mine - and I struck gold.

Before reproducing the cutting, I must explain that his name was Peter Booth. I started using Calder as a surname at 13, not so much to cut him out of my life as to make what I hoped would be a new start after two thoroughly miserable years.

So this is what I found in the West Sussex County Times for Friday 27 December 1946: a review of the Collyer's School Drama Club production of The Ascent of F6 by W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood.

It begins by saying the club could not be accused of a lack of ambition:

To have chosen a play as difficult in form as 'The Ascent of F6' for their Christmas production on Friday and Saturday showed a lot of courage.

That the production was so successful is high praise to the work of both the young actors and their producer, Miss Margery Lee.

And then, after praise for the portrayal of the lead character Michael Ransom by one John Hempstead, comes this paragraph:

Peter Booth was convincing as David Gunn, happy-go-lucky member of Michael's expedition, as were Eric Thompson (Ian Shawcross), Geoffrey Lesser (Edward Lamp) and Michael Williams (Dr. Potter).

The slightly eerie thing about this is that I discovered Auden's poetry when I was about 30 and developed a strong affection for another of the plays he wrote with Isherwood - The Dog Beneath the Skin. I had even tweeted a few lines of it shortly before I discovered this cutting.

But then, one of the books I've saved from my mother's house is a pocket edition of A Shropshire Lad. I'd always assumed it was hers, but when I studied it I found my father's name and 'Horsham, 1951' on the flyleaf.

Squirreling away in the BNA, I also found that, a month after the play, my father had been announced as the new youth columnist for the same newspaper. But as far as I can see, only one of his columns appeared and it's too dull to be worth quoting.

So there you have it: a discovery at the back of a drawer and an electronic newspaper cutting have made a family legend look a lot more likely to be true.

A forgotten canal tunnel in the centre of Cardiff

Here's the "gloriously unexpected survival right in the centre of the city" I promised you when posting another video from Bob's Rail Relics. That showed a short stretch of the long-abandoned Glamorganshire Canal that is still in water.

The city in question is Cardiff, and the survival is a canal tunnel that today acts as a pedestrian underpass. I think what got me so excited was that you can still see the grooves worn there by the narrow boats' towropes.

Cardiff Council, incidentally, has ambitions to create a 'canal quarter' by uncovering another artificial waterway in the city. This once fed water to the docks so that vessels could leave them even at low tide. 

I don't know if it linked with the Glamorganshire Canal or was used for navigation, but it was also closed during the second world war.

You can subscribe to Bob's Rail Relics on YouTube, and don't forget the remarkable footage showing the canal lying abandoned in 1945 that I have linked to before.

Monday, March 13, 2023

Richard Jefferies, Bevis and ice hockey: A mystery solved

Embed from Getty Images
It did freeze and hard. The wind being still, the New Sea was soon frozen over except in two places. There was a breathing-hole in Fir-Tree Gulf about fifty or sixty yards from the mouth of the Nile. The channel between New Formosa and Serendib did not “catch,” perhaps the current from Sweet River Falls was the cause, and though they could skate up within twenty yards, they could not land on the islands. Jack and Frances came to skate day after day; Bevis and Mark with Ted, Cecil, and the rest fought hockey battles for hours together.

This passage comes from the very last chapter of Bevis: The Story of a Boy by Richard Jefferies, which was published in 1882.

One of the reasons I like Jefferies so much is the way he drops in unexpected observations - here it is village lads playing ice hockey in Victorian England. The 'New Sea' here is the boys' name for the reservoir at Coate in Swindon, where Jefferies was born.

Since posting this passage for the first time, I have looked for other references to the game in 19th-century England but failed to find them.

This evening I have found out why.

I'm listening to the second instalment of The Curiously Specific Book Club podcast on The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers. And, discussing the sport of speed skating that used to flourish in the Fens, they mention that there was also a game called bandy.

Google bandy and you will find all sorts of references, including a Wikipedia entry. Bandy was a precursor of modern ice hockey codified in Britain in the year Bevis was published, though it is still widely played in its own right in Scandinavia and Russia.

So the game Jefferies called hockey in 1882 was probably then called bandy by most people and references to early varieties of ice hockey will most likely be found under that name.

Three Leicester Labour councillors to be disciplined for opposing mayoral system

Last week Leicester City Council debated a motion to abolish its current elected mayoral and return to a traditional committee system. It was defeated by 32 votes to 20 - an alternative replacement model (a leader and a cabinet) was rejected by a larger majority.

This week, as sure as night follows day, comes news that three Labour councillors are to be disciplined for voting against the mayoral system.

The Leicester Mercury reports:

Three Leicester councillors have been suspended by the Labour Party for rebelling against the city mayor’s office at a meeting last week. The meeting was held so elected members of all parties represented on the council could vote on whether to scrap the post, currently held by Labour’s Sir Peter Soulsby.

Patrick Kitterick, who represents Castle ward, Rita Patel and Ross Willmott, both Rushey Mead, have all had the whip withdrawn.

Kitterick has talked to the Mercury:

"For 20 years, I’ve abided by the group whip, but that’s always been on the basis we’ve had a democratic discussion within the group and we’ve come to a collective decision. There was no such discussion on this occasion.

"There wasn’t any meeting of the Labour group over this. There was no internal discussion and there was no democratic debate.

"There was just an order that went out, and that’s not the basis on which we take decisions within the Labour group. I’m not taking orders from people who haven’t consulted any of my colleagues."

So has Soulsby, but he didn't have much to say beyond "Nothing to do with me, guv":

He refused to offer an opinion, saying: "That’s very much a matter for the Labour Group whip, and the party more generally, rather than me. They take the decision on those things and whether they feel someone has stepped beyond what is acceptable."

Leicester Labour's internal politics are pretty impenetrable, so I don't know if Soulsby's truth train is stopping at every station here. But even if he does not ultimately wield the party whip, he has significant powers of patronage - notably his power to make councillors assistant and deputy mayors.

If you're a Labour councillor who wants a flourishing career in the city, you have to stay on the right side of him.

I'm not a fan of elected mayors, but if you are going to have one then you must have a body of robustly independent councillors to scrutinise their decisions.

And where you have a council that is dominated by the same party that the mayor comes from, as is the case in Leicester, you are unlikely to get one. Liverpool's experience has been the same.

The conclusion is that if you want an elected mayor, then the council that oversees them must be elected by proportional representation.

Meanwhile, the size of the vote for change last week suggests the feeling that Sir Peter Soulsby is in danger of outstaying his welcome is growing in the Labour Party as well as the city.

Later. The Leicester Mercury is now reporting that a fourth Labour councillor, Jacky Nangreave, has been deprived of the whip and that none of the four will be able to stand for the party in May's city council elections.

Shivering children 'overawed by Mayor' claim

Embed from Getty Images

Looking for something else in the British Newspaper Archive, I came across a story from the Gloucester Citizen (13 February 1945) that reads like a piece of satire by Dickens himself.


Brighton Social Welfare committee was informed on Monday that following recent complaints improvements were made without delay in the conditions at Warren Farm Schools. 

One member declared Councillor L. Cohen, who led the recent criticism, had made the name of Brighton ''stink". 

Another suggested that the children who had been described as "too cold to cry" were actually over-awed by the presence of the mayor in his robes.

Councillor Cohen replied that if criticism had not been justified improvements now made were unnecessary.

After reading that, I'm pleased to discover that Councillor Cohen made it all the way to the House of Lords. There's a page about the Warren Farm Schools on a Brighton website.

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Sunday, March 12, 2023

Splinter: Costafine Town

On Thursday the Lib Dems gained a seat in Edinburgh's Corstorphine/Murrayfield ward, which naturally put me in mind of this obscure record from 1974. 

So I did a bit of research.

The first thing I found was that Costafine Town wasn't obscure in its day: it made No. 17 in the UK singles chart.

And Splinter were the first band signed by George Harrison to his Dark Horse Records label. Not only that: he produced this single and is playing bass on it.

As to Costafine Town itself, the song doesn't sell the place to me. The detail in the verses goes against the chorus's claim that "it's a fine town". Still, local patriotism is in a fine thing.

But where is it?

Splinter were a South Shields band, and Literary Corstophine tells us:

No 'Corstorphine Town' currently appears on the map in South Shields, but that is not surprising. Not only was the north east of England a significant target for German bombs during WWII, it was also heavily redeveloped in the decades just after the war. 
All that appears to remain of Corstorphine Town is a single pub called the Commercial Hotel. It is to be found in the Riverside area of South Shields.

That website is not sure whether the locale was named after after a businessman named Robbie Corstorphine, after someone who came from what was then a village west of Edinburgh or after anything at all, but the local pronunciation became 'Costafine'.

This second video also tells retails that history, including an interview with Bob Purvis from Splinter who wrote the song.

And right at the end, the Scottish presenters teach me the correct pronunciation of the Edinburgh Corstophine.