Et in Bohemia ego

St Thomas à Becket and St Thomas the Apostle Church, Heptonstall

St Thomas à Becket and St Thomas the Apostle Church, Heptonstall

Et in Bohemia ego

Bill Hartley, on the history of Hebden Bridge

Hebden Bridge is a small and picturesque town in the upper Calder Valley of West Yorkshire. Before the industrial revolution the locals made their living through sheep farming, quarrying the local gritstone and hand loom weaving. Industrialisation brought the mills, spreading out from towns like Halifax and Huddersfield in search of a reliable supply of fast flowing water.

There was a good deal of sub regional specialisation in wool textiles and Hebden Bridge was once known as ‘trouser town’ which indicates what they produced there. During the 1960s and 70s textile manufacture started to disappear. In the face of cheap foreign imports only the manufacturers of high end products could survive and ‘trouser town’ made none of these. As a consequence, there are very few Hebden Bridge firms left in the wool trade. The economic effects of this were all too predictable: high unemployment and a fall in property prices. Hebden Bridge became one of the many run down mill towns on both sides of the Pennines. A few once grand shops and civic buildings in the centre, giving way to crumbling streets of terraced houses. Then in the 1970s a new demographic appeared. Journalists wrote about the growing bohemianism of the town as people arrived, drawn there by low cost living and low property prices. My old tutor in historical geography who knew the area well took a different view, sniffily remarking that the town had been colonised by ‘various dissolute young people’. He wasn’t wrong either –  my friends and I were among the dissolute, though admittedly we only went there on drinking expeditions. The pubs in Hebden Bridge had avoided 1970s style makeovers, mock medieval taverns or fake rural inns with bits of saddlery hanging from the ceilings. Like the rest of the town they weren’t worth the investment.

The bohemianism back then consisted of moth eaten hippies eking out their dole money in these pubs. Sometimes they’d talk about never to be realised plans for the abandoned shop premises below the flat they lived in. Others would pretend to be artists or musicians. It was all good fun, at least for an evening. Only some years later did people arrive on the tail of these pioneers bearing investment money and the ability to make Hebden Bridge noticeably ‘Alternative’. Since those early days of welfare funded bohemian lifestyles, things have changed. The Financial Times reports that you would pay a premium to buy a house. Property prices have risen enormously and shops have sprung up to tell the story of who is living there now.

Hebden used to have a proper mill shop selling clothing woven in Yorkshire. Not far away was a butcher’s who once took his black puddings to France and picked up awards. Both long gone. Now you can buy ethical green nappies for your infant, Palestinian fair trade olive oil and ethnically sourced products, though I suspect the latter aren’t sourced among ethnic Yorkshire manufacturers. The great advantage of Hebden Bridge is that a shop inserted into one of the town’s Victorian buildings can soon look as if it’s been there forever. Of course, tourists love this sort of thing, hence the coaches you see squeezed into the town centre car park. Hebden Bridge has become the go-to place for those in need of such essentials as a quarter of fudge or a chiffon scarf.

Then came another wave of incomers further enhancing the town’s reputation for quirky bohemianism. Hebden Bridge is now the lesbian capital of Yorkshire. Hebden Bridge lesbians have their own Facebook page and the town has been the subject of several articles in the national press approving this new demographic. For lesbians seeking entertainment, the web site Queer Voice tells its readers not to be put off by the name. The Hebden Bridge Trades Club is the place to go for your lesbian themed entertainment.    

Leaving aside the official seal of approval for all this quirky bohemianism the question is, what happened to the working classes, the people who worked the mills and quarried the stone? Well, they are still there. Back in the days when the Trades Club served tradesmen there was a shortage of building land in such a steep sided valley. To cram as many properties as possible onto a usable strip of flat land, a row of terraced houses was the obvious choice. However, with land being in such short supply a terrace wasn’t the entire solution. Seen from a distance whilst travelling by train up the valley, it might be assumed that the Victorian house builders had created rows of tall narrow four storey houses. Not so. These are a peculiarly northern design known as under dwellings. Stand on a terraced street in Hebden Bridge and it would look like any other. However, at intervals there are apertures and down these run steep flights of steps leading to another row of dwellings. What might at a distance be perceived as a generously sized property is in fact one house on top of another. This brought about the creation of a legal device called the ‘flying freehold’. The bedroom ceilings on the under dwelling are of course the property of the owner. However, someone’s ceiling is also the floor of the house above, meaning the owner of the under dwelling also owned the floor of the over dwelling. Which was how the workers of Hebden Bridge were crammed into the limited space available.

Amidst this alternative utopia time hasn’t treated the working classes of Hebden Bridge too well. Many of the families who live there go back generations. Some surnames can pin point origins with considerable precision. The Ackroyd’s, for example, trace their name to a single farmhouse on the fells.

The first bad thing to happen occurred at the now demolished Acre Mill. This was built in 1859 to harness the waters of a fast flowing stream but by 1939 weaving had been replaced by that new wonder material, blue asbestos. Acre mill started by making gas mask filters then other products containing asbestos. It continued in operation until the 1970s and only gradually has the impact on former workers’ health become apparent. In 2007 the Daily Telegraph described it as Britain’s ‘worst industrial disaster’. Campaigners believe Acre Mill to be responsible for 700 deaths.

Then Hebden Bridge acquired an unfortunate nickname: ‘suicide central’. Up in the churchyard of Heptonstall just above Hebden lies the grave of Sylvia Plath, wife of poet laureate Ted Hughes. Not far away are the more anonymous resting places of young men who died of drug overdoses. The high rate of suicides was noted by Jez Lewis a film maker who had grown up in the town. Returning home to attend the funeral of a friend he began to do some calculations. He realised that fifteen friends and neighbours from around the streets where he grew up had killed themselves over a twenty-year period; an extraordinary statistic. This prompted him to do further research leading to the making of his 2009 film Shed Your Tears and Walk Away. The title was prompted by the fatalism of the people he spoke to; the matter of fact response to deaths by suicide among their friends and acquaintances. In 2000 Calderdale had a suicide rate of 10.8 per 100,000 people, double that of neighbouring North Kirklees. Hebden Bridge, a paradise for some, is purgatory for a marginalised and overlooked working class. Lewis’s attempts to research the film were met with denials from local politicians that there was a problem and schools refused to take his calls. The story is told in the film by those whose lives have been blighted by alcohol and drugs. Watching it one is struck by how semi articulate youths can still voice their frustration and bewilderment about what is happening to them.

So what factors are at work? An unemployment rate of 5.2% may play a part but this figure isn’t uncommon in parts of the north. Some people believe topography has a role, noting that the steep valley sides can create a sense of claustrophobia. The weather doesn’t help. Five consecutive days of sunshine are said to be a rarity. Then there is aspect. The working class homes mentioned above were built on the north side of the valley, which of course gets even less of the limited sunshine. One resident noted the prescient view of a local policeman voiced some thirty years ago. He predicted that the situation would get much worse. The hippies, he said, had brought drug use to the valley and had made it normal.

Some urban geographers are critical of ‘regeneration by gentrification’, pointing out that those with the least voice are the ones who get marginalised. As Jez Lewis mentioned, in Hebden Bridge they will hold a candle lit vigil for Tibet or Palestine but the death by suicide of a twenty-five year old father of two scarcely gets a mention. One of the youths featured in the film nicely summed up the paradox of his home town. He described Hebden Bridge as ‘a drugs town with a tourist problem’.

sylvia-plath-graveston

BILL HARTLEY is a former deputy governor in HM Prison Service and writes from Yorkshire

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Why Trump Won

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Why Trump Won

LESLIE JONES identifies some of the reasons


Ineffectual opposition

In the primaries, Trump crushed and humiliated his Republican rivals for the presidential nomination. Exit, in due course, all the remaining candidates; namely, “lying” Ted Cruz, “Bible high, Bible high, puts it down and then he lies”; “low energy” Jeb Bush; “lightweight” Marco Rubio; Rand Paul, whose facial features “The Donald” denied insulting, although he claimed that there was “plenty of material”; and hapless Ohio Governor John Kasich, who gave interviews while stuffing pancakes into his mouth. “I’m always telling my young son Barron, always with my kids, all of them, I’d say, children, small, little bites”, “Its disgusting”, Trump quipped. As one commentator remarked, the President Elect insulted his way into the White House. Continue reading

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Treats for New Year

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Treats for New Year

Em Marshall-Luck selects some seasonal products

With New Year almost upon us, I have a selection of the most superb wines, whiskies and food products to enjoy during the remainder of the festive season; delectable treats with which to celebrate 2017 or to ease the melancholia of the year’s last day.

Let’s start with my recommendations for the main celebration itself (whether a New Year’s Eve gathering or to welcome in a new start the next day): a bottle of top quality champagne is almost imperative, and you could not go wrong with either of my two choices:  Moet & Chandon Imperial NV, or the Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label NV. Both of these champagnes sing aloud of refinement, sophistication, elegance, and just a touch of decadence. In terms of looks and taste, there is not a huge amount to choose between the two: both bottles are recognisably classic and unashamedly proclaim their excellence; both wines are made from the finest Pinot Noir, Meunier and Chardonnay grapes from the Champagne region – with the Veuve Clicquot having a predominance of Pinot Noir – both have fine bubbles, a golden straw colour, and the crispest and freshest of effervescence. Continue reading

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Reflections of a Noble Savage

George Frederic Watts, The All Pervading

George Frederic Watts, The All Pervading

Reflections of a Noble Savage

Gerry Dorrian goes cold turkey

What is Wrong with US?: Essays in Cultural Pathology, Eric Coombes & Theodore Dalrymple (eds.), Imprint Academic, 2016, reviewed by Gerry Dorrian

A drugs-worker in 2009, I posted Theodore Dalrymple’s Spectator article Withdrawal from heroin is a trivial matter on the staffroom noticeboard. This former prison doctor wrote something that we all knew to be true but heretical: heroin withdrawals are no worse than a common cold. I don’t think that a Spectator article was so well-received in a social care setting.

Now Dalrymple has co-edited What is Wrong with Us? Essays in Cultural Pathology, which presents twelve authoritative voices exploring the limits of counter-hegemonic critique. His essay on brutalist architecture would have had the socially conservative Labour voters in my 1970’s tower block roaring in agreement, even if we might have expressed ourselves less elegantly. Continue reading

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When the Chips are Down

Marc Chagall, Jacob's Dream

Marc Chagall, Jacob’s Dream

When the Chips are Down

Stoddard Martin reviews a timely tome

NINE LOVE LETTERS, by Gerald Jacobs. Quartet Books, £20

We are living through a neo-expressionistic, intolerant era. Famous lines come to mind: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” The resentful go ranting, provoking ill-judged rejoinders; the ante is upped, and clunky apparatchiks are called in to assess who has indulged in hate-speech. Amidst sound and fury, where are the quieter voices, the humane ones, belonging to those who begin and end by trying to understand?

Gerald Jacobs is not a loud-speaking writer. His sentences are never calculated for show. He spins out a narrative calmly and justly, in a reasonable voice. His tale is about Jewish experience, but not with special pleading or without exposing foibles of the tribe. Nine Love Letters is no exercize in us vs them; it is a novel about people in their un-public lives, the way they have navigated historical noxiousness, the difficulties they have in simply living.

The ordinariness of Jacobs’s characters is at the base of their virtues, yet neither they nor their lives are truly ordinary. How could they be when one of the two families, eventually united in marriage comes from Baghdad at the time of the Farhud and the other, now reduced to one, from Budapest at the time of exportations to Auschwitz? These epic disasters provide a precisely painted-in background, but they are not what Jacobs trains our eye on.

The Harouns have been Iraqi merchants for generations, a colourful clan loving their weddings feasts and happy in the open life of the Middle Eastern street, until events persuade the prescient among them to emigrate to north London. In this more enclosed and grey world, they are enterprising enough to make their way in the import-export business, dealing in carpets. Meanwhile, Anna Weisz, child of a prominent physician in mittel Europa, has survived the fate of the rest of her prosperous, cultured family to come to Surrey with the English officer, Roderick Vane, who liberated her from Bergen-Belsen and marries her shortly after. In the Home Counties she encounters veiled bigotry, but a determination to get on propels her to a successful interior design trade, and she confines her traumas of the past to private memory.

Advancing out of the 1930s and ‘40s, we arrive at the heart of Jacobs’ tale – two children of these refugees, Eli Haroun an aspirant poet in rebellion against family expectations, and Belinda Vane a clever public school girl on track to become a blue-stocking at Cambridge. Something mysterious is out of balance in each, and they find themselves for a spell in a psychiatric home called The Elms. Discovering symmetry in their dislocation and aspirations, they fall in love. The Harouns wish their son to make a good Iraqi Jewish or at least Jewish marriage and recoil from a prospect of him taking up with a gentile English girl. Meanwhile, because Anna Weisz Vane has spent years saying nothing about her own background, no one – not even Belinda – realizes that Belinda is matrilineally Jewish.

Wanting to protect her daughter from falling into a life recalling her own miseries, Anna at first mirrors the Harouns’ resistance to the lovers’ relationship. Gradually, however, she sees that they genuinely care for one another and so reveals her origins. On the basis of this, Eli gets his parents’ approval and goes to a rabbi to acquire permission to marry, only to be told that having been in Auschwitz is no proof of Jewishness – gypsies, Polish Catholics and others were there; documentation is needed. This leads to perhaps the best scene in the book: Anna strides with dignity into the pedantic man’s office, exposes the brand on her arm and brandishes a carefully preserved letter from the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration confirming the deaths of her parents, their names and identities.

It is a climax to the novel but by no means its end. Nine Love Letters is a Bildungsroman in the Buddenbrooks tradition, and we are invited to see how younger generations develop. Eli and Belinda rent a flat in Chalk Farm and eat at the Pizza House in Goodge Street. They take jobs and have children, and the elder Harouns help them to buy a larger flat in Muswell Hill. They live through the Wilson years and into the 1970s; familial ties remain – traditional Iraqi Jewish dinners are described deliciously – but the lesser traumas of a safe north London life of the day-before-yesterday are not escaped. Eli returns to poetry, then depression; Belinda keeps communicating with her former therapist; the marriage develops predictable tensions, and then… That life goes on is the point in a collective Bildungsroman of this type, and of tradition. Family, community, tribe – little Hanno Buddenbrook may have ingested his father’s melancholia and descended into an early grave, but others continue.

That is what we are left with: to observe the continuum, recalling the great generations – the happy ones, the troubled ones, the ones whose troubles are oddly nameless. We would be without imagination if we did not measure one against another, saying (if even only in private) this one was strong, that one weak; they were toughened by turmoil, we went soft out of privilege. A fine intelligence watches the cycles without giving way to noisy calls to ‘make [whatever] great again’. Decadence and regeneration are part of the process but need not be dealt with via a kind of passionate intensity that causes the centre not to hold. If the best lack all conviction, they would do well to heed quieter, humane voices that speak only after listening and act only after having done the diligence of trying to understand.

STODDARD MARTIN is an author and critic. His latest book is Monstrous Century, Starhaven, 2016

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Border Stories

John Wayne

John Wayne

Border Stories

Bill Hartley is down Mexico way

The geography of violence can remain constant over very long periods. For example, the Texas-Mexico border country was and remains a violent place. There are towns in Texas with populations the size of Bridlington or Leighton Buzzard which have crime rates that might see a British chief constable out of a job. Texas has been described as the US state that lets people have guns then executes them for using them and it’s even worse on the Mexico side of the border.

Authors have effectively mined these lawless territories. To describe such literature merely as Westerns would be to assume an association with the sagebrush sagas of Zane Grey and the like. Critics sometimes describe them as ‘Neo Westerns’. They are the work of writers who appreciate that this setting continues to provide an excellent platform for storytelling and which century they choose doesn’t really matter. Continue reading

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ENDNOTES, December 2016

Handel

Handel

ENDNOTES, December 2016

In this edition: a ‘grand’ Messiah from Sir Andrew Davis in Toronto  *  Bach’s Christmas Oratorio at Westminster Abbey  *  A new concert hall in Antwerp.

All over the country, orchestra and choirs are preparing for performances of Handel’s Messiah, which – alongside Bach’s Christmas oratorio – is, perhaps, the quintessential oratorio for this season. Newly-arrived from Chandos Records is a handsomely presented two-CD set of the work (recorded in Toronto): the cover, a splendid detail from the Renaissance painting, Annunciazione by Pulzone, and a detailed booklet, containing some wonderful stills from the live performance from which this ‘Messiah’ is taken. The work is described thus:

‘Messiah (1741) – On a compilation of texts from the Bible and Prayer Book Psalter by Charles Jennens (1700-1773).  New concert Edition by Sir Andrew Davis – In Memory of My Mother and Father.’

Continue reading

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Ordeal by Fire

from DW Griffith's Intollerance

From DW Griffith’s film Intolerance

Ordeal by Fire 

Il Trovatore, music by Giuseppe Verdi, conducted by Richard Farnes, Director David Bösch, Royal Opera House, 4th December 2016, first revival of David Bösch’s 2015/2016 production, reviewed by Leslie Jones

In our review of the 2015/16 production of Il Trovatore (see QR, July 5, 2016), the absurdity and incomprehensibility of Salvadore Cammarano’s libretto was noted. The Illustrated London News (29 March 1856) described the subject of the latter as “not only revolting in itself, but confused and obscure in its treatment”. Only outstanding vocal performances, it would seem, can make up for the deficiencies of the plot.

Il Trovatore is evidently not one of Verdi’s greatest operas, although as George Bernard Shaw pointed out, it tackles some stirring and elemental themes. We have immolation, infanticide, jealousy, the unquenchable desire for revenge (of Azucena and of Luna) plus the abiding love of a ‘mother’ for her (adopted) son. There is also the self-sacrifice of Leonora to Count di Luna (à la Floria Tosca) in a vain attempt to save her sweetheart Manrico, although, as she pointedly declares, “You will have my body but only as a corpse”. Continue reading

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Government is the Cause of “Brexit-Trump Syndrome”

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 Government is the Cause of “Brexit-Trump Syndrome”

Stephen Michael MacLean delivers some home truths

The Powers that be never fail to demonstrate why they have earned the enmity of the average citizen. Bound up in a cocoon of self-satisfaction and self-denial, their political coup de grâce cannot come soon enough. This self-important élite are flummoxed by the people’s revolt in Britain and America, known respectively as Brexit and the Trump movement. A recent column dispatched from the prestigious London School of Economics and Political Science amply displays their continuing bewilderment.

Coining the term ‘Brexit-Trump Syndrome’, British academics Michael Jacobs and Mariana Mazzucato claim that an inability to understand economic reality explains why average working-class citizens, who suffered lost jobs and wages and failed to bounce back from the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-09 (despite billions spent in stimulus schemes), voted either to exit the European Union or put Donald Trump in the White House. Both described as ‘disastrous’ socio-economic choices. The implications drawn are that people were duped into voting against their financial interests. Continue reading

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Hotel Tresanton

massey_tresanton_0028

Hotel Tresanton,
St Mawes, Cornwall

Hotel Tresanton exudes an air of cosy solitude and secluded intimacy. It is incredibly well located with wonderful St Mawes Castle just at the top of the hotel (accessed via 137 steps), and a little beach at the bottom of the hotel. A cluster of white stone buildings dating from 1760 at the earliest and linked by almost Mediterranean courtyards, terraces, flights of narrow steps and little covered passageways, it is a charming and wonderful hide-away that offers pure peace and relaxation, stepping back in time to a slower way of life.

The very approach to the hotel is quirky – one has to drive past the car park situated above the establishment, round past the castle and down to the bottom, and stop in a narrow road on double yellow lines, while the hotel sends a porter round to collect one’s luggage and park one’s car. Then it is up through the passageways and the flower-filled courtyards to the reception – a small area with polished wooden desk and a friendly greeting from the lady behind. Continue reading

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