30 April, 2015

"Now don't poo poo the idea but......."

Philo's in Ruddington
I’m not a happy party goer. For some reason I don’t feel comfortable in the party situation. Standing around chatting whilst in one hand balancing food on a plate and holding a drink in the other are not skills that I have ever quite mastered. The prospect of having to “mingle” is also one which I don’t relish, not because I don’t want to, but simply because I can never think of anything to say. Others seem to be able to launch forth on any subject and talk to complete strangers as if they are long lost relations – but not me. Instead, if I am not careful, I find myself standing in the corner continually looking at my watch and wondering if I can decently bid farewell to the host whilst looking at the other guests from afar and wishing that I had their confidence and bonhomie to strike up conversations and display all the required skills of partying!

Mingling with the neighbours
I know that I am not alone in this and I suspect that many feel exactly the same way as myself. Indeed, an old friend of mine who, because of his job was often involved in this kind of social situation, once confessed to me that before each party he and his wife would sit down making lists of all the things that they might talk about or say to each guest. These would be scribbled onto pieces of paper to be secretly referred to during the evening. I don’t go that far but nonetheless am always a little terrified as I enter the room, looking anxiously for some known and sympathetic face to whom I can affix myself and with whom I might not disgrace myself by dropping food from my plate  or stand speechless, the words simply not coming into my head.

John welcomes guests
So, it was with some reticence and no little surprise a couple of months ago when I actually agreed with Pat’s suggestion that we have a seventieth birthday party for me. Now, I do have to say that just as I am not a party animal I am equally not terribly birthday orientated. Maybe it is because I am an only child and can honestly say never had a birthday party as child (nor did any of my friends as I remember it – the families where I grew up were simply too hard up) that I have this missing birthday party gene. But whatever the reason I’ve never felt the need to celebrate a birthday. My grandchildren seem to have a whole social calendar built around attending parties but for me it’s largely an alien concept.
"Hmm" says Alex "where shall I start"
John & Ruth's three boys - our grandsons
Sam, Alex and Luke

So, it would have been much easier to say no to Pat’s suggestion and have a quiet birthday at home – just the two of us - with perhaps a nice meal. Or, it would have been more within my comfort zone to have simply had my children and grandchildren for a nice meal  in a local restaurant. But when Pat said to me “Now don’t ‘poo poo’ the idea but what do you think about a 70th birthday party?” I suddenly, and surprisingly, found myself agreeing – albeit with some little anxiety. “You're coming up to seventy” - a little voice in my head whispered – “three score years and ten – maybe there won’t be many more opportunities. Go for it!”  So, "go for it" I did and I found myself  agreeing with this outrageous idea. And I am so very glad that I did! We had a lovely day  a few days after my actual birthday. The sun shone making it a lovely spring Sunday, everyone turned up and both Pat and I were delighted to see all our family plus friends old and new all gathered together. And we all enjoyed a truly sumptuous spread at Philo’s  our local village cafe/deli/coffee shop.

Ready for the grub!
Friends old and new: Sean, Howard,
Shirley and Sheila 
We had approached Philo’s a few weeks previously, having taken my momentous decision to go ahead with this venture to enquire if they could put on a buffet lunch for us in their upstairs room which they use for functions such as ours. We didn't want anything pretentious - a small gathering where everyone (including me!) could feel comfortable, where there would be seats and tables at which to eat  (no plate balancing), space to "mingle" and, very important, where we knew that people would enjoy a simple but hearty meal, beautifully cooked and presented in a relaxing atmosphere. We knew that Philo's would fit these requirements. Lucy, the owner, talked us through what we wanted, gave us excellent and expert advice as to amounts, costs, popular dishes and options - and, most importantly, she was anxious to go along with our ideas and wishes - she didn't try to make it something that it wasn't. In short we felt in control at all times. Having agreed the menu and the format she promised that we would not be disappointed and, goodness gracious, nor were we – the food, service and hospitality were magnificent. Philo's excelled themselves. Every single guest has contacted us since the day to say how much they enjoyed it and to congratulate us on our choice of caterers. Because a number of guests were travelling long distances we wanted the menu to be hearty and filling as well as homely and so we settled for lasagne, shepherd’s pie, cold meats, vegetarian chilli, salads, jacket potatoes and various very tempting sweets. It was delicious and plentiful, every dish. Everyone, it seemed, went back to try something else from the buffet and we watched in amazement as our grand-daughter Eleanor visited the sweet table on four separate occasions to fill up her plate. Where did she put it all! The three hours passed in a flash – mostly eating and chatting – and then, when the tables were cleared we all returned to our house, just a few minutes’ walk down the High Street where we enjoyed  a cup of tea and I had to blow out the candles on my birthday cake while friends and family sang “Happy Birthday”.  It was a wonderful afternoon which has given us so many memories to treasure.
Sam, Sophie & Eleanor
John & Ruth 

As well as our immediate family we had friends from  different parts of the country, there were people who we had met almost 50 years ago and with whom we have remained firm friends despite living far from each other, there were neighbours who have been so much part of our daily life here in Ruddington for almost 40 years, there were ex-work colleagues, and there were newer friends who we have met more recently all - “mingling”, chatting and smiling as the spring sun shone through the windows. My son, John, gave a little speech of welcome and I mumbled a few brief words to all these people that have meant so much and been such important parts of our lives.

Our son in law Andrew and
 his dad Howard
 A few days earlier, on my birthday, a friend rang to wish me happy birthday and as he had already passed that milestone jokingly commented that I was now joining an exclusive club – those who have made it to three score years and ten. We chatted for a few minutes about getting old with all its aches and a pains and how  being a member of this exclusive club meant that we could now both officially classify ourselves as grumpy old men. But as I put the phone down I thought, too, about my journey to get to this exclusive club. None of us ever know what path our life’s journey will take and I briefly thought of those seventy years – where I had come from, what had happened en route, the ups and downs, the people I had met, places been, things seen, opportunities taken and those missed, the successes and the failures, the regrets and the joys. All of these tumbled through my mind.
The sweet eaters loved this bit of the afternoon!

And, a few days later as I stood at the side of my son John, daughter Kate and Pat my wife  and surrounded by all these people who have, largely through fate, become so much a part of our lives in their many different ways I realised, too, that I could never in my wildest dreams have imagined 60 or so years ago that on my 70th birthday I would be standing as I was, comfortably off, having had a moderately successful career, in a village far from where I was born and brought up and surrounded by my wonderful family – of whom I am hugely proud – and so many friends. As any readers of my blogs will know I came from quite a humble background and could never have imagined that in my life time that I -  a scruffy kid from a back street in a northern town - would have visited the far flung places that I have, seen the wonderful things that I have seen, done the things that I have done, met the many, many marvellous people that I have and, most importantly, have such a super and successful family of whom I am hugely proud. In one sense it makes me feel very humble and very lucky; in another deeply grateful. I have been fortunate indeed.
Pat and ex- work colleague Sheila
Our very oldest friends Geoff, Pat, Dave & Molly
And, as I stood there saying my few stumbling words of welcome and thanks to the guests - both for making the journey to be with us on Sunday and for their friendship, love and support over so many years, another thought fluttered across my mind: how my mother and dad would have been thrilled to have been there and to know that it had all worked out for me. As I have often written before, my relationship with my parents was a bit up and down – it was no-one’s fault, it just happened – but I know they would have been pleased (and, I think, not a little proud) to know that I had reached my “three score years and ten” so well. As I stood there I was quietly pleased about that; my parents made me what I am - warts and all – and I have so much to be grateful to them for. It was their hard work and sacrifice that gave me opportunities and outlooks that many others born in similar circumstances often didn’t get. I had absolutely no doubts as I stood there on Sunday that my parents’ hard work, sacrifice and values were underpinning much of what I enjoying in Philo’s.
"Happy Birthday to you......."

With daughter Kate -
official photographer for
the afternoon
And, as I “mingled”, I looked at my two children Kate and John; I don’t expect that I will be around when they reach their 70th birthdays but I’d like to think that when they do they can stand, as I stood on Sunday, knowing  that somewhere, far in the past, Pat and I helped in some small way to make it all happen for them.

The Beale clan: John, Pat, yours truly and Kate
The afternoon was a time to renew old friendships, to reaffirm ties, it was a time to say “do you remember when” and to agree that “we must not leave it so long to meet up again”, it was a time to look back and look forward and to say thank you to all these people who have helped to mould my life and be part of my family – making it and me what we are. An afternoon to treasure and so yes, I’m so very glad that I didn’t “poo poo” Pat’s idea!

15 April, 2015

“.......Make haste, ye venal slaves, be gone”

As Pat, my wife, surfed Facebook the other lunchtime she commented that someone by the name of Oliver Cromwell – presumably a nom de plume - had requested that she be a Facebook “friend”. Although we racked our brains as to people that that we knew who might go under this nom de plume, we eventually, laughingly, decided that this must be a Facebook contact from the grave; perhaps the man who became Lord Protector of England in the mid seventeenth century was trying to make earthly contact! I was, as usual, in grumpy mode and added that I hoped he was; after all, went my reasoning, we need a man of Cromwell’s calibre, stature and belief to take over the reins of our country at this general election time. And as we sat eating our lunch I shook my head in disappointment as I watched the news and listened to our pathetic bunch of politicians telling us why we should vote for them on May 7th; each one more uninspiring than the last, each one like a jaded double glazing salesman who has little confidence in his product and just wants to make a sale. None of them a latter day Cromwell but just dismal, uninspiring, second rate people talking without any kind of conviction, commitment or ideal. In short, all of them leaving me with the lasting impression that they cared for little apart from their own self aggrandizement and petty squabbles.
Cromwell outside Westminster

And as I grumbled on two things went through my mind.

Firstly, I went back to a Wednesday afternoon in 1964. I was studying for my A levels at Blackpool Technical College and each Wednesday we had an afternoon of General Studies where various topics were covered as an addition to our chosen academic specialisms. The assassination of JFK had occurred a few months previously, it was the sixties, Bob Dylan was in our souls and we thought the world was ours – to use Dylan’s words we really did think the “the times [were] a’changing....”. The teacher, a gentleman who we nicknamed "Slump" for some now long forgotten reason, was leading a discussion on politics and we students were at full throttle giving our views.  After a while "Slump" commented that we should take a more balanced view, after all, he said, what we read of MPs and parliamentary debate is only what goes on in the chamber. In reality, he suggested, MPs from different sides of the political fence are often good friends outside Parliament. I wasn't the only student in the room to sit aghast at this – how could a Labour politician be a friend of a Tory; how could a Tory drink a beer with a Labour man? Didn't they believe in what they said in the Chamber? Where we all being conned? Was what we read in the papers and heard on the news just a game? Why weren't they arch enemies – had they no soul? Of course, looking back now, 50 years later, I know that "Slump" was right - TV coverage and a far more inquisitive media  makes the private lives of  politicians today much more visible. But as I watched and listened to the politicians yesterday on TV launching their manifestos and telling me why I should use my valuable vote for their party the knowledge still hurt. Hundreds, no, thousands of people in this country and elsewhere have fought for and often died for our democratic right to place a cross on a piece of paper. But I have this awful feeling that many of those for whom the votes might be cast do not really believe or care enough to rage and to be angry or inspired or ambitious enough to fight for an ideal and to fight for what is right simply because it is the right thing to do. Like Tweedledum and Tweedledee they fight mock battles in the House and then nip off for a beer together - all a sham. The result? - we are given the politics of the lowest common denominator emanating from the chummy farce which is theatre of Westminster, where playing out the political game and staggering through another financial year or five year Parliament is the best on offer rather than reaching for the stars or righting the nation's wrongs. There is not a UK politician of any persuasion who can articulate a policy or an ambitious dream that will ignite the electorate. If there were then, we would not have the situation that we have at present, and have had, throughout the last five years, where no party has a clear advantage. We are stuck with the mediocre where mediocre politicians put on a mediocre political soap opera, speak their mediocre lines about to prop up a mediocre plot or story line. And the result? - is a mediocre response where the majority of the electorate don’t know who to vote for and probably don’t care because in the final analysis it won’t make a deal of difference which mediocrity edges into government. And then, when the play acting in the Chamber is done MPs of every persuasion will nip off to the Parliamentary bar to celebrate together, their mediocre lines spoken and the electorate placated, confused and hoodwinked for a few more weeks, another episode of the long running soap complete.

And, as I thought back to that 1964 General Studies lesson and to Pat’s mysterious Facebook contact from the mysterious “Oliver Cromwell” a second thought came to mind - some long forgotten words of the real Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell. A quick check on Google and there, indeed, were the words that I remembered from my studies all those years ago. The words were spoken on April 1653; a time when the Civil War was recently over, Charles 1st had been beheaded and Cromwell would soon declare himself Lord Protector. The post Civil War nation was in turmoil and government and Parliament viewed with deep suspicion and anxiety and at this political low point Cromwell was unequivocal and his message to Members of Parliament clear: “Ye sordid prostitutes, ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation. The Lord hath done with you. Go, get out, make haste, ye venal slaves, be gone.” Oh.......for a Cromwell in these days of mediocre men and women in Westminster where the banal and the unambitious go arm in arm with the unseemly and corrupt; where dodgy expenses claims, infantile Prime Minister’s question times, abysmal debates and broken promises, committees packed with lobbyists, big business bribery, cash for access, cash for peerages, cash for everything pass for government and leadership in this name political farrago. Oh, indeed, how we need a Cromwell, or at least someone of stature and vision, who can give Parliamentary democracy in this country some meaning, some morality, some ambition, some ethical and political foundation, some ideals to live up to and some vision both to inspire and aspire to.
Bobby Kennedy

As any reader of my previous blogs will be aware I have long been of the view that, in the final analysis, we get the politicians that we deserve and as I approach my seventieth year I look around me and am saddened at what a self satisfied lot we appear to have become – and who we vote for reflects this. We while away the hours on our smart phones, complain bitterly and call the times in which we live "austere" yet sales of new cars are at record levels, bars and restaurants in any city centre are heaving and Apple stores and the like have huge queues when the latest must have model is brought out, we live largely comfortable lives and have access to high quality medicine and health care, we are happy with the lowest common denominator entertainment coming out of Hollywood or the various TV channels, we profess our desire to help those less fortunate but are unprepared to pay more in taxation, we brighten our little lives with the latest "must have" and use retail therapy as a kind of drug, we moan about those who seem to be more fortunate than ourselves and at the same time decry those we perceive to be milking the system by claiming for things to which they are seemingly not entitled, or we complain that migrants to this country are taking our jobs or receiving welfare to which they are not entitled but at the same time we totally ignore the fact that if these people, more often than not will do the jobs that we will not dirty our hands with but which are absolutely critical to the basic services that we all need, demand and enjoy. On the one hand we are a self satisfied lot but on the other a nation of moaners, never satisfied with our lives. Against this backdrop I find it not at all surprising that politicians can score easy goals and be mediocre – they simply latch on to the population’s basest desires, moans and prejudices and feed them what they know will bring favour. And, thus, they are relieved of having to have any greater vision or ambition; they simply prey upon our worst aspects. "Give them a tax cut" they say to the greedy so that the electorate with money has even more money to spend on themselves."Cut the aid to the spongers" the politicians say to the envious and the prejudiced - that will make them feel better and more self righteous. "We must balance the books"  - a solution that sounds  appealing  but in reality does little for the most vulnerable for balancing the books in reality means making economies where they are easiest made: at the expense of those weak and those with no voice or little political clout.These and other well rehearsed sound bites spew forth to give the impression of action to placate the electorate and to appeal to their  baser instincts. And the electorate, self satisfied with our smartphones, tablet computers and i-pods happily accept - our basest desires satisfied and justified. In short, through our own self satisfaction we have bred a political class who are unwilling and probably unable to look for something better and we do not demand that those in power raise the stakes, take the hard decisions and articulate a better future.

As I thought on these things my mind went back to one of the great political speeches from yesteryear and I thought that there were some interesting parallels. In 1968 Bobby Kennedy was planning to run as Democratic candidate for for President of the USA. Although the brother of JFK he faced serious challenges. America was suffering a tough time with Vietnam, race riots and other serious issues facing society. Robert was not John F Kennedy – perhaps he did not have the natural charisma enjoyed by his elder brother and inevitably would always be compared with him. And as I thought about the paucity of ambition and ideas of our current political elite in the UK I reflected that Labour leader Ed Miliband, in a small way, reflects the same situation. Ed Miliband won the contest for the leadership of the Labour Party over his more politically experienced a perhaps more popular and confident older brother David. Many, today, feel that David Miliband would be a stronger Labour leader than Ed who is often portrayed as a bit of a geek (whatever that means!). I think that there is perhaps some truth in that but despite my pessimism about our current political class I also believe that deep down Ed Miliband has an innocent integrity too often found missing in the current inhabitants of Westminster. He might not be a politician or potential leader who would inspire one ride into battle but he is, I believe, a decent man with a tough job – and, importantly, a man who sees a better future. Robert Kennedy, although considerably more politically experienced and savvy than Miliband, was not dissimilar – perceived as a decent human being but not as photogenic as his elder brother, not as easy within himself as was JFK and with a tough challenge to meet given America of the late 60s. Robert Kennedy, however, had one capacity above all others – vision. He wanted America to be a better place and he recognised that people were too comfortable, too self satisfied and that things had to change. He acknowledged the great wealth of his country, where in the 1960s Americans had all the “mod-cons” of the time, they were better educated, healthier, better fed than ever before. But whilst acknowledging the material well being of his country he also identified a worm in the very soul of America and the American psyche; whilst most enjoyed these privileges there was great division in the country, many were abysmally poor and disadvantaged, many were ill cared for and unable to live the healthy lives of the majority and many groups were the victims of disadvantage, disaffection or discrimination. And, it went deeper, hinted RFK, the country was in a state of malaise where mediocrity, disenchantment and disaffection were endemic. Kennedy termed this condition, where a people are too self satisfied and unable or unwilling to notice or recognise the ills of their society, “the poverty of satisfaction”. In March 1968 he gave a speech at the University of Kansas in which, amongst many other things, he said: “Even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another great task. It is to confront the poverty of satisfaction a lack of purpose and dignity that inflicts us all.” Of course, as history records, Kennedy never got the chance to put his dream into action - he was gunned down before he could be elected. Which, maybe just proved the point that he was making - there was, indeed,something wrong with the very soul of his country.
Ed Miliband and how he is often portrayed

Kennedy’s speech might well be applied to modern Britain and the current general election – and maybe Ed Miliband might do well to articulate the sorts of things that RFK did all those years ago – and give the electorate of this country some purpose, some dignity and an aspiration and desire for a better Britain. Kennedy’s words could never fall from any Tory’s lips but I believe that Ed Miliband has the integrity and decency to give them resonance. I live in hopes! Amongst the points made by Kennedy in his long speech were: 

"...at the root of it all [is] the national soul of the United States..........America is deep in a malaise of spirit: discouraging....... and dividing Americans from one another, by their age, their views and by the colour of their skin....... Demonstrators shout down government officials and the government answers by drafting demonstrators. Anarchists threaten to burn the country down and some have begun to try, while tanks have patrolled American streets and machine guns have fired at American children........ Our young people - the best educated, and the best comforted in our history, turn from ...... public commitment ...... to lives of disengagement and despair - many of them turned on with drugs and turned off on America...... .

.......... the fact is, that men have lost confidence in themselves, in each other........ I don't think that we have to shoot at each other, to beat each other, to curse each other and criticize each other, I think that we can do better.......

....And if we seem powerless to stop this growing division between Americans, who.... confront one another, there are millions more living in the hidden places, whose names and faces are completely unknown........I have seen children in Mississippi starving, their bodies so crippled from hunger and their minds have been so destroyed for their whole life that they will have no future. I have seen children in Mississippi - here in the United States - with a gross national product of $800 billion dollars -..... with distended stomachs, whose faces are covered with sores from starvation, and we haven't developed a policy so we can get enough food so that they can live, so that their children........I don't think that's acceptable in the United States of America and I think we need a change....... I have seen Indians living on their bare and meagre reservations, with no jobs, with an unemployment rate of 80 percent, and with so little hope for the future, so little hope for the future that for young people, for young men and women in their teens, the greatest cause of death amongst them is suicide.........I don't think that we have to accept that.... I have seen the people of the black ghetto, listening to ever greater promises of equality and of justice, as they sit in the same decaying schools and huddled in the same filthy rooms - without heat - warding off the cold and warding off the rats....... If we believe that we are bound together by a common concern for each other, then an urgent national priority is upon us. We must begin to end the disgrace of this other America.........this is one of the great tasks of leadership for us, as individuals and citizens this year.

But even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task; it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction - purpose and dignity - that afflicts us all. Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product - if we judge the United States of America by that - that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armoured cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans........

The parallels with Kennedy’s late 60s America and our own are clear – a wealthy nation but one which is divided and unequal, great wealth and great poverty living side by side, a self satisfied people where material belongings such as flat screen TVs or smartphones are seen as more worthy and desirable than things of lasting beauty or excellence, a time of unpopular wars (Vietnam and our own “war on terror”), discrimination, disadvantage and disaffection within the populace generally and in relation to specific groups, a nation where crime and violence are endemic, a society where things of intrinsic worth, of beauty or excellence have often been sidelined in favour of the coarse, the mediocre and the banal, a place where wisdom, faith and devotion are viewed as "old fashioned". Miliband could, indeed, make the same observation of modern Britain as did Kennedy all those years ago: "a malaise of spirit, a poverty of satisfaction - purpose and dignity - that afflicts us all.....Too much and for too long.....we seem to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things".

For me – as I suspect Kennedy – the issues identified in his poverty of satisfaction speech are clarion calls to take action, not for political gain or electoral votes,  but simply and more importantly because they are the right thing to do - they are almost moral imperatives. Last week the Labour Party announced that if they are elected they will clamp down on tax avoiders, especially those who avoid paying the required tax by claiming “non-dom status” i.e. UK residents who have their permanent home outside the UK and who, because of an ancient tax loophole, are allowed to pay much less tax. There were screams of horror from the Tory party and the Tory media – many of that persuasion were non-doms themselves and Tory Chancellor George Osborne commented that this was simply “tinkering around the edges” and would do nothing to make things more equal or better. As I read Osborne's dismissive comment my immediate answer was: "That’s not the point – it’s the right thing to do". Osborne was displaying for all to see the “poverty of satisfaction”......I'm all right Jack.....I don’t see any reason for changing things.

Big, idealistic speeches like that of Kennedy’s are probably, and sadly, a thing of the past. Modern politicians have their speeches carefully crafted by speech writers who cost everything before the pundits, the media, the opposition dismantle the words and pour over every letter, syllable and number. And in doing this we have surely lost something – we never see the bigger picture but only the minutia. What we get is the cautious, the bland, the mediocre, the sterile; it is the politics of the accountant rather that the politics leadership, idealism and action. In our self satisfied political world where everything is carefully costed and nuanced the words are structured so that votes will not be lost rather than votes won and there is no place for the great vision, oratory, idealism and integrity of yesteryear.
Cromwell - warts and all - the media men's nightmare

David Cameron, our PM worked in the media before he came into politics and he, like other modern politicians, knows that in the modern world presentation is everything – and we, the electorate, fall for it every time. Politicians of every hue smooth talk us and in reality say nothing. Oliver Cromwell had no such concerns: he would not have understood the role of the media man: in April 1653 he was clear and unambiguous in his comments, he set out clearly his views, unconcerned if they offended: “Ye sordid prostitutes, ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation. The Lord hath done with you. Go, get out, make haste, ye venal slaves, be gone.” Kennedy, too, was clear in his analysis and his dream. Miliband needs to do the same. And, while he’s about it, maybe he could take another leaf out of Cromwell’s notebook. Cromwell was not a handsome man, he would have been the media man’s nightmare, but in those days it didn't matter - it was the substance that was important not the media froth. When sitting for his portrait he was clear he didn't want any embellishment or “froth”. The artist Sir Peter Lely was renowned for painting his clients in their best light, often outrageously emphasising particular points to make them look good, but Cromwell was pointed and clear in his instructions: he required his to be shown “warts and all”. Now that could never happen with our leaders today and it perhaps says much about why we are in the state we are – how easily we are taken in by the “froth” and so self satisfied are we that we don’t want to see the honest truths that surround us or have a vision of what might be. There really is a poverty of satisfaction at large in our country and our leaders.

10 April, 2015

"Three Ha'Pence a Foot"

A couple of weeks ago we sat and watched a TV version of the Biblical story of Noah and the building of the Ark. It was light, watchable and, I suppose, made good TV rather than promulgating any great religious doctrines or making any profound statements of faith . It had a strange combination: the essence of the Biblical tale, set in Biblical times but with the actors seeming (to me at least) to be speaking and acting in a very modern way – phrases and concepts that I am sure would not have appertained in quite the same way several thousand years ago when the story was originally set. For example, at one stage one of the actors used the phrase “No way” at another the scenes in the city near to where Noah lived were depicted rather like a Friday night in any big UK city today with youngsters enjoying themselves, smoking drugs, dancing and the like in a very 21st century manner. They didn't exactly say “cool man” – but it was pretty close! But, this didn't detract from the essential story and the whole made a not unpleasant 90 minutes viewing. What God (if there be one) made of it, however, is another story!
Noah and his wife build the ark in the TV film

On the following day I read the Guardian review of the film. It largely made the same points that I did in a more effective way. It noted that the actors (all well known names) spoke largely with Lancashire accents – I suppose to make them appear ordinary  working folk – and  it commented on the modern slant given to the story despite the trappings of Biblical costumes and set. It did however, go one stage further – suggesting that the film could just as easily have worked (and might have carried a stronger message) had it been set in the present day. The Guardian suggested modern day Manchester would have been a good place to set a modern Noah since the accents used would have been typical and Manchester is well known in the UK as allegedly being a very wet place where long periods of rain are said to be typical. And finally, it was noted the scenes of sinning and loose living that so annoyed God would have fitted very well in the night life of a big city like Manchester. Although these comments were made largely in jest I was of the view that they held a good deal of truth – the play might well have worked better set in modern day Britain.

These, however, are not the real focus of this blog. As I watched the play and, on the following day read the Guardian’s comments something else ran through my mind and raised a smile to my lips. Noah, the Ark, Manchester, rain, floods.......................Sam Oswaldthwaite, Bury, Blackpool Tower,  the river Irwell.........Stanley Holloway!
Stanley Holloway

For those unfamiliar with the name Stanley Holloway, he was a comedian, singer, poet and monologist who was at the height of his fame in the 1930s to the 1960s. He performed in the West End and in many films but he will always be remembered for his monologues, more often than not performed with a strong Lancashire accent. Holloway himself was not a Lancashire lad – he was born in Essex and often played Cockney characters - but a long association with the comedian, poet and scriptwriter Marriott Edgar ensured that he developed this side of his acting. Edgar wrote a series of humorous  monologues, many of them based in Lancashire and Holloway was the perfect performer for them with his droll, down beat voice and perfect Lancashire accent. I only have to read Marriot’s words or hear Holloway’s rendition of one of the many monologues such as The Magna Carta or the Battle of Hastings  or most famously “Albert and the Lion” (see blog “Nowt So Queer as Folk”:  Feb 2013) to not only be reduced to tears of laughter but to be taken back to the place of my birth, Lancashire. 

Edgar and Holloway’s classic retelling of the story of Noah is wonderful: matter of fact, full of dry Lancashire humour, clever, modern in an old fashioned way and, I think, not too disrespectful. It is called “Three Ha’Pence a Foot” (in “old money” that is one and a half pennies!) - and for those uninitiated with Lancashire humour the phrase “long bacon*” means that Noah put his thumb to his nose and wiggled the rest of his fingers at Sam in a derisory manner. Marriott's monologue catches perfectly the simple, honest humour of Lancashire in the  early to mid 20th century and updates the Noah story perfectly to that time and place.  I like to think that if God has ever listened to it he might just have  raised a smile and been encouraged to think kindly on its honesty, its sentiment and its basis in the wisdom and joy of simple folk. For, certainly, its two "heroes", Sam and Noah, are simple honest tradesmen, as were Noah and his family to whom - God entrusted His great task - the saving of mankind!

Stanley Holloway's rendition of "Three'Ha'pence a Foot"

Three Ha'Pence a Foot

I'll tell you an old-fashioned story
That grandfather used to relate,
Of a builder and joining contractor
Who's name it were Sam Oswaldthwaite.

In a shop on the banks of the Irwell
There Sam used to follow his trade,
In a place you'll have heard of called Bury
You know, where black puddings is made.

One day Sam were filling a knot hole
With putty when in through the door,
Came an old man fair reeked i'whiskers
An th'old man said “Good morning, I'm Noah”.

Sam asked Noah what were his business
And t'old chap went on to remark,
That not liking the look of the weather
He was thinking of building an ark.

He'd got all the wood for the bulwarks
And all t'other shipbuilding junk,
Now he wanted some nice birds-eye maple
To panel the sides of his bunk.

Now maple were Sam’s monopoly
That means it were all his to cut,
And nobody else hadn't got none
So he asked Noah three ha'pence a foot.

“A ha'penny’s too much” replied Noah
“Penny a foots more the mark,
A penny a foot and when rain comes
I'll give you a ride in my ark”.

But neither would budge in the bargain
The whole thing were kind of a jam,
So Sam put his tongue out at Noah
And Noah made long bacon* at Sam.

In wrath and ill-feeling they parted
Not knowing when they'd meet again,
And Sam 'ad forgot all about it
'Til one day it started to rain.

It rained and it rained for a fortnight
It flooded the whole countryside,
It rained and it still kept on raining
'Til th'Irwell were fifty miles wide.

The houses were soon under water
And folks to the roof had to climb,
They said t'was the rottenest summer
As Bury had had for some time.

The rain showed no sign of abating
And water rose hour by hour,
'Til th'only dry land were at Blackpool
and that were on top of the tower.

So Sam started swimming for Blackpool
It took him best part of a week,
His clothes were wet through when he got there
And his boots were beginning to leak.

He stood to his watch-chain in water
On tower-top just before dark,
When who should come sailing towards him
But old Noah steering his ark.

They stared at each other in silence
'Til ark were alongside all but,
Then Noah said “What price yon maple?”
Sam answered “Three ha'pence a foot”.

Noah said “Nay, I'll make thee an offer
Same as I did t'other day,
A penny a foot and a free ride
Now come on lad, what does thee say?”

“Three ha'pence a foot” came the answer
So Noah his sail had to hoist,
And sail off again in a dudgeon
While Sam stood determined, but moist.

So Noah cruised around flying his pigeons
'Til fortieth day of the wet,
And on his way home passing Blackpool
He saw old Sam standing there yet.

His chin just stuck out of the water
A comical figure he cut,
Noah said “Now what’s the price of yon maple?”
And Sam answered “Three ha'pence a foot”.

Said Noah “You'd best take my offer
It's the last time I'll be hereabouts,
And if water comes half an inch higher
I'll happen get maple for nowt”.

“Three ha'pence a foot it'll cost you
And as for me” Sam says “Don't thee fret,
Sky’s took a turn since this morning
I think it'll brighten up yet”.

Absolutely priceless!