Alan Bennett’s home territory — Leeds, in Yorkshire — is not a part of England I can claim to know from personal experience. I’ve only made it as far north as the Midlands, reached as I wended my way northward from Worthing where I met an English friend from university and his wife for a road trip that deposited me in Birmingham from whence I returned to London. We dawdled along the way and took in the sights at a leisurely pace, easily done in Merry Old since there’s a village every few kilometers, no huge expanses of wilderness for hours on end like you find in my home territory. First came lovely Arundel with the castle on its hillock (here), then on through the South Downs to Petworth House (here) — seeing the Grinling Gibbons carvings there threatened to induce Stendhal syndrome but I managed to hold myself together — then a brief stop at Haslemere (to pay tribute to the memory of the Dolmetsch family and their contribution to the resurgence of early music), on through the Berkshire Downs to Newbury for a spot of lunch (inevitably the “plowman’s lunch” ubiquitous at the time, which left me mightily unimpressed having just come from France where a cafe lunch of that ilk would cause either raised eyebrows or raucous laughter). We toddled on to Oxford before evening set in and had a good look round before the dusk thickened and sent us indoors. The next day it was off after another look at the architectural glory that is Oxford, one of my two favorite spots in Europe, the other being Innsbruck (but only in the summertime, I hasten to add).
You can’t head north from Oxford and not stop at Woodstock to see Vanbrugh’s stately pile for the Duke of Marlborough, Blenheim Palace (here). I was fully apprised of Voltaire’s disparaging opinion of the place before I laid eyes on it myself. I did my best to put aside Voltaire’s objections and make my own judgements. It’s an alarming apparition, like stumbling on an alien mothership sat in the middle of Capability Brown’s serene parkland. Only a few months earlier I’d been at Vierzehnheiligen (info here), an ornament to its setting and a rapture of light and color inside, and for some reason the images I had of that place inserted themselves by way of comparison. Nothing of the sort there in Woodstock, goodness me … Looking at Blenheim I thought, “Hmmm, looks like he nicked it from the Klingons.” As I think back now to that initial impression, I see that Vanbrugh simply botched the matter of incarnational timing. Had he been born in my day, he’d have become without doubt the go-to set designer for “Game of Thrones.” Right up his alley, yes siree.
The next stop was Chipping Campden — as a former lit major I could hardly let that go by without a look-see, could I. T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton, that sort of thing. The astonishing history of the estate, over which one can only wring one’s hands in wonder, is sketched in an article from the Daily Mail (here). I contented myself with a look at the village, leaving the estate to continue in the realm of imagination where literature best flourishes. It was an easy mosey on to Stratford, the next overnight spot, and a play at the Royal Shakespeare Company. As luck would have it, the production at that time — a comedy — was staged in the Flapper Era, which brought the cognitive dissonance of hearing Elizabethan language declaimed by performers dressed for Ziegfeld’s Follies. Be that as it may, another box was ticked, we toured round the other sights in town and had a pleasant evening where things were all frightfully, frightfully. The next morning it was off to Warwick.
There’s much more to Warwick than a glance at the map would lead one to expect. It’s one of those places in England where history feels tangible through ample physical evidence from a long past — and not only because of the castle, which began as yet another production of those bloody Normans who flounced in and set everything on its ear with their foreign ways. One of the early earls of Warwick was best buds with Edward I, towers and turrets sprang up all round so the castle in its altered state looks as English as pasties. It’s a great pity the medieval town hasn’t survived — unfortunately in 1694 the Great Fire incinerated most of it. But vernacular architecture being what it is, looking down a street of half-timbered houses from the 18th century is a good enough glimpse into the past. From the Wikipedia page on Warwick (here) comes this little-known and surprising set of facts:
J. R. R. Tolkien seems to have been very influenced by Warwick (where he was married in the Catholic Church of Saint Mary Immaculate) and by its Mercian connections: Lynn Forest-Hill, in an article in the Times Literary Supplement (TLS 8 July 2005 pp 12–13) argues cogently that two important settlements in Tolkien’s work were modelled on Warwick — Edoras closely on the early town, and Minas Tirith more remotely on the Norman; and that aspects of the plot of The Lord of the Rings are paralleled in the romance known as Guy of Warwick. Christopher Tolkien, in The Book of Lost Tales, stated that Kortirion, the main city of Tol Eressëa, “would become in after days Warwick.”
Now there’s a good spot of backstory if you’re a municipality with a Tourist Office. The day we spent going about the town was sunny and my memories are full of bright colors and handsome sights. It’s a thoroughly lovely place.
I had made it known that no stop in Coventry was necessary since I find the cathedral hideous. With the bulk of the day spent in Warwick, afternoon found us headed for Birmingham, where I caught a train back to London and soon found myself once again happily ensconced in Hampstead where I was staying with an American friend.
It’s impossible to be at all involved with modern English culture and remain oblivious to the differences between North and South. There’s a Wikipedia page on the phenomenon (here). One of the best things I’ve read on the subject is an article by Bryan Appleyard (himself from Lancashire) published in 1994 in The Independent (here) with the copious title “T’narrowness of t’North: They scorn muesli and avocados. They’re poor, gritty and somehow authentic. Or are they?” in which this passage occurs:
… The North is a word for a narrowness that recasts reality. Immediately you place its strange conventions alongside those of the wider world, terrible, revealing disjunctions occur. Wood’s Lancashire becomes a warped place full of limp, ineffectual men who still drive Ford Anglias, ferocious dragon mothers, appalling, degrading illnesses and balmily genteel, Ortonesque social conventions. Bennett’s Leeds is a home whose hermetic oddities expand to become all private strangeness. This family, this place is weird, he says, but, on closer inspection, all families, all places turn out to be weird.
He’s hit the nail on the head with the narrowness point. It’s the salient feature of Bennett’s North. I suspect that the weird bit would have happened even if Bennett had been born in Brighton, since that’s just a part of who he is. Can you imagine T.S. Eliot having a homeless woman in a van parked in his drive for 15 years? I think not. But “The Lady in the Van” reveals that for Bennett it’s just Business As Usual. He doesn’t come without quirks, even when he’s writing historical plays like “The Madness of King George.”
So let’s get acquainted with some of Bennett’s Northern Folk. There’s no better place to start than with Mam and Dad from “Sunset Across The Bay,” the TV film from 1975, viewable here. There’s an excellent analysis by David Rolinson here. We see Dad finish his working life — he’s working class so it’s not a career — by doing his last day on the job and coming away with a toaster as his reward for a few decades of loyal service. He walks home across an urban landscape of such unremitting bleakness that when he finally reaches his terraced house it only makes sense that it’s the last inhabited dwelling in a street of Victorian worker housing scheduled for demolition. The term “slum” is used in the film to describe the area, but to be perfectly honest, compared to the dodgy accommodations I’ve seen people inhabit in London, there’s nothing slummy about it. Terraced houses like that would be worth a cool half million at the very least in London. But let us not cavil, it’s not London, it’s Leeds, which doubtless has vastly different standards for accommodation because the locals haven’t been pushed out by property investors from Asia and the Gulf States.
I don’t know over how long a time period filming took place, but it seems astonishing to me that even in northern England the sky can only ever be heavily overcast and the vista short before petering out in a sickly, pale haze. That impression is, however, what the film conveys. The weather looks like a meteorological equivalent of chronic constipation. People dress in heavy clothing the color of an unploughed field before spring has sprung. In fact, had Dante been born in Yorkshire one suspects that he’d not have had to look far to find a model for at least one of his circles of hell. It’s stood there right in front of you, plain as the nose on your face. Isn’t it, Dad. Aye, Mam, so it is.
As unremittingly bleak as are the cityscape and the weather, so are the characters unremittingly sparing with words. In some of the reviews I’ve read of Bennett’s pieces about Northern Folk this characteristic has been called authentic, or part of the charm of Bennett’s characterizations, or symbolic of the toughness Northerners value. But hang on a minute, let’s cross-check that with “Coronation Street” and it 30-odd years of popularity with the British public. You can’t get a word in edgewise, especially in the early years when the pace of the dialogue approaches the rapidity of Gilbert-and-Sullivan patter. And then, loath though I am to do it, let’s bring “Geordie Shore” into the mix — can’t get much more Northern than that, can you. As we all know, you can’t shut those tossers up, either. So this Northern “strong, silent type” sounds like something of a trope that may not have much basis in reality. Granted, watching an interview with Bennett or listening to his commentary as he walks you round Westminster Abbey (video here) makes it seem plausible, but one suspects that has more to do with Bennett than with the North. The fishwives in “Coronation Street” are more likely the rule than the exception.
Dad and Mam are finally out the door on their way to Morecambe, the boards going up over the windows of their terraced house as they climb into the cab taking them to the bus station. Since it’s all pretend anyway, we’re going to follow them as though they were tourists and see what we come across along the way from Leeds to Morecambe. Since we’re pretending about pretending, we’ll imagine them not in a bus with cheesy organ music playing but rather in an old Anglia, at their leisure and able to stop anywhere they like along the 71 miles that separates them from the life they knew in Leeds and the hazy horizon awaiting them in Morecambe. What will we find, I wonder … Let’s hit the road and see.
Timothy West and Prunella Scales made one of the journeys in their BBC series “Great Canal Journeys” on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal going roughly along the same route, albeit in the opposite direction, so if you want to add the photogenic trip down memory lane to the visual image repertoire, have a look (video here). The film has some good footage of the area including bits on Skipton and Howarth. It would never occur to Mam and Dad to do a canal trip, of course — they couldn’t afford it even if they wanted to, so we won’t be pottering about on the water like characters in The Wind in the Willows. The Anglia is the place for us.
Leeds, by the way, is quite the going concern these days — hardly the dystopian, post-industrial glumness the film portrays. But in that regard it’s more the exception than the rule, as the first stop makes clear, for the first stop is: Bradford.
Let’s use Bradford as a species type for the Northern City and take from its Wikipedia page (here) some salient information:
Historically part of the West Riding of Yorkshire, Bradford rose to prominence in the 19th century as an international centre of textile manufacture, particularly wool. It was a boomtown of the Industrial Revolution, and amongst the earliest industrialised settlements, rapidly becoming the “wool capital of the world”. The area’s access to a supply of coal, iron ore and soft water facilitated the growth of Bradford’s manufacturing base, which, as textile manufacture grew, led to an explosion in population and was a stimulus to civic investment; Bradford has a large amount of listed Victorian architecture including the grand Italianate City Hall.
The textile sector in Bradford fell into decline from the mid-20th century. Bradford has since emerged as a tourist destination, becoming the first UNESCO City of Film with attractions such as the National Science and Media Museum, Bradford City Park, the Alhambra Theatre and Cartwright Hall. Bradford has faced similar challenges to the rest of post-industrial Northern England, including deindustrialisation, social unrest and economic deprivation.
Industrial Revolution, coal, textiles, manufacturing, Victorian architecture, economic decline … there’s our pattern. We’re not going jauntily down a country lane in Devon greeting passersby with “Awright, my lover” nor are we taking tea while being creakingly picturesque in the Cotswolds. Our pattern here is crabbed and difficult life throughout most of history until the Industrial Revolution came along and turned things into the coal-fired nightmare with which we’re all sufficiently familiar. The fact that Bradford has restyled itself a “city of film” does little to redeem its history. Northern cities are all busy reinventing themselves into hubs of this or that, but the fact remains that there was very little to show before the Industrial Revolution and what happened after that point is best left under the carpet where the inhabitants are busy sweeping it. So let’s move on to Keighley — which, in yet another instance of that cavalier disregard the English have for phonetics, is pronounced keeth-ly. From the Wikipedia page (here):
In 2003, The Idler magazine set up an online poll to decide which were the 50 worst places to live in Britain. The results were published in the book Crap Towns: The 50 Worst Places to Live in the UK. Keighley came in at number 40. Keighley’s local newspaper, the Keighley News, reported the reaction of Councillor Andrew Mallinson, chairman of Keighley Town Centre Management Group: “On the positive side, it’s nice to know that out of all the towns in the country, Keighley has got a mention! But on a serious note, as a group, we take any complaints or concerns seriously and are always striving to improve the town centre’s image.”
You win some, you lose some. But only three miles south is Haworth, and Mam and Dad make a beeline for it because there they will find the parsonage that housed the famous Brontë sisters. It may well be the high point of the trip. And there it sits on the edge of what is in fact a rather nondescript village without much more than a spot of history to recommend it. So, Dad, that’s the place. Aye, Mam, so it is. And on we go. By the way, if you have a fondness for what the British call “taking the piss,” there’s a vicious and rib-crackingly funny piece on the Brontë Sisters in the series “Psychobitches” (video here). Rude, soooo rude … and it includes the line, “Don’t listen to her, Doctor, she’s like a wet weekend in Morecambe.” Oops, bad press, hope Mam and Dad give that one a miss … Less potty-mouthed but equally hilarious is a sketch with Gayle Tuesday and Sheila Hancock (video here) about filming a life of Emily Bronte entitled “I Couldn’t Get a Boyfriend So I Had To Write a Book Instead.” It could easily earn them a guest spot on “The Only Way Is Essex.”
On to Skipton. The only time I’ve ever heard Skipton mentioned other than in “Great Canal Journeys” with West and Scales is in a parody piece by Fry and Laurie that has Fry dressed up in drag imitating one of Bennett’s northern Talking Head women. As Auntie Ivy Fry says, “… For all your Italian red lettuce, which to my mind tastes as bitter as a Skipton wind …” Well, it’s on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales, so no wonder. The Wikipedia page (here), however, yields this arresting revelation:
Skipton Castle was built in 1090 as a wooden motte-and-bailey by Robert de Romille, a Norman baron. In the 12th century William le Gros strengthened it with a stone keep to repel attacks from the Kingdom of Scotland to the north, the castle elevated Skipton from a poor dependent village to a burgh administered by a reeve. The protection offered by Skipton Castle during the Middle Ages encouraged the urbanisation of the surrounding area, and during times of war and disorder the town attracted an influx of families. It is now one of the most complete and best preserved medieval castles in England and is open to the public.
Skipton became a prosperous market town, trading sheep and woollen goods: its name derives from the Old English sceap (sheep) and tun (town or village). A market stemming from its formative years still survives. In the 19th century, Skipton emerged as a small mill town connected to the major cities by the Leeds and Liverpool Canal and its branch Thanet Canal, (known locally as ‘Springs branch canal’), but during the 20th century Skipton’s economy shifted to tourism, aided by its historic architecture and proximity to the Yorkshire Dales. Since 1974, Skipton has been the seat of Craven District Council. The Skipton Building Society was founded in the town. In 2016 Skipton was voted the best place to live in England for the second time, having been voted for by the Sunday Times, two years earlier.
Bloody Normans again, can’t get away from them — but that’s not the surprising bit. The astonishment derives from the second paragraph. Best place to live in England? Voted for by The Sunday Times? One can only assume the voting took place directly after the annual “420” gathering in Hyde Park in April, when the haze in the air has a chemical composition that could easily impair the critical faculties. Either that or somebody popped out to go ask Alice …
After all the excitement in Skipton, Mam and Dad decide to pass through Gargrave without stopping so as not to gild the lily, as it were. A look at the offerings in Long Preston (population 742) leaves Dad’s foot on the gas pedal as they mosey through town, then pick up speed again for Langcliffe. The Wikipedia page reveals, however, that Mam and Dad have missed the Langcliffe party:
The building of the Settle-Carlisle Railway made heavy industry possible in Langcliffe and a Hoffman Continuous Kiln was built in 1873 for the Craven Lime Company. Lime burning became a key local industry but is now part of Craven’s industrial past. The kiln was patented by German inventor Friedrich Hoffman in 1858. The kiln at Langcliffe had 22 chambers where limestone was continuously burned in a circuit that took around six weeks to complete. The operation was very labour-intensive and provided employment for local residents but the working conditions were unhealthy and dangerous.
The lime kiln and quarry closed in 1931 as a result of a fall in sales and competition from elsewhere. The kiln was fired up in 1937 but closed permanently in 1939. Arrangements to demolish the chimney in 1951 were halted when it fell down the day before the arranged date.
As they say, timing is everything. Isn’t that right, Dad. Aye, Mam, so it is. So on to Clapham. The village website (here) presents an amazing plethora of tourist attractions and businesses, including one mobile welding service that will pop over and mend your wrought-iron stairs in a jiffy. What more could you ask of village life? It’s all about reinventing yourself these days, isn’t it, and the sky’s the limit.
Feeling the day lengthen a bit, Mam and Dad push on, anxious to reach Morecambe before dark because you know Dad, he’s not one to be out of an evening especially when the roads are wet — and of course the roads are wet, it’s the bleeding Dales, man. Next stop: Hornby.
Oops. This from the Wikipedia page:
This Richmondshire location article is a stub. You can help Wikipedia by expanding it.
Well, Mam and Dad can’t be doing with that, they’re retired now. The stub doesn’t even include a link to Hornby Castle (info here), the former seat of the Dukes of Leeds (now extinct), so “stub” doesn’t begin to tell that story. The old Anglia slows a bit as they go past the turning, but the news is not good — timing, it always comes down to the timing. Doesn’t it, Dad. Aye, Mam, so it does:
The 4th Earl’s daughter and heir Amelia, Baroness Darcy and Baroness Conyers, married Francis Osborne, Marquess of Carmarthen, who later became the 5th Duke of Leeds. He assembled at Hornby rich early eighteenth-century furniture from several houses, illustrated in the books of Percy Macquoid. On Amelia’s death in 1784 the estate passed to her son George Osborne, 6th Duke of Leeds (1775–1838). After Kiveton was demolished in 1811, Hornby became the main seat of the Dukes of Leeds until George Osborne, 9th Duke of Leeds.
In 1930 the estate was broken up and most of the house demolished. A 16th century main doorway was preserved in the Burrell Collection, Glasgow.
The remaining property, originally the south range, was bought in 1936 by Major-General Walter E Clutterbuck and passed down to Roger Clutterbuck and his wife Julia, who are restoring the parkland to grass and have introduced a small herd of bison. As a private residence the hall is not open to the public.
I amuse myself now by imagining how my life might have been different had I been born with the family name Clutterbuck. I suspect I might have been inspired to invent some new kind of sauce or sausage, just to capitalize on the euphony of the name. It’s a marketing bonanza just waiting to happen.
It’s been quite the trip and Dad needs to spend a penny, so there will have to be a stop in Lancaster. It’s near enough Morecambe that there’s no need to dawdle, you can take the bus there any time you like. Depending on what you read it’s either a pleasant university town or a “chav town.” So pick your area carefully, Dad, we don’t want you getting thumped in the loo, now, do we. On hearing the word “chav” Mam pipes up, “They never are, you tell ’em, Dad.” Dad just shrugs his shoulders.
Morecambe at last. If you’ve wondered at any point why good Leeds folk like Mam and Dad would up stakes and leave Yorkshire for foreign parts in Lancashire, you only need to remember one name: Alan Bennett.
Morecambe and Alan Bennett
The Yorkshire playwright and author Alan Bennett has enjoyed a long association with Morecambe and has often referred to the town in his work and writing. One of his early TV plays, Sunset Across the Bay (1975), is about a couple from Leeds who retire to Morecambe, leaving their old home with the words “Bye bye, mucky Leeds!”. He based the play on memories of the many holidays he spent in Morecambe with his parents. In his essay “Written on the Body”, collected in Untold Stories (2005), he even suggests that his association with the town is pre-natal: “[I]t had been in a boarding house that I was conceived, sometime over the August Bank Holiday of 1933 at Morecambe or Filey.” In the same collection, Bennett pays tribute to the Morecambe-born actress Thora Hird in the essays “Last of the Sun”, about the final play he wrote for her, and “Thora Hird 1911–2003”, a memoir of the work they had done together since the 1960s. Earlier in the book, he discusses his maternal Aunt Kathleen, who married in Morecambe and lived there until her death in 1974.
That’s from the Wikipedia page (here). Hird also gives the lie to Bennett’s trope of the tight-lipped Northerner, being as chatty as you please and for a number of years one of the fishwives (Hilda Ogden) on “Coronation Street.” In 1993 she did a TV program on Morecambe (viewable here) worth a look for the vast difference in tone between the town she remembers and the bleak, empty place you see in Bennett’s film, which can’t possibly be based on his memories of the place as a holidaymaker. In the film the streets look deep in the aftermath of neutron bombing: empty of people, devoid of life. Even more astonishing in Hird’s tour: you actually see the sun shining. So apparently it can happen in Morecambe if you hit it just right. Well, Dad’s gone off to shed a tear in the conveniences, Mam is sat on a bench looking out over the mudflats that masquerade as a beach, and we’ll leave them to it. They need to get settled in and find a place for Dad’s new toaster.
There’s no question Alan Bennett is a National Treasure — he’s one of the last Great Characters of England and he writes very good stuff. But the Northerners that come from his pen are not gold, they’re like Melmac — functional, serviceable products made to a pattern that provide a consistent consumer experience. And of course they’re eccentric themselves, as was the hand that made them. How could it be otherwise? Not endearingly quirky like the creatures of Victoria Wood, all frizzy perm and guffaws, but proper, gnarly eccentric, like in-grown toenails. One of them gets herself sent to prison for writing snotty letters to authorities about things that aren’t properly her business and then finds out she quite likes being in the klink, she finally has some chums. Another one is the quintessential English “failure to launch” type who’s still living at home with Mum in his 40s having had no real life to speak of, a repressed queer, can’t hold down a job to save his life, and he keeps things on an even keel by making sure that Mum has no chance at any life of her own, either. And then, of course, there’s Mam and Dad, who are difficult to imagine as real people even as you watch them on the screen ambling silently across empty, wet space. They’re embodiments of the Working Class Everyman, apparently a dime a dozen in the North, interchangeable among themselves, really. They have less personality than pet dogs or cats. After you become fully aware of their history and its trajectory to the permanently overcast present they inhabit, you wonder if it might not have been better had they never existed at all.
The really interesting Talking Heads from Bennett’s pen are people of an entirely different nature. They’re not obvious Northerners but instead seem to be transplants or living in some other part of the country entirely. Susan the vicar’s wife in “A Bed Among the Lentils,” for example, has ended up — much to her chagrin — in the Leeds area, but she doesn’t talk like a Northerner. She’s from the Home Counties, one suspects, and in her articulate, educated voice as she describes her husband and his flock she does what in the North would most likely be called “taking a right piss.” Muriel, the recently widowed woman in “Soldiering On,” is an egregiously manqué Mary Berry (perhaps from Buckinghamshire as well, who can say?), but a Mam she is not. And Rosemary, the quintessential downtrodden middle-class housewife in “Nights in the Gardens of Spain,” uses the botanical names of plants, which gives it away, doesn’t it. You can’t very well have somebody from Leeds going on about Cupressus leylandii. She sounds like one of those thwarted, innocuous women from an outer London suburb like Kingston or Richmond.
These are Bennett’s real people, with a sense of presence about them as individuals, however problematic that individuality may be. They have personalities and show evidence of mental processes. They, too, engender despair, but that despair is traceable to characteristics or events in their individual lives. They do not face both us and the Universe as question marks about whether human being itself makes any sense or is even worth the bother.
Bennett’s getting well on now. I wonder if he’ll retire to Morecambe, just like Mam and Dad. Seems the sort of place he’d find right up his alley for the fall of the curtain. “Full Circle” would be the title for that part of the diary. And as we learn in the film, Morecambe is a good place to work on not taking the sea for granted. Now there’s something you’ll not get sorted out in a single afternoon.
Isn’t that right, Dad. Aye, Mam, so it is.