In past articles in this series I have introduced you to newly published books about the area. Today I want to bring to your attention, “On the Slow Train Again” by Michael Williams, published by Arrow Books at £8.99.
The book is a companion volume to “On the Slow Train” but the present book, which was published in 2012, takes the reader on 12 train journeys across Britain.
One of them, number nine, is, given the route, not unexpectedly, entitled, “The 08.44 from Pleasure Beach – Alight for Tripe, Black Pudding, the Lancashire Witches and the Bandmaster on the Titanic”.
No other line is given this kind of treatment. The route in the Norwich area is entitled the “Crab and Lobster Line”. The one around Bedford refers to the “Pilgrim’s Progress” and the “Brain Train to Bletchley”. Lymington is called “Britain’s most perfect town” and the story on the Bristol area is about “Poirot taking a day trip as the Orient Express goes to the country”.
We, and by “we” I refer to the towns on what was one of the main Lancashire and Yorkshire lines, are reduced to references to tripe and black puddings as if they, along with cow heel and pigs feet, are the only things (apart from water cress from Duerden’s of Brierfield) that we Lancastrians eat. I should add the tripe and black puddings were consumed, not in Burnley, but at Bob’s Quality Tripe and Black Pudding stall in Accrington’s Victorian Market Hall, about which, perhaps to balance the books, Mr William’s has thankfully some nice things to say.
I do, however, object, if that is the right word, to our part of the world being portrayed in this way. Mr Williams refers to Blackpool’s small boarding houses with cosy names such as Jesmond Dene or Manchester House evoking working class regions of Britain many, still advertising “hot and cold in all rooms and spring interior mattresses” in the era of the iPad.
That said, we are sometimes our own worst enemies – I think I recall, only recently, a reference to “clean bedding”, or something of the kind, at the former Keirby Hotel, Burnley.
This might explain why Mr Williams, from the safety of Camden Town (although he has a job with the University of Central Lancashire, Preston) feels confident enough to undermine the area which has given him employment. The chapter contains a number of examples. He refers to the “blackened God-fearing granite churches and marble-ornamented town halls constructed to mark the power of forgotten aldermen and even more obscure civic splendours”.
What he does not say is that most of this can be said of similar buildings in most other parts of the country, and these aldermen brought clean water to the people of our towns, provided them with gas and electricity and the trams and buses which enabled their citizens to get about more than had been the case before. These were not obscure civic splendours but vital services of which these men, and, later, women were justly proud.
There is also a concentration on decline, the inversion of what is happening in London, where the author lives. This can be seen in the section about the closure of Blackpool’s Central Station which, according to Mr Williams, took place on “a cold, damp night in November, 1964”. Of course, it had to be a cold, damp night and he goes on to say Blackpool has not been the same since, forgetting to mention that, at this time, many families were buying their own cars.
He makes the point that Blackpool has gone downhill since its direct line closed but he does not mention that people’s tastes changed. Holiday makers, who had enjoyed their visits to the town, sometimes over many years, wanted something different. A holiday in the sun, in Spain or Greece, and, in addition, the people who long since visited Blackpool were no longer there. The mills, foundries and factories where they worked were closed down and Blackpool’s holiday hinterland was adversely affected.
No one can deny Blackpool is not the same place I first visited about 1950. I still find it stimulating, and not for the reasons (I won’t go into those) Mr Williams mentions. Society does change and not always for the best.
According to Mr Williams, there is decline in Preston, its station is not appreciated, though it served millions of free cups of tea in both World Wars. However, and also on the good side, the Roman Catholics of Preston make, perhaps even invented, the delicious butter pie, a recipe first made, so far as I can tell, in Todmorden in 1826, the product of bad times in the local cotton industry.
Preston, Blackburn, Burnley and Nelson are described as “seemingly unremarkable” and, as Mr Williams passes through them on his way to Colne, he makes a number of digs at commercial and industrial dereliction and weeds growing on the once busy railway line.
To give him his due, he does make the point there are “riches ... available on the journey, and what rewards for those who seek them out”. He even adds that, “It is no exaggeration to say there are more concentrated riches mile for mile in terms of landscape and heritage than almost anywhere else in the country. But you have to “pick to ger at it”.
This latter is a reference to a “famous Lancashire saying” that runs, “Beauty’s only skin deep, but it’s a bugger when tha’ ‘ast to use a pick to ger at it”. Not a phrase with which I am familiar!
There is almost nothing of Burnley in the book. Rose Grove gets a mention as Mr Williams says the name makes him think of a remote little branch line in the countryside. Somewhere, perhaps, where he would rather be? When he actually gets to Rose Grove there is reference to its “vast empty platform, weed-grown and shorn of buildings”. He adds that decline has brought a bonus as a luxuriant tangle of vegetation and wildflowers run rampant. A bonus of a kind, I suppose, but we know to what Mr Williams refers.
The only substantial thing in Burnley that gets praise is the grade 2 listed viaduct of 1848. But where are the riches to which Mr Williams refers? He does refer to the landscape, descriptions of which unfortunately include the word “bleak”, but he does mention that Brierfield was the inspiration for Mordor in J R R Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings”. This sounds good until it is realised Mordor was a sinister place and Tolkien got the idea in the 1940s when Brierfield, from his vantage point in Fence, was smothered in thick layers of sulphurous smoke from the local factory chimneys. Not so good now, you might think.
The thing that annoys me most about this chapter, in what is otherwise a good read, is that we, in Lancashire, are not treated with the same respect as others in areas which he also visits.. It is worse than that – it is as if we, individually and collectively, are to blame for the decline that has taken place in much of our county.
This, of course, ignores the fact that successive governments, since the war, and of all parties, have failed to create the conditions that would make both the regions and industry prosperous. At the same time billions have been ploughed into London and the South East. Think about the two Crossrail schemes, the amount of money spent on the Arts in London, the Olympic Games and the Government’s unprecedented investment in the failed London banks and finance houses, a figure of over £800 billion has been estimated.
Did the Government save the Lancashire textile industry or the British motor industry? What has happened to the British motor components industry, its machine tool industry or the British white goods industry? They have all gone, or have almost gone and the fact they have gone is not the fault of us Lancastrians.
No one should use the phrase “working class area of the country”, as Mr Williams does, to describe a region less well off financially or a region less worthy than others. No region should be regarded less respectfully than its peers. No people, ideally, should be less well off, less advantaged than any other.
“On the Slow Train Again” is described as “a delicious read” by the London based “Evening Standard”. The “Daily Mail” refers to it as, “One man’s joyous account of his two-year 30,000-mile quest to find Britain’s most enchanting rail journeys”. Sorry, Mr Williams, but I don’t find your journey through the County which pays your wages as enchanting (but it is a good read all the same).