New review of Where’s Sailor Jack? : ‘‘…romantic, poignant, and extremely funny, exactly what I want from a family saga.’ – Stephen Carver, Blot the Skrip and Jar It

Archives: Lancashire

Somewhere a place for us

A recent debate with a friend has left me wondering about the distinction between somewheres and anywheres as propounded by David Goodhardt in his book The Road to Somewhere. This categorisation has been widely used by commentators to differentiate between leavers and remainers in the EU membership referendum. I can imagine the glee with which they read about it, guaranteeing as it did that they had fresh material for several future columns. Or in my case, for a blog.Those of you who have read Where’s Sailor Jack? will know from the biographical notes and from the themes of the book that I have strong links with Lancashire, particularly with Poulton-le- Fylde and Bolton, the home territories of Bob Swarbrick and Richard Shackleton respectively. This latter surname from just over the boundary with Yorkshire was my nod to my own distant ancestry on the male side. To this list, I could add Southport, Liverpool and Manchester where I have either lived or worked. But I did spend the bulk of my working career in London, and I live in Home Counties affluence. I moved from living in a Poulton terraced-house with an outside lavatory as the war ended to going to New College Oxford, the Wykehamists’ college, in 1964. Such was the unique opportunity for the favoured few intellectually able boys (and just a few girls) at that stage.
I voted Remain for three separate reasons: the economic risks from leaving: the wish to avoid further European wars: my children were voting Remain. If I had my way, the EU would also have Russia in too for the second reason.
My friend pointed out to me, after my usual, tedious eulogy for 1950s Lancashire, that anywheres are also from somewhere, not that I had remotely argued the opposite. I think the main critique of what I choose to write about is that it is arguing for the past as seen from both a temporal and geographical distance. It would be fair to accuse me of having a love-hate relationship with the socially liberal London-based media, for whom my principal criticism would be that they don’t know their own country very well. They also irritate me in the way they inveigle themselves into the editorialising position at the end of every discussion. It’s a skill I wish I possessed.(I do actually have even more problems with locally-based authority figures who know their own domains only too well and as a result wish to impose petty controls.)
I’m a philosophic dualist accepting separate physical amd mental domains that meet in reality. In Physics we used to say that the field is fundamental. I expect I will continue to strive to be rational in the decisions down to me while otherwise remaining a northern, Anglican, Bolton Wanderers supporting, family-centred male from the Fylde, capable of voting for all three main parties depending on time and place. In life, it’s the story that’s fundamental. We’re somewhere any old how.

Labour Englishness

I picked this title up from Isabel Hardman in Monday’s Times in an article seeking to explain how the Labour vote in Oldham had survived Jeremy Corbyn. Wednesday’s Times had another columnist Alice Thomson trying to define Britishness, albeit reluctantly. Although not always expressed as such, the question is being asked in two separate contexts: the secularisation of the indigenous British on the one hand and the wish to find a statement of national identity that can be applied to more recent immigrants on the other. Inevitably, this second context is today dominated by Islamic considerations. Forty years ago the issue would have been seen in black and white terms. But now, black and white cultures are understood not to be that different, both containing a love of blues music, football and cricket, a liberal attitude at least towards heterosexual sex and perhaps a residual affection for Christianity.
I’m seventy years old. I feel like I’m one of the last Victorians and am one of the first baby boomers. I remember well my Victorian grandparents and liked them. I used to sell deck chair tickets for brass band concerts in a Lancashire seaside town as a vacation job and there was nothing cold or austere about those folk born in the 1880s who came along to hear that hauntingly mournful sound. They would talk to me about space travel and ask about the concert taking place in the Hall behind the bandstand that evening, a Merseybeat band usually.
In 1964, aged just 19, I was delighted when Harold Wilson became prime minister, and in 1966 I even canvassed for Labour in an adjacent village. I always like Harold, his northernness being part of what I meant by Englishness. I’ve not voted for Labour much since 1979, when I was in no doubt about south-coast Sunny Jim in preference to Mrs T. After then, a party that preferred metropolitan entryists to Denis Healey wasn’t for me. I admit to a regional aspect to this but not being able to hack the single-issue politics of demonstrations, marches, spokespeople and lobby groups, is perhaps also related to being a mix of villager and townie in background, never urban. I have a conceit I cannot rid myself of, the English as yeomen, living their lives in private but available when the nation needs them.
Alice Thomson talked about Britishness. I am one sixteenth Welsh, fifteen sixteenths English as discovered by genealogy. Since 1600 and therefore probably from 600, my roots are either northern or from Worcestershire. My Y chromosome is fittingly from Yorkshire, just over the boundary line in Heptonstall, but this doesn’t prevent me from indulging in friendly rivalry with the ugly buggers from the dry side of the Pennines. There’s no Irish or Scottish in me, much as I enjoy lilting Celtic music with accompanying tales. The only time I side with Scots is on New Year’s Eve, and I have every year since the BBC started that wretched programme containing no vestige of culture from the ice rink at Somerset House with fireworks over the Thames. I’ll tell my east-ender wife how I’d prefer Andy Stewart singing, “Donald. Where’s your troosers?”’
I am mainly what’s called anglo-saxon, that mix of Germanic tribes settling with those who had come to virgin Britain earlier when there was still a land bridge with Europe. In my youth, that was what was meant by English, although after 1066 the ruling class were not English in this sense. My male ancestors probably didn’t get the vote until 1918, not a lot earlier than the women. I’m chippy to that extent.
I was christened as an Anglican in a church mentioned in the Domesday Book. Nearly all the big events of our family, the births, marriages and deaths have taken place in a church. I find hope and comfort in the Christian message of God being with us, that humans can become God, that victory is in defeat and that only at the end of time will God be all in all. I am happy to view the three aspects of God as less than Almighty before then. For me, a lesser God is a greater God.
In more recent times, I’ve read the less reductionist philosophers espouse the notion that personhood is the story we tell ourselves about our life. In my novel “Where’s Sailor Jack?” I toy with the notion that the story we become is somehow in us from the start, another quaint conceit I can’t shake off. Even having the idea though shows how deep is my sense of personhood as a Lancastrian, middle of the road Christian, fortunate beyond belief but not a member of the ruling class.
The first person I talked to in my life who didn’t have a white skin was a high-born Hindu from Calcutta when I went in 1964 to University at Oxford. This was at a time of white social mobility. From being born in a village in 1945 as the war ended, and brought up in a terraced house with an outside lavatory to going to the most prestigious and snobby University in the country if not the world 19 years later is testament both to what the Labour Party enabled and to the Christian conscience of paternal Toryism. Did I have in me then that a multi-cultural Britain would be established within another half century? I certainly can’t recall it. The nearest I got was singing “We Shall Overcome” along with Joan Baez.
There isn’t just one England. I imagine that both Isabel and Alice are from the home counties, while being thoughtful and well-meaning women. In the unlikely event they were to read this, they’d probably find it somewhat anachronistic.To the extent that they’re county set rather than metropolitan, there could be the odd view they’d recognise. But then we all are anachronisms by the time we’re seventy. Like my Victorian bandstand chums I would talk to the young people about the today’s equivalent of the space programme and rock music, if Simon Cowell hadn’t bought up the rights. I think that’s my Labour Englishness at work.
So I’d be in trouble both on secularisation and on immigration if my upbringing, religion or whatever didn’t tell me that you can’t force anyone into belief and you should treat your neighbour as yourself.

Self identity from sporting allegiance

Where’s Sailor Jack? makes great play on the allegiance of Bob Swarbrick and Richard Shackleton to their separate towns’ football teams and to the county cricket team they share. Bob is from Blackpool so on return to the north-west he bought a season ticket for Bloomfield Road. Richard is from Bolton and has to follow his beloved Wanderers from afar. Their joint support for Lancashire is shown in their ecstatic delight when the county palatine finally wins the county championship after a seemingly everlasting wait, a Blackpudlian and Boltonian batting when the winning runs are hit.

Both would fail the notorious Norman Tebbit test for national identity if this was extended to regional loyalty. Neither is going to support Middlesex when living north of the Thames. They would both agree, having followed their football teams through thick and thin, that you can change your wife and you can change your religion but you can’t change your football team. They do not have animosity towards the other’s team, because both sides are Lancastrian. If Blackburn or Burnley, either scouse team, City or even United were playing at Chelsea when they were younger, then they’d go along and cheer for the Lancashire side. Nowadays when watching Sky they will do the same. They have players from the past, sadly some passed away, who are still their heroes. Bob has Matthews and Morty, Richard Nat Lofthouse, the Lion of Vienna, and the charismatic Freddie Hill. I had to miss out from WSJ the childhood story of when Richard got Nat’s autograph, great tale that it was.

Yes, I’m a Wanderer but I hope that readers couldn’t tell which I was from the novel. They were both there as young lads when the Aussies played at Old Trafford in 1953, without knowing of each other’s existence, to late for Bradman but seeing Lindwall and Miller in harness, respecting Washbrook, Ikin, Winston Place etc and revering the great Brian Statham. A bit later, they adopted men like Farokh Engineer and Clive Lloyd as their own, as great Lancastrians, but have never been fully comfortable with South Africans playing for England. “They’re taking the place of a good young English player,” would be their stated concern, probably meaning a Lancastrian prospect. I think that’s why they would welcome big Clive at Old Trafford but not Allan Lamb or KP fully into the test team. Their regional identity is absolute, their national identity more layered.

I don’t begrudge anyone else their regional identity either, not even Yorkies. Compton and Edrich were great players for Middlesex and that summer of 1948 must have been wonderful. Peter May, a lovely man, became a personal friend in his later business career. Genealogy has told me that my Y chromosome comes from Yorkshire. I’m not like Len Hutton, Fiery Fred, Brian Close or Boycott though, nor Don Revie or Norman Hunter. It can only ever be Bolton Wanderers and Lancashire for me.

You cannot be serious…

Reviewers of my novel Where’s Sailor Jack refer to my northern, or even my Lancastrian, sense of humour. I don’t mind that. They must mean Lancastrian because Yorkies are not known for cracking a joke or a smile, the estimable Joe Root aside. But my county, which can lay claim to Frank Randle, Arthur Askey, Ted Ray, Eric Morecambe, Eric Sykes, Ken Dodd, Les Dawson, Victoria Wood, Caroline Ahearn, Lee Mack and Peter Kay, along with countless others, clearly has something different going for it. I wish I really was that funny, or even be able to tell you what they have, hard as I’ll try.

It may well be that the southerner hasn’t had the benefits of the northerner’s disadvantages, as someone once said. I can’t full agree with that though. Life in the north is not grim, it’s friendly and cheerful. What happens in our lives is what matters to us. When people are asked what is meant by northern humour, the words most often used include warmth, sympathetic observation and self-deprecation. I can recall Arthur Askey towards the end of his life explaining how the lack of love for their characters put him off the Monty Python team. I’ve never liked the humour of embarrassment and feel similarly about The Office. My spoiler alert for any reader of this who hasn’t read my novel is that at no point will they find any misunderstandings which lead to shame-faced discomfort. I’ll have had the narrator yell out, “He’s behind you,” well before that point is reached. I’ve lived seventy years and have not found such awkward situations actually happening in real life, apart from when some self-anointed practical joker contrives one. The odd practical joke can be funny, but there aren’t many odd enough.

There are many southern comedians I enjoy. I used to love Ben Elton’s political rants, and Blackadder was brilliant. Yet the trite attempts at humour by some of the right-on guests of a programme like The News Quiz rarely make me laugh and the inane titterings of the audience are unthinkingly patronising. Even the self-deprecating southern stand-ups always seem to have to tell us how well and often they have satisfied their many lovers before starting on their patter. Lancastrian John Richardson has no need for that. I suppose to be fair, Ricky Gervais is excused from this criticism too. Bob Monkhouse was enormously funny with his quick fire quips in the Ted Ray Does the team think? tradition. His best, “People laughed when I said I wanted to be a comedian. Well they’re not laughing now,” is one of the great all-time jokes. But he couldn’t manage warmth. Londoner Micky Flanagan’s out-out routine is both observational and funny. He’s getting warmer but for me still falls at the needing to prove himself as Jack the Lad hurdle. Tim Vine’s one liners are fantastic, Michael McIntyre deserves his mega-stardom. But there’s not warmth oozing out of the screen.

There are exceptions. David Mitchell does manage self-deprecation very well, having had the good sense to team up with Lee Mack in Would I lie to you? Victoria Coren’s beautifully waspish comments are never unkind, and I think she has genuine affection for the likeable nerds on her clever quiz programme. Neither of them is Peter Kay though, leaving me splitting my sides as I fall off the couch. Warm, observational and self-deprecating, yes. But it’s that sense of the absurd that’s the clincher with him, such as when he went outside Jonathan Ross’s set and started pushing over The Gherkin building. Eric Morecambe had that visual comedic genius too.

And what about across the Atlantic? Bob Hope and Jack Benny certainly had better gags than Al Read in my youth. Today it’s a Canadian, Katherine Ryan, who I find their funniest. Canada counts as the north, doesn’t it?

On Family

I’ve written a family saga, so I guess that family must mean a lot to me. With the wonders of modern technology, I’ve carried out my personal genealogy, to find that I am fifteen sixteenths English and one sixteenth North Welsh. The English members were, in the eighteenth century, all living north of the Severn to Wash line, so the short a is the pronunciation I’ve received. I’m predominantly Lancastrian, with some significant Worcestershire/ North Gloucestershire input. My Y chromosome, whose provenance has been confirmed as genuine by YDNA testing, is from just over the boundary into Y for Yorkieland and the village that time forgot, Heptonstall.

It’s a fair assumption that the specific geographic mix will go back more than a thousand years further to the Anglo-Saxon settlement period. The identity conveyed is solid, if out of sync with modern North London where I’ve made my home. My wife’s heritage is entirely from London and the South-East, apart from a great-great-grandfather from Bolton, deliciously ironic given the stick she used to give me for my support of Bolton Wanderers. I think as a result our mind-fix is a little different from most of our neighbours. In my own head I’m a top person, so I take the Times, being too old for the Guardian and too animated for the Independent. It has excellent columnists with whom I agree when they argue for this country’s virtue in being welcoming to immigrants such as their ancestors. I don’t think though that they understand the sense of loss in those of us whose ancestors have been settled for sixty generations rather than two. Their loss is profound but of elsewhere. (My youngest son was even given a map of the world in primary school and asked to mark where his ancestors came from. I think he was the only pupil who struggled with the scale of the map.) I can’t avoid the thought that, however enlightened I like to think I am, the pride my characters have in their Lancastrian heritage is me re-enacting Custer’s Last Stand.

Family sagas are thus often about either geographic continuity or discontinuity. The ground in between is probably not that easy to write! They are also about shared family traits and beliefs. My novel Where’s Sailor Jack? has two principal characters who would describe themselves as not only the first baby boomers but also the last Victorians. I think that they see this country’s near abandonment of Anglicanism as an act of treachery although even as coarse northerners they of course are too polite to express it in those terms. But I think the novel does show that their descendants sympathise with them, if only because of family loyalty. At the last trump, they’d all like to meet up on God’s golden shore.

But family is also about difference. Every new relationship is the introduction of a significant other. Every new child shares two sets of characteristics which can sit uneasily with each other. No courtship process can smooth out these differences. Nor would we want them too. Every family is a saga.

John Uttley, 69, was born in Lancashire although he now lives just outside London. Where’s Sailor Jack is his first novel. Not fancying a memoir, or his family’s story, John instead recorded his Lancastrian sense of humour as well as documenting a tumultuous, exciting period of British history. History John just happened to live through.

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