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Farewell to John Morrison

John Morrison has entertained visitors to the Hebden Bridge Web with his excellent, comic, online writings for years.

It is with sadness that we say farewell. Thanks John for the smiles, laughter and insights you have brought us all.

Below is his last "vignette" (as he described the first piece he ever sent to us, in April 1997), and below are links to some of the many pieces he has sent us since

Milltown Goodbye

It’s strange to be leaving Hebden Bridge. I thought I’d found my place, but, as Montaigne used to say, "One should always have one’s boots on and be ready to leave". I’ve packed up my stuff — having bought more books in the local charity shops than I will be able to read in one lifetime — and I’ve moved to a shack in the Lake District.

I’ve heard people say that Hebden Bridge is changing — their tone of voice leaving no doubt that it’s changing for the worse. But all the town has ever known is change — always rapid, often brutal. Why should we be surprised that it’s changing yet again?

It’s Bernard Ingham who has created the template for pointless nostalgia. The last time he was in town, chaperoned by a film crew, he announced it was exactly fifty years since he’d last set foot inside the Hebden Bridge Cinema. (If I ever say such a thing, please shoot me. Of course, if I ever do say that, I will be 105 years old. I plan to have earned enough from my writing by then to cherry-pick only the juicier assignments, or even retire from the writing business altogether. Anyway, at the age of 105, I wouldn’t need shooting; you could just kick my stick away).

Bernard lambasted the lesbians and complained, bizarrely, that there were too many trees, before buggering off back to Purley where he belongs. Somebody please tell me why this buffoon isn’t drummed out of town every time he shows his fat ugly face? Montaigne knew the score: "He who establishes his argument by noise and command shows that his reason is weak". Whenever I’ve had a difficult decision to make, I’ve asked myself "What would Bernard do?", then done the exact opposite. In a changing world it’s proved to be a reliable moral compass.

Those who’ve moved to Hebden Bridge over the last 30 years would prefer the town to stay the way it was on the day they arrived (when they still had their youthful good looks, dreams of a better life and most of their marbles intact). It’s only natural. A generation ago the locals eyed up the tie-died off-cumdens with suspicion. Now, in another reversal, the old hippies have an equally jaundiced view of the latest wave of incomers; Christ, these people have proper jobs...

The misgivings aren’t totally misplaced, as another building boom hits Hedben Bridge. With brass to be made, the developers are rubbing their their hands. And whenever they brag about their green credentials, listen out for the chainsaws.

Houses are being shoehorned into every vacant lot and patch of scrubland larger than a pocket handkerchief. Detached houses fetch a higher price, even though they’re built so close together that dogs and skinny kids get stuck in the gaps between them. Redundant mills are being converted into ‘luxury waterside apartments’. One day the punters will wake up and realise that the Rochdale Canal isn’t the Mediterranean, but, in the meantime, proximity to our unlovely canal is still a selling point.

The latest round of planning applications is merely the 21st century version of what happened the first time round, when Hebden Bridge was transformed from a boggy river crossing into an industrial powerhouse: houses being thrown up, as cheaply as possible, wherever space could be found. If that meant that most people didn’t have a patch of garden to call their own, well that was the price of progress. The top-and-bottom houses may look quaint and characterful today, but the 19th century millowners weren’t trying to create a model village; they were just lining their own pockets.

Of course, even the shoddiest of 19th century developments was built to higher standards than what we’ve thrown up in recent years. Which is why concrete, low-rise flats (built with misplaced optimism during the Sixties) were demolished after a lifespan of just 40 years, while the rows of unpretentious terraced houses are still being upgraded and modernised. They change hands for sums of money that would have made the millhands (and, later, the squatters) shake their heads in utter disbelief.

After a generation of new-age gibberish, Hebden Bridge echoes less often to the tinkling of wind-chimes, the riffling of Tarot cards or the somnolent chanting of positive affirmations. If you see somebody mumbling a mantra, it’s probably the FT 100 share index. Bijou little shops sell panini (that’s just Italian for bread, if I’m not mistaken) and extra virgin olive oil (strange, I’d always thought of ‘virgin’ as one of those words — like ‘pregnant’ and ‘unique’ — that can’t be qualified. The concept of ‘extra virgin’ is truly baffling).

* * *

Too late, as usual, the media has latched onto Hebden Bridge. It’s the ‘least-cloned’ town in the country, apparently. It’s got specialist shops, not just branches of chain stores. The word’s got round: Hebden Bridge is a wacky little place to live. Two women can walk down the street hand-in-hand without getting any hassle… which you couldn’t say of every town in Yorkshire (yes, alright, Barnsley).

But we shouldn’t believe everything we read in the papers; it’s just media fodder, to fill up the spaces between the ads. Hebden Bridgers are in danger of believing their own publicity. It doesn’t take long for a ‘wacky little place’ to become a mere parody of itself. We have a long and undistinguished history of screwing up what we cherish the most (been to Haworth lately?). And there are plenty of people who, for personal profit, are happy to destroy exactly those elements of Hebden Bridge life that make it so special.

Let’s take a reality check. Hebden Bridge is one of the least-cloned towns in the country, granted. But that’s not because the town is sprinkled with magic fairy dust; it’s because the population is too damn small to get the ‘big boys’ sniffing round. If there was money to be made, the town would be full of burger bars and chain shops, and there wouldn’t be a damn thing that a bunch of well-meaning, placard-waving folk could do about it. Now the town is expanding, who knows? There’s a big empty field, opposite the Stubbing Wharf pub, just sitting there doing nothing. Room for a supermarket? I think so. And, you know what, the car-park will be full of 4x4s owned by those same placard-waving people, because, well, it’s so much easier to do a whole week’s shop at once, isn’t it?

The new Ladbrokes seems be getting a lot of people hot under the collar. I’m not sure why. Even before Ladbrokes came to town, feckless Hebden Bridgers could piss away their afternoons in a smoky haze, blowing their wages on yet another hopeless nag while standing ankle-deep in torn-up betting slips. Now they can begin their long, slow descent towards the gutter in more comfortable surroundings, that’s all. Or, better yet, they can just set up a direct debit, siphoning off, say, £20 a week into Ladbroke’s coffers. The result will be much the same (the clue’s in the name: ‘lad’ and ‘broke’), and they’ll have time for more rewarding pastimes… such as jabbing a spoon-handle into their eye-socket.

Hebden Bridge is a town with a heart — literally and figuratively. Even as the pneumatic drills were pounding every sodding day, just outside my front door, I was glad to see the traffic priorities being changed. Some day soon St George’s Square will be a pleasantly public place where people can walk without risk of being run over by one of those 4x4 behemoths looking for a short cut.

* * *

I bet nobody has ever written so many books about such a small place, for such little financial reward. You can still find copies of The Todmorden Book of the Dead or Women are from Venus, Men are from Mytholmroyd in the local bookshops, or, more likely, in the charity shops. I used to feel I had my finger on the pulse of local affairs. Presumptuously, I wrote about Milltown folk as ‘we’; I would not presume to do so now. Nevertheless, I’m proud to be one more footnote in the ever-changing history of Hebden Bridge.

I reckon that Hebden Bridge needs humour more today than ever, to stem the flow of pomposity and self-delusion. But this is my last Milltown missive; I won’t be following in Bernard’s footsteps by sniping from afar.

I’m living in a shack on the shore of Hurlmere, England’s longest, deepest and wettest lake. It’s a quiet life but, as Montaigne says, "Fame and tranquility can never be bedfellows". I talk to the woodpeckers, though their conversation is really no better than you’d find in the Inn on the Bridge* on a Friday night. Unless they can turn the conversation to trees or grubs, the woodpeckers have little to contribute.

I’m sharing the shack with Montaigne; he has a seemingly inexhaustible supply of quotable aphorisms, though he feels that washing-up is beneath him. The shack now has broadband (though I’m beginning to think I should have sorted out some heating first) and I can be reached via email.


John Morrison

* It’s gone upmarket, I hear, though they may regret the change of name. Who, apart from the die-hards, wants to drink at the Pigfucker’s Arms?


John Morrison’s long-running, weekly, on-line column (98 episodes!), about life in a small South Pennine milltown not unlike Hebden Bridge, has now spawned three books. View From the Bridge and Back to the Bridge were published in 1998 and A Bridge Too Far in 1999. All three books are available from good bookshops, or online from Pennine Pens: the perfect present for uncherished relatives.

The Milltown Trilogy

There’s Willow Woman: inhabiting a world that shares a common border with Fantasia and Never-Never Land. Wounded Man: not gay, exactly, but happy to pitch in if they were ever short-handed. Town Drunk: intoxicated stalwart of the Grievous Bodily Arms, the naffest pub this side of the Crab Nebula. Dope Dealer: attempting to go upmarket by styling himself as a Substance Abuse Negotiator. Arthur and Martha Fustian: they look like everybody’s grandparents and, given the relaxed sexual attitudes that prevailed during the 1970s, who’s to say they aren’t? Yes, love may indeed make the world go round… but it’s lust that lubricates the moving parts.

Writer John Morrison has enraged locals in his home town of Hebden Bridge by penning… a tale of its ‘alternative culture’.
(Manchester Evening News)

The local weekly and evening newspapers have banned any reference to the book, after the weekly paper was ridiculed with headlines BUS ROUTE STAYS THE SAME and MILLTOWN MAN CREOSOTES SHED.
(Yorkshire Evening Post)

Read View from the Bridge online

Buy the books

See also

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