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Murphy's Lore

Continuing the second series of the offbeat HebWeb column from local writer and story-teller, George Murphy.

In Episode 29 of Lockdown Diaries, there's Nazis, Windsors and a blackmailing spy, politics and jam, the sex lives of sheep, Boris on the sofa, a nation moans, the Duke's Award, yellow wallpaper, a man on the moors, a bird in a church, unforgotten children, a history of sex and the games girls played.

Murphy’s Lore Series Two
Episode 29: Lockdown diary
Monday, 19 April 2021

Lockdown Diary, Episode 29

The North wind doth blow and there will be snow,
Followed by sunshine -
Not a bad combo.

Monday, April 5th

Speaking Bluntly

We watched Queen Elizabeth and the Spy in the Palace, a Channel 4 documentary on Anthony Blunt. Yuri Modin, formerly controller for the Cambridge spy ring, which included Blunt, said the Russians could have blackmailed the Windsors because of links between the royals and the Nazis in the 1930s. Letters between the Dukes of Windsor and Kent and Prince Philip of Hesse, a loyal Nazi henchman, were stored in Germany. At the end of the war, Blunt was sent to retrieve them, which he did - before sending copies to the Russians. His potential to blackmail the royals seems to have been the reason he was kept on in his role as art curator for the Queen’s paintings.

Surely the Queen’s family did not have similar sympathies?

Tuesday, April 6th


Old Town historian Alan Fowler, responded to my discussion of the 1918 election. He explained that, before Labour entered the fray, the seat was a safe one for “Higham the Liberal, who married Jam.”

Married jam? I asked when Calder Valley first switched to Labour.

“W J Trout, 1929,” but Alan repeated, “Don’t forget Jam!”

“Which jam family did he marry into, Hartley’s with the golliwog?”

“They were Primitive Methodists!!! Unlike Robertson’s Jam!”

So now you know. As well as being an authority on the history of cotton mills, Alan is an expert on working class poets, cartoonists, satirists, religions - and jam.

Ewes news

In Greenock in 1970, during my gap year, I was asked by a nurse I was dating, “Do you want to go to the pictures to see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, or go to the pub?”

I said, “Err … I don’t mind, really, you decide.”

She chucked me two days later, saying, “I want to go out with a man who tells me what to do!”

I thought of Staff Nurse Wallace this week, because according to New Scientist, “Female sheep prefer to mate with non-dominant males.”

Recent research involved coralling 28 ewes with rams who had shown either dominant or less dominant characteristics. In the resulting orgy, it turned out that subordinate rams mated three more times than dominant males! Ewes also hung out with them for longer. And, “A quarter of the ewes refused to approach the most dominant ram at all.”

Actually, Nurse Wallace didn’t know I’d lined up a date with a sixth form lass from the local Academy for the following night, when we enjoyed watching Sundance Redford and Butch (but not too butch) Newman.

Wednesday, April 7th

Sleazy does it

When B.J. was Mayor of London, he allegedly began a four-year affair with Jennifer Arcuri. Arcuri benefited from 126 thousand pounds in public money, and went on trade missions to New York and Tel Aviv alongside the Mayor.

In 2010, the London City Hall Panel recommended Johnson and staff be given training, after he failed to acknowledge his extramarital affair with Helen Macintyre, an unpaid adviser. She gave birth to a daughter in 2008, conceived on the sofa of Johnson’s marital home.

Wednesday, April 7th

Home schooling

Jean-Pierre de Florian delighted the French court with his witty plays and stories. He administered alms to the poor, but died in prison during the French Revolution. Now he is mostly remembered for his fables, such as:

The youth and the old man

An ambitious youth asked his father, “Tell me how to make a fortune.”
His father said, “You must work hard, my son, by day and night, in the service of your country.”

“That sounds far too wearisome, father! Isn’t there a less arduous way of gaining riches?”

“Well, there is a more certain method. You could play the fool and make yourself the darling of the court, whilst secretly using devilish intrigue.”

“So I could quietly enrich myself, but without hard labour!”

“Yes,” said his father, “Play the fool, amuse the court and rise to high office - I know several who have succeeded.”

Thank heavens this doesn’t go on nowadays.

Friday, April 9th

99 year old dies

I was looking forward to an escapist evening of gardening, Gogglebox and satire. Instead, the BBC, our tax payer funded, Tory managed broadcaster, dictated that we must grieve to order, and cleared all its channels for wall to wall documentaries about Prince Philip. Is this North Korea? I’m quite interested in the good and bad of the DoE, but let me select when and how to learn more about him.

H the poet spoke for half the nation, “So, there was no Masterchef Final!’

Saturday, April 10th

In the morning, I zoomed to Living Well, a group for women with cancer. In normal times they meet at Todmorden Methodist Church. Despite which, some had never heard about Todmorden being the UFO capital of the UK. Our heritage is disappearing! But, later in the day, the group posted a photo of a UFO house, which was designed to be a home for the future and was situated in Tod. The spaceship home was featured on Nationwide, but despite all that publicity, it never really took off.

The Duke’s award

Mr Parker seemed a nice guy when he invited kids at my Sec Mod to do an outward bound weekend to win a Duke of Edinburgh Award. Then I saw who was in my group.

I can honestly say that being thrown together for a weekend’s camping with three lads with behaviour issues in the wilds of Cheshire, learning how to burn rice pudding over a camping stove, getting stung behind my ear by a bee, being challenged to a fight for using long words, stepping into a cowpat, tentatively cleaning cow cack off my shoe in a stream, cack handedly dropping my shoe in the rushing water, then hopping downstream to catch my shoe, tramping about with one sodden, whiffy sock and shoe for the rest of the day, really, absolutely, definitely built my character. I decided I would never camp or glamp in a male bonding group exercise ever again.

Sunday, April 11th

The Yellow Wallpaper

I finished reading this short story by early feminist writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It came out in 1892, but by coincidence, in today’s Times Keith Allen says he’s reading it! The tale meets the challenge of describing mental disturbance from the inside and satirised the way in which doctors and husbands infantilised women who suffered from what we would now recognise as post partum depression. She went on to write a ground breaking book on economics and women, supported female suffrage and championed the right for women to have careers. In 1932, she discovered that she had inoperable breast cancer. An advocate of euthanasia, Gilman ended her life with an overdose of chloroform, writing in her last letter that she “preferred chloroform to cancer.” She was rediscovered and championed by feminists in the 1970s.

Monday, April 12th

Spring is sprung,

the grass is riz

and pubs with socially distanced outside seating arrangements

are back in biz.

On the moor

Instead of going to the pub, I went to the library and borrowed On the Moor by Richard Carter, who ambles in a thought filled way across Midgley and Wadsworth moor responding to the nature and history of the tops. He has a winning manner of slipping into reflections on eternity, Darwinism, the birth and the death of the universe in the space of a few hundred metres. He describes experiencing ‘a wet, foggy, miserable day’ when he had his first close sighting of a peregrine falcon, hovering close by, its usual superb eyesight not clocking his approach in the gloomy conditions. 

Summer of ‘62

A small band of us, Raymond, Bin and a blond lad called Philip Nightingale, who lived on a farm where Cheshire Oaks is now located, walked to Stoke village, a settlement which must have been there since medieval times. It was the summer before Philip went to the grammar school and we lost contact with him.

The vicar allowed us to climb to the top of Stoke’s church tower, where I came face to face with a peregrine falcon. He seemed quite unflappable. We were silent and still, our awe well and truly struck. Then Bin came up and said, “It’s an owl!” At which PF took the huff, stretched his blue grey wings and flapped off.

All that summer we went for long walks along twisting lanes untroubled with traffic, hedged with oak and hawthorn. At some point Raymond called us to a gap in the hedge where cattle had gathered close to the barbed wire. “Aren’t they beautiful?” he asked. They stood, stolid, steaming and white faced. We looked into their bovine eyes and agreed.

One time we passed a parked car and the driver waved to us. When we were further on Raymond said, “if he’d shouted over, what would you do?” It was easy to answer, because the slogan drummed into us back then was, “Never talk to strangers.” At home Me Mom shushed us to be quiet when news followed a case of a kid who’d gone missing. Why murderers were malevolently attracted to kids and what they did before killing them was never explained.

Aged 7 or 8, I was surprised at school, when sour faced, corporal punishment meting, Miss Pugh’s voice wavered with emotion as she repeated the mantra, ‘Don’t talk to Strangers!’ But, by 62, the year before going up to the big school, I’d begun to notice how often murderers were uncles, lodgers, step dads, big brothers, corner shop proprietors, newsagents. Strangers or dads, they shared one common characteristic: they were all male.

Normal service resumed

PW and I finally watched Have I got News For You, held over from Friday. I thought the panel got it right: this is the worst year ever to be Opposition Leader. As Jack Dee put it, ‘Keir Starmer has to back the government and genuinely hope it succeeds - or else it looks as if he wants us all to die!

Tuesday, April 13th

I nipped out this morning. Town was busy but not packed and I had a free coffee to claim at No 1 in the Square. Later, I touched elbows with my actress/ writer/ storyteller/ director friend Debs, outside Café Cali. As I walked off she shouted, “Give my regards to PW.” It took me a few seconds to think who she meant.

Coincidentally, when I returned home, PW had written down a list of symptoms for my thyroid condition, including dizziness and loss of memory. I can’t remember the rest. Thinking about it, I have been feeling a bit unbalanced recently.

Rosie was here for most of the afternoon and after her long absence from our company I noticed that her TV watching has moved on from Peppa Pig to Horrible Histories. Both are great programmes, but I feel quite loyal to PP. I’ve long followed Daddy Pig’s advice on repairing computers and other gadgets by turning them off - and then turning them on again.

At the park, I sat on a bench and relaxed as Rosie entertained herself. When I got up to photograph her she said, “Are you doing a photoshoot?”

Wednesday, April 14th

I met Jude at the Piece Hall, and got a text from PW to say she’d got my new TV working again. I’d only had it a week and it had gone down twice. Apparently, she’d cured it by unplugging it and then plugging it in again. I bought two books at the bookshop, which was full of the Ben Myer’s new title - no doubt because of my interview. I’m rereading Under the Rock, so I headed for the paperbacks and bought two intriguing titles. The assistant said, “I see you’ve just messed up the shelf I’ve been setting up this morning.” I told her it was my specialist subject. Here’s one of the books:

Thursday, April 15th


My neighbour David Evans is a crime writer. He encouraged me to watch Unforgotten, which turns out to be a formulaic, but interesting series with a lot of emphasis on the families of the victims of unsolved murders. Nicola Walker is brilliant in her portrayal of DCI Cassie Stuart. We watched the final series first, and now we’ve gone back to series 3. This kind of backwards retelling of TV dramas must be quite widespread these days.

Second dose

After our second jab, we sat in the sunshine in Tod, feeling 95% confident we won’t get killed by Covid for the next few months.

Friday, April 16th

l got a nice note from Ben M (who said he liked Episode 28), thanking me for supporting his new launch and saying he'd shared the interview widely. I’d just been reading the opening to Under the Rock, where he referred to evidence in an essay by George Monbiot that children have a much smaller friendship group than they did years ago. No doubt those groups have almost shrunk away during lockdown.


Unforgotten reminds us how local communities react to tragedies. Until the killer is nabbed, some people are ready to rush to judgment, as we saw in the case of Lindsay Rimer. I remember a loud, gravel voiced guy at Moyles saying kids shouldn’t be allowed out at night. I wondered how many parents allowed teenagers to nip to the shop of an evening, and despised him for not appreciating the grief her family must be enduring.

Saturday, April 17th

The play’s the thing

When she was little, PW had a tent, but other kids couldn’t play in it unless they showed her their belly buttons. Having three sisters, who didn’t play out as much as me, I found their games mysterious and fascinating. They made origami fortune tellers and played games with tennis balls and skipping ropes. Same with PW, who remembers a fragment of a 2 ball rhyme she chanted in Durham …

Have a cigarette, sir?

No, sir?

Why, sir?

Cos I’ve got a cold, sir.

Cold, sir?

Why sir?

From the North Pole, sir.

What you doing there, sir?

Catching polar bears, sir.

On each ‘sir’ she lifted her leg and bounced the ball under it against a wall. And …

One two three a-lairy
I saw sister Mary,
With a soldier in the dairy,
One, two, three, four.

And a skipping rhyme:

I had a little puppy

His name was Tiny Tim

I put him in the bathtub

To see if he could swim

He drank all the water

He ate up all the soap

The next thing you know

He had a bubble in his throat.

In came the doctor (girl jumps in)

In came the nurse (girl jumps in)

In came the lady (girl jumps in)

With the alligator purse.

Sometimes, down our street in summer, washing lines were deployed to make giant skipping ropes and mums would come out and join in the fun, laughing and tucking their skirts up, while the older women clapped. They taught their daughters old rhymes remembered from their youth. Then the lads’ three hour soccer game came to a halt. We were all mesmerised by female lore.

Sunday, April 18th

Readers write

On The HebWeb Interview with Benjamin Myers:

Dave Jackson: Did you mention your Coiners play to him? I thought that was good … would have made a good film.

No. At the time, around 1980, I pitched it to ITV and they called me in and told me they had already commissioned it as a series by an inhouse writer (which never happened, btw). Stan Barstow enjoyed reading it, but warned me to pare down the dialect, saying ‘I speak from grim experience’. The bit of the story that really interested me was the bread riot, led by Thomas Spencer (David Hartley’s brother in law) and a teenage soldier. Riot was a misnomer, people along the valley were starving and bread was being kept in warehouses to force the prices up. Both men were hanged on Beacon Hill, and ‘all but the infirm’ turned out to watch the funeral procession as their coffins were carried along the valley.

Joyce Bragg loved The Gallows Pole: I found the way the story entwined with the landscape of the Calder Valley so evocative. It brought its landscapes and histories alive. It took me a long time to read because I was constantly referring to Google Earth and the OS map of the area. Brilliant writer.

Bob Horne (poet and publisher) Ah, that’s grand, George. Read all his books and admire them greatly.

On Lockdown Diary, Episode 28

Many thanks for your detailed response to the episode, Alan Fowler (see above). A top man, brilliant historian and a good laugh. See an account of Alan’s talk on HebWeb Home Page for more details of the 1918 Election.

Finally, excuse me for delighting in two more comments:

Mary Agnes Krell: Bloody fantastic as always! You are a proper national treasure!

Stephanie Bowgett: Thank you. Robb Wilton is a treat.

In response to Stephanie’s comment, I thought I’d include a monologue from the highest paid performer at the BBC in the 1950s. As children return to their schools and nurseries, here’s a recording older readers will remember from the wireless era.

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