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Third series, episode 11

All 103 episodes are available here on the HebWeb.

Episode 11 includes: a snowflake melt down; the enjoyment of bad weather; Paddy and Cyril in a bar and Gentleman Jack in Tescos; Unstoppable Bernardine in a bookshop; a flyspring over a horse; a forensic anthropologist and a poet laureate; leadership contenders fail the 11+; a wild swimming warning; a miracle beside a Minster and finally, Sweet Caroline and Amazing Grace.

Melt down

The weekend before the heat emergency, Sir John Hayes, who chairs the 'Common Sense Group' of Tory MPs accused people of being 'cowards' and 'snowflakes' for following health advice against the anticipated hot spell, and someone in The Daily Mail assured us that the country wouldn't ignite.

I was a snowflake. I lay under a wet towel for two days, reading Simon Armitage's lectures, delivered during his stint as Professor of Poetry at Oxford University, whilst PW read Dame Professor Sue Black's second instalment of episodes from her work as a leading forensic anthropologist. Ice cream was consumed. At one point, darling daughter called in to check we were still alive.

When I ventured out midday Tuesday, for a blood test appointment, it felt like stepping into a fan oven. I stopped for a while at One Stop; chilling under the air conditioning, then pausing beside an open fridge door. Back home, the 24 hour news programmes showed a compost heap catching fire before burning down a street of houses in a village next to the Thames estuary.

Later in the week, the Pennines returned to normal. Never have locals felt so happy about our miserable weather. Our reservoirs got topped up, whilst the south remained parched, its bowling greens and cricket pitches turning to dust, its baked earth revealing the outlines of long lost villages. Ted Ashman, from Colden, popped in to see a friend near Tonbridge Wells, and stayed on to extinguish a grass fire. The south was igniting.

Somewhere in Hebden

In a queue at the bar, Marj and Archie Statham (old acquaintances best forgot) appeared. Marj thought to break the ice with a joke.

"Paddy goes into a bar …"

"Why Paddy?"

"Top of the morning to ya!," said Archie, slapping my shoulder.

"I mean, why not Cyril?"

"Who's Cyril when he's at home?!"

"An Englishman."

Then the barman appeared, interrupting our reunion.

Sorry, Murphy clan, I asked Marj and Archie what they were having.

Zillah and Suranne

Zillah from Mytholmroyd noticed Suranne Jones, aka Gentleman Jack, in Tesco and Suranne noticed Zillah noticing her. They clocked each other again in the next aisle. This repetitive eyeballing was quite natural really, as both women were choosing clothes for their daughters, but Zillah reckons the actress was feeling stalked.

Unlike me, Zillah doesn't take to Jones's acting in Gentleman Jack, finding it too mannered. I suggested it would have been polite to share this critique with Suranne, to reassure her that you weren't a doting fan.

Now the Mail has mocked Suranne for charging fans £59 to have a selfie with her. Which development I texted to Zillah, who responded, "Ha!"


In The Book Case, I fell into conversation with a granny and her two delightful grandchildren, saying how great it was to find children who want to read books instead of playing on gadgets all day. Granny said she'd always made sure of that.

The kids showed me the books they'd chosen, and noticing the illustrations, I pointed to my friend Craig, and told them he's an illustrator and a writer. They were suitably impressed.

Just behind the group, Booker prizewinner, Bernadine Evaristo's face was on the cover of Never Give Up. On Radio 4's The book programme, I'd heard her advice to creative writing students: "Be unstoppable! Put in the hard yards! Get into the libraries and bookshops! Put yourself out there'!"
Bernardine must have have put a spell on me, as I found myself saying, "Actually, I've written two books - for older readers - and they're in this shop!"

"Oh children," said granny, "Aren't we lucky! Which ones?"

"Well, there's there's one just over there … the one with my face on it."

Craig snorted.

As soon as we got outside, Bernardine's spell completely dissolved. I was horrified by my egotism. But reader, I decided to be kind to myself and let it go, as I could easily have spent the evening engaged in self loathing; instead, I found myself wondering late that night, if I was to write a best seller, how much I would charge for selfies?

Horse play

On a website dedicated to my old school, Julie Large ('visual storyteller') posted a picture of a gymnastics horse, remarking, "This gave me nightmares." Which brought back a memory of my classmate David Collings performing a perfect flyspring from that apparatus, whilst embellishing the upside down in midair bit with a trumpeting fart. Now, this was in a Secondary Modern school in the 1960s, so we all restrained ourselves from laughing, turning quite purple faced in the process, as I remember, until Flogger Evans, the Deputy Head commented, "Been eating too much strawberries and cream, Collings?!"

Dead funny

Forensic anthropologist Sue Black's Written in Bone, just out in paperback, is packed with grim tales. As her ardent admirer Val McDermid has written, "No scientist communicates better." The book is a harrowing but inspiring read. It also includes some dark humour.

A Glasgow tramp died of hypothermia and Sue tried to identify the poor man using a registration number on his top denture. Her team's research showed that the denture had been used by three other men since the original owner lost them. When he was contacted, he asked for them to be returned. He wrote back, 'They were the maist comfortable wallies I've ever had."

Vision of the future

In a leadership debate in Stoke on Trent, formerly part of 'the red wall', Rishi Sunak unintentionally implied his audience of first time Tory voters were hopeless, uncaring parents, compared with his mum and dad, who scrimped and saved to send him to Winchester. For which he was rewarded with a round of applause. In response, Liz Truss scoffed at Rishi's privileged upbringing, and said that her comprehensive in a leafy part of Leeds, didn't aim high enough, despite getting her into Oxford.
In a later debate held in the south, the candidates appealed to more traditional Party members. Both candidates revealed they wanted the return of selective education from age eleven.

The 11+ still blights provision in Halifax. Eleven is too young an age for separating children on academic grounds. Whilst giving equal value to older pupils wishing to follow vocational courses would need a lot more levelling up expenditure than either Rishi or Liz are proposing.

Why the Sirens stopped singing

I performed this mixed monologue and song at the Golden Lion in Tod, not far from where William Holt once painted naked models parading as nymphs. Folk lore and legend are full of such stories. It's always been young women, in the guise of pagan deities, who get blamed for luring youths into dangerous waters.

Mini break miracle

Like Nick Cave, I don't believe in an interventionist God, but if I did I'd ask him to intervene at York Minster, where visitors are channelled alongside a glass wall towards a pay booth to pay £12.50 for 'a short tour'. Confronted with their demands, I nipped outside again, remarking to a bewildered German family who were in the queue, "£12:50! Durham doesn't charge a penny!"

We've visited the Minster almost every year in the last half century, the first visit coinciding with our honeymoon, and we've always given a voluntary donation. Once outside, I discovered (with a quick check on google), that you can ignore the stewards as you go into the place of worship and then look for a small unsignposted door in the glass wall, through which you can wander around the mighty minster free of charge and full of wonder, before finally locating the cafe. Armed with this knowledge, I would have gone back inside, but just then my phone rang.

Back in the busker blighted square next to Betty's, our mate Jenny, who lives in the city, had appeared out of the great milling crowd and plopped herself down next to Kath. I was duly summonsed into her presence.

Jenny was adamant she hadn't received any of my messages requesting a meeting and was rather worried that we'd disowned her. I sighed and opened the Messenger app on my phone and reluctantly pointed to my message as proof. Then rested my case.

Jenny inspected the incriminating item for a moment, then pointed out that I hadn't actually pressed the 'send arrow'. Which she then did on my behalf. Her phone pinged! Case dismissed. Then she hugged me. At which point I imagined Nick Cave singing, "Into my arms, oh lord, into my arms."

That night we went to Sparks, a clunked together cluster of ex shipping containers, nowadays containing hordes of mainly young tattooed and nose pinned diners. We liked the vibe, but Jude found the crowds overwhelming.

So Jenny took us down Fossgate to the brilliant tapas place on the bridge, where she'd taken us before, but somehow this time we'd missed it. Mind, in our defence, it was a good two yards away from where we were staying.

Shaggy Dogs

Back from York on Friday, I had time to nip along the towpath to Stubbing Wharf, where Shaggy Dog attendance was up ten per cent following its recent rebirth. I've enjoyed taking part in readings during the spring, but it was good to remember again the power of the spoken word, especially when delivered by our driving force Christine, who brought along her eleven year old grandson Charlie, who took a full part in proceedings. Charlie's presence made us all shuffle the Spotify stories we carry in our heads to find suitable fare. I sang a song about global warming at one point, and afterwards gave myself a warning to sing it as a bass and not a tenor.

A Vertical Art

At the end of his lectures on poetry, Simon Armitage gives an example of one of the types of poetry he is espousing: poetry to be read on the page rather than performed. After reflecting on Walt Whitman's transition from readings in populated halls to solitariness, the Poet Laureate suggests that Norman Nicholson was Whitman's English counterpart. As evidence, the author of Zoom provides the culmination of a poem* by the mutton chopped Cumbrian poet in which Nicholson describes 'the pattern, the prod and pulse of life' apparent in a crimson-petalled plant on his window sill.

… And what need therefore
To stretch for the straining kite? - for kite and flower
Bloom in my room for ever; that light that lifts them
Shines in my own eyes, and my body's warmth
Hatches their red in my veins. It is the Gulf Stream
That rains down my chimney, making the soot spit; it
is the Trade Wind

That blows in the draught under the bedroom door.
My ways are curcumscribed, confined as a limpet
To one small radius of rock; yet
I eat the equator, breathe the sky, and carry
To great white sun the dirt of my fingernails.
*And what need therefore, Selected poems, Faber and Faber, 1982, p31.

Readers write 1

Migratory bird survey

Not having time to contact each of the contributors for permission to use their responses to my recent online survey, I can summarise that several people heard cuckoos round here in the spring, especially on upland areas. We've all noticed good numbers of swifts darting swiftly high and low, but swallow and house martin numbers have declined, although some contributors have seen all three, especially on the tops around Blackshaw Head, Midgley and Slack and in good numbers down in the valley over the Eastwood sewage works especially, and around the new wetlands at Brearley. One reader alerted me to the sand martins nesting in the river bank behind the Puzzle Inn at Sowerby Bridge, which is one of my hangouts.

Readers write 2

Thanks to Steve Walsh, a Geordie offcumden, now resident in Todmorden, for this short story told at the Golden Lion. The history of working class gambling is an interest of mine. The following short tale is best conjured up by imagining Steve's warm Jarrow accent in your head.

Amazing Grace

by Steve Welsh

'On this here big flat rock,' my grandfather said, 'men would gamble away their pay packets on the toss of a coin.'

And he took off his cap, wet with sweat from our walk onto the moors, and threw it upon the slab of millstone grit. From a clear blue sky, the sun boiled down upon us and he loosened his waistcoat and sat upon the wiry grass next to the rock.

'Sit down my lad. Tell me now, can you whistle?'

I was took by surprise, but I put two of my stubby fingers in my mouth and blew hard, but nothing came out save the warm air from my panting lungs.

'Nah, nah, lad. Look at me now, and learn.'

I watched as he rolled back his tongue, stuck his finger and thumb underneath it and blew hard. A piercing whistle burst forth and I put my hands over my ears and he stopped and said, 'And that, my lad, when I was your age, was why those gambling men paid me a penny every Saturday afternoon to keep watch for them. If the local bobbies caught them, you see, it'd be one month's hard labour and since most of them weren't even used to soft labour, why, there was not one man jack among them wanted catching.'

He stood back up with a grunt and he picked me up and he sat me upon the rock.

'Now then,' he said, 'do you see those rocks behind you, the one's over there?' and he pointed a short distance to a tumble of rocks that overlooked our town far below, 'Well, I'd clamber up there cos it gave a grand view of the track up to the moor, the very one you and me have just walked up, and if I saw that no one was a follerin us, I'd give the thumbs up and they'd start their gambling. But if I saw the bobbies a'coming, I'd whistle my warning.'

'Strange as it might seem,' he said, 'the local vicar was among them, the very same feller who preached hell and damnation at the pulpit and railed against the demon drink and the gambling. And it was him, the very same man, who conducted the proceedings each Saturday afternoon. The gambling men, over twenty of them, none of whose shadows had ever graced the railings around a church, never mind their backsides upon a pew, would gather round this here big slab of rock, their pennies in their pockets instead of their wives' purses, and they'd wait upon the vicar.'

'And with great ceremony, he would open his black greatcoat and reach into his waistcoat pocket and pull out the same penny he used on every such occasion and he would hold it up high in his right hand, just like he did his eucharist on a Sunday. And the men all doffed their caps and stared up at it, just like they should have been doing on a Sunday, and then the Vicar would say,'

"Behold this whoresome penny, it shall save not one of your heathen souls."

'And the men all crossed themselves and said,'

"Amen to that."

'And they put their caps back on their heads and grinned and spat in their hands, ready and eager to win or lose everything on the simple toss of the Vicar's eucharistic coin. But one man in particular always pushed himself to the front and the men would always make way for him. Two Fisted Tommy was his name, and he preferred to use his big fists first when most men would try their tongues first, and mark you, he knew how to use those fists and used them plenty enough in the pubs and on the streets. And he'd stand in front of the Vicar, unshaven and with his broken nose, and he'd say, as he always did,'

"Now then Vicar, toss that coin and let's be started."

'And the Vicar, with a glint in his eye and a grin upon his face, would say, as he always did,'

"Now then boys, let's be having your bets on a tail."

'And the men would cheer and reach into their pockets and slam their pennies on the rock slab and the foreman of the cotton mill, the only man among those gamblers who could read and write, would mark their bets in his book. And then the Vicar, with a flick of his thumb, tossed the coin into the air and the men, with hungry eyes would all watch it sail up high, twisting and turning, glinting in the sun, and on its way back down the Vicar would catch it and slam it down hard upon this very rock. And he'd keep his hand upon it and the men would all crane over it and he'd look each man in the eye and he'd say,'

"For it's the love of money, boys, that is the root of all evil."

'And he'd lift his hand and there'd be groans of despair and whoops of joy and the Vicar would grin and lift the coin back into the air and all the men would stare at it and he'd say,'

"Now then boys, let's be having your bets on a head."

'I should have been watching the path, of course. But, you see, I loved to watch the men, and this day was special cos there were so many of them. I heard the bobbies before I saw them and I turned quick and spied six of them, fifty yards away, puffing and panting up the track, their hands swinging their two foot long black truncheons. Quick as a flash I raised my hand to my mouth and whistled for all I was worth. And the bobbies looked up at me and shouted and the men looked up at me and shouted and the bobbies, their cover blown, began to run up the track, eager to crack a few skulls with those hard blackened truncheons.'
But no! The Vicar, quick as flash, put his penny in his waistcoat pocket and from his greatcoat pocket pulled out a white cloth and laid it upon this slab of rock, and from his other greatcoat pocket, pulled out his bible and placed it upon the cloth. And then he looked at the men and he said,'

'And I heard them murmer 'yes' and Two Fisted Tommy, with a glint in his eye, said,'

"What shall it be, Vicar."

'And the Vicar said,' "Let's be having Amazing Grace."

'And the men nodded and Two Fisted Tommy turned and faced them all and said,' "Sing loud boys. Sing your hearts out."

'And they sang loud and they sang their hearts out and rising above all their voices, came the fine and handsome voice of Two Fisted Tommy. It could have graced many a musical hall and it carried high and noble above them all and the Vicar, his mouth hanging open in surprise at such beauty, picked up his bible and held it high and shouted 'Alleluia'. And Two Fisted Tommy raised his voice yet stronger and yet higher, fit to challenge even the angels in heaven. And the men and the Vicar, all singing that stirring hymn, looked at Two Fisted Tommy, wondering I think, even as I was, how such a voice could possibly come from the mouth of such a man. And just then, the bobbies ran into their midst, truncheons held high, but stopped dead, for what man can crack the skull of another while he sings Amazing Grace?'

'And the Vicar turned towards the bobbies, and just as Two Fisted Tommy's voice rang out loud and sang 'Saved a wretch like me,' the Vicar, with a wrath born of his creator, fell upon those bobbies and pummelled them with his bible. And to a man, they turned tail and fled down the hill from whence they came.'

'And then the men, still singing Amazing Grace, all looked towards me, and I watched as the bobbies, with heads bowed, disappeared from sight and I gave the thumbs up. Quick as a flash, the men stopped singing and the bible and the white cloth were stowed inside the Vicar's pockets. Then he pulled out his eucharistic penny and with his right hand raised it high and with a glint in his eye and a grin upon his face, I heard him say,
"Well now boys, let's be having your bets on a head."

And finally …

"Sweet Caroline …"

Germany having won the cup eight times, reminded me of the best and worst aspects of the men's game. The pressing left a mark. Fouling was a strategy. There were two great goals amongst the sweary confrontations. I wonder what lessons the small girls in the crowd took home with them.
The slightly more skilful side won, however, which helps a lot when celebrating.

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