Magazine article The Spectator

A County Palatine Fit for a Queen

Magazine article The Spectator

A County Palatine Fit for a Queen

Article excerpt

I am from Lancashire and have been enjoying a racy paperback on the place written by Charles Nevin (Lancashire: Where Women Die of Love). Some people are surprised to learn I was born in Manchester. It's true I have a posh southern accent, but I can go demotic when necessary. Many years ago I used to do a weekly TV programme called What the Papers Say, which involved travelling up to Granada studios and staying the night at the Midland Hotel. You had to itemise your expenses and claim them from a lugubrious cashier who hated parting with money. ''Ere, wot's this?' he would say. 'Firstclass rail travel? Tea on t'train? Cooked breakfast? Tha likes to go it, dost tha not?

Some of you people from t'south think munny grows on trees - well, I'll tell thee, not oop 'ere it doesna.' To which I replied, squaring my jaw, Withenshaw-fashion, ''Old up, sonny boy, I was born 'ere, same as thou.

So shut thy gob and pay oop!'

To me, Lancashire begins when you trundle across the old rail-bridge at Warrington, which strictly speaking is a Cheshire town, though the northern bit is pure Lancs. Turn left and you're in Liverpool and scouse-land, half-Irish and incomprehensible. Turn right and it's Manchester, which used to be a grand town around 1900, in my mother's heyday.

She said, 'Some called it the Athens of the North, and it's true all the greatest actors and musicians came there. The Halle was the best orchestra in Europe. I once shook hands with Sir Hamilton Harty, and didn't like to wash it afterwards. Miss Horriman presented new plays regularly, first at the Midland, then at the Gaiety, and people came from all over the world to see them. Her first name was Annie, like mine. What a proud girl I was when I first enrolled at Sedgley College and joined the John Rylands Library.' My mother always believed that civilisation ended at the west side of the Pennines, and she would gladly have fought the Wars of the Roses all over again. Does Lancashire breed women of her spirit today? I doubt it.

Due north, the line led through Wigan. I have seen its old massed back-to-back terrace houses (now gone) hundreds of times from the train and never set foot in the place. As they said, ''Oo'd go ter Wigan for fun?' Next came Preston, and that was (and is) a town and a half, with a history and fine buildings and the tallest spire in the north, right next to the line of rail so you can't miss it. They said:

Proud Preston, poor people.

Low church, high steeple.

I first studied art history in the library of the Harris Institute there, which also houses Sir James Gunn's masterpiece, 'Pauline in the Yellow Dress'.

At Preston the line of rail bifurcates. To the west it goes to the Fylde, to Lytham and Blackpool. My mother spent her widowhood in Lytham, in a little cottage in Westby Street, and each day I would walk on the front, often meeting George Formby, the great, sad comedian who played the ukulele plaintively.

His fierce wife Beryl took all his wages and would then turn him out of the house for the day ('Don't get under my feet, thou!') with only sixpence in his pocket. So he'd talk to me, and sometimes sing, 'If you can see what I can see, When I'm cleaning winders!'

Further up the line was Blackpool where, as a teenager, I used to go and dance, at the Winter Gardens or the Tower Ballroom, with beautiful, chaste, scented local girls. …

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