Magazine article The Spectator

Down Memory Lane

Magazine article The Spectator

Down Memory Lane

Article excerpt

ON ILKLEY MOOR: THE STORY OF AN ENGLISH TOWN by Tim Binding Picador, L16, pp. 335, ISBN 0330369962

Marooned on one occasion in a nationalist drinking den in Omagh in the wee small hours, I was asked (instructed might be more accurate) to sing a song. This was long before a Real IRA explosion tore the heart out of the city, when republican roistering was part of a night's entertainment. Very fine they sang, too. I apologised that I could not sing. They laughed. I didn't know any songs. They growled, `Every man knows one song.' Well, yes, I knew my national anthem. The place went silent. They looked at each other with narrowed eyes, and then at me. Hurriedly, realising the joke did not work: 'I mean, "Ilkley Moor Baht 'At" '.

Sighs of relief all round, until they heard my rendition. `Ilkley Moor' is a tuneless, repetitive dirge at the best of times. In my mouth, it is a cruel and unusual form of punishment. For those unacquainted with the requiem, it laments the passing of an unknown lover who dies his death of cold after courting Mary Jane on the moor while not wearing his hat. 'We' bury him. He is eaten up by the worms, the worms by the ducks and then 'we' eat the ducks. `Then we shall all have etten thee.' By this time, Irish applause had turned into irritation. But they cheered up at the ninth verse, little known and not often sung, which proclaims, `then we shall have gotten our oahn back.'

This was a sentiment that Ulstermen could comprehend, enjoy even, though why it should form the gratuitously nasty conclusion to a folk anthem I have never understood. Perhaps there is something in the water, or the weather, or the drink that makes Tykes offer unsolicited lack of charity. It must be highly contagious, because Tim Binding, born in Germany and resident in the spa town of Ilkley until he was seven, has certainly gotten his oahn back by going 'home' to write a book about it.

Ilkley occupies a special place in the hearts and minds of Yorkshire people, and not just because of the song. It is where the teeming populace of Leeds, Bradford and the mill towns of the Aire Valley - a dale just like Ilkley's Wharfedale, but industrial - went in their tens of thousands in search for pleasure and a rural respite from the grind of work. …

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