BOOK REVIEW – GLYN HUGHES – MILLSTONE GRIT 1975 Pan Books.
A deservedly much loved travel book about the border lands between Lancashire and Yorkshire, rich in history of the neglected cotton mills, and local characters, interspersed with lovely lyrical poems by the author, and the works of the great dialect bards of the region, like Samuel Laycock.
Areas of rich industrial heritage are slowly being vandalised and destroyed by modernisation. Stone cottages are gaining modern carports and extensions that don’t match their original designs. Hughes set out to capture in writing the fading memory of a proud land and people. The Grit of the title refers to the land and the human integrity of the pioneers who lived and worked there. Ten years after most mills closed down to dereliction, the Pennines was still covered in their soot. Whole villages had vanished without trace within living memory of people who had worked there, giving the illusion of vast tracts of natural wilderness where communities had thrived. Hughes refers to Denshaw Forest, now denuded of all trees.
Taught a love and respect for nature, history and poetry by the kindly eccentric, Mr. Murdoch, Hughes sees the land as echoing with the footsteps of Luddites, Radicals, and the founders of the CO-OP. Here, the non-conformist ministers and Methodist preachers would attract people who would walk twenty miles over peat bogs in all conditions to hear their sermons. Hughes believes that his passionate love of walking was therefore hereditary.
After marital break up, Hughes moved from Altringham to Mill Bank, near the Roman road at Blackstone Edge, in a ghost town that was once a very active area. He describes the strange plumbing, where his own lavatory was down the street, while the pipes taking away the waste produce of a neighbour ran right through his ceilings.
Hughes describes the beginnings of the trend for city folk using their cars to visit quaint country pubs in idyllic mill towns, oblivious of the sheer Hell and human tragedy produced by such environments. He is clearly angered by such tourism. He decided to take a series of walks through the borderlands to see what remains, and what had gone forever of the history of the region.
His search bean in Todmorden, where John Fielden had tried to introduce an eight-hour working day, only to be forced by Parliament to ten hour shifts, which was still a considerable improvement. Frederick Engels called Fielden an exception to his class, and Luddites trashing machines in the region often left his mills alone.
Hughes tells the astonishing story of Billy Holt, a working class Communist from Todmorden who met Nehru, Alastair Crowley & H. G. Wells, fought in WW1 and the Spanish Civil War, and presented wartime radio propaganda for Britain in WW2. He survived to meet the author in the early 1970’s.
Hughes walked through the Calder Valley, past Stoodley Pike, a monument to the British heroes of Waterloo, built by the Gaskells. He went on to Hebdon Bridge, where book shops and antique shops have turned the town into a tourist trap and a place of pilgrimage for hippies who were often resented by the locals. Hughes reasons that Hebdon attracts such attention from being the last point at which rail fares from Manchester remain modest on journeys towards Leeds and York. After Hebdon, a journey gets expensive. Hughes laments the town’s rising use of modern TV arials, car ports, and reading the book in 2008, leaves me wondering how he might feel now, thirty years on from the publication of his own book, which remains an extremely moving memorial to a proud and not yet entirely bi-gone era.
In this region, the Working Class intellectual was king. Many self-taught weavers read Newton’s Principia after work, and between shifts.
Hughes’s dad had been a bus conductor who as union shop-steward, had led a strike, only to be promoted to inspector just to make sure he could not remain in the union and cause more trouble.
Crossing the treacherous peat bogs into Saddleworth, the author tells of the brass bands of the area, and blizzards so fierce that you could get lost within yards of your own house. He also refers to the sorrow of the Moors at the terrible murders there, including the disposal of the child-murder victims of The Moors Murderers, Brady & Hindley.
© Copyright. Arthur Chappell
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