Friday, 26 February 2010

Roman Codswallop

What with all this ice and snow, I almost got the camera out. But all the scenes I wanted to frame had been snapped up a thousand times over. And then there are all the historic photos on the Marple website too.

No scene has been snapped more often, they say, than our dear Roman Bridge over the Goyt. 

© Copyright Peter Fuller and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Codswallop! That bridge is about as Roman as my nose. It’s time to set the record straight.

History is not what it was. I’m not with fogeys who pine for the days when some kings were Good (Richard the Lionheart) and some kings were Bad (King John) and preferably Deformed (Richard III).

We must embrace modern scholarship. I have therefore ensured that what follows has been certified by one of our finest reality-TV producers, as well as by an acclaimed radio journalist and acknowledged authority on weapons of mass destruction.

The year is 55 AD. The Romans have been bossing those southern softies around for years, with the honourable exception of Queen Boudicca (known in the Mandall household as Mrs B).

Here up North the battle for control continues. Between the River Goyt and the Irish Sea, the Romans occupy the boggy lowlands of Gorblimia.

But the Upacrustian fort overlooking the plain is staunchly British.

In between, lies Marple Ford, astride the River Goyt as it journeys to Liverpudlium.

Marple Ford

Upacrustia and Gorblimia come together in the Rhodberis family. Mrs Robby is an Upacrusta from Mellor. Whereas Mr Robby is a Gorblimi from down below in Marple. They live at the Blasted Oak public house at the Mellor hill fort with their sons, the Three Rs.

Mrs Rhodberis  - Robby for short - is at the foot of a ladder, laid against the Blasted Oak. She is shouting up at Mr Rhodberis (also known as Robby).

“What’s with the new sign, Robby?”

“It’s a make-over,” replies Mr R. “For the Romans.”

“I don’t know what’s wrong with ‘The Blasted Oak’.”

Mr Robby shrugs. “Oaks are so last millennium.” He waves towards the plan. “Down there in Gorblimia, you can’t move for Oaks and Druids: 'Old Oak', 'Oak and Cauldron'. Potion of the masses if you ask me.”

Mrs R interrupts him. “I didn’t ask you. You’re only a Gorblimi yourself. We’re Upacrustes in Mellor. True Brit.”

(There is a silence. The producer wanted Mr R to light a cigarette at this point, but the PA got all precious about it.)

“Fur cloak and no loin cloth,” he mutters.

“That’s enough of that, Webbed Feet,” she snaps back. She points at the sign. “What’s it say then?”

Mr R sighs, and says loudly and slowly. “It says ‘ROBIS VOBIS’, and it means ‘Robby’s is good for you’.’’

“Can’t stand that Latin muck.”

“Latin brings the soldiers in. Look at Private Castra and Captain Bollux. Castra brought in half the camp privates on Friday night.”

Mrs R is now considerably vexed. “This is a clean house. We never have any trouble, as long as the Gorblimis sup in the midden. We don’t need your foreign garlic-eaters, you low-life collab– ”

Mrs R holds her tongue, almost in time.

After the advert break (Explore Holidays, Low Temperature Ariel, and Resolve) the couple are more conciliatory.

Mrs R unclenches her gums: “I don’t mind the Romans, really, but you let one in, and the next minute they're all over you like lice.”

“That Private Castra can get you anything. Salt. Nylons. Hello! –”

Mrs R: “I don’t think I want anything he’s got, thank you very much. Now Captain Bollux is another matter.”

“What’s Bollux got that I haven’t?”


Friday, 19 February 2010

Can Tom Hack It?

Sunday morning is the time for a good hack. No: even the Royal Oak is smoke-free nowadays. Hacking is about working a horse on our hills and tracks between the Cheshire plain and the Derbyshire peaks.

In ones and twos, the beasts set out from Tarden, Townscliffe, Lower Dale and Hill Top Farm. But I prefer to exercise on my two flat feet, and friend Karen accepts my company for her Sunday morning “long run”.

Unfortunately Karen is in the prime of both her running career and professional life with one of Manchester’s great paper-mills. And though I am a hand taller than her, she carries a hundredweight less. So, as I labour up the hill to St Thomas’s, I have plenty of time to contemplate my sins of commission (McVitie’s HobNobs) and omission (hacking up hills).

We Mandalls are built for endurance, or at least for comfort, more than speed. Hard head on sloping shoulders, a barely defined waist and a damned good bottom. Good bottom, I expect, is what got my forebears, Cumberland farmers, through lean winters. And Cumberland sausage, I expect, too.

In the long run, there is nothing wrong with a damned good bottom. Provided the long run is on the flat.

The other thing about running is that you can’t afford to digress. But the thing about me is that I do little else. So, before I know it, I have slowed to nothing, and am contemplating my shoelaces. Or, worse, this column.

“Can Tom hack it?” I chant to myself, as I pick up my pace again. What on earth made me say I would write this column every Friday? My correspondent, Amanda, has emailed me the stern warning: “I can’t stand irregular blogs”. Thank you, Amanda. I won’t let you down.

“Can Tom hack it?” “Yes, he can!” I reply to myself, like a fan of Bob the Builder.

By Hill Top Farm, we turn onto a high wide track, straight as an autobahn, built between stone walls to enclose new fields for eighteenth century Mellor freeholders. Karen dances over the ridges between half frozen puddles, but my feet sink as deep as carthorse hooves.

I engage Four Paw Drive to clamber up from the ford at Rowarth. My mind drifts into dangerous waters: I compose a letter to the High Peak Council Footpaths Officer about how the exposed bedrock represents a serious trip hazard.

Consciousness returns on the Sitch, a lump of hill above Hayfield. I long for the gentle gradient of the disused railway line that brought undyed calico cloth the last leg from Kerala to Hayfield for printing. And Arthur Lowe home for tea.

But when we finally join the line Karen notches up to full steam. It’s exhilarating for the first fifty yards, but by the time we’ve pulled into New Mills, I’m about to bust my boiler.

Karen of course is ready for more. It must have been oxygen deprivation that made me suggest the blasted cross, so up we go again. Hack. Hack.

The walled track over Mellor Moor has clearly been used for NATO tank manoeuvres (letter to Secretary of State). My reeling salt-stung eyes discern two handsome beasts, and a printed message on their riders’ high-vis jackets.


No problem there. Can Tom hack it? Yes, he can.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Raisin in the Sun

Second only to our very own Regent Cinema, Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre is a favourite destination for a Mandall family outing. It amazes me that our three boys regularly consent to join Mrs M and myself on these occasions. It’s probably because we try to fit in a pizza first, if there’s a bogof at one of the nearby eateries.

The Royal Exchange is a glorious celebration of Manchester’s pre-eminence in the global cotton trade. Its modern theatre-in-the-round is an airy three-tiered cylinder, anchored to the massive pillars that define the floor of t’Change. The closing cotton prices from around the world on its last day of trading still look down from the gods.

Tracy Ifeachor as Beneatha & Damola Adelaja as Joseph Asagai in A RAISIN IN THE SUN
Photo by Jonathan Keenan

The theatre’s middle tier suits me, because the seats are like bar-stools, not so comfy that I'll doze off. Also, should I snore, I’m less likely to be caught napping than with the groundlings under the stage lights.

The lights fade up on Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. We look down from our stools onto a Chicago apartment: a kid is asleep on the couch; his mum, or should that be mom, moves around this single family room, fetches the paper, turns on the stove to cook breakfast.

Unlike nearly all the audience, the actors are black. When the granny, Lena (played by Starletta duPois, who's been doing this play since I was in short trousers) gets her insurance cheque following her husband’s death, all she wants is for her family to be happy. She wants them all to have a proper house, where her grandchildren to be raised in the sun, out in the sunny but exceedingly white suburbs, far from the smoke and the clatter of the trains outside the window.

Some time after the ice-creams (even better than at the Regent, but somewhat pricier) a white bloke appears in the apartment. He’s silver-haired, comfortably built, in a woolly jumper, with a well-worn tan briefcase and lace-up shoes like the ones I wear on my walks to the Derbyshire end of our village. He's a bit like me so I warm to him. The nice white man says he’s from the residents’ committee, and has come to welcome them to the new home Lena's bought. He then proceeds to offer to buy them out, tries to make them an offer they can’t refuse. Something about skin, and not fitting in. "There goes the neighborhood".

You’ll have to go and see Raisin in the Sun to find out what happens next. You’d have to go very far to find a better play or better acting. Hurry up: it closes on the twentieth.

I suppose that King Cotton left Marple Bridge and Manchester quite a long time ago - but perhaps Starletta can till hear his cotton-picking servants whispering behind the pillars of the Royal Exchange.

Out here in the Bridge, village life is pretty sunny between the snow flurries, but it's still freezing. I read somewhere that Samuel Oldknow chose Marple Bridge to build his great cotton mill amidst what we call the Roman Lakes (why, I'm sure our wonderful Marple Local History Society can explain), so the workers could move out from the Manchester stews, and live in the fresh country air. And up on the hill, descendants of Richard Arkwright (he of the water-frame - or was it the spinning jenny?) paid for a fine new school. I expect they learned about whirling dervishes.

It’s a funny old thing, as I was saying to Mrs M, but there don’t seem to be many mill hands in Marple and Mellor these days. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a pair of clogs this side of the M60.

And people of color? Not many seem to make it over the M60 either. But I’m working in Old Trafford this week, so I’ll bring home some of those wonderful Pakistani mango smoothies for the boys.

PS Mrs M’s very troubled that injury may have forced our very own whirling dervish, Robbie White, out of the final of So you think you can dance on Saturday night. She’s been following his career since he was in Year 11. All the Mandalls wish Robbie the very best.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Living on the Edge

They’re shooting Mrs Peppercorn tonight in the Bridge. Her film crew is going to blow snow all over us and pretend we’re a Cornish village. Town Street will be closed for three nights, which should infuriate and delight us all in equal measure.

Edgy stuff, a production like this: what will happen if we’re already covered in the wrong sort of snow? I sha'n’t sleep for worry.

Three nights! I hope Mrs P and the crew will grace our pubs and restos between takes. To be honest, some of them have a bit too much Cheshire bling for Mrs M and me. As regular readers will know, we prefer the Regent Cinema, where my lady bestows the briefest of infra-red glares on anyone who whispers. This suits me fine. Also the magnums are only a quid.

The Edge restaurant in Marple overlooks the Peak Forest Canal as it hurtles down 16 locks and 210 feet to a viaduct over the River Goyt (then known as the Mersey) on its way to Manchester. “Hurtling” is of course relative. It took Mrs M and me all day to wind 16 sets of the sluices up and down, while a chorus of little Ms looked up from their Nintendos to chant “Tom Mandall Turn the Handle!”

Although the “e” at the end of The Edge in Marple is falling off, by design of course, our visitors won’t need crampons to reach their table. Carpers may say that we exaggerate when we talk of “peaks” and “forests”, but we really do live on the edge here by the Bridge. We live on the edges of Stockport, Manchester, Lancashire, Cheshire, Peaks and Plain. We used to be part of Derbyshire too (and, always up with the times, the Church of England has just moved us from the Diocese of Derby to that of Chester.)

Daily, we bestride our less-than-tectonic plates. Bridgers attack the terrain from early morning: a Pringle of golfers absailing down the links of Mellor Golf Course, or a Lycra of bikers grinding up to Lantern Pike.

Once Mrs M and the kids are out of the way, I lace up the chunky English shoes that I imagine are favoured by social anthropologists, for my morning stride with faithful Bono into old Derbyshire, and perhaps exchange greetings with the farmer fattening his cattle below St Thomas’s. Meanwhile, my neighbour leaves his half of our semi, and walks down to Town Street for a latte behind The Guardian at Libby’s; then he crosses our Goyt-Mersey-Rubicon for an off-peak return with the humanities staff to his Mancunian seat of learning.

Some of us free-lancers are currently more free than lancing. So, after a seemly interval in which we might have been responding to urgent emails from Lord Mandelson (no relation) or skyping Bangkok, we congregate in our trainers, we gentlemen of the road, track and tow-path. We jog down to the (not quite) Roman Lakes and up to the canal, over the Goyt, scrabble up through Brook Bottom till we finally top the Soldier’s Knob with its blasted Cross.

We may be on the edge of riches or repossession, but this knob where a Wesley may once have preached will still be here tomorrow. And perhaps that new contract will turn up...

Home to number 72, our ledge on the edge. Let’s go mad, Mrs M: Lancashire black puddings, with bubble and squeak for tea.

I raise the plump satin horse-shoes, dark as aubergines, to embellish my ear-lobes, for the delight of Eminem.

“Can’t we have fish fingers?” says M2. Go prick thy face, thou lily-liver’d boy!

Watch out for shrapnel, Mrs P.