“What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen, what old December’s bareness everywhere”.
December 1580 and Lancashire shivers under an icy mantle of bitingly cold, bleak weather, an east wind bringing plummeting temperatures and blizzard conditions.
After the day’s heavy snowfall, the late afternoon is clear and frosty with big stars beginning to shine over the silent, white fields.
Candles flare in the windows of Rufford Hall, a large timber framed manor house near Ormskirk, home to the aristocratic Hesketh family.
It is Christmas Eve and the great house is being made ready for celebrations that will last until Twelfth Night. The kitchen is a hive of activity, oxen slowly roasting on revolving spits, hand turned by perspiring, red-faced servants. On the Hall’s stone flagged floors, the long oak tables are ready for the feast and behind the exuberantly carved wooden screen at the rear of the hall, the players can be heard tuning voices, violins, virginals, flutes and tabors ready for an evening’s entertainment of drama, music and dancing, singing, tumbling, dumb-shows and noise, duels and wrestling, of pageant and poetry, of witches, fairies, ghosts and goblins.
Outside the house, the tenant farmers and their families, whose livelihoods depend upon the Lord of the Manor, Sir Thomas Hesketh, move slowly through the white landscape, sometimes stopping to beat their hands on their chests and stamp their feet in an effort to keep warm. Luckier ones, wearing every item of clothing they can find, huddle together on carts pulled by shire horses crunching through the snow, their warm breath condensing into icy droplets as they haul logs destined for the open fire of the Great Hall.
Icicles hang inside the Manor’s bedrooms but the “Dyninge chamber” must be kept warm for the coming celebrations.
On the low-lying fields, once marshland, a shepherd huddles in a rough shelter watching over his master’s flock.
A red nosed milkmaid slithers and totters along carrying pails of frozen milk to the kitchen.
Crows perch silently in the bare trees and herds of deer, unable to forage, clatter gingerly across the hard ground towards the house, hoping to be fed scraps by hand from wicker baskets held by excited, pink faced children.
In the 16th century Britain was experiencing a little “Ice Age,” when even the widest rivers froze solid for weeks on end and became venues for, “Ice Fairs.” Tented villages to have a grand day out at before returning to the warmth of the great Hall to be entertained by the players and the musicians at banqueting tables groaning with festive fare.
Then as the night grew on, clustering together for warmth and companionship round the open fire, not daring to venture alone up the dark staircases and along the dimly lit passageways. Spooky places, whose atmosphere could creep into one’s “sinful” heart and fill it with a mixture of apprehension and terror. A state easily achieved when the Catholic concepts of purgatory and hell were held to be absolute truths and drummed into you in childhood
A Tudor house like Rufford—now open to the public and owned by the National Trust—is bound to accumulate its fair share of “ghosts” and things that go bump in the night and the Old Hall is no exception.
A door that will never keep open or shut, the sound of a spinning wheel, an axe, a cry, a sigh, a footstep or, worse still, a rattling of chains.
A “Grey lady”, haunts Rufford. Nay, even Gloriana herself, Queen Elizabeth the First has been known to make a bejewelled appearance. There have certainly been enough creepy carryings-on to attract the producers of the paranormal TV series, “Most Haunted.”
Now, whether “Spirits” are doomed to walk the night, bringing with them airs from heaven or a fiery blast from hell, is a matter for conjecture.
Certainly, if you’re inclined to believe in these things, hanging about at cock crow on Rufford’s mossy lawns only to hear sounds of lamentation and regret as hordes of wandering ghosts troop miserably home to their wormy beds, is probably not a good idea.
I mean, how many hard luck stories are you prepared to listen to?
Personally, I wouldn’t mind my having my ear bent a bit if I could be absolutely certain of cracking a mystery that has haunted me for some time. A sensible spectre might be able to solve it once and for all. Male or female, I don’t really mind. In any case, gender might not matter once one has shuffled off this mortal coil. I don’t think I’d be too scared. In fact, I wouldn’t mind if my informant had a certain presence, no self-respecting ghost should be without one but I don’t want to waste time having to put up with a load of sorrowful, self accusatory wailing and remembrance of things past, when I have a couple of simple questions to ask before Aurora’s beams start to tint the topiary squirrels on Rufford’s elegant lawns and the ghostly wandering turns into a stampede as the moaning Minnies all rush home before sunrise.
“Rufford Hall, your starter for 10. Were you alive and around the old Hall in 1580? A thumbs up will do, please don’t nod your head, it might have been removed in the 16th century and could easily fall off again.”
If a quivering grey thumbs-up is offered, then on to the second question.
What used to be called, the $64,000 question until “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” came along.
“Did William Shakespeare really live and work at Rufford hall?”
“No, no. Shake—speare. William Shakespeare. Became a playwright and…. please stop worrying about the lengthening shadows and what looks like a tint of orange beginning to kiss the dew drops.”
“Shakeshafte did. William Shakeshafte. I used to call him little Willie, really annoyed him. I always found him a bit sensitive. Wrote sonnets, that kind of thing. Not very good in my opinion. He was here all right, friends in high places, if you know what I mean? Him and, Fulk Gyllome. Good actor, Fulk, couldn’t tell him from a woman once he had a dress on. I wonder what happened to him? Look, I’m sorry but I must dash, I’ve got to be under six foot of loam in the next five minutes or the wife will be giving me the cold shoulder. Shakeshafte, that’s who you need to be looking for. Merry Christmas to you. It’s back to darkness and the burning lake for me. At least it’ll be a lot warmer than here. Lancashire, eh? Why couldn’t I have died in the Bermudas? Anon, anon and all that. See you sooooooon!”
It’s at this point that I normally wake up in a cold sweat.
As you can see, the question is, was it the young William Shakespeare who lived and worked at Rufford Hall in 1580 or was it William Shakeshafte? Aye, there’s the rub must give us pause.
He could, just as easily, have used dozens of other variants of his family name. The Elizabethans weren’t as pedantic as we are about spelling and regional variations abound as they wrote out of the sound of their own dialects.
He could have been, Sakspere, Schakosper, Schackspere, Saxper, Schaftspere, Shakstaf, Chacksper or even, Shasspeere.
In Stratford alone, documents of the period show twenty different and separate spellings.
If you haven’t come across the story before, here are the bare bones of it.
It would appear that the 16-year-old Shakespeare, whose family had fallen on difficult times, almost certainly linked to their Catholic connections, was recommended by his Stratford schoolmaster, John Cottam, a Lancashire man from Tarnacre, to teach or help teach the children at Hoghton Towers, a fortified manor house near Preston, ancestral home of the noble Hoghton family, probably as an “usher,” an assistant.
That the young Shakespeare was a teacher of some kind is affirmed by the 17th century gossip, John Aubrey, who wrote, “Shakespeare had been, in his younger years, a schoolmaster in the country.”
Aubrey claimed to have heard this from a man whose father, a well-known actor, had worked in Shakespeare’s own London Company in Shakespeare’s lifetime.
Leaving home at that age might well have been an emotional experience, reflected perhaps in a scene from, “Two Gentleman of Verona” where Launce, laying the dust with his tears, describes a tearful family farewell that had his grandma and his mother weeping, his father wailing, their maid howling, even the cat wringing its hands.
Another member of the Hoghton family he was to join up north was called, Alexander and lived at nearby Lea Hall.
Alexander kept a company of players and in his will left his stock of “play-clothes” (costumes) and all his musical instruments to his brother, Thomas or, “If he did not choose to keep players, to Sir Thomas Hesketh of Rufford Hall” and he added, “And I most heartily require the said Sir Thomas to be friendly unto Fulk Gyllome and William Shakeshafte, now dwelling with me and either to take them into his service or else help them to some good master, as my trust is, he will.”
Hoghton also left 40 shillings each to Gyllome and Shakeshafte, a considerable amount, perhaps £5000 in today’s earnings.
Could Shakespeare really have lived and worked in Lancashire before he became famous in London?
The answer is more than likely, yes.
Many scholars now agree that there is a strong case that the young Shakespeare, using his grandfather’s surname–common at that time in Lancashire—and his family’s Catholic connections, lived, worked and travelled around the county, first as a schoolmaster and then probably as a player, starting at Houghton Towers, moving on to Lea Hall and Rufford and later on joining the household of a greater and more theatrically influential family, the earls of Derby, one of whom, Lord Strange, kept a company of players whose skills were to take them to London.
It is at least possible that this youthful acquaintance with Strange’s professionally ambitious players was made in the north of England by 1581.
It is certainly true that the principal players of Lord Strange’s Men, as they were known, Will Kempe, Thomas Pope, John Heminges, Augustine Philips and George Bryan, later formed the core of the London company which the mature Shakespeare would come to be associated with, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.
Intriguingly, there still exists a copy of “Holinshed’s Chronicle’s” a history book used extensively as a source by Shakespeare in some of his plays, that is annotated in what looks to be his own handwriting. A book that was jointly owned by the Hoghton and Hesketh families.
Young William’s stay in Lancashire proved fruitful over the years. They probably didn’t call it networking then but that’s what he seemed to be doing, benefiting from his Catholic connections.
The Rufford link pops up again when the highly successful Shakespeare and four colleagues started to build the Globe Theatre in London. Acting as an important trustee for them was a goldsmith by the name of, Thomas Savage. Savage was not only a native of Rufford but he was related, by marriage, to the Hesketh family.
By 1582, the 18-year-old Shakespeare had left Lancashire and returned to Stratford where, on a summer’s day he met a farmer’s daughter, “more lovely and more fair,” perhaps? The 26 years old, Ann Hathaway. By November they were married. Six months later, their daughter, Susanna was born.
One would like to think that they were able to wet the baby’s head by using some of the 40 Lancastrian shillings lovingly left to young William Shakeshafte by Alexander Hoghton, one of his many friends in the North.
The Cornish sun shone out of a Wedgwood blue sky smudged with clouds and through the open windows of the car, came the intoxicating coconut scent of yellow gorse. Gulls floated over a sea flecked with whitecaps. Diamonds of light, reflected from rock pools down on the beach, sparkled up at us.
A friend’s generosity had brought my wife and I to Cornwall, at the end of a journey through Asia, Australia, New Zealand and America, with a last stop in a snowbound New York.
By the time we’d arrived back in Manchester – luggage in London – we discovered that “we” were pregnant. It’s not often one can implicate a New York blizzard in these matters but Mother Nature works in mysterious ways.
I say, “we” because the nurse at the clinic, the kind of woman one didn’t argue with, looked me straight between the eyes and said, “Congratulations, you’re pregnant.”
Filled with delight, we walked down Manchester’s, Oxford Street in the rain, as its rooftops shone, glistened and were transmuted into gold by the winter sunset.
Manchester had never looked more beautiful.
The next day, with serendipitous timing, I was offered the part of, “Frank,” in the play, “Educating Rita.”
Michael Caine did it in the film.
I was also offered something in the next production, an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s, “Far from the Madding Crowd,” which turned out to be so dire that the cast, huddling together for comfort, nicknamed it, “Five Go Mad In Wessex.”
Peter Finch played my part in the film.
It would be nice to think that I’d have got the parts in both films if the producers had known that I was available. Of course, pigs can be seen flying.
Also in the cast of the Thomas Hardy was an actor who became an instant friend and it was he that brought us to live in Cornwall.
He lived with his wife and children, along with a red setter called Polly and a couple of cats in a renovated, old watermill in North Cornwall, not far from Padstow
When the curtain fell on the Wessex saga, my new actor friend was to work for a couple of months on a television series about the Apostles to be filmed in Morocco, taking his family with him and he wondered whether we would we consider looking after the Mill in their absence. No rent, just keep the Aga going, feed the cats, run the dog and cut the grass from time to time, a thoughtful and generous offer, impossible to refuse.
With our pregnancy proceeding apace, I think he had visions of us being homeless at Christmas and having to lodge in a stable.
What he didn’t mention about the Mill was that the grass was not only greener, (as other men’s grass invariably is) but also overgrown, knee-high and covered an area the size of a football pitch before finally running down a slope into a stream.
There was, he told me, a large scythe for the tricky bits.
Still, half a day’s work once a week, looking like the grim reaper, was a small price to pay for free board and lodging and the prospects of a summer, maybe even longer, in Cornwall.
The Thomas Hardy play came to an end and somehow we’d all managed to keep our sanity. Our benefactor returned to Cornwall to get ready to leave for Morocco while we bought a pale blue, second-hand VW Beetle and set off to join him and his family a week later, so we could overlap and learn the ropes.
Important things like where to buy the best Cornish Pasties.
Our host’s main concern was not pasties or indeed the animals but not letting the Aga go out. One got the impression that it’d been lit for so many years; no one knew how to light it again if it did.
One morning, after they had left, only a whole packet of firelighters saved us from the ignominy of telling him and his family that we’d failed them.
We found the mill down a narrow lane, passing a little church, visited by John Betjeman on his bicycle and described in his long, beautifully written, autobiographical poem, “Summoned by Bells,” in which he paints an idyllic picture of a childhood spent regularly at Rock, a short ferry ride across the estuary from nearby Padstow, where he’d arrive by steam train from London, Paddington.
Betjeman, the Poet Laureate, visited the area all his life. His resting place is amongst the sand dunes at the pretty church of St Enedoc near Rock.
I spoke to one of the ferrymen that took him across the estuary and he told me that Betjeman once pointed to a cloud and said that it looked like a horses head.
“And do you know, “ he said, “It did, that’s ‘cause he were a poet, you see.”
The road to the mill led down to a stream, now dried up, that had been diverted along a leat at the back of the house,.
The house was long and squat with old grey roof tiles that had been repaired by skimming them over with a coating of cement, known in Cornwall as a, “Proper job.” It had been three separate cottages, one up, one down, housing large families behind small deeply recessed windows.
I met one of the original occupants, called George, a sprightly man of 92 who’d lived there in the 1920’s and who used to walk about the village with Dennis, his young pal of 84.
I asked him why the windows were so small in such a beautiful spot.
When the two of them had stopped laughing, coughing and wiping their eyes, he said, “Well, sir, when you’m been oot working’ in the fields from morn ‘til night, the last thing you want is a view.”
At which point, they both exploded into laughter again.
I got the impression that I’d made their day.
It was a beautiful spot and at dusk in midsummer, you could lie awake and see from out of one of those small windows, a perpetual light flickering in the stained glass windows of the church up the hill.
We’d fall asleep to the sound of moths fluttering against the windows and owls hooting in the darkness.
If you ever decide to uproot and live, “Down South,” maybe in Cornwall, you’ll probably drive down on the A30 following your removal van. There is another route via Plymouth but by a strange quirk of nature it invariably rains as you cross over the Tamar Bridge, so I’d stick to the A30, that way you might stand a chance of arriving in sunshine. Not a guarantee you understand, there’s a lot of Atlantic out west and the weather is as changeable as it is in the Pennines.
You’ll cross the border into Cornwall on a bridge over the River Tamar near Launceston, pronounced locally as “Lahnson.”
You will know you’re there, even if the voice on your SatNav doesn’t tell you because there’s a sign, which reads, “Cornwall.”
Sometimes, the sign isn’t there. It’s regularly removed by Pixies, pesky little devils who like getting tourists lost for a bit of fun.
It’s called, “Being pixilated.”
As you cross the Tamar into Cornwall (“Kernow” in Cornish) you enter another country, literally and another way of life, at first only glimpsed out of the corner of your eye, something older, more mysterious and perhaps not what you expected.
You’ll not find it in Newquay with its bars and surfing but it’s there, below the surface, in the woods and the fields, in the villages and the hamlets and the moors. It’s there too on dark nights when the sea rolls in from across the Atlantic and battles with the land.
Most likely, you won’t see it when you first arrive, your spirit will still be on the motorway, preoccupied with your northern past and worried about your future but if you let it, it will begin to work its magic on you.
Being English and perhaps, possessed of just a touch of genteel conceit, (sometimes we’re not as nice as we think) you might arrive wanting to conquer Cornwall, take possession of it for yourself, use it, as it were.
Don’t worry, we English have always done this, our colonialist nature has become part of what we are. It doesn’t, necessarily, make us bad people.
Once you’ve crossed the border at Launceston (“Lahnson”) you can stop and see the castle the English invaders built as they put their boots on Cornish soil and prepared to rule it.
When they got braver and felt easier crossing Bodmin Moor, they established an administration in Bodmin with magistrate’s courts, military barracks and a jail. Gradually over the years, they moved on until now Truro has become the administrative centre of a Nation that is now called a county.
At this moment, you are an,” Emmet,” or an, “In-comer,” although you wouldn’t be expected to know this, nor is it necessarily expressed unkindly by the indigenous locals.
If you have the good sense to keep a low profile, (the best way is to consider yourself a guest in someone’s house), you will eventually be accepted into the community, by which time, although you will still be an “Incomer”, you will not be an “Emmet” any more.
You will, however, never be Cornish.
A friend of mine, a Bodmin boy, with an accent thicker than clotted cream, told me a salutary tale. His is family name is of French origin.
“Thing is, Richard,” he said, “ We’m coom ‘ere to live in Corn’all in 1066 and ‘tis not long enough for some Cornish folk.”
Our own two children, the one conceived in that New York blizzard and eventually born in Truro and the other who arrived in St Austell (“Snozzle,”) can both rightly claim to be Cornish by birth but the native Cornish, proud Celts, will smile and say, “Not quite, my ‘ansome.”
Well, they won’t, they’re too polite but they might well think it.
You see, the “Conquered Celts,” the Cornish, the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish are innately suspicious of our English intentions and can you blame them?
If you want to be accepted in Cornwall by the Cornish, you’ll have to learn to be patient.
That sometimes doesn’t come easily to us Northerners. We Lancashire and Yorkshire folk are of a blunt disposition. Culturally, we are, at least on the surface, a confident, out-spoken, pugnacious lot, brought up in communities where taking a firm stand and speaking our minds is a way of life.
We might not always want to put the world to right and wag our fingers at it when it won’t conform but we do tend to wear our thoughts on our sleeves, don’t you think?
As a young actor, fresh from the north, I saw nothing wrong in being outspoken, if I thought a scene wasn’t working in rehearsal.
It took a kind director to take me on one side and tell me that although I had a good instinct about these things and might well be “right,” there were subtler ways of going about it.
The Cornish, on the other hand, prefer to be approached gently by new arrivals, like one might approach a horse, one slow step at a time. Think of yourself as a Cornish horse whisperer and you’ll be on the right track.
You won’t have these problems with your fellow immigrants, of course and should you feel lonely, you’ll be able to find many a northern incomer like yourself. You’ll be able to swap stories with lots of “Brummies” and listen to the sometimes over loud accent of south east England, “Estuarine English.”
But you’d be unwise to linger long amongst them, good people though they may be, less you start to moan.
The Australians have long had a phrase for that. “Whinging Poms,” immigrants that grumble about their adopted home the minute they step foot on its soil.
You wouldn’t want to be one of those malcontents, who go on about how they do things up north, would you?
So if you decide to live in Cornwall, go with an open heart and a mind ready to learn. Cornwall is not just another place, it’s an attitude and it may well take you a while to sense and adjust to it.
Maybe you won’t, maybe you’ll feel that your move was a mistake and that you’re a northern plant, raised on limestone, whose roots are uncomfortable in Cornish granite and decide to move back north.
Why not? The pull of one’s roots is a strong and the hills and dales of Lancashire and Yorkshire are full of great natural beauty.
But one May day, when the wind is blowing over the Pennines from the southwest, bringing a hint of Spring and you spot a gull against a Wedgewood blue sky and see sunlight sparkling on a northern tarn, you may find that a sweet wave of nostalgia will wash over your soul like the foaming tongues of an incoming tide and you’ll realise that Cornwall is calling you back again.
Crossing the Pennines from Yorkshire into Lancashire in winter can be challenging at any time. But early in 1941, the weather was particularly bad and the Invicta car and its two passengers were finding it hard going.
The austerities of wartime Britain had begun to bite and the man and woman in the car were growing concerned that they might not have enough rationed petrol to make it to a Lancashire mill town that neither of them had visited before and they were anxious to arrive before nightfall, not wanting to be caught in the blackout.
When the hills got too much for the Invicta – its radiator had a tendency to overheat – they stopped to stretch their legs and consult a map.
The suntans they’d acquired over the previous year had gradually faded as their travels took them away from sunny California and across to New York before the final leg home to a country at war.
They were possessed of an understated sense of style; not only in the well-cut clothes they wore but also in the way they carried themselves.
He was an athletic looking 34, with chiselled, matinee idol looks. At 28, she was small, beautiful and feline in a fur coat.
Anyone close enough could see the affection in which they held each other and the gallant way he shielded her from the raw winter wind.
He was the actor, Laurence Olivier and she was his wife, actress Vivien Leigh.
Her portrayal of Scarlett O’Hara in the movie, “Gone with the Wind,” had recently transformed her into one of the world’s most famous actresses.
In the winter of 1941, they took time off from a morale boosting concert tour to various airbases, playing scenes from Shakespeare and decided to head over the Pennines to see an old friend from London, now working in Burnley.
The Lancashire town’s main claim to fame lay not in its theatrical connections, but in its cotton mills and the relative prosperity that they brought to its population.
Burnley and its rows of terraced houses then squatted, for most of the year, under a pall of smoke from its scores of mill chimneys and as often as they could afford to its workers would seek light relief from the stygian gloom in one of its theatres, cinemas or variety halls.
In 1886, local upholsters, the Pemberton Bros, sensing an opportunity, spent £10,000 on constructing a new theatre in St James Street called, “The Victoria Opera House,” later, “ The Victoria Theatre,” abbreviated locally to, “The Vic.”
It was a grand place.
The Stage Newspaper reported that, “Its fine architecture and interior would hold its own with many in the provinces.”
Built in the, “Italian Style,” with a Doric and Corinthian exterior, its three-tiered cream, red and gold interior held up to 2000 people.
Those well off enough to pay, “full whack,” walked on Minton tiles in a pillared and statued foyer, seeing their gas lit reflections multiplied and sparkling to infinity, in mirrors that lined either wall.
Entrance to the “God’s,” the cheapest seats, was by a side door, up flights of stone steps with not a mirror in sight.
The theatre had provided entertainment of mixed quality for over 50 years when, in 1940, an announcement was made in the Press that not only shocked Burnley’s theatregoing public but also had people in London asking, in horror, “Burnley! Where’s Burnley?”
Because of the threat of air raids in London, it was decided to move the Old Vic Theatre Company and the Sadler’s Wells Opera and Ballet Companies to a new home in Burnley’s, Victoria Theatre, under the directorship of Tyrone Guthrie.
Using the town as their base, they were expected to tour, by the Council for the Encouragement Of Music and Arts (CEMA) whose policy was to open up high quality entertainment to “the masses.”
As the Olivier’s car, steam hissing from its radiator, crested the Pennines and headed down towards Burnley’s, “dark, satanic mills,” the Old Vic Company had already begun their first season at the Vic.
There had been drama in the town before, some of it at Turf Moor, Burnley’s football ground. It also had its chapels and societies and its cinemas, as well as Variety and Light Opera but nothing of the quality that appeared in 1941.
The arrival of the London Old Vic and Sadler’s Wells companies and the glory of their subsequent performances was described as, “A bolt out of the blue.”
One man remembered that, “It hit our town like a rainbow, it was wonderful, absolutely wonderful.”
Others said, “We’d never seen anything like it, it was so professional.”
People remembered queuing to get in during the wartime blackout – sometimes after school – and leaving on cold, wet nights, buzzing with excitement, full of what they’d seen.
Many of them had never experienced first-class drama and claimed that it was, “A different world, with marvellous productions.”
Others described the opera and ballet provided by the Sadler’s Wells Company as, “Brilliant and amazing.”
People went after work, taking homemade sandwiches with them and paying sixpence to get into the, “God’s,”
Once they’d made it to the top of the stone steps, waiting for the curtain to go up, they felt dizzy, as though they were sitting on a cliff
They experienced a spectacle of colour and sound most of them had never dreamed of seeing, with performers of the highest quality.
In February 1941, Guthrie directed, “Macbeth,” with Lewis Casson and Sybil Thorndike. The cast included, Kenneth Griffith, Mark Dignam, Donald Wolfit, Athene Syler, Frederik Valk and Robert Helpmann.
“Macbeth’s,” eight-page program announced that the next production would be Gerald du Maurier’s, “Trilby,” starring Sonya Dresdel.
The artists were at the top of their careers or fast approaching it.
People’s hair, “Stood on end,” as they watched “Twelfth Night,” “Madame Butterfly,” “Giselle,” “Swan Lake,” “La Traviata,” “The Marriage of Figaro,” or “The Merchant of Venice.”
The Observer newspapers then famous theatre critic, Ivor Browne described Burnley’s audience as, “like Shakespeare’s.”
Reflecting on the experience, the Cassons said, “We have never played to such an audience. None of them moved a muscle while we acted but at the end they would go wild and lift the roof with their clapping.”
During the daytime, Lancashire ears, accustomed to their own sounds, began to hear new ones, as the clipped vowels of Received Pronunciation (or at least, the 1940s version of it) began to be heard in the shops and hotels of the town.
(If you listen to Trevor Howard and Celia Johnston in the film, “Brief Encounter,” you’ll get the idea.)
The company were lodged in the town and their appearances in Burnley’s streets often caused comment.
There were tales of, “ Tyrone Guthrie and some actors living in a very large, rented, terraced house” and a maid whispered that, “ Sybil Thorndike and her husband, Lewis Casson, were staying at the doctor’s house.”
People felt that some of the company were as dramatic off stage as on it, even noticing a “Different way of walking, when the ballerinas did their shopping in the Market Hall.”
The sight of capes being worn seemed, “Different, exotic.”
With his military bearing, the tall, elegant Guthrie, took to using the Commercial Hotel in St James’ Street as his local and was seen at the bar in black clothes, a black raincoat and a black broad brimmed hat, “Like a Sandeman Sherry advert.”
Sybil Thorndike wore plaid, with a short skirt and thick black woollen stockings and she was seen being followed by Lewis Casson in a new pair of shoes he’d bought in Dunkerly’s shoe shop.
Later made, “Dame Sybil”, there were those who said, not unkindly, that in her manner, she always was.
Reflecting on a long partnership, and asked whether she ever thought of leaving husband, Lewis, she said, “Leaving, of course not. Killing, yes.”
Not that any of this theatricality would have fazed the Olivier’s as the Invicta finally rattled through the failing light along the cobbles towards a meeting at the Victoria Theatre with their old friend from London, Tyrone Guthrie.
They had worked with him in the late 1930’s at the Old Vic in London and although their cinema careers had taken off in no uncertain way, they both felt rooted in the theatre world. Olivier had established a reputation at the Old Vic before the war as one of the finest classical actors in Britain, and Vivien Leigh wanted to be thought of as, “ A proper actress,” and not as a pretty film star.
Another reason for their return to a Britain was that Olivier wanted to, “Do his bit,” and enlist in the armed services.
He had already seen his good friend, actor Ralph Richardson in his Fleet Air Arm uniform and another actor, John Mills had joined the Royal Engineers. Olivier felt that everyone had a uniformed role but him. Having failed to enter active service because of a perforated eardrum, he was now trying to get a non-operational posting as a flying instructor with the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve.
With that in mind and aware that in his absences, the highly strung Vivien needed to be occupied, preferably with work, they had decided to see what Guthrie might be able to offer in Burnley with the Old Vic Company.
Vivien had worked with Guthrie in the theatre twice before in 1937, playing, “Ophelia,” with Olivier as, “Hamlet,” on tour at Kronborg Castle in Denmark and then as, “Titania,” in, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream, at the London Old Vic.
She was guarded about the meeting, sensing that Guthrie, who she described as, “prickly,” was not really one of her professional admirers.
However amicable the meeting, she was in the end proved right and as a result of Guthrie declining to find room for her in his company, Burnley missed seeing one of the world’s most famous movie stars appearing regularly at the Vic.
Perhaps Guthrie thought that the beautiful, slightly built, 5’3” actress was not suitable for a variety of stage roles. Her off-screen voice was described as, “Small and rather high-pitched,” and filling a 2000 seat theatre, without the benefit of microphones, took some doing.
Perhaps he sensed a potential for trouble from a temperamental and occasionally fractious Leigh when she was separated from Olivier for long stretches and alone in Burnley.
She was always psychologically and physically frail; some years later, she would be diagnosed as suffering from manic-depression.
Diplomat that he was, he later wrote and told her that, much as he would love to have her in the company, he felt that because of her fame she had outgrown the, “Hobson’s Choice,” of rotating roles in a repertory company.
After all, he reasoned, “Gone with the Wind,” had premiered in Britain in January 1940 and the public would resent seeing a star in small, supporting roles.
The next morning the Olivier’s said their goodbyes and left Burnley, never to return.
Shortly afterwards, in April 1941, Olivier took up his commission in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve and was posted to Lee-on-Solent, near Portsmouth.
Vivian refused to be left behind and moved with him, sitting, cat on lap, in her small open car (which had mechanical problems), being towed by Olivier in the Invicta, steam still hissing from its radiator.
A few weeks later, bored with being stuck in the house, she suggested to Olivier that she might get a tricycle. A lack of balance militated against a two-wheeler.
Olivier was against it.
“It would look rather odd,” he said.
Not half as odd as if Vivien Leigh had got a job at Burnley’s Victoria Theatre and treated its good citizens to the daily spectacle of Scarlet O’Hara bouncing along its cobbled streets on a tricycle.
“Where yew from, Guv ?”
The cabbie glanced at me through his mirror.
“ I betchyer from up Norf, aintcha ? Yer not from Burnley by any chance ?”
Hearing a Cockney trying to roll the “R” in Burnley is a depressing experience.
“I am actually, why ?”
” You gotta death wish son !?
Sorry, Guv, bloody cyclists. You know what, that Lycra pisses me off, I mean , what’s all that about ? Tosser.
I thought I recognised your accent. I thought, that’s Burnley, that is. I betchyer a Burnley fan, aintcha ? Still, I suppose someone’s gotta be, yer know what I mean ?”
“Yeh, yeh. The old ones are the best ones.”
“I’ve got a story about Burnley. Funny, hearing your voice, took me back.
‘Aven’t thought of it for years.
D’you remember the Tottenham Burnley Cup Final ?”
“That’s right. You’ve got a good memory, you have. Spurs won 3-1. Blanchflower, Smithy and Greavesy scored for us and, who was it?…Robson, that’s it, got yours. You ‘ad a good side in them days. Me dad could name ‘em all. Blacklaw, Pointer, Jimmy McIlroy, he could reel ‘em off. Mind you, I wasn’t a football fan back then but me dad, god rest his soul, worked at Wembley, on catering.
Come ‘ome one night said, “I’ve got some good news fer you.”
I said, “What’s that, then ?”
He said, “ I gotcha a couple of tickets fer the Cup Final on Saturday. Thought yer’d like ‘em.”
Me mum said,” You know ‘e don’t like football, dad.”
He said,” ‘Course I know, I’m ‘is bleedin father, ain’t I ? Watchyer take me for ?”
Fing is, they’re prime seats, near the Royal Box. He could sell ‘em.”
I said, “Sell ‘em?”
He said, “ Look, I’ll be on duty. Come wi’ me. Whatcha do is, yer wait outside. There’ll be plenty o’ people wanting tickets. Yer listen out fer the touts, the real wide boys and find out what they’re selling theirs for. You keep schtum or they’ll wanna buy yours or tell yer to piss off. Anyway, ‘ang on to yer tickets as long as yer can, the prices’ll rise as it reaches kick-off and bob’s yer uncle,, yer’ll make a killing. Take yer ter Butlins wi’ yer mates that money will.”
So, I turn up on the day…
“No, go on love, take all the time in the world. Bloody zebra crossings… “
I turn up on the day an’ the old man was right, wasn’t he ? Blimey, you should ‘ave ‘eard the prices the touts were getting. So, I ‘ang on, I ‘ang on. Bleedin’ tickets are burnin’ an ‘ole in me pocket when I ‘ears this voice, just like yours.
“Gor any tickets, lad ?”
I turn round and there’s this Burnley fan wiv a Claret and Blue rosette on, an’ next to ‘im, is a little lad in short trousers, cryin’ ‘is eyes out.
I thought, right, this is it. Butlins ‘ere I come.
I said, “Yeh, I gotta pair but they’ll cost yer.”
He said,” Look, I’ll pay you whatever you want. Lad’s broken hearted. I lost me wallet with the tickets an’ everything. I’ve only got me chequebook.
I said, “Nah, I want cash, dad.”
Well, this set the little lad off again an’ people were startin’ ter look at us, like, an’ I saw this bobby glance across.
Geezer said, “ It’ll break ‘is ‘eart if we can’t get in. Me cheque won’t bounce, I promise. I’ll put my name and address on the back.”
No cards then, o’ course.
Well, I took one look at the kid and said, “Go on, then.” You ‘ad to, andn’t yer. Crying like Niagara Falls.
His dad said, “How much ?”
An’ do yer know what I said, silly bugger ?
I said,” Just give us the price o’ the tickets, dad. An’ ‘urry up, or yer’ll miss the bleedin’ kick off. I did. Soft bugger. Mind you, I were only young.
Even as I gave ‘im the tickets, I thought, “That’s Butlins out of the window, that is,” me dad’d kill me when I tell ‘im. Not that he ever laid hand on me but you know what I mean ?
Me mum were made up, she never wanted me to go, anyway.
The bloke said, “Look if you’re ever in Burnley, and you want to see a match, it’s on me. My address is on the back of the cheque.”
The nipper said, “ Thank you, mister,” an’ then, yer know what? “‘E gave me ‘is scarf. Claret ‘n’ Blue. He did. I didn’t even like football, yer know what I mean ?
Funny thing is, a few years later I did become a Spurs fan, an’ I remembered the geezers name an’ address, an’ just fer a laugh, I dropped ‘im a postcard, ‘cause me and me dad decided to go up an’ see Spurs play at Turf Moor.
Bloody ‘ell, we wuz behind the goals an’ the rain was grey, you could see ‘em coming atcha outa the mist.
Anyway, to cut a long story short…
“ Do get a move on, darlin’. Learner drivers, eh? They get on my wick…
anyway, we were met at the railway station wiv a bloke ‘oldin’ a card wiv our name on it and we wuz chauffered to the ground.
You’ll never believe it, bloke I ‘d sold the tickets to was now on the Board at Burnley. Treated us like royalty he did, couldn’t do enough for us Director’s box an’ all that.. The little lad ‘ad grown up. Long trousers, school blazer wiv a badge on it, three chess pieces, I remember that.
Said ‘e wanted ‘is scarf back. Yer’ve gotta laugh, aintcha ?
We were introduced to the Chairman. ‘E were a butcher, weren’t ‘ ? Wassis name? Lord. That’s it Mr Bob Lord. I remember that ‘cause I read somewhere that the Duke of Edinburgh ‘ad met ‘im an’ asked ‘im who he was an’ he’d said, “I’m Lord of Burnley.”
Close set eyes , ‘e ‘ad. Looked right though yer.
‘E said ter me, “ I’ve ‘eard a lot about you, young man.”
I thought I were in trouble. But he couldn’t ‘av been nicer, a gent.
We ‘ad a great day, we did. I fink we won, as well.
‘Aven’t thought abaht it fer years, ‘till I ‘eard your voice.
Burnley. Bleedin’ Dingles.
“ Oh, do move off yer silly old fart then I can pull over.”
“What’s the damage?” I said.
“Tell you what, guv., ‘av this one on me.
‘orrible place but lovely people, lovely people.”
He was obese.
As I approached the cafe table near to him, I could see his buttocks hanging over the edges of his chair.He wore a black T-shirt which hung about him in damp folds and which could substitute for the mainsail on a pirate ship. Added to this was a grey tracksuit bottom that gave his legs the appearance of an African elephant. His ankles were swollen and made his feet, encased in running shoes, look tiny in comparison.
He appeared to have no neck, his square, crewcut head just sat on top of a slab of red fat. His face was pink, sweaty and for the most part unshaven. His bloodshot eyes were small and piggy .
He nodded a welcome and opened his mouth to grin at me, revealing an assortment of decaying teeth.
His right hand was holding a container of orange juice. His hand looked small and delicate and didn’t seem to belong to the forearm above it, from which his flesh hung.
I smiled and nodded back at him.
In front of him on the table, were two paperback books and an open carrier bag on its side full of bits and bobs.
“How are you feeling? he said.
“Fine and you?”
“Knackered. I can’t get going this morning. Didn’t sleep well last night.”
He’d come into the bookshop’s cafe to recover, he told me and to buy some art books. He tapped the two on the table.
“Gonna get these, I think. ‘Bout drawing”
“You like drawing?” I said.
He tried to take a final draft of orange juice, breathing heavily at the same time and unable to finish the action because the folds of fat on what was once the back of his neck wouldn’t let him bent his head back far enough.
“Drawing? Yeh, done it all my life. I’m not very good at it. Not figure drawing, that is. There’s a three-day course at the college. I think I’m gonna do that if they let me. I’ve taught people drawing. Do you draw?”
I shook my head, “No, photography a bit.”
He reached up and pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger drawing them down the flesh, wiping beads of sweat away and then, reaching down, he located his tracksuited thigh and rubbed his fingers dry.
“I taught a girl to draw a bird once. In two hours. She’d never drawn in her life.”
He lifted up one his books, “How to draw faces,” and demonstrated to me how he’d shown her, moving a forefinger around the shiny cover.
“You draw a circle for the head, see? And then an oblong for the body. A little triangle for the beak and then you can start to fill it in. She was amazed. Drew a bird. Beautiful, it was.”
She said, “I never thought I was any good at drawing.”
I said, “You just have to keep at it.”
“I believe that, do you?” he said.
“Sure,” I replied.
“Nice talking to you,” he said, offering his hand, with a fat man’s economy of action.
“My name is George,” he said. “Yeh,never drawn before and she drew a bird in two hours. Incredible.”
The horror started up again as the snowdrops were pushing their way out of the hard earth and endless gray days started to be punctuated by cold, blue ones. As Valentine’s Day cards were being binned and card shops switched their attention to Mother’s Day.
In his cramped, untidy office, Inspector Jack Kernow was finishing off his packed lunch an hour earlier than he’d planned. He was on a diet. This time with some degree of success. It was seven weeks since New Year and he was delighted to have lost 10 pounds. Not that anyone else seemed to have noticed. Normally, he’d have waited stoically until one o’clock before opening the small Tupperware lunch box, were it’s not for the fact that he just taken a phone call from his ex-wife, the formidable Gillian, now living with an plastic surgeon in Lancashire, to tell him that she’d miscarried again and it was his fault. His abject failure to see the logic of this was, apparently, one of the reasons why she’d left him. Not the only one as she still regularly reminded him.
Kernow held the phone to his ear furrowed his brow, sighed and closed his eyes in weary resignation.
He nervously cleared his throat remembering, too late, that it was one of the many things that irritated her.
“Look, I don’t see what it’s got to do with me, that’s all I’m saying.”
He heard her give an exasperated sigh and then there was a crackle in his ear piece as she put her hand over her phone. Not firmly enough as he heard the muffled sound of, “”Bye, darling. See you tonight. Love you.”
She spoke again, ”You still there?”
Kernow licked his lips which had gone dry.
“Yes. Look, I don’t see what it’s got to do with me, that’s all I’m saying..
” Hah ! Well, you wouldn’t, would you?”
“You never wanted us to have kids and now…”
“And now, I’m too old, that’s what and it’s all your bloody fault, you wanker. It’s always about you, isn’t it? Always you. Well, you can just fuck off, you selfish bastard.”
The phone went dead.
He sat there for a few minutes, staring vacantly out into the street below. Shoppers well wrapped up against the cold, going about their business. A lot of kids, he noticed. At this time of morning? Ah, no, half term, wasn’t it?
His own kids, from a previous marriage had grown up and left home. The boy was a chemist in Birmingham, his daughter still at University.
It had begun to cloud over and a shower of hailstone clattered against the windowpanes.
The door to his office opened, after a short knock.
“Would you like a brew, sir?”
Detective Sgt. Penny Fischer, on secondment from Lincolnshire Constabulary and eager, on only her second day, to keep on the guvnor’s good side.
Ambitious, he thought but not offensively so. Young. A whole career ahead of her. Bit of flesh on her too. Most of the ones that turned up these days looked as though they’d stepped out of a TV series.
In the street below, he watched a builders van reverse into a motorbike, knocking it over like a scene in a silent movie.
He turned towards the door, “Sorry?”
She smiled, “Tea, coffee?”
“No chance of a Scotch, I suppose?”
“Funny you should say that, sir. We are right out.”
“Ah, well. In that case, it’ll have to be coffee. Black. That means no milk.”
Fischer gave him a steady look and waited.
“It’s because every time I go in a bloody coffee shop these days, you need a degree in Italian to read the bloody menu and when I ask for a small black Americano, as they’ve taught me to say, whatever spotty student they have on duty says, ever so brightly, “With milk?”
Fischer nodded and shut the door quickly.
Kernow slumped back in his chair, reach below his desk and found the old plastic supermarket shopping bag in which he always brought his lunch. Lying open on his desk, was a copy of the Times newspaper, open at an article on the football pages that he’d been reading before the ex. called. The writer of the article was arguing that football strikers score fewer goals in the winter months than they do at the beginning and the end of the season.
Bit like crime he thought, apart from Christmas when, unlike football, the strike rate went up, a regular feature of the season of goodwill when families sometimes couldn’t stand the sight of each other. All the domestic stuff generally blew over as the New Year dawned. Sometimes it was ugly, generally not. Not like the other thing. Not like last summer. What did the press called him “Jock the Ripper.” ?
“Jock the bloody ripper!!!” Very original. Lazy bastards.
And why? Because one of the local barflies was convinced she’d heard a stranger with a Scottish accent in the bar a few hours before it happened. With the place swarming with holidaymakers, it could’ve been anyone. Besides, the barfly was generally too pissed by lunchtime to be able to remember anything.
His phone rang again.
“That’ll be the lovely Gillian,” he thought, “my number one admirer.”
There was a quick knock on the door and Fisher came in with a mug of coffee. Kernow put his hand over the phone’s mouthpiece, aware of the male voice saying something in his ear. He nodded his head in the direction of his desk for Fischer to put the mug down.
“Sorry,” she whispered, gesturing towards the phone.
He nodded his head as she backed away from the desk, glanced down at the coffee and saw that it was white.
“Sorry. Someone just came in the room. Who is this?”
A strong Cornish accent, “It’s me, Detective Sgt. Renals, sir. Bad news, I’m afraid.”
Kernow could hear the sound of machinery screeching in the background.
He could feel a tightening in his stomach. “Go on.”
“In the woods, sir. Idless, Forestry Commission land. Dog walker found it. Him, I mean.”
“Forensics has just arrived, sir. The dog found what was left of him…”
“I’m on my way.”
He reached for the coffee, decided not to and grabbed his coat from the back of his chair.
The door opened quickly.
“Black coffee doesn’t usually come with milk, Fischer. You work in a coffee shop, or what? Did you have a good breakfast?
“Sorry sir. Yes, sir, why, sir?”
“Get your coat and come with me, you might wish you hadn’t.”