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Archive for July, 2019

Letter from Lancaster 15

Sambo’s Grave at Sunderland Point.

Close to Horizon Line Chamber (see Letter 11) is a grave in a rabbit warren in unconsecrated ground, under a stone slab with a bronze plate engraved:

Version 2

Here lies
POOR SAMBOO
A faithful Negro
who
(Attending his Master from the West Indies)
died on his arrival at Sunderland

Full sixty years the angry Winter’s Wave
Has thundering dash’d this bleak and barren Shore
Since SAMBO’s Head, laid in this lonely GRAVE,
Lies still and ne’er will hear the turmoil more.

Full many a Sand bird chirps upon the Sod
And many a Moonlight Elfin round him trips
Full many a teeming Cloud upon him drips
But still he sleeps – till the awakening Sounds
Of the Archangel’s Trump new Life impart
Then the GREAT JUDGE his approbation sounds
Not on a Man’s COLOR but his – WORTH OF HEART.
James Watson 1796

In those sixty years Lancaster changed: from a quiet country town, enlivened a little twice a year by the County Assizes and the public hangings that followed, dependant on a thrice-weekly market to sustain it as a local centre; into a thriving seaport of international trade, with all the ancillary businesses, including ship building, a thriving furniture-making industry, and its own banks. A quiet medieval town of wood and thatch became a busy Georgian town of stone and slate, with a developing retail trade, wealthy merchants, and a busy social season of horse-racing, music-making and theatrical entertainments. Everything fine in the townscape of Lancaster was built in that period: Skerton Bridge, the Aqueduct, Customs House, St George’s Quay, Music Room, Assembly Room, Town Hall, the new developments of Queens Square, Dalton Square, Castle Park, etc, etc. And all of it based on, derived from, paid for by, slavery.

Twenty per cent of Lancaster sailings were slaving voyages: in Lancaster ships, 35,000 captives left West Africa; 29,000 slaves arrived in the West Indies. Fifty per cent of its trade was with the West Indies, with additional trade to the slave states of North America – the first bale of American cotton to arrive in England is said to have been landed at Sunderland Point. There was also Baltic trade, and coastal trade including with Ireland, but the West Indies trade dominated, and was the most profitable. Lancaster merchants owned plantations – including the brother of James Watson, the poet of Sambo’s epitaph. Gillows imported Honduras mahogany, and transformed it into fine furniture, to ship back to the plantation owners and the Lancaster elite. As Dickens puts it, “Lancaster is a pleasant place, dropped in the middle of a charming landscape, a place with a fine fragment of a castle, a place of lovely walks, a place possessing staid old houses richly fitted with old Honduras mahogany, which has grown so dark with time that it seems to have got something of a retrospective mirror quality into itself and to show the visitor, in the depth of its grain, through all its polish, the hue of the wretched slaves who groaned long ago under the old Lancaster merchants …”

Watson was writing in, 1796, in the indignation of the anti-slavery movement. But writing with patronising sentimentality, at a time when there were dozens of ‘Blacks’ and ‘Negroes’ in the town, working as servants. In theory they were free, but over 800 advertisements for absconded ‘Negroes’ have been found in British newspapers of the time. One offered 5 guineas for the return of his ‘BLACK SLAVE, called CAESAR’. Another notes that the runaway is wearing a brass collar inscribed, ‘Gustavus Brown … his Negro’. Others were advertised as branded with their master’s initials. A sentimental gloss on the Sunderland story has ‘Sambo’ (not a personal name but generic, as my generation would refer to a ‘Paddy’) had pined away while waiting for his master. Like Greyfriars Bobby.

And Dickens was writing in the satisfaction of post-Abolition times.

And then slavery was forgotten. In my thesis on Lancaster written in 1966 I wrote, “1700 – 1790. As with Bristol this was a period of great prosperity based on trade with the West Indies.” It was only in the 1980s that it began to be written about. It is now acknowledged. But, with so much I find fine in the town derived from it, I have, living here, to live with a cognitive dissonance.

Note: Dickens, in The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices. The other ‘idle apprentice’ was Wilkie Collins. Dickens liked the King’s Arms Hotel, where they stayed, and corresponded with the proprietor for many years.

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Letter from Lancaster 14

Walking Lunesdale and the Lune Gorge.

Version 2The nymph Arethusa, fleeing from Alpheus, leaped into a stream in Greece, and emerged in a spring in Sicily. And this, poetically, is a resurgence [see Letter 6] – a stream that disappears in one place and reappears in another. When Claire de Lune, as I’ve taken to calling her, leaped into St Helen’s spring, what whisper, deep down, did she hear of its origin, of where it came from …? Before she emerged, weed-covered, silent, and set off towards the sea …

From the spring the stream once flowed unimpeded through the village, until the A685 was relocated onto the trackbed of the South Durham and Lancashire Union Railway (1862–1962) and extended to by-pass between spring and village. So that now it is culverted four times before it escapes under an old stone bridge, weed streaming like Ophelia’s hair. Heading west, it picks its way across the wide lumpy valley, through the till of clay and stones left by the last glacier. In the six miles to Tebay [see Letter 3] it grows from a two-foot stream to a twenty-foot river, fed by a dozen tributaries from the Howgills to the south. It is wide and shallow, flowing between white shingle; but with banks bulwarked with Cyclopean stones. IMG_5417
This fifteen-foot high pedestrian bridge was submerged by storm Desmond, the old farmer tells me. One tooth, dog glued to his calf, he worked fifteen years on the railway to buy his farm, hated every minute, now he’s up at four, bed at ten, his own man, knows every inch, every animal, proud of the otters that are back, even of the ducks, allows no shooting on his land, hates the fishing for salmon, ‘jerking them about – they’re pregnant!’ For the first time, hasn’t seen a single dead salmon (they spawn and then die) this year.

In Tebay, a man carries an armful of mannequin body parts out of the church. ‘I’ll not ask.’ ‘Best not.’ ‘More inside?’ ‘Plenty’, as he stacks them in the van.

Meeting the hard rock of the Westmorland Supergroup (definitely the name of my next band) (Ordovician, 450 million years old) of the Lake District massif at Tebay, the river turns sharp south, along the fault line of the Lune Gorge.
Two bridges together: one of stone, abutments growing out of the rock, forces contained and transferred, curving up to meet like the tips of steeple fingers; one of concrete, verticals and horizontals, forces defied and neutralised by contraries.
River, Roman road, A685, West Coast railway, M6 crammed into the gorge, the congestion eased visually by the long relaxed flank of the Howgills to the east, relief to the mile-weary eyes of train and motorway passengers, eroded rock softened by velvet grass, shadows of passing clouds like a smoothing hand.

 After wide open, bare grass Lunesdale, the Gorge is a narrow linear woodland of variety and dappling shade, on either side and over a river carved into rock, ever changing along its length. Here a deep pool, transparent as amber – or beer – with a shadowy trout deep down. Here it ripples, rattles, dazzles over and between white stones, creating miniature rapids – I imagine miniature people in miniature boats running them. Here a long stretch of dark water, with long jagged submerged rocks like prehistoric crocodiles. Terns, heron, a mewing buzzard, wagtails. A sudden spark of emerald/sapphire flashes bullet-like upstream, a kingfisher. There are narrow stone bridges that cars creep across, wing mirrors pulled in. This one has two arches like stern eyebrows.IMG_5060

 

 

 

 

 

And then:IMG_5446

It is huge, and unexpected, the Waterside Viaduct, 570 feet long, 100 feet high, stepping across the valley, three arches on each side of the river built of alien red Penrith sandstone, linked by a metal central arch. Hard to believe that this was built to carry a minor line from Ingleton to Lowgill near Tebay. Such was the railway mania of the 1850s. I resolve to map all the lost lines, imagine them today as cycle paths.

Now the valley opens out into Lonsdale. Enough for today.

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Letter from Lancaster 13

Swans on the River

I don’t know where they came from. I saw the last one arrive, descending with an easy parachute grace, its great wings cupping the air as its splayed feet touched the water, entered, so it landed with barely a splash, folded its wings, settled with the others, afloat. There are twelve, dazzling as light, delineated as if cut from tin, their long necks flexible as snakes. Feeding, always feeding, their hose necks deep in the flow, bodies still as white stones, legs and feet working invisibly to keep them still, white islands pointing upstream that the river cuts around like bridge piers. Always feeding, as if they are storing up for some grand endeavour. And always the sense that, along with their vivid presence here, they have a bigger life, somewhere else.

I saw a swan take off from this river sixty, seventy years ago. I’m not sure I’ve seen one take off since, but so clear is the memory that it might have happened a moment ago.

It was the root, that taking off, the metaphor at the heart of a song of my youth, a song of liberation and loss: the ‘fair and perfect’ swan, ‘a living curve of whiteness, and so effortlessly free – but held down by the legs that you can’t see. So she hisses out in anger when she feels herself endangered, when you come too close for comfort and she feels herself less free.’ The swan about to fly, ‘as she leans into the water, her wings are beating faster, her feet are pounding madly and she’s straining to be free … and awkwardness the only thing you see – but the beauty of a creature that’s not swimming now nor flying yet, but reaching for the vision she can be.’ The swan in the sky, ‘the air all around her, the earth far beneath, her wings in perfect motion and her head stretched to the sun – and you’re thinking to yourself, what has she done …?’ And never knowing if she did, that girl, reach her vision.

And it was the root, the pivot point, that taking off, analogue for a story of the journey to the mid-point of life, where there is the possibility of passing from the given life to the discovered life, told as the tale of a swan that put all its energy, focus and actions into learning to fly, in a world in which swans did not fly. Pounding across the water, ‘his feet were suddenly released from the gluey grip of the water and the wind swept under his wings and he was in the air. A door opened and he passed from a small dark room into a golden world of limitless possibility – before hitting the water with such a crash that the old swan had to drag him out. “You started to dream, didn’t you?” he smiled. “Your attention must never waiver. Flying is not a pleasure to be enjoyed but a condition that can, at first, only be maintained by absolute concentration. It is freedom: not freedom from, but freedom to do. It happens when you become responsible for yourself.”’

Years without rivers, without swans. And then, old, on Delos, the island around which the Cyclades turn, I heard the myth of the birth there of Apollo, god of the bow and the lyre, who kills from afar and heals, who sends disease and leads the chorus of the muses, who is the god of a beauty ‘that is the beginning of a terror that we are just able to endure, and we adore because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.’ At the moment of his birth, the wandering island put down golden roots, the streams ran gold, and swans flew seven times round the island singing his praises. The same swans pulled his chariot through the sky to exile in Britain, where he was worshipped ‘in a circular temple’.

Metaphor, analogue, myth. Where they come from, where they go to, the bigger life of swans that I will remember when I watch them, their life, here. And hope that I will see one take off.

Note: the quotation, about beauty being the beginning of terror, is from Rilke’s First Duino Elegy.

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The Last Tripe Shop in Lancaster

thick seam, thin seam, honeycomb,
brown tripe, weasand, elder,
cowheel, dripping, neatsfoot oil,
trotters

are what we sold at 25, St Nicholas Street (see Letter 3). The stomachs, udder, oesophagus and feet of cows. Boiled and bleached to an uncanny whiteness, by “tripe dressers”, the seams billowed like formless albino creatures in the vats of water in the yard, slithered on the marble slab in the sun-filled window.
We never ate it – ‘poverty food’, ‘invalid food’, my mother, who managed the shop in return for the accommodation behind and above the shop, called it.
I came upon a small factory processing tripe on my cycle ride across France, just a few miles from where I’d lived forty years before. The daughter had returned to the family farm ‘to devote myself to tripe’. They sell it canned. I wondered if their trotters came from the abattoir I’d worked in. In England tripe means rubbish, in France it means trickery. I decided that Hermes, the god of  travellers and trickery, who was the tutelary god of my journey, must also be the god of tripe-dressers, thought of  25, St Nicholas Street, cycled on.
I’ve eaten it once, brown tripe, peppery and hot, in a thick roll soaked in spicy liquor, in Florence, sheltering from a summer lightning storm, between Dante’s house and Beatrice’s church, touched by the overflow of notes to her, contemplating leaving my own question for her, for him, that tumultuous week. Delicious.
There is an Academmia della Trippa, that reprinted the 1932 recipe book, “Ninety-Nine Homely and Delicious Ways of Serving Tripe and Cowheel”. But apart from a few market stalls in south Lancashire, and in Chinese dim sum, British cows’ stomachs now disappear into pet food.

Tripe was always eaten, recorded from Homer on, mentioned in Shakespeare, enjoyed by Pepys – ‘a most excellent dish’, referenced in Barnaby Rudge. In 1832 an inn in Liverpool advertised, “Beef steaks, Chops, Cutlets and Tripe, served up in the first style at moderate charges.”
But it was in the 19th century, in industrialising south Lancashire, especially in the cotton mill towns, that it became a popular food, and specialist tripe shops opened. It was cheap protein, a quarter the price of beef. And it was ready to eat. Cold – popular in summer, honeycomb, with salad; and as street food – tripe pieces on skewers on a night out. Contrite men who had spent too long, and too much money at lunchtime in the two pubs on our street would buy a quarter of pieces, my mother’s cool civility and the bitterness of the malt vinegar dissolving their alcohol-fuelled cloud of public bar well-being as they ate it out of paper on their mazy way home. And hot – as the protein in a quick meal, tripe and onions a favourite, when many women worked in the mills and had an hour to get home, make a family meal, and get back to work.
In 1906 there were 260 tripe shops in Manchester. In 1924, Burnley had 52. In 1917, The Tripe de Luxe Restaurant was opened in Wigan, complete with palm trees, ladies’ orchestra, and “lavatory accommodation provided on the most scientific lines.” A company in Yorkshire canned tripe and sold it in Harrods.
The Depression, and meat rationing from 1940 to 1954 (tripe was not rationed), kept the trade going. There was often a queue outside our shop waiting for it to open in the late 1940s. But rising affluence, changing tastes, and the falling price of chicken did for it. Our shop closed in 1960 when the site was bulldozed for a shopping arcade, never reopened, the last tripe shop in Lancaster. For a several years there would be a tray of tripe in the corner of butchers’ windows, but they went as the tripe eaters died.

One day I will seek out one of those market tripe stalls, buy a pound of thin seam, cook one of the ninety-nine homely and delicious recipes, and find out what my mother deprived us of – or saved us from.

With thanks to my main source, Tripe: a Most Excellent Dish, by Marjory Houlihan.

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