Thursday, 9 August 2007

My life has been a constant pursuit of the nineteenth century. I
think of myself as being attached to the twentieth century solely for
the purpose of rations and accommodation. Real life is billeted
elsewhere and, as like as not, reading a page of that promising young
writer, Charles Dickens. It was in his company that I found my way
into that best of all times. We met, Dickens and I, on a bookstall
in the Hen Market in Shudehill, Manchester, where it was the
nineteenth century right through to 1959 and the dreadful dawn of

Manchester,in those days ,contained as many Dickensian characters as Nicholas
Nickleby itself. The original Cheerybles were two Mancunian brothers
whose warehouse was only a hundred yards away from the Hen Market.
But Dickens would have been just as proud to have created the publican in the
Sugar Loaf who never gave florins in change; he hoarded them for their
silver content, on which he planned to retire to Bispham. Or the
editor of 'Two Worlds', the spiritualist trade magazine which
published my first column even before I became 'Chiel Amang Ye' in The
Hairdressers, Wigmakers and Parfumiers Gazette. The spiritualist editor was a closet Calvinist, a dour Ulsterman who invented illustrated conversation. The walls of his office were covered with framed photographs of the famous and his conversation was peppered
with their names. As he spoke one, so he would scurry across to stand
under the appropriate face on the wall, at which he pointed

In time, the nineteenth century and I abandoned Manchester to the
dissonant drum and the guitar. We bumped into each other again in
Stockport, which in those days was the Florence of Cheshire. Both were
built on precipitous hills and in Stockport, as in the Florence of
the renaissance bankers, the population lived by borrowing from each other.
I only worked briefly for a news agency there before I was dismissed after
catching a train for Wilmslow and being taken on to Crewe. The same thing happened to a porter in a Victorian comic song but my employer,
like that Queen, was not amused at the cost of repatriating me to my
home in Whalley Range by Express Bus.

Jobless, I retired to the Cheshire countryside to consider my position.
In the 1950's it was still a landscape Alken would have recognised,
inhabited by people who had dropped from the nib of Dickens' great
predecessor, Surtees. They were to be found in a hundred Cheshire
inns, which were mostly run by retired officers of unparallelled rudeness,
awesome pretension and intelligence so limited that to empty ashtrays and
simultaneously speak was a feat beyond their powers. It was also the
Mecca of foxhunting, an activity so firmly rooted in the nourishing
soil of the 1800's that I would have gone to any lengths to take part.
And did. When subsequently I worked nights on the anti-hunting Daily
Mirror, rather than miss even a Cubbing Meet, I would change into
'Ratcatcher' in the lavatory at the end of a shift and, too poor to buy
a car, catch an all-night bus to Altrincham, bowlered, breeched and
booted; deaf to the ribaldry of homegoing printers. From Altrincham
to the Meet I was given a lift in a horsebox by one of the few
paralysingly rude ex-officers who was not running a pub. So close did
he sail into the financial wind it was said he would not eat an egg
unless it were poached. He wore faded pink and the collar of an
unregistered and obscure Hunt, of which he claimed to have been Master.
Only I knew that it was a Scottish Drag, which he founded, supported
virtually single-handed, hunted the hounds, served as kennelman and
closed just by moving South. So aggressive was he, so terrifying in
his white rages, that once when the wheel of the horsebox caught fire
as we left Altrincham, we had reached Dunham Hill before I found the
courage to tell him. I used to hire his horses until I was given one
of my own through the kind offices of that most princely of twentieth
century Victorians, the late, bitterly lamented, permanent tenant of my
heart, the champion show jumper "Curly Beard", of the Rookery,
But he is another story, indeed several stories more.......................

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