The other end of the First World War. ‘Tipperary mbali sana, sana’

Imagine a human chain of sixteen and a half thousand people, mostly barefoot and carrying heavy burdens – sixty pounds, twenty seven kilos – on their heads. Some pulling carts.

Walking up to fifteen miles a day under the searing glare of the tropical sun, or in the sweltering heat of the rainy seasons. Feet grabbed by black, grasping cotton mud or floundering in soft, hindering sand.

Clambering rocky escarpments, pushing through jungles, wading rivers. Transporting essential supplies to a thousand other people, hundreds of miles away.

Those 16,500 humans were what it took to transport just one day’s supply of food to the British front line in ‘East Africa’ in 1916.

Fourteen thousand of those men and women – carriers, porters or ‘tenga tenga’ – carried food for the column itself. Only two and half thousand bore supplies for the troops.

Many of these people died, serving a cause which was not theirs. Sometimes willingly, for decent pay, sometime the reverse. Falling as much to disease as injury, like the troops they supplied.

They were not the only ones. This was just one chain in a very long series of chains on the British side. The Germans depended on 350,000 human carriers.*

And yet these people are largely un-commemorated. As, indeed, is the whole ‘East African’ action of World War I.

I put ‘East Africa’ in inverted commas because my first brush with its legacy came in South Central Africa – Zambia to be precise. There I saw a small – and not very visible – memorial on a roundabout in a small – and not very visited – town.

But this week, on 25 November 2018, that town will be busy. Possibly busier than it has ever been since the end of World War I.

Because many dignitaries, including British High Commissioner, Fergus Cochrane Dyet and General Lord David Richards, of Sierra Leone fame, will converge on that small town, Mbala.

The Great North Road, Zambia’s main route north to Tanzania, runs through Mbala and yet the tarmac peters out as it approaches the border (or did when I was last there, en route to Kalambo Falls).

It is a long, long way from any city, never mind Ireland, and to this day the logistics of visiting are far from easy (especially if you travel from South Luangwa up the escarpment as we did in 2006).

In 1914 Tanzania was German East Africa and Zambia was Northern Rhodesia – and there lies the crux of it. German one side of the border, British the other.

It was Mbala, then called Abercorn, that saw the final surrender, the other end and other ending – of the First World War.

Taken from a website devoted to 1950s & 1960s Northern Rhodesia/Zambia, posted by Amanda Parkyn this view of Abercorn shows the main road stretching up from the left crossing the watercourse fringed by mbala palms – which provided the new name-  & the Tanzanian hills in the distance.

It had widely been assumed that the colonies in East and Southern Africa would not join hostilities, but Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck (a friend, by-the-by, of Karen Blixen) had other ideas.

German attacks on Abercorn and Fife in Northern Rhodesia and Karonga in Nyasaland (Malawi) made sitting out the war impossible.

Germany at war had visions of extending its colonial rule over Portuguese- and Belgian-claimed territories, to make a vast ‘Mittelafrika.

Map of colonial southern Africa in 1905, from Encyclopedia Britannica online

In German East Africa, von Lettow-Vorbeck, Commander of the Schutztruppe (the Germany colonial army, Kaiserliche Schutztruppe für Deutsch-Ostafrika) already had a force of trained, disciplined troops, askaris, at his disposal.

He also had a network of telegraph and heliograph (signalling with mirrors using sunlight) stations, which enabled him to coordinate his forces and move them around swiftly and effectively.

Northern Rhodesia had no such infrastructure.

It began badly for Britain.  But she had an Empire to draw on – and allies.

The British South Africa Company, BSAC, which administered Northern Rhodesia, was not allowed to raise an army, though it had a police force trained on military lines – with its headquarters in Livingstone, over 700 miles (more than 1000 kilometres) away.

Abercorn was the northernmost town of BSAC-administered territory, a massive expanse of land stretching from South Africa to Tanzania, bordered by Portuguese, German and Belgian colonial territories.

One of the reasons such a vast expanse of territory was handed over to a company to run was to delegate responsibility (and avoid the cost) for developing a transport infrastructure.

For commerce to prosper, for ‘government’ to be imposed and order maintained, railways and roads were a prerequisite.

But commercial priorities proved a weakness in time of war. The railways had gone no further than commerce necessitated. No commercial justification, no railway.

Abercorn was more than 600 miles (1000 kilometres) from the nearest usable railway line (at Broken Hill, now Kabwe, famous for the discovery of ‘Broken Hill’ man).

There were no roads suitable for an army’s mechanical vehicles, whether steam or petrol powered – and no supplies of fuel.

In August 1914, the War Office in London delegated this ‘other end’ of the war, in East Africa, to the India Office, who sent in Indian Expeditionary Force B.

They were joined by the King’s African Rifles, comprising soldiers from across British territories in East Africa, including modern-day Kenya, Uganda and Sudan. Other British colonial forces came from the nations that are now South Africa, Malawi, Nigeria, Ghana, Gambia and Zimbabwe. Troops even came from the West Indies. And of course, Britain itself.

Belgian and Portuguese allies then joined the fray, from the Congo and Mozambique.

The Germans, though a much smaller force, had their highly skilled, disciplined army of askaris, well trained in bush warfare and skilled at guerrilla tactics. Their aim was to keep the enemy on the run and constantly draw in more troops in to hinder the British war effort on the Western Front.

It was a gruelling war.

The territory covered was huge, 750,000 square miles, an area three times the size of the German Reich.  There were some pitched battles, but most of the action was by isolated columns of men, moving at times through elephant grass so tall that, while they could not be seen, they themselves could not see.

It was very different from the trench warfare of the Western Front.

Conditions were atrocious.

Lorry driver W.W. Campbell wrote of conditions in German East Africa:

‘Distressed and depressed beyond measure, we felt that death and ugliness lurked everywhere. It was in the air we breathed, the water we drank, the sun that warmed our bodies; it crawled on the ground, dropped heavily from rain-sodden trees, hung suspended in the humid, reeking atmosphere. Every living thing went in fear of its life, or turned upon another in self-preservation. Human life itself was an embodiment of ignorance and suspicion. It permeated our very souls, turned bright thoughts into dark, and made one long for the fate that he feared.’

[from ‘Forged in the Great War‘ by J-B Gewald, originally cited in Byron Farwell, The Great War in Africa: 1914-1918 p 274]

As well as the human enemy, there was the natural world to contend with, the lions, snakes, elephants, hippos, tsetse flies, mosquitoes.

Disease was rife: not just the debilitating and often fatal malaria, but sleeping sickness, meningitis, smallpox, dysentery, pneumonia – and as the war drew to an end, that devastating Western import, Spanish influenza.

The tsetse flies meant death to pack animals, hence the need for so many humans to take their place.

And their absence took its toll on the civilian population. They were not at home, raising crops tending to animals. The disruption to life across the vast territories affected was immense.

It was as if a vast plague of locusts and disease moved around, ravaging the whole region for the four years of the war. And when the fighting stopped, the angel of death flew in, spreading deadly influenza.

The abandoned fields, the ruined crops, the starving men, women and children. It hardly bears thinking about.

So far from Sarajevo.

So far from Tipperary.

Yes, Tipperary mbali sana, sana – Tipperary, very, very far – was apparently a marching song of the King’s African Rifles. Fighting for a cause they probably could not comprehend (did anyone?) in a war which was not of their making.

And I somehow doubt that any of the native soldiers’ hearts lay in Ireland.

A Zambian woman once exclaimed, when I said I’d been to Mbala, ‘Ah! How can that be? I am Zambian, it is very far away.’


There is so much more to say about this smaller ‘great’ war, about its human costs, about its political implications, about its significance, about its causes, but I’ve already well overrun my usual allotted space.

And so, to that other ending, of that other end of that terrible, ‘Great’ War.

As the last battle ended at Chambeshi Bridge, on 14 November 1918, General von Lettow-Vorbeck received the news that the Armistice had been signed in Europe. And the news he could hardly believe – Germany had been defeated.

Memorial at the site of Chambeshi Bridge. It reads: “On this spot at 7.30 am on Thursday 14th November 1918, General von Lettow-Vorbeck, commanding the German forces in East Africa, heard from Mr Hector Croad, then District Commissioner Kasama, of the signing of the Armistice by the German government, which provided for the unconditional evacuation of all German forces from East Africa”. A second plaque in Bemba ends with the words: “Twapela umuchinshi kuli bonse abashipa abalwile mu nkondo iyi” – we honour all brave soldiers in this war.
Image By Carrol Fleming – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

On 25 November General von Lettow-Vorbeck surrendered to Britain’s General W.F.S. Edwards, at Mbala.

The surrender to the British by General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck at Abercorn, now Mbala, Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, as seen by an anonymous African artist. Picture held by the National Museum of Tanzania

My thoughts on 25 November will be with the vast numbers of porters who lie buried, forgotten, their graves unmarked.

At least, in 2018, a few more people, thanks to a few tenacious historians, will remember them – and hope that they might rest in peace.

Zambia Tourism Facebook page’s image of the memorial on a roundabout in present day Mbala

The plaque on Mbala’s memorial

*Statistics taken from Edward Paice’s very readable online article,  ‘How the Great War Razed Africa,’ published by the Africa Research Institute, which contains maps, illustrations, a very good bibliography and more detail than I could include here.

It is impossible to condense such a vast undertaking in such a short post and I am sure I have made mistakes. I can only apologise. Here are some better informed sources which I consulted, along with the above:

An excellent, readable, thought-provoking analysis of how the war was managed and what the war meant for government of the future British Protectorate of Northern Rhodesia:

Forged in the Great War: People, Transport, and Labour, the establishment of Colonial Rule in Zambia 1890-1920 by Jan-Bart Gewald

A good, personal, short introduction:

A Bloody Tale Best Ignored, by Richard Sneyd, for The Centre for Hidden Histories:

A very detailed but concise account of the early stages of the war in East Africa with pictures and sources:

The Soldier’s Burden

This book cropped up again and again (and was well reviewed by novelist William Boyd whose book The Ice Cream Wars was set in the context of this conflict):

Tip and Run: the Untold Tragedy of the Great War in Africa, by Edward Paice


Posted in Thinking, or ranting, or both, Zambia | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

In the company of twitchers

Solitary men. Mostly. Some in camouflage clothing.

Cameras with long lenses. Tripods slung over shoulders.

Patient people. Often, it seems to me, not quite sad, but resigned.

And a closeness amid the isolation. A willingness to share as they seek individual trophies.* The satisfaction of a sighting, yes, but also a record. An image. The proof.

*(Though I’m sure that there are twitchers out there as ruthless as any fossil hunter.)

I masquerade, sometimes, skimming the edges of this fraternity, saying little so as not to reveal my ignorance.

Yesterday, in walking boots, jeans and green fleece-lined jacket, I stepped out under a personal cloud. Pale grey, not dark. Hoping to dispel it.

Too glamorous to be my personal clouds

My pre-loved camera and new-old lens, in a bag with my notebook, hung over a shoulder. The little-red-picture-machine hidden in my left pocket, camera phone in the right. The rest of my worldly goods – and two bunches of beautiful, blowsy seasonally-hued chrysanthemums – were safely stowed in the boot of the car.

I love big blowsy chrysanthemums

Optimism was already pushing for the surface.

A session at our fortnightly ‘work’ (a loose term) hub lay behind me, new ideas and inspiration sowed in my despondent brain by a co-‘worker’. His mini-tutorial on the workings of my camera, though, already forgotten.

I set off in search of an archaeologist, called Ron. He’d be working here, he told me a few days earlier, for a couple of weeks.

I was on the track of facts – and shared inspiration. A short piece I’ve written on the Mesolithic site would bear more detail, scaffolding for my imaginative leap into hunter-gatherer life.

Ron Cowell the archaeologist on the right, on site earlier in the year with a co-worker

A rather inadequate image of a reconstructed Mesolithic hut of the type thought to have been on this site, also earlier this year

I climbed the platform overlooking the site.

One man already stood, surveying the work of a mechanical digger and dumper truck building a new bank to protect the all-too-easily-flooded excavations.

But there was no Ron to be seen.

Sometimes things work out for the best.

The man-in-green and I chatted. Turned out he’s a volunteer on the Reserve’s steering committee.

Then a wiry man with observant eyes, dressed head-to-toe in camouflage gear – camera and massive lens included – joined us.

The reserve has been more than usually busy the last few weeks. Was the draw, I asked (excavating a sliver of information buried in my brain) the short-eared owls?

‘No, they’ve not been showing much this year,’ said wiry, camouflaged man.

Then he pulled out his phone and showed me the screen.

A bittern. A beautiful bittern.

Now, if you’re at all interested in birds, or wildlife and live in Britain, you’ll probably know that the bittern is a rare, elusive creature.

To me they hold semi-mythical status.

I once accidentally listened to a radio play (I hate them!) about a quest for the bittern.

They make a booming sound in spring. A sound, it is said, akin to a fog horn.

And are so rare that when they are spotted at a new site the twitchers swarm in like wasps to a human picnic.

These twitchers were only too happy to share.

I know, now, where the bitterns land. Where they rest and hide. The timing of their daily visits. The flight-path of their incoming trajectories.

As I left, man-in-green said, ‘Good to meet you.’

And I truthfully replied, ‘you too,’ going on my way feeling sometimes the world is all right.

I abandoned the archaeology – and the afternoon’s bittern arrival. It was cold and they weren’t due for another hour. Plus, there are no ‘facilities’ on the site and much tea had been drunk in the morning.

Beautiful autumn-hued fields across the River Alt

But, I made a couple more stops, one by a patch of almost sinister blue water, ruffled by the slightest breeze.

‘Did you see the female sparrowhawk?’ said a passing man as I left.

‘Erm, no,’ I said. Didn’t tell I’d been transfixed by oh-so-common cormorants airing their dark wings.


I made one final stop by a muddy, bare patch of ‘management’ which will, in time, settle down to wildfowl and reeds.

‘Are you well-up on waders?’ asked the man in the hide, with a face that seemed more sad than resigned, ‘I know my redshanks and so on, but this one?’

He laughed when I told him my knowledge stopped at herons and egrets.

‘As for the bittern they’re all after,’ I say with a shrug, ‘I don’t think I’d recognise one if I saw one.’

He smiles a benevolent smile, ‘Oh, I think you would,’ then turns and points up to the sky, ‘look!’

The nameless wader had flown. Even I could see it was different. So elegant in flight.

I missed much that flew, yesterday.

But I saw the wide, littoral sky.

And as the light went, as the moon rose, as the chill of twilight sank with the sun upon the earth, I left.

Cold. But reassured.

By my time spent in the solitary company of twitchers.

Posted in Art, jaunts & going out, Britain now & then, Lancashire & the golf coast, Liverpool, Nature notes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

In a muddy field near Liverpool, he lies

It was a 45 minute drive.

I pulled on wellies, ready to tromp through mud to take a picture. The least I could do, in the circumstances.

I could see no obvious entry point so went to the office labelled ‘RSPCA’ – the animal charity that occupies the land – and waited in line to speak to someone.

‘Could you tell me where I get into the field to see the grave?’  I asked.

‘It’s in the far corner,’ he gestured, ‘but you have to make an appointment.’

‘It didn’t say anything about an appointment online,’ I pleaded with my eyes, ‘I’ve come a long way.’

It didn’t work.

‘Can’t let you in. Health and safety, the ground’s uneven.’

My enthusiasm was rapidly waning as I waited for a contact to call, for next time.

Next time? Hah.

My journey to this place had begun when a literary agent (don’t get excited, friend-of-a-friend) sent me a cutting from the Daily Telegraph.

It told of a gravestone, in the corner of that muddy field, protected by Grade II listed building status.

The grave of a horse.

Called Blackie.

Blackie died, aged 37, in this, the former ‘Horse’s Rest’ in Halewood, near Liverpool, in 1942.

It had been an eventful life. Because Blackie was a war horse.

He served throughout the First World War. Saw action at the Somme, Ypres, Arras, Cambrai. And now lies buried near Liverpool, thanks to Lieutenant Leonard Comer Wall. His partner in war. And poet.

Now, I am not one for horses, nor for wars. Have never read, nor seen War Horse.

But it turned out this story had a link even closer to home – and it intrigued me.

Leonard was born ‘over the water’  in West Kirby, in 1896, but his first school, Terra Nova, was a short walk from where I now live, in Birkdale, Southport.

Though the old gate. Requisitioned for war purpose in WWII it later became a school for the deaf. It is now to be turned into a care home after years of planning disputes

A sad sight round the other side. What looks like a  World War II air raid shelter is in the foreground

It felt like fate had thrown down a crumb, told me to follow a trail.

Which is why I was there, boots ready for mud, an hour and a half poorer in time, with nothing to show for it. Except a poignant tale, as are so many of that war which failed to end all wars.

Leonard came from a relatively wealthy family, by dint of the Liverpool merchant’s trade. I don’t know when he left Terra Nova, but the little boy next moved some distance away, to Clifton College in Bristol – a short walk from both the places we lived in that city.

More of those crumbs …

When war was declared, Leonard was still at school, but within days had volunteered.

In August 1914 he became a temporary Second Lieutenant in the 1st West Lancashire Brigade, Royal Field Artillery (RFA) but his service began in earnest in 1915.

After action at the Somme and around Arras, came Ypres. Then the Battle of Messines Ridge, in 1917.

Leonard, more than once passed over for promotion, had at last made Lieutenant. Mentioned in dispatches for bravery, he had also penned a poem which, as far as I can see, was his only published work, but enough to gain him entry to the ranks of the War Poets.


When Princes fought for England’s Crown,
The House that won the most renown,
And struck the sullen Yorkist down,
Was Lancaster.

Her blood-red emblem stricken sore,
Yet steeped her pallid foe in gore,
Still stands for England evermore,
And Lancashire.

Now England’s blood like water flows,
Full many a lusty German knows,
We win or die – who wear the rose
Of Lancaster.

Leonard Comer Wall
Liverpool Daily Post
13 April 1917

One week after his promotion, on June 7th 1917, the new Lieutenant, riding Blackie, was in action with the 55th (West Lancashire) Division near the village of Wytschaete when he was hit by shrapnel from an exploding shell.

Blackie was wounded and his groom, Driver Francis Wilkinson was killed.

Lieutenant Comer Wall died the next day.

The two men are buried in Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery.

Leonard was twenty years old. An only child. Engaged to be married to Irene Dorothy Bryan (who later, happily, found a new love with whom to share her life).

As it says. One small part of Southport’s imposing Peace Monument (not war memorial)

In his will, Leonard left £180 – quite a sum for a young man – and requested that, should he not survive the war, Blackie be cared for and his medals buried with the horse when he, too, died.

His partner gone, Blackie rode on to the end of the war, wearing his own ‘decorations,’ the scars of his shrapnel wounds.

When the war ended, in keeping with his wishes, Leonard’s mother brought the horse back to its old home of Liverpool, the city from which he had set out four bloody years ago.

There were happy times ahead in his retirement. Blackie, with another war horse, Billie, is said to have led the annual carters’ parade through Liverpool, wearing Comer Wall’s medals, until he was retired to the Horse’s Rest.

There he now lies, presumably with those medals, in a corner of a not-so-foreign field. Unlike poor Leonard.

But the short-lived Lieutenant would, I hope, have been proud to see what happened to his words.

Under an announcement of his death which appeared in a newspaper, ran his line:

‘We win or die who wear the Rose of Lancaster.’

They were brought to the attention of General Jeudwine, the Divisional Commander, who ordered that, henceforward, they should surround the divisional sign, where they were amended to read:

‘They win or die who wear the Rose of Lancaster’

In 1919, the Division chaplain, Canon Coop, had enamelled plaques bearing the motto (known as ‘cocardes’)  placed on the graves of the men of the 55th (West Lancashire) Division.


[Picture from Merseyside Roll of Honour]

Young Leonard’s old school, Clifton College, carved his poet-soldier’s name on the college’s war memorial.

And I’m sure there is understandable pride in the gallantry of its alumni, among them  General Haig, Commander of the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front from late 1915 to the end of the war.

But that pride is far outweighed, for me, by the utter tragedy of the loss, from this one school, of 582 of its boys.

Will we remember them, now 100 years have been and will soon be gone?

I will. With sadness.

And may they rest in peace. Wherever they, their horses and their medals lie.


I drew extensively when writing this on a detailed, well researched and fascinating post by Mike Royden for which I am immensely grateful. It has the pictures I could not provide. If you are at all interested in the military side of the story do read it.


Posted in Britain now & then, Lancashire & the golf coast, Liverpool, Thinking, or ranting, or both | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

A sparkler, for Emily

November the fifth.  Monday.

The big public firework displays have already blossomed and died. The weekend nights whizzing and banging. Pulsing with sights that vie with the northern lights for colour, but cannot touch them for magic.

But today is the real thing.

Bonfire night.

The day shuffles home under grey skies, though a pale light still glows between the trees. A fog, a smokiness circles the trunks of pine and birch, like crinolined skirts round a strait-laced Victorian governess.

It’s the look of the morning after. The dazed look the world puts on, stunned by the sound and fury, the colour and oh-so-transient beauty. Gathering in the smoke of a thousand fires and sending it up to heaven.

But they haven’t yet happened, the bonfires. The real ones, the people-scale ones.

As night falls and the worker returns from town, we tuck ourselves away. Eat beef braised in mulled wine, spooned onto jacket potatoes. Sit in the light of candles, accompanied by cracks and wheezes from local fireworks, launched from leafy suburban gardens. Dads in charge and dogs, sore-eared, kept indoors.

We have no fireworks. No bonfire. And, as every year since goodness knows when, I feel a tiny touch maudlin.

I did so love the rituals, growing up.

Chumping for wood through October. Piling it up in the back field for Mr Brear to make safe, to light on the night when the neighbours were gathered.

Watching the flames leap. Feeling the warmth. Chewing on treacle toffee.

Disappointment as the fire subsided, bedtime to follow. Secret stories forming in my mind. Fairies dancing around the last small flames – naughty goblins poking the embers, making them flare and spark.


One large sparkler lies on our hall table.

One wand of magical promise.


Beside it a small pack of tiny sparklers, bought on impulse from the cake decoration section of the Co-op.

Better than nothing, surely?

We wrap up warm and step outside.

There’s a tang of damp leaves, decaying greenery, a mushroomy smell in the air.

But the ultimate bonfire-night smell overrides it. A very slight frisson of danger, excitement, apprehension.

The fizzes and whooshes and bangs are less frequent now, but still punctuate the cool, damp night.

Time to make magic.

The first match fails to light the wand. The second, the third, the fourth. Two together finally do the trick.

I wave the sparkling baton, conducting an orchestra of invisible night creatures. Write my initials in the air.

Let my picture be taken.

For remembrance.

Because this is a special sparkler. Emily’s 200th birthday sparkler.

Given to me in July, at a weekend of Emily’s birthday celebrations.

I promised to have my picture taken when I lit it.

But the spell is all-too-soon broken.  The sparks stutter and fail.

A sad end, a dying.

The extinguishing of the untameable, untouchable, uncatchable beauty of the sparkler.

I throw it to the ground where it will grow cold in peace.

We open the pack of tiny wands. And as we play, enchanted by this ephemeral treat, I am still thinking of Emily. Of Charlotte, of Anne.

Of those bright sparks of brilliance in the dim light of their Victorian parsonage.

Some sparks when born, light bigger fires.

Their flames will burn for as long as we have a world. Until the fires we have lit – and still light, the cars we drive and the gas we burn, turn it to ashes. Until politicians who have no sense light the blue touch paper of nuclear weapons and consign us all to a giant radioactive bonfire.

Till then, we will have Jane Eyre and Catherine Earnshaw, Heathcliff and Mr Rochester,  Mrs Graham and Mr Markham.

As long as we are able to read, their flames will burn bright.


Posted in Britain now & then, Lancashire & the golf coast, Thinking, or ranting, or both, Yorkshire | Tagged , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Guest Blog Post

Dear fellow bloggers and readers, I have never reblogged a post before – but as America heads to the mid-terms and we spiral towards Brexit, this one struck me as topical, thought provoking – and erudite. I hope you find it as interesting as I did. The brief statement below is from Hugh, who had posted on the topic of ‘ressentiment’ and invited a follow-up guest post from Jerry Stark. Please do follow the link, it is well worth a read for anyone who is confused about the current state of world politics.

“The following comment by Jerry Stark expanded and improved upon my attempt to explain the notion of ressentment. It is extremely well done and helps us understand the mind-set of those who follow our sitting president and worship at his shrine. I post it here with Jerry’s permission. The concept of ressentiment is intriguing, especially when applied […]

via Guest Blog Post — hughcurtler

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Sun, fun and feeling the wind in your hair

One of my favourite works of fiction is the Deptford Trilogy by the late Canadian author, Robertson Davies. A master story-teller if ever there was one.

In it, one young boy’s instinctive reaction sets the fantastical ball of the story rolling. But it’s when another boy runs away and joins a travelling circus that the dance of their fates begins.

We all recognise stereotypes of circus and fairground: tricksters and con-men, squalor and crime. Deceptions, grotesques and life on the road.

Stereotypes perhaps drawn of ignorance. Fear of strange, mysterious communities, living life on the edge.

I’ve never been a circus fan, but the illicit appeal of the fairground had me hooked from an early age.

At school in my teens, when we were asked to write about the fair which visited town at seasonal intervals,  I began my story with a newspaper, blowing down a road at night, after the fair had gone.

I can still see that image in my head. An image drawn from reality. The rest was a product of my over-active imagination.

Which may explain why I found myself at a lunchtime talk by Norman Wallis, proprietor of Southport’s ‘Pleasureland’. Whose family dalliance with fairgrounds dates from the nineteenth century.

A man who might – in days of yore – have been regarded as ‘undesirable’, the term officials in our coastal town used, more than a century ago, for the fairground folk.

Norman was a good ten minutes into his talk when I arrived and had to enter, mortified, from the front of the hall. In full view of the man himself – and everyone else.

As I climbed the stairs to a seat my heart sank. A silver-headed crowd. Story boards propped against the stage. One man at a lectern. All the makings of a dull – I checked my watch – how long?


I guess a man from a family like Norman’s is almost guaranteed to be a showman and a salesman, whether born, or raised.

And a very good salesman he was.

‘There are more flowers in Pleasureland than on Lord Street,’ he said. ‘We were up at one o’clock this morning watering them.’

More flowers than leafy Lord Street? On which Napoleon III supposedly modelled the boulevards of Paris?

I had to check it out.

Which is why I found myself, one sunny Sunday, pre-loved camera in hand, wandering past the bowling greens en route to the rides.

How English! Sunny Sunday afternoon bowls in Kings Gardens

Were there more blooms in Pleasureland than on Lord Street? I’ve no idea. But there were some jolly big ones….

As for Norman being up at one in the morning watering them? Well, it had been very dry and they were still blooming. I’m just not convinced he wields the hose – or watering can – himself.

But why quibble? It doesn’t matter.

We’re talking about a fairground (sorry, Norman, I know you don’t like the term) with flowers everywhere.


Which is clean and tidy.

Where the uniformed staff are polite and friendly.

And no-one harangues me to ‘roll up,’ ‘try your luck,’ or ‘have a go.’

I don’t feel I have to clutch my purse to my side, don’t feel everyone is out to make a fast buck.

A slow buck, maybe …

‘If I had a pound for every time someone took a picture of that carousel…’ grimaces Norman.

Yes, we all love a picturesque carousel, but I see his point. When did you last ride one?

I’ll be honest, I didn’t spend any money, that Sunday. But I am writing about it. And I have spent money on previous visits and will again, because…

Well, look at the pictures and tell me – could you resist?

But before I give way to more scenes that had me waking up next day feeling glad to be alive, a few words about Norman’s future plans.

I’m sure he’ll meet resistance. Isn’t there always, to grand plans? But I have a feeling he’ll get his way.

This is the man who, as a little boy, ran away from school three times. (The opposite, when you think about it, of running away to the circus.)

His opportunity to acquire this showground came in 2011 when another man with vision died. That man’s main business was (whisper it) in Blackpool. The gaudy relative up the coast.

Blackpool Tower is clearly visible just right of centre, way below the wingwalkers wowing the crowds at this year’s air show – as seen from the pier by me on a really grand day out

But that man’s business heirs didn’t want rivalry from the upstart down the coast.

When Norman took over it had been trashed. Looked like a battleground.

‘I thought electric cables grew out of the ground,’ he said, ‘there were so many of them buried everywhere.’

And when it rained those cables flowered sparks.

But he persevered. Despite the vandalism and arson attacks.

And after seeing the images I think there should be a Wallis’s ride called ‘the phoenix.’ Because a truly fun fair (sorry, again, Norman) has risen from those ashes. Not the biggest, not the most extensive, but fun.

He wants – naturally – to attract more people. Make Southport (via Pleasureland, of course) a major destination.

He’s talking dinosaurs, animatronics, augmented reality. He’s talking indoors and outdoors, grown-ups and children.

Distractions compelling enough to prise us away from our screens.

And if anything can do it surely an exhilarating fairground ride can?

As the man says, ‘you can’t feel the wind in your hair on the internet.’

But Blackpool’s not forgotten. Nor, I suspect, forgiven. Despite the fact Norman’s early career was there, in marketing (what else).

You can see its famous Tower – and the big, big ride – from Southport beach.

From the pier.

From Pleasureland, probably (I didn’t look).

Across the Ribble estuary it lurks and smirks, cocking a snook at Southport.

Such a fabulous day at the airshow, yes, Blackpool is there

Pleasureland on the right behind the beach, also seen from the pier during the airshow wreathed in the smoke the aircraft use for displays

But the showman’s world is about enticing the crowds with the latest thing.

Bigger, better – both.

So Norman has a plan.

A hair-blasting, big, big ride.

His face cracks into a grin.

His eyes crinkle and twinkle.

‘You’ll be able to see it from Blackpool,’ he chuckles.

Also Kings Gardens, the miniature railway is now part of Pleasureland – note the flowers!

Bored teens have other things to do








Posted in Art, jaunts & going out, Britain now & then, Lancashire & the golf coast | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Oh, Henry!

Dolls. I can see them, feel them, smell them, even though they are, all but one, long gone.

Edith and Anne, sadly had to go earlier this year. The mice infesting our garage had played with them more recently than had I.

Don’t get the wrong idea, I had cars, Lego, a clockwork train set. And a wind-up motor boat. Which I wound up too much, like I did my watch. And it stopped, like my watch.

These memories, stored in that file marked ‘past’, are revived and – according to science – revised every now and then when happenstance jiggles the box and fragments tumble out.

Memories of my childhood are split between two eras: before age seven; after age seven. That’s how old I was when we moved counties and life changed forever.

I have oranges and a newspaper for that shopping bag. The nylons on her legs are hold-up stockings!

The dolls are pre-seven. Except for Sindy, who lives with me still, headless, but chic. Still smelling as only pale, slightly flexible, smooth-but-vaguely-powdery-fleshed plastic dolls can do.

But the earliest doll memories are of very different creatures.

Three stand out.

Two were small. Shiny, hard, posed with elbows bent. One pale-flesh-coloured and blonde, one black and raven-haired.  Identical, except for colour.

I liked the black one better, dressed her in cherry-red, blondy in pallid-pink.

The third doll was bigger. Much bigger. But since I’ve no idea how old I was – and thus could have been barely a toddler – that might mean not very big at all.

She stands out in my memory for one particular attribute: her head.

She was a ‘baby’ doll. Her baby-hair was sculpted into her head.

It was neither shiny nor dull, a sort of glazed warm brown. And cracked into patches.

A certain type of bread crust has reminded me of her ever since. And I wonder, now, if I ever ate any of her head.  I tended to try anything in those days, paper being a particular favourite.

But back to crusts.

I love a crust. But that’s not to say it has to be crisp or crunchy. Just real.

A key moment in my bread-consciousness occurred when I was seven. After the big move.

We’d crossed a critical boundary in England, from Lancashire to Yorkshire.

My eighth birthday lay in wait when we arrived in Thornton, Bradford. Where, as I soon discovered, the four famous Bronte siblings – Anne, Charlotte, Emily and Branwell – were born.

The tiny house that was home to eight Brontes

I found this out on one of our first shopping trips into the village to buy … bread.

I went back recently.

I’d always thought the bakery was next door to the Brontes’ house, but apparently I’d blanked out the butcher. The bread shop was next-door-but-one.

I’ve never liked the smell of butchers’ shops.

Which is probably why I often stood outside that bakery window.

And there  I saw my first plait.

I’d been reading ‘Heidi Grows Up.’ I don’t know how I missed out on ‘Heidi’ original but there we are.

In ‘Heidi Grows Up’ she obtained something special for her grandfather: soft, white bread.

I’d never thought of bread like that – bread was just bread.

Isn’t that the power of writing, to make you believe in, see, smell taste something in a completely different way?

That plait was different. Yes, it was white beneath its baby-doll-hair-brown crust. But it was springy, dense – and tasty.

My parents were of the generation for whom white bread was the smart thing to eat. And World War II’s privations meant aerated, fortified, added-to, mucked-about and sliced bread had become the norm in many households.

But that bandwagon was already creaking when I fell in love with the plait.

Pretty soon after that, we moved again and our weekly shop involved two bread stops: one for the weekly Hovis (or Turog), another for two white loaves and baps. All bakery made, not sliced and packaged from the Wonderloaf Factory down the road.

The brown bread was a deep and meaningful version of bread. Voluptuous when toasted and buttered. The fat oozing, glistening. Turning mere toast to a rich delicacy, to be savoured, eaten slowly, leaving me wanting more.

White, though, was still our daily bread. Crusty, yeasty-smelling, warm from the shop (‘wait till it’s cool,’ says mummy ‘or  you’ll get tummy ache’) but unlike the plait, fluffy-puffy in the middle. I could screw a piece into a tight ball and it wouldn’t expand.

I know, why would you do that?

Duh! To make missiles, obviously.

But one more form of bread was interwoven through my youth. Bread that young, Catholic me found perplexing.

The communion wafer.

I liked it, not because (sorry about this) of its religious significance, but because it reminded me of Flying Saucers. That and the rice-paper edges of mass-produced pink-and-white, fabulously chewy nougat.

Flying saucers from our local newsagents. 3 pence each

Yes, every time I took the sacrament, I thought of sherbet-filled sweets or chewy nougat.

The newsagent didn’t have the chewy nougat so I bought some fried eggs instead. 5 pence each. The plate is about 5″ or 12.5 cm wide and for the record, the eggs are delicious (and, no, the yolk doesn’t squirt out)

At school I learned to make bread. The first attempt – a cottage loaf – was good. But paled into insignificance besides the next week’s doughy treat: Chelsea buns.

Domestic science lessons, though, aren’t always easily replicated at home. I can still make cocoa with milk. Lay a tray for an invalid.

But bread? With yeast? Limited patience, that’s me.

Which brings me round to soda bread. Again. Which I can make. Quickly.


This week Henry Hunter went and popped up in my comments.

Henry makes bread.

Sourdough bread.

I’ve visited Henry’s Facebook page. Seen pictures of his bread.

I can taste it, feel it, smell it – even hear it*  all the way across the Atlantic.

*(turn up the video volume)


Chocolate, strawberry, garlic and herb (not all together, yuk.)

I can wiggle the tip of my tongue in those sourdough bubbles.

Feel the chewy texture.

And the smile on his gorgeous face says it all.



He says you have to take it slowly



Perhaps I should stick with words.

And as another Henry (O.) wrote long ago:

Inject a few raisins of conversation into

the tasteless dough of existence.

And carry on making my sunflower-pumpkin-sesame-seed, soda, buttermilk, baby-doll-head bread.

Not quite as smooth or as glossy as my doll’s head but you get the general idea. Artistic licence, yes?

Posted in Simple Food for Simple Folk (like me) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 19 Comments