February 2000

 

Other peopleís lives are fascinating. Most people have some tales to tell. Much of the time we donít hear them. The other evening I fell into conversation with Kevinís father in the Princess. Usually we just nod to one another or complain about the weather. I donít know what prompted it but for a good half-hour he told us the story of his life, or rather his early life. At the age of nine, soon after the Second World War broke out, he was evacuated, alone, from Lewisham in East London to Vancouver, Canada. At such a young age he went by ship to live with people he didnít know next to the Pacific Ocean at the other side of the world. It was nine years before he returned to England on a banana boat. In between he went through school in Canada and worked as a lumberjack and as a goldminer. Clearly the work was by any measure tough but he recalled his experiences with affection and pride. He went back and forth through the Rockies on a steam train long before the journey was reinvented for the tourists.

 

I was reminded of the occasion I went to see my great-uncle in 1979, soon after I had returned from my first visit to America. I told him about California, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon. ĎIíve been to the US of A; how envious you must beí was my sub-text. He quietly explained that he had been to New York many times. During the First World War he was in the Royal Navy and sailed  with the convoys that brought essential supplies to Britain from North America. He was in New York before the skyscrapers were built. He sailed the dangerous waters of the North Atlantic only a few years after the Titanicís disastrous voyage. He was evading not only icebergs but, far more deadly, U-boats too. His life as a young man was constantly in peril at that time. And Iíd been to Disneyland. I felt firmly in my place. My generation? We donít know weíre born.

 

Natureís annual display of renewal is well under way. Snowdrops carpet the grass opposite our house and the crocuses are out in the Park. As a result of the mild winter the daffodils are in bud and we have tulips in the house from the flower shop at the crossroads. The days are getting longer and last Sunday was one of those bright sunny days when you know that, whilst winter is not yet over, its days are certainly numbered. There have been some wonderful dawn skies in the last couple of weeks despite the rain and winds. The sap is rising. (In direct contrast to the Stock Market).

 

In Halifax, The Powers That Be, at the suggestion of a schoolboy, floodlit Wainhouse Tower in white and green light to mark the start of the year 2000. The effect is quite stunning and, I understand, the plan now is to make the illumination permanent. In York the scaffolding which has for years necessarily disfigured York Minster has come down and the outer fabric of the building is again wholly visible in all its magnificent glory. More mundanely, in the middle of Leeds, to my delight, another 1960s tower block monstrosity has been torn down as a major new development behind the faÁade of the old Leeds Permanent Building Society headquarters on the Headrow begins to take shape. It was not a pleasant journey getting here but at last we seem now to be (on the whole) valuing our heritage and retaining the best of the old when the new has to be built.

Wainhouse Tower, Halifax.

Talking of journeys, in the last two weeks I have twice travelled from Leeds to Manchester and back on the train. I always enjoy journeys by rail and this one particularly. One goes through the old mill towns (not many chimneys now) of Batley and Dewsbury and Mirfield. West of Huddersfield at places like Marsden and Slaithwaite at first sight not a lot appears to have changed since the nineteenth century. What ruins the trip for me is seeing the vast quantities of litter and debris which line the tracks and at times make England look like a third world country. Does no one have responsibility nowadays for clearing this up? It costs money will be the answer even though both the public and private sectors seem to have plenty of it to waste. Some wretched anti-social person recently left hundreds of old tyres on Otley Chevin in the middle of the night and more have been dumped in Cragg Wood. The authorities should make it easy and cheap to get rid of waste material of every kind. In fact they often do the reverse. Not that that in any way at all excuses the behaviour of those who dumped those tyres.

 

Cragg Wood, Rawdon

I donít suppose Iím the first person to key my name into a search engine to see what it produces. Not a lot of point, I guess, if you are called Smith or Jones. Itís always interesting to come across people in history with oneís own surname especially if it isnít well known. Christian name and surname is a bonus. So I discover that a David Brearley, who originated in Yorkshire, signed the first American Constitution in 1787 as a  representative of the state of New Jersey. A Harry Brearley discovered the best process to make stainless steel in Sheffield in 1913. I have found a Roger Brearley who was a Puritan minister in the early seventeenth century. He formed a sect which found itself at variance with the established Church of England. The sect was based at Grindleton, in the extreme west of Yorkshire in the shadow of Pendle Hill, a place long associated with the very antithesis of Christianity. The bleak, remote Pennine valleys west and north of Halifax and Bradford were safe refuges for religious unorthodoxy and they became important in the growth of English Nonconformity.

 

Of course, Mike Brearley captained England. And Amos Brearley was the landlord of the Woolpack in Emmerdale Farm. The fact is that Brearley does not exactly rank with Churchill in the history of our country. But itís a Yorkshire name and I like it.

 

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