The Man who was Thursday by G K Chesterton (1908)

The terrorist murders in France and Germany last year made me think more about previous eras when ordinary life was shattered by ideologically-driven violence. I recalled the IRA, Red Brigades and Baader Meinhof Gang and I wanted to read something that might give me an insight. The only novels I could think of were about early 20th-century anarchists:  The Secret Agent and this one.

I started Thursday some months ago, and since then there have been further murders in Manchester and London. Chesterton offers no insights at all about nihilism. It’s not a book about anarchists but a nightmare; its farcical plot is based on fear of anarchy and the (tongue-in-cheek?) view “that the scientific and artistic worlds are silently bound in a crusade against the Family and the State”. Ironically, given my reason for picking it up in the first place and then forcing myself to wade through it, the book is infused with religion. Obviously Christianity in this case: Gabriel (the “poet of respectability “) is the good guy and Lucian the bad. The final chapter with the Genesis ball brings the tale to a peaceful and optimistic conclusion.

I liked the exuberance and vibrancy of the writing but not much else. There’s something reactionary about Chesterton’s worldview that I am out of sympathy with – not something I felt with Jerome K Jerome.

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My Life and Times by Jerome K Jerome (1926)

It was my father who recommended Three Men in a Boat to me when I was a teenager. (He also suggested P G Wodehouse, yet I never knew him to read fiction. I’m saddened now that I never thought to ask more.) I recall before a geography class not being able to stop laughing at the tale of transporting cheeses from Liverpool to London: “I took my ticket, with my cheeses, and marched proudly up the platform, the people falling back respectfully on either side.” Jerome had me there. Do 14-year-olds today still read such writers?

I’ve re-read the book many times since, and it still makes me smile. I’m always surprised at the number of rather pious sections in it, and – probably like most readers – I skip them. But Jerome was still a Victorian Christian, albeit an undogmatic one, as his autobiography – written shortly before he died – makes clear: he is rather more understanding about (male) youthful indiscretions than most and ends his days a Labour Party member. He might have been mocked by his upper-class contemporaries for his literary deficiencies, but he was a principled man: he spoke out at the status of Black Americans (lynchings were still common) while on a US lecture tour. (I am also working by way through 1956 by Simon Hall, which covers the civil rights protests to desegregate schools . . . a long tail of prejudice.)

This is an arm’s-length autobiography: Jerome remains private throughout, apart from mentioning a tendency to melancholy, but he leaves you with an indelible sense of his times. At the age when I was having geography lessons, Jerome was orphaned and supporting himself by working as a clerk at Euston. Then as an actor. He mentions a night (presumably not the only one he experienced) in a doss house. Success takes many years of hard work and false starts.

Things I particularly noted. Jerome’s take on a Blakean East End with their marks of woe: “The ashen faces, with their lifeless eyes that rise out of the shadows and are lost.” There is a photograph of a favourite restaurant, Pagani’s, whose painted façade answers my question about art nouveau in London. I realised – not before time – the very first cyclists learned to ride a bike as adults: “The bicycle took my generation unprepared.” Jerome met Prince Kropotkin: an interesting thought.

Such energy. He never stood still. He travels as much as he can. He tries all the sports he can. He takes up skiing at 45. He writes and writes – whether journalism, plays or stories. In middle age he volunteers as an ambulance driver in France.

The book is patchy; parts are pedestrian and feature people of whom – unsurprisingly – I had never heard. Nevertheless I googled some of them and came across characters like Eden Phillpotts (boo, despite Jerome’s affection for him) and Richard le Gallienne (belle époque to the fingertips). Equally, there are some gems: the bowdlerised version of “The Doll’s House” where “the curtain went down on Nora flinging herself into his arms with the cry of ‘Husband'”.

And, yes, I couldn’t help myself laughing out loud again.

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Leaving Grange

I can report that the 6-minute train journey from Grange-over-Sands to Arnside takes 2 hours on a bicycle: some of it into a headwind! You stick to the low roads that wind through distinctive limestone hummocks until it is no longer possible to avoid them around Arnside. Altogether it was a very pleasant ride . . . except for being dumped on the busy A6 outside Levens Hall.

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Godwits in a field near Leighton Moss

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Barrow to Grange

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Morecambe Bay from Grange-over-Sands

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Rampside lighthouse

I got off the train in Barrow-in-Furness and 15 minutes later was eating a second breakfast. I followed the Morecambe Bay Cycle Way and cycled between a gas terminal (with miniature flares) on one side and oystercatcher-friendly mudflats on the other. The route hugs the bay as much as possible, so I discovered the Roa Island causeway, Rampside lighthouse and Rampside Hall (which is in a very odd position for a Grade I listed building – on the edge of a 1980s housing estate), the ruins of Gleaston castle, and Ulverston (prettier than I imagined, but it could do with some pedestrianisation). It was an overcast, muggy day and the views were somewhat subdued.

The route is strenuous in places: once you leave the coast you are in the deep folds of the English countryside which make cycling such a joy trial distinctive experience.

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Near Bigland Tarn

I have been to Grange-over-Sands a few times before so I had to visit the derelict lido where I had my coldest ever swim many years ago. Arnside tomorrow – and, for the first time, not via the railway.

Well, not unless it’s raining.

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Der Müde Tod (1921)

Dir: Fritz Lang, with Lil Dagover and Bernhard Goetzke

This film gave you a sense of the creative range that early filmmakers must have sensed in the still-new medium. Nowadays cinema has largely solidified into realism and genres, but this film comes from a time of flux and experiment. It’s a folk tale, a poem, a fantastical foray into exotic locations, a parable and a pious homily. They certainly don’t make them like this any more!

Death is weary of dispatching people (well, he had been particularly busy in the preceding years with the influenza epidemic immediately after the Great War). He offers a young woman whose bridegroom has just died three chances to bring him back to life: if she can alter the destiny of just one doomed man in Persia, Venice or China, Death will spare her lover. Of course she cannot save any of them; she simply repeats her dreadful loss three more times. Can she persuade someone else whose life surely must be unbearable – a beggar, the elderly infirm – to take the place of her dead lover? No: they all cling to every last second of their lives. She has the opportunity to sacrifice a baby so that her lover can live, but she cannot bring herself to do that.

It ends on a very Christian note: the lovers are reunited in death. Not something that happens in mainstream cinema these days. (I have just finished reading Jerome K Jerome’s autobiography, and he refers to the peace and contentment that his dying mother took in her devout belief that she would be reunited with her much-loved dead husband and child.) Myself, I took it as more of a parable of the inescapability of death. We may have moved the goalposts of destiny a fair distance with our scientific advances, but death still scores every time.

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Shirley Baker: Women and Children; and Loitering Men

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Salford, 1962

Photographs of streets and their occupants in Salford, Moss Side, Hulme and Ancoats in the 1960s and 70s. The exhibition in Manchester Art Gallery also had recorded reminiscences from people who had featured in the shots.  Even allowing for an element of posing, the streets were crowded: nowadays terraces are filled with cars rather than playing children. (A swing round a lamppost, anyone?) Ah, but it brought back socks round your ankles and cheap grey flannel.

It was interesting, fun and well curated, but the photographs did become rather samey. Baker stuck to street scenes (I can’t recall much in the way of nature apart from a tree and a budgie cage hanging up outside the front door) populated mainly by children and women. There was one man . . . photographed outside a betting shop.

But Baker’s prints did give significance to the tough lives of those she photographed. The joy of play, the neighbourliness, the life of the street, the sweeping away of the old in favour of the modern, and always highlighting those overlooked for reasons of their class or gender.

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Mindhorn

Dir: Sean Foley, with Julian Barratt

It made me laugh out loud. A cheesy TV detective from the days when they all had to have a gimmick gets involved in a real-life case many years later. It’s a bit derivative, but the gags are good.

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