Wherever it gains a foothold, life clings on.
I saw this photograph on a local Facebook page. The photographer Carlo Fontanarosa gave me permission to share it.
It is taken from the old cemetery in my home town of Middleton, and the church is that of St.Leonard’s. Standing on the highest part of the town, it dominates the view both spiritually and geographically.
Part of the building dates back to Norman times, and it is built on the site of a wooden Saxon church. There is even speculation that there was a pagan religious site before this.
All those layers, but its greatest historic significance is that it is where I got married!
I love this shot, it has everything: history; place; wilderness; memories. And to cap it all, it is taken at dusk, my favourite part of the day.
The evening in question was some weeks ago, when summer still reigned and the evenings were balmy. Through the twisted coils of a barbed wire fence, we looked on towards the local cricket ground, the grass barely stirring in the light, confidential breeze.
Within sight of hard-earned victories of edged fours and triumphant sixes, where better, when the light is fading, than a lonely cemetery? It is not often, in crepuscular twilight, that the eye is drawn to the ground, and rewarded by life in silent, still form.
The stillness was broken by the call of birds returning to roost in routine rounds: blackbirds and starlings and, yes, jackdaws, crossing the sky in large, raucous numbers. Black, canvas flags, loose and adrift.
The day passed the baton to night in faltering glory. The air sweet and temperate, prophets were not yet speaking of russets and absence, as the light died blissfully and unresisting. Our sleep was restful; our dreams fired.
Things are starting to feel a bit heavy on Jackdaw. I was going to do a post today about when I went to Greece to visit the grave of my great-grandfather, buried in Thessaloniki. But I think I will save that for another time. This short post here will be the last of my First World War themed posts. Then we move on.
Trying to get a grasp on the numbers, the magnitude, in relation to the war is impossible. When we talk about the deaths, about the millions of deaths, they become just that. Numbers. Faceless, anonymous, horrifying, numbers. So I resorted to address the legacy of the conflict through my own family connections. These more personal links help to bring home the devastating effects of that conflict. Both of my grandmothers grew up without having their fathers in their lives because of that war. Every Remembrance Sunday I never forget that.
On the evening of the 4th of August, 1914, as the clock ticked ever closer to the deadline time of 11.00pm, the whole country waited to hear if Germany had responded to Britain’s ultimatum. In two different homes in Manchester, each just a short walk from each other, both Timothy O’Sullivan and Albert Cartwright would also have been waiting with their respective wives and young families. Or perhaps they had both gone to gather outside Manchester Town Hall to hear the news, before returning home to talk war around the hearth. What would those houses have been filled with? Feelings of anxiety, uncertainty? Perhaps a growing excitement? Maybe even an idea that war could somehow still be averted? Or were both families reconciled to the fact that everything had irrevocably changed?
Neither family could have known that, within four years Timothy would be dead, within five Albert. Forty nine years down the line from that night, these two families would become connected when Timothy’s grandson (my Dad) would marry Albert’s granddaughter (my mum). At the wedding, both the mother of the groom and the mother of the bride would have that sense of loss in common.
This is my blood-story that brings home the tragedy of the period to me. It is only through stories like this that we can fully appreciate how children, families, were cheated. As a father myself, who was lucky enough to grow up with my father in my life, that is how it would feel to me. Cheated. How different things could have been if only these people had been born in a different period of history. But this is now part of my family history. Part of my story too.
Along with the family perspective, another way we can get to understand the impact of the war is through the local connection. There are the names on local memorials, stories in local archives and on the lips of the people that we meet. For months now our local newspaper has been printing stories that include things that I can relate to. The names of streets that the soldiers came from, the same streets that I have grown up on. The name of schools and churches that those young men attended, institutions that are still part of my community.
One local story that stayed with me was one that I read about a few years ago. It was a story that took place not on a battlefield, not in the theatre of war, but here on the streets of my town, Middleton.
It was a written account of a local who remembers witnessing one day, up in the Cheapside area of the town, the local postman sat sobbing on a kerb by the roadside. A woman who lived nearby was sat with her arm around his shoulders, silently consoling him. This postman spent everyday delivering telegrams to fearful households, breaking the news that a loved one had been lost.
I was a postman for eleven years. I was accustomed to people waiting expectantly for the post, some not leaving home until I had arrived. For him it must have been so different. No-one wanting him to call. Every dreading household watching out to see which house in the street he was going to next. In the end it must have been too much for him-the constant, devastated reactions of people that he knew. Bringing bad tidings about people that he knew.
The family stories, the local stories. It is these that bring home to me what the consequences of the war was. The unparalleled, worldwide devastation and loss, seen here in microcosm.
Tomorrow, something lighter. I promise.
This video was made by some of the people from my hometown of Middleton, and of the Langley Estate where I live. Extremely moving, it contains images and spoken poetry, composed by the residents especially, referring to local people who fought in the war, and some of the families left behind. It is the real lives, the real stories, that really brings it all home.
I went for a walk with three of my children through the old cemetery. I have posted photographs of this place before, along with the neighbouring Jubilee Park.
This time I was showing them something that is well known, infamously known, to most of the locals in my hometown of Middleton: Cankey Ginnel.
The old cemetery stands above the town center, perhaps to remind us all of our ultimate destination whether life causes us to escape the town boundaries or not. From here we could see the shame of the 192 year old Providence United Reformed Church, allowed to fall into ruin despite being in proximity to the so called Golden Cluster of historic buildings. Not to mention Takeaway Run.
From here we came to the top of a passageway known as Cankey’s Ginnel. Cankey is said to have been a body snatcher who used to live at the bottom of this passage, in a cottage across the road.
It is said that Canky would be sat in front of his cottage, puffing on a pipe, watching as a burial was taking place up above him. Then at night, by cover of darkness, he would go up to the cemetery and dig up the body.
This is the passage viewed from the position of Cankey’s said home, looking up towards the cemetery.
Then he would carry the newly exhumed body down this ginnel. Behind his cottage lay the River Irk that runs through Middleton. He would transport the body by water to Manchester, where he would sell the cadaver to medical students and anatomists willing to pay for such corpses.
This story is well known in the town, indeed Cankey is often mentioned in the local newspaper, although I’m not too sure how much actual evidence there is for this notorious figure. I’ve never seen any contemporary news article reporting on Cankey and his nefarious deeds. And, as with all great legends, there is not usually much in the way of quotes and source references. But why let that get in the way of a good story?
It is recorded though that Middleton’s famous son Samuel Bamford, 19th century radical poet and reformer, kept the body of his beloved wife Mima at home for a month before burying her in an attempt to thwart such body snatchers.
In places other than Middleton, family members are recorded sitting by gravesides for a number of days, effectively on ‘watch’ against the stealing of their loved ones.
The ginnel has always attracted local children, especially in the hours of darkness, wanting to retrace Cankey’s steps up into the old, overgrown cemetery and experience that sought after thrill of fear.
Perhaps a few older people too.
For the time being, my children take their chances by daylight.
When I went to Primary School, there used to be a name whispered in the corridors and classrooms that all of the kids knew: Annabella.
Annabella was the name of the ghost of a girl who was said to haunt the girls’ toilets. If I recall the story correctly, it was a girl who was supposed to have hung herself in there. This may be a recurring theme, as when I went to Secondary School there was a story of a boy who had hung himself from the bell tower.
What dark imaginations the young have. The thrill in being scared.
But that latter school story was more vague, the boy-ghost being anonymous. In my junior school the ghost had a name.
My wife went to the same primary school as I. She says that out of the few cubicles in the toilets, there was one whose door was always closed. All of the girls knew not to use it, because if you went in there Annabella would ‘get you.’
This was the story when we were pupils there, in the seventies to early eighties. The story came flooding back when, around the time of the Millenium, a niece of ours who went to that school mentioned, almost in passing, that the toilets in her school was haunted by a ghost named Annabella. The story lived on. The name lived on.
Well I thought it was great! Even more so, when, sometime later, I discovered an online conversation between people who were former pupils of the school back in the sixties, who were also talking of Annabella. For thirty years that story had been passed on to each new, fearful, generation starting at that school. Perhaps the story went back as far as the school did, back to the fifties. The passing on only coming to an end when the school became victim to time and planning and was demolished.
I wonder about the person who first started the story. (Of course, assuming it is just a story.) Did they have any idea of the legacy that they had created? That the story they had given life to had continued to live right into the following decades, outliving its creator’s time there? Perhaps, also, outliving its creator’s time here?
And why Annabella? It’s an unusual name. I’ve never, ever, met an Annabella. Where did they get that name from?
The name was made popular by a poem by that dark writer Edgar Alan Poe, Annabel Lee, in the 19th Century, taking this more familiar form in the 20th. It tells of the death of a beautiful young woman, who the narrator/poet still loves, beyond death, and who sleeps by her tomb near the sea, dreaming of her.
Was it an unusually erudite young child that made up this story to scare his or her peers? Surely it wasn’t a teacher? Although I do like that thought.
Whoever it was, the story caught the imagination of those fertile young minds and grew legs. It outlasted the inventive mind that toiled there. That unknown person moved on, leaving Annabella behind. When I was there I tried to introduce the story of The Black Hand for the boys toilets. It never caught on.
I like the idea of stories being passed on. Taking on a life of their own in the constant retelling and shaping.
You may remember the post I did last year about the book East Of The Sun And West Of The Moon.
This is a collection of Scandinavian fairy tales. I shared these stories with my children, who thoroughly enjoyed them. Not long after, I read a piece by a Native American, telling of the many tales, both myth and history, that were passed on orally among his people. It got me to thinking about the old stories in our culture. How many of these are passed on today? How many are known? Or, would it be fairer to say, how many are being lost? I have begun to collect together some of the stories I invariably find in the things that I read. Some of the folklore that is connected to the various places that I visit in this group of islands that I live in. Some of the legends and stories that were told from each generation to the next centuries ago, later collected together in books such as The Mabinogion, and The Tain.
Tales and ideas, also, that were brought from various other places, Celtic, Norse, Anglo-Saxon, and were added to the melting pot to find expression in our own cultural flavour.
I have been selecting stories that I think that my children would enjoy. Stories of heroes and magic, animals and, yes, ghosts. But adapting and writing them in a way that makes them more attractive and entertaining to their modern minds. Explaining things that long ago, in their conception, the people of the time knew and didn’t need explaining. For example how Faery folk were not sweet little winged Tinkerbell types. Or how dogs from the Otherworld were white with red ears.
I think that these stories gain something over time,something quite powerful, in the retelling, the re-sharing. Thinking of all the people who have listened to them, people unknown to us, living in different times, yet enjoying them all the same. Being touched, and then passing them on. Breathing new life into them.
Stories that began orally-their creators, and then the authors who first wrote them down, now lost to us.
As happened with Annabella.
It is with this sense that I regard my family history. Yes, we can all uncover, (only so far) names and dates. When a person was born. What they worked as. Who they married. When they died. The bare facts.
But it is the personal stuff, the human stuff, that gets lost. The meat that is stripped from the bones. I write down the things that I know, the things that I have learnt from my parents, and their parents, however scant it may be. Otherwise it becomes lost. The tragedies, the struggles, the love stories. They all pass forever into shadow, leaving us with but a list of dates.
My children may not be that interested. For why should it be of importance to me, but say, not to my brother? Or to my cousins? But then someone else may come along further down the line-a grandchild. Or a great grandchild, someone who gets it. Someone who is moved and inspired by the things that this little known ancestor, some distant guy named Andy, who used to write a blog named City Jackdaw, has written down, and decides to add to them the things that have happened since those last words were recorded. For they may understand that people without roots become disconnected, drift, become disenfranchised if you like. They may see how important it is to understand beginnings and connections.
They may become filled with a zeal to hand these stories down.
And then we come full circle. Many years from now, someone, somewhere, may be sat in some strange, new world, learning of a ghost by the name of Annabella.