POEMS & STORIES: STANDARD & DIALECT
By Michael Higgins & Norman Warwick
Michael Higgins tells of the reading and recording of The Queen Of The Well: a children´s talking-book.
In September I took part in a recording of The Queen of the Well, a children´s talking book.The producer, David Chatton Barker, had heard my presentation of dialect poetry at a folklore event and asked me and my fellow Edwin Waugh Dialect Society member, Alison Cooper, to read respectively the words of the narrator (me) and those of the rather sinister Queen of the Well (Alison) in the Rev. G. R. Oakley´s story, ´The Legend of Brown Wardle´.
Rev. George Robert Oakley (1864–1932) had been brought up in Yorkshire and attended Sheffield Royal Grammar School and the St Aidan´s Theological College in Birkenhead. In 1895 he became the first vicar of the then recently completed St Andrew´s church in Dearnley, near Littleborough in Rochdale Borough.
Whilst here, like many Anglican vicars of his time, he took a keen interest in local history and folklore.
Indeed, it is arguable that much of what is termed these days as ´pagan pre Christian´ yearning was lovingly preserved by such men, not as condescension to childhood and peasant innocence but because they were jolly good yarns and preserved an awe of the unseen and unforeseen.
At the time of the publication of In Olden Days – Legends of Rochdale and its Neighbourhood in 1923 Reverend Oakley was in his last year at St Andrew´s, having taken the post of vicar at St Mary the Virgin, Illingworth, in Yorkshire, a post he held until his death.
His legends have that air of genuine half-legend and fanciful conjecture, sometimes almost nonsensical, sometimes sinister. The Legend of Brown Wardle is one of the latter.
Also included in the book are legends of the major halls dotted round the Rochdale area such as Stubley, Clegg, Belfield, Dearnley, Castleton, Littleborough and, closer to us, Royton.
In his catalogue of ghost and goblin mischief Royton´s tale involved the curse of a ´ghastly hand´ severed in a duel in the 17th century, when the Byrons lived in Royton Hall, and kept in a box in the attic lest someone should drop in down the old spiral stone staircase. ´When the ghastly hand down the staircase falls, beware the shivering crumbling walls etc …´ (went the curse).
This tale correctly includes all the Pickford children then living at the hall, save the now famously ´outed´ Sapphist, Frances. It also includes known neighbours and friends of the children. Yes, they dropped in down the stairs whilst romancing over the curse, and yes, disaster fell, as did the chimneys and several beams (a true occurrence in 1790).
The Legend of Brown Wardle begins in the Spring of 1313 during a rebellion In Lancashire involving earls and barons.
A hunting party from Wardle, ostensibly enjoying a day free from political unrest, enjoys hunting with their hawks until they encounter the famous ´churn well´ on Brown Wardle hill and its chilling angry spirit queen seeking revenge for past injury.
I won´t reveal the plot as the recording (in vinyl and digital) is due out any day now and these things are best kept a mystery until they are heard.
It is a tale retold for children in which both Alison and I composed melodies for the tale.
Mine is the main melody played throughout and Alison composed her own lyric and melody for the Queen´s dire message.
At the end of the tale the final jingle is taken up from me by St Anselm school choir and Healey Brass Band.
The recording was more relaxed than I thought it would be save a phone ringing on the very last word of one chapter and hens outside also joining in with very loud clucking.
That was my recording session done in a farmhouse above Whitworth.
Alison´s was done separately so I don´t know how she went on. But I have heard the full recording and can safely say she does the evil queen perfectly.
We were joined on the recording by Whitworth And Healy Brass Band and Whitworth School Choir.
The official launch is to be in February with a public reading and puppet show.
I do hope the choir and band will be there and that everyone has a grand time taking part in or hearing the legend that was retold and fashioned by a local vicar nearly a hundred years ago.
In reading the advertisement for the forthcoming release I find that ´The Wizard of Wardle´ had a lot to do with the production too. I trust he will be there on the day.
EDITOR´S NOTE: by Norman Warwick
This piece is reproduced with permission after first being published in St. Mark´s Parish News. Michael Higgins is a poet, who writes his own material and is also reader of a wide range of poetry both ancient and modern. I asked him to update me on his local arts scene.
Michael will be attending what sounds like fascinating a workshop called Writing The Divine in Manchester Cathedral on Saturday 19th October from 10.00 am till 1.00 pm being facilitated by ´poet and priestess´ Rachel Mann.
´Writing The Divine´´ is advertised as a workshop and discussion,´ Michael tells me. ¨It’s tea and coffee for the 9.30 am early birds, and then a ten o´clock workshop will be followed by a light sandwich lunch. After that there will be a discussion about forming a Rochdale Creative Writing Group, possibly to be affiliated to the Association Of Christian Writers, which is sponsored by The Diocese of Manchester. Such groups are open to Christians of any denomination and the writing itself does not have to be about Christianity. As an awkward Christian rebel I tread warily over these suspiciously laid eggs, but I do think the workshop could be enlightening, notwithstanding my default position of a dislike in general terms for writing workshops. I had far too many of those in my former employment, which probably explains why I enjoy my times with Those Bard From The Baum and with Off The Rails, the series of events that Robin Parker and I attend.´
Writers who take a stand-point are always welcomed by The Bard From The Baum, named after a Rochdale real-ale pub where monthly poetry events are hosted by Robin Parker. Michael tells me that the last meeting of the group, on Sunday 13th October, included a number of Extinction Rebellion themed works.
´The Baum had around 25 poets and listeners at its last monthly meeting,´ recalls Michael. ´Lately there have been over thirty with the ukulele band, who began joining us recently, but they were away performing somewhere last time. Some of the political poems were very good indeed, albeit one-sided, though some political verse can be very poor. With Extinction Rebellion and Brexit on the agenda Anti Extinction Rebellion counter- arguments and alternative Brexit poems were NOT forthcoming. I deliberately did not take my anti Extinction Rebellion poem because I hadn´t expected the Baum evening to be such a political one. How wrong I was.´
Michael the listed the names of several of our mutual friends who read at that recent bard from The Baum event, none of who I have seen in the last five years, but ll of whom are fondly remembered.
´Don Parry´s set, with his guitar was non-political and Val and Alfie´s offerings, and those of Eilleen Earnshaw´s were not of a political nature either,´ Michael explained. ¨Catherine Coward read some work on Peterloo and Robin made strong political points and Seamus Kelly delivered Extinction Rebellion support and pieces about climate change. Peter Fitton delivered an anti-Brexit piece so there was some serious to and fro-ing going on. John Leech is a poet who writes so often often lost ladies and unrequited love and he sat in a corner letting the voice of protest wash over him as he no doubt fondly remembered all the girls he´d loved before ! I, too, tried to lighten the tone with a Barrington parody and a version of Red River Valley, with Don accompanying me on guitar.´
My own memories of co-hosting with Robin Parker of performances by Those Bard From The Baum are of ´how the evenings moved seamlessly from protest to parody to humanity and humour and back again, and its great to know the monthly events are still going strong.
In fact Michael and Robin will next be performing at a poetry gig in Preston on 21st October. The two regularly meet up for a poetry ramble that sees them take their words all around the North West Of England. This is the area in which Robin has set his series of short monologues that re-locate and reinterpret stories from The Bible. There are echoes here of Stanley Holloway and The Lion And Albert and, of course, of Three ´Alfpence Per Foot, which tells of Noah and his ark. Robin´s re-writings are compiled in a beautifully presented and illustrated hard back book called The Edenfield Scrolls as well as on a cd of the same name, accompanied by folk-lorist and musician Sid Calderbank.
Robin Parker And Sid Calderbank are also both members of The Edwin Waugh Dialect Society, of which Michael Higgins is currently Chair. The group commemorates and perpetuates Waugh´s work. Born in Rochdale, Lancashire in 1817, Waugh became an apprenticed printer at twelve years old.
An avid reader, Waugh became assistant secretary of The Lancashire Public School Association and by 1860 was able to become a full time writer. Only twenty years later, however, he was in such poor health that he was granted a civil list pension on ninety pounds per year !
He died in 1890 and was buried in St. Paul’s churchyard on Kersal Moor. ´Waugh´s Well´ was built to commemorate him on the moors above Edenfield, where he had spent so much of his time writing. Today´s members of The Edwin Waugh Dialect Society have made several ´pilgrimages´ to the site, holding readings of his work over a picnic and a pint when they get there.
The first publications of Waugh´s work were of sketches of Lancashire and its characters, written with a similar affection that paintings by Lowry would bestow on Salford people almost a century later. These were regularly printed in The Manchester Examiner, and his first published book was a collection of such sketches. In 1859 his Lancashire dialect works were collated in a gathering called Poems And Songs that brought him much local acclaim with the public and critics alike, favourably comparing his work and what it was achieving for Lancashire with the way Burns and his work had reflected (or created?) Scotland.´
Edwin´s surname is pronounced in the dialect of his day as Woffe, as in cough, and arguably his most famous work is Come Whoam To Thy Childer An´ Me, which tells the story of a wife trying to persuade her husband to leave the pub and return home; a scene re-interpreted countless times on Coronation Street.
The Edwin Waugh Dialect Society of which Michael Higgins is chair and Robin and Sid are members was formed in 1938. More than eighty years later, members and new visitors alike are assured of ´a gradely welcome theer !´ The EWDS holds annual writing competitions, with trophies awarded at the annual ´suppering do.´ Regular meetings often feature guest speakers or talks and readings by members.
The current members of EWDS also include Sally James, who writes in both Standard English and ´Lankie Dialect´ and gives readings in either genre. Her poignant pamphlet, Coal Dust And Confetti is about the harsh realities of life in The Lancashire Coalfields.
The Tin Pot Poets, who are also members of the EWDS, are Ron and Sally William, who usually write in humorous dialect verse but adopt a more serious and topical approach when the occasion demands. Profits from their recently recorded CD are directed to the Rossendale And Pendle Mountain Rescue Team.
Alyson Brailsford is a well-known local artist and former librarian. Always smiling and much loved figure on the local arts scene Alyson is a fine singer who can interpret traditional and dialect songs. She also gives talks about how those who wrote in Lancashire dialect reflected the region.
Another member, Betty Lightfoot, also writes and performs her own poems and monologues about childhood memories and current everyday life. Dr. Paul Salveson, another member, has written a book on Women Writers In Dialect.
Michael Higgins is not only Chair of The Edwin Waugh Dialect Society but is also a member of Royton History Society, to which he has given talks on Morris Dancing And Rushbearing, Rhymes And Songs of The Christian Years, and Peterloo, about which he spoke to Steve Bewick and I on our all across the arts radio programme a few years ago. In 2013 he spoke to various other history societies about The Battle Of Flodden to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the event.
He is at heart, though, a reciter, in standard and dialect language, of spoken poetry on which he occasionally accompanies himself on a musical instrument.
He is, indeed, a quiet man of many talents and his recording telling of Queen Of The Well has also been shown as a puppet show.
Michael and another wonderful poet from the area recently gave a public reading of Shelley´s Mask Of Anarchy, which discusses the Peterloo Massacre indelibly associated with Manchester and wider areas of the North West UK.
Michael read the words of the ´narrator´ whilst Eileen Earnshaw, as Hope, plays the manic or ´maniac´ maid who tells most of the tale. I know and love Eileen, as she is an occasional contributor to our all across the arts pages in The Rochdale Observer and other Manchester Evening News Group outlets. I believe the manic maid to be surely the role she was born to play !
The performance took place at the top of Tandle Hill, where Michael also unveiled a new memorial stone in the name of Edwin Waugh.
It sounds like an incredibly atmospheric and somewhat historic setting and Eileen at least, will be working in a very different but equally evocative setting on Sunday October 20th from 5.30 pm to 9.00 pm. In the cavernous, high on hill church of Saint Mary In The Baum, she and the aforementioned Robin Parker as well as Seamus Kelly and Katie Haigh, two other writers occasionally mentioned in these despatches, will be reading in an event exploring the theme of ´Identity,´ hosted by Steve Cooke, who runs all across the arts in the UK, along with its off-shoot of Stories We Could Tell.
The event will feature a performance by Sue Devaney, star of Dinner Ladies and who recently appeared in a Coronation Street storyline as Kevin Webster´s sister. There will also be contributions from individuals like Seamus Kelly, Robin Parker and Katie Haigh among ensemble performances by creative writing groups like Touchstones Pulling Threads, Weaving Words and Langley Writers. Michael has promised to drop us a review of the event, which we will publish here.
On top of all this kind of work, though, Michael always has to keep his eye on the Edwin Waugh Dialect Society syllabus and he tells me that events for the remainder of 2019 include a ¨Stag Neet´ in November and that later in the season, in 2020, Robin Parker will deliver an event called Cockney Capers, recalling his childhood days and perhaps re-visiting his own dialect.
So The Edwin Waugh Dialect Society continues to speak well (if indecipherably to some of us) about the works of Woffe. Meetings are held on the second Wednesday of every month from October to June at 7.30 pm in the St. Andrew´s Methodist Chapel, in Rochdale.
There is ample parking and annual membership is only a fiver with donations, to help defray the cost of room hire, being also gratefully accepted.
Their calendar of forthcoming events, says Michael, ´is full of manly virtue and joy from dialect past.´
And tha can be sure o´a gradely welcome.