A 1987 Journey into Scotland … Part 5
I went to junior school at one end of Argyle Street. Mrs Whittle’s sweet shop was at the other end and next door to that was Number 3 Argyle Street and that was where Stan Laurel was born. Every town likes to have a favourite son and Ulverston has one right out of the very top layer of the top drawer. When I lived in the town very little was made of the fact. Everybody knew it but nobody made a fuss. As boys at school (it was a single sex primary) we had far more interest in Mrs Whittle’s than the house where Arthur Stanley Jefferson was born on the 16th June 1890. He’d only been dead for 18 months when I had my first lesson.
In recent years Ulverston has made a good job of marking this comedy great. When I passed through on my bicycle in 1987 there were a couple of rooms out the back of what had been Cubin’s electrical shop. One of these contained memorabilia that Bill Cubin had collected and the other was a little cinema showing videos (then still new enough to have a novelty value) of Laurel and Hardy films. I paid my cash and sat in the dark and was once again reminded of just how good they were. I love film comedy and would have these two at the top of my list alongside The Marx Brothers and Buster Keaton. Keaton was overheard at Stan’s funeral. “Chaplin wasn’t the funniest and I wasn’t the funniest. This man was the funniest.” I like holding the occasional opinion and am even happier when they coincide with someone like Buster Keaton.
Stan didn’t stay in Ulverston long but there is something about the simple decency of his characterisations and his reputation for kindness and honesty that suggest that the town stayed in him. His parents were both theatrical people and that meant a certain amount of moving around. He went to school in Bishop Aukland and on Tyneside and was working in his father’s Glasgow theatre by the age of 16. By twenty he had joined Fred Karno’s troupe alongside a young Charlie Chaplin. When the company visited America during the first world war, these two remained behind.
He’d had considerable success as a solo artist in films before signing for Hal Roach’s studio in 1926. He was 36 and had still to find his real and lasting fame. He felt that he had done his bit in front of the camera and it was his intention to work as a writer and a director. It was only after another actor was injured at home while basting a leg of roast lamb, that Laurel (by now he had changed his name) was persuaded to give writing jokes a break and return to performance. The other actor was Oliver Hardy. He performed as a stand-in for Hardy in the film “Get ’em Young” and this led on to the pair working together. The rest is history.
I buy a Stan Laurel mug which I strap to the top of my bicycle bags and ride off past the house I called home for six years (where I was happy to see that the lawn that I helped to lay was still looking good and the garden that my mother planted had been allowed to mature and had been well tended) towards Hoad Hill. This is by no means a high hill and if it wasn’t for the lighthouse monument to Sir John Barrow on top, it probably wouldn’t be of great regard. As it is, it is Ulverston’s most conspicuous landmark and the hill was a place where I spent many, many hours as a boy. The front has good paths where Ulverstonians love to walk and sit. It even has a stone circle and a sheer slab of rock with a natural sofa formed in it, which we knew as The Devil’s Armchair. It was a popular place to sit and tell stories.
In summer the rough grasses on the steep slopes would dry lightening fast and skiddy and we slid down, with great recklessness, on squares of cardboard. The school cross country involved running up the gentler slopes of the back of the hill (known with great Cumbrian naming skills as “The Back of Hoad”) and bounding down the steep front like mountain goats. It was exhilarating and not a little bit dangerous. I hope they still run the course but fear that someone may have done a risk assessment on a clipboard and put a stop to it. Cross Country Day was a real event. Boys from the three year groups at the Lower School would set off at half hour intervals to be cheered on by the girls. (The school was very keen on guarding gender roles in those days). Everybody had the afternoon off lessons and it had a real festive feel. The first runners would appear at the top of the hill about ten minutes after leaving the school fields (we had to round the monument as part of the course) and be in sight as they dashed down the slope. Over a hundred were in each race and coming eighth one year was something I felt rather proud of.
Everybody in town knew the monument was a memorial to Sir John Barrow. Everybody knew that the rather nice tumbledown, whitewashed cottage at Dragley Beck was John Barrow’s Cottage but nobody seemed to have any real idea who the man was. That he was supposed to be famous and that he came from Ulverston was enough. He was in fact Permanent Secretary to the Admiralty during the first half of the nineteenth century and was the man who suggested St Helena as the second place of exile for Napoleon Bonaparte. The monument was open on bank holidays and you could walk up the spiral stairs inside for a breezy view of Morecambe Bay.
The back of the hill drew me more and more. It was less visited and, away from the paths, altogether more wild and rugged. A place where we learnt where natural springs rose with clear, clean water. I gathered reeds and taught myself how to weave mats after learning about them at school. I became a little bit obsessed with a colony of lapwings that nested here and this led on to a lifelong love of birdwatching. When with my brothers or friends we’d play football or cricket on the stoniest, most sloping, triangular pitch in England. When by myself and armed with a pair of binoculars, a notebook, a sandwich and the Observer’s Book of British Birds I’d spend hours watching the plovers the kestrels and the larks.
I left Furness in 1974 the year that it was moved out of Lancashire and into Cumbria. It was a decision that had pleased nobody at the time. By 1987 Barrow still felt like a Lancastrian town, sooty and industrial, but Ulverston was finding its place as one of the best market towns in the southern lakes. It suited being in Cumbria.