A-Z of England : X is for xafilaH/Halifax.
We’ve Got All the Right People But Keep Listening to the Wrong Ones
Of all the mill towns of the former West Riding of Yorkshire, Halifax is the one that has retained the greatest share of its heritage. Some say this is down to very astute management at local government level. Some say it is because they were too mean to take part in the great sixties urban renewal programme that saw the beating heart ripped out of many of its neighbours. It could be that the hills and cloughs are higher, steeper and deeper. It could be that it is just that bit more into the Pennines and the winds blow stronger and the rain lashes for longer. Some simply say that Halifax is better than the other textile towns. Full stop. End of argument.
I’ve known Halifax in different guises. I used to come with friends to the speedway and cheer local hero Eric Boocock and the Halifax Dukes. Well, I came twice. Speedway is that sort of sport. You love it the first time and come back for more of the same. Unfortunately more of the same is exactly what you get. Be very dubious of any sport that attracts fans with air horns.
I misspent some of my youth counting nuts and bolts in the stores of the Skircoat Green bus depot. I wasn’t diligent. We counted so slowly, it is rumoured, that a full coach left the depot under coats in the time we took to complete our stock check. Our bosses considered themselves white collar and a cut above the overalled mechanics and the brown coated warehouse men. They looked down their noses at us and we cocked a snook back at them while siding with the workers.
I came back to the town in 87 to take up my first teaching post. I loved the Halifax students and they set me up for a happy and successful quarter century. One of those newspaper polls placed Halifax as the second best place to live and go to school in Britain at that time. I don’t think it was all down to me. A year later, after completing my first year in Exeter, that town came the very top of the charts. I cannot claim too much input in that, but success was certainly beginning to follow me around. If nothing else I seemed to be a lucky mascot.
We went to the speedway because Halifax rugby and football teams had hit rock bottom in the seventies. The football team have continued to bump along the sea bed but the eighties saw a strange renaissance of the rugby league team. Local builder David Brook put some money into the club and hired Australian Chris Anderson as player coach. Anderson was at the start of a coaching career which would take in several of Australia’s most successful teams as well as the national side (with whom he had a played 24 won 21 record). He was an unknown and his first act was to fill the Halifax side with fellow Aussies. Not all of these had come over to take the game too seriously, and a drinking culture developed. This culminated in a minibus full of well oiled antipodeans crashing into the River Calder at Luddenden Foot. Nobody was injured.
Once he’d sorted out who wanted to play and who didn’t, he led them to unprecedented success with titles and cups filling the trophy room at Thrum Hall. They played attractive football and I was among the crowds that filled the Scratching Shed at home games and followed them to Wembley in 87 when they won and 88 when they didn’t.
Success has been sporadic since then. For five years they were known as the Blue Sox. The gate halved immediately. In 98 the lovely old ground was sold to become yet another shed of a supermarket and the football and rugby teams moved in together where the speedway riders had once dug their boots into the shale.
For three years the town was the centre of my life. For the last 25 I haven’t been back. It turned into quite a day. When you are playing with memories you are likely to find yourself washing them in tears and drying them with laughter. It didn’t quite work out that way.
They’ve knocked the schools down where I used to teach. A lot of happy memories in shoddy buildings. There were students called Wayne and Tracey. Not too many of those left in schools today. The shop where I used to buy my bacon sandwiches is still open. The pub where we drank after parents’ evenings is closed.
One night it rained so heavily that the Ovenden Road turned into a river. Having nowhere to go, the water poured in torrents into the car park of the massive Dean Clough complex. Cars were picked up by the water and thrown about like loose change. An hour later you even couldn’t tell it had been raining.
Dean Clough had been home to Crossley’s Carpets, the biggest carpet mill in the world. It is very nearly a mile from one end of the mill to the other and at its peak it employed over 6000 millworkers. Today it houses over 150 business ventures and still provides work for 4000 people. It is unlike any such centre in the country as it combines theatre companies, artists, craftsmen and women, educators and entrepreneurs. They co-exist under a philosophy of opening doors to more than just making money. In a way it is a New Lanark of its age and its guiding light is Sir Ernest Hall. The companies live off each other in a symbiotic relationship. It is a most remarkable place but then, Sir Ernest is a most remarkable man.*
My last blog-post talked of a fellow (The fifth Duke of Portland) born to unimaginable wealth, whose contribution to the betterment of mankind, was a collection of tunnels going no-where and the most pointless ballroom in England. Sir Ernest was born with very little and has given a lot of people a great number of life enhancing opportunities.
I met him at a school speech day. He stood up to speak having been introduced as a great industrialist. I set my face into alert mode and prepared to doze off. From his first words I was awake. Here was a man worth listening to. A man who realised that the world had changed and the purpose of education had changed with it. Halifax schools, like those in all northern towns, traditionally produced bosses and workers. The bosses went to grammar schools and learnt about petty hierarchies and the art of feeling superior and how to follow instructions until you are ready to be the one giving instructions. The workers went to secondary modern schools to prepare them for a life of willing subservience.
Sir Ernest talked about opening doors into the spirit. About imbuing people with skills that would never be useless even in times of unemployment. He was talking about music and the ability to write poetically. He saw business management as a creative endeavour. Schools had to be stimulating to the imagination as well as satisfying the natural curiosity that all children have.
I was listening to my own philosophy of education more eloquently expressed. Getting students examination passes is relatively easy. But, and here is the point where many part company, what is the use in them passing these exams if the knowledge and skills required to do so is actually counter productive to a stimulating life? What is the point of a grade A if the world you are preparing for doesn’t require either the knowledge or the skills needed to get it?. Nearly thirty years have come and gone since I listened to him and we are no further on. A great deal of state school education since 1987 has been more about unimaginative people (including secretaries of state) stealing opportunities from children just so they can measure the supposed improvements. An obsession with passing exams has taken a grip on the throat of learning. Those who hold by it are often unaware that if you stimulate true learning, examination passes go up. Children only get one true opportunity to gain an education. Too many have had this opportunity denied them.
It used to make me angry. It made me angrier still that the ideas of people like Sir Ernest have been followed in private schools and these schools have prospered as a result; with an even greater number of their students securing the better jobs.
I spend my day contemplating what this might mean for Halifax. It is a town that has shown imagination by the barrel load and it is a town that has shown equal measure of the unimaginative; the league tables mentality. It has, in Dean Clough, a world leader in creative enterprise. It had the finest, and biggest, building society in the world, dedicated to providing opportunities for working people to own their own homes without over-extending themselves. The box tickers demanded that it became a bank, that it chased profit above all else and it ended in disaster for itself and nearly took the country’s economy with it. It has one of the most remarkable buildings in England, yet it has continuously failed to put it to any use. The Piece Hall would grace Rome and would be a magnet for hundreds of thousands to work and shop and eat and do business. In Halifax, it is undergoing yet another renovation as unimaginative people try to work out what to do with it. It’s like watching someone trying to sell ice cream from a Ferrari.
The planners and builders have just put up Broad Street Plaza with hotel and cinema and a huge pub in honour of Percy Shaw (the Halifax man who invented cat’s eyes – the reflective road safety device). It is a monument of bad taste erected ten years after such places had served their purpose. It is currently doing good trade but only as a result of sucking trade out of the rather lovely, human scale, stone built town centre. It has a church so magnificent that it has been elevated to minster status yet it has laminated posters blue tacked to the ancient oak.
It is the best of towns, it is the worst of towns. It matches anywhere for architecture, it has shown the genius to be a world leader in so many fields. Its children are bright and responsive to learning. Its sportsmen capable of claiming their share of the silverware. Its artists and inventors on a par with the best. Yet it is a tired town. In 1989 I sat in school hall during a speech day and imagined the brave new world we were walking into. That same year I sat in the minster during the school carol service and wept silent tears at the beauty of the singing and the way the students conducted themselves.
“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!”
Interior Shibden Hall
*At the end of his career as a businessman he returned to his first love – music – and became a concert pianist.