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Third series, episode 28

All 120 episodes are available here on the HebWeb.

In episode 28, spring has sprung, there's card art and art art, missing police, bees, but no Sting, poets in pubs, a Scott in a shop, a cure for prosopagnosa, men with perms, a search for the Cathars, and the sex life of slugs and other animals.

Well, I'll go to our house

Spring has sprung. In the park, much loved trees were in full bloom. They were once condemned in a scheme to let parents keep an eye on their kids without having to leave the comforts of the park café. The fact that the community outcry helped to save the trees seems each year to make them feel more precious.

I noticed that the Canal and River Trust has finally replaced the map that indicated hikers should head east before presumably circumnavigating the globe in order to get to Todmorden. Perhaps, post Happy Valley, the new map is to tempt day trippers away from overcrowded Hebden Bridge to the delights of a town a few miles away that has proper banks and supermarkets and a festival about death.

I walked home along the towpath, daffodils lighting the way.

Old Gate art

At Dear Prudence Studio, I bought a Mothering Sunday card for PW, giving her thanks for helping to raise our kids. It's a trend amongst dads, according to the delightful and delightfully named Laurie Park, illustrator and card maker. Laurie reassured me that she did not wait to meet a guy surnamed Park before taking the plunge.

As it happens, PW wishes she'd kept her surname, feeling kinship with border reivers, Northumbrians and Scots, rather than the Murphy clans over the water. Perhaps I should have started a trend by switching my last name to hers. George Elliott has a certain ring to it.

I called in at the gallery in what was once the Hole in the Wall pub, star of a Tetley Bitter advert, the site of a Civil War skirmish featuring an errant blunderbuss, and also the location of my 50th birthday celebration. I liked the eerie music and unspoilt interior in the gallery, as well as the art work. It's also a quiet oasis amidst Hebden's bustle.

Where is thy Sting?

At a packed Golden Lion in Todmorden, I performed the World Premiere of Our neighbour came back as a slug, when my friend and MC Theresa invited me onto the low stage.

"And now, here's one from our oldest performer. Do you need a hand, George?"

As usual with new material, I had my antennae twitching to check out which lines hit home. All went well, including a poignant interplay between gardener and slug, apart from a reference to the former lead singer of a band called The Police, at which tumbleweed rolled ...

Thinking about it later, I realised that The Police were performing five decades ago, and younger audience members might not have recognised the reference to the front man's avowed prowess at tantric sex.*

I was going to sign off with, "You've been a great audience, and I have been a slug," but, encouraged by the warm reception to the monologue, I sang, The Birds and the Bees. Which also went well, especially as people need advice on mating at this time of year.

But! By the iron rule of Murphy's Law, as I was applauded from the stage, my head in the air and my eyes not on the ground, I managed to kick over the pint of White Rat I had secreted under my chair. The ale raced across the aisle, and female poets shrieked and rushed to lift their bags to escape its onrush. H chivvied me to find a mop and bucket, but I was hopelessly trapped in an ADHD brain freeze.

Fortunately, I was saved by the next performer, a talented lass from Leeds, who leapt across my beer pond like a ballerina, and also by a ministering angel who swiftly mopped up on my behalf, no doubt conscious of my embarrassment and decrepitude.

*Episode 27 now has an updated version of the monologue

Poets and pubs

Caught in a heavy shower one day, I ducked into The Shoulder of Mutton and found a book by a Nobel prize winner on a table which enjoyed a view of the river.

The landlord was telling customers he'd moved into rented accommodation after a sink hole appeared in his kitchen. It could have been worse.

In the grim, snow clad winter of 1947, the subsequent Great Thaw rushed streams laden with rocks and debris through Cotton Stones, Triangle, to a house built over a culvert, where the kitchen floor fell through, and the water gathered up Mrs Brown, who was cooking her Sunday roast, and sped off with her. Her body, perhaps still in its pinafore, was recovered a few days later in Brighouse.

As I left, the landlord was informing a table full of Happy Valley fans how to locate Catherine Cawood's house. Seeing Sylvia Plath on the side of the pub, I remembered I had in my possession two book vouchers.

I finally used my daughter's and son's Christmas vouchers at The Bookcase to purchase Red Comet (2020) by Heather Clark, Professor of Poetry at Huddersfield University, a Pulitzer Prize Finalist biography of Sylvia Plath and a signed copy of Cuddy, the latest novel by Ben Myers. In a generous moment, I cheerfully told Jake Kirkwood, the co-proprietor, he could keep the change.


Turned out I overpaid by 1p.

Watch your manners

My bedside reading recently has been Chaucer, by Peter Akroyd, who records the instructions given to young Geoffrey during his courtly training:

Be careful where you spit;
Hold the meat with three fingers only when you cut it;
Do not bite your bread but cut it;
Be well seynge and full of words.

I reckon Geoffrey was brilliant on that last one.

Good Time Charlies

On a warm sunlit day, I had a chat with Scott, proprietor of Good Time Charlies in Market Street, and a Beatles and Blues fan, judging by his books and the background music. His sister runs Tall Poppies next door and Scott's about to launch a new hardware shop across the road.

The sun was out as I walked past the bustling Old Gate, where PW had booked a table upstairs with two retired workmates. I thought of nipping in to pass on the rules for fine dining that were given to Geoffrey Chaucer, but thought better of it.

Over the eponymous bridge towards the White Swan, where I showed busker Michael Ray and wife Lisa a plaque in honour of an earlier busker who worked the same pitch as Michael. Lisa, a grounded, cheerful yoga teacher, told me they saw Ruby Wax in Hebden recently, and she invited Ruby to join them for a chat and a coffee, which she did.

I bought newspapers at Oasis, but couldn't immediately leave, as Happy Valley tourists were getting their photos taken on the step. The assistant dashed past me and rapped on the door demanding, `Let our customers out!'

I read the news today, oh boys …

Sixty percent of teenage girls and young women in the States and forty percent in the UK have experienced being throttled during sex. Now there's a debate about whether school children should be taught how to 'safely' strangle their girlfriends and boyfriends, as some young people have died. Apparently, this practice has become popular due to pornography, social media and revenge porn videos.

As Hadley Freeman argued in The Sunday Times, there is no safe way of partially asphyxiating someone. The first time it happened to her she thought she was being murdered. Now lads say they are frightened of being labelled as 'vanilla' if they don't spice up their sex play by choking their partners.

Beep Beep

After living together for half a century, I still manage to unintentionally frighten my present wife.

Descending from our 2nd floor shower room one morning, I was back in our bedroom, and half dressed, when PW came into the room. In most homes, this humdrum happening, would be unremarkable. In our house it presaged an episode not unlike those in the horror film Scream, lacking only the mask, the blade, the blood, the scary music and Courtney Cox. I wondered, should I cough or burst into song to gently alert PW of my presence, but thought better of it, having failed with these strategies over the previous five decades. So I opted to stand statue still, before the inevitable happened.

PW turned, caught sight of me, staggered forward, clutching her heart, fighting for breath, but on this occasion, was too overwhelmed to scream. I braced myself as she slowly recovered before summoning her powers of chastisement.

"What … were you doing … just … standing there?!"

"Well … I have to stand somewhere!" (©, Spike Milligan)

"Well, don't ever do that to me again!"

PW suffers from prosopagnosia, and is liable to blank people without meaning to. But as far as I know, this more extreme version of the condition, where you suffer heart stopping shock when your partner unexpectedly appears, has never been an item on Woman's Hour, nor has it been cited by defence barristers on behalf of domestic murderers.

"Members of the jury, my client turned round and saw … her husband! … appearing as if from nowhere! … Terrified, and in a state of shock, she grabbed a knife and ran him through as if he was an evil demon, because in her eyes, blinded with terror, that is who he was!"

But I think I may have come up with a solution.

Forthcoming legislation will compel manufacturers of electric cars to include a Beeper to alert pedestrians. Perhaps this gadget could be adapted for warning one's partners of your approach. A gentle `beep, beep', could prove a lifesaver. In terms of funding, perhaps the Dragon's Den team might buy into it?

Remarkably, the terrifying effects of spouses frightening the living daylights out of their other halves, are not just confined to the home. They can also impact on wildlife.

One lovely spring morning, PW parked outside our Midgehole home, and I got out of the front passenger seat and, full of the joys, went round to the pavement. But in that short journey, PW forgot I existed. Stepping out of the car, she looked up, clocked me, and in the manner of a prehistoric cave dweller catching sight of a sabre tooth tiger, instinctively let out a primal scream which caused the parent birds in the heronry above the old dyeworks to abandon their fledgelings, and clank off complainingly, never to return.

"Don't exaggerate,' said PW, looking over my shoulder as I typed these sacred files. In response, I flourished my poetic licence.

Then she said, I had a knack for "gormlessly frightening people", and reminded me of the occasion when I noticed a large butterfly basking on a wall in Midgehole, and in my excitement, beckoned a female rambler who had her back to me, having paused to admire the bell curve beauty of the hill beyond the river.

"Remind me. What did you say to her?"

"Have you seen … the size of this? … She did hesitate slightly before turning round."

"I rest my case,' said PW, and left the room before I could respond.

When men had perms

Here's an I.D. mug shot of me from the 70s, when I was studying for my M.A in Education at Leeds Uni. I studied mechanics institutes and labourers reading rooms in the 19th century, when mill workers and other labourers could attend night classes after a shift and I still notice the buildings dotted about the Ridings.

As for the hairstyle, I hadn't realised women's hairdressers are actually torturers. The curls were sadistically tight and the gunk they put on my hair stank. When I came home, baby Leah looked at me and immediately burst into tears.

Hebden Film Festival

I laughed at Jon Richardson's comment that our cinema has lots of films about 'crying Bulgarians', but I loved the previous festival, especially the Chris Sievey film. But this time, because of ill health in my family, I missed the whole festival. I still have my Frank Sidebottom place mat to hang onto, however, which is some consolation.

Cycling in Search of the Cathars

by Elaine Connell and Chris Ratcliffe

This book is now in its third (2022) edition. The style of the book is engaging in its detailing of earnest research alongside the quirks and hurts of a camping expedition before the French camping season had properly got under way. It is enhanced by allowing the two authors to share witty diary reflections on the habits of their partner alongside the main narrative.

That narrative stays in the mind, the reader almost sharing in the intrepid cyclists' sweaty struggle over undulating terrain in weather that ranged from extreme downpours to stultifying heat.

Sometimes, Cathars were known as Albigensians after the city of Albi, where I once enjoyed a tour round the remarkable cathedral. I felt some sympathy for the Cathar belief that the good God was the God of the New Testament, whereas the bad God was the God of the Old Testament.

I met up with Chris in the Town Hall, for a chat about his motivations for making the tour and sent him some follow up questions.

Can you describe the most fundamental aspects of the Cathar religion?

Vegetarianism (although they ate fish), women priests, pacifism, reincarnation, antipathy to the accumulation of wealth by the Roman Catholic church. They were part of the gnostic tradition of Christianity. While I found their ideas fascinating for the time, I don't necessarily agree with everything.

Which beliefs did you find most attractive?

Women priests, vegetarianism, opposition to the wealth of the Pope's Christianity.

How did the Inquisition crush the religion?

The Church in Rome called for a Crusade against the Cathars and slaughtered them in their thousands, especially at Beziers. Often, they burnt them at the stake.

Looking back, what are your reflections on the book?

I like to think of the book as a combination of cycling and camping adventures and anecdotes, combined with our historical quest - on a budget.

More info about Cycling in Search of the Cathars

Readers Write

'To sleep – perchance'

Lack of sleep can make us blame the world. We sometimes think, 'Life, owes me this one, it's part of the deal.' But often we blame ourselves. There's a particular guilt attached to insomnia, the feeling that our thoughts are our enemy. Insomnia feeds on self-loathing as well as on stress.

Research shows that people who can't sleep at night tend to die younger.
I'm usually accomplished at drowsing into sleep, but this March, as the weather dragged its feet towards spring, I only averaged three or four hours per night. And in a weak moment, at 5am one morning, I shared my anguish with my internet friends. And I asked if my hypothyroid tablet was keeping me too hyper.

Holly in Todmorden, who has been taking thyroxine for twenty five years, advised me to check on any other tablets I take, in case they work against each other. Jean in London has been on thyroxine for 35 years and wrote to say she gets blood tests several times a year to check on its impact. As it happens, I had a test last week, with reassuring results. Anna, from the Haworth Storytellers, reassured me, the tablet didn't affect her sleep pattern.

Colden storyteller, Christine, suggested using melatonin, a natural hormone released in the brain which controls the sleep-wake cycle of vertebrates. Artist Bryan sent a sympathetic message, about finding ways of dealing with sleep problems. Actually, Bryan's tips are similar to the advice I once gave to a Brighouse friend and storyteller. And going to bed at 1am and rising before nine worked for him.

Folksinger Keith wrote from the Midlands, suggesting I should use a Grounding/ Earthing pillow to get off. Sounds tempting.

Val from Stanley blamed her husband's snoring for her problems.

Jenny in York uses a breathing technique which 'works every time'.

Dave in Dawley logs his sleep and reckons he gets by on five or six hours a night. He even listens to a blog for half an hour before sleep. Other people tune into technology. Chris from Hebden Bridge told me he listens to R4. And PW has slept with the World Service playing into her ear ever since our son's condition was diagnosed. it helps her to forget her anxieties.

Most nights I have taken to sleeping on my own, with a black out blind down, and my electronic devices banned after 11. I usually read a chapter of a book and almost invariably wind down and let my thoughts meander me off into sleep, before waking up for a toilet visit at 2.30, followed swiftly by another sleep until 6 or 7.

Occasionally, when I wake and visit the bathroom in the small (wee) hours, I realise I'm wide awake. And then I go downstairs to read The Guardian online and have a cuppa.

Greg, of Rat & Ratchet Storytellers wrote, saying that two small sleeps per night was common practice in the Middle Ages. Yes, and it allowed couples to get up to all sorts, at least for an hour or two.

There are lots of famous quotes about sleep being a boon, especially from the pen of the Stratford bard, but here's a 20th century one which seems pertinent just now:

"People sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf."

Rehearsing, first take!

The Birds and the Bees

Murphy's Lore, the book, is available to order here

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