Blood and Roses: The Songs of Ewan MacColl

Blood and Roses: The Songs of Ewan MacColl

‘The world that I knew, it has vanished and gone,’ sang Eliza Carthy during Blood and Roses: The Songs of Ewan MacColl, a special concert at the Liverpool Philharmonic this week that marked the centennial of the songwriter and Communist activist’s birth. It was a marvellous evening of passionate songs of politics and love which caused me to reflect on the significance of MacColl’s songs in our changed times. Continue reading “Blood and Roses: The Songs of Ewan MacColl”

A Lowry Summer in an autumn deluge

FeaturedA Lowry Summer in an autumn deluge

‘You never see the sun in my work … because I can’t paint shadows.  I kept trying for years’.

So said LS Lowry.  But, in Salford on Tuesday to see A Lowry Summer, the exhibition mounted by The Lowry to mark the artist’s 125th birthday year, I thought maybe the real reason was that the sun never bloody shines in this city.  I know that’s a base calumny on Manchester, but the rain was coming down like stair rods (northern colloquial, archaic: look up on Google), and had been for nearly 48 hours without pause. This wasn’t a Lowry summer: it was a deluge.

Actually, with almost the whole of the Lowry Collection on display, alongside paintings on loan which have never previously been displayed at The Lowry, this exhibition is something of a Lowry deluge.  It is a truly comprehensive survey of the artist’s output – warts and all.

In the early seventies, when my generation were establishing ourselves after university, a common sight inthose first flats was an Athena poster of a typical Lowry northern industrial landscape.  Popular recognition had come late for Lowry (he was in his 80s by then), but for a while his star was definitely in the ascendant (in 1967, Status Quo’s first hit single had popularized his ‘Pictures of Matchstick Men’ and in 1976 he received an honorary DLitt from my old uni, Liverpool).

Of course, we now know – largely thanks to the exhibitions mounted by The Lowry since its inception in 2000 – that Lowry painted a lot more besides industrial landscapes populated by tiny stick people. He painted continuously throughout his adult life, keeping the activity secret for over forty years while working as a rent collector in Salford.  This exhibition showcases all aspects of his work – the industrial townscapes alongside early drawings, portraits, through to later rural landscapes and seascapes.

More than anything, though, the exhibition causes the viewer to question some common assumptions about Lowry – the man and the artist. To what extent do those scenes of working class northerners at work and play represent a benign view of the people portrayed?  How significant an artist is Lowry – and which of his works represent his greatest achievements? Walking around this extensive – and exemplary – exhibition, the inescapable conclusion was that the works on show ranged from the great to the truly awful.  Indeed, one wonders whether Lowry would ever have wanted some of his late caricatures to be put on public display.

I am tired of people saying I am self-taught.  I am sick of it.  I did the life drawing for twelve solid years, and that I think is the foundation of painting
– LS Lowry, 1968

The show features many early pencil drawings and portraits which reveal his artistic skill.  Among some excellent early portraits in pencil and oil on show here are ‘Portrait of a man looking right’ (1914), ‘Male Model’ (1908), ‘Model with headdress’ (1918),  ‘Boy’ (completed in 1913 and depicting a family friend killed in First World War), ‘Artist’s Mother’ (c1920) and ‘Seated Male Nude’ (1914).

These are fine works, rightly valued by Lowry just as much as his more well-known paintings.  They show that Lowry was adept at handling line and tone.  Lowry was always irritated by people who thought he was an amateur painter, self-taught and untutored: ‘Started when I was fifteen. Don’t know why. Aunt said I was no good for anything else, so they might as well send me to Art School…’.  In a profile of his career on The Lowry website, his early training and influences are summarized:

 In 1905 he began evening classes in antique and freehand drawing. He was to study both in the Manchester Academy of Fine Art and at Salford Royal Technical College in Peel Park. Academic records show him still attending classes in the 1920s. Lowry knew from his teachers – people like the Frenchman Adolphe Valette – how French Impressionism had changed the painting of landscapes and the modern city. He knew from exhibitions in Manchester what the current trends in modern art were, and deeply admired Pre-Raphaelites like Ford Madox Brown and Rossetti. Far from being a naïve Sunday painter, Lowry was an artist looking for his own distinctive way of painting and drawing – and for a subject matter he could make his own, preferring eventually the view from the Technical College window to that of the posed model.

A View from the Window of the Royal Technical College, Salford (above), a pencil drawing made in 1924, shows the view from the art school balcony (now Salford University Peel Building) and has been described as ‘the pinnacle of the artist’s achievement with the pencil …The composition is stunningly daring and the whole work a synthesis of every shade of technical mastery from tightly controlled to brilliantly free loose drawing’.

Lowry continued to draw compulsively until the last years of his life, producing a huge range of works including highly finished drawings of a life model, careful portrait studies, rapid sketches made on location and charming sketches of  children and dogs.  Lowry did not merely see drawing as a means to an end in producing his paintings, but as a significant and worthwhile medium in its own right.

But, as this exhibition reveals, these pencil portraits in later years turned into caricatures and grotesques. By the 1960s he was producing caricatures in drawings and paint of people with enlarged moon faces, such as ‘Man in a Trilby’, 1960.

There are many of these on display, most of them execrable (‘Man in a Trilby’ is actually one of the more acceptable ones). One critic of these late drawings complained that Lowry was producing ‘  . . .  derogatory caricatures . . . which may well be intended to disclose a tenderly humorous attitude to his fellow creatures [but] seem to me to be distressing documents of a breakdown in communication, not really intended for exhibition.’

In 2000, on the ocassion of The Lowry’s opening, Jonathan Jones, wrote a searing critique of the late portraits – and Lowry’s work in general – in The Guardian:

Lowry’s late portraits are very bad. They lack any sense of idiosyncrasy or attention to the person painted; they have big, mad, staring eyes, are grotesque, sentimental

As Lowry became older his fascination with the people he saw on the streets, or from a bus, focussed increasingly on the oddest or most bizarre characters.

There’s a grotesque streak in me and I can’t help it . . . They are very real people, sad people . . .  I’m attracted to sadness, and there are some very sad things.

Lowry was by this time a well known and successful artist and many people, including collectors and dealers, found these works too challenging a departure from the industrial scenes they were familiar with.  In drawings made towards the end of his life – and probably never intended for exhibition – figures transform into surreal animals or ghost-like shapes. ‘Isn’t it awful that l have to create them?’ he asked, ‘Why do l do it?’ I feel more strongly about these people than I ever did about the industrial scene … There but for the grace of God go I.’

It’s an attitude seen in his earlier ‘The Cripples’, painted in 1949.

Lowry said of this painting, ‘The thing about painting is that there should be no sentiment.  No sentiment’.  But his friend Hugh Maitland surprised him by declaring that there was no compassion in these late paintings.

Perhaps Lowry’s best-known work outside of the urban landscapes is ‘Head of a Man’, completed in 1938.  It’s an arresting work, described by one critic as ‘like a reflection one might catch of oneself after a sleepless night, all healthy vigour drained, leaving only strain, tension, physical discomfort and utter despair’, and it is indeed a portrait of inner disturbance and unhappiness.

I started a big self-portrait and then I thought, ‘What’s the use of it. I don’t want it and nobody will’. I turned it into a grotesque head, I’m glad I did, I like it better than a self-portrait.

The painting was one of several completed in the 1930s which reflect a period of trauma and unhappiness in Lowry’s life. Lowry was an only child and lived with his mother and father. His mother always insisted that she had wanted daughters and that her son disappointed her. As for his father, their relationship had always been cold and strained. In 1932, his father died of pneumonia and his elderly mother took to her bed, making constant demands on Lowry who cared for her withjout any additional help until she died in 1938.

Not only was Lowry required to be at his mother’s beck and call,  he also discovered that his father had run up sizeable debts which it took Lowry a year to settle. With the strain of work and looking after his mother, Lowry’s health deteriorated. He later said of the period:

I think I reflected myself in those pictures. That was the most difficult period of my life. It was alright when he [his father] was alive, but after that it was very difficult because she was very exacting. I was tied to my mother. She was bedfast. In 1932 to 1939 I was just letting off steam.

Completed in 1950, ‘A Father and Two Sons’ (seen at the top of this post) has something of the same psychological aura.

‘Britain at Play’, painted in 1943, is a painting I hadn’t seen before (it’s on loan from the Usher Gallery in Lincoln). It’s a vibrant canvas, a classic example of Lowry depicting city crowds on holiday.  It teems with tiny figures,  is part imaginary, part based on real locations.  Like his other urban landscapes, it is, I think, a celebration of the northern industrial working class experience.  However, others see differently.  For example, Howard Jacobson has stated that when we see these paintings this way we are guilty of a major misunderstanding.  ‘We have taken Lowry’s matchstick men and matchstick cats and dogs’, he says, ‘to be warmly appreciative, nostalgic evocations of the teeming street life of Manchester and Salford’.  This is wrong.  In the 2007 Lowry Lecture he stated:

Dwarfed by the mills, the chimneys and the chapels, they are foreground without function, the very peremptoriness with which they’re drawn – for why would one reduce the various and abundant fleshiness of humanity to a matchstick silhouette? – the proof that their individuality is not what matters to Lowry. They are a crowd, a cluster, a congregation, viewed by someone who is not of them – not contemptuously or satirically, but from somewhere they are not – figures of loneliness themselves, congregating and yet separate, a mystery to the painter. And that’s the subject – not their street-corner, ragamuffin heritage vitality, and not their servitude to capitalism – but their mystery.

LS Lowry: The Lake, 1937

Lowry’s work is, according to Jacobson, a brutal consideration of the modern world and the lack of communication between people, he argues, and is reminiscent of the work of the playwrights Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett.

There is a painting held here in the Lowry Centre entitled ‘The Lake’. Had Lowry called it The Waste Land or Golgotha or A Vision of Hell, he might have found appreciation for it, and for works on a comparable scale, much sooner. […]

Visionary is the only word for a painting like ‘The Lake’. Apocalyptic, even. Indeed I am not sure that a more visionary or apocalyptic painting has been painted by an English painter in the last 100 years. In the background the city belches its smoke – the whole city, not a glimpse of Agecroft or Pendlebury, but Manchester viewed panoramically as a Canaletto might have designed it – its public buildings, the town hall, the cathedral, of equal standing with the factories, and at first sight belching smoke themselves – but seen allegorically, too, as Blake might have conceived it, Manchester the black and golden city, almost a parody of Jerusalem, coughing out its chaotic promises into a sky that is neither day’s nor night’s. In the centre of the painting a rotting lake – not a lake made by nature, but seemingly a lake of effluence and seepage into which the land is steadily sinking and which appears to be encroaching upon the black and golden city itself. Boats are half submerged in this lake, posts and dead trees and other debris protrude from it. In the foreground, telegraph posts and palings echo the chimneys further back, but they also resemble crosses – hence my alternative title, Golgotha. And among the crosses are what appear to be tumbled down gravestones – the dead granted no more beauty or dignity than the living. The dead disregarded, disrespected, on the very edge of this toxic lake – poisoning it and poisoned by it.

Had ‘The Lake’ been painted in east Germany by an expressionist we would have known where we stood with it. “Sterility, anguish, impotence, redemption promised in the deceiving luminosity of the polluted sky, the unnavigable waters of ruination, the Styxian lake of abandonment and despair…” I have the essay half finished as we speak.

But that’s not how we talk about Lowry. It probably isn’t how we should talk about anybody, but you take my point … In fact, the usual reading of Lowry’s more familiar industrial landscapes has hindered our understanding not only of the more desolate, evacuated paintings, but of the better-known Lowrys too. They are all essentially, in my view, paintings without people in them, even when there are people in them; all – whether they contain gravestones or symbolic crucifixes or not – landscapes of isolation.

LS Lowry: Coming from the Mill, 1930

‘Coming from the Mill’ (1930) is typical of Lowry’s urban landscapes, a vivid record of life in industrial northern England. Lowry thought it his most characteristic Northern industrial landscape.  Based on a pastel drawing made in 1917, it is one of his first ‘composite’ industrial scenes. By this point, his use of spindly figures, had become the characteristic feature of his work. In the early paintings, each ‘matchstick’ figure was carefully and individually depicted. But as the years went by the figures in the big townscapes became less distinctive, more anonymous members of the crowd.  That fact, perhaps contributes to the interpretation of  these canvases conveying a sense of bleakness, rather than affection.  As noted in this exhibition, Lowry used a limited palette of drab colours to portray urban buildings, overcast skies, and smoking factory chimneys – further reinforcing the atmosphere of desolation.

In his critique of Lowry’s work in 2000, Jonathan Jones wrote:

The Lowry paintings worth looking at are the ones everyone knows. There’s no point trying to turn him into a well-rounded artist because he wasn’t one. He was a melancholy compulsive who painted the industrial north of England through deeply disturbed eyes, and caught aspects of it no one else was prepared to look at. It is easy today to sneer at matchstick men but no one can ignore the real authority of a painting like ‘Coming From the Mill’ (1930). It’s a terrifying vision. The lowering buildings are so much more real than the people. Windows repeat themselves in a thudding, monotonous rhythm that is continued by the people trudging along. This is not an angry painting; it is numb. Lowry has internalised what he feels is the city’s spiritual death.

Lowry painted the social world of Salford and Pendlebury systematically, illustrating how the factories produced people deprived of identity. His most disturbing images of the working-class crowd depict moments of supposed freedom and leisure: a drawing from 1925 of the bandstand in Peel Park shows people gathering like maggots around a piece of food, while above them the chimneys tower. Again and again he paints the crowd’s attempts at leisure as feeble reproductions of the discipline of the factory. ‘Going to the Match’ (1953) makes supporting the local football team seem a desperate ritual. One of his scathing images of a crowd trying to forget the factory is called ‘Britain at Play’ (1943).

LS Lowry: Going To The Match, 1953

‘Going To The Match’ won a Football Association competition in 1953. Depicting people going to watch Bolton Wanderers at Burnden Park, the painting sold at auction in 1999 for the then record price for a Lowry of two million pounds.

LS Lowry: Piccadilly Circus, 1960

Lowry was always interested in the places where people came together – a football match, a bandstand in the park, playgrounds, fairs, the seaside – anywhere where crowds gathered.  Many such paintings are on view here. ‘Piccadilly Circus’, painted in 1960 and from a private collection, is a rare London view, while ‘Coming Out of School’ (1927) is not a depiction of a particular place, but is based on recollections of a school seen in Lancashire.

Most of my land and townscape is composite. Made up; part real and part imaginary […] bits and pieces of my home locality. I don’t even know I’m putting them in. They just crop up on their own, like things do in dreams.

LS Lowry: Coming Out of School, 1927

In 1939, John Rothenstein, then Director of the Tate Gallery, visited Lowry’s first solo exhibition in London and later wrote: ‘I stood in the gallery marvelling at the accuracy of the mirror that this to me unknown painter had held up to the bleakness, the obsolete shabbiness, the grimy fogboundness, the grimness of northern industrial England.’

‘Lancashire Fair, Good Friday, Daisy Nook’ (1946) depicts visitors at the annual Easter Fair at Daisy Nook, a rural beauty spot on the River Medlock near Oldham. Echoing Howard Jacobson’s words, Lowry’s figures intermingle with each other, yet remain strangely isolated. Lowry once said: ‘All my people are lonely. Crowds are the most lonely thing of all’

L. S. Lowry: el pintor de la industrialización | Bifurcaciones

LS Lowry: Lancashire Fair, Good Friday, Daisy Nook, 1946

‘Going To Work’ is a 1959 watercolour.  Lowry painted only a small number of watercolours. This picture returns to one of his favorite themes: a swarm of workers funnelling towards the factory gates to start their working day, against a landscape of terraced houses, looming structures and smoky chimneys

I wanted to paint myself into what absorbed me […] Natural figures would have broken the spell of it, so I made my figures half unreal. Some critics have said that I turned my figures into puppets, as if my aim were to hint at the hard economic nescessities that drove them. To say the truth, I was not thinking very much about the people. I did not care for them in the way a social reformer does. They are part of a private beauty that haunted me. I loved them and the houses in the same way: as part of a vision.

Something I didn’t know was that from 1942 to 1945 Lowry was an Official War Artist.  Though he produced very few works, there is one striking painting in this exhibition – ‘Blitzed Site’ from 1942, in which a lone figure stands amidst the ruins of what is probably his home, staring stunned at the shattered remains.

LS Lowry: Blitzed Site, 1942

Another interesting work is ‘The Lodging House’, painted in 1921, and perhaps revealing something of the influence of Adolphe Valette, his tutor when he attended evening classes at Manchester Municipal College of Art in the years before the First World War.  A note informs that this was the first work Lowry sold – to a friend of his father for £5.

The exhibition offers a rare chance to see several works from private collections – including ‘Election Time’ (1929), ‘The Orator’ (1950), and ‘Punch and Judy (1943).

‘After the Fire’ (1933) is another painting from a private collection.  It depicts the aftermath of the destruction of a mill by fire, and stands alongside other ‘incident’ paintings such as ‘The Removal’ (an eviction) or ‘An Accident’ (actually a suicide) and ‘A Fight’ (1935).

LS Lowry: A Fight, 1935

‘The Pond’ (1950) is one of Lowry’s largest works, one which he considered to be his finest industrial landscape. It contains many features typical of Lowry’s work – smoking chimneys, terraced houses and his ‘matchstick’ people who mill about in the city streets and open spaces.

In a letter to the Tate in 1956, Lowry wrote:

The idea originated in the Rochdale area, but it is not meant to represent a particular spot. This is a composite picture built up from a blank canvas. I hadn’t the slightest idea of what I was going to put in the canvas when I started the picture but it eventually came out as you see it. This is the way I like working best.

On the right, in the middle distance, is Stockport Viaduct:

It’s with me all the time – somewhere, just waiting to appear.  It haunts me.

The viaduct appears again in ‘The Viaduct’ (1954), typical of many of his later urban landscapes from which people have largely been removed, leaving only stark, empty panoramas, with perhaps an isolated building – in this case, a Greenall’s pub, the White Star Hotel.  This painting was once owned by Alec Guinness.  In his Diaries, he recalled a journey through deserted city streets where ‘a few thin clerks … hunched themselves against bitter wind, walking stifflyand alone … like the figures in a Lowry industrial landscape’. Other works of this kind include ‘Derelict House’ (1952) and ‘The Waste Ground’ (1949).

There are rural landscapes, and seascapes, too – mainly, though not exclusively painted in the post-war years.  Not many of those are included in this exhibition, but notable works of this kind on display include ‘A Landmark’ from 1936, ‘Seascape’ from 1943 and ‘The Sea’ painted in1963.

LS Lowry: A Landmark, 1936

‘Seascape’ originated following a trip to Anglesey in the early 1940s.  Lowry later spoke about the painting’s origins and its psychological significance:

I couldn’t work … a month after I got home I started to paint the sea.  But a sea with no shore and nobody sailing on it … Look at my seascpes, they don’t really exist you know, they’re just an expression of my own loneliness.

After the death of his mother in 1939, Lowry lived alone for almost 40 years.

In later paintings such as these there is a sense of infinite empty space.  All signs of human activity are removed.  Only solitary buildings or monuments suggest the presence of people.  But, Lowry is no Turner – his landscapes and seascapes do not record the effects of light or weather.  The light is usually cold and even.  Hills and fields are reduced to simple repeated patterns.

LS Lowry: Seascape, 1943

The sea especially was a source of inspiration.  In the 1960s Lowry was a regular visitor to the northeast, staying at the Seaburn Hotel in Sunderland in a room from which he could see the North Sea.

It’s all there.  It’s all in the sea.  The battle of life is there.  And fate.  And the inevitability of it all.  And the purpose.

LS Lowry: The Sea, 1963

At the very end of the exhibition was a painting I had never seen before – ‘Flowers in a Window’, completed in 1956. It seemed very different to everything that went before.

LS Lowry: Flowers in a Window, 1956

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Shelagh Delaney: extraordinary, unique, bloody marvellous

Shelagh Delaney: extraordinary, unique, bloody marvellous

Shelagh Delaney

What do Shelagh Delaney, Marilyn Monroe and Terence Davies have in common?  Well, it’s one of those coincidences that can seem a little spooky. I wanted to note the passing of Shelagh Delaney, who contributed so much to the shaking off old taboos and freshening up cultural expression as the 1950s gave way to the loosened up 1960s.  Then today I read reviews of two newly-released films – My Week With Marilyn and Terence Davies’ latest, The Deep Blue Sea.

The answer: Terence Rattigan. Delaney, who has died of cancer aged 71, was 18 when she wrote A Taste of Honey, which started out as a novel but was turned into one of the defining plays of the 1950s working-class and feminist cultural movements after a trip to the theatre in Manchester to see a Terence Rattigan play that she found so deadly dull that she thought she could do better.

My Week With Marilyn is about the time when, 1956, Marilyn Monroe came to Britain to make a film with Laurence Olivier, the light comedy The Prince and the Showgirl.  That film was scripted by Terence Rattigan, and turned out a flop due to the lack of chemistry between its leading stars. Peter Bradshaw gives My Week With Marilyn a good review in The Guardian, summing it up as ‘light fare: it doesn’t pretend to offer any great insight, but it offers a great deal of pleasure and fun’.  Meanwhile, Terence Davies new film, The Deep Blue Sea, is an impressionistic adaptation of another Terence Rattigan play.

Jeanette Winterson wrote a passionate eulogy for Shelagh Delaney last year in The Guardian. In it she said:

Shelagh Delaney’s first play, A Taste of Honey, was produced at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1958, and then transferred to the West End and Broadway. She was 18. It’s the story of Jo, a working-class girl who gets pregnant while her mother holidays with her fancy man. Delaney’s play sits in between John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956) and Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane (1964). All three plays were made into movies. Each was part of the new wave in theatre and cinema where the (male) northern working classes stripped life down to the raw.  But Delaney was a woman. She was the dog on its hind legs, to paraphrase Dr Johnson’s comment about women preachers – ‘like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all’.

Winterson went on to berate the critics of the time who belittled and patronised Delaney in reviews that ‘read like a depressing essay in sexism’.  Orton, Osborne, Pinter and the rest didn’t get the same treatment – but then, they were men.  Winterson concluded:

Delaney was born in Salford in 1939. I was born in Manchester in 1959. Same background, same early success. She was like a lighthouse – pointing the way and warning about the rocks underneath. She was the first working-class woman playwright. She had all the talent and we let her go.

It’s a remarkable story: in little more than a fortnight, Delaney, 18 years old, working class and an 11-plus failure, bashed out a play about a Salford girl, Jo, who lives in a decrepit flat in Salford with her mother; one Christmas she is left alone, goes to bed with a transient Nigerian sailor, gets pregnant and is lovingly cared for by Geoffrey, a young gay friend. Two fingers to stuffy, snobbish 1950s Britain!  As Delaney’s obituary in The Guardian observes: ‘A Taste of Honey showed working-class women from a working-class woman’s point of view, had a gay man as a central and sympathetic figure, and a black character who was neither idealised nor a racial stereotype’.

In a letter to The Guardian, Nicholas De Jongh emphasises the importance of Delaney’s play in challenging the taboo on the representation of homosexuality on stage:

At the time, and until 1968, the lord chamberlain was responsible for licensing and censoring plays. Delaney was the first dramatist successfully to overcome the ancient, censorial veto on stage plays that openly depicted gay characters or discussed homosexuality. Her sympathetic portrayal of the play’s young, gay student was, therefore, ground-breaking. Until then playwrights tried to evade the censor’s veto by resorting to subterfuge and innuendo. When A Taste of Honey was submitted for licensing it caused a furore. The lord chamberlain’s assistant comptroller, Brigadier Norman Gwatkin, commented: “I think it’s revolting, quite apart from the homosexual bits … To me it has no saving grace whatsoever. If we pass muck like this, it does give our critics something to go on.”

But the lord chamberlain’s chief play-reader, Charles Heriot, judged: “It is concerned with the forbidden subject in a way that no one I believe could take exception to.” The lord chamberlain inclined to Heriot’s view and licensed the play. It is highly probable that Delaney’s treatment of the subject and the favourable critical and public response to A Taste of Honey played a significant role in persuading the lord chamberlain partially to relax his ban on homosexuality and gays a few months later. Shelagh Delaney ought to rank as a gay heroine.

The play opened in May 1958, at the Theatre Royal in London and was an immediate hit, with the influential critic Kenneth Tynan observing: ‘Miss Delaney brings real people to her stage, joking and flaring and suffering and eventually, out of the zest for life she gives them, surviving’.  In 1959 the play moved to the West End and Delaney sold the film rights for a considerable sum. The film, which she scripted with the director Tony Richardson, and which starred Rita Tushingham as Jo, was released in 1961. It won four Bafta awards, including best British screenplay and best British film, while Tushingham won a Bafta for best newcomer.  In 1960 A Taste of Honey had opened on Broadway while a BBC Monitor documentary Shelagh Delaney’s Salford, directed by Ken Russell, had profiled the author in her home town.  Watch it here on YouTube:

Ironically, in Salford, where Delaney was born, the council fumed that the portrayal was an insult to the town.  However, after it had become a runaway success, and Delaney a national celebrity, she was asked for her manuscript copy of the play for Salford library. Delaney called them hypocrites, and gave the original script to Joan Littlewood, the play’s producer, instead.

The Guardian obituary notes these aspects of Delaney’s background:

She had Irish grandparents, one of them an ardent socialist. Her father was a bus inspector and an avid reader and storyteller. He would recount with flair his experiences in the Lancashire Fusiliers in north Africa.

Among the most vivid experiences of Delaney’s childhood were going to the Salford Hippodrome and to the cinema, sometimes three times a week. She attended three primary schools, failed the 11-plus and attended secondary school in Broughton, Lancashire, where the headteacher encouraged her to watch the school production of Othello. She was 12 and had already realised that she could write better than the other pupils in the class. Her interest in drama waxed as her interest in school work waned. She made three half-hearted attempts to transfer to the local grammar school but got there only at the age of 15. She left at 17 and had little interest in studying to be a teacher, the most realistic career path on offer. Instead, she took dead-end jobs as a clerk in a milk depot, a shop assistant, an usherette at Manchester opera house and a worker in the research photography department of the electrical engineering company Metropolitan-Vickers.

Taste of Honey poster

A Taste of Honey poster

Tony Richardson’s film version of A Taste of Honey, was beautifully shot in black-and-white by Walter Lassally on location in Salford, and made a star of 19-year-old Rita Tushingham as the sad but ever-hopeful working-class teenage heroine.  A key movie in the British new wave that included Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, scripted by Alan Sillitoe from his novel, and The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, starring Tom Courtenay, also adapted from a Sillitoe novel, and Richard Lester’s Beatles film, A Hard Days Night.

There’s a memorable scene where Jo and Geoffrey are filmed, framed by the arches of a railway viaduct.  Jo says, ‘My usual self is a very unusual self … I’m an extraordinary person, there’s only one o’me like there’s only one o’you’.  ‘We’re unique’, responds Geoffrey, ‘unrivalled … we’re bloody marvellous’.  There was no better summation of the mood of burgeoning optimism and confidence that was sweeping the nation’s youth, and no more appropriate testimonial to Shelagh Delaney: an extraordinary person, unique, bloody marvellous.

Not surprisingly, then, the Beatles were big fans of Delaney and showed their appreciation by recording their vocal version of the instrumental theme originally written for the Broadway version of the play.  ‘A Taste Of Honey’ was part of The Beatles’ live repertoire in 1962 and 1963, and was the first song recorded for their first album, Please Please Me.  Paul McCartney later recalled:

‘A Taste Of Honey’ was one of my big numbers in Hamburg – a bit of a ballad. It was different, but it used to get requested a lot. We sang close harmonies on the little echo mikes, and we made a fairly good job of it. It used to sound pretty good, actually.

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Cruising the canal: Pier Head to Salford Quays

Yesterday we enjoyed the Mersey Ferries’ cruise along the Manchester Ship Canal in glorious sunshine under a cloudless sky. The cruise begins at the new  Mersey Ferries terminal building (opened in April) which houses a branch of the Beatles Experience.

The £10 million building had aroused controversy because of fears it would impair the view of the Three Graces from the river. But as can be seen here, the 3-storey building somehow manages to be low-rise.

A guide provides an informative commentary for nearly the full four hours of the trip!

This guy kept up an informative commentary for about four hours!

The Museum of Liverpool Life building has now taken shape – it’s interesting that its form seems to echo that of the Ferry Terminal. I wonder, is that an accident – or do they share the same architect?

The cruise is a journey through the industrial history of the  Mersey and the towns to which it has given life. Opened in 1894, the Manchester Ship Canal was one of the last major canals to be constructed in Britain. It stretches for 36 miles from Eastham, on the southern shore of the Mersey estuary 6 miles from Liverpool, almost to the centre of Manchester.

Passing the old Eastham ferry pier

Leaving Eastham Lock at the western end of the Manchester Ship Canal

The canal roughly follows the original route of the rivers Mersey and Irwell, along its course using several sets of locks.

With deteriorating economic conditions in the 1870s, the dues charged by the Port of Liverpool, and the railway charges from there to Manchester were seen as excessive by Manchester business interests. A ship canal was proposed as a way to reverse Manchester’s economic decline by giving the city direct access to the sea for its imports and its exports of manufactured goods.In 1882, a meeting of Manchester businessmen resolved to create a canal to enable sea-going ships to reach Manchester, so that Manchester industry could compete with other areas by avoiding the high charges for using rail transport and Liverpool Docks. The proposals were bitterly opposed by Liverpool and the railway companies but, in 1885, Parliament passed a bill approving the plan.

Ellesmere Port – entrance to the Shropshire Union canal

We pull in to allow a tanker hauled by tug to pass

Stanlow oil refinery

Frodsham Marsh – Liverpool on the skyline

Frodsham Marsh – the ferry that takes cattle across the canal to the saltmarsh

River Weaver joins the canal

Weston Point – Weaver navigation

Christ Church, Weston Point – built by the Trustees of the River Weaver Navigation Company for employees and families in 1841.

Salt washes into the canal at Weston Point

Salt on the quay at Weston Point

Approaching Runcorn rail and road bridges

Widnes church across the Mersey

Fiddler’s Ferry power station

Approaching Acton Grange viaduct railway bridge

In addition to the Barton swing aqueduct which carries the river Irwell the Bridgewater Canal across the Ship Canal, there are a further seven swing road bridges, four high level road bridges, five high level railway viaducts and five sets of huge locks – Eastham, Latchford, Irlam, Barton and Mode Wheel.

Approaching Latchford High Level Bridge preceded by swan

Passing beneath the M6 viaduct

The junction with the River Bollin

Today, largely because of the decline of UK-based manufacturing industry and also because many ocean-going ships are too large to fit in the canal, the amount of freight it carries has dropped to about six million tonnes each year. Salford Quays are no longer used as ship docks, and ships using the Manchester Ship Canal unload their cargo at various places along the canal.

Irlam locks

Barton Road swing bridge

However, in 2007  Tesco announced that it was using the canal for transporting wine between Liverpool and the Irlam Container Terminal, from where the cargo is offloaded and transported to a nearby bottling plant. Tesco say that this will save 700,000 miles of road haulage per year.

Centenary Bridge, Trafford Park industrial estate

Approaching Salford Quays

Mode Wheel locks, Salford

Imperial War Museum North

Salford Quays – The Lowry

When the canal reaches Manchester (or more properly Salford) it enters a web of quays and jetties. The old Salford-Manchester Docks disappeared in the early 1970s and over the past few decades, as Manchester has ceased to be the strong centre of manufacturing that it used to be, the canal has fallen largely into disuse.

Salford Quays – Millenium Footbridge raised

The docks were redeveloped as Salford Quays, with waterside housing, light industry, entertainment and recreational complexes (The Lowry, Imperial War Museum) and now the BBC Media City development.

Salford Quays – the new BBC Media City development