At Last—Orwell’s ‘Rambling’ Preacher Identified

Continuing from my most recent post on the subject (yet again, some might say!) of Orwell’s stay in Sheffield in March 1936, my continued research might well have finally yielded a result. In his 1991 book At The Heart of the City Nicholas Farr provides a detailed history of Sheffield’s Methodist Mission Hall, which was subsequently replaced when the Victoria Hall was built in the early twentieth century. Farr’s attention to detail is impressive, which makes the book more than a challenging read. However, quite early on he describes the various inspirational preachers who have spoken at the hall throughout the years, one of the most renowned (in Methodist circles) being the reverend Percy Medcraft, who preached at the hall during the turbulent 1920s and 1930s. In 1936, one of his audience was, as Farr writes: “One man who came… to hear Medcraft… and then resumed his travels… was Eric Blair, who wrote under the pseudonym of George Orwell. At the time, he may have been preparing The Road to Wigan Pier. His impressions of Sheffield were not kind, and one wonders what he thought of the mission.”Orwell's The Road To Wigan Pier

We know now that Orwell was indeed preparing ‘Wigan Pier’, and we know from his diaries what he thought of the mission (see previous post). He was scathing, particularly of the speaker, who it seems, must have almost certainly been Percy Medcraft.

Rev Percy Medcraft

Rev Percy Medcraft

It is unfortunate that the Methodist preacher was described by Orwell in such scathing terms. Medcraft was devoted to his ministry for more than a decade, doing what he could to improve the lives of the Sheffield poor. He would have suspected, I’m sure, that his preaching was probably received by deaf ears, and this, surely, must have affected his delivery.

Orwell moved on, and he later visited the coalfields at Barnsley, where he stayed with a mining family. More on that later.

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O’Brien’s ‘Brotherhood’ Inspired by Orwell’s Visit to Sheffield?

In his diary entry for 3 March 1936, George Orwell writes “In the evening was taken to a Methodist Church where some kind of men’s association (they call it a brotherhood) meet once a week to listen to a lecture and have discussions. Next week a communist is speaking, to the evident dismay of the clergyman who made the announcements. This week a clergyman who spoke on ‘Clean and Dirty Water.’ His lecture consisted of incredibly silly and disconnected ramblings about Shaw’s Adventures of a Black Girl, etc. Most of the audience did not understand a word of it and in fact hardly listened, and the talk and the questions afterwards were so unbearable that Brown and I slipped out… B says that most of the members of the Brotherhood are unemployed men who will put up with almost anything in order to have a warm place where they can sit for a few hours.”

There doesn’t seem to be any record of which Methodist Church it was that Orwell attended, but after spending some considerable time in Sheffield researching the subject it seems almost certain that it would have been Victoria Hall, the main Methodist church in Sheffield, where it seems that there was indeed a working men’s ‘Fellowship’ that met regularly there in the 1930s.

Sheffield's Victoria Hall

Orwell’s use of “Brotherhood” is interesting, because in Nineteen Eighty-Four he has O’Brien explaining the nature of the Brotherhood, a mysterious “huge underworld of conspirators, meeting secretly in cellars”. I know I might be considered fanciful, but I like the idea that Orwell had in mind the dejected group of unemployed Sheffielders when he wrote of the similarly marginalised (and doomed) members of the Brotherhood in his brilliant, but deeply depressing novel. Orwell’s diary entries are often mundane in the extreme. But he seems to have been deeply affected by his stay in Sheffield, to the extent that it might well have been a perfect model for the dystopian London of Nineteen Eighty-Four!

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Graduation

I did it… I graduated! A BA in English Literature with Creative Writing. And then I spent the summer working as a surveyor (yes, I know… but any port in a storm). I have just started on a Masters at UEA. The course is Creative Entrepreneurship, and so far it has been brilliant. I won’t bore you with the details, you can see for yourself here:
UEA Creative Entrepreneurship

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New Tesco Store Modelled on Orwell’s “Airstrip 1″

Tesco is not a supermarket, it’s a superracket. The store near Watford’s town centre has just been refurbished. According to Tesco, this is to provide its ‘loyal’ customers with, as Tesco describes it, a “food first” shopping experience, but in reality it is just to provide some competition to a new Waitrose store due to open almost across the street.

Tesco 'Doublethink'

Signs all over the store make a big play on the words ‘your store’, as though they are doing something purely for the benefit of the customers. In reality, it is just Tesco doublespeak. It is clear that the gigantic organisation follows the Orwellian ‘Airstrip 1’ philosophy when it comes to dealing with its loyal customers, i.e., tell them the same thing enough times and they’ll start to believe it.

I’ve shopped in the new store on one occasion, and I will not be returning. Admittedly, the new store is an improvement on the old one in the respect that the foul smell from the drains near the butchery and fishmongery departments has gone, but this has been replaced by a malodorous atmosphere caused by the legions of management goons strutting around the place keeping the troops in order. By troops, I mean both the shoppers and the Tesco staff. Gone are the morose faces of all the checkout staff. Gone are the insouciant shelf stackers who could not care if you found what you were looking for or not. Gone are the serving staff who always had something else better to do than serve. The same people are still there, but now they have been subjected to a ‘Room 101’ re-education that has resulted in a force of ‘automatons’ trained to smile while retaining the same glassy eyed look of indifference. Woe betide any of them caught without a smile, I dread to think of the consequences, probably tortured like Winston Smith with the rats that were running around in the stinking sewers.

Of course, not everyone of the staff has been brainwashed, not in Room 101 anyway. The management goons are the equivalent of Orwell’s ‘Inner Party’. They are the upper echelons, the ones whose job it is to keep the Winston Smiths in line. I watched them marching around the store in groups of at two and three, all trying to outdo each other in their worship of ‘Big-Brother’. Stern, unsmiling, caring only that the system works. It has to work, even if the customers don’t like it, it has to work. It will work, and here I veer off into Animal Farm by using poor old Boxer’s mantra,”I must work harder, I must work harder”, it will work, it will work. It all seems so obvious and familiar.

I plucked up the courage to approach one of these goons when I could find nowhere in the massive new bakery department to get my ‘fresh that day—store baked’ loaf of bread sliced. The goon broke off from lecturing one of his unfortunate shelf-stackers to glare at me with a look that would turn bread stale, “We don’t slice bread in store anymore—it’s not our policy!’ Not our policy…to slice bread, in a bakery department! I would dearly love to have been a fly on the wall in the committee room where that was decided.

The new CEO of Tesco has been slinging some mud at his ultra successful predecessor, Sir Terry Leahy, for not concentrating on the Tesco core business. He is supposed to be putting into place a set of measures to make Tesco do what it has done for years until Leahy departed, and that is to trash the opposition. Well, they used to do that by outdoing the others, by selling cheap, by giving the customer what he wanted. That is obviously not ‘core’ anymore. Well, in my opinion, he had better do a bit of a rethink, because Tesco are never going to return to their previous dominance by copying niche supermarkets like Waitrose. However, if that’s what they want to do, good luck to them. I know where I’ll be doing my shopping, and it does not begin with a T.

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Orwell’s Writing

Orwell in Wallington (1939)

I have finally accepted that there’s no chance of me getting a job with only six weeks of the summer holiday remaining, even though my swollen foot is much better. So, I’ve resolved to use the remaining time to devote myself to writing. Now, I have to manage this, as I also have my home-life obligations. However, George Orwell managed to write Animal Farm and 1984 while running a sizeable small-holding (growing vegetables, and tending goats and pigs) AND while suffering from the effects of advanced tuberculosis.

Orwell and Trusty Remington

Orwell wrote on an old Remington portable typewriter, and would get down to work at different times during the day. There are many obvious disadvantages to using a typewriter (compared with using a Macbook for instance), but one major advantage is that the racket made by 1930s Remington could be heard by everyone in Orwell’s household. So they knew when he was writing, and left him alone!

Now, in my own busy household, that would be truly wonderful!

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The Source of the River Don

A few views of the Pennine moors above Sheffield at the location of the source of the River Don.
The Source of the River Don The river emerges from the peat in the gulley to the right of the image.

Winscar Reservoir

Winscar Reservoir

Within two kilometres of the River Don’s source, the river is dammed to create what you see here—Winscar Reservoir, which provides water for the city of Sheffield. Winscar is the first of many interruptions to the flow of the Don even before it reaches Sheffield. There are many ancient weirs dotted along the river where the energetic flow of the river was harnessed to power water wheels for the fledgeling cutlery industry during the 17th and 18th centuries.

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The Old Ways – Penguin’s ‘Wayfarer’ Competition

"The Wayfarer' by Stanley Donwood

"The Wayfarer' by Stanley Donwood

It’s rather late in the day, but rather fortuitously, a couple of weeks ago I received an email from my tutor at UEA (where I’m a mature undergraduate) informing me of the opportunity to take part in a competition being run by Penguin Books.

Entrants to the competition, called ‘The Penguin Wayfarer’, are required to submit a two minute film highlighting their favourite walks. I decided to enter, using my ‘River Don Project’ as material, and lo and behold, I have made it onto the long-list of twenty ‘best’ films. These twenty are now subject to online voting, and the ten most popular will be shortlisted for selection by Robert Macfarlane, the author of last year’s bestselling book on walking ‘The Old Ways’.

The winner will receive the wonderful prize of being paid to walk around England, writing, filming, and blogging about the various journeys. The winner also receives several thousand pounds worth of camping equipment, cameras, etc., with which to complete the assignment.

My film can be viewed at http://www.ajourneyonfoot.com.

I’m currently in eighth place, and would benefit from a little help to hopefully boost my personal ballot. THAT, my dear friends, is what I’m asking, most respectfully, from you. Would you please take a couple of minutes to click on the link and give me your vote? Voting ends at midnight on 24th June.

I would be most grateful for any help (and votes), and if I win, I’ll be blogging with a first hand account of my ‘Wayfarer’ exploits as I experience them.

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The Plot Thickens!

And so the plot thickens! Now I find that it was the Romans who created the Don’s duality when they cut the Tunbridge Dyke from Thorne to join the Don to the River Aire. Until that time, it seems, the Don had veered eastwards at Thorne to join the Trent. This is confusing the hell out of me, as my Roman map of Britain shows only the route from Thorne to the River Aire. Maybe, by that time the route to the Trent had silted up, but why does it appear on later maps?

To who(m) do I ask the question…what is the definitive, original route of the River Don north-east of Doncaster?

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The River Don – Clear As Mud!

So, the latest information gleaned from the (excellent) UEA library is that, similar to its vague source, the lower River Don originally did not have a direct confluence with the Yorkshire Ouse. The Don still springs out of the peat in several places on Grains Moss above Sheffield. However, what I had not realised was that, prior to Cornelius Vermuyden’s disastrous diverting of the river during the late 17th century, the Don split naturally at Hatfield Chase into two separate streams. One stream flowed into the River Aire, and the other into the Trent.

It seems then, that the Don has always been an ambiguous river, even well before human intervention. It remains even now nigh on impossible to determine exactly where it rises, and having flowed its seventy mile course, originally just meandered almost aimlessly into its ultimate objective of the North Sea.

I like the thought of the river having a character similar to most South Yorkshire folk. Or should I say, of course, the opposite, that the river is the pre-determinate influence. Sheffielders, particularly, maintain a strangely insouciant attitude regarding their origins, likewise with where they’re going to. But in the melange of river and city, in that seven or so miles of intimacy, the Don, fortunately, is loved. Neither above Sheffield, or downstream of it, is the river regarded with such affection. ‘In’t Don’ remains the colloquial means of explaining the disappearance of any valued possession. ‘It’s probably in’t Don’, where everything ends up, one way or another.

The uniquely murky Don, unlike many other similarly polluted water-flows throughout the industrial north, never becomes a torpid stream. It maintains an energetic flow from end to end, despite Vermuyden’s attempt to control it. In fact it is reasonably safe to say, that it is doubtful even in its current, relative unpollutedness, that anyone ever swims in the Don. Some may wade into it in its upper reaches, and others may travel upon it further downstream, but few ever swim in it. It is just too dangerous.

The river’s murky brown colour is explained in its name, Don, originally ‘Dun’. Dun, the ancient English word for brown, has always been the colour of the river, from its source to its end. The several tiny streams that ultimately converge to form the river high on the peat bog of Grains Moss, are all the same deep brown of the peat itself. Even the damming of the river to form the huge Winscar reservoir has failed to remove the peat colour from the water. The brown hue remains strikingly evident below Winscar, and in ancient times it is probable that the river was brown throughout its entire course. In fact, the river was known even in Roman times as the Dun.

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The River Don At Goole, a.k.a. Dutch River

In preparation for my whole river odyssey, I have begun my survey of the of the River Don (a.k.a. Vermuyden’s Channel, or the Dutch River) at Goole in East Yorkshire. The Dutch River is a deeply unsettling, insidious course of water. It resembles a canal in its straightness, but the flow of water is totally unlike a canal in its tidal forcefulness. So much so, that one gets an instinctive feeling to stay well away from it. Fortunately, it is very difficult to approach the river, as it is well protected from human trespass. In fact, the tidal flow is also unfavourable to shipping. So, despite it being navigable for even sizeable vessels, few use it, preferring the River Aire navigation as an alternative, less risky route inland to South Yorkshire.

However, after a little exploration, I found an area alongside the Vermuyden Hotel, in Old Goole, where access to the river was possible. Against my better judgement, I made my way through the chest high vegetation towards the water, keeping in mind the warning of the manageress of the hotel, who told me to be very careful of the treacherous silt that builds up on both banks. Despite her warning, I almost lost my balance as I neared the edge of the river bank when my leg disappeared into a hidden hollow, almost pitching me over the bank side.

My heart was racing, and I halted there and then, deciding to take my photographs and a short film of the swirling brown torrent from a safe distance. As soon as I had what I wanted, I got out of there and made my way back to the hotel, where the manageress showing obvious relief at my safe return, told me that she had planned to phone the emergency services if I had not returned after an hour. That revelation did nothing to ease my already fragile nerves.

As I drove back to Sheffield I pondered on the experience. I realised that, for the first time in years, I had been properly frightened by that malignant flow of water. The River Don flows energetically along its whole course, but Vermuyden’s channel is an unnatural adulteration of what is, despite its swift flow, a relatively benign river. Vermuyden transformed it into a chilling and lethal flow of water, which is now additionally hazardous through being polluted to the extent that it seems devoid of any biological life. I likened the feeling of edging close to it as being similar to edging towards the precipice of hundred foot cliff. All right, as long as you maintain a distance, but getting too close and falling over means certain death. I know that had I lost my footing and fallen into Vermuyden’s channel, I would not be writing this account.

A surprising revelation was from the manageress of the Vermuyden Hotel, who despite living within sight of the Dutch River all her life, had no idea that it was the really the River Don.

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