The grieving mother who refuses to give up

Geoffrey Shryhane
Geoffrey Shryhane

My World with Geoffrey Shryhane...

It would have been so easy to give up. To admit the battle was lost.

But “giving up” is not a choice for Marie McCourt whose daughter, Helen, was murdered all those years ago.

Ian Simms, the man convicted, has always refused to reveal where he buried her body and that refusal has meant that the victim’s mother has not been able to give her daughter a decent burial.

Now Marie is waging a campaign to persuade the government to bring in a law which would prevent murderers being released from prison if they refuse to reveal the location of the body.

Time and time again over the years, there have been glimmers of hope – but these have been dashed. One thought was that Helen’s body had been buried in an existing grave. It came to nothing.

A few days ago, Marie and other families in the same position, marched on Parliament to push their case for those tight-lipped killers to remain in prison.

By her own admission, Marie says she has lived in hell not knowing the location of Helen’s body.

Marie McCourt’s battle has been long and hard and wracked with pain.

The years have gone by and this fine lady has never given up.

She herself has said: “I’ll never give,” so now the battle has been taken to parliament.

The whole country is on Marie’s side knowing that if anyone deserves peace, it’s this grieving mother.

Have you seen that ad on the TV encouraging people to start saving to finance Christmas NEXT year?

I’m always saying that things have changed out of all recognition but as far as that ad is concerned, nothing has altered. There are still Christmas clubs today.

As a kid, I remember that come the middle of the year, little notices appeared in shop windows entreating people to “Join our Christmas Club”.

Those who did were given a little folded card and their payments were entered weekly with the one aim of ensuring Christmas would be the happiest time of the year.

It’s amazing – and sad – to recall how so many folks lived quite literally from hand to mouth. One worker, a mum who kept the house going and seven kids. It took some financing.

Often when the week was coming to its end, there wasn’t a penny piece left and folks had to put on their humble face and borrow a few shillings from a relative who didn’t have loads of kids to feed.

So putting a little bit of cash into the Christmas club was the one sure way of knowing there would be money to provide presents and a bit of glee come December 25.

There was method in the madness of the Christmas clubs of old. The shop keepers running the clubs made it a condition that come “pay day” the money saved and noted down on that little card would be spent in their shop.

The fact is that in Wigan today there are still folks who struggle to finance the festivities. But they do their very best to see that the kiddies don’t go without.

Let’s face it, some folks can whisper over three fields. They don’t appreciate that their voices are loud – and it seems there’s little to be done to quieten down these human fog horns.

Here’s a story from Edwardian Wigan about a miner whose loud voice ended up in Court.

“I have had more this last fortnight than I had had for the last three or four weeks,” were the words used by Robin Lee, of Caroline Street, Ince, when he was charged at Wigan Magistrates’ Court with deserting his wife Margaret.

Mrs Lee said they had been married for 26 years and had six children, two of them now under 16 years of age.

Her husband left her a fortnight ago and although she had seen him three times, he would not give her anything until he was made to.

Defendant: “Did you not tell me on Sunday I would have to go?”

His wife: “No.”

The defendant insisted she had and said she preferred her two sons to him.

The defendant alleged that one of his sons and another man gave him two punches one night. He said his wife was constantly drunk, shouting and he could not get any rest at night.

Police Constable Burbridge said he knew Mrs Lee. She had been before the court several times for drunkenness and for smashing windows.

He said the defendant was a quiet man who worked, but had a lot of trouble with his two sons.

He was told that he would have to contribute towards the his wife’s maintenance or return home.

The defendant said he would go home and “do my best”.

Mrs Lee, however, did not desire this, so the Magistrates thought they were better apart and made an order for Lee to pay his wife two shilling and sixpence (12p) a week.

They said he should have custody of the two younger children.

I wonder if every person in Wigan suffers with a phobia?

I wonder, too, if the phobias rule their lives.

Phobias came to mind when I read that police officers somewhere in the south were stuck in the station lift for several hours.

There’s a photo of them – all crammed together like sardines in a tin. And they’re all laughing. Well lifts are at the top of my list of hates. And yes, it’s a phobia. Every time I step into a lift I feel as though I’m dicing with death.

I’ve been stuck in lifts twice – once in Scotland and once in New York. Well when I say “stuck” I don’t mean for hours. About two minutes would be about right.

But imprisoned with the doors closed, I instantly felt dreadful terror.

I pressed the alarm button, but nobody came. I broke out into a panic-ridden sweat.

Then as if by magic, the doors opened and I must have presented a pretty panting image to the folks waiting to use lift.

Of course, claustrophobia is the most common phobia.

A friend finds it impossible to sit in the centre of a row at the theatre or cinema.

Another old mate has been terrified of dogs for years. One of my sisters likes birds, but once they flutter she’s a wreck.

Here at No 5 a big spider lives behind the TV and trots out most nights … just to say “hello.” He’s become a bit of a pet. But millions just can’t cope with these harmless long-legged creatures.

I know a few people who, although healthy, have a phobia about finding work.

But that’s another story altogether.

Come the 21st of this month, it will be half a century since the coal tip in Aberfan moved on its deathly way and claimed the lives of 116 children and 28 adults.

There had been a week of torrential rain. It stopped on the Thursday night. The following day brought the biggest tragedy of its kind in Wales.

The moving black slurry enveloped the school and houses. The tragedy shocked the world. The then Prime Minister Harold Wilson was told of the shocking happening during a visit to Wigan.

He had seen the new housing development in Lower Scholes and had then gone with the great and the good for lunch at Haigh Hall.

It was in Wigan’s ancestral home he was taken to one side and told of the disaster. He left the Hall looking sombre.

The true horror became a reality when newsreel pictures flashed on our TV screens. By 2pm all hope was gone.

It was not until later, much later, that the final death toll was announced and a nation wept.

What is renowned throughout the world but, in fact, doesn’t even exist? Think about it for an eternity and you wouldn’t come up with the right answer.

What is it? It’s Wigan Pier of course.

In his excellent new book Wigan Pier, the fact and the fictions of the enduring music hall joke, former Wigan College photography lecturer John Hannavy demolishes the Pier myth once and for all.

John, who had written eight books on our town, said: “Despite the fact that it never actually existed, Wigan Pier is renowned throughout the world.

“It was the fantasy creation of music hall star George Formby (snr) who built much of his act around the stories and songs about the mythological structure which he said stretched out across golden sands, had a high diving board, a bandstand and a railway station which brought excursion trains alongside it.

“His son, George Formby (jnr) added more songs and stories throughout his long career. He died in 1961,

“For almost a century now, a small coal tippler on the canal bank has been celebrated as Wigan Pier.”

John weaves together the stories of the two piers, explores their impact on the town and writes about how the Pier area is being altered out of all recognition as part of the Wigan Pier Quarter.”

So there we are. We now know for certain that Wigan Pier never existed.

We can rest in peace.