Geoffrey Shryhane’s Wigan World

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THEY certainly didn’t look much cop … the black peas they served all those years ago, when the fairground came to town.

The truth is that with a splash of vinegar, they were as good as anything Jamie Oliver ever made.

A slight exaggeration there, but I’m sure you get the drift.

The year – one in the 1950s – when not only did they sell steaming black pies on the fun fair, but there was also a “pea tent.” Ah yes I remember it well … the smell of trodden-grass, the cardboard cups and spoons which, once used, were returned for a re-drip.

Health and safety I hear you questioning. Didn’t exist, and as far as I can recall nobody came to a jot of harm.

The peas were already bubbling when the fairground opened at tea time. But by and large the kids weren’t interested, preferring candy floss or, on occasion, a cone of chips.

The light faded into night and suddenly the pea tent was full to bursting with adults, all too keen to yet again sample the delicacy.

Well I say “delicacy”, the truth is that black peas were just about as down to earth food as you could wish for. Folks said the peas were, in fact, pigeon peas.

Didn’t matter. They were proper good and a portion at three old pence didn’t break the bank.

As you’d imagine, there were no tables in the pea tent.

Folks stood about munching merrily or wandered around the stalls and attractions, carton in hand.

All human life was there in the black pea tent. And folks enjoying the peas wouldn’t in all the world have chosen candy floss or a toffee apple.

BERYL and Olive had been friends since school. Beryl had always been on the “fuller side” while Olive ... well there was more meat on a gnat.

And whilst Beryl was tall, Olive was vertically challenged. Grown up, they looked comical walking side by side on the sea-front at Blackpool.

But the friends didn’t notice the chuckles of others as they walked along putting the world to rights. More about the price of bacon than any international situation.

They had never had a cross word in their lives. Well, not until that Friday at the rock stall. Olive was all for getting mint rock for her array of nephews and nieces. But Beryl had different views.

Beryl said: ““All’t same flavour? Don’t bi daft. I knows fir a fact that most of um likes different. Show a bit o’ adventure.”

Olive: “Adventure. Wot do you know about adventure? You’d not bin further than canal at Gathurst before I persuaded you’t come to Blackpool.”

Beryl: “’Ang on. I once went Southport.”

Olive (surprised and hurt): “Well you never towd me. Oo did you go with? Not ‘im fron’t chippy. You alus fascied ‘im.”

Beryl: “It were. So there. And yes, we’re nearly courtin’ as a matter of fact.”

Olive: “You want yer ‘ed seein’ to. He skens and alus smells o’ chips.”

Beryl: “You’re just jealous. Any road, I might ‘av a fella.”

Olive (screams with laughter): “You? A fella? ‘ood’ fancy you wi teeth like that?”

Then, vowing that men would never spoil their friendship, the two returned to picking rock.

And Olive says: “’er Beryl, love, ‘av ‘umbug.”

Beryl takes one saying: “Ta cock.”

WHEN he came to the north in 1936, posh Eton-educated George Orwell had a project in mind. It concerned the living conditions of the poor working classes.

Most people think that after leaving London in late January, he headed for Wigan.

Well, after researching that south to north journey, I can tell you this. Our George hadn’t the foggiest idea which town would provide material for his book.

Travelling on foot, by rail and bus, it took him a while to arrive in Manchester, where he visited like-minded friends, the Meads.

They talked long into the night and his friends finally said they believed “Wigan would fit the bill”. Not only that, they suggested a mining trade union official who would help.

That’s how on February 7, Orwell walked from Wigan Station to Rose Avenue, Beech Hill, and knocked at the door of Gerry Kennan.

He soon got his feet under the table as he realised that Gerry would, without bias, show him the places he most wanted to see. Housing. Mines. Trade union meetings.

Because Orwell wanted to see housing conditions “at their worst” he rejected staying on Warrington Lane, and chose the appalling lodging-house-cum-tripe-shop at 22 Darlington Street.

People reading the book might believe that George stayed in Wigan for months. Again, not true.

Before leaving the south, he had fallen in love and so his researches over three weeks were carried out at high speed.

He told a friend: “I wanted to get back to my girl.”

It is thanks to George Orwell that the terrible mining conditions began to improve.

He brought to national attention the fact that deaths in the mines were accepted as “almost normal.” Accepted as an everyday happening.

Thanks to Orwell conditions began to improve.

And that’s why we should give this writer a pat on the back.

He was a true lifesaver.#

For more of Geoff’s musings and recollections, see Tuesday’s Wigan Observer