24 February 2008

Raiding the Past: A Study into Our Recent Social History, or Probably Just Plain Self-Indulgence on My Part

This photo of me was taken by my mother Tryphena Joan Shaw (1922–90) in Alexandra Street, Sherwood Rise, Nottingham, in 1955. I’m just taking the car for a spin, always avoiding crossing Mansfield Road and venturing into Carrington beyond (to the top left of the photo).

This is a detail from a Guardian Journal (Nottingham) photo dating from about November 1971. Margaret Thatcher is Education Secretary and trying to get her hands on student union funds. In protest, we march from Trent Bridge to the Old Market Square (which was then – fortunately – in the same state as the architect Thomas Cecil Howitt had designed it, and free of ludicrous big wheels). The photographer took this shot as we were marching up Wheeler Gate, in the centre of Nottingham. I’m the big hair slightly to the left of the bigger hair in the ‘Save Our Student Union’ donkey jacket: ‘Maggie Maggie Thatcher, milk snatcher, union basher, out, out, out’ (1). Little did we know that greater horrors were waiting to break forth – Blair, Brown, and hordes of New Labour clones and Stepford wives – who would make Thatcher look positively left wing: the (Old) Labour Party was in opposition then, and acted as a curb to Conservative Party excesses. Today, all English political parties are virtually identical: right wing.

(1) One of Thatcher's earlier attacks on the Welfare State was to abolish free milk. Many state school students such as myself fondly remember daily knocking back an extra one or two third–pint bottle allowances of those who didn't like the creamy stuff (as it was in those days).

The big hair remains, as do the flaired trousers and the wide lapels (although the slightly embarrassed smirk is different). This is a photo from the autumn 1977 issue of L’Albigeois Economique: Bulletin d’Information de la Chambre de Commerce et d’Industrie d’AlbiCarmauxGaillac. After a year as assistant d’Anglais at the Lycée Technique d’Etat Louis Rascol C.E.S.–C.E.T., rue de la République, Albi, I wanted more sunshine and warm French hospitality. I therefore persuaded Leicester University that it was in my interests to take another year out in France before finishing my BA in French, so I found a job teaching English at the Chambre de Commerce et d'Industrie, rue Timbal, Albi. My one regret: that I couldn’t stay in France for the rest of my life.

And this is the first book I wrote: Windmills of Nottinghamshire: A historical Account of Existing Mills and Mill Remains (West Bridgford: Nottinghamshire County Council Planning & Economic Development, Heritage Team, 1995).

A labour of sheer love, and it's very unfortunate that Amazon very incorrectly lists it as written by Tony Shaw and Graham Beaumont, when Graham Beaumont merely supplied a few illustrations, organized the paintings by Karl Wood, and supplied the colour illustrations to the cover, the front one of which (Tuxford) is (almost unbelievably) a reverse photo: those should be right-handed sails, not left!

This is Hidden Nottinghamshire: Days out with a Difference (Wilmslow: Sigma Press, 1998), which contains 100 mainly rather obscure features in Nottinghamshire. The four images on the cover show, from top left clockwise to bottom left: The Druid's Stone (Blidworth), Wiseton Hall entrance (Drakeholes), Zakariah Green's monument (detail), Titchfield Park, Hucknall, and a Gash bus (originally from Elston).

For good (or bad) measure, included below is an interview written about me by Mark Patterson in Nottingham Evening Post, October 7, 2000:

He Is The Man Who Knows A Lot About The Quirky And Curious Stories Of Nottinghamshire. But Just Who Is Tony Shaw? Mark Patterson Tries To Find Out

When Tony Shaw was a little boy he would ask his mum and dad a lot of questions. But by his own account he was seldom satisfied with a single answer. If, for example, he asked what sort of bird it was he had just seen and the answer was sparrow then he would have to go off and find out exactly what kind of sparrow it was.
It was the same with herbs, trees and anything else the young boy spotted. He wanted specifics and he wanted to remember the facts. He must have been a handful.

Forty or so years later, Shaw has retained the same "acquisitive and inquisitive mind" as he puts it, but is now in the position where he can satisfy other people's curiosity and not just his own.

As the author of both the Evening Post Weekend magazine's Untold Nottingham column and a similarly themed book called Hidden Nottinghamshire, Tony Shaw is the man who knows a lot about the things which most other people don't know or didn't even know they want to know.

What, for example, is the connection between Nottingham's St Mary's church and a woman who ate pins?

The answer, as Tony rediscovered for his magazine column, is Kitty Hudson, a remarkable woman born in 1765 who kept the pins and needles she collected from the church floor in her mouth. Inevitably she swallowed them, causing her some medical difficulties later in life. Despite that, her boyfriend vowed that he would marry her even if she had to have her arms and legs chopped off.

Then there was James Prior, the Nottingham author of such long forgotten titles as Three Shots from a Pop -Gun, the more successful Forest Folk and a play called Don Pedro, which is said to have sold only one copy.

Or how about poet Robert Millhouse? A stocking frame worker who was described as a "most brilliant example of the might of that genius which has welled up from the ranks of the toil-worn and penury-stricken crowd". Although a bronze plaque at the west entrance to Nottingham Castle remembers his name, another plaque which marked where he spent his last years at 32 Walker Street has long since gone.

Curious characters and half forgotten names and places which tell of a Nottingham now gone - such tales are Shaw's current speciality.

But while they are all interesting stories in their own right, there is rather more behind Shaw's reasons for researching them and writing about them than to simply provide an entertaining read.
This 49-year-old is interested in history, of course, but he also likes the idea of enlightening (if that is not too pompous a word) his readers by illustrating the links between the past and present.

History, the living history which is all around, is not something which is "out there", Shaw might say.

It is here, in your own town and village, in the stone and bricks and mortar which have echoed to the sounds of millions of lives and their daily struggles and dreams.

It might be easy to imagine that Shaw is the kind of bloke who has the time to research these stories because he has nothing better to do.

In fact, he is studying for an MA in English and plans to "rattle off" a novel next year while also aiming to gain a PhD studentship.

With a former career in academia, he has a deep interest in French literature while his political and moral principles are firmly pacifist and anarchist.

He popped into the world at Highbury Vale Hospital, has been married and divorced three times and lives in Carlton Road, Nottingham.

He has no television set and cares about the beer he drinks.

Why no television set? "Most of the ideas I get come through engaging with literature," he says, in his usual animated way while sipping from a pint of London Pride.

"I don't get any ideas from television. There are very few interesting or enlightening programmes on television. Most people let things happen to them rather than make things happen themselves..."

Conversations with Shaw are a bit like that. They tend to start at the right place and then quickly veer off into the broader expanses of human activity, firmly underpinned by a set of principles which make him sound like a well-read Republican peasant ideologue of the Spanish Civil War.

But to get back to the point.

The origins of Shaw's quest for the nooks and crannies of local history lie in the extensive research he carried out a few years ago into the county's windmills.

This started when he had an "epiphanic moment" one day while sitting near Green's Windmill in Sneinton.

"I just watched these sails going round and wondered how many windmills there were in Nottinghamshire?

"It was just a part of local history that hadn't been recorded," he says.

In all, Shaw recorded 30 windmills "if you include the mounds". His book, The Windmills of Nottinghamshire, was published by Notts County Council five years ago.

During the research Shaw heard some intriguing stories about local people and places.

These included (and this is a personal favourite) Zakariah Barrett, of Gedling, who would have been lost to history if he had not placed an advert in an 1801 copy of the Nottingham Journal which gave notice of a do-it-yourself windmill.
Barrett's contraption could be built in gardens, crofts, on the end of house gables - anywhere the wind blew.

Barrett promised that anybody could be a competent miller after a day's training with his windmill. Obviously it failed to catch on. The one surviving picture portraying the mill shows Gedling House with one of Barrett's rickety looking structures behind it, apparently supported by a giant stick.

Barrett, who also invented an early washing machine and a chimney cleaning gadget, is not to be confused with another Zakariah who has come before Tony Shaw's gaze.

This is Zakariah Green, the 19th Century healer who is remembered by a monument in Titchfield Park, Hucknall. He is said to have ministered to six successive mayors.

As Shaw's body of collected stories grew he realised he had enough for a book. Sigma Leisure published his Hidden Nottinghamshire - Days out with a Difference about three years ago.

His favourite stories include Kitty Hudson, the pin lady of St Mary's, and Ann Harrison, the charitable woman of Bingham whose memory is preserved in the shape of an 18-inch oak statuette in Bingham parish church.

"I'll probably write about Robin Hood at some point," he says.

"There's a lot of interesting stuff in Mansfield and Worksop. And there is Ron Goodapple, or whatever his name is, the Gretna Green vicar from Nottinghamshire."

Shaw tries to include as many working class women as possible in his stories.

"They don't have anything like the written history that men do, particularly middle class men," he says.

His pacifist views and refusal to recognise the legitimacy of the state or global capitalism mean Shaw won't write about war heroes and the aristocracy - unless the aristocrat is eccentric.

"One person's war hero is another person's terrorist. I won't write about battles. I'm a pacifist. I don't believe in war. I don't believe in violence," he says.

Does he think his passion for history and knowledge has undermined his three marriages?

"No, not at all," he replies.

"The first time I got married I thought it might be pleasant just to get married.

"The second marriage was for pragmatic reasons. I was at university and she was working. If we got married she wouldn't have had to pay any tax.

"The third marriage... it's difficult to say. I just thought I'd make up the hat-trick."

There are no children.

"I have never felt the slightest need to perpetuate myself. I've been through childhood and have no wish to go through it second hand. I haven't the slightest paternalistic instinct in me. Being an existentialist and having read Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex I don't believe that any maternal instinct exists either."

So, here we were, back to French literature and old academe.

Shaw studied French at Leicester University and took subsidiaries in philosophy and then English.

"But the philosophy teacher did my head in," he recalls. "We had him for a full hour and that was a long time. Two or three times in each lecture he would take the top off this Thermos flask, unscrew the lid and then put it back on. He never got himself anything to drink. He was doing my head in.

"I'm sure he was the lecturer which Malcolm Bradbury put in his novel Eating People is Wrong."

As Shaw goes to the bar for another London Pride, a young man sitting nearby reveals that he has been earwigging on this strange conversation.

"Oi, mate, who's the intellectual sounding bloke?" he asks.

To be honest, I don't know what answer to give.

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