My Express Column | Ian Clayton

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In the autumn of 2010, I was approached by the then editor of the Pontefract and Castleford Express, a lady called Rebecca Whittington, and asked if I might care to contribute a weekly column to the newspaper. We sat at my kitchen table and I asked, ‘What should it be about?’ Rebecca told me that I could write about local culture, but put an Ian Clayton twist on to it. I liked the idea, I have long been a supporter of the local press and advocate on its behalf at every opportunity.

We drank a second cup of tea and then Rebecca said, ‘We can’t pay you, but feel free to advertise any of your projects or books in your piece.’ I felt a bit deflated by this and so said, ‘If you think I’m worth having, you should pay me and you’ll get a good professional job, because after all, I make my living from writing.’ After some thought she offered me £25 per article. I declined that, so she went to forty pounds. I said, ‘If you can make it £50, you’ll get a good value piece of writing and plenty of thought put into it.’ She said that she would have to have a word with her boss, so we left it at that. A few days later, she phoned me and said, ‘Yes we agree that we will pay you fifty pounds, start this week and if you let us have a column every Monday morning it will appear each Thursday.’

So, I did and within a few weeks I started getting lovely letters from readers, all positive and telling me that it was great to be reading something interesting. After a couple of years, Rebecca decided that the column’s popularity deserved a bigger spread, so the little column became a headed page, with my name and a photo of me at the top. I think to reflect this they increased my fee to £75 and then after a couple more years to £100. For my part I decided to put more effort into my piece. Some weeks I would send perhaps a day travelling around researching and thinking about a story and another half a day writing up my notes. I’ve never been a greedy lad for money, so I always thought that for the effort I put in, the paper was getting good value. I have never claimed any expenses in all the time I have written the piece, beyond the fee. All bus and train fares and theatre tickets and purchase of books and music have always come out of my own pocket.

Rebecca moved on a couple of years ago and I then corresponded and sent my pieces to a lady called Hannah Thaxter, who has been kind and supportive about what I write, indeed, when we decided to collect the best of my pieces together and publish them in book form, Hannah was good enough to write the preface for me. She wrote, ‘At the heart of every local paper are the stories and memories, the pride and the achievements of those who live there. We have been privileged at the Pontefract and Castleford Express to share with our readers such musings from local lad Ian Clayton. His column is a favourite amongst our readers.’ I’m very proud of that book and prouder still to say that it was a local best seller, in a district that doesn’t have book shops.

At the back end of February this year. I received an email from a man called John Kenealy. He is the editor of the Pontefract and Castleford Express, but his office is in Halifax. He wrote:

Dear Ian

I am writing to thank you for your excellent contributions to the Pontefract and Castleford Express over the years. Your column is highly regarded and has given an added bonus to Express readers.

However, you will know how challenging it is to publish newspapers in a digital age and a time of great economic uncertainty. Most of the revenue on which we depend comes from advertisers and in tough times it is more important than ever that we live within our means.

As a result, very sadly, we will no longer be able to pay for contributions such as those provided by yourself.

At the end of the letter, John asked me to contact him if I needed to talk. I phoned him. I asked him to tell me why, if the column was popular and enjoyed by readers, they didn’t want it anymore. He said the decision was made purely on economical grounds and that all freelance writers were being laid off, apart from the ones who were willing to write for free. He hinted that I could continue doing the column if I was prepared to work free of charge. Writing is my job, I will not do it for free. I also told him that I thought the economical argument was a poor one; if readership decreases as a result then they have saved nothing. I also asked for a month’s notice, which he agreed to. Today, 24 March 2016, my penultimate column has appeared in the Pontefract and Castleford Express. I have written about aspects of local culture that disappear while you are not looking. I have also tried to let readers know that I will not be writing for the paper anymore. The Express have published my piece, but they have decided to leave out an important sentence. Here is the sentence they have left out.

‘Changes are on the horizon for this paper and I’m sorry that the decision makers have decided that my work here is no longer required.’

I really don’t know the extent of the changes and I have even less clue about who makes the decisions, John Kenealy told me that the decision to sack me was his. I suspect that he was told from someone above and that these people above have no idea of what makes this area tick. I will continue to be a supporter of local papers, but only if they remain loyal to the locality. I do not want to see my local paper, that I buy every week from the Post Office on Church Lane near where I live, become some kind of generic newsletter for big companies trying to sell stuff. I love writing for the Express and I know, because of all the feedback I receive that readers round here like what I put. If the purpose of a local press is to celebrate and uplift local life and culture, who then are these people in management positions who interfere with good things? We often hear that old saying ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ these days. I’m more than happy to carry on doing something for localness, I want to carry on writing for the paper, but I won’t allow people I don’t know and who don’t know this locality to tell me that I must work for free in order to do it. I’m not that simple!

>>See ‘Just Saying’ Ian’s blog in response to the support he received after this post
>> Ian Clayton’s Website

The Feast of St Cyril

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An extract from Right Up Your Street by Ian Clayton, which is officially released on St Cyril’s day, 14 February 2016.

Nice one Cyril

It’s a long time since anybody sent me a Valentine’s card but there was a time when I got two in one year; alright it was a long time ago, forty one years ago to be precise, and I think they both might have been from Aunt Alice.

I did a bit of digging and found out that Saint Valentine lived in the third century and was sentenced to death by Claudius for trying to convert him to Christianity. They threw stones at him to start with, then they hit him with wooden clubs and, when that didn’t work, they cut off his head outside the Flaminian Gate. That was on a Monday, 14th February 209 AD. I also discovered that Saint Valentine, as well as being the patron saint of love and lovers, is also the patron saint of bee keepers, the plague, epilepsy, people who faint, travellers and young people; he’s a busy lad is St Valentine. I wondered why he might be best known for instigating a multi-million pound card business and then I found a romantic little story about when he was in prison awaiting execution. One of his jailors had a blind daughter and Valentine performed his first miracle by laying his hands on the girl’s eyes and restoring her sight. Later he penned a note to the young woman and signed it ‘From your Valentine’.

For such a famous saint, it might surprise you to know that there is not a single church in the whole of England dedicated to him, though there is one in Dublin on Whitefriar Street that has a shrine to him and a little vessel tinged with a small amount of his blood. And, in Rome, there is a church that was built for the athletes’ village in 1960 when they had the Olympics there and that’s called St. Valentine’s.

For those of you who don’t believe in all the romantic malarkey, you’ll be pleased to know that today is also the feast day of that lesser known but, in my mind at least, very important saint. Yes, I refer to Saint Cyril.

Cyril was a philosopher, a man of books and learning, he worked as a missionary in the 9th century and interests me because he believed in vernacular language. He made it his mission to help people to learn in their own tongue and translated most of the bible into the Slavic language of Moravia. Along with his brother Methodius, he became one of the fathers of the literary movement in that part of the world. He was of course punished for his efforts, like all these martyrs tend to be, but he should be remembered.

So, if I don’t get a Valentine’s card today, and I don’t really expect to seeing as I haven’t had one since 1972, I shall console myself by raising a glass to Saint Cyril. Nice one Cyril!

If Valentine and Cyril don’t do it for you, then consider paying homage to the other Saints who have feast days today, there’s plenty to pick from including Saint Abraham, the hermit of Syria; Saint Conran of the Orkney Islands; and Saint Antoninus of Sorrento, who once pulled a child out of a whale’s mouth after the little lad had been swallowed whole!

I thought that while I was doing my saintly research I ought to look up the saints who have their feast day on my birthday. I came across Saint Hermione, a second-century martyr, venerated in the eastern orthodox church, who doesn’t appear to be the patron saint of anything; and Saint Rosalia of Sicily, who in young life was led to a cave by two angels. She then decided to spend the rest of her life there. I learned that academics often quote Rosalia on papers about bio diversity… not the most interesting of saints I have to say but then I discovered that I share my birthday with Beyonce Knowles. Now there’s a woman who I like the idea of blowing a few candles out with. I wonder if she’s free to come and sing at my party later this year?

There is a launch event for Right Up Your Street at the Tap & Barrel, Pontefract, on Thursday 18 February at 7:30pm. All welcome.

A Sloe Christmas: Right Up Your Street

Sloe-Berries

An extract from Ian Clayton’s book Right Up Your Street: the great Boxing Day tradition of decanting homemade sloe gin and then supping it as a chaser with a pint of beer among friends.

Sloe timing

I’m a great fan of the food that comes to us free every autumn from the hedgerows and trees. I can’t pass an apple or pear tree without ‘scrumping’ one or two and blackberries, well, I absolutely adore them with the relish of a poet. I can’t make apple and blackberry pie as nice as my gran could, but I do a mean crumble. I’m also a dab hand at pickling and preserving and, at this time of year, I love to look through my stash of jars that have handwritten labels on them like ‘Apple Jelly, October 2010’. People know I like this stuff too, my friend Jan makes the best preserves this side of the Pecos and this year for Christmas another friend, Pam, gave me some beautifully homemade green tomato chutney with red and white chequered lids on.

For many years I have made sloe gin. I generally pick about four or five pounds of the fruit of the blackthorn, wash out a big bell jar and put in my sugar and gin. I shake my jar every day between the end of September and Christmas and, by tradition, I decant it on Boxing Day morning and take a bottle or two to the pub to share out with my mates. Sloe gin goes well as a chaser to a foaming pint of Tetley’s bitter.

Last autumn a friend called Alf, who goes in the taproom at the Shoulder of Mutton, asked me where I got my sloes and would I give him my recipe. Like any self-respecting sloe gatherer, I refused to give him my source, but I did tell him the recipe. As it turned out, I might as well have told him where I got my fruit, because when I got to my favourite stand of blackthorn bushes, I found out that somebody had been there before me and I had to go in search of another tree.

Alf duly went in search of his own sloes somewhere near Methley and must have found some real beauties because he showed up on Boxing Day with a gorgeous, rich ruby coloured concoction, which he presented in a cut-glass decanter. By common consensus, well by the nods of the heads and barely discernable mutterings of various taproom imbibers sat round the fire in the Shoulder, Alf’s sloe gin tasted better than mine. For some reason, this year mine turned out to be a pale pink without the usual fire and warmth that you get in the chest as it goes down. Amidst much good humoured banter, Alf spent the whole of Boxing Day afternoon with a wry smile on his chops and I was left to wonder if a fairy or pixie or something had been tampering with my sloe gin in the middle of the night. It hurts me to say it, but I award this year’s gold medal for sloe gin making to Mr Alf Varley, but you can bet your bottom dollar that this coming autumn I shall be out hunting down the best sloe berries and I will look to regain my title. In the meantime, if Alf asks me for my recipe for damson jam, he can whistle!

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>>Click here for more details on the book and to order.

Right Up Your Street

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The Express Columns Volume One

Ian Clayton promotes the idea that ‘a sense of place’ is not just about bricks and mortar, rather it’s in the people and the stories we tell each other. We are what we do, what we eat and wear, the places we go to enjoy ourselves, the way we share our history and what we have in common.

Right Up Your Street brings together a selection of weekly columns Ian has written for his local paper, the Pontefract and Castleford Express. This fascinating compendium of real stories thrives on the term ‘local’; it is about ‘round here’ in all its eccentric, bewildering and historical glory, putting pride right back into place and the local firmly amongst the global.

‘Ian Clayton has an unshakeable belief in the power of stories to bring people together, coming as he does from that great tradition of storytellers that includes the likes of Stan Barstow, Alan Sillitoe and, his hero, Barry Hines.’ – Chris Bond, Yorkshire Post

SIGNED ADVANCE COPIES
This title will be released for direct sale only in the first instance. Advance signed copies ordered direct from Route will be despatched immediately. Click here to order a copy.