The riverside at Castlefields

The riverside at Castlefields

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Great letter about The Stew


I have just read your piece in this week’s Chronicle and wish to say ‘thank you’ for supporting this building and this part of the Shrewsbury Conservation Area. If Members agree to this proposal I don’t see much point in having a conservation area. The conservation area protection is there for exactly this type of building ie one which is of architectural and historical interest locally but remains unlisted. Some ‘old’ buildings are worthy candidates to allow new buildings to continue the evolution of the character of an area. Atlas Foundry may have been one of them but here a real opportunity was missed for a landmark modern building of real quality for the 21st century and beyond. Instead what did they select as their inspiration – The Stew and its ilk. What do some people want to do now? Knock down the Stew. Then the only connection we will have of the previous use of the area as a river port will be the pastiche that is the old Guildhall.  How can that make sense?

I have been involved with this building since surveying it together with The Maltings for Shrewsbury and Atcham Borough Council in 2006. We found then that the building is very sound, robustly built even and the roof structure is something to marvel at. It would be akin to a crime to lose the opportunity to repair; reinstate and re-use this building for another 300 years. In those next 300 years, townspeople and visitors alike will thank us for the efforts we made now to save this building. They will hopefully cherish it as we do dozens of other more cuddly and friendly buildings like Abbots’ House or Rowley’s Mansion. They are residential buildings but there are few if any industrial buildings left in the town to indicate that at one time work and residence were side by side. There is an old workshop at the back of Abbots’ House which gives a hint of the work that would have gone on once upon a time within the town itself but that is a rare survival.

In Frankwell, in a very prominent position so it cannot be missed, sits one of the few industrial style buildings still within the town centre (albeit Frankwell wasn’t always regarded as being part of the centre but it is now) – as the Italians say part of the ‘centro storico’ the historic centre.  If it can be seen in that context, part of the fabric that makes up a historic core to a modern town or city, why would anyone wish to demolish a solidly constructed building so full of character and suggestive of past times? Profit. That is what is at the heart of this. Certainly not philanthropy. A desire to build a hotel, restaurant and spa close to the town centre and this happened to be on the market.

Shrewsbury and Atcham Borough Council had a part to play in this. They sold the property for ‘best value’ but was it? They were marketing the property not as a demolition site but for repair and re-use for a variety of alternative uses. However, they knew that the buyer’s intention was to demolish this building.  The also knew that a sum of £450,000 had been offered which they must have known was far more than the building could possibly be worth for repair and reuse.

In Officer’s report to Cabinet on 25th October 2004.

The property has been marketed as a repairable building. It has never been marketed as a site for redevelopment. The planning department have stressed that should the building be demolished it would only be after conclusive evidence has been provided that demonstrates that the refurbishment of the existing structure was economically unviable. They have also stressed that any building built replacing the existing would be required to be of a similar "warehouse" style and a similar mass to the old building. Mr Leese is likely to pursue a planning application that involves the demolition of the building, but it has not yet been established that the building is beyond economic repair.

They also pointed at to Cabinet that:

The purchasers are taking all the rIsk that their proposed design for the “boutique hotel" will be successful with its planning application,

Well, why should Members now be put under pressure to allow demolition simply because the Applicant bought the site at risk and since then has neglected it’s condition and so now they see demolition as the only way to tidy up this site?


 Peter Napier BA(Hons) FRICS IHBC
RICS Building Conservation Accredited
Chartered Building Surveyor

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Shrewsbury Station Just After Six

Available now: Phil Gillam's new novel, Shrewsbury Station Just After Six. Check it out on amazon.

Sundays - When Pride Hill Was Silent

Back in the days before retail parks, before giant garden centres, in fact before Sundaytrading, the weekend had a very different feel.
The youngsters of today will doubtless have some trouble imagining a world (or a Shrewsbury at least) in which Sundays could be quite eerily quiet – and pretty much the only thing you could purchase on the Lord’s Day would have been an ice cream from the Sidoli’s van parked outside the gates of The Quarry.
Mind you, Sidoli’s ice cream was absolutely delicious!
My mates and I, when we were 12 or 13 or 14, would often, on a Sunday, wander aimlessly around Shrewsbury town centre, just to, as they say, kill time.
Not a single shop would be open. Pride Hill would be silent.
But we quite enjoyed the odd atmosphere of the almost empty shopping streets.
We just talked and walked, had a moan about school, dreamt of fanciful futures involving flying cars and holiday cruises to the moon. You know. All that sort of thing.
I suppose you might say: we were at a loose end.
Legendary comedian Tony Hancock once featured in a classic sketch about Sundays, perfectly expressing the boredom felt by many back then when there seemed so little to do.
Not only were all the shops closed, but in the late 1960s and early 1970s it wasn’t so easy to travel. This was an era before the motor car became the dominant form of transport.
Millions of citizens still relied on buses, coaches and trains, and they could be prohibitively expensive.
Certainly, our mum and dad didn’t have a car for great chunks of our childhood.
Well, there was a half-broken-down Hillman Minx, I recall, which – during its couple of years with the Gillam family – spent most of its time parked in West Street, round the corner from our house in North Street.
The reason it spent most of its time parked and idle, I imagine, was because (a) it was notoriously unreliable, and (b) we couldn’t afford the petrol.
So there were Sundays (and again this is possibly a measure of just how bored we were) when my little brother and I asked Dad for the keys to the Hillman Minx and then just went and sat in it for an hour or so, pretending to go on a trip to the seaside.
Blimey. How sad is that?
Other Sundays, my little brother and I would go for very long walks with our big sister, Jan. These very long walks (or was it just that, at that time, we had very short legs?) would give us an appreciation of our home town.
Not only would we get to understand the geography, but we would get a feel for its rich history too and its fine architecture.
So – looking back now – our Sundays were not all about Bob Monkhouse presenting the Golden Shot and the radio adding to our boredom with Sing Something Simple. What’s more, our Sundays would seem positively exciting when compared to the Sundays of Victorian times.
The world of the 1860s was far more austere.
I had to smile when I read in last week’s Shrewsbury Chronicle an item referring to a publican who had had the audacity to serve beer on a Sunday back in 1863.
Sundays then were clearly held in even higher regard by the authorities than a century later, in 1973, the period to which I was referring earlier.
Fans of the other regular column which appears each week on this page (Memory Corner, compiled by the charming Dave Jones) – and I count myself among its admirers – will recognise the following.
Just get a load of this:

Friday, July 10 1863
THE Case of Richard Rowlands, Bell Inn, Abbey Foregate – On Wednesday evening last, a meeting of persons friendly to and sympathising with the landlord of this hostelry, took place, when very strong dissatisfaction was expressed with the recent decision of our borough magistrates, who had inflicted a fine upon Mr. Rowlands under the belief that he had drawn and sold ale on Sunday during church hours. The amount of fine and costs was subscribed and presented to Mr. Rowlands, who acknowledged with gratitude the kindness of his friends.

You see what I mean?
At least you can go down the pub on a Sunday nowadays without the serving of beer being considered an offence!

Sunday, 30 June 2013

A war poet, a town crier and a river goddess

A war poet, a town crier and a river goddess. No, I'm not talking about this year's finalists in Britain's Got Talent.
These are the three life-size two-dimensional statues (cut from sheet steel) now adorning a funny little area between Smithfield Road and the river.
The pavement widens for a few yards opposite the new Premier Inn and here we find representations of the brilliant World War I poet Wilfred Owen who lived in the Monkmoor area of the town before going off to the hell of the trenches; our current-day flamboyant town crier Martin Wood; and the mythical Sabrina, goddess of the River Severn.
You have to admit, they make a most peculiar trio. 
It's a bit like the BBC choosing three characters to represent the breadth of their broadcasting output and coming up with William Shakespeare, Bruce Forsyth and Robin Hood.
There we have it: a figure from history, a present-day joy-bringer and a character who almost certainly never existed.
So from that point of view, I suppose Wilfred, Martin and Sabrina represent Shrewsbury rather well.
I love Martin, by the way. He's an old pal of mine from childhood days. We used to go back to his house after school and play with his train set. And, no question about it, he is a magnificent ambassador for Shrewsbury.
Just an odd little trio, that's all I'm saying.
The background to all of this is that 15,000 votes were cast in an online poll with the public selecting Wilfred and Sabrina from a list of nine nominees. Then Martin, our town crier since 1986, was chosen by pupils at the town's primary schools.
All very democratic.
The 'Portrait Bench' - as it is being called - cost £5,000 and has been funded by the charity Sustrans. Formed in 1977 and with its HQ in Bristol, Sustrans' job is to promote sustainable transport, encouraging people to walk, cycle and use public transport.
Oh. And if you are still not sure where these new statues are, we're talking about that stretch of walkway between Severn Terrace and the boxing gym.
The area has been improved over the past few years as part of a Connect2 project. Connect2 is a scheme run by Sustrans to develop new walking and cycle routes in 79 communities around the UK.
The area now has wide, shared-use pavements and new crossings to the Raven Meadows bus station.
The idea is that members of the public will be able to sit and be photographed  around the famous figures.
Helen Ball, town clerk, said: “We are delighted to have been able to work with Cycle Shrewsbury on this project which will honour Shrewsbury's favourite local heroes.”

I really need to say something this week about the fabulous Shrewsbury Food Festival which was staged at the weekend.
It was another one of those events which brought new life to Shrewsbury with colourful morris dancers doing their thing at Mardol Head, loads of food-related stuff going on in the Market Hall, and a real buzz across the whole of the town centre.
Of course the main action was in the Quarry with a dizzying array of stalls, a fantastic atmosphere, countless temptations for the tastebuds, and live music.
Wondering around there on Saturday I noticed, by the way, that two fellow Shrewsbury Chronicle columnists were in attendance: cheeky Dave Burrows and our Shrewsbury-loving mayor Jon Tandy.
My wife and I enjoyed a lunch consisting of a falafel wrap from Vegetarian Heaven and a glass of cider from Ralphs Cider & Perry. All very nice.
As Dave Burrows wrote in this newspaper last week, Shrewsbury, these days,  really is ticking all the right boxes.

Shrewsbury Food Festival. Wonder if they do sauce on a plate.

No-one could ever have accused our dear old mum of being a great cook. Pretty much everything she produced in the kitchen came out of a tin or a packet.
We grew up on a diet of beans on toast, supermarket shepherd's pie, faggots in gravy, braised beef, chicken pies, and (still one of my favourites) egg and chips.
The likes of Jamie Oliver would not have been impressed, but, as they say, it never did us any harm.
When I tell folks that our six o'clock tea time would feature nothing more exotic than jam sandwiches, they either stare at me in disbelief or else declare in a Monty Pythonesque Lancashire accent: "Jam sandwiches! You were lucky! We used to dream of jam sandwiches!"
Well. We did occasionally have tinned sardines, but I was never very keen.
What I really did love, however, was sauce on a plate.
"What?" I hear you ask.
You heard. Sauce on a plate. Quite literally HP sauce on a plate which you would then mop up with bread and butter. And, for afters, mashed banana with milk and sugar. Yummy!
It is against this background that this week your humble columnist turns his attention to the forthcoming Shrewsbury Food Festival.
What on earth is a food philistine such as I to make of a glorious celebration of all that's excellent when it comes to tickling the taste buds?
Well. At this point perhaps I should confess to two things. Firstly, my tastes and indeed the food I have been enjoying in adulthood have both moved on in the 30 years or so since our mum's cooking was the only food on offer. Secondly, I have been vegetarian for the last three decades so I'm afraid any tasty morsels involving in their production cows, sheep, pigs and suchlike leave me cold.
Having set out my stall, let's have a look at this food festival, shall we?

It's taking place this coming weekend in our beautiful Quarry park and around the town. The brochure and the website look fabulous (check and you can even follow the festival on Twitter (look for @shrewsfoodfest).
Amongst more than 80 exhibitors will be: Appleby's Cheese, Barnabys Ice Cream, the Battlefield 1403 Farmshop, Miranda's Preserves Ltd, Monkhide Wines, Ludlow Vineyard, Foxgloves Liqueurs, Doodle Bakes with their hand-made iced biscuits and sweets, Coopers Sausage Rolls, Fish In A Box, The Peach Tree Restaurant, Vintage Thyme pop-up tea room, The Fresh Lemonade Company, Native Breeds (hand-made hotdogs served with local relishes in artisan rolls), Polly's Parlour and Severn Valley Roasts.
Also represented will by Shrewsbury Mini Donuts, Shropshire Chocolates by Toots Sweets, Gwatkin Cider, the Green Fields Farm Shop, French Flavour Ltd, the Ludlow Food Centre, and many, many more.
Oh, and have you heard about the Restaurant Safari?
"The idea of our Restaurant Safari is simple," explains the brochure. "We've joined forces with a number of the town's finest, many of which have created special menus - with dishes for as little as £3 so that you can taste their take on local produce without breaking the bank. And if you like what you taste, you can stick around and order the full-sized versions. For full details of what's on offer, visit the festival website."
The festival is also providing a feast of films - movies about food. Having teamed up with Shrewsbury Film Society, those clever festival people invite you to take in a tasty movie at The Hive in Belmont.
There's lots to enjoy! And - like the Shrewsbury Folk Festival and the Shrewsbury Steam Rally - this event will surely grow and develop into one of the town's major annual attractions.
Mmmmmmm. I wonder if they'll do sauce on a plate?

Saturday, 8 June 2013

The Belle Vue Arts Festival

When sad and terrible events take place, locally, nationally, or on the world stage, it is easy to lose faith in human nature.
Perhaps every newspaper and news broadcast should carry a government health warning: ‘Be careful. The contents herein could seriously damage your belief that – overwhelmingly – people are essentially good and kind.’
The thing is, we need to keep reminding ourselves that plenty of wonderful things are going on as well.
There is generosity and joy and tremendous affection, and you really don't have to go very far to find all this.
Take the Belle Vue Arts Festival, for example, an annual blossoming of creativity and community spirit that warms the heart.
This one suburb of Shrewsbury is leading the way in this regard, but there's no reason why other parts of our lovely town couldn't organise similar events.
This year, between June 8 and June 23, people will come together – mums and dads, children, pensioners, everyone – to have fun, to reaffirm neighbourliness, to build bridges between groups and individuals and make new friends.
There's music, photography, knitting, painting, artwork of every kind, exhibitions, workshops, a film night, a garden trail, a plant and craft fair, walks, a family cycle ride in the Quarry, a quiz night, and – of course – scarecrows all over the place!
Festival chairman Tony Sharpe said: “This will be the tenth festival and we are always trying to encourage more and more people to take part.
“It's always really wonderful to see parents and children working together, making things. It's lovely.”
Meanwhile, it was a pleasure for me last week to meet up once again with John Francis who is also involved in the arts festival.
A committee member of the Talking Newspaper for the Blind, multi-talented John (singer, writer, historian) and his friend Sheila Middle (also multi-talented – ukelele, banjo, piano) were also singing the praises of the festival.
“It's really great for Belle Vue and the wider community,” said John.
“It really brings everyone together,” said Sheila.
As part of the festival, John leads a pub history walk (which this year takes place on June 19, beginning at the Seven Stars at 7pm).
Unfortunately there are only 25 places so you need to book early.
“We move off from the Seven Stars and I tell people about The Swan which has long since disappeared, and then we take a look at The Globe and The Castle and The Boar's Head. Then we walk down the alley to the Cross Foxes.”
As I listened to John, I thought this could be quite a pub crawl – even though some of these places no longer exist – but he then assured me that the party does not stop at each pub for a drink. Oh. Maybe not such a great pub crawl after all.
Of course this is to do with history and heritage, not consuming beer, although the party does get to refresh itself at a couple of places including the final pub on the trail.
On the walk, John will tell you about The Royal Oak, long since gone but now incorporated into what is now WRR Pugh in Coleham.
“Then there's The Crown, up to The Grove where we do actually stop for refreshment.
“Then back down the Belle Vue Road to the Belle Vue Tavern, the Masonic Arms and the Prince of Wales.”
If pubs aren't your thing, try the film night of award-winning short films from home-grown talent on June 13 at the Wakeman School, or the torn paper collage workshop on June 11 and 12 at the English Bridge Workshop – or pop along to the art exhibition (also at EBW) which opens on the 15th with jazz and cakes.
The crazy, colourful scarecrows of Belle Vue will be all over the suburb to brighten up your day (maps available from the Stop cafe and Get The Picture).
Belle Vue – with its mix of mansions and terraces, its mysterious half-hidden streets, its railway bridges and pubs – is a beautiful part of Shrewsbury.
Personally, I’ve loved the area ever since I was little and we used to catch a big Midland Red double decker bus from town to go and visit our nan in Links Road.
And it seems only fitting that those lucky people who live in Belle Vue should celebrate with a burst of creativity and community events.
So go on – get involved. Pick up a paintbrush. Grab a camera. Pop along to an exhibition. Soak up the atmosphere. Giggle at a scarecrow.
Come rain or shine, the Belle Vue Arts Festival is a winner.
It’ll make you feel better about the world.
Oh look. It’s brilliant. There's just so much going on.
Pick up a leaflet, telephone Tony on 236975, or visit the website for more information –

Saturday, 25 May 2013

The Searchers and Silvine drawing books

The Searchers, who were once described by John Lennon as his favourite group, are coming to Shrewsbury’s Theatre Severn next week. And, yes, of course, they’re getting on a bit now and won’t quite be the band they were in their prime, but I can’t wait to see them.
I’m also going to see the mighty rock superstar Bruce Springsteen in June which I’m (needless to say) extremely excited about, but, in some ways, I’m equally as thrilled at the prospect of seeing The Searchers.
You see, they’ve been one of my favourite groups for as far back as I can remember.
Here’s a thing. When I was a little boy, growing up in North Street in Castlefields, I spent a lot of time drawing and crayoning. Most children of five or six years of age tended to draw houses or cars or aeroplanes. But I drew pop groups.
I can remember drawing men with guitars and, just in the background, another man sitting behind a drum kit.
This was the Merseybeat era.
The television would flicker into life to show black and white images of the groups of the day and, even at quite a tender age, I was enchanted by the sights and sounds of pop.
The groups would almost always display their name on the front of the drumkit and I would faithfully use this detail in my drawings. I’m almost certain that The Searchers were among those I drew in my pale green covered Silvine drawing book from the local post office.
Meanwhile, our big sister Jan would take myself and our little brother for walks (around the block) down North Street, along Queen Street, up Burton Street, and then West Street and back home. Coming out of the radios in the front rooms of the houses were the sounds of The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Cilla Black, and the other big names who were bringing a new kind of pop music to the world.
Let me tell you a little about The Searchers.
They produced a string of shimmering hit singles and (like that of The Byrds who would come later) their sound was often shot through with glorious Rickenbacker guitar work.
One of the premier groups from the mid-60s Merseybeat explosion, they had taken their name from the 1956 John Ford western, The Searchers.
Just like The Beatles, they appeared in Hamburg, learning their craft among the seedy nightclubs, and, after sending a demo tape to A&R representative Tony Hatch, they were signed to Pye Records.
I well remember our older brother had a collection of singles around this time and I can still conjure up the distrinctive purple Pye record label.
The group’s debut was the catchy Sweets for My Sweet featuring strong harmonies. It got to number one, establishing The Searchers as serious rivals to Brian Epstein’s famous stable of Liverpool groups.
Tony Hatch (he of the Crossroads theme tune and many a hit for Petula Clark) came up with the group’s follow-up single, Sugar and Spice. This also did well.
And then their third single, Needles and Pins, was their breakthrough. This broke the group in America.
I have to say, Needles and Pins is not only my favourite Searchers record, but also one of my favourite records of all time.
That chiming guitar and lovely melody places it alongside such greats as Mr Tambourine Man by The Byrds, Look Through Any Window by The Hollies, and Ticket to Ride by The Beatles.
Don’t Throw Your Love Away and When You Walk In The Room were among their other hits, but before long the chart success died away as pop music changed.
Before long, The Searchers (like Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J Kramer and The Dakotas, Freddie and The Dreamers and a host of others) found they were suddenly seen as old-fashioned.
While The Beatles grew and developed to lead the way, many of the groups from the early sixties were left behind.
The cabaret circuit beckoned and The Searchers carved out a career for themselves there, but the glory days were over.
Over the years there have been serveral changes in personnel (some of these dramatic and painful as when Mike Pender departed to set up his own incarnation of The Searchers). And so the group appearing in Shrewsbury will boast only a couple of the orignal members.
But the same can be said now of The Hollies or The Who or any number of sixties bands.
The most important thing is that the spirit of the original band is upheld by the latest line-up. I was delighted to see, for instance, that this was the case with The Hollies who appeared at Theatre Severn last year.
History will remember The Searchers as one of the great groups of the Merseybeat period, and I have high hopes for next Thursday’s performance.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Why this bridge brings back all my yesterdays

Even though it was getting dark and objects were turning into dim and hazy
shapes, the light would remain switched off because "you wouldn't want to
waste electricity, would you?"
On the other hand, it was seemingly still plenty light enough to continue
with the ironing, the comforting smell of which filled the room, a balm
for troubled minds.
Not that we carefree children knew anything about troubled minds, but the
talk between the grown-ups could be agitated from time to time, betraying
the disappointments and frustrations of adult life.
This was our nan's house in Belle Vue in the 1960s, a house which had a
walk-in pantry which was like having your own personal little shop in the
corner of the kitchen.
Whenever the conversation between mum and nan dried up, all you could hear
in the stillness of the living room was the steady, dependable tick-tock,
tick-tock of the handsome highly-polished dark-wood clock up on the wall;
a clock crowned with a carved stallion up on its hind legs.
While they went on with their boring talk of husbands' wages, street
gossip and the cost of bus fares, we little ones - my brother and I -
would climb into the space under the piano, the space where the pianist's
legs would go, and turn it into our secret camp.
Occasionally, nan would use her wireless (which had a gorgeously deep
tone), but I only ever remember hearing 'The Archers' - a programme that
seemed to we children every bit as dull as the conversation between mum
and nan.
As we grew older, my brother and I were  - on these visits to nan's -
allowed to play outside. At first we would go only as far as the large
back garden with its rotting wooden bench which contrasted sharply with
the well-kept lawn and lovely flower beds.
But eventually we were given permission to go down the nearby footpath,
over stiles, and across the fields by the railway line.
Ah, the railway line - where real adventures could happen.
To this day, the old iron footbridge which crosses the Hereford line and
takes you into Kemp's Field is my favourite footbridge.
I was stood on it the other day, waiting for a train to pass underneath.
It's impossible for me to stand on this bridge without thinking about Nan
and Grandad who lived in Links Road.
The bridge has a builders' cast-iron plate on it which tells us it was
built in 1914 by E. Finch & Co Ltd, Engineers and Ironfounders of
From an early age this set my imagination running. I would try to picture
what this scene might have looked like in 1914.
There would have been open countryside on the Kemp's Field side in those
days and only a smattering of Victorian housing on the Belle Vue side.
Links Road and Kemp's Eye Avenue would have come later.
Mighty steam locomotives would have hauled goods and passengers on those
lines below. What a magnificent sight they would have been!
And there was something else about the year 1914. This too played on my
mind as a youngster beginning to learn a little about the world.  It was
the year in which the First World War began, a conflict of the most
terrible carnage, and a conflict in which our Grandad was involved.
Holding on to the weather-beaten iron of this bridge gave me a connection
to all this. It was like being able to touch history.
Generations of children, generations of trainspotters, would have held on
to this iron bridge as trains rattled by below; generations of youngsters
stretching all the way back to the First World War.
This would make me think about why Grandad would go and sit on the stairs
in the darkness whenever there was a thunderstorm. Mum and d ad told us it
was a result of shellshock.
The footbridge looms large in my history.
To begin with it was a fantastic place for trainspotting, especially on
long summer afternoons.
And then, later, around, I think, 1969, there was the UFO incident.
My best friend Paul Rogers and I had founded an organisation - the
Unidentified Flying Objects Observation Corps - or UFOOC. A little later
we renamed it the APIU - Aerial Phenomena Investigation Unit - because we
thought this sounded much more professional.
We would write letters to Jodrell Bank Observatory and NASA, and (what was
more remarkable) we received replies as if these people were taking us
One night (when it was really dark), Paul and I went off to the Kemp's
Field bridge to look out for flying saucers. It seemed like a really good
place to spot them.
We had a transistor radio with us and whenever there was an interruption
to the signal, we reckoned it was due to an alien spacecraft being nearby.
We also took torches, a notebook, and sandwiches. It was very well
Did we spot a flying saucer that night? Well, we're pretty sure we did.
Sadly, we have no evidence to back up our claims. But the old upright
piano from Nan's house was definitely real, and is still in the family to
this day, in the Kidderminster home of my younger brother. It's just that
nowadays we're a bit too big to climb underneath it.

Monday, 29 April 2013

The Beatles 1. The Pole Star of Popular Music

I was only six years old when the Fab Four came to town, but because I am a life-long fan I was asked by the boss to produce a clutch of features to mark the 50th anniversary . . .
So this is the first of three related articles (the others follow below) about The Beatles having played Shrewsbury Music Hall.
All three articles appeared in the Shropshire Star on Saturday, April 27, 2013.

The Beatles 1. The Pole Star of Popular Music

No. Emphatically NO! Please don’t speak about them in the same breath as JLS or West Life or Take That. We are not today discussing some over-rated boyband.
We are discussing – half a century on from their gigs in Shropshire – the band that would become the pole star of popular music – a fixed brilliant point of light, the constellations of pop stardom charted around them.
In short, people will still be playing the music of The Beatles 100 years from now.
Yet looking here at these old black and white photographs of four young lads from Liverpool, it seems incredible that they would go on to turn pop music on its head.
In not much more than seven years, they created a dazzling catalogue of around 200 songs from A Hard Day’s Night to Norwegian Wood, from Eight Days A Week to Penny Lane, from Across The Universe to Fool On The Hill, from I Saw Her Standing There to The Long and Winding Road.
I was a mere six years of age when I heard, coming out of a tinny transistor radio, Please Please Me, the group’s first number one record.
And I’ve been a fan ever since.
The years rolled by and I went on loving them when they became solo artists. (Hey. I know McCartney’s quality control has dipped alarming on occasion, but such is Paul’s over-arching genius that I’ll defend even some of his most cringe-worthy efforts from the seventies).
But of course John, Paul, George and Ringo were never going to be able to match as individuals what they achieved as a band.
There was the shock of the long hair, the knockabout humour and warmth of their movies, the being cheeky to Her Majesty, the strange moustaches, experimenting with Indian music, going weird, being scruffy, and a legacy of 13 extraordinary albums.
Just think about this embarrassment of riches. Should you ever tire of the White Album, Sgt Pepper and Abbey Road, just go back to the very beginning of it all and listen again to those early LPs. Because their early spontaneity is equal in merit to their late sophistication.
Check out the boisterous rock and roll. Enjoy again those harmonies, those infectious tunes.
Charming, witty, self-mocking, irreverent, clever, and super-abundant music-makers, The Beatles, were always much more than just a pop group.
And that’s why these old pictures of them in Shrewsbury are so important. Because they show the first flashes and twinkles and sparks of this pole star.

The Beatles 2. Beethoven, Buckingham Palace............... and Bigger than Jesus

The Beatles 2. 
Beethoven, Buckingham Palace, 
and Bigger than Jesus

They were still fresh and full of youthful exuberance, still a little shocked by just how quickly things were moving for them, still surprised and thrilled by the joyous reception they were getting from their fans. And yet there was so much more to come.
When they arrived in Shropshire in that spring of 1963 to play a concert at the Shrewsbury Music Hall, The Beatles' all-conquering global fame was still a good couple of years away. 
But on the other hand, they were not exactly unknown at this point, having just enjoyed their first number one record with Please Please Me - and it seemed that just about everyone in Britain was talking about them.
Their domination of the pop world was just beginning.
On the day they came to Shrewsbury, what would be their second number one, From Me To You, had already begun its 21-week run in the charts and would hit the top spot on May 4 (a position it would keep for seven weeks).  
The four lovable moptops were already taking the entertainment world by storm, but they would surely have laughed at you, if you'd suggested that in a few years time they would have not only streets in Liverpool, but also heavenly bodies named after them: four individual asteroids to be named Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr.
As the lads took to the Music Hall stage that night, they would not have dreamt that just two years later they would be invited to Buckingham Palace to be honoured by the Queen with the presentation of their MBEs.
Nor that just three years later, Lennon would be declaring, not through boastfulness but as a simple sociological observation: “The Beatles are bigger than Jesus Christ”.
And just four years later, the Sunday Times would be calling them ”The greatest composers since Beethoven.”
But even in 1963, people could see this was no ordinary band – even if they were still travelling the length and breadth of the country either by coach or clapped-out old van.
Everywhere they went they generated incredible excitement among the young, and often suspicion and bemusement among protective mums and dads.
This was, incidentally, their third visit to Shrewsbury, having played the town’s Music Hall before on December 14, 1962, and then The Granada on February 28, 1963.
And here’s a fascinating fact: It had been while the Fab Four were travelling by coach between York and Shrewsbury for their Granada concert that John and Paul had written From Me To You. Writing smash hit singles would become second-nature to them.
Another Shropshire date, by the way, had been Whitchurch Town Hall on January 19, 1963.
For the record, other gigs in the Midlands leading up to their 1963 Music Hall date included the Plaza Ballroom at Old Hill in Sandwell, the Birmingham Ritz, the Birmingham Hippodrome, The Gaumont in Wolverhampton, and a couple of dates in Stoke-on-Trent.
Radio and television appearances would quickly accelerate the growth of their fame, then the conquering of America and beyond.
But let us just go back to that Whitchurch appearance for a moment for a personal recollection from Albert Griffiths, 73, a Whitchurch man who remembers that day well.
He said: "They arrived in an old transit, it was as much rust as it was van. At the time we always had great bands performing in Whitchurch on a Saturday night.
"In many ways it was just another gig but there was an extra bit of excitement around The Beatles.
"When they came on stage John Lennon was stood right in front of me. He had that sort of cheeky look on his face and was wearing a pair of really old tatty jeans. I remember it well because he had a safety pin on his fly to hold them up.
"It was a great night. I can't remember most of the songs but I can remember Love Me Do like it was yesterday, it really stood out."
Pam Shaw, from Whitchurch, was also at the show which took place in what is now the Civic Centre, in High Street.
She said: "I was there! I went along like I did to many of the dances but I can remember a lot of people were there to see the Beatles.
"It wasn't Beatlemania, there wasn't people screaming and fainting, but there was a lot of excitement. I can remember being there, dancing and thinking how good they were.
"I really liked them and from that day I started to take a keen interest in them. I even went up to see them at The Cavern Club in Liverpool. From that day I was a big fan and have remained a big fan ever since. It was wonderful."
Councillor Doris Ankers said her late sister, Margaret Raine, met the musicians on the night.
She said: "My sister went and she never let us forget it. They were just a group from Liverpool who came down to play and after the show were talking to the crowd. My sister actually sat by the band and was talking to them, they were just starting to get famous but she always said they were very nice."
Very nice? The Beatles would be called many things in their time: brilliant, innovative, thrilling, ground-breaking, revolutionary . . . and also, as it happens, very nice.
John (the thinker), Paul (the romantic), George (the mystic) and Ringo (the clown) would themselves grow and develop from showbiz stars to spokesmen for their generation.
And 50 years on from their initial success, we’re still talking about them now, they are still making the front covers of serious music magazines, and many of us are still completely under their spell.

The Beatles 3. Their Growing Fame

Beatles 3 - Their Growing Fame
It seems bonkers now, but even with a storming number one record behind them, The Beatles were still travelling the length and breadth of the country either in an ordinary (far from luxurious) coach or in a clapped-out old van.
Did Take That have to suffer such indignity after their first number one?
And despite their already substantial fame at this point, the Fab Four were playing not large venues, but relatively humble places like the Shrewsbury Music Hall.
Again, it’s hard to imagine nowadays a band, at that level of fame, playing quite small theatres.
But what we forget is that in 1963, rock and roll as we know it today was still being invented.
Firstly, there was still a post-war mentality that demanded show business acts (and that is exactly how the Fab Four would have been perceived at this time) had to pay their dues.
They had to go out there and learn their craft – like four little Arthur Askeys or four little Jimmy Tarbucks – playing, to begin with, pubs and church halls and dodgy clubs, then small theatres, and eventually bigger theatres.
Not only were they making records, but they were being interviewed on radio shows (regularly) and TV shows and for magazines. It was all good publicity.
One day, if they were very very good little Beatles and kept their noses clean, they might get the chance to play to bigger audiences, maybe even tour in Australia and Japan. But they would have to pay their dues.
Secondly, it was unheard of at this time for pop groups to play sports arenas.
The age of super-tours with bands taking over football stadia was still some way off.
But it would be The Beatles and groups that followed in their wake that would change all that.
They had already grown from playing purely in the Liverpool area to playing across the UK.
1964 would prove a turning point.
They began the year with 10 appearances in London. Then it was off to Paris for 20 shows. And then America.
Their appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show have become the stuff of legend. This was considered a milestone in American culture and the beginning of what would become known as ‘the British invasion’.
And in the summer of 1964 they played 25 concerts across the United States and Canada. There was no stopping them now.
Gradually, the sound systems were becoming more sophisticated. Rock fans were developing an appetite for bigger concerts and outdoor festivals.
Although there were still British tours to come for The Beatles, the likes of the Shrewsbury Music Hall would not see them again.
The people of Shropshire would now have to watch from afar as the rest of The Beatles’ story unfolded.