An Atheist with the Pox

As easter approaches, I’ve been remembering a delightful holiday the missus and I spent about five years ago. this piece is what I wrote about it.


An hour and a half north of my home lies the Forest of Bowland: an expanse of grassy vales divided by long moorland ridges; a country of small sheep farms and stone-built villages with schools and alms houses founded in Tudor times. Its capital – if it may be said to have one – is Clitheroe: a pleasant market town dominated by the ruin of a Norman castle.

This is where Shirley and I went for our Easter break. We rented an apartment in a converted mill near one of the villages, and, during the day, went for walks of three or four hours and spent the evenings mostly reading.

This time of the year the hedgerows blossom with blackthorn, which in the autumn will yield sloes, a sour plum that can be steeped in gin and sugar to make a liquor ready for Christmas. The roadside verges are thickly sown with daffodils. The grassy spots are carpeted in celandines and the first wood anemones are appearing. Lambs gambol in the fields, and, in the sheds, sheep are being shorn as we discovered when we went into a farm to buy some fresh cheese. Elderly men on powerful motorcycles – Hell’s Granddads – tear up and down the narrow lanes in convoy

On Saturday night we drove to Blackpool, a seaside resort I used to visit as a small child. It was invented a hundred and more years ago to provide cheap holidays for the workers in the cotton mills and mines of Lancashire, and it was always cheerfully tawdry and vulgar. Its hallmark is a replica of the Eiffel Tower, put up in the 1890s on a smaller scale but still 300 feet or so high. It rises out of a Victorian palace of entertainments that houses a circus and a huge ballroom decorated in breathtaking gilded mouldings, where one can dance to the strains of a mighty Wurlitzer organ. Shirley and I had a mind to dance.

We stayed for an hour and took a few turns about the floor, where little girls with ambitious mothers were practising their dance school routines. Two elegant gay men in black were dancing beautifully together – something we’ve seen twice in the last twelve months and no one bats an eyelid. The trouble is that the Wurlitzer rips the soul out of music. Shirley and I like live music: but here only the musicians are alive: the music isn’t. And so we leave.

The evening is cool. The girls don’t wear coats as they teeter on high heels along the promenade past the gaming arcades and fast food joints with the sea close by. They sport cheap, flimsy dresses and hug themselves to keep warm. They have tattoos and bad hairstyles and are more or less drunk. The men wear gold chains and sports gear made in Chinese sweat shops, but otherwise don’t look in the least sporting. The pavement is littered with trash. People are snarfing their dinners out of polystyrene trays and the air stinks of burgers and fried onions. In my childhood Blackpool was a cheerful spot where respectable working people had fun with their families. Now it caters for cheap hen and stag nights, and competes with Prague and Lithuania, which low-cost flights have made accessible. It aspires to have a huge casino and become Atlantic City.

By midnight Shirley and I are back in our country retreat, reading and having a nightcap. Blackpool belongs to another life: one we might have had but didn’t. Education and good luck spared us. I’d like to say that wisdom also came to our aid but – in my case at least – I doubt that’s true.

On Sunday we went bird watching among the reed beds of Leighton Moss. Or, rather, Shirley bird watched. I sat at the back of the hide, reading a biography of John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester and a celebrated rake of the reign of Charles II. He was fiercely intelligent and an atheist, wit and poet, but drink and the pox did for him and he died in the arms of God at the age of thirty-three. In short he was another fool. But in his case luck didn’t save him – though God may have done for all I know.