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Feather's Miscellany: Keighworth Culture

John Waddington-Feather tells the story of a wife who had sweet revenge on her philistine and bullying husband.

Culturally, Keighworth divided down the middle. On the one side you had educated, refined citizens, who sang in choirs, played in the town orchestra and band, attended plays at the Hippodrome Theatre, and produced plays at the Keighworth Little Theatre. They also ran the Natural History and Literary Society and painted, exhibiting their paintings in the Albert Park Museum and elsewhere. And it must be said, a family of rich mill-owners had inaugurated the Winterscales Musical Festival which attracted choirs from all over the region to sing in Keighworth one week a year. In general, the artistic crowd were a very couth lot and made the town a civilised place to live in.

Then there were the other lot, the philistine ignoramuses, some of whom like Alderman Joe Oxenhead sat on the Town Council. They grumbled like mad when money was spent on anything educational (they’d have had children working in their mills again were that possible), and they thought the arts were a waste of time. On one occasion they were up in arms when Doctor Joseph Bridges, a friend of the Poet Laureate, invited him to speak at a literary dinner in town and suggested that as a gesture the Council presented him with a silver plaque to commemorate his coming. Doctor bridges himself was paying all the poet’s expenses – and was regarded as a fool for so doing by Oxenhead and his ilk.

So the philistines were tight-fisted on all matters cultural; but when it came to civic dinners and funding those they were open-handed. The philistines enjoyed a good eat and drink - and spouting even more. They’d yatter on for ages drivelling about this or that, mainly about themselves and what they were doing for the town. They swelled visibly when they got to their feet, primed with wine, and began speaking. Within minutes they had their audience fast asleep.

There was that famous occasion when Alderman Oxenhead had been bleating on for half an hour, till Ira Fothergill slipped him a note telling him his flies were undone and he was showing the flag. Mortally embarrassed, he shut up and sat down at once, checking his flies surreptitiously under the table. They were intact and he never forgave Ira.

An ardent philistine was another mill tycoon called Alfred Woodman. He was a short, stocky man with a smug, florid face. He’d come up from nowt and liked everyone to know it. “I weren’t born with silver spoon in my mouth,” he’d begin. “I had to work my way up from the bottom. I left school at fourteen and went straight into the mill as an apprentice; but by the time I was twenty five, I had my own mill – earned it through the sweat of my brow and damned hard work. That’s how I got to where I am now. I didn’t have any fancy education; no time for owt arty-crafty; only time for making brass which bought me my mills.” And with his thumbs stuck deep in his waistcoat pockets and his feet planted firmly apart, he’d glare all about him and dare anyone to defy him.

He was a hard taskmaster, driving his employees for all he was worth. He was punctual at work, arriving at 7am each day to stand by the clocking-in machine checking his workers. Woe betide any who were late. They got short shrift from him and had their wages docked.

There was no doubt at all he’d done well and made his pile. To prove it he bought a big house in its own grounds at Utworth, where the upper-crustians lived. To be an upper-crustian in Keighworth meant flaunting your wealth, and did Joe Woodman flaunt his! His house had been built by another millionaire in the nineteenth century, so it had a good start. It was built to trumpet money.

It had a portico with four pillars at its main entrance at the end of a long, immaculately kept drive and it boasted a magnificent dining room and a large oak-panelled drawing room, filled with costly antique furniture, where he entertained guests lavishly. His house was his pride and joy, the vaunting and outward show of his wealth. He drove around, too, in an expensive, silver Rolls and sent his children to the best schools down south. Yes, he’d done well and everyone in Keighworth could see that, as he meant them to.

His guests were all like him – philistines. He couldn’t cope with small talk about the arts and science and all that. His conversation revolved round business – his business mainly – the Stock Market and golf. He’d no real interest in sport but he’d joined the golf club on his way to the top and enjoyed a round with his pals and a jaw afterwards in the golf-club bar about trade.

When he was thirty he married Betty Parker. He was very rich by then and good catch. He knew it and made sure that he also made an equally good catch when he wed. Betty was the daughter of another millionaire in Keighworth, Fred Parker, who’d made his fortune manufacturing looms. Parkers’ Looms Ltd were known worldwide. She was an only child and would come in for a fortune eventually, so Alfred made a dead set at her and wed her. Their marriage was to the mutual satisfaction of all concerned, especially Alfred.

Betty wasn’t all that attractive. She was plain, academic and very shy. Her father had dominated her all her life, so much so that it took him and Alfred all their time to get her going, but in the end she fell for Alfred. After all, he was quite good-looking and well made, and from her dad’s point of view he was very well pocketed. Yet she had qualities neither her father nor Woodman knew anything about and didn’t understand.

To begin with, she was more intelligent than he. She’d a flair for writing and she was a passable artist and musician. These meant nothing to her husband and once married he talked her down and dominated her just as her dad had done. He expected her to be the dutiful little wife, no more, no less, and to be always at his beck and call.

Worse still, the bullying he showed to his workers, he brought into his marriage. He bullied his wife and family so much that his kids were glad to get away from home as soon as possible when they grew up. But Betty couldn’t and went on enduring him for years, suffering in silence, but remaining loyal to him for the sake of her family.

Not only had she to put up with her husband but also his friends and their wives. She was intelligent and well educated; they were not. She spoke good English; they didn’t, although they thought they did. When she’d completed her education at a well known ladies college in England and a finishing school abroad, returning to Keighworth was like being sent back into the wilderness.

Had she been more single-minded or more attractive, she’d have got away; but she’d been dominated by an overbearing father for too long and she was painfully shy and lacked any self-confidence. That came later as you’ll hear.

For years she endured the misery of coffee mornings and golf club dinners, listening to inane conversation and drunken oafs telling dirty jokes. Yet all the while, she quietly pursued her own interests: attending art classes, singing in the town choir and writing, which was her passion.

If ever she dared voice an opinion on writing in company, her husband would put her down, interrupting cruelly with remarks like: “There she goes again. All arty-crafty. Has her head in the clouds all the time with her writing and stuff. Now she’s writing Po..et..ry. Po..et..ry, I ask you! What good is that?” Then he and his pals would guffaw and any womenfolk present would titter.
Although angry, she never responded only smiled weakly and let it pass. Only when she was in the company of fellow writers did she say anything, and then she spoke at length for she was developing by leaps and bounds as a writer.

She never stopped writing and when she was sixty she began sending off her work to publishers in London. It was rejected time and again, sometimes unread, but she persevered and eventually was put onto an agent who placed her first novel, set in Keighworth and exposing the philistines living there.

It was a huge success. The reviewers picked up the satire and lauded it to the skies. She was apprehensive and expected to be shunned in the town at the least, if not insulted. Her husband never read her book so had no idea what it was about nor did his friends. But those in Keighworth who did read her novel praised it and she became something of a celebrity in the town, especially when it was reviewed fulsomely in “The Keighworth News”.

Far from being angry about her sending up Keighworth and its townsfolk, they regarded her as the local lass who’d made good, who’d taken London and its literary clique by storm; but the joke was that they saw everyone else in the novel except themselves; so it ended up with everybody having a good laugh at everyone else’s expense.

Betty’s success didn’t stop there. It went on from strength to strength till she won the Bowker Prize, the coveted, national prize for novelists. Films and a television series were made from her novels. Her income soared and her fortune was made; but by a twist of fate her husband’s fortune slumped. His mill began to fail rapidly when the textile trade declined, till in the end he was declared bankrupt, along with some of his pals. It looked as if he would have to sell his house and all in it. Over the years, he’d filled it with expensive furniture and antiques which he held very dear to his heart. He was devastated. It had long been his pride and joy, dearer to him than his wife if the truth were known.

About that time, when bankruptcy stared him in the face, there was a battle royal in the Council Chamber between the two factions: the cultured group and the philistines. The row started when a rich benefactor bought Crag Castle and gave it to the town. It was a huge, pseudo, Scottish-baronial castle built in the nineteenth century by another quick-rich Keighworth manufacturer, who’d made his pile trading in America. It stood in acres of garden and parkland and the Council couldn’t decide what was to be done with it.

The philistines wanted to convert it into a business centre and build an estate of expensive housing in the grounds. The cultured group wanted to convert the great house into an educational museum and a teaching centre for the arts, complete with art gallery, and the grounds they wanted left as a public park and gardens. The debate raged for weeks till deadlock was reached. There was as much hot air generated in the Council Chamber over those weeks which would have kept the whole town warm through a bitter winter.

The day before the vote the Council was evenly divided and the town was also split. One, single vote would decide what the Castle would become. The issue divided the Woodman household. He as you would expect was all for the business centre; she for the educational museum.

The vote came at that crucial period when Alfred was declared bankrupt. No longer could he browbeat his wife into submission. She had grown in self-assurance and was her own woman now in her own home, which she maintained with her new-found fortune. Gone were the dismal coffee mornings and drearier dinners. Now, in winter she invited her friends and fellow writers and artists to soirees in the great drawing room after dinner; and after garden parties in the summer.
When these took place, Alfred took himself off to his club – or he sat in silence listening and not understanding half what was a said. The biggest blow of all was Betty insisting he sell his silver Rolls Royce. She hated ostentation as much as Alfred wallowed in it. He protested but she prevailed and he bought a modest family car which Betty could drive.

The night before he Council meeting they had a right old row. No way was Alfred going to desert the philistine ranks. No way was Betty going to allow the opportunity of Keighworth’s having a first-class museum and teaching centre slip through its fingers. In the end, she threw down the gauntlet. “Either you vote for Crag Castle becoming an educational museum – or I leave you, and you won’t receive one penny from me to run this house. You’ll have to sell!” she exclaimed furiously. Alfred saw she meant it and gave in. His house was his most cherished possession.

To the surprise and horror of his pals, he voted for a museum with the cultured lot on Council and his vote won the day for them. Some of the philistines never spoke to him again; but he made friends for life with the opposition, even if he didn’t always understand what they were on about.

They wanted to name one of the lecture theatres after Betty, but, self-effacing as ever, she refused. She insisted they name it ‘The Alderman Alfred Woodman Lecture Theatre’ for good reason; it meant he had to attend the inaugural high-powered lecture and many, many more, which Betty made sure he went to for years afterwards; going with him to watch him suffer in silence as she had once done.

John Waddington-Feather ©

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