As with each passing week it is a pleasure to be able to send the Newsletter to you, together with the Readings for the celebration of Holy Mass this weekend. Once again last weekend gremlins got into the e-mail system, and I have been made aware that some parishioners received a mid-week delivery, rather than a weekend one. Hopefully, whenever this email arrives it will find you and your loved ones well, safe, and relatively sane ! Each day I pray that we will all remain in this state, but as the weeks pass I am more and more aware that parishioners, friends and others known to me have caught Covid-19 and are battling for better health and a return to their normal surrounds, as a good number are ending up in the care of the NHS. Please remember these in your prayers and thoughts, together with their anxious families and loved ones.
As a schoolboy of primary age a little job that I was entrusted with every Thursday and Friday during the holidays was to collect my great-aunt’s pension, purchase a part of her weekly ration of cigarettes, pay for and return with her weekly magazines which comprised a copy of the TV Times, People’s Friend and The Wharfedale and Airedale Observer, our local newspaper. The collection of the reading matter took place on a Friday, with each of the items clearly marked with the mysterious annotation of “N6” on their covers. A letter and number that I had to mention each Thursday when handing over a portion of my aunt’s pension money in payment. For a child with imagination, it was all very exciting stuff.
In my absence at the sub-post office-cum-newsagents a coffee (always made with milk) would have been prepared for both of us to enjoy on my return, often accompanied by a ginger biscuit for me. Once settled in her chair and with a cigarette lit my aunt would disappear behind the broadsheet, emerging only to relieve her cigarette of its excess ash, and to take a quick sip of coffee. A period of near silence ensued whilst the events of our then relatively small town were digested, mulled over and occasionally tutted at. At home, after work, my mother would lay the same edition of the newspaper on the kitchen table, scanning its columns in preparation for a further read at various times of relaxation during the coming week. Dad picked up the newspaper not for its local news, but for the contents of the sports pages on a Saturday evening, usually as my mother and myself were putting our shoes on, smartly dressed and ready for our departure to the Vigil Mass. It was something of a stand-off each weekend between two people who judged travelling times in terms of covering a distance on foot, and the car driver of the household whose measurement of time and distance were most definitely his own ! A further feature of the local press was the need to wash your hands after reading it, as the ink was very transmissible; fingers became discoloured, and so did our kitchen table, thank goodness it was Formica and fully wipeable. As a Friday publication, a good ploy for sales in a market town, there was one week in the year when it appeared a day early: Holy Week, as everything round about stopped in its tracks to acknowledge the sacred nature of Good Friday.
Perhaps because the local newspaper was so much a part of the fabric of my formative years it subsequently took on a personal significance when my own route through life separated me from my home town. Away from Otley it remained a constant through its personal delivery by my parents on their fortnightly visits to the junior seminary, when in Ireland back-copies were carefully put to one side awaiting my return for half-term and longer holidays, and in the year of my Ordination it was posted to me in the rather grand surrounds of Hawkstone Hall in Shropshire by a cousin of my Mum who also included a weekly letter secreted in its pages.
My affection for, and respect of, the local press still takes me on a weekly pilgrimage to purchase the Spenborough Guardian. Whilst not a born native of the area, I have an interest in what is taking place in and around the location that I find myself ministering and living in, and enjoy my weekly printed catch-up on events. All of us, for a span of time, belong to or are a part of a community or society that claims us as one of its own. With that in mind I find it worthwhile to try and keep abreast of events taking place locally. There are varying debates about the relevance of local newspapers, but I am very much an advocate for their presence despite a decreasing number and variety of items pertaining to a locality to be found within their pages. Wearing the hat of a researcher the time spent looking at local newspapers, both in this country and abroad, in the name of various projects that I have undertaken across the years would run into months if I were to attempt to quantify it. One of the surprising elements of delving into the local newspapers of previous times is the breadth of their content, there was literally something for everyone in and amongst their printed pages, and for the amateur historian they provide a tremendously rich, and often untapped, record of the social history of an area, an insight into a particular people’s public and private (until it got an airing in the press !) moral compass, and the lives of generations as viewed and written by their peers. It can easily be forgotten that the local newspaper was also a form of broad entertainment. Serialised stories would be read aloud by adults, whilst children very often were captivated by their own dedicated columns and corners. There were household, gardening and allotment tips, notes on fashions and clothing patterns, mention of stocks, shares and business activities, world events, court appearances, school inspections, localised medical reports, accounts of proceedings at council meetings, happenings taking place amongst local societies and clubs, sporting interests and a wide range of events unfolding in and around a particular locality. Many local newspapers were devoid of a feature that for most today can either attract or repel a readership – headline stories. Instead many front-pages contained a potpourri of businesses, entrepreneurs and a wide spectrum of others clammering for the attention of readers.
Taking a look at a local paper from 1914 the front page contained notices pertaining to well-known businesses alongside building societies, the offer of loans by post, the lure of seaside hotels, hydros and holiday resorts, stocks and shares, cycles, motors and motoring, education, patent agents, Japanese fancy goods, cures for rheumatism, gout and lumbago, a Yorkshire corn cure, Antarctic souvenirs and professional services, which included dentistry, together with a large number of miscellaneous notifications. Amongst the latter was one which announced: “Old False Teeth bought,” offering payment of a shilling for each tooth on metal, one shilling and sixpence for any on vulcanite, three shillings for those on silver and an impressive six shillings for each tooth on gold, and ten shillings for those on platinum. However, before anyone disappears to take a rummage through their cupboards in search of a set of antique dentures, I doubt if the same good rates of payment would apply today !
Clearly the people of the Heavy Woollen district enjoyed their local press as the area boasted numerous newspapers all of which presumably must have retained a loyal readership given the fact that some co-existed for decades. Reporters were deployed to public gatherings, meetings, inquests, funerals, marriages, and vied to get an exclusive with witnesses, family members or those speaking with authority. Homework and background research was done, early mornings and late nights were had, and there was a proactive vigilance in order to make a scoop. At church doors the names of mourners were recorded, and lists of wedding presents together with details of their providers would be given by newly married notables for inclusion in an article about their special day. The belief that a name reported, for the right reason, in the press would ensure and maintain sales was an unspoken understanding amongst those who, turning out in all weathers and at all times, worked in the media at grassroots level.
At a time when we are encouraged to separate genuine news from its fake counterpart, there may be a tendency to dismiss a traditional reporting in favour of its instant relative. However, newspapers of past times kept up to speed by capitalising on local knowledge. In Leeds and Bradford a century ago late afternoon editions of papers were produced primarily for sales to the myriad of homeward-bound shop workers, shoppers and those who had attended sporting events. These frequently contained reports of events that had not taken place at the time of the first printed edition. In May 1910 my own great-great grandfather, a well-known figure in the printing press industry, died suddenly around lunchtime at home in Otley. Notification of this event was in both the Bradford and Leeds newspapers later that day, thanks to the telegraphic communications of the period.
It is said by some that headlines can make or break a newspaper, and good news makes little difference to sales and revenues. From experience I find the internal pages of a newspaper far more interesting than the front page. It is there that I read of events and people that are real, and for whose stories I have a natural inclination born out of both concern and interest. Amongst items reported I find those which shock, inspire, sadden and uplift, alongside the trite and almost sickeningly repetitive.
As God’s people we are defined by news. We know it by a more formalized title, Gospel, but when St. Mark began his writing he spoke of the “beginning of the good news about Jesus.” Together with St. Matthew and St. Luke, his fellow roving reporters, St. Mark was a fabulous hunter-gatherer of stories, with an ear for first, second or even third hand accounts of those who had seen or heard Jesus speak, gaining a reputation for ‘exclusives’ with those whose life journey was forever changed by an encounter with Christ. The emphasis throughout their writings was on the good in the news they were compiling and leaving as a perpetual legacy written documentation for those who would follow them. Their writings tell of others who were evangelists – conveyors of God’s message to others – either by accident, such as members of the crowd of five thousand who were fed on five loaves and two fish, or others who called out directly to Jesus and received healing at His hands or by His word such as the woman who had suffered from a haemorrhage for a dozen years. Imagine the exclusive scoop of the reporter being the first to talk with Lazarus of Bethany ! Others too were specifically called upon to go and share good news with others, such as the women who went to the tomb on the first Easter Day and who were asked to return to the meeting place of the Apostles to share with them news of the resurrection. What an incredible piece of news to carry, and to be able to convey to others.
When writing about the impact that this good news made on the lives of individuals and communities St. Luke travelled widely, interviewed broadly and had an ever open ear for stories of conversions, persecutions, miracles, and even managed to become a part of St. Paul’s entourage, journeying with him on several of his missionary adventures. It is thanks to St. Luke that the names of early Christians together with some insights into their lives, has been handed down to us. In the weeks following Easter, listening to the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke’s second writing of good news, we hear extracts from the local news columns of Sacred Scripture; the stories of our ancestors in the Faith, the real life events of a people of unfolding Good News.
Perhaps during this coming week despite the pervading negativity of many newspaper headlines a truer reflection of who we are, a collective eager to share their own good news – Gospel people – could be offered to those around us. It may not hit the headlines, or even be worthy of a mention in our local press, but whatever good news you receive it will most certainly make a difference to your day, and if shared bring much needed joy to others too.
Be assured of my continuing remembrance of you and your loved ones in both prayer and affection.
As ever, Fr. Nicholas