A rainbow over a Yorkshire dale in around 1965. (Photo: Getty)
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A mine romance: remembering Maurice Dobson and Fred Halliday

In a South Yorkshire mining village in the 1960s, a gay couple were not just accepted but celebrated by their community.

Once a month my wife and I volunteer at the Maurice Dobson Museum and Heritage Centre in Darfield, our village near Barnsley, and when I welcome people and tell them to mind the step as they come in, I proudly announce that they are standing in the only museum in the world named after a gay, cross-dressing ex-Gordon Highlander.

I have to say I’ve not checked this scientifically, and there may be other museums of this kind somewhere, but I’m pretty sure it’s true. Maurice and his partner Fred Halliday (they didn’t cross-dress all the time, only on special occasions) were fixtures in the streets of Darfield for many years; my mother remembered them walking down the pit lane looking like Barbara Cartland and Joanna Lumley, and as a boy, on my way to the Lads’ Brigade, I would pop into their shop, where Maurice, perched on a high stool in a powder-blue suit, would put down the cigarette he was smoking in a long, elegant holder and shout, “If you say ‘bugger’ I’ll give you a Spangle,” before launching into a Kenneth Williams-style hooting laugh. Fred, sober in a brown smock, would tut and shake his head and tell him not to be so blooming daft.

The museum has a beautiful photograph of Maurice taken by the local snapper, Joe Short; Maurice looks exquisite with his hair pomaded, a loose silk shirt above high-waisted trousers, and lipstick so vivid that it reaches to you across the years, even though the picture is black and white.

I’ve always seen the unlikely tale of Maurice and Fred as a metaphor for acceptance and inclusiveness. Darfield in the 1960s was a typical mining village and outsiders, as well as insiders who scuttle away for a more fulfilling cultural life, would be surprised at the way this odd couple were treated. They were accepted, they were celebrated, they were appreciated and they sold the most amazing sweets from huge glass jars that shone in the sun. That isn’t to say that kids didn’t sometimes rush into the shop and shout hurtful things, but Fred and Maurice, because of their army training, could give as good as they got.

Maurice was born in 1912 in Low Valley, a local settlement built for the burgeoning mining industry and, after a brief period down the pit, joined the Highlanders in 1929. After he’d left the forces in 1946 he went to London, presumably in a boxy and stylish demob suit and a broad-brimmed hat, where he worked in the hotel trade and met Fred.

There’s a tantalising image in the museum of Maurice and Fred with a gang of people in dinner suits and a young woman in a pinny; the picture is captioned “Grand Hotel”, and it could have been a grand hotel in London or one in Blackpool, where they ended up in the early 1950s. They moved back to Darfield in 1956 and the rest, as they say, is Heritage.

After Maurice died, he gave his old shop to the Darfield Amenities Society with the express purpose that it should be used as a museum and, in the first year of the new millennium, it opened. In the place where Maurice tried to get you to say rude words there’s a shop; walk through another room and you get to the café. Upstairs there are displays of Darfield’s history and industries: the coal mines and the toy factory and the football factory.

As I welcome people on a Saturday I like to imagine Maurice and Fred strolling down from the Post Office, past the Miners Welfare park, splashes of colour in the grey late 1950s, speaking a Barnsley-inflected Polari and making a stand for better, more tolerant times.

The Maurice Dobson Museum and Heritage Centre is at 2 Vicar Road, Darfield, Barnsley, South Yorkshire S73 9JZ (01226 754 593)

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

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Euston has to be the most horrible station in London, especially before ten in the morning

So off I go to Birmingham, the city where J G Ballard meets Captain Kirk.

A friend posts an ad for the John Lewis Soft Touch Washable Mattress Topper on a social medium. She doesn’t usually post adverts. “This actually will change your life,” she writes, “in the sense that you will not get out of bed and your muscles will atrophy and you will be penniless.”

I am tempted, I must say. Lately I have simply not been getting out of bed. The trick is to wake up at, say, eight in the morning, and then utilise that early-morning grogginess to go back to sleep. That way you wake up again around noon feeling deranged from the extra-weird dreams you’ve been having. The one where I stole my ex-girlfriend Debbie Milton from Prince Charles, whom she had unwisely married, and escaped with her in a white Rolls-Royce while an enraged Greg Chappell chased after us was quite something. (All details true, promise.)

But Saturday comes and I have to get out of bed because I am off to Birmingham. Why Birmingham? Because I’m being paid to. I am also chairing a talk between Diego Marani, whose most excellent novel New Finnish Grammar I am proud of having introduced to a wider audience than it might have received, and Frank Witzel, a German author of whom I know nothing, but the title of whose prize-winning (untranslated) novel, The Invention of the Red Army Faction By a Manic Depressive Teenager in the Summer of 1969, is suggestive of greatness to follow.

My train is at quarter to ten in the morning. That is horribly early, and it’s from Euston. Euston has to be the most horrible station in London. Crammed with fast-food outlets and shops selling tat, it is a wholly commercialised space, beneath which the trains hulk in confinement on their platforms like trapped beasts. They are also mostly Virgin trains, and bitter experience has taught me that these are unreliable and that one should never, under any circumstances, use their toilets. It’s best to Go before or, at a pinch, to soil oneself. After all, using one more or less amounts to the same thing.

I don’t have much experience of Birmingham, bitter or otherwise. I once gave a talk at Birmingham City University and was distracted by the Ballardian architecture of the place and by an audience member’s beauty, so much so, in the latter case, that I could not speak for a couple of minutes. But my attention is drawn to the fact that the Star Trek convention is taking place at the National Exhibition Centre in the city at the same time, and I think that as my event ends at around three I’ll skip over to the convention and, for a mere £15, have myself photographed on the set of the original Enterprise, sitting in the Captain’s chair.

I would have done anything for Captain James T Kirk when I was a child, and to this day you can catch me, from time to time, punching light switches with the fleshy part of my fist, the way he answers the internal comm-system in the TV series.

But it turns out, I learn from a friend who has had the same idea but actually committed himself to it, that there is a huge entry fee and the queues for the Captain’s chair are “apocalyptic”. So I decide not to go, and ask the hotel staff instead where the nearest decent old man pub is. They steer me in the direction of the Shakespeare round the corner.

This splendid pub huddles amid another Ballardian cityscape of car parks and stunted skyscrapers. The barman is nice, but does not know how to pronounce “Laphroaig”. “I wouldn’t even try,” he says. I teach him. It occurs to me that the whisky in the bottle is probably older than most of the buildings around it.

Why do we do this to cities? The view from my hotel is of a vast building site, behind which the few survivors of Birmingham’s Victorian heritage cluster like exhibits in a freak show: “See the Amazing Buildings Built More Than Twenty Years Ago!!” Still, at least Birmingham Library is, as modern buildings go, rather cool: and then I realise this is because the outside is modelled on the Sam Browne belt worn by Lieutenant Worf in Star Trek: the Next Generation.

I sigh at my nerdiness and take my place on stage. The chair, I decide, is suitably captainesque, and in front of us lies the flag, blue with yellow stars, of another federation, different from the one Gene Roddenberry dreamt of. I remember being excited, as a child, about the future, thinking of the progress we would make as it happened. The desire to go home, and dream, returns.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood