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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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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