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

Arsène Wenger. Credit: Getty
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My biggest regret of the Wenger era? How we, the fans, treated him at the end

Arsenal’s greatest coach deserved better treatment from the Club’s supporters. 

I have no coherent memories of Arsenal before Arsène Wenger, who will leave the Club at the end of the season. I am aware of the Club having a new manager, but my continuous memories of my team are of Wenger at the helm.

They were good years to remember: three league titles, seven FA Cups, the most of any single manager in English football. He leaves the Club as the most successful manager in its history.

I think one of the reasons why in recent years he has taken a pasting from Arsenal fans is that the world before him now seems unimaginable, and not just for those of us who can't really remember it. As he himself once said, it is hard to go back to sausages when you are used to caviar, and while the last few years cannot be seen as below par as far as the great sweep of Arsenal’s history goes, they were below par by the standards he himself had set. Not quite sausages, but not caviar either.

There was the period of financial restraint from 2005 onwards, in which the struggle to repay the cost of a new stadium meant missing out on top player. A team that combined promising young talent with the simply bang-average went nine years without a trophy. Those years had plenty of excitement: a 2-1 victory over Manchester United with late, late goals from Robin van Persie and Thierry Henry, a delicious 5-2 thumping of Tottenham Hotspur, and races for the Champions League that went to the last day. It was a time that seemed to hold the promise a second great age of Wenger once the debt was cleared. But instead of a return to the league triumphs of the past, Wenger’s second spree of trophy-winning was confined to the FA Cup. The club went from always being challenging for the league, to always finishing in the Champions League places, to struggling to finish in the top six. Again, nothing to be sniffed at, but short of his earlier triumphs.

If, as feels likely, Arsenal’s dire away form means the hunt for a Uefa Cup victory ends at Atletico Madrid, many will feel that Wenger missed a trick in not stepping down after his FA Cup triumph over Chelsea last year, in one of the most thrilling FA Cup Finals in years. (I particularly enjoyed this one as I watched it with my best man, a Chelsea fan.) 

No one could claim that this season was a good one, but the saddest thing for me was not the turgid performances away from home nor the limp exit from the FA Cup, nor even finishing below Tottenham again. It was hearing Arsenal fans, in the world-class stadium that Wenger built for us, booing and criticising him.

And I think, that, when we look back on Wenger’s transformation both of Arsenal and of English football in general, more than whether he should have called it a day a little earlier, we will wonder how Arsenal fans could have forgotten the achievements of a man who did so much for us.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.