It’s been a while, since Derby in January in fact, since I went anywhere further than Manchester City Centre, so the time seemed ripe for a day out on Friday. Even so, having survived six months of the pandemic, I’m a little twitchy about venturing further afield, especially given how much time that’s going to mean breathing through a facemask.
Nor did the lead up on Thursday make me feel calmer. I’d been encouraged by my manager to give myself a treat, take a day off to do something I wanted, and I wanted to do this anyway: a Friday off work, especially one that balanced out a Working Sunday I hadn’t been able to get out of, was tailor-made. I was up for it, psyched, ready, except that the leave hadn’t been put through. My manager works from home: I e-mailed him. No reply. Time passing. Oscillating between rising frustration and the fury I’m going to feel if it falls through.
It’s not as if I’m not worked up already. I got home Wednesday to a letter asking me to phone in to make an appointment for my flu jab this year except that they told me to ring an obsolete number then the transfer option kept telling me it had failed and cutting me off. I don’t need any more aggravation.
Eventually, I go to another Manager and between him and my very sweet Ops Manager, who’s an absolute darling, it’s agreed – but still not booked into my schedule when I leave at 9.00pm – and I am spared the horrendous Friday I would have inflicted on everybody within socially distanced reach.
Standard Operating Procedure gets me to Stockport Railway Station with only half an hour to spare, which is ample time for steady and serious rain to set in. This is August, isn’t it? The Friday before the Bank Holiday weekend? Of course.
There are two changes in the outbound journey, Manchester Piccadilly and Manchester Oxford Road. There used to be direct trains to Southport but no more. The journey will take nearly two hours. I could cut that down to eighty minutes and save 80p on the return fare if I spend ages on the bus and walking to travel from Manchester Victoria, plus having to get home from the City Centre on top. I am lavish, I spend the money.
As far as Bolton it’s a familiar journey, one I made five days a week for most of the 2000s, so I turn immediately to my big heavy book: there are few happy associations with that journey.
It’s a long, slow, stopping journey that stops everywhere but still manages to outpace the rain, if not the overhanging cloud. I get in a good long shift of reading as we cross the plains of lower Central Lancashire, the wet fields to each side, the numerous level-crossings in our favour, but my bum is sore from sitting by the time we reach Southport and I can stand up, shuffle and, once out of the station, pull down my facemask: the fresh air is a heady wine.
I have a long history with Southport. My parents hated Blackpool for its noisiness, its brashess and its crowds so this was my first experience of a seaside resort, with its long beaches and invisible seas. Here was where I played with my first camera, getting great shots without pointing. Here was where Dad and I spent one early morning before breakfast walking a mile out across the sands without reaching the sea. Here was where Mam would occasionally take my little sister and I to the seaside for the day: in 1968, the year I discovered Test Cricket and watched the Ashes avidly, we visited on the last day of the series, the one at the Oval, when hundreds of volunteers mopped the field dry to give England a chance of the draw, ten fielders crouched round the bat. At least every third bloke on the Front had a transister radio tuned to the Test pressed to his ear and I flitted from one to another, never more than thirty seconds away from the next update, until Deadly Derek Underwood took the last wicket. Was that the one where we got back to Victoria and found Dad there, straight from work, to run us home, the perfect end?
But I’m not in Southport for any of that, not today. I’m here because Southport is where the Eagle was created between Marcus Morris and Frank Hampson, and where Dan Dare was created at the latter’s kitchen table. It’s the 70th Anniversary this year, albeit not this time of year, and there’s an Exhibition. I head straight for the Atkinson Gallery to visit it.
The Dan Dare part is very small, far smaller than previous Exhibitions I’ve visited, basically one little room and an additional glass case as a component of a larger Exhibition dedicated to the Sefton Coast: Dan’s contribution is the ‘Inspirational Coast’.
There’s an array of books and comics, many of which are laid out in a bit of a jumble, all but a handful of which I have in my own collection. My copy of Eagle no. 1 is in far better nick than theirs though I can’t say the same for Annual no. 1.
But as always it’s the original art that makes the journey worthwhile and though the pages are few, they are especially wonderful. To my enormous glee Hampson is represented by a page from ‘The Man from Nowhere’, the cover of the issue of Eagle published the day I was born! There’s original art of Don Harley and Bruce Cornwell’s ‘The Platinum Planet’, misidentified as its sequel, ‘The Earth-Stealers’. And Keith Watson, on whose art I grew up, is represented by the last Dan Dare page he drew, the page that was the foundation for Spaceship Away.
Hampson’s pages intrigued me. Usually, Hampson took the cover page and divided the several panels of page 2 between his assistants, but this is a paste down of individual panels in ones and twos. I’d love to know why.
But there’s more than just Dan Dare. There’s a Martin Aitchison horizontal ‘Luck of the Legion’ strip next to a Thelwell ‘Chicko’ cartoon, a superb Ashwell Wood Cutaway of the Naval Vessel St Kitts, Frank Humphris at his glorious best on ‘Riders of the Range’ and Frank Bellamy with a back page true story, ‘David – The Shepherd King’.
There’s another Bellamy original that troubles me deeply. Immaculately framed, it is the first page of ‘Frasier of Africa’, all yellows and sepias, and it disturbs me because I cannot work out how to steal it and get away with it.
It’s magnificent but it’s too scanty. The one I came to for the 40th Anniversary was nearly ten times as big and was so good I visited twice, once on my own then with a bunch of mates to whom I’d raved: four hefty fellers in a Volkswagen Polo that needed me to start braking a loooong way before usual.
After leaving the Gallery, I check if there’s still a Pizza Hut in Southport. There is, but it’s no longer on Lord Street, instead it’s way out to Hell and gone on the Front, which means a long walk, starting off along the pier, which forms a bridge over the Marine Lake – there has to be a Marine Lake or else the only water you’d see in Southport would be out of a tap – and through a shopping estate dominated by Matalan.
This is my first sit-down and eat-in Pizza Hut meal since before lockdown. They’re still operating on limited ingredients, no tuna for my favourite tuna’n’onions, no sweetcorn for my second favourite chicken’n’sweetcorn so I have a Hawaiian with garlic bread side. Nice and tasty and filling. And amusing to note that I finish five minutes before I would have logged in for Friday’s shift.
I have neither the weather nor the inclination to walk on further to see the beach, and neither would you in this early October greyness, so what is left is how much of a wander I feel like having. Today would have been an ideal time to pay a visit to the Bakehouse, the little lean-to where six artists crammed in to draw Dan Dare and the three other pages the Hampson Studio was committed to, but I didn’t think of that in time, and haven’t got the address on me, nor anything more than a vague idea where it is: another time then, again.
So I stroll back to Lord Street and wander northwards under the old-fashioned continuous glass canopy that accompanies the shore-side shops. A couple of times I wander into Charity Shops to fruitlessly peruse the cheap DVDs and every time I come out it takes ages before I remember I can pull down the facemask.
I went as far as a sign for Stockport Samaritans, which was apt: the Samaritans were created by the Reverend Chad Varah, who wrote adventure stories for Eagle, and Dan Dare himself for all but the first two weeks of ‘Marooned on Mercury’.
But there’s not much to look at, or smell, except cafes, restaurants and feeding places: no shortage of these in Southport. So I turn round and walk back an equal distance south but there’s nothing to attract my attention. Southport has always been an old people’s resort and whilst I might be an old person myself now, I’m not that kind of old person. The one I seem to be is the one with the arthritic right knee and hip and the lower back pain on the same side that’s exacerbating both and putting a severe crimp on how far I can walk.
So I slowly limped back to the Station. I’d tentatively identified the 15.43 for returning, a long way round via Liverpool so, with an absence of suitable attractions, I advance an hour and settle down for another long read. That’s actually been one of the best parts of the day. The isolation of a train is an ideal situation for taking a good big bite out of a long book, and I don’t get to do that kind of sustained reading as often as I used to. The train tracks down the coast, stopping everywhere, until Liverpool South Parkway interchange where I hope on a Norwich train and off again in Stockport, though by the time I limp heavily up our street I’m absolutely shattered – and it’s still only halfway through my shift…