In the Name of – Part 01
I have a unusual surname which, like most people, is derived from my ancestors; who they were, where they lived, and what they did. If you’re a Thatcher your relatives were roofers, a Cooper and they made barrels, or if they worked in a foundry then you may well be a Smith. My ancestors, the ones that counted, were none of those: they fought monsters and were the original medieval superheroes.
Ancient national superheroes include Ireland’s Saint Patrick; who with his mastery over animals is said to have banished all snakes from the land and, in a separate incident, apparently also resurrected a horse; whilst in England we have Saint George as our patron saint, the model Englishman who came from Palestine despite a generation of football hooligans imagining him to be a pasty white guy, about who we’re regaled with the fanciful tale of how he vanquished the dragon. With that one well-known tale, of a certain mythical beast, you do make the assumption that they’re kind-of unique.I know you can’t have gradations of uniqueness but it was, therefore, something of a shock to start school and have a lesson on the local monster: the Unsworth Dragon. Kind-of unique. I don’t want you to get your hopes up, and this may be considered somewhat of a spoiler, but the big scaly one ended up going the same way as all dragons.
The story is of a dragon which tormented the locals of Unsworth in what is described as “olden times”. Any attempt to kill the beast was fruitless as with its thick skin it was impervious to gunfire. Cue the hero, Thomas Unsworth, a nobleman called upon who got clever and inserted his dagger into his musket before using the combination of the two to penetrate the thick hide, killing the beast, whilst seemingly inventing the harpoon at the same time.
An image of Thomas killing the dragon, created in part with the selfsame dagger, was carved into an oak table within the Unsworth family that was witnessed and reported on in the late nineteenth century. It’s also been said that this table was bought by an American in the early twentieth century before going down with the Titanic. All this left locally to commemorate the incident was The Dragon pub, just down the road from “the Pole”, although that’s since been turned into a mini-supermarket.
The Pole is the historic central location of open-air meetings and public gatherings in Unsworth. Some quaint English village greens have maypoles for children to dance around, perhaps accompanied by a fleet of Morris men by the duck pond, but the pole in Unsworth had no coloured ribbons because during festivities a prize of a piece or meat of a brass kettle was placed at the top and then they greased it up good and proper. Competitors would attempt climbing the greasy pole to try and win the prize. That’s the sort of locals that we’re dealing with.
According to a 1986 account on the BBC’s Domesday Project the last person to climb the greasy pole was Adam Holt in 1900. Holt from the Anglo Saxon, meaning one who lives in the (wold) corpse or wood. It doesn’t say what stopped this local tradition – possibly basic twentieth century health and safety – although it does say that at some point during a storm the pole ended up being not so much erect and much more inside of the Bay Horse Inn.
I would have thought that nobody really believed that Saint George tackled, fought, and killed a real-life dragon; it’s the stuff you write off as just being a big old fairy story you heard as a child, and so to find a historical account of our very own dragon, on my very own doorstep, makes you wonder how common, and how true, such tales are.
No-one I went to school with in the eighties and nineties shared my surname, neither anyone I’ve ever met, and so when you throw it together with my Christian name I considered it was a combination that must be unique. In the noughties, when technology had moved on a bit, I did a search for myself on Friends Reunited, as you do, and I can’t tell you how much of a disappointment it was to discover that not only was I not unique, but that there was three of me…in Manchester. Kind-of unique. The other two were a cage fighter and a gay air steward. It thus brings a new meaning to the question Fight or Flight? with the answer being: No, the other one. Since then one of them has had the temerity to begin writing, in my name, to the Manchester Evening News. I know this because I had friends point this out to me wanting to know what I was going on about.
You should never underestimate a media presence. I’ve often found it difficult to believe the many stories of unknown TV actors having walk-on roles in something like The Bill and then being accosted by strangers the day after with Aren’t you that guy off the tele?, but then I myself once became involved in a sting operation by a Welsh student newspaper, Seren, who were set to run an expose on smokers ripping up the Halls of Residence Bistro back when it was still legal to do such a thing.
Unfortunately for the Press, when they kicked the door in to shine the light of truth onto such a menace, there weren’t any smokers to be seen. They were quite disappointed. I know as I was sat there drinking coffee at the time. So to run their scoop, which they’d already metaphorically written, they instead got me to pose with a fag in my hand for the photographer so they could lambaste the ever-present smoking menace. Never believe anything you see in the paper. Despite a grainy black and white photo, hidden away on page five, I got accosted on the street by twenty people the following week all saying “I didn’t know that you smoked”.
An epilogue to my pro-smoking propaganda days was when someone in the Bangor area took the time and effort to cut out this photo from Seren, stick the phrase from page three DAYS NUMBERED to it like a ransom demand, draw an arrow from it to my head, and then post it to me. Ah, my second death threat; I remember it fondly. I haven’t had one of those in a good while.
I do love the line from the Steven Moffat (from the Gaelic, meaning one who lives on the (fada) long (magh) plain) episode of Sherlock, the modern-day BBC reworking of the Holmes canon (from the Middle English, meaning one who lives next to a (holm) holly tree) which is firmly rooted in the real modern world where in the opening episode with Benedict Cumberbatch in the titular role (from the old English, meaning one who dwells in a (comber) valley by the (batch) stream) a puzzled Watson (work it out for yourself) questions, with incredulity: “Do people have archenemies?”
They do, although the mysterious postal comedian wasn’t mine as my archenemy was much more elemental, a nemesis fought by my ancestors, and one that was much more deadly than dragons.