Frivolous Monsters

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.Gargoyle 03

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.Vittore carpaccio George and the Dragon 2I 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.

A picture purporting to be the Unsworth Pole, although I cannot rationalise the background with modern-day Unsworth, and finally seeing it I find it a far more frightening a prospect than I had previously ever imagined it to be.

A picture purporting to be the Unsworth Pole, although I cannot rationalise the background with modern-day Unsworth, and finally seeing it I find it a far more frightening a prospect than I had previously ever imagined it to be.

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.

Days Numbered

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.

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8 thoughts on “In the Name of – Part 01

  1. Cannot believe this Mancunian has never heard of the Unsworth Dragon.
    Incidentally my surname (Murray ) originates from a place (Moray) and one day I hope to visit and be psychically assailed by ancestral DNA memories. I am building up my courage now.

    • There’s no shame in that. I honestly believe that if you went to Unsworth now, let alone Bury, that the people living there wouldn’t have a clue about the dragon. I think the pub may have been knocked down about 2010. I was told about the dragon at school in that one lesson and may never have heard it mentioned since. It’s been an adventure researching this and there are more Unsworth Dragon revelations to come in Part 02 which were news to me.

  2. Did you find out if it is Fight or Flight writing in to the Manchester Evening News?

    I love that bottom pic, by the way!

    • No, but as they were writing about a city centre landmark, on the roof of TV station, with my own prejudices I am leaning more towards the gay air steward than the cage fighter who I don’t imagine has time for such nonsense and only worries about being beaten around the face with a stick covered in barbed wire. I was shown some cage fighting once – possibly American, so I don’t know how we vary – but that was what was going on then.

      Yes, and as for the picture I imagined I looked sophisticated, but people told me I just looked wrong. Oh, well. No point me taking it up as a hobby now then is there.

      • I agree, I think if I were preparing to be beat with a stick wrapped in barbed wire I doubt I’d have much time for letter writing.

        And you DO look sophisticated sitting there with your friends, reading The Sun, and possibly discussing the results of the previous evening’s cage fight. Did you ever find out who sent the ‘Days Numbered’ death threat/ransom demand?

    • At least I can say that I wasn’t photographed reading the Sun. I never discovered who sent the ‘Days Numbered’ but we (all three of us there) were tutors on a large Halls of Residence site looking after 1500 students as thus was a line of defence for them as we were able to highlight issues and make a noise about people within the University taking steps to exploit them. We thus did have enemies within the University. And, as the headline says, the University did indeed abolish us that year after decades of doing that voluntary role.

    • Also “someone” within the university tipped off the council with a list of our names and addresses to try and get us done for council tax. One of the exemptions for council tax is “living in a halls of residence” but that didn’t stop us getting “raided” by a council official who couldn’t even bother “inspecting” all our rooms (which were all completely different) and they ended up insisting just about all of us paid. There were court cases, apparently.

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