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SUNDAY 19  MAY 2024

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The flame of my youth died when they pulled down the Corby Candle 

SMOKED OUT: Corby Steelworks in 1955 with the Candle standing proud

First, it was the wonky pub, set ablaze in a suspected arson attack, its remains flattened by a bulldozer. Then, it was a beautiful, emblematic sycamore, wantonly felled, leaving a gap in people’s lives as wide as the one in the landscape.


These were treasures, a precious part of our collective history, as valuable in their way as the crown jewels. Now they are lost for ever.


Who does such things, and why? They must be outsiders, tone deaf to the souls of their own communities, driven by corrosive greed or malice or anger.


The pub, The Crooked House, near Dudley, West Midlands, dated back to 1765 and became wonky due to subsidence caused by mine workings below. It was a local landmark and much loved.


One man was so angry and distraught at its razing that he spent nights in his car beside the rubble, trying to prevent the site from being cleared in the hope that the pub could be rebuilt.


The 300-year-old tree stood 36 metres tall at Sycamore Gap, Northumberland, in a U-shaped dip beside Hadrian’s Wall. It crashed on to the wall as it fell, sawn off cleanly, its cream-coloured stump showing no sign of rot or decay.


The National Trust has collected seeds from around the tree, so that one day it might grow again.


Photographer Ian Sproat said: “Whover has done it hasn’t realised how much of an impact to the northeast. It’s the heart of the northeast, it’s where people come to get peace. You can sit here for hours and just watch the stars, it’s where Northumberland lives and breathes.”


He got me wondering what loss would cause me to have such elegiac thoughts. I live in London, so perhaps Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square? Much as I admire one of the heroes of our great past, I can’t say I would miss the column much.


Big Ben, then; the tower, not just the bell? True, that might induce a twinge of regret: the loss of the bong more than the building, which I have come to regard as a Victorian confection full of crooks and chancers.


How about the Post Office Tower? Hah! Let’s just leave it at No.


I would miss The Shard, the architect Renzo Piano’s 1016ft tall masterpiece hard by London Bridge. It is as beautiful as 72-storey skyscrapers get but my affection is coloured by the fact that one of my sons played a small part in building it.


I realise now that I have already experienced my loss. It probably won’t mean much to you but when it came crashing down a little bit of my youth and childhood was destroyed with it.


The Corby Candle was just a chimney in an ugly steelworks. My father worked there for years and would climb on to his bike saying he was off to “the dark, satanic mills”. Rugby fans and poetry lovers will recognise the phrase from William Blake’s poem Jerusalem and the hymn born from it, which rings around Twickenham whenever England play there.


There was nothing poetic about the Stewarts and Lloyds steel plant. It was the very stuff of the Industrial Revolution. Like the mines and the shipyards and the cotton mills, it was dirty and dangerous. But it provided work – albeit back-breaking work – for the men of Corby and a living for their families.


It was built in the 1930s to exploit the iron ore that the village of Corby sat on. Northamptonshire was a rural shire county with no knowledge or experience of steelmaking, so they imported workers from Clydeside: tough, hard-working Glaswegians with a great sense of community and the skills needed to produce steel pipes.


The works, as the plant was known, was started from scratch in 1933 and they asked the new recruits where they wanted to live – beside the works or among the beautiful rolling meadows that surrounded it? By the works, they said; and true to their word, that’s where the bosses built the new town of Corby.


And so it was that one of my school friends had a blast furnace at the bottom of his garden. Literally. Only railway lines bringing coal to feed this monstrosity separated his home from the constantly blazing furnace. You could feel its heat and see the source: smelted pig iron running in red, molten rivers while dwarf-like men in leather aprons oversaw its progress.


The Corby Candle (there was a pub, pictured left, named after it at the end of my road) was a symbol of hope, stability, prosperity. It rose high above the town and burned off the gases produced in the steel-making process. Its flame could be seen for miles around, even from the next county, Rutland, across the Welland Valley. It was a guiding light, beckoning home those who had gone drinking in the Sondes Arms, at the bottom of Rockingham Hill in the shadow of the castle.


There was good reason to go back, too. The pubs in Northamptonshire shut at 10.30pm, save for those in Corby, which stayed open until 11pm to accommodate workers coming off the 2-to-10 shift. So we all supped up and headed home in time for last orders.


I was a reporter for the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph in Corby when economic reality caught up with the steel industry. I broke the story of the closure of the Lancashire and Corby steelworks. It was the beginning of the end for the whole complex, including the Corby Candle. It staggered on for a few years but finally it closed, leaving Corby an economic and industrial wasteland.


It was a tough place to grow up but rewarding too. The people were decent working class and looked out for each other. A chip pan fire, a common occurrence, was always followed by a wave of donations – pots and pans, furniture, bedding, even a little cash – to get the unlucky family back on their feet.


I have not a single regret about growing up there but the decline after the steelworks shut was sad to watch. Even before it was snuffed out, the Candle wasn’t perhaps iconic, like the wonky pub or the beautiful sycamore. But it stood for just as much.

*****

I hear that Jim Mullen, the boss of Reach, which owns the Mirror, the Express and the Star, last week delivered a rocket to Mirror Editor Alison Phillips and her top executives over the low number of page views for its website.


The trouble is that the site is “pisspoor… unreadable,” says my mole. “Mullen doesn’t get that readers don’t like being bombarded by adverts that jam their iPhones.”


Now, says the source, Mullen has ordered that sub-editors should upload content to the web. “The problem is that they don’t have the training. It’s not going to end well.”


My informant adds: “He is basically giving away all the Mirror’s best stories to online hours before it goes to print, which means they are in rival papers for First Edition – madness. He has staked his job on making online a success. But you can’t polish a turd.”

*****

A generation of newspapermen – mine – was ever so slightly in awe of Private Eye. It had the balls to stand up to the Establishment, braving the wrath of the rich and powerful to print stories that we knew our own publications wouldn’t touch with a bargepole.


But despite my admiration, there was one thing about the Eye that always bothered, or at least puzzled, me. And that was antisemitism. (Not that I have any skin in this game. I’m not Jewish; I was raised in the Anglican faith.)


It was an accusation often levelled at Private Eye. Some found clear evidence of this discrimination, including the lawyer Anthony Julius.


He pointed to an issue of the magazine that mocked the “Church of St Simeon Goldberg by Expenside, the Guild Church of the Worshipful Company of Money Spinners”.


Julius is quoted in a 2011 article in The Times about the first 50 years of the Eye: “It conceives of Jews of plutocratic appearance, eating too much and dominating the City. The Nazis had a good line in those stereotypes.”


Private Eye’s two longest-serving Editors, Richard Ingrams and Ian Hislop, dismissed the notion. “There was just a residue of that country-house antisemitism that had been allowed to creep in,” said Hislop. “I don’t think there was any antisemitism in Richard’s time, and in my own time I don’t see it.”


Ingrams was more trenchant. “Bollocks,” he said. “We’ve always been attacked for being antisemitic and it’s just not true. Paul Foot and I got a lot of flak because we wrote a lot of stuff about Israel. Everyone knows that if you attack Israel, you’ll be called antisemitic.”


Still, it is hard to shake off the suspicion. The Eye was run by public schoolboys – Ingrams went to Shrewsbury and Hislop to Ardingly – and so antisemitism was probably baked in.


And several of the Eye’s favourite targets were Jewish: Sir James Goldsmith, Robert Maxwell, Lord Kagan (who made the Gannex raincoats favoured by another Eye enemy, Harold Wilson).


Hislop insisted that they were criminals first and Jewish second. “If they are crooked and Jewish they go in. But this is equally true if they’re not Jewish.”


Not everyone saw it this way, as a revealing anecdote in Peter McKay’s book Inside Private Eye makes clear.


Sir John Junor, Editor of the Sunday Express, rang Ingrams and invited him urgently to lunch. “It’s important,” said Junor. “I want to talk to you about Victor [Matthews, then the Express proprietor].”


Sensing a story, Ingrams agreed. They duly met and, the preliminaries over, Junor got down to business.


McKay writes: “Junor…fixed Ingrams with his hooded blue eyes, paused in theatrical fashion, lowered his voice and said: ‘Richard, I have something to tell you about Victor Matthews. He is not a Jew.’”


McKay, whom Hislop sacked for trying to stage a coup against him, goes on in the disingenuous style of the William Hickey column that he used to edit: “Ingrams loves this story and was tickled by the urgency with which it was told.


“He could never find out why Junor thought he, Ingrams, believed Matthews was a Jew, nor why, if he wasn’t, Junor supposed this would radically transform Private Eye’s attitude towards the building tycoon.”

*****

Headline of the week on a story in The Times about an attempt to make France’s bread healthier: “Paris cuts baguette salt to reduce crocked monsieurs”.


3 October 2023