4000 Holes in Blackburn, Lancashire

I was a high school student when the Beatles mystified the pop music world with their very unusual Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.  The collaborative musical opus therein was an exquisitely woven fabric of bizarre imagery and lyrical enigmas, along with some groundbreaking rock n’ roll.

Since those late 1960s days, I have often wondered about the meanings of so many of the band’s odd vocal references. One phrase in particular, sung by the master of modern musical mystery himself, John Lennon,  hollowed out a little question mark in my mind that has been unfilled all these years.

Until yesterday. Yesterday I picked up a clue about the possible meaning of the “four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire” about which John Lennon sang in the ablbum’s finale song, A Day In The Life.

While reading English Journey, a travel journal published in 1934 by J.B. Priestley, I was quite moved by his reported impression of Blackburn, Lancashire, UK. The city had been for many years the very heart of British textile industry, most especially the enormous output of cotton fabrics and clothing. But in the 1920s and thirties, as new producers of cotton goods in India began to supply their own markets, the volume of exports from England’s textile belt (Lancashire) slipped into a period of serious decline, from which they never truly recovered. By the early 1930s, employmnet in Blackburn and other cities had decreased to “depression” levels.

Sound familiar? This economic scenario is quite similar to what has happened here in North Carolina about a half-century later, and in New England USA shortly before that.

Mr. Priestley’s poignant account of the Lancashire situation in 1934 includes his describing (page 214) a visit to a place called “Community House,” which was set up by local volunteers as a resource for unemployed folks to occupy themselves with productive projects. The volunteers had recovered a condemned school building, where people were cobbling–repairing and making shoes–and doing other helpful works. Most notable among the activities, as far as Mr. Priestley wrote, were woodworks being cranked out by the men there.

It was a great work happening in the decrepit old schoolhouse, built upon a good idea and the willingness of local folks to get busy and make good things happen in spite of the hard times that had shut down their factories and their prosperity.

Priestley described the goings-on at Community House:

“This instructor, paid by the volunteer society, was busy all day giving out wood and tools and showing his men what to do. The wood is supplied without charge to the men, and one of the instructor’s duties is to find quantities of it at the lowest possible price or at no price at all….He said that the men were not very good craftsmen, and tended to be imitative and careless, but that many of them were very keen and did their best.”

And Priestley wrote: “In the next and largest room of all, a public assistance class in woodwork was being held. The young men came here instead of breaking stones in the workhouse. At first, the instructor told me, they resented any attempt at discipline and tuition. They felt they had been dragooned into messing about with bits of wood in this ex-schoolroom. They would not do what they were told…and they were not going to be treated like kids by any bloody instructor. That was their attitude during the first weeks.  But after that, almost in spite of themselves, they gradually acquired an interest in their jobs at the benches; they began asking one another the best way to do this and that; and finally were glad of advice from the qualified instructor. There was something rather touching in this, the emergence of the natural craftsman that is buried somewhere in every man.”

These men were gradually filling “holes” in their unemployed days and times, with constructive projects–something to do instead of nothing to do.

But J.B. Priestley’s initial impression of the condemned schoolhouse, before witnessing the activity inside, had been this: “It was a dismal hole in a dark back street.”

One dismal “hole”, perhaps, among four thousand others in Blackburn, Lancashire? But the good folks of Blackburn had undertaken projects to fix the holes.

Now, moving right along…maybe you can help  me understand the second part of Lennon’s mysterious lyric:

“They had to count them all. Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall.”

CR, with new novel, Smoke, in progress

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