From ‘The Times’, January 17th 2015
Ethel Lang, the lady who held the record as Britain’s oldest woman, died last Wednesday aged 114. I salute her.
I’m hugely pleased and not a little tickled that Mrs Lang’s home town was Barnsley, which I’ve known very well for at least forty years (my husband’s grandmother, aunt and uncle lived in Pogmoor; his uncle worked for the Coal Board). In fact, she spent her whole life there: Barnsley, the heart of the South Yorkshire mining industry and base of Arthur Scargill, former miner and for twenty years president of the National Union of Mineworkers (the final home of the NUM stands stolidly at the corner of Victoria Road and Huddersfield Road, a rather grim, castle-like building, with a poignant sculpture of a mining family as a memorial in front of it); Barnsley, home of the Barnsley chop (effectively a double lamb chop, of almost joint-sized proportions, served to an individual), one of which once famously over-faced Princess Diana; Barnsley, a town dominated by its massive town hall (George Orwell thought the money spent on it would have been better used to improve the terrible living conditions of the miners) and wonderfully served by a fine covered market with two identical car parks (I’m not alone in having had to seek assistance, having ‘mislaid’ my car: the non-pc male attendant told me with some glee that ‘lasses are always doing it!’); Barnsley, whose living and much-loved bard, Ian McMillan, sings its spirit in verse and paints its picture in tweets; Barnsley, whose huge and thriving college has sent out many of the district’s sons and daughters, including the Arctic Monkeys, to succeed in the world; Barnsley, whose metropolitan borough council struggles heroically to maintain its vast rural hinterland as well as the town itself without raising the council tax: a bastion of The People’s Republic of South Yorkshire, as my husband observes with great affection.
So it was the bracing atmosphere and modest amenities of Barnsley that supported Mrs. Lang well into her twelfth decade, not the leafy lanes and rarefied air of a bijou village in the home counties or the endless facilities available in one of our great metropolises. How remarkable is that! And she wasn’t a member of the upper classes or even one of the ‘middle sort’: she left school at fourteen to become a seamstress in a shirt factory and married a plumber. From a solid working-class background, therefore: clearly not in want, but not a life packed with luxury, either.
Not surprisingly, there has been quite a lot of news coverage following Mrs Lang’s death. Most of the articles and TV stories have looked back at the main national and international events of her very long life and, of course, the list is rich and varied: she was born when Queen Victoria still had a year left to reign and lived through two world wars, all the moon landings that have taken place so far and, according to The Times, the births of ten billion people during her lifetime.
I’m sure Mrs. Lang will have been interested in these things, but what are likely to have affected her more nearly are the changes that have happened in Barnsley itself during the same period. She will have remembered vividly the General Strike that took place in 1926, the year before her daughter was born, which was called by the Trades Union Congress in support of 800,000 locked-out coal miners, including the ones working the Barnsley coalfield; she’s likely to have remembered the young evacuees sent to Barnsley during the Second World War and may even have helped to look after some of them; she’s bound to have remembered also the miners’ strikes of 1974, the first since 1926, which led to the temporary introduction of a three-day week, and the strikes of 1984, which were triggered by the announcement that some twenty pits, including Cortonwood Colliery, close by, near Rotherham, were to be closed; she’ll have seen the town grow shabby and poor as the prosperity brought by mining declined, gradually at first, but inexorably, and later much more swiftly, throughout the twentieth century. And I hope that she was also well enough – and mobile enough, after her eyesight began to fail – to see this proud town reinvent itself for the twenty-first century.
Mrs Lang’s daughter said that ‘she tried very, very hard with everything that she did’ and that she enjoyed dancing, knitting, baking her own bread and having her nails painted bright colours. Endeavour and enjoyment seem to have been the secrets of her longevity. She obviously had a strong work ethic. I think it’s likely that she wasn’t a driver, but, if she had been, she’d probably have scorned to be one of the ‘lasses’ who couldn’t find her car (though, if she had found herself in my mislaid-car predicament, it would be nice to think that, like other strong Yorkshire women I have known, she would have given as good as she got if a car park attendant had tried to patronise her).
I propose a toast to Mrs Lang. May her spirit live on in her home town. And may many other daughters and sons of Barnsley chalk up a century or more, sustained by a town that continues to try very, very hard.