I have a weekly treat: my local paper, The Whitehaven News. It’s not my local paper where I live in Herefordshire, but my local paper from home in Cumbria. (‘Where you live’ and ‘home’ being two subtly different concepts – for me, anyway.) And why, you might wonder, is it such a treat to read about jumble sales and hound trailing 200 miles away? Let me explain…
The weekly reading of the Whitehaven News is a family tradition that goes back years. I was going to say how many, but decided against it. Although if you too are a regular News reader you’ll know precisely how old I am, since my birth, my christening, my scholarship to the local independent school, my youthful success in Gosforth & District Agricultural Show, my A-level results, my university offer, and selected highlights of my adult life have appeared in the hallowed pages, usually sent in by my mother. There is no place to hide in a small community, where collective knowledge makes the internet seem ponderous, short term and inaccurate in comparison.
The Whitehaven News (est. 1852) has always come out on a Thursday, and would be delivered to our house with the daily paper. It was, until quite recently, a broadsheet, rare amongst local papers, and along with its swirling masthead, a Dickensian engraved landscape of pitheads and smoking chimneys, a sign of its ambition and lofty standards. The big pages also meant it could be converted into excellent firelighters in the winter, and as a child I spent many a happy hour simultaneously twisting the pages into flammable pretzels while pondering the local rugby league results, chemists’ opening hours and opportunities to learn to salsa in Cleator Moor.
My mum had the first read as she could handle a big paper clinically, keeping the pages neat as she flicked them and folded them; then she passed it to my dad, who transformed it into a wobbly mass as he snorted his way through to the letters. Mum found much more to dwell on than he did, since she was a teacher and a magistrate, so knew at least 70% of the people mentioned in the various sections, one way or another. ‘Oooh,’ she’d say, over the sound of the nightly Lookaround and me and my sister feeding Choc Dips to the cat, ‘guess who’s died?’ Or sometimes, ‘Guess who’s selling their house?’ Or ‘Guess who’s getting married? Again?’ We had no idea but would throw out random names until she got impatient, and revealed, triumphantly, ‘Elsie Braithwaite!’ At which point we’d look blank, and she’d have to explain how Elsie used to work with Susan Wrightson who was married to Trevor Onions who used to have the Post Office in Beckermet. Or was it Trevor’s mother? Anyway. Doh!
It was this sense of everything in the world being comfortingly linked that made me subscribe to the paper when I left home and moved Down South, into a pre-Facebook world where no one was linked with anyone, and I harboured a secret fear that I could expire in my house share and no one would notice until it was my turn to buy the milk. The Whitehaven News, in its plastic wrapping, would plop onto my door mat on Thursday morning, same as it did for my mum, and I’d take it into work with me, settle down with a coffee at lunchtime and then call her.
‘Ooh! Have you seen who’s been done for having no TV licence?’ she’d say. ‘No!’ I’d reply happily, and so we’d go through the paper together, as if I were just on the other end of the kitchen table. The monthly Weddings pull-out was a treat, with its sub-divided sections demanding every detail like the nosiest neighbour. ‘Where we met’ (usually on a night on in The Park, The Old Hall, or, exotically, Carlisle), ‘Our first dance’ (inevitably, Lonestar’s Amazed), the themes (‘Why ‘silver and butterflies’? Why is it never holy matrimony?’) and every other detail you could possibly want to know. For years, I mentally planned my own wedding around the checklist provided by the Cumbrian Weddings section, right down to the table favours.
Fittingly, when my my mum died she made the front of the Whitehaven News, on not one but two consecutive weeks. I know in my heart that this made her soaringly proud. I also wrote her obit, which would have equally delighted her; she’s probably still showing it around the great afterlife kitchen, as more evidence of her elder daughter’s writing potential. But even though she’s not around to read the paper with, I still get it delivered, and it’s still a highlight of my week.
No matter what else is going on, I give myself an hour to leave the house, get a coffee, sit down and sink back into the place I was born. That’s a kind of magic: even when I’m miles away, I can be back home in a flash. I love reading about the latest shenanigans on the town council (two words: pepper spray. Seriously, look it up), I’m glad to know about fundraisers for the local art gallery, my cynical heart’s soothed by the small acts of kindness people do for each other – the beach cleaners, the volunteer hospital drivers, the crazy folk running marathons dressed as screwdrivers, that kind of thing. People can be awful, cruel and stupid, but they can also be compassionate, funny and surprising, and there’s no better evidence than your local paper.
Every section is a wonderful collage of humanity in all its forms: I love picturing the huge families in the announcements, with their names like generational layers of cake: William, father of Stanley, Dorothy and Jack; grandfather of Stephen, David, Karen, Linda and Jack; great-grandfather of Jennifer, Sarah, Claire, Andrew, Louise and Jack; great-grandfather of Hannah, Oliver, Isabella, Ruby, Lacey-Mai, Harrison and Jack. I love the way the Happy Ads include a paw symbol so ‘and from Max the dog’ can be included in the family wishes. I’m stopped in my reading tracks at the occasional attention-grabbing detail amidst the mundane, such as an elderly couple dying on the same day together, suddenly, in hospital – one from a broken heart, maybe? Or when letters appear from genealogy fans, trying to hunt down a lost relative who was last seen working in the pits or sailing from the bustling 18thC port of Whitehaven for America. So many stories.
The Whitehaven News has everything: a wine critic, the driest columnist in the north (Julie Morgan, you deserve your own page), a quiz, stars, everything that’s happening anywhere in Copeland, all the sport, cookery, opinions, gardening advice, campaigns and a letters page that often includes long and furious and terrible poems, and snippy feuds. Recently – thanks, social media! – I’ve started Whatsapping highlights to my old schoolfriends. I’m not sure whether they really wanted to know what the ‘most frequently reported items removed from patients’ bodies at the West Cumberland Hospital’ were, but I felt a warm sense of community to be telling them. And once we’d got over boaking, the seven of us had a lovely chat, hundreds of miles apart.
Local papers. Bringing people together since 1852. Ahhhh.