As a child, I gained my first understanding of the grand sweep of our national story from a book entitled British History In Strip Pictures, undated, but published by Odhams Press at some point in the 1950s. I used to pore over this book for hours, and was going to pore over it again, preparatory to writing today’s essay. Alack and alas!, I am mortified that I cannot find it on the tottering teeming Hooting Yard bookshelves. Now I am not exactly the most organised of persons, but I can usually lay hands on a book I am looking for. The current whereabouts of British History In Strip Pictures must, for the time being, remain a mystery. I know I have it somewhere.
Not being able to find it, I was going to postpone this essay for another day. But then I determined to soldier on, as my subject would have soldiered on, determinedly, and regardless of handicap. My handicap is merely that I cannot find the book I was looking for. His handicap was that he was blind. For I speak of that titanic figure Blind Jack of Knaresborough.
In British History In Strip Pictures, Blind Jack was granted a whole page, the same amount of space given to, for example, the Magna Carta, Shakespeare, and the Civil War, and twice that given to Gladstone and Disraeli, who had to share a page, as I recall. I thus grew up with the idea that Blind Jack of Knaresborough was a pivotal figure in British history. I fully expected, when I went to school and studied these matters in greater depth, that Blind Jack would probably have a few lessons devoted solely to his doings, if not an entire term’s worth. As it turned out, in thirteen years at school, from age five to eighteen, I do not think I ever heard his name mentioned.
At some point the sheer wrongness of this must have occurred to me, along with the thought that perhaps the editors at Odhams Press had made him up for a lark. “Tee hee! Let’s insert a page about a wholly convincing yet completely fictional character to play a trick on the tinies!”, I imagined a couple of them, resembling Gabbitas and Thring from the Molesworth books, chuckling to each other over their printers’ proofs. Such scampishness could be the only explanation for my history teachers’ neglect of the man I believed had single-handedly brought about the Industrial Revolution. I had been led to believe that, were it not for Blind Jack of Knaresborough, we might still be living in rustic squalor, a nation of peasants consigned forever to remain in Lork Roise because we would never have been able to travel to Candleford.
Blind Jack, you see, was a road builder. And the way he built roads, British History In Strip Pictures told me, was that he walked along tapping his stick in front of him to gauge the smoothness and straightness of the road he had just built… er… something along those lines, they had but six pictures and captions to tell the story, so obviously some of the finer detail was left out. I recall being haunted by the picture of Blind Jack out on the road, dressed just like the man on the Quaker Oats carton, gazing at nothing. I am sure there were times when I dreamed of him, relentlessly approaching me, the tap of his stick, the eerie sightlessness of his eyes… I think for a time I even managed to get him mixed up, in my fevered mind, with the much more malign figure of Robert Mitchum’s preacher man in The Night Of The Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955), which I saw when very young and impressionable.
Without having the book to hand, I am unable to confirm whether it mentioned other titans of the Industrial Revolution such as Thomas Telford and Isambard Kingdom Brunel. I am fairly sure that neither of them had a whole page to himself. Blind Jack did, and that was good enough for me to credit him with creating a world that lifted me out of peasantry. And to my relief, I have since learned that he was not an invention of a couple of scallywags at Odhams Press, that he really did exist.
His name was John Metcalf, born 1717 and died in 1810, blind from the age of six.. One of the intriguing things about him was that part of his success in building roads was a matchless ability to make accurate estimations of costs and materials, using a system of his own devising which he was unable (or unwilling?) ever to explain to others. He also worked out a method of constructing roads over bogs, using matted rafts of marsh grass and furze. No wonder he is my hero, when we consider that that previous sentence alone contains at least three words essential to the Hooting Yard lexicon.
His gravestone, in the Yorkshire village of Spofforth, bears this epitaph:
Here lies John Metcalf, one whose infant sight
Felt the dark pressure of an endless night;
Yet such the fervour of his dauntless mind,
His limbs full strung, his spirits unconfined,
That, long ere yet life’s bolder years began,
The sightless efforts mark’d th’ aspiring man;
Nor mark’d in vain—high deeds his manhood dared,
And commerce, travel, both his ardour shared.
’Twas his a guide’s unerring aid to lend—
O’er trackless wastes to bid new roads extend;
And, when rebellion reared her giant size,
’Twas his to burn with patriot enterprise;
For parting wife and babes, a pang to feel,
Then welcome danger for his country’s weal.
Reader, like him, exert thy utmost talent given!
Reader, like him, adore the bounteous hand of Heaven
ADDENDUM : I wonder if Anna Pavlova named her swan after Blind Jack of Knaresborough? Perhaps a balletomane reader might know, and could enlighten me.