Six Degrees of Separation

Pete Jones   20/04/2020 13comments  |  Jump to last

The theory of six degrees of separation describes how every person can be linked to any other person in the world within six steps; it’s often described as the six handshakes principle. So theoretically I’m six contacts or less away from Jürgen Klopp, or Kylie Minogue. I know which path I’d like to follow.

When I’m researching and writing about Everton and history (and Everton history; I think there is a difference) I find similar linkages all over the place. It’s one of the things, along with sloth, disorganisation and attention span issues which mean that I write glacially slowly; ice ages can happen between paragraphs. I’m forever wandering off on tangents, often forgetting where I started from. But I do wonder if the six steps can work for things other than people, so by way of an experiment I thought I’d give it a go.

I’m going to try to link Everton football club to myself via a bit of land in South Merseyside, the first unequivocal victory for British and Dominion force in WW1, one of the greatest songwriters of the past 60 years and what appears to be the archetypal reality TV show in six steps. I know some of you will already be able to see some of the links, sharp cookies that you are. It also assumes that you are still reading this, but stick with me; it will be worth it, honest, well , maybe. I’ll let you be the judge.

Step 1: Down On The Farm – Everton FC to Finch Lane

This bit is easy, it’s the link between Everton FC’s home at Goodison Park to the clubs training complex out at Finch Farm. Opened in 2007, it replaced the Bellefield training ground in West Derby; administratively it’s in Knowsley and is part of Halewood. The farm sits on what looks like a low flat terrace just south of the Ditton Brook which flows into the Mersey to the east. The original farm building probably dated to the late 18th or early 19th century and was built in the rustic Georgian style. The land originally belonged to the Stanley family as Earls of Derby and the farm was most likely built as part of the agricultural revolution which saw the mediaeval open field system replaced by enclosed fields and separated farms. By the 1960s, it was specialising in fruit growing and was a popular pick your own operation; the strawberries are particularly fondly remembered.

Step 2: Finch Farm to Messines, June 1917 – The Real War Horse

Within a few yards of Everton’s Finch Farm complex is the grave of an unusual WW1 veteran. It shares a boundary on its western side with the former RSPCA Animal Sanctuary, known locally as the ‘Horses’ Rest’, and in the north west corner is the grave of a horse called Blackie.

Blackie was the mount of a WW1 officer, Leonard Comer Wall from West Kirby. He was a Lieutenant in the Royal Field Artillery and died on 9th June during the battle of Messines aged just 21. Blackie was wounded but recovered and, in an echo of the play War Horse, Leonard's will specified that in the event of his death Blackie should be cared for and his medals buried with the horse when it died. Leonard's mother brought Blackie back to Merseyside after the war and he lived until December 1942, still bearing the scars of his wounding. He was 35, which is an extraordinary age for a horse. He spent his last days at the Horses' Rest next to Finch Farm; his grave is marked and is now a Grade 2 listed monument.

Finch Farm aerial, 2005

Finch Farm aerial, 2018

Finch Farm with the "Horses’ Rest"’" to the left in 2005 and 2018 (Google Earth)

Blackie's groom, Everton born Driver Frank Wilkinson was also killed at the same time as Leonard Comer Wall and they are both buried in Lijssenthoek Military cemetery, just to the west of Ypres. Leonard had been mentioned in dispatches prior to his death and was also a poet, having one of his poems published in the Liverpool Daily Post. The last line was adopted as the motto of the 55th (West Lancashire) Division which was a largely Merseyside formation; it reads:

They win or die – who wear the rose of Lancaster

After the war, a memorial to the 55th Division was placed in the French village of Givenchy-lès-la-Bassée, 23 miles south of Ypres, where they had fought off three German divisions during the German Lys offensive in April 1918. Leonard’s words are set in stone, as they are on the divisional memorial in Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral which was built by the craftsmen of the Bromsgrove Guild of Applied Art. In other tangential links to Everton, it was they who fabricated the Liver Birds which sit on the club’s new headquarters, and also provided ornate decorative metalwork for the RMS Lusitania, torpedoed off Kinsale in Ireland on 7 May 1915, with Jonjoe Kenny’s great grandfather on board. There might be an extra ‘great’ missing from that, by the way.

55th Division Memorial in Givenchy-lès-la-Bassé

The 55th Division Memorial in Givenchy-lès-la-Bassé (author’s collection)


Lijssenthoek 2nd February 2020

Lijssenthoek, 2nd February, 2020 (Marilyne Mingou)

Step 3: Blackie to Paul Simon – Here Comes Rhymin’ Simon…

Immediately opposite the former RSPCA sanctuary and Finch Lane is the main London to Liverpool railway line. A mile and a half to the east is a disused station that was formerly Ditton Junction; this is one of the railway stations where the great American singer songwriter Paul Simon may have written the song ‘Homeward Bound’. The other contender is Widnes, which is a bit further away but has the wall plaque to advance its claim. I’ve also seen Wigan and Warrington mentioned without much evidence other than they have railway stations and begin with the letter W. It would appear that some musical historians are shaky on the railway geography of Lancashire’s Rugby League heartland; perhaps that’s not surprising.

While Widnes is the front runner, there are dissenting voices, particularly among the trainspotters in Paul Simon fandom. There is support for Ditton Junction, which in the 60s was a stopping point for services from Lime Street to London Euston. Catching the train at Widnes would take Simon into Manchester which, on the face of it seems a bit of a detour, for ‘home’ at this time was in the London commuter belt. It’s been suggested that he caught an early morning ‘milk train’, but these consisted of cylindrical tanks and a guards van; the phrase meant setting out early so may not be meant literally. In another tangential football link, the prolific and much travelled striker of the 70s, Ted McDougall, lived opposite Ditton Station in one of the railway cottages.

On Paul Simon’s farewell tour appearance in Manchester, Widnes Station formed the backdrop to his performance of the song. He apparently introduced the song with a recollection of a north-west club gig at the time, mimicking the accent of the MC chiding the audience with the words “Shut up! You’ve ’ad yer bingo. Now give the turn a go”.

When asked about his memories of the writing of the song, Simon himself is clear on some things but not always on the location. For example, in a 1990 interview, he described the images it brought back but characteristically muddied the geographical waters somewhat:

“That was written in Liverpool when I was traveling. What I like about that is that it has a very clear memory of Liverpool station and the streets of Liverpool and the club I played at and me at age 22. It's like a snapshot, a photograph of a long time ago.”

Records of his gigs around this time suggest Simon did play in Liverpool on at least two occasions but also in Widnes at the Howff Club. This was a folk venue run by Geoff Speed who would go on to present Radio Merseyside’s Folkscene show for nearly half a century. Geoff’s recollections were pretty conclusive about the station, if not the song. He described how Simon stayed with him while playing in Widnes, although it won’t surprise you to learn that the length of the stay is uncertain. He did remember that the fee was just £12 however. Speed’s recollection was that Simon was bound for a gig in Hull when he dropped him off at Widnes Station, but also added that the train was pulling in to the station; so if the song was written on the platform it would have been among the fastest in history. It’s even been suggested that Geoff Speed’s house was where the song was written.

I suspect we will never really know, and that is part of the joy of the song for me. I think the lyric can be taken too literally, you can imagine that the idea may have come to Paul Simon at an English railway station, but then he visited lots of them during this period of his life. I wonder if the idea turned round and round as he was travelling until he honed it into the beautiful lyric in the final version. Certainly the words fit the idea that the destination for which he had a ticket in the song was not ‘home’. So it would appear that Widnes is a better bet than Ditton Junction, but maybe with Lime Street as an outsider, but nothing is conclusive.

Ditton Junction in the 50’s

Ditton Junction in the 50s taken by stationmaster Harry Garnet (www.disused-stations.org.uk)

Step 4: Homeward Bound… to Deepest Essex.

I’ve liked the song for decades, but I’d always assumed it was written about the USA, like another of my favourites of his from that era, ‘America’. The use of the English word ‘railway’ instead of ‘railroad’ station should have provided a clue, but it didn’t occur to me. When I started to think about the deceptively simple lyrics, it dawned on me that he was touring England by train, with suitcase and guitar in hand, with every stop neatly planned. But he wanted to be homeward bound, not to his native New York; home at this time was much closer.

Paul Simon Songbook

Left-handed Kathy and Paul – the image was rotated for this release of the album (CBS Records/fanart.tv)

Simon had come to England in late 1964 after the recording of Wednesday Morning 3 am, the first album with his schoolfriend Arthur Garfunkel. The album initially failed to sell, and there is a sense from the song that Simon was doubting his talent. He became part of the English folk scene which was popular at the time; one of his regular gigs was at the Railway Hotel in Brentwood, a commuter town in Essex to the east of London. Here he met a girl called Kathy Chitty, they fell in love and it was she that inspired Homeward Bound.

He spent some time in Brentwood but, as with so much about the story behind the song, the exact location of ‘home’ is not clear. That his love was Kathy is undoubted; one of Geoff Speed’s recollections is how much Paul talked about her. She would become his muse and would travel to America with him; the song of the same name is a lovely picture of their travels. But as his fame grew, she found she didn’t want to be a part of it and returned to England. Being parted from her also resulted in ‘Kathy’s Song’, an achingly sad message to his distant love. It lacks the polish of his later work but its emotion is raw and real.

In the 1990 interview, Paul Simon confessed that he didn’t like his early songs much; in particular, he didn’t like the song title ‘Homeward Bound’ because it wasn’t original. It was something he would avoid in his later career with songs like ’50 Ways To Leave Your Lover’, ‘You Can Call Me Al’ and my favourite, ‘Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War’. But Homeward Bound clearly took him back to an idyllic period in his life, which probably didn’t involve the railway station near Finch Farm, unless he was travelling through it without getting off. And ‘home’ which may or may not have been Brentwood in Essex; but, if home is where the heart is, then home as described in the song was wherever Kathy his love lay waiting silently for him.

Step 5: Brentwood to The Only Way Is Essex

I have to confess I know next to nothing about TOWIE, other than it features Brentwood. I’m confident I’ve never knowingly watched it on TV, but somehow it has seeped into my consciousness. Just how popular it was came to me on a railway journey when I overheard some fellow passengers discussing the scandalous antics of what sounded at first like friends of theirs. However, it dawned on me that the gossip was about the TV programme when they began to discuss when the next instalment was to be broadcast, and if they could go back and look at previous episodes on the internet.

So a bit of research tells me that TOWIE began in 2010 and appears to be going strong 10 years later. From what I can gather, my life is not significantly emptier for being in almost complete ignorance of anything else about it. I could say that the fact that its clunky title is reduced to a mnemonic is interesting from a cultural and linguistic point of view, but I’d be using the word ‘interesting’ in its loosest sense. Another fun fact linking it to Everton is that former Blue Tom Cleverley’s missus used to be in TOWIE; a modestly talented millionaire footballer marrying a reality TV star seems like a metaphor for something, but I can’t be bothered to think of what it is.

Step 6: TOWIE to Me

This bit is even more tenuous than the previous ones, but I do know Brentwood quite well. My dad served in the Royal Signals during the Second World War and became close friends with a lad from the town. He brought him home to stay at my grandparents’ house in Bootle when on leave, where he met my aunt. When he was posted to North Wales, he would regularly return to Bootle on leave and he and my aunt were married after the war. They moved to Brentwood and my aunt was a little beacon of Blue in deepest West Ham country. There must be a small possibility that l may have have visited them while Paul Simon was playing the Railway Hotel; I certainly visited Brentwood while the cast of TOWIE were growing up. I know which one I prefer.

So, Everton to me in six steps, following a circuitous route like Paul Simon’s tour of one-night stands. This started out as a talk to Everton in the Community’s Stand Together group and they were a bit sceptical and, to be honest, having written it all down, I’m not surprised. I’m confident I’m not going to win the Nobel Prize for rock ‘n roll research any time soon, but the story of Leonard Comer Wall and Blackie deserves to be told. I’ve listened again to songs I thought I knew and found new meanings, and I love the idea of picking strawberries at Finch Farm. At least all of this keeps me out of mischief which can only be a Good Thing.

And it’s inspired me to find out which channel TOWIE is on and catch up… Only joking!

Pete Jones – Copyright 2020.

This is dedicated to my friends Mike Royden and Tony Wainwright, stalwarts of the EFC Heritage Society and shipmates on the best transfer deadline day I’ve ever experienced. Mike is author of many books on local history and genealogy and has several TV appearances; my sis regularly tells me she’s seen Mike on the box again. His research into Leonard Comer Wall and Blackie inspired me to include the story, and he is also the source of the information about the deliciousness of the Finch Farm strawberries. Tony is the secretary of the Liverpool Pals Memorial Fund which is dedicated to preserving and enhancing the memory of the Pals battalions in WW1, which it has done brilliantly. Tony has worked tirelessly in the cause and this has been recognised with the award of the British Empire Medal, something he is characteristically modest about.

Acknowledgments

Richard Daglish
David France
Alison Jones
Marilyne Mingou
Mike Royden

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Reader Comments (13)

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Patrick McFarlane
1 Posted 20/04/2020 at 19:12:37
A very entertaining read, Pete.
Chris Williams
2 Posted 20/04/2020 at 19:26:20
Lovely Pete,

Well done, mate.

George Carroll
3 Posted 20/04/2020 at 19:44:49
Great read much needed at times like this. Thanks very much, Pete.
Lyndon Lloyd
4 Posted 20/04/2020 at 21:32:27
Agreed, this was a fun distraction over here in my inspiration isolation station.
Derek Thomas
5 Posted 21/04/2020 at 03:01:41
Excellent, Pete; as Barry Norman used to say... "And why not?"

Candidate 1: Widnes Central; If, as you say, the song was written when he was 22. Widnes Central closed on 5 October 1964. Paul Simon turned 23 on the 13 October 1964, so it's right in the frame. This was on a loop line but did for some reason have a non-express 'stopping train' (aka, took hours to get there) to London Marylebone on a Sunday.

Candidate 2: Widnes or Widnes North (nee Farnworth) as it was from 1959-68. This is on the Liverpool Central / old Cheshire Lines route to Manchester, so as such has no direct train to London.

I spent some time around there in 1970-71 and with Simon and Garfunkel being mega big at the time... and before any of the others even thought of jumping on the 'claim it' bandwagon, there was no other candidate. To be honest, it was their only claim to fame and was 'common local knowledge' back then that this was the station.

Candidate 3: Ditton Junction; nah, not having it. It was named for the junction, you pass through there, usually at speed on the express to London Euston.

Back then, the place was industrial wasteland with acres of light blue / green chemical spoil heaped 12, 15, 20 feet high. You could tell you were in Widnes: as soon as you drove over the chicane-esque railway bridge, the smell would hit you.

The only thing in its favour... apart from the road out... was as the location of a late-night drinker called 'The Castaway Club' aka, The Cazzie, up a little potholed track to the side of the station. Which contained loud music, clean beer and dirty women... I was all too easily led astray back then.

Dennis Stevens
6 Posted 21/04/2020 at 03:55:34
Fascinating stuff, Pete. I knew I'd heard of the Bromsgrove Guild of Applied Arts before, and didn't think it was just because I'm originally from Worcester. Upon looking them up, I discovered, or more likely rediscovered, that they were also responsible for the gates at Buckingham Palace.

I instantly recognised this as being the basis for my having previously heard of them, but I'm now wondering what the source of that information may have been – life's just full of mystery!

Alan J Thompson
7 Posted 21/04/2020 at 06:23:24
Derek (#6); In the late '60s early '70s, I too spent many a Saturday night in the Castaways and remember hearing that Homeward Bound was written on Widnes Station. Indeed, it often came to mind while waiting to get out of Widnes on a Sunday morning, which invariably meant waiting around for an hour or two for the Crosville bus back to Woolton.

I don't recall the London train stopping at Widnes but, in latter years, I often got off at Runcorn and cabbed it from there.

As a lad, I often went potato picking around the Finch Farm area, 12s/6d a day. Fond memories of a distant land.

Rob Sawyer
8 Posted 21/04/2020 at 13:21:47
A lovely article, Pete. Funny and informative. The story of Blackie is a new one to me and is very touching.
Terry Murray
9 Posted 22/04/2020 at 10:21:59
Thank you, Pete. An entertaining, touching, thought-provoking read.
Alasdair Jones
10 Posted 22/04/2020 at 15:08:52
Pete,

A super article; I loved every thing about it.

Like yourself, I am a Paul Simon fan and have been from 1964 onwards. Not impressed by his most recent stuff though; Wristband etc. All good songwriters can tell a tale or paint a picture and he could do just that. I did not know about Kathy from Essex but it explains who Kathy was in "America" on Bookends. She was the girl who boarded the Greyhound in Pittsburg?

Good songs are also a reference point for events in our lives and the Championship of 1970 coincided with the release of "Bridge over Troubled Water". Our "time had come to shine"...

A visit to Ellis Island last summer brought the words of American Tune flooding into my mind. Not surprising as I suspect that much of it was about the first experiences of the European immigrants.

I think I will go off and read your post again!

Danny ONeill
11 Posted 28/04/2020 at 19:51:13
Intriguing read, Pete.

Like your father and mine, I am ex-military myself. All Royal Signals as well, so there's a link straight away!! I spent time in Germany as a child but the family roots are Speke & Garston, which is the area we returned to.

I went to school in Widnes and later lived in Woolton with my own family before the Army took over and we moved on again. I know the area well and remember Finch Farm as the place we took my son to pick strawberries. Back in the late 90s, who'd have thought we were walking on what would become hallowed turf!!

As someone who has more than a passing interest in war history, I can't believe I never knew about Blackie the War Horse or the memorial at the RSPCA. We regularly visit Ypres, partly to take in the Christmas Market but also spend a day exploring the battlefields. Sadly, due to the scale of the events that took place there, you always find something new and undiscovered outside of the more well-known memorials or cemeteries such as Passchendaele.

I find the German cemeteries particularly sombre and humbling, given that as the defeated, they had to mark their graves with black headstones, whereas ours as victors are white. Different times I suppose, but they were all young men and soldiers who died doing their duty. I will definitely visit the Lijssenthoek cemetery on my next visit.

I was familiar with the Widnes claim to the Simon & Garfunkel song; one that became a bit of an anthem to us Squaddies stationed overseas after a few too many German beers!! But Ditton? The poor man; no wonder it inspired him to think of home!!

Great article. Thanks again, Pete.

Derek Knox
12 Posted 30/04/2020 at 11:01:23
Good article and read, Pete, although I am somewhat perplexed about your opening paragraph. Why would you want to meet Jurgen Klopp? :-)
Pete Jones
13 Posted 06/05/2020 at 20:07:07
Thanks for all the comments, I really appreciate them. Thanks too for all the additional information, there is always expertise and experience out there which really adds to what I write.

Just a couple of additional points if I may - Alasdair, I'd not heard 'Wristband' before, it's quirky and I can see what you mean. Yet another unique title however.

Danny - If you go to Lijssenthoek there is a Kiwi Lt called Thomas Brewer in there; I regard him as one of ours because he played for the Auckland Everton. I say hello to him when I visit.

I know what you mean about the German cemeteries, the atmosphere is different. Langemark is particularly moving because of the mass graves and the old WW1 blockhouses.

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