Saturday 13 June 2015

Club Day: what on earth is that?

Twenty nine years ago, on June 12th 1986, I moved to my present home, on the edge of the small market town of Kirkham, in the Fylde District of Lancashire. I had been working at the town's historic grammar school for five years, so I knew a bit about the town but only as a workplace and the end of a long daily commute from Southport.

Having decided I liked the school and secured a promotion to Head of Department, we had decided that it was a good moment to move closer to my work, with my wife having chosen to be a full-time mother to our one-year old daughter and new additions to the family planned.

We moved in on a scorching summer Thursday (the day after Gary Lineker's life-changing hat-trick in England's 3-0 win over Poland in the Mexico World Cup), and I had to return to work the next day, leaving my poor wife to start sorting out the chaos of our possessions dumped in a new house. 

Mid morning, she went to the shops to get a few essentials, accompanied by her Aunt, who had driven over from her home near Wigan to see our new house and lend a hand with settling in. With baby Felicity in her buggy, it was a chance for a bit of fresh air and a change of scenery.

On the short walk into town, they met an old gentleman in a flat cap leaning on his garden gate. "Ready for tomorrow are thee?", he enquired of the harassed young mother, curious Aunt and fretful child. My wife politely smiled and said yes, she was indeed ready for tomorrow, wondering why a complete stranger wanted to know of her readiness for the morrow. Was he mistaking her for someone else? Was he a fundamentalist zealot believing the next day, June 14th 1986 to be the dreadful day of judgement? She smiled politely, confirmed that she was indeed ready, and went on her way, wondering what manner of salutation this could have been.

The next day was Saturday, and we had arranged to return to our old house in Southport to pick up some plants in pots from the garden and to collect our cats, Buster and Bandit, from the boarding kennels where they had stayed during the move. So with baby Felicity dressed, ready and strapped into the child seat, we set off to Southport, but were startled to find our route blocked by an officious-looking policeman, who informed us that the road would be closed until midday at least - "for th'parade". The parade? What parade? We turned tail and went to Southport by another route.

That evening, on our return, we were again held up by the police while a parade went past, this time with a now tired and screaming baby and two howling cats who had pooed in their basket. We waited for almost an hour, and cursed this wretched thing called "Club Day", for it was indeed Kirkham Club Day which had caused all these mysterious and inconvenient goings-on. We were far from impressed, to say the least.

So why is it that, 29 years later, I think that Club Day is one of the best things about Kirkham? Well, I suppose it's because after 29 years (or actually after only a couple of years), I have realised that this quaint and apparently anachronistic event is in fact a unique and precious feature of this unpretentious little town. 

The year after we moved in, friends who had lived in the town for many years invited us to watch the morning "Procession of Witness" from outside their home which lies on the route of the procession. We were by then members of the congregation of St Michael's Parish Church, but we had been wary of invitations to join the procession, fearing that it was perhaps some sort of evangelistic attempt to draw more people into the church. But we watched, intrigued, as a huge and impressive parade of people of all ages and classes, some dressed in their finery, others not, took over an hour to walk past, accompanied by several marching brass bands, with splendid banners held aloft by burly men, the strings held by girls and women in matching dress. It was the scene so lovingly described in Blue Mink's 1971 hit Bannerman, and it reminded me of similar events that I had experienced as a child in Bolton, but which had long since died out.

What we did not yet fully understand was that the Club Day Procession of Witness  is in fact nothing more than a chance for the men, women and children of the five Christian Churches of the towns of Kirkham and Wesham to dress up and walk round the town, led by their clergy, watched by literally thousands of others who line the streets in warm-hearted support. The rest of the day is spent eating, drinking and being merry in the invariably fine June sunshine, with the town's park hosting a traditional travelling funfair, the pubs doing a roaring trade and the suburbs pervaded by the aroma of barbecues as families and friends come together in a manner repeated only at Christmas.

As our children grew, they were involved in the Procession in a variety of roles and guises: as brownies, guides, beaver scouts, cubs, flower-girls, Rose Queen attendants, Rose Queens and choristers. For my part, I have carried banners, supervised children, marshalled the route and now act as marshal for the St Michael's Church part of the procession, responsible for ensuring that everyone finds their right place in the order, that nobody gets hurt or left behind, and that we take our allotted place in the overall order amongst the other churches.

Walking the 3 mile route is a truly uplifting and life-affirming experience. Just consider this: over in Northern Ireland, now thankfully largely free of the sectarian violence which scarred that community, it is still the case that when different denominations of the Christian Church parade, they must do so out of sight of others and with due sensitivity to the religious affiliation of the neighbourhood, for fear of sparking violence. Here in Kirkham, as the Anglicans pass the Catholics, we greet each other with friendly banter about dresses, sore feet, and secret stashes of alcohol (the Catholics allegedly secrete suitable liquid refreshment amidst the flowers at the feet of their portable statue of the blessed virgin Mary), whilst the rival bands attempt to out-blast each other as the sound of hymn tunes echos off the walls of the Lancashire terraced houses that line the streets. To watch this procession is truly to see the church as a unifying force for good in a diverse and friendly community, many of whom are proud working-class folk whose families have lived in the town for generations.

 "Club Day" has a long and interesting history, unique to the Fylde district of Lancashire. It is rooted in the 18th century "friendly societies", or "clubs", which were set up to support the needy in these poor communities in the days before the state could do so. Once a year, the societies would parade through the towns in celebration of their existence and work, and the day evolved into a community carnival, with the churches becoming involved, it is believed, to moderate a tendency towards excessive drinking.

The friendly societies have long gone, but far from dwindling or even dying out, as religious processions such as the Whit Walks in other Northern towns have done, Kirkham's Club Day has prospered and if anything grown in size and scope over recent years. The day used to feature a secular evening Carnival procession (the one which held us up on our return home that evening in 1986), but this died out some years ago through lack of support for the groups who organised it. Meanwhile, the religious "Procession of Witness" continues to attract hundreds to walk the streets in unashamed support for their churches, and thousands more to stand, watch and support their friends and neighbours. It is Christian witness worn easily, unselfconsciously and joyfully in a manner that reminds the towns that the church is still a strong cohesive presence in the busy life of the communities it serves. More importantly, it reminds those who walk under the banners of different shades of the Christian faith that what unites them is far more important than the minor differences of emphasis which divide them.

Long may it continue!

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