Commentary: Belper’s Many Taverns

Belper’s Many Taverns was my first short story, or rather my first for what its narrator would call a lot o’ years. The Belper Arts Festival competition was announced in the autumn of 2012, just as I was completing the second draft of my novel The Wood Road North. After five years on this project I was ready for something shorter, but wanted to write stories which fed into, or flowed out from, the novel and its counterpart, i.e. the one I’m writing at the moment.

Mr. Barrass makes a very brief appearance in The Wood Road North, but as Paul Linford correctly spotted in his comments on Belper’s Many Taverns, Barrass is drinking in the Queen’s Head on Chesterfield Road. This pub is the setting for numerous episodes in the novel, as are many more of Belper’s taverns. The novel takes place in 1996, and so some of these hostelries are no longer open. I was particularly sad, given its key role in both the writing of the novel and the text itself, to see the closure of the Lord Nelson on Bridge Street. There was a lot of me in that pub. Hopefully a fair exchange was made, so that the Nelson can live on through me, and my writing.

Barrass mentions two other minor figures from The Wood Road North, and alludes to one of its central characters, as well as businesses and locations of significance in the longer works. Some of the people he knows also appear in other stories from this collection; the stories have a narrative of their own, distinct from either novel.

Like Barrass, I remember first reading the phrase Belper’s Many Taverns during a lesson at school. The popular assertion (no doubt baseless) concerning the relative number of pubs in the town must have kept the idea in my mind, because its first creative use came as the title for a mooted spoken-word piece forming part of the Belper song cycle I composed during the 1990s. This project was never recorded properly, but the songs are complete and one of them appears in The Wood Road North. Possible titles for the record included She Was Only a Nailmaker’s Daughter, and another song from the lost Belper album gives an account of a relationship doomed by class, much like that between Barrass and Sam.

If I was writing this one again I might make rather less of the local accent and dialect. Having written and rewritten numerous Belper drinkers as characters I now think too much focus on the manner of speech gets in the way of the speech itself, and is an obstacle for the reader. Not that obstacles are a bad thing, in the right places. These stories in the main are less poetic, less modernistic than The Wood Road North, but they’re carved from the same trees, like the wide warping bar in the Queen’s Head.