diamond geezer

 Friday, January 05, 2018

Gadabout: NUNEATON

Hell yes. It may be only the first week of January but I've already been to Nuneaton, because that is how I roll. Nuneaton is the largest town in Warwickshire. It lies just north of Coventry, astride the West Coast mainline, not far from the line of Watling Street. It is very much not a tourist destination. But that is never a good reason not to go somewhere, and it does boast two famous sons, one of whom turned out to be a famous daughter.

Nuneaton was originally called Etone, but in the 12th century gained a nunnery, which is how it gained the first part of its name. It grew wealthy on coal, textiles and manufacturing, but those haven't been going so well of late and the economy now relies rather more on logistics and distribution. The centre of the town has been encircled by a ring road, less scary than Coventry's, and is focused along two long streets that don't quite join. Central shops thrive, while those at the farthest extremes are falling empty. The Nuneaton Cooperative Society appears to have fallen by the wayside a few years ago. Starter homes can be picked up for just over £100,000 (and an annual season ticket to London costs £6520).

Nuneaton's famous son number 1 was the author George Eliot, who everyone assumed was a man until her first book proved a success. In fact George Eliot was the pen name of Mary Anne Evans, born in 1819 on the Arbury Hall estate, just outside Nuneaton (open to the public bank holiday weekends only, if you're ever smitten). Mary scandalised society by eloping with a married man, but critical acclaim eventually overcame that stigma, and her novels (Middlemarch, Silas Marner, The Mill on the Floss, etc) are generally considered some of the finest ever written. The town has honoured George with a statue in the centre of town, some riverside gardens, a memorial in those riverside gardens, two schools and a major NHS hospital. Watch out for major bicentenary celebrations next year.

You can discover more about George Eliot at the Nuneaton Museum & Art Gallery, which is to be found at the top end of Riverley Park, close to Sainsburys. One gallery contains a mock-up of her drawing room, along with almost amazing artefacts from her life (her lace box, some china dogs she once wrote about, a plaster cast of her dead warty hand). Another tells her story, and invites visitors to tell stories, because this is very much a gallery which encourages children to visit. I would show you what the rooms look like, but the museum has a very strict No Photographs policy which I made the mistake of asking about. This blanket ban also means I can't show you highlights from the current exhibition of manhole covers - two dozen photo etchings by Sharon Baker, yours for £135 each.

Nuneaton's famous son number 2 was genial comedian Larry Grayson. Born William White in 1923, he grew up under the care of his adoptive sister Flo in a terraced house to the west of the town. A career on the camper side of showbusiness beckoned, which might have been restricted to the comedy club circuit had not Michael Grade been in the audience one evening and signed him for TV. His career highpoint was as host of The Generation Game, which at its peak was watched by half the population of the country. Nuneaton Museum has a couple of cabinets of Grayson memorabilia too, including a bowtie, the chain from his glasses, a bentwood chair, a signed caricature, two shot glasses, a plaque from the Palladium, a canteen of cutlery and a cuddly toy. OK, not the last two.

What's more, even when fame and wealth came calling, Larry still chose to stay living in Nuneaton. Along with his sister Flo he moved into a detached house on the Hinckley Road, nothing over-grand, but often with a Rolls Royce parked outside. I went looking, based on a brief shot in this utterly glorious TV tribute made by LWT in 1983 and hosted by Janet Street-Porter. In the show Larry goes back to his former school and theatrical roots, as well as showing Janet round his living room and his Torquay hideaway. Along he way he also sings with Noele Gordon, banters with Arthur Marshall and blows out the candles on his 60th birthday cake. ITV sure doesn't make documentaries like that any more.

Although I couldn't find Larry's house, I had unexpected luck locating his final resting place in the Oaston Road cemetery. He's buried quite near the entrance in an unassuming spot, listed fifth on a headstone of six, in the same grave as his birth mother and his sister Flo. A more obvious tribute was the William White, a riverside Wetherspoons in the town centre, but that suffered a pest infestation in 2015 and was forced to close, so the bar is now a fake German bierkeller with an entirely different name. The George Eliot Hotel round the corner is thankfully still trading. It seems tourists do still stay overnight in Nuneaton.

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