“Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?”

April 8, 2022

This article was written for Annabel & Grace, which is now part of Rest Less.

“Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?” It’s a question Jack Nicholson’s magnificent Joker asked of Michael Keaton’s Batman in 1989, accompanied by a grin usually reserved for the criminally insane and Michael Portillo’s tailor.

I generally don’t because its way past my bedtime now I’m officially ancient (66) and had my left hip replaced. So I don’t dance. Don’t ask me. Yet in a way we all do.

Today journalists and writers abilities to communicate issues, emotions and changing attitudes have been enhanced by technology to the point where we’ve all become commentators and contributors through social media to the morass – despite some not even being able to spell it properly.

Consequently if you’re seen as different, controversial and then do something untoward you will be instantly judged, exposed and vilified – whilst the media will make money from your suffering. It could put you in hospital and they will report that too. It will be relentless.

Every single one of our past leaders, royals, heroes and icons had failings. They faced challenges and dealt with them in their own way. But they were fortunate not to be under the current microscope. I could suggest some recent examples but I’m sure you can think of some, as thanks to our thirst for gossip they are legion.

Back in the day Maid Marion saw Robin Hood leave his clothes on the floor, never take the bins out and occasionally rob the poor – but did she answer the door to the reporter from the Nottingham Courier? No, because it didn’t exist.

However by the early 1800’s if you were pushing the envelope you had to be careful. Although a lesbian could not be prosecuted as Queen Victoria simply refused to acknowledge they existed, a male homosexual was a different matter.

In 1835 two men were hung in public outside Newgate prison in London for sodomy. Anne Lister (aka Gentleman Jack) was 39 years old. Even then news travelled fast. So the Yorkshire industrialist and all round force of nature knew the clock was ticking. She carefully wrote the more salacious parts of her daily diaries in code, then bricked them up in her home, died and left them for a more informed audience to discover. This was a smart move.

Get your copy here

On Sunday 3 April 2022, that informed audience gathered to place flowers and celebrate her life in front of a statue of Anne at the Piece Hall in Halifax. They included Sally Wainwright who has dramatised the TV series and in doing so brought her back to life.

Suranne Jones returns as the fourth wall breaking female Northern landowner who doesn’t give a **** what you think.

Anne, Sally and Suranne are quite a team.

Anne had great sex it seems. She puts this in her writings. Not only is it remarkable to record such a personal thing but it’s now on public record. You can book a slot at the central library in Halifax and a librarian with white gloves will show you.

Sally is a workaholic. She often writes from 6am to 10pm. She’s split from her husband Austin and the creator of Happy Valley, Last Tango In Halifax and Scott & Bailey is now working on The Ballad of Renegade Nell for Disney+.

She’s also bringing Amy Johnson back to life. This I have to see. She writes her women powerfully and needs actresses who can deliver. Suranne Jones does.

In a recent Radio Times interview Sally said “Suranne loves Anne Lister as much as I do. She often says she feels empowered when she plays her. They deserve each other”.

The journey from being an unknown Victorian lesbian to being accepted and admired began with Anne writing it down mostly by candlelight and alone. Great writers do this.

The reason we know about her is she wrote on paper. That has pretty much disappeared. When was the last time you sent a postcard on holiday or sat down with an ink pen at your writing desk to say hello to a friend?

But if you send an email or write a blog on your laptop now, would it still be around in 200 or 2000 years time?

We know about life in ancient Egypt as they didn’t sit around doodling on computers as we do. They wrote it down. In stone. The Rosetta Stone was the key which decoded their hieroglyphics. Anne’s code was also cracked.

Historians today are concerned our move from physical writing to the internet will cause a blank of information. In the current climate you could be forgiven for thinking this was not a bad thing. But it is. We have an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the past and of the victories.

What you write and record will always be worth it to those who discover your words, even if you don’t think so at the time. So do what Anne did. Write down your feelings.  

Today her diaries are preserved and in the care of Calderdale Council where volunteers are carefully transcribing all 26 volumes, almost five million words and 7000 pages. Through the work of Sally, Suranne and a host of people who believe this is a work of genius, Anne lives again.

At the birthday tribute were Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow. They’re a married folk duo who wrote the iconic ending tune for the series and were asked by Sally to do so. If you want to find their original “Gentleman Jack” you will on their CD “The Fragile” released in 2012.

What we do in life can affect those who come after us – even the smallest things. You might think your life is boring but trust me it is not.

I’m not saying your life will be made into a rollicking rollercoaster. Just that every life is unique. Yours included.

Just do everyone a favour and not brick it up?

The devil is in the detail. No capital d – but he’s everywhere. Or maybe he’s a she. I couldn’t tell in the moonlight.

Gentleman Jack will return to BBC One and BBC iPlayer at 9pm on Sunday 10th April. Season 1 is available to stream in full on BBC iPlayer.

See more info on this and other excellent TV programmes here

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