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SLACK  Stuart

CYCLIST, SONG WRITER AND HISTORIAN

Born:               25th January 1935, Douglas

Died:                6th December 1998

Father:            Robert Kitchener Slack

Mother:           Molly (neé Waters)

Married:          Jean (neé Moore)

Issue:               Colin (b.1964) and Gary (b.1969)

Education:      Douglas High School for Boys

Stuart Slack is fondly remembered for his legacy in three areas which, though apparently diverse, certainly overlapped in Stuart himself.  These were the sporting world of cycling, the study of the Island's history and interest and enjoyment of music.  He also enjoyed family life following his marriage to Jean Moore in 1962, whom he had met five years previously, and the birth of their sons Colin in 1964 and Gary in 1969.

Having been a promising swimmer at school, Stuart Slack's life-long sporting enthusiasm was for cycling, and was a member of the Ellan Vannin Cycling Club.  He was selected as a member of the Isle of Man team for the 1958 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Cardiff.  This was the first Isle of Man team to enter, and Stuart went on to win a Bronze medal in the 120 mile road race, only very narrowly missing out on the Silver in a photofinish.  Stuart was feted on his return to the Island.  However, despite training hard for the Games to be held in Australia in 1962, Stuart was not selected.  Nevertheless, Stuart continued to devote himself to the sport he loved, organizing events and encouraging other young riders.  In organizing what was then the very popular annual Isle of Man International Cycling Week, Stuart was in his element, reviewing riders' statistics and setting handicaps. 

Stuart's love of, and practical support for, cycling continued throughout his life.   In 1968, Stuart had cycled round all the parishes of the Island (the 85-mile course of the annual Parish Walk race) in a time of just under four hours.  In 2000, the Stuart Slack Memorial Parish Ride was inaugurated, following the Parish Walk course in reverse, a non-competitive, charity ride in Stuart's memory.  One of Stuart's unrealized ambitions was to ride his penny-farthing bicycle round the TT course.  Unfortunately, the penny-farthing itself broke under the strain at the 33rd Milestone.

Stuart wrote over 30 songs with a Manx background over a period of 40 years.  His lyrics show his great love for the Isle of Man, its history and unique identity, and also his creative (and sometimes rather wicked) sense of humour.  Manx Radio banned two of his songs from the airwaves - Laxey Girls for its broad humour and Effort, for its deliberate double entendre.  Some of his other lyrics dealt with passing issues affecting the Island, whilst others display inventive wordplay.  His family has found a number of sets of lyrics amongst his papers for which the tunes are not known. 

Stuart is probably best-known for his song, Laxey Wheel, one of his earliest efforts composed about 1957.  The tunes for his songs were heavily influenced by his enthusiasm for the American folk revival and American Country music.  The American influence was something that Mike Williams commented on at a 1999 Stuart Slack Memorial Concert at the Glen Helen Hotel, and is something that can be seen (or heard) in an audience's instinctive 'Yee-Har' during the chorus of Laxey Wheel.  As Stuart points out at the opening of his sleeve notes for Mannin Folk's King of the Sea LP, The oft-mentioned "Folk Song Revival" of the nineteen-fifties took a little longer to reach the Isle of Man. . . 1960 had dawned before a group of local enthusiasts formed the Manx Ballad and Blues Club.  As Stuart went on to describe it,  the Club limped along for six or seven years but, as was inevitable, lack of support forced its disbandment.  However, the Club, Mainly held together by David Callister . . . had provided an opportunity for Stuart to perform his songs to fellow enthusiasts, and David Callister recorded some of his performances which can be heard on Colin Slack's Facebook page Stuart Slack - The legend 1935 - 1998.

The group, Mannin Folk, did much to popularise Stuart's songs, particularly through their long residency at the Coach and Horses in Laxey and at the Glen Helen Hotel, and through their recordings - Wreck of the Herring Fleet; Laxey Wheel; Bulgham Bombshell; Foxdale Miner; Laxey Girls; and Ride the Rails.  Stuart provided the sleeve notes for their first LP, King of the Sea, in 1976.  Mike & Laurie (Mike Williams and Laurence Kermode) and later Mike, Laurie & Al (with Alaric Lawrence) also frequently included Stuart's songs in their performances.  Mike Williams & Lawrence [sic] Kermode (as shown on the sleeve, but shown on the disk itself as Laury) recorded Give Me the Bus Fare to Laxey as a 45rpm single and Mike, Laurie & Al recorded four other songs by Stuart on their 1979 LP recording, (Saturday Night) Live at the Colby Glen - Derbyhaven Bay Blues; Ballamodha Dragoons, Laxey Wheel and Effort.

On leaving school in 1951, Stuart worked as a telegram boy for the General Post Office, a Post Office counter clerk, later becoming a postman, and by the end of his career the organizational and logistics skills that he brought to cycling events had been harnessed when he became Director of Postal Services with the Isle of Man Post Office, retiring in 1994. 

From its inception in 1973, the Isle of Man Post Office inaugurated a series of special issues, a number of which commemorated events from Manx history or having a Manx connection - something of particular interest to Stuart.  Stuart's interest in history can be seen from the 1950s in his some of his songs.  From the 1960s he devoted the winter months - summer months were devoted to cycling - to collecting Douglas street and place names and researching their origins.  His work was published as Streets of Douglas - Old and New in 1996.  He also contributed to the Douglas Centenary - 1896-1996.

 In 1970 Stuart had given an unpublished paper to the Isle of Man Natural History and Antiquarian Society on the milestones on the Island's roads.  Following Stuart's death, his wife, Jean, found Stuart's booklet of the talk.  As Manx Milestones, the text was published in 2003, accompanied by photographs taken and prepared for publication by Stuart's elder son, Colin, and Colin's wife, Catherine.  In his original Introduction, Stuart remarks that I have been interested in the old roads of the Island for the last 15 or 20 years and have covered practically every track on my bike at some time or another.  This takes his interest back to the 1950s and clearly links his interest in history with that of cycling.  As Jean writes in her Forward to the publication, His book on the history of cycling is partly written from 1896 to 1975, this book he would have loved to have had published as cycling was his life . . .

Stuart had become ill a few months before he retired from the Isle of Man Post Office in 1994, and died on 6th December 1998.  Whilst, as Jean says, he did not complete what would have been the work that would no doubt have given him most satisfaction, his legacy is evident as one of the Island's sporting heroes - particularly in view of the success which Manx cycling has subsequently enjoyed - a prolific song writer whose work continues to amuse and entertain, and the author of at least two publications of importance for anyone wishing to learn about the Island's history.

SOURCES:

MNHL Newspaper archives

Slack, Colin, 'Stuart Slack - The legend 1935 - 1998', https://www.facebook.com/groups/474460265907653/, 2012

Slack, Jean, 'Forward' in Manx Milestones, The Manx Experience, Douglas, 1996, p.6

Slack, Stuart, sleevenotes to Mannin Folk's LP, King of the Sea, MAN 2, Kelly Records Ltd, Douglas, 1976

Slack, Stuart, 'Introduction by the Author' in Streets of Douglas - Old and New, The Manx Experience, Douglas, 1996, p.5

Slack, Stuart, 'Introduction' in Manx Milestones, The Manx Experience, Douglas, 1996,

p.7-8

Williams, Mike, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X0BM2UdzsXM, Stuart Slack Memorial Concert, Glen Helen Hotel, 1999

 

By RC Carswell, 2014

 

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