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Joan Bakewell: The Centre of the Bed, 2003

Contents
Prologue
Chapter One: Roots
 


The Centre of the Bed, 2003 Cover
 

 

Contents

Prologue
1. Roots
2. Mother Love
3. Other Shores
4. Being a Girl
5. Wartime
6. Certainties
7. Cambridge Days
8. The Big Wide World
9. The Party
10. Late Nights
11. Family and Friends
12. The Secret
13.Television Times
14. Arts Matters
15. The Heart of Things
16. Veteran
Epilogue
Acknowledgements
Index
 

 

Prologue


 

The room in which I am sitting is white. White as a blank, a fresh sheet of paper. The room is also empty. Indeed, emptiness is its prevailing characteristic. Echoing, without life. There are big spaces in all directions, across to the long french windows, which open not on to green lawns but on to a balcony, which surveys great swathes of London to the south and east, stretched out across the sky, the London Eye and Canary Wharf winking in the distance. The sun comes in through the windows. An empty sunlit room with me in it. Blank as a sheet of paper.

There has been furniture here, lots of it. Once there were children's cots and furry toys. Then there were beds, rumpled blankets and Airfix planes swinging from the ceiling. Later there were discreet furnishings, tasteful and neutral, made up of items surplus to other rooms and claiming to be for guests. Decades on, it became 'the office': not mine, someone else's. Overcrowded, hectic, filled with office equipment, and the paraphernalia of television sets and recording machines, phones, lots of them, mobile phones and answering machines, each with its separate plug or jack. Plenty of wires. Machines humming. Desks too, loaded with computers and photocopiers. The desks were black. The machines were black. The phones were black. There was a brightly coloured carpet on the floor in front of the mock fire. But the coals were black and the fender was black as well. Pretty, though.

Everywhere paper. Heaps of it - intended heaps, heaps that meant something. But not to me. Letters everywhere, many unanswered, some unopened. Files spilling on the desks, lolling against the machines. CDs on the chairs where cushions should have been. A dirty coffee cup, a mislaid set of photographs. Another life. Another's life.

That has all gone now. Scooped up and stacked efficiently by young men in jeans used to doing this sort of thing. An everyday matter to them. But for me a wrench, a raw wound. The walls are scarred, bearing the shadows of removed pictures and charts. Blu-tack splodges and Rawlplugs clog or eat into the plaster. But to my eyes the empty room is white and full of sunlight. A good place to begin.

A daytime place to begin.


 

Nights are different. There have been changes there, too. It's what happens when you are divorced. Or widowed. Or alone. I have moved into the centre of the bed.

I am reminded of St Ursula and her dreaming. Not the saint herself, but a painting of her. Indeed, how would I imagine her unless prompted by a painting? Paintings are among my transactions with the world. They guide and shape how I see skies, rivers, rooms, people. Sometimes they sit in my mind waiting, even for decades, to stir an idea. As St Ursula and her dreaming does now.

Women have done much dreaming, and men have painted them doing so. Dreaming themselves into significance, perhaps. Even into the company of saints. St Helena dreamed a dream, woke, set off on her journey and, as the dream had foretold, found what she declared to be the True Cross in Jerusalem. She was the mother of the Emperor Constantine so people were inclined to believe her. I see her as Veronese painted her, hand on brow, the gorgeous Renaissance dress suggesting she had fallen asleep by some noonday window rather than between the sheets.

St Ursula, on the other hand, is definitely between the sheets, neat, tight sheets, the kind favoured by hospitals. But she is not in hospital. She lies, taut and tidy, in a sumptuous Venetian bedchamber. Venetian because the man who put her there is Carpaccio, one of Venice's greatest painters, although by rights she should be in Cologne where she had the dream.

I saw her when I was day-dreaming at my girls' high school in Stockport. Morning assembly was a time that inclined young girls to fidget. But mine was a strict, old-fashioned school, and fidgeting was an offence. So I fidgeted with my mind and my eyes. It was the tradition in our grammar school for the rostrum from which the headmistress presided to be graced by two large easels on which sat two paintings, large reproductions of some of the world's great art that had been bequested to the school by some unremembered benefactor. It was an inspired gift. Each week the pictures were changed and every Monday morning an announcement from the platform told us what the newly displayed ones were called and who had painted them. No explanation was offered. Odd Italian names and strange subjects jumbled into my child's mind and have stayed there ever since.

The Dream of St Ursula was one of a series of nine painted by Carpaccio in the late fifteenth century. Her high-ceilinged Renaissance room is dominated by a tall four-poster bed where she lies under a scarlet blanket. Her cheek rests on her hand, her slender body lies stiff and straight, and her pert little feet make a bump in the coverlet. The scene is one of domestic calm: there are plants in pots, a book, perhaps the Bible, left open at the table where she was reading; a small dog rests at the foot of the bed. It is at the right of the picture that dramatic action blazes into life: beyond the foot of the bed the door stands open and a shaft of light declares the presence of a magnificent angel.

He has come to tell Ursula of her destiny, which, given its violence, makes the serene smile on her lips already saintly. For Ursula, supposedly betrothed to a British prince, will lead a pilgrimage to Rome of some eleven thousand virgins who, on their return, will be massacred by marauding Huns somewhere outside Cologne. Set aside the improbable logistics of getting eleven thousand virgins across Europe and keeping them in that condition, this is one of the great fables of the medieval Church. It was already current in the eighth and ninth centuries, and was to underpin the foundation of the Ursuline order. Ursula gave her name to the most formidable teaching order - women teaching girls - in the Catholic Church. As such we might claim her as an early feminist. But none of that is in the painting.

What is in the painting, and seemed strange to me at the age of eleven, is a domestic detail that caught what for me at the time seemed the essence of a woman's life. Perhaps, even then, I was beginning to question it. For Ursula - dreaming of sainthood - is, none the less, sleeping in only one half of the large double bed. The other half, by its vacancy, implies the presence of another. In Renaissance Italy, as everywhere else, a woman's life is to be shared: without a man she is not complete. Without a man Ursula still behaves as though this were the accepted distribution of space and comfort.

I wonder now whether we are destined to share our lives, as I have shared most of mine. What is this thing - destiny? And how much is mine conditioned by those other destinies that have gone before, defined by family, endorsed by religion, shaped by tradition? It doesn't suggest much room for manoeuvre. But, then, sharing at its best is a fine condition: it is generous, open.hearted, supportive. It creates children, and communities. It fosters happiness and provides the nearest insight we have into the heart of another.

But it seems to be getting harder. Around four in ten adults in Britain now live alone; their numbers are increasing. The sharing seems to run out: it begins to require tolerances and acquiescences that were not bargained for at the outset. It inhibits and restrains, it chafes and provokes. It presents a new conundrum for many women in the modern West: the single or the shared life? How to reconcile the interdependencies of love with the independence of spirit that, for over half a century, we have been struggling to gain?

St Ursula went on to meet her own particular destiny. In the last in the series, Carpaccio paints the massacre of the virgins and, finally, the carrying of her body to the mausoleum bearing her name, once again under the red blanket, but with a slightly more fancy pillow, the same beatific smile, the same hand under cheek. Is Carpaccio suggesting it was all a dream - a dream of escape from the matrimonial bed? This time, however, there is no space beside her. Here, she is on her own. Death shares no beds.


 

As I write this book I shall move between the centre of the bed and the white room. And I shall reinhabit the past. Every family has its cupboards and its boxes, some records kept, arbitrarily, many discarded, some of it regretted later but not much. 'These fragments I have stored against my ruin' - against the quirks and loss of memory, more like, encouraging the notion of pinning down what the past was really like, how things actually happened. But these remnants are the only scaffolding I have, dates and appointments that have left a trace. And they are scattered, in disorder, in different rooms and corners, to be retrieved and unfolded. Can I expect them to disclose anything much except perhaps in myself an unwillingness to move on and discard the past? And that I own up to.

As I begin, I shall have to rely on two not entirely reliable contributors to this story: my memory and my sense of who I am. Both are highly selective, self-regarding and inclined to wool-pulling over the eyes. I shall have to make the memory work hard, using the props from the boxes, then let the mind spin away, chasing after a scent on the wind and snatches of old song. I shall leave the white room to walk old streets, visit familiar houses, dawdle by a familiar river, 'And know the place for the first time'. I shall consult with cousins rarely met about the piecing together of family trees. Will I find what I expect or a new self, different from the one I thought I was? And what then? Some sadness, perhaps, loss. And discovery.

Already I have a sense that what has happened to me is shared by many women of my age. Born when people had a rigid notion of a woman's place and expectations, I have seen all that change. Sometimes I have felt part of the changes, sometimes swept along by them, sometimes overtaken. It has been an era in history unique in the convulsive speed with which women's lives have been reconfigured. And mine has been one of them.

As I grew I made choices. I tried to make free ones. Much of today's genetics and evolutionary psychology would have it that we are more circumscribed than we believe in the exercising of free will, our choices predisposed since birth. The vague concept of 'destiny' has been transmuted into something more absolute, already hard-wired into our brains. Yet I can't help feeling fully responsible for who I am, unwilling to blame my genes but interested in examining the play of different forces in my back.ground. I made some choices and I neglected to make others, letting options drift away on the wind like a balloon let go, wished back, out of reach. My life, when I look back on it here, will be a story of selections made and lived with, some nurtured, some abandoned, moving towards a synthesis, some kind of resolution: the person I am today. What follows is how and why I made the choices I did.

 

 

Chapter One: Roots


 

I was born on 16 April 1933 at Hooley Range Nursing Home, Heaton Moor in Stockport. I had been conceived in mid-Atlantic as my parents sailed home on the SS Deseado from three years in Buenos Aires. Within another three years they had moved into a new house in Bakewell Road, Hazel Grove, on the outskirts of Stockport, named after a village in neighbouring Derbyshire. It would be eighteen years before the name meant more to me than that. I was Joan Dawson Rowlands.

The announcement of my birth in the local paper gave no name. My parents were still undecided. It was to be Joan or Jacqueline. They came from families crowded with Hetty and Lottie, Polly and Betty, Peggy and Sally. In the end they chose Joan so that no one would be able to abbreviate it. Jackie would have been slovenly and not correct. My parents were like that. Joan Bennett and Joan Crawford were glamorous film stars at the time; perhaps that counted too. Given their exactness about my name I never had the courage to change it. Later, when I read Little Women, I longed to abbreviate it to Jo; now when I survey the roll call of actresses I wish I'd lengthened it to Joanna. Might my life have been different if I had? They tell me 'Joan' is due for a revival.

I was born on Easter Sunday and christened six weeks later on Whit Sunday. I have always thought of it as a sort of blessing, to arrive on the most joyous day of the Christian year, and to be baptised on its most triumphant. Whitsuntide is largely neglected now, but as a child I took part in the local Whit Walks - new clothes for the occasion, smart white gloves, the entire community turned out in its best. I am no longer devout, but I carry the legacy of that sort of faith, simple, full of the celebration of something good. I still wake happy on Easter Sunday, just as I wake sad on Good Friday.


 

I was born into my parents' happiness and I grew to share it. My earliest memory confirms as much. I must have been no more than eighteen months old. The two people who mattered most were standing above me, before the living-room fire. I could see the flickering of flames, glimpsed briefly now and then between them, as the hem of my mother's skirt met my father's trousers, obscuring the heat. The trouser legs were wide. I could pull on them. Close beside them, very close, were my mother's strapped shoes, and her soft skin in pale stockings. There was laughter and whispering above me, confiding, loving. The two people in my life speaking softly to each other. I wanted to be a part of it.

Of course I knew I was already a part of it. Or, rather, I sensed I was. After all, I knew nothing else. I knew no one else. Peripheral family members were shadows, noises that came and went, adding their voices. But here was the quiet, whispering heart of all that mattered. And I was there. But not at its heart, not quite at its centre.

I must have wriggled, squealed, tugged the cloth. I don't remember how I broke into their love for each other but the talk erupted into laughter and the four shoes separated into two pairs. My father stooped and scooped me into his arms, his tobacco smell including me as I was lifted between them and admitted to their charmed circle. The laughter was mine too now, and the happiness. I was where I wanted to be. Within my parents' circle, loved by both. I hug this to me, my earliest significant memory. As I trace my life forward, I need to remember, as I pass judgement on myself as well as others, describe hurts as well as triumphs, that fleeting moment, which defined something about my life and possibly my temperament: I was born into happiness.

The memory is mine, of course. And therefore an authentic memory. But is it, in any absolute sense, true? Was that really what happened? Perhaps what my parents experienced was a child whining for attention while they had a furtive discussion over some payment they couldn't afford. Perhaps their laughter marked the point at which they agreed to give in to my bullying. Perhaps they were irritated that I wanted to be at the centre of things. If this were, indeed, their experience, does that invalidate my memory? Or should I stick to my guns and insist that that was how it was?

I have been teased all my life by this quandary. To what extent does my account - my account of anything - tally with that of others? And how can any of this be verified? Suddenly the whole tenuous business of recollection and the given account threatens to tumble around me. Perhaps this is a fiction I am writing. If so, what constitutes my memory of events? Wishful thinking, self-justification, or a story-teller's longing that things should have been so? I press forward, salvaging evidence as I go.


 

My parents both came from respectable working-class families in inner-city Manchester. The Welsh clan to which my father belonged - the Rowlandses - had flocked out of the modest mid-Wales town of Aberystwyth around the turn of the century seeking work and finding it in the industrial heart of Salford. My mother's tribe, the Blands, had come up from Wolverhampton around the same time, also driven by the need for jobs. They'd found them in the equally grim inner-city settlement of Gorton. Both sets of grandparents converged on the sprawling mass of factories, foundries and warehouses that then constituted the mercantile heartland of one of the greatest cities of the empire.

Aberystwyth, too, had once had an industry of its own. For centuries the lead ore of the Welsh hills had been mined and exported from its busy port to destinations as far away as Spain. Indeed, by the eighteenth century the harbour was so busy that the town petitioned Parliament for its own Customs House, where an ancestor of mine was clerk in the 1840s, and in 1855 my great-grandfather, Rowland Thomas Rowlands, was born in Customs House Street. They all lie buried in the churchyard of Llanbadarn Fawr, among generations of Hugheses, Morgans and Rowlandses, my distant relations who lived out their lives in both Welsh and English. Snatches of Welsh phrases remained lilting through my childhood.

Working the mines in the hills of the Ystwyth Valley was tough. The ore lay deep, sought out along a network of treacherous shafts and dug out in the darkness by crouching men. They lived in dormitory shacks built on the hillsides, bleak and raw, battered by the wind with no trees to offer shelter. Their womenfolk and children were away from this rough male place. They made their homes in the villages and towns, and only met their men at weekends. Generations later I would come with a television crew and film the ruined mines, the rusting doors creaking on broken hinges, the narrow dormitories broken down to nothing more than heaped slates. I probably learned more then than my family knew when the mines were working. How the Rowlands menfolk escaped such hardship I don't know. But escape it they did.

The television venture sent me in search of my ancestry, and in the municipal record offices I opened up large neat books whose entries, in the copperplate writing of the nineteenth century, designate my forebears as gardener, polisher and such, artisans in modest work, but cosier and easier on the hands than mining. They would have lived with their families in modest homes, hardly aware of the harshness and poverty of the hills.

The reason they moved to Lancashire was the same reason all migrations happen: thriving industrial cities have a relentless pull for the rural poor. They promise not just jobs but a different world, a world where things seem possible, where exciting things happen, and where new choices open up before you. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries nothing expressed such a prospect more than the vigour and success of industrial Manchester. Manchester, Cottonopolis, the first industrial community in the world: its pride, its radicalism, its unrelenting passion for hard work, enterprise and achievement were imprinted on me from the start.

On the other side of the family, the Blands, the men had been coopers for three generations, making barrels to carry everything from beer and chemicals to sugar. They were skilled artisans, and my grandfather was one of the best. He did the job with a cheerful dedication to his craft and he brought his skills home, making stools and tables as the family needed. I recall his rickety shed with its bench of tools, where I wandered waist high in sweet-smelling wood shavings, the open stove glowing red beside them - a treacherous fire hazard. But I don't remember ever being warned away from it. People were more casual then.

In the early days of the last century it was the practice in the cooperage trade for journeymen to be sent from towns that were suffering a slump to others that were more prosperous. The Coopers Society looked after its own. Many industries did. Long before there were formal trade-union agreements, there existed a fluid network of mutual support among workers, moving skills to where they were needed and to where families could find an income. When there were slack times in the Midlands, the Coopers Society found my grandfather a job in Manchester at the Burton cooperage in Ardwick. The family moved to where the work was. His son Bill, my uncle, was to follow him into the trade.


 

The earliest record of the Rowlands family in Manchester is a photograph, a copy provided at someone's request from the archives of the Church Army. It was once sepia but has been painted in with washy colours that, with the years, have faded oddly: the faces have turned slightly blue. Some fifty people align themselves for the camera: the men wear shirts without collars, some have flat caps, some bowlers; the others are bare-headed. The women without exception wear hats, mostly wide straw boaters with a broad buckram band. The wearing of hats was the rule for women when out of doors. To go bare-headed was the equivalent of going half dressed. The girls wear boaters too, and smocked dresses with high necklines. Sitting at the centre of the group, indeed the only man to be sitting, is my great.grandfather, Rowland Thomas Rowlands. The group is posed before a large tent of striped canvas calico upon which a banner proclaims: 'Come and Hear Pioneer Rowlands, the Happy Little Welshman, tonight.' Pioneer Rowlands holds at his knees a large display card on which the heading 'The Work of the Church Army' is just legible. He was a captain in the Church Army, a strand of muscular Christianity within the Church of England that competed with its more famous rival, the Salvation Army, in doing good to the poor.

I remember him spoken of with honour and respect among the others who shared his name. And, being Welsh, there were many called Rowlands, and Morgan. It was pointed out to me proudly, 'Your grandfather' - or was it great-grandfather? - 'was a captain in the Church Army.' It was spoken as though his rank was as impressive as the life it indicated of devotion to Christian duty. Yet on scouring my family's records, the desultory selection of the births, marriages and an occasional golden wedding recorded in yellowing newspaper cuttings, I have difficulty tracing him. There are several Rowlandses whose names are included without any mention of a job. He must have been one of them. But how did the photograph come to be in these papers, tucked away among numerous attempts at a family tree, none of which is complete or exact in its detail, various hands adding corners of knowledge that don't coincide? They have left an incoherent mess of papers. And again I have a sense of vertigo, as though the familiar stories, the comfortable family legends, are tilting away from me and vanishing into the maw of verifiable history. Did the story repay the telling so often that who exactly and where exactly this life was lived now eludes my searches? Perhaps all memory is like that. Even history itself.

But then the pieces fall into place. Out of the mist comes a figure I can identify as Captain Rowlands. Helpful papers arrive from Rowlands cousins: I meet with one, my virtual contemporary John Rowlands. He is a former keeper of drawings at the British Museum so he knows about records and such things. We pore over the evidence together, and decide that although Rowland Thomas Rowlands is down in the census records of 1881 as a polisher aged twenty-five, he might have joined the Church Army later when he heard the call from God. This tallies with the date of Captain Rowlands's death at the age of sixty-three in 1917, after twenty-five years of service. Good. I have him nailed. My great-grandfather, evangelist, public orator, referred to even in the death notices from the records of today's Church Army, as 'the happy little Welshman'.

Certainly his cheeriness and Christian feeling were both to be found in the Salford house I knew. Like my maternal grandparents' home in Gorton, it seemed to me a cave of wonder and delight. The Salford house - in Crescent View - was demolished in the late 1960s in what was probably called slum clearance. I have a problem with the word 'slum': the origins of the term are obscure but it is thought to come from slumber, and was used to refer to 'sleepy and unknown alleys' in the choked overcrowding of Victorian cities. At their worst these places were hovels scarcely fit for animals. Those who witnessed them sought to bring the scandal of their existence to public attention. Back in 1844 Friedrich Engels had famously described Salford as 'the classic slum' and he knew what he was talking about. Four years later, Mrs Gaskell, wife of a Unitarian minister, shocked her nineteenth-century contemporaries with her novel Mary Barton, which gave an equally harsh and brutal picture of the Manchester poor.

But there was something else here too. The word 'slum' tended to be used by concerned outsiders, deploring the squalor, and pushing for change. Engels, after all, was a factory owner, so had no first hand experience of poverty. How could they know that in many of the overcrowded alleys, courts and streets there existed less than destitute, respectable families managing to keep respectable homes? The overarching designation 'slum' neglects the great variety of working-class life that went on in such places, and the security and steady pattern of that life. Probably the skilled artisans, a group to which both my families belonged, would have been at the top of this hierarchy. Their homes had no bath and the lavatory was outside, across the yard, but they were neat and clean. And as long as things went well they were in steady employment, paid a steady rent and lived by a routine so established it was possible to predict exactly what they would be having for tea each day of the week, when the scones would be baked, the rentman call and the knocker-up - the local 'alarm clock' - tap on the bedroom window each morning.

However, when things went wrong, as they did in my father's home, there was suddenly no security, no money, no means to live and no help. In 1909 my grandfather, John Morgan Rowlands - the records call him an 'iron turner', a term understood in his own day but obscure to us - died at the age of thirty-three, leaving a widow of twenty-eight, Emily, and four children below the age of six: John Roland, my father, who was the eldest, then Arthur, aged four, Mona, two and a half (her twin brother Thomas had died at seventeen months) and Walter, ten months. This was the sort of plight that could presage the downward spiral of a family into destitution and starvation. The evidence was all around.

It is probable that Captain Rowlands came to the rescue: he had contacts with local clerics, Salford worthies like Canon Peter Green and Bishop Hicks. No doubt guided by him, the family decided that the best solution for the fatherless Rowlands boys - John, Arthur and Walter - was to get them places in Chethams Hospital, then a charity school for the deserving poor. But there was heavy competition, and strings would have to be pulled. My grandmother - Emily - had useful connections: she knew the Entwistle family, headed by a former old boy of the school who was now a governor. His influence was invoked to present a petition to the school on my father's behalf. The string-pulling worked and my father was sent for.

Chethams Hospital had a long history, as did Manchester's mercantile strength. As long ago as the seventeenth century the city was exporting cloth to the continent, and George and Humphrey Chetham, two bachelor brothers, became prominent wool merchants.They also became rich, very rich, but they kept their money to themselves. This was the period of the English Civil Wars and they were anxious to avoid allegiances. It was expected that every owner of land worth more than forty pounds should buy himself a knighthood. Humphrey Chetham refused. In 1635 he refused to become high sheriff. After being obliged to serve a short time as treasurer of the county, he again refused the top job, this time offered him by the victorious Parliamentarians. His stubbornness kept him out of politics and in the money. His motto was appropriately 'Quod tuum tene' - hold on to what is yours. The wily old miser retreated into ill-health and began writing his fifth and final will, which would perpetuate his name and earn him a benign statue in Manchester Cathedral representing him as the assiduously dutiful citizen he clearly was not.

Chetham's legacy provided for the purchase of a disused earlier religious foundation, to be made into a library and college, the latter to provide for forty boys to be brought up 'in learning and labour' in the towns of Manchester and Salford. Each boy must be the son of 'honest, industrious and painful parents and not wandering or idle beggars and rogues and ... not a bastard, nor lame, infirm nor diseased' - the deserving as opposed to the undeserving poor. Two hundred and fifty years later, my father was one of those poor boys.

By today's standards, the interview was rigorous: at the age of seven my father had to read from the Bible, recite by heart the Catechism, the Ten Commandments and the Apostles' Creed. He passed. But no one told his brothers and sister at home until suddenly he was no longer there. My uncle Arthur, who recorded all this in a manuscript written when he was an old man, recorded how they wept when they were told where their missing brother had gone. Bereavement, examination, separation. There was no space for more than cursory tenderness, it seems. Concerns for a child's feelings weren't the priority they are today. It was universally understood that boys had to be toughened up for the world. It was a way of facing reality.

My father's stories of Chethams Hospital told of a place both Spartan and wonderful - a cross between Eton and Dotheboys Hall. 'Learning and labour' Humphrey Chetham had proclaimed as the destiny of his poor boys, and there was plenty of both. Early rising, daily chores, meagre food and hardy living - the regime of many schools at that time. But there was also Humphrey Chetham's splendid library of books, still one of the oldest and unacknowledged enclaves of historic Manchester. Tall theology books, with ancient parchment pages, books of record, biblical and secular, legal books, books of local history; leather bindings protecting the frail pages, shelved and locked away behind lattice frames; the library stacks shuttered behind fine wooden gates. These were not the books the boys read: they enjoyed Rider Haggard, Robert Louis Stevenson, Harrison Ainsworth. But the awe in which this treasure trove of scholarship was held conveyed the message that learning was among the highest, most cherished of man's pursuits.

Some two hundred and fifty years after Humphrey Chetham's time, another bachelor, a collector of rents, would make his way around Salford, the factories, the metal foundries and dyeworks - the dark satanic mills demonised by Blake and built by the dedicated industry and mercantile genius of nineteenth-century England. He would pause and lean against a wall to make notes that had nothing to do with rents. The squalor and poverty that then ravaged the landscape would pass into the paintings of L. S. Lowry, whose drawings and canvases chronicle the last years in the great industrial experience. He would people his streets and alleys, his factory approaches and city bridges, with teeming crowds of individuals, together but apart. They were the fiction of his imagination, not real people, but somehow real humanity. My parents took it personally, feeling that he sentimentalised their poverty.

Between the Salford of Humphrey Chetham and L. S.Lowry, swirling millions of poor and struggling, the destitute, the proud, the stubbornly respectable, the threadbare and downtrodden, the talented and the spirited would create the wealth of a great city but not share in it. As such, it was a microcosm of all industrial cities, the very place where the industrial revolution began, a synthesis of wealth and effort, degradation and dogged survival. That was how I dramatised it for myself. When I read Dickens I knew that Manchester was filled with just such life as he describes in his city of London. At the same time as deploring the conditions and wanting them swept away, I also relished the life there, felt a sense of pride and identity with it.

I recall trudging damp pavements as a child and glimpsing, at half-basement level, vast spaces where bolts of cotton of every colour and design were ranked layer on layer waiting despatch to Britain's world markets. Now those spaces host wine bars, Indian restaurants, small commercial enterprises dealing in noth?ing very much. The skies were always dark, with smoke that settled daily on the city from its factory chimneys and rows and rows of home fires. The red-brick of houses and shops was black. The town hall, built proudly of white stone, had been totally blackened.

Everything is different now. Things began to change in the I960s when clean-air legislation transformed the place. Now when I visit, I have the sudden surprise of blue skies looking down at a city bristling with grand architectural enterprise. I attend the Lowry Arts Centre to see a play by Michael Frayn, who began his writing life as a journalist on the Manchester Guardian. It sits beside canals devoted to pleasure rather than trade. Lowry also lends his name, uninvited, to a glittering, spacious hotel, with beds the size of his front room. Chethams, too, is transformed: it is now an internationally renowned music school, with a woman, Claire Moreland, as its Head. She sees that flowers and pot pourri are set in the guest room where I stay the night, off the still dark and ancient corridors. I'm told one of the teachers has heard a ghostly child crying. I think of my father ... of many fathers.

The city has softened, losing its bleak toughness for an amorphous, aspirational international style; incongruously, there are palm trees in the elaborate glass railway station, street cafes around the gay enclave of Canal Street. Many hail it as improvement, renewal, and I can see why. But for me, visiting the past, it has the feel of a grafted-on identity, at odds with what actually existed here. For better or worse, the glory days of its industrial past are gone. But before it went, from my child's place in the two homes, with my child's eye for what mattered, I saw in both Salford and Gorton the last days of the industrial North.

 

Hodder &
 Stoughton
 
 




Stop The Clocks, 2016 She's Leaving Home, 2011 All the Nice 
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