Monday, 2 March 2009

Amongst the 'dark satanic mills'

We moved around a lot when I was a child, leaving a merry little trail of schools in our wake.

But when I was about eight, we decamped to Manchester. Well, to be strictly accurate, we decamped to Mossley, which was eight miles beyond the city itself.

Our home was on a cul-de-sac on the edge of the Pennines and seemed, to fanciful youthful perceptions, to cling to the side of a hill, overlooking the valley below and glowering east toward the spine of England itself, and (say it quietly) Yorkshire beyond.

In the straggling towns below, old mills peppered the view, lowering over the scene, recalling Blake's Jerusalem and Lowry's industrial landscapes rolled into one.

Primary school was a dark stone building, single storey and arranged around a quadrangle that nobody ever entered, and which nestled below a hill. It was named for the Scottish missionary and explorer Dr David Livingstone ("I presume"), who apparently 'discovered' the Victoria Falls in southern Africa – something that must have come as rather a shock to the locals, who guided him to what they'd known as Mosi-oa-Tunya for years.

We were served school dinners in the main hall every day – mashed potato, garish yellow finnan haddock, cabbage boiled to grey and sago or semolina, into which a dollop of strawberry jam would be deposited: but on no account, for some reason or other, could the jam be stirred into the pudding. No whirly patterns if you please, girls and boys.

Grace was said before meals – the one occasion on which I was on the receiving end of corporal punishment from someone outside the family was when the headmaster administered a clip around the earhole for whispering during grace. Innocent of the charge, I was mortified.

PE took place in the same hall where, dressed in awful navy knickers with elasticated legs, we pranced around pretending to be trees or whatever else the radio told us to be. We sang there too, as the radio played folk songs on its schools programme.

In class, with Mrs Howard, Mrs Bottomley and Mr Coffee, we studied volcanoes, Romans in Britain, our times tables and reading. One teacher read us EB White's Charlotte's Web and Alan Garner's The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.

The schoolyard was divided around three sides of the school. One side was for girls, where they played incessant chase and skipped; one was for boys, where football was de rigueur, and the narrow strip at the front was where the twain could meet. Unfortunately, I rarely managed to get away with spending an entire playtime on the boys' side, although I was always rapidly picked for my silky footballing skills – the result of studiously watching Bobby Charlton giving a football school on TV in summer holidays, and then spending the rest of the day practising, thumping my ball against the garage door and driving my mother insane.

But playing football was not for girls in those days. So my love of soccer, born from no memorable influence when I was about six, had to find its outlet elsewhere.

Mossley's own team played at Seal Park – right behind our house. On Saturdays in the season, when they were playing at home, I'd wash my father's car, hands turning blue in the Pennine cold; finishing with chrome polish and Turtle Wax before I could gain enough of her majesty's legal tender to go to the afternoon match, purchase a programme and, in an act of cartharsis for this otherwise docile clergy child, yell myself daft at the referees – who always needed to visit an optician – and dirty visiting players. It's worth noting here that only opposition players were dirty – and the dirtiest team by far was Northwich Victoria, whom I recall to this day with remarkably resilient vindictive feelings, given the passage of the years.

I'd have a cup of soup (oxtail or tomato) at half time; it would be so hot that it would burn the roof of your mouth, but in those temperatures, you'd welcome the reminder that you were still alive.

On Monday evenings, if Mossley were playing at home, I'd be allowed to go around the corner to watch the first half through railings next to my headmaster's home.

Every June, we'd have to have the day off school for Whit Friday. In the morning, dressed smartly, we'd march on the 'walk of witness' with my father's church. All the churches came together for this: many with brass bands and all with banners, like those that trade unions had. The Catholics, of course, also carried their statues and crucifixes.

If the afternoon was fair, the community would descend on Seal Park for games. And then in the evening, it was the band contest.

There were many bands across the whole region, from Lancashire to Yorkshire. On that evening, each band would be packed into a hired coach to travel from town to town. At each stop, they'd get off and march to the area set aside for the contest, with someone walking in front holding a notice saying what band it was. Then they'd play their pieces and disappear to the next town and the next contest. If you've ever seen Brassed Off, you might remember this.

Mossley's contest was held in the playground of St Joseph's primary school. The bands marched from the George Lawton Hall to play. I remember seeing Grimethorpe Colliery, CWS Manchester, Fairey Engineering, Black Dyke Mills ... famous bands.

Not that I listened particularly closely at the time. Only later did the music take on a new meaning.

In July, there'd be the Wakes – the local annual holiday when, traditionally, the mills would close. A fair would come and set up in the little square opposite my father's church, which had the bus station on one side, facing the fish and chip shop that claimed to be the first chippy in the country.

There weren't many rides, but my sister and I would try the speedway, and then I'd win some piece of tat from the shooting arcade at which, for some inexplicable reason, I excelled.

This was Mossley and this was life in Mossley. Yet it wasn't Mossley itself that burrowed it's way into my very being. It was Manchester, looming on the horizon as I approached a move to secondary school. The city waited and the city called.


  1. ~~LOL~~

    Once I started writing it, I realised that there'll have to be at least a part two – and maybe even more. But part two will start to see the docile child developing some of her own little quirks.