Thursday 5 April 2012
Going Back: N M Browne
So - still no new historical fiction but a month of wallowing in the past nonetheless.
Earlier this month I taught a residential course at Lumb Bank with all its framed hand written Ted Hughes poems and walked the short but steep road into Heptonstall to the churchyard where Sylvia Plath is buried - her grave a mess of dying flowers and pens - a huge jar of them spilling out onto the gravel. Ah yes the past is all about people.
The land all round is witness to the changing industrial fortunes of the North West. The valley is cut with vertiginous stone steps, to allow the mill workers access to the mills from miles around and in the valley the chimney stacks stand like Rapunzel’s fairy tale tower.They were tough those mill workers. I was there in glorious unseasonal sunshine but the weather can be rough there. Winters are raw and Lumb Bank itself can be cut off. Food has to be brought in on sledges and human backs. It was easy enough to see the ghosts of mill girls in shawls and clogs hauling themselves up over the hillsides and home after a long shift.
Elsewhere the slag heaps that I recall from my childhood are covered in unlikely looking vegetation and the stark bleakness of the landscape I remember is softened by trees, the dark millstone grit of the buildings cleaned so that it is more ‘green and pleasant land’ than the ‘dark satanic mills.’ Mind you I did see it on a very good day. I was last in Hebden Bridge in about 1979 in my exotic gap year job of trainee accountant. I got food poisoning from a dodgy Cumberland sausage and never went back, but the town is now affluent looking, boasting the kind of vegetarian, vegan and organic caffes which would have given short shrift to any kind of processed meat product, contaminated or otherwise. Ah yes the past is all about economics and land use.
Back in Burnley my childhood home, the post industrial picture looked bleaker, of the hundred or more mills listed in 1891 only a handful remain and while the air is the better for it and the stone cleaner it is twenty first in the list of the most deprived areas in Britain, with a declining population, and higher than average rates of unemployment. As I drove through the run down town centre I was disoriented by my memories of other shops, other buildings that made it hard to see the present through the past. I couldn’t see ‘Dorothy Perkins’ where I had a Saturday job. Did mounted police still escort football fans through the town centre on match day?
The terrifying round-about where I learned to drive is quiet and civilised, scarcely the life threatening, multi-laned, Piccadilly Circus of my memory. My former primary school St Pauls’ is still small and neat, but my childhood home is unrecognisable - some idiot chopped down the huge weeping willow that was the best thing about it. My secondary school has been demolished - perhaps to bury its poor reputation and behind every building lurks another, painted a different colour, housing a different family.
Thirty years is a long time - the past is all about change and nostalgia.