Monday, 19 March 2012

Richards on suburbs

I mentioned The Castles on the Ground (J.M. Richards, 1946) in my last post. Here’s how it starts.

1 The Englishman's Home

Ewbank'd inside and Atco'd out, the English suburban residence and the garden which is an integral part of it stand trim and lovingly cared for in the mild sunshine. Everything is in its place. The abruptness, the barbarities of the world are far away. There is not much sound, except perhaps the musical whirr and clack of a mowing machine being pushed back and forth over a neighbouring lawn and the clink of cups and saucers and a soft footfall as tea is got ready indoors. There is not much movement either: a wire- haired terrier lazily trotting round the garden in a not very hopeful search for something new to smell, and the pages of a newspaper being turned and refolded by some leisurely individual in a deck chair. It is an almost windless day. The leaves of the Virginia creeper (ampélopsis veitchii) which climbs the rough-cast wall just behind the window of the best bedroom hardly stir, and even the birds only hop—and flutter a few feet in the air, and hop again— along the ornamental ridge of the red-tiled roof.

Perhaps a tradesman's van is making its rounds. Perhaps at this moment, on the other side of the screen of privet hedge and may and laburnum which separates the garden scent of new grass cuttings from the warm peppery scent that radiates from asphalt pavements in summertime, the baker's boy is halting his cart. In another moment he will push open the low wooden gate with its embossed copper name-plate on the rail, and will carelessly let it swing to behind him as he strides up the gravel path with his basket of loaves on his arm. But this is only the tradesman's entrance, and the faint squeak of the hinge and the sound the latch makes as the gate swings back will not be very disturbing...

Richards wasn’t writing about my suburb -- definitely southern, Teddington or Twickenham, perhaps.

Childhood in suburb and city

The town I live in is a Victorian suburb that owes its existence to the railway line into Waterloo. This morning being springlike (birdsong, flowering trees, no leaves yet) I walked down to the river thinking how pleasant it was. One road was lined with 1930s semis which, though of unusual design, reminded me of where I lived in Bradford to the age of 12. The district was called Great Horton by the Post Office though it was on a plateau looking down on Great Horton, on what had recently been fields between the top of the slope and the old village of Wibsey. So Wibsey Infants was my first school, Horton Bank Top Junior my second. Where we lived was a 1930s lower middle class suburb of semis -- acres of them, all privately owned. Apart from the occasional doctor or dentist the highest status occupants were browbeaten teachers.

So, not posh--not the jasmined and aubretiaed fairy land with detached houses ‘Ewbank’d inside and Atco’d out’ and with roads lined with cherry trees described by J.M. Richards in Castles on the Ground of 1946. Still true suburb nevertheless from which all men disappeared into town by the morning bus or tram and archetypal in its monotony of low buildings and wide, underused roads with grass verges. The gardens were small; big enough for a privet hedge, small lawn and the odd laburnum but nothing like the landscaped grounds of more upmarket suburbs on the road to Ilkley near Harry Ramsdens. There was little call for Atcos.
Moore Avenue, though now I look they seem to be groups of three, not semis. 
In this world which seemed short of children of my own age the play was desultory among the bland, underpopulated spaces. To either village on foot was a long and boring drag. The only excitement was the leftover wild patch of Moor Fields on the edge of our plateau, and there at about age 8 a critical mass of boys was to be found ready for building dens and starting fires.

Widdy's house (on the left) from Moore Avenue where it goes down steeply to Great Horton Road.  Now those are semis. The front of Widdy's house looked onto Moor Fields.  Kenneth Widdowson was my best friend but we went to different secondary schools and I don't know what became of him.
There was also a quite unsuburban edge of dangerous reality: an unprotected quarry edge, with a path to one side down a less steep slope, at the bottom of which was the quarry (disused, with pools) and beyond that The Slums, packed Victorian terraces blackened with the smoke that poured from the chimneys of houses and mills. And here lived the Quarry Gang who we'd have called feral if we'd know the word. We occasionally caught glimpses of them careering about the spoil heaps in the quarry or converging up the separate cobbled streets under the gas lights. They may have even ventured up the slope onto our territory, causing us to flee into the snickets between the blocks of semis.

Great Horton from Moor Fields.  The grass is where the quarry has now been filled in and the slums (terraces with stone roofs, outside lavatories, one cold tap) are long gone and replaced.  All the buildings were as black as that church, including the giant Lister's Mill in the distance, above where we moved when I was 12.
The contrast between the classic working-class life of those kids and my own was brought to mind earlier this morning by reading the transcript of one of our research interviews. A former pupil of Walworth, from a peaceful and stable working-class home, refers to friends who often came to the sanctuary of his house from unhappier lives that were troubled by neglect and violence. Children growing up in that area knew things that I never did. Our play reflected our reality, bland, innocent and cocooned. They lived among men whose work, mainly manual, was nearby and visible, and some of whom got drunk, spent the housekeeping money, fought and beat their wives. None of those features entered my childhood. I never saw adults fighting or even seriously arguing, or drunk except when we came out of the Cosy Cinema on Wibsey from an evening show, hastening out of the village to safety on the boring 1930s Moore Avenue with its sodium lights and reassuring Tudorbethan frontages with lit windows showing placid family scenes.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Inactive blog

I'm aware a fair number of friends and sympathetic persons read this blog from time to time and I apologise for the sporadic nature of recent postings. The reason, as usual during such periods, it that I'm in a phase of having to do a lot of other writing, to do with the research I've frequently referred to. After a stint of that the prospect of more writing isn’t attractive. I don’t intend to drop the blog, though. I'll be back, but can’t at the moment say when.