Monday, 19 March 2012

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.

1 comment:

paulineknit said...

Pete, your Blog always makes interesting reading, especially the Walworth School entries because I was a pupil there, as was my mother before me. For some time I have been in the process of writing my Walworth 'memoirs' and will let you have a copy when they are done.

Packing for my last house move (27 years ago) all the folders, exercise books and so on I had been keeping were disposed of as we thought there would not be enough room here to store them. I could do with them now.

I am still friends with some of my Walworth School friends and keep in touch with others but the passage of time leads to people taking up new interests and going their different ways.