The Brierfield Bulletin #19
“The time I think most clearly, the time I drift away / Is on the bus-ride that meanders up these valleys of green and grey
I get to think about what might have been and what may yet come true / And I get to pass a rainy mile thinking of you
And all the while, all the while, I still hear that call / To the land of gold and poison that beckons to us all” –
New Model Army, ‘Green and Grey’
Maybe I can put it down to lack of ambition? Maybe it’s a lack of wanderlust? Maybe home has always been ‘here’. I’ve always lived in Brierfield bar an eighteen month stint in student accommodation over in Halifax – well Northowram actually if we’re being pedantic – when I was training to be a nurse. It didn’t end well though being away had no bearing on that; I did feel lost but certainly not geographically. Does Brierfield or ‘the north’ more generally influence who I am? Who knows. Possibly not, possibly more than I’d care to admit. What I can say is that I loved growing up here. No rose tinted-ness, not portraying it as a perfect place but it has been at the centre of everything. My kingdom if you will. Born of cotton. A place without a postcard.
My first childhood memory is of walking with my mum past Holy Trinity school one dinner time and seeing the silhouettes of the children. Hearing the clatter and her saying that I’d be joining them soon. I’m not sure where we’d been; maybe we’d gone past specially? Perhaps her way of reassuring me that it wouldn’t be so scary when the day came? School was school. I remember more about the teachers than what we learned. Miss Clayton is the only person I have ever known who used the word ‘fiddlesticks’ to describe fibbing and I’m always reminded of her when I hear it on TV in some vintage drama. I remember prancing around and then pretending to be a tree in the school hall. I remember watching sex education of a perfunctory cartoon variety which was supervised in a ‘sex is the devil’s work’ stony silent way. No questions just don’t be doing it, okay? I remember the real warmth and love of Mrs Willan. I remember Mrs Kelly retiring. Up until recently I’d always see her around town or on the bus looking no different than all those years ago. If she is still knocking around she must be at least two hundred! I remember the dinner ladies and the way Mrs Yerkess would give you double portions of what you liked and only a few of the funny green things. There’s no getting away from it, school was wonderful.
I’m indelibly marked by primary school after being pushed into a wash basin by the class thug, let’s called him Louty McLoutface, and needing three stitches on the back on my head. Mum probably wondered what I done to upset him or scolded me for getting in his way. I’m joking there but mum was very protective. She was very reluctant to let me go to the town’s main youth club because it was frequented by feral pool playing scrotes. She feared contagious delinquency. She made me and my friends go to Hebron Hall where the extent of fun was getting a card punched if you were able to sit up straight with your arms folded. In silence. We didn’t get many holes. We soon rebelled and joined the Methodists who at least had a disco and let their hair down a bit. Most nights though we’d hang round street corners. We played Relievo, Cannon or British Bulldogs up the park. We’d piss off old ladies by rummaging in their flower beds looking for our ball. Over time we ventured further; we climbed all over the Pink Ele’, had stockcar races with discarded trolleys down at the St Peter’s car park and built dams down Cow Lane. We built the bonfire that was there for many years down at the bottom of Sefton Street. We explored.
It’s hard to know what split us up; the small group of five of us became ten, became twenty as our boundaries widened. Adolescence came. The world opened up for some just as I withdrew finding it hard to talk about my brother’s illness. Struggling to cope. Friends would call but I’d make some lame excuse about having to stay in or say I’d catch them up. We grew out of being kids. And then later when high school came and we went our separate ways there were different friends, different ideas, different passions. I can vividly remember being in Smacks at the height of the acid house scene and a gang of us saying if this didn’t last then we should meet up in the year 2000, eat your heart out Jarvis we thought of it first!, but that never happened. Maybe one day it will? One day I hope it will. The last time I saw most of my friends from high school was years later at the funeral of a classmate who had died in a tragic accident. It was a fortnight after my mum had died and although I wanted to be there I really didn’t care for any reminiscing and left as soon as I could. I felt lost again. As for the original gang who were all born at the start of the Seventies and found their lives centred around the backstreets half way up off Halifax Road. Well maybe it was just chance that we ended up together. And natural for us to grow apart. Happy to be together at that point when we knew nothing. Eventually finding our way by discovering separate paths.
So how has Brierfield changed over the years? Well I’m pretty sure if you asked different people you’d get different answers. Things that they miss. Things other folk have probably forgotten. Things that mark changes in lifestyle. The motorway came through and gave people an easy way to get away. Even if people didn’t know where they wanted to go they could get there a hell of a lot faster. Factories, churches and pubs became derelict. My school was pulled down brick by brick not fit for purpose in this modern age. I’d long gone by then and the kid in me would probably say that Bert’s sweetshop closing had more of impact to be fair! Has the community always had racial tension? Wary and fearful of one another? I’m not sure though the ‘race riots’ would indicate so and perhaps they were the catalyst for change. I’m not making light of the situation but I’ll always remember the plight of Excalibur the police horse. Hurt at the time and then chosen as an unlikely hero to turn on the town’s Christmas lights. That poor horse must have done a lot of neighing in a “I’m not sure about this. Last time I was here some shithead tried to bottle me” horsey type of way. Seriously though I come from a catholic background so there was little contact with the asian community or chance to experience their vibrant culture. Maybe there were opportunities and I didn’t take them? But that was then and if I’m brutally honest I never felt comfortable being part of a crowd until I was well into my thirties and still struggle at times.
We are lucky that there now seems to be a real desire to use art as a way of bringing the communities closer together. We may have different beliefs but now maybe there can be commonality through music. The ‘Shapes of Water – Sounds of Hope’ project has been set up as a collaboration between Los Angeles based performance artist Suzanne Lucy, the In-Situ collective who are based at the library and the people of Pendle themselves. The massive derelict Smith & Nephews mill sits on our doorstep. What does it mean to us? A symbol of the past and our heritage? Harsh times; the dawn of industrialisation; nothing? With plans to regenerate maybe it is also a symbol of hope and possible new found prosperity? The idea is simple I guess setting our lives to music in the form of Sufi chant and shape note singing. Capturing who we are; words and phrases . Our hopes and fears, our opinions. Trying to break down any barriers or prejudices. Anyone who has heard me sing will attest that I can murder Chris De effing Burgh’s ‘The Lady In Red’ in fine style when I’m drunk but that’s my limit. That doesn’t matter though because it’s just about participating. It’s about enjoying being in each other’s company and sharing stories. By September it is hoped that the mill be reverberate to the sound of a thousand voices perhaps still not completely in tune but with a greater understanding of how cool the future could be if we start pulling in the same direction. Personally, I’ve loved joining in with the Sufi chanting; letting go and being spirited away. An emotional awakening. As someone who stopped going to church many moons ago and has no plans to go back I think it may be the only ‘act of faith’ I experience for some time.
This latest blog post actually started life because I wanted to write a bit about the new Magnetic North album ‘Prospect Of Skelmersdale’ but then I thought I could link it in my life in another northern town. There was a promotional film that local film maker Sam Hanna produced in the 1960s showing the facilities that trainee nurses could experience in the Burnley. The town itself all vibrant and sparkling with the open air swimming pool at Marsden Park making an appearance as a place they could relax at come the weekend. Hardly offering a hedonistic lifestyle but painting it as a brave new world where everyone wanted to be. It wasn’t, though they did have the thrill of Cat’s Whiskers to alleviate some of the boredom. I’ve never been to Skelmersdale so can’t really comment on the place but looking at pictures it appears to be a brutal concrete landscape which time has softened. People sold an imaginary perfect life: “…and they promised us the world; …said the street were paved with silver and gold.” A place thrown up without much care and never properly finished which after the large industrial employers left the town became a place in decline. A wasteland with no go areas; increased poverty, crime and drug abuse. It’s funny that such a place should produce such a pastoral symphony. Here is an interview with the band that gives more of an insight: http://theplanetofsound.net/2016/03/14/interview-the-magnetic-north-ahead-of-new-album-prospect-of-skelmersdale/
The album doesn’t shy away from this hopelessness lyrically and documents the struggles faced. Young suicides and stagnation. People who don’t belong. The Transcendental Meditation movement who came there in the Eighties influence the lyrics with reference to the town’s golden dome and the words almost become mantras at times: “Let the sunshine in”. Maybe the only way of warding off the isolation and desperation outside? Spoken newsreel footage appears occasionally offering the insight of men with bricks, heads full of sand. Idealists. It’s a album full of lush strings and choirs. Maybe not intended as a love letter but probably showing more positivity than a thousand glib tour guides. A real empathy for those amongst us who feel stuck. The album fittingly ends with ‘Run Of The Mill’ which seems to echo Oasis’ ‘Half The World Away” in tone: “you can’t give me the dreams that are mine anyway.” I always knew I could get away if I wanted to; run off to the city and make my millions. Dream of palm trees and salty air. But maybe getting away is less of a physical thing and more about being happy as you. Having opportunities to learn, have fun and rock the boat. Whether that be in some mill town. In some new town. Or wherever you may be.
You’ll have to picture the scene. Dad had a unerring knack of picking cars that broke down every five miles much to everyone’s frustration. This one was a Vauxhall Viva. My mum was never the best of travellers. She’d been home, to Standish, and wanted to stay. Even after twenty years she felt homesick. She didn’t want to go back ‘there’. God knows what I’d be up to in the back. But one thing I would always do as we came back down the wibbly wobbly way is gaze over at the skyline. To Smith & Nephews. It never looked like much. There certainly weren’t any palm trees. In fact if anything it appeared rather foreboding. It looked and felt wonderful.
Dedicated to Mark B and Anthony B. May the big wheel keep turning wherever you may be (SAN March 2016)