Thursday, 29 March 2007
Oldham: my kind o' town
With due deference to Jonathan, for pointing out that people across the globe like to read about where we live, and to Bill Blunt for being the catalyst to reminiscences about my home town, I thought I might share Oldham with the blogosphere.
Do a Google search on Oldham in the news archives and you get a picture of racial tension, right wing politics and football woes; whilst I recognise that image I also know that it is only a small corner of a much broader landscape. My task, it seems, is to do for Oldham, in words, what Lowry did for Salford in oils.
The 1970s brought, for me, the first awakenings of a consciousness about our town: I stopped thinking that everywhere was like this. Throughout the decade Oldham ran a national media campaign to attract business to the area; I remember the excitement when, ascending a London Underground escalator during a school trip, we saw the poster proudly proclaiming 'Oldham A Town In The Country'; and I suppose that is as good a place to start with a description of the town: a northern mill town nestled in the foothills of the Pennine countryside, preserving Lancashire life before, three miles up the A62, darkness descends at the Yorkshire boundary. But what of Oldham for the Yorkshireman descending the trans-Pennine route to the town? As you drive along Bottom Of' Th' Moor the magnificent Mumps rail bridge greets your arrival forming a massive iron gateway through which all must pass; for years the huge Victorian bridge was emblazoned with the proud proclamation of Oldham's industrial pedigree:
'Setons Welcome You To Oldham: The Home of the Tubular Bandage'
And, for me, there lies one of Oldham's persisting characteristics: a failure to be aware of its image. Who, with a mind to keeping up appearances, would have trumpeted the tubular bandage as Oldham's greatest achievement? As if to make my point about image, Oldham Athletic Football Club have, like many struggling lower league clubs, fought for the patronage of business; hence, at the Boundary Park ground, the players emerge into the gladiatorial arena not, as once was the case, through the proud Main Stand, but through the Pukka Pies Stand.
I believe that this image problem has its roots in the death of King Cotton; for generations Oldham thrived on the boom years of cotton; whole families, mine included, were brought up as skilled workers in cotton spinning and weaving. The town's Victorian municipal buildings are testament to the wealth was brought to the area in bales, hauled up from Lowry's Salford docks by horse cart by my great grandfather among others.My grandfather was a ring spinner, my grandmother a carder. When the cotton industry died an identity died with it; cotton was in their blood - my grandparents did not adapt easily to inspecting the filaments of light bulbs in the mill in which, for years, they had carded out cotton fibres and coaxed fine thread from ring spinning machines.
As my grandparent's generation gamely held on to their heritage and a clear, though fading identity, my parent's generation really messed up. The 1970s' saw investment in building styles so ugly and ill-designed little of their concrete slab construction remains today. St Peter's Precinct went to the pearly gates in the 1980s - only half of the retail units were ever occupied in a centre that funnelled the biting Pennine wind through its alleys, putting off all but the hardiest shoppers. St Mary's estate, where my grandparents were put after their terraced mill houses were demolished, has gone and is replaced by better quality housing association property.
So what image does Oldham have of itself now? I still don't know; Oldham seems ill at ease: we still talk of immigrant communities but, in truth, the majority of people that we mean by that have been here for two of three generations - so why do we still say 'we' and 'them'? Following the riots the Ritchie report highlighted many societal failings and brought massive investment to the town; but talk about Ritchie to the average Oldhamer and they will talk to you of Andy Richie, one of Oldham's favourite football heroes of the past.
An identity will emerge again; the pace of change may have outstripped our ability to keep up at the moment, but already the strands from the diverse communities that make up the modern Oldham are slowly combining to create a new, multi-coloured, many stranded thread that will be the stronger for its many elements.
That is the backdrop to my town, quirky, troubled and individual but still, after all, the place where the tubular bandage was invented - don't forget that.