Friday, 21 August 2009

Grim Up North - Not Romantic, Grim

I've written about my grandparents' post-cotton working lives before, but recently the reality of their post-war poverty was pulled into sharp focus, it was far from the quaint Lowryesque pictures I had in mind, and I realised that despite knowing the facts of my heritage, I was still guilty of romanticising it into a 'grim-up-North-where-there's-muck-etc' kitchen sink drama.

Fifty years ago this month my parents were married in the tiny Edge Lane Methodist Chapel tucked between rows of terraced houses in the back streets of Oldham, long since swept away in the slum clearances of the sixties. As we celebrated their Golden Wedding Anniversary, I asked my mum to describe her wedding day, anticipating tales of make-up, hair and the sort of girly preparations 19yr old brides might make.

She told us how, on the morning of her wedding, she walked in the rain to the Public Baths on Shaw Rd for a bath. This was special - a bath was normally taken in front
of the open fire in a shared enamel tub. After bathing cheek by jowl with other neighbours, she walked home, calling in at the corner shop to buy a pie and mash lunch for relatives newly arrived after a full morning's bus journey from Sheffield. Only after delivering the pie and mash was she free to do her own hair and make-up before the car arrived to drive twice round the block before dropping her off at the tiny chapel at the end of the street.

My dad remembers how he arrived late, with a hangover, and was confronted by my maternal Great Grandfather - their first meeting. The older man eyed my father up and down, grunted and passed judgement on the future husband of his Granddaughter "He'll do" he said.

The black and white photographs of the day tell their own story. The clothes are great: only my dad had a new suit, all the other men wore 'the suit' - the only formal piece of clothing most of them owned, an
d kept mothballed in the back of a wardrobe for long periods for events such as these. The older men were staunch in their refusal to remove the headgear that marked them out as working men - not the modern Moss Bros rented top hat jobs, the men wore flat caps with their double breasted suits.

It was when we were flicking through the album I had my reality check - I was gently chuckling at the flat capped men, and commenting on how we'd just nip to Matalan for a seventy quid suit made by some poor sod in Asia these days, and noting how Primark age photos would consequently have that bland look that comes from everyone buying the
same cheap clothes with the money they have, rather than saving older clothes and reusing them.

I asked whether my Mum and Dad missed the
days when life was simpler and at an easier pace. Not a bit of it. Because of course it wasn't simpler - my mum didn't choose to walk in the rain for a bath on her wedding day, nor choose to have to go and buy lunch for the guests. They had no indoor bathroom nor toilet, nor fresh food in the house. And the houses weren't later demolished in some kind of wanton destruction - they were unfit to be lived in, and while we might not liked the estates they built in the sixties to replace them, there was nothing romantic about them. My Grandparents were glad to get out.

So no Lowry romantic Northern idyll for me then.


UrbanCowgirl said...

Crikey, that's an eye-opener. A great post, and for all of us who imagine the simple life in halcyon days gone by, a reminder that we're wearing rose-tinted glasses.

Bill Blunt said...

It's easy to forget the drudgery of lives in those days. No going out for meals at restaurants, no £20k weddings and holidays abroad. And all within living memory. Great post, Crofty.

70steen said...

great post Crofty... we forget how grim it was oop here not so long ago... when I was born (at home in a terraced house in Liverpool)my dad had to go and get the midwife on foot and returned with an oxygen cylinder.. the midwife sat at the end of the bed smoking whilst waiting for me to arrive.. lol. I remember my Aunt had an outside toilet that was a bench with a hole in it. My Mum in 1953 when she got married carried her wedding cake across town in the pouring rain to the reception venue 30 mins before she was due in church... no it wasn't romantic it was way tough back then and grim

Yorkshire Pudding said...

It would be great if you could scan and post the photos you referred to... But you're right, it is too easy to romanticise about poverty. When I visited my grandparents' house - I used to think it was so cool that they had an outdoor toilet and you had to wipe your arse with pieces of newspaper hanging on a string.

Crofty said...

YP - I'll have a word with them and see if I can convince them to let me, I've got a photo of the album itself showing the happy couple, so I might post that.

70s, Cowgirl and Bill thanks for the comments - err, Bill did your wedding to Mrs Blunt really cost 20k on that meagre hack's salary?

Bill Blunt said...

If I had spent £20k on marrying Mrs B, you can rest assured I'd have petitioned for a refund, Crofty. No, I was talking generally. Our own hitching cost a mere £40. As for my 'meagre hack's salary' - that's between me and the taxman!