Authors: Trevor Hoyle
First published in Great Britain in 1975 by Futura
This ebook edition published in 2014 by
Quercus Editions Ltd
55 Baker Street
7th Floor, South Block
Copyright Â© 1975 by Trevor Hoyle
The moral right of Trevor Hoyle to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
ISBN 978 1 84866 924 6
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places and events are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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For Dorothy, Dawn and DarrylÂ â about time too. (1975)
FIRST THING YOU SEE WHEN YOU ENTER THE DARK
mottled-green stairwell of Irvine Block on the Ashfield Valley Estate, Rochdale:
IF YOU GET
CAUGHT IN HERE
GOD HELP YOU
The walkways of damp grey concrete strike out in all directions, converging in boring perspective to a meeting-point in the misty distance. Puddles are scattered every few yards like pools of cold black ink. The concrete steps rising upwards from the stairwell are vicious: sharp serrated edges that need but a moment's unwarinessÂ â a slip or stumbleÂ â to bring a cracked shinbone or a split knee. On the bottom stepÂ â like the remnants of an alien creatureÂ â three smashed eggs, their yolks smeared and their shells trampled to fragments.
As winter approaches the Estate becomes a draughty hell, a place where gusting winds blow grit in your eyes. On turning a corner you find yourself literally stopped in your tracks by a solid wall of air. At nights the kids play on the open landings, a rail between them and the drop, or gather in screaming, chattering groups like excited starlings, chasing each other in endless circles past the anodised lift-doors and round the concrete pillars and past the lift-doors. There are Indians and Pakistanis and some West Indians in the flats, but mostly the tenants are Lancashire working people from the mills and factories. Once inside, behind their own
front doors, they stay put; social intercourse here is virtually non-existent.
The builders of the Estate, Messrs Crudens Ltd of Midlothian, worked to a specification drawn up jointly by themselves and the Office of the Borough Architect and Planning Officer: âlightweight internal partitions and boarded floors'Â â from whose walls Asiatic ladies with green faces now stare inscrutably down, and where facsimile Toledo swords, encrusted with bits of coloured glass, dangle on featherweight chains. But the original sin was committed in Sweden (the home of all that's best in modern design), for it was there that somebody had a brainwave and invented the Skarne industrialised building system using âpre-cast concrete floor, roof and wall panels with dry linings to external walls'. Skarne: the name fits the system like a glove; spare, ascetic, emotionless, hinting at Nordic frugality. The beauty of the system is that it efficiently and hygienically disposes of the maximum number of human beings (in this case three thousand, five hundred and thirty-two) in the smallest space at the most economical cost with the minimum of fuss and bother. And not leastÂ â having once developed and perfected the systemÂ â it requires no further mental effort or imagination; neither does it necessitate the exercise of aesthetic sensibility, social concern, or moral responsibility. In short, it is painless.
â¢Â Â Â Â Â â¢Â Â Â Â Â â¢
Rochdale officially became a municipal corporation in 1856 when it was granted the Royal Charter of Incorporation. It was only thirty-three years before this, in 1823, that the Lord of the Manor, Lord Byron, had sold the manor (which had been in the possession of the Byron family for nearly three centuries) for the sum of Â£350. As John Roby records in his book
Traditions of Lancashire
published in 1831:
In the 39th of Eliz., Sir John Biron held the manor of Rochdale, subsequently held by the Ramsays; but in the 13th of Charles I it was reconveyed. The Byron family is more ancient than the Conquest. Gospatrick held lands of Ernais de Buron in the county of York, as appears by Domesday Book. Sir Nicholas Byron distinguished himself in the civil wars of Charles I; and in consequence of his zeal in the royal cause, the manor of Rochdale was sequestered. After the Restoration it reverted to the Byrons. Sir John, during these troubles, was made a peer, by the title of Baron Byron of Rochdale.
Like most other East Lancashire towns Rochdale in those days, and for a century to come, depended on the cotton-spinning industry. The area was ideal for cotton because the dampness of the climate allowed the fibres to be stretched and twisted without breaking. And the people thereabouts maintained a tradition of dour and unremitting toil that was exactly what the mills needed.
The town gradually built itself up along the banks of the Roch, the river dividing the centre of the town neatly in two, spanned by several bridges. On a hill stood the Parish Church, the focal point of the landscape; at the other extreme was Packer Street, described in 1866 as âa foul and noisome slum'. By the turn of the century the Council had decided to do something about the river, which was polluted by effluents from the mills, and in 1903 work began to cover it over. The project took twenty years or more and wasn't completed until 1926, giving Rochdale the distinction of having the widest bridge in the world: 1,460 feet.
The town's other major claim to fame was as the birthplace of the Pioneers' co-operative movement, started in 1844, a method of
trading which established the basic principles of profit-sharing by customers and which became the model for co-operative societies throughout the world.
Most people, however, don't remember Rochdale either for its 1,460-foot wide bridge or as the place where the Pioneers was founded, but as the home of Grace Stansfield, a mill girl who became world-famous as the singer and film star Gracie Fields, born in a terraced house (now demolished), number nine Moles worth Street, on 9 January 1898.
If you should care to look at a map of the North of England you will see that Rochdale is one of a chain of industrial towns: Ashton-under-Lyne and Oldham to the south; Bury, Bolton, Wigan, St Helens to the west; and further north, Accrington, Blackburn, Burnley, Nelson and Colne. Rochdalians will tell you, understandably, that their town is different from any of the others, and for once their native pride is justified. Rochdale is different because it
different: the geographical quirk of having a river running slap-bang through the centre of the town means that the Town Hall (an imposing mock-Gothic structure built in 1871), the banks, the building societies, the cinemas, the public housesÂ â even the Empire Bingo HallÂ â must face each other at a respectable distance across a wide thoroughfare; there is space and light and openness, and some air to breathe, even if it is bad for the lungs. The planners and developers are powerless to build on the central reservation for fear of disappearing through a thin crust of tarmac and into the dark and gangrenous waters of the River Roch. And for this same reason the main thoroughfare of the town is not called High Street but The Esplanade. We should be grateful for such small mercies, especially when it is difficult to show any gratitude at all for the Ashfield Valley Estate, which cost Â£3,104,500, for which sum the Corporation received:
30 four-bedroom 6-person flats
234 three-bedroom 5-person flats
372 two-bedroom 4-person flats
316 one-bedroom 2-person flats
62 bedsitter flats.
The least that can be said is that it makes a change from Cayley Street with its two-up two-down, flagged back yard, outside lavatory, the square pot sink on iron legs in the kitchen, and in the mildewed front parlour the leaded windows looking out on to the street paved with irregular millstone settsÂ â which is where the Seddons used to live. The house was in a long row with blue slate roofs close by the Rochdale Â â Manchester railway line and not far from the canal. At that time there were several mills nearby, which have since closed down or gone over from cotton to other industries such as light engineering, plastics or the manufacture of polyester foam. Most of the people in the district, then, as now, were manual workers, heavy drinkers, and tended to be short and stocky. They washed in the big white sink and occasionally had a bath in front of the fire. They ate (and still do) heavy lumpish food: potatoes, white bread, baked beans, suet puddings, fish fingers, shepherd's pie, and of course fish, chips and mushy peas.
The Seddons moved into the flats on the 18th February 1968, as soon as Irvine Block was completed (the Estate itself wasn't finished until February 1972). Now they inhabit cell number 472. Behind the flimsy door with its vertical strip of frosted glass you find yourself on a tiny landing from which a staircase on the left leads down to a passage that turns several right-angles, giving off to three bedrooms, kitchen, toilet, bathroom, and finally the living-room. It is like stepping underground, into a secret subterranean bunker, so the shock is that much increased when you look out of the window and find yourself thirty feet above groundÂ â below you the concrete walkways and dilapidated flowerbeds and the
flat roofs of garages neatly and symmetrically arranged. On one side, it is true, you have the undulating greenery of landscaped turf sloping down towards the Union Ring Mill, a sooty redbrick structure surrounded on three sides by the Estate; you might suppose that the planners forgot to remove it, or perhaps it was left there deliberately, in full view, as a reminder of the bad old days and the conditions folk had to endure before the arrival of post-war prosperity.
The visitor's first impression of the Seddon's flat is one of impermanence: the fabric of the place, no matter how well-appointed and decorated, reminds you of a motel room that appears to have been erected like a house of cards the moment you signed the register. The rooms are low, compact, utility boxes; the windows are small and regulation-height from the floor; the fittings, as you would expect, are mass-produced injection-moulded items that give the impression of having been designed for the benefit of the machines that made them instead of the people who are to use them: in the lavatory the warped plastic seat is split down the middle so that if you make a sudden careless move you find, if you're of that sex, your balls ripped off. The toilet cistern is also an Armitage product, and that too has a crack in the plastic casing from which the water continually seeps. Brian Seddon tried to mend it once with black insulating tape but the water still dripped and eventually the tape fell into the bowl and got flushed away. Another example: the doors in the flat and their frames seem to have been made by two joiners who bore each other a grudge. Some of the doors stick and during the damp winter months require a certain degree of force to open them, while others in the flat have gaps all round and open automatically with the pressure-wave of your approach. There are 1014 dwellings on the Ashfield Valley Estate and it would be an interesting, if futile, statistical exercise to discover how many of their doors fulfil the purpose for which they were intended.