Although it’s hard for me to believe now, when I was growing up in Ashton-under-Lyne in the sixties, it was like I was living inside a Lowry painting: I was surrounded by cotton mills and factories; rows and rows of damp terraced houses, built for all the mill workers; cobbled streets; smoking chimneys; and all sorts of flap-capped people, many disfigured and disabled due to the wars, mill work and other misfortunes.
Ashton’s many cotton mills and weaving houses had employed thousands of people prior to my early life but by the time that I was born many of the mills had been given over to the making of biscuits, knickers, lightbulbs and other things… This was due to competition from the far-east, where cotton production was far cheaper due to lower wages. Sadly many of my elderly neighbours suffered from respiratory problems due to damp conditions and the inhalation of so much cotton dust over so many long shifts over many years, and then there were the cancers arising from the lubricants used on the machinery – all very grim. I saw hearses and unopened curtains very regularly on my street, and one by one all of my favourite neighbours vanished.
The people that I refer to had great character though and many idiosyncransies: some had acquired beloved pets and just stood around the street with them all day, staring at the moors; one rolled his own cigarettes on the doorstep from morning until night; another carried a radio at all times whilst talking to himself – and they all wore a flat cap. Most of the ladies were widowed or were spinsters but nearly all had bad chests from the mills. Others though had severe mental problems, including one lady who I used to find terrifying because she roamed up and down the main road at all hours whilst howling like a banshee and picking up cigarette ends, always wearing her head scarf and heavy winter coat all year round.
I really hated my surroundings at the time – the dark, oppressive mills; the smoke; the dreary, dark poky houses with coal sheds and outdoor toilets; the crazy people; the cobbles; the overpowering chimneys; the view of the moors just beyond. I longed to escape to the beautiful clear light of the seaside, with its luminous blue sky and painted technicolor illuminations, and once a year, in wakes weeks, when all the mill and factory workers got two weeks off, we would go to Blackpool which seemed glorious beyond words – like heaven.
I was pleased when the cobbles were covered in tar (although one of my neighbours used to sit in the road and eat it when it starting melting in hot weather); I was also pleased when some of the old mills burnt down; and I was delighted when coal fires were banned and the clean-air bill was introduced (my mum bought a gas-fire the same week).
However, by the time that I was a teenager, I started to realise that I may not have met so many interesting people had I lived at the seaside or in a leafy suburb, and I wouldn’t have had such an intensely atmospheric childhood either. I now deeply mourn the death of the mills and factories, the covered cobbles, the houses modernised with their original features ripped out – the industrial heritage more or less obliterated. Some of the mills can still be seen in Ashton but the atmosphere has naturally gone.
L.S. Lowry lived in Mottram near Ashton in his later years. His house was very similar to all my old neighbours’ houses – dark, oppressive, full of old clocks and other gadgets.
It’s nice that the industrial landscape of the north of England lives on so strongly in Lowry’s paintings. I like to look back on it.