Monday, 28 March 2016

Hometown Blues

This week, since I had the week off, I went to meet my mother in Stroud, where I grew up. I normally go on a Saturday. On Saturdays the town is busy, buzzing, and chic in a London-down-for-the-weekend way, with a farmers' market selling all sorts of artisanal and organic goodies. It looks like the very soul of feelgood, homegrown prosperity, with its lovely Cotswold stone buildings and cute vintage shops.

I hadn't seen it on a Tuesday, for a while, though. On a Tuesday, it looked quite different, unhappy and neglected. I had an hour before I met my Mum, and one of the things I wanted to do was go to the knitting shop where I'd often bought wool. The lady that used to run this shop was ancient, and had swollen, blue-veined legs, so she didn't look for stuff or tidy up much. It was like a jumble sale, and an uncareful tug could cause a cascade of wool to tumble onto your head. It was nonetheless an excellent shop, and very well used. I knew the lady that ran it was old: she was actually 90 when she died, last month. The shop is closing in June. It'd been there all my life: I remember it being there when the single-screen cinema was still open, almost opposite. I think that closed in 1976.

There are a few other businesses still open that were there when I was a child. One is the sewing shop. The off-licence – a proper one that sold obscure things like bottles of Shrub and five kinds of sherry – lasted until two years ago. It's a café now. Everything is a café now. I don't know how they'll all survive – I suppose on the Saturday traffic, since it seemed pretty quiet on a Tuesday.

There's pretty much two parts of town, now, which there wasn't when I was a kid. There's kind of a square of main streets, and it's like someone drew a line diagonally between two corners. Below that line, there's Poundland where Woolies used to be, and a Brighthouse, Weatherspoons, and a dirty kebab shop in what I think used to be a chemist. It still has beautiful curved windows and a wood frontage, so maybe it was a dress shop, once. There's plenty of empty shops, too.

In the upper, posher quadrant, there's health food shops and extortionately priced vintage, a bookshop and organic café and the acupuncturist. Boutique clothes, and gifts. The art shop. There's a fabric shop too, but I heard her talking about closing. Greggs made a mistake, and landed accidentally in the posh quarter. I remember the shop that used to be Greggs: it was a haberdashers, and everything was stored in beautiful polished wood shelves. The whole place was lined with wood and brass, and gleamed. There was a mechanical dumb waiter, for bringing goods up and down stairs. I think they ripped it all out in about 1981.

I know humans are adaptable. That's how they survive. But when I think about some of the things I remember, growing up, I wonder if someone even ten years younger would believe me, or think I dreamt it or made it up. We lived on a road about two miles out of town. We called it the 'main road'. I think there was about one car per minute. It wasn't a rural idyll: there was a factory opposite, it made diesel engines for boats. It was thanks to this that I first encountered the other side of the 70s – 'Daaad, what's a picket?' They were always very friendly, mind. It was a bit like the pub, except with tea in flasks. Just a bunch of blokes, hanging out. If you did go to the pub, down the road, there was beer and cider, and peanuts to eat. The peanuts were in packets attached to a cardboard picture of a lady, and as the barman pulled off the packets, her tits would be exposed.

There was a bus into town every twenty minutes, except at some point they changed it to every thirty minutes. My Mum was majorly brassed off about this, I remember her whinging that now she'd actually have to check the times, instead of just going out to get the next one, which was her normal habit.

If you went across the road, and down the path, past the factory, you'd get to the railway. Before Beeching, there'd been a halt there, and the signs had gone, but the platforms remained, overgrown with weeds and cracking. Sometimes the old guys that worked on the trains would apologise, when they found out where we lived, for the hassle of us having to get off in town and catch a bus home. Once, one said: never mind, we're on time, and we never get speed up on that hill, I'll tell 'im to stop and let you off. And he did. He stopped the train, and we got out, onto the empty nameless platform, where the grass cheerfully waved from the cracks. I felt like the bloody Queen. They weren't ticket collectors then, they were Guards, and they ruled the train. They were all old, they were were all men, and they all wore an array of enamel union badges, shiny against their navy British Rail uniforms. Sometimes, they would wax lyrical about GWR.

Not everyone who worked on the transport was male. When I was very little, we lived at my Grandmother's, on the other side of town, in an old house surrounded by trees. The same regular buses – double-deckers – would lurch round the corners of the steep, twisty road. The bus conductor – it was the 70s so she was a Conductress – was called Eve. Eve was in her 50's, I think, so maybe she started her job in the war, when women were recruited for that kind of thing. Eve wore a navy blue uniform suit, with a knee-length, A-line skirt; thick brown American Tan stockings with a seam up the back; and sensible lace-up shoes. She also had a dyed blonde curly perm, immaculately sprayed into place, and a peaked bus company cap, on top. To complete this ensemble she had the usual union and bus company badges, and the tools of her trade slung crosswise across her, like a Mexican gunslinger with pistols. One leather strap held a pouch with the money, and the other had the machine which issued the tickets. She'd set the amount on a little dial, like a combination lock, whirl the handle on the side, and with a little noise of dials, the machine would spit forth tickets. I was completely transfixed by this, and I adored Eve, who, as well as issuing tickets, would also issue instructions to the driver, carry shopping bags, calm wayward children, and dismiss anyone who was thruppence short with an instruction to make it up next time (I think this happened a lot: old people were still having trouble with decimalisation). She seemed ready for anything, with her mastery of the ticket machine, and mysterious knowledge of fares. My hippie mother always looked a little ragged, bothered and run-down (later I would work out that this was to do with being married to my father, but I hadn't got to that yet) but Eve was serene, gracious, and utterly in charge of her lurching, diesel-scented domain. I worshipped her, and I was absolutely gutted when, at some point, she vanished, presumably to retire.

Eve wasn't the only working woman I remember. There was Mrs Guy, who ran the shop behind our house, a hefty lady who was the local rolling-pin throwing champion. (Yes, that really is a thing. Presumably it deterred shoplifters.) There was also Mrs Harris, who ran the shop in my Grandmother's village. Often, I would be sent to this shop. You would go in, the door would trigger a bell, and Mrs Harris would appear, anything from 1 to 5 minutes later, from the house opposite. I don't remember what it sold, but I do remember the shelves of cans. There were three boxes of crisps, and for years I thought crisps came in three flavours: red, blue, and green. I do remember the food my grandmother liked. Later, when my grandmother was too frail to go to the shop, Mrs Harris used to bring her shopping down to the house. There'd be brown bread, unsalted butter, and ham, which was sliced off a real, huge ham, with one of those slicing machines. Also tomatoes and cucumber, and a round sponge cake with jam and buttercream in the middle, and thin crunchy white icing with half glacé cherries spaced around the edge. My mother despised this stuff. 'Junk-food', she'd say, and shudder, fastidiously. My mother proudly did 1970s vegetarian cooking, full of beans and grains, and she judged everything according to how brown it was.

Mrs Harris was also a fount of local information. The village at that time was largely populated by old ladies, a sort of mafia of old women who kept everything in order, as well as knitting, gardening, and gossiping. Some of them still had menfolk attached, but they didn't really matter very much. I remember my mother referring to Mrs So-and-so once, with the caveat, 'of course, she's a widow.' I must have a been a bit older then, because I asked, since when? Oh, since the war. What, the second world war? No, said my mother. The previous one. That meant Mrs so-and-so had been widowed at least 60 years.

Weirdly, the shadow of this conflict hung over the village in the way that the more recent one didn't. There was a lord of the manor, a perfectly pleasant chap who was a country solicitor in town, and who'd open the house, annually, to the masses. My grandmother thought he was a bit of a usurper. 'Of course', she'd say, 'His father never expected to get that place – if only the elder brother hadn't died in the war. He was the real heir.' The elder brother was buried, in the churchyard, along with various other members of the family who'd died, dutifully, in various colonial conflicts. They're still there, by the way, almost the only ones who are - the live as well as the dead. A while back, he bumped into my mother in town. 'D'you know, we've still got that watercolour you painted of our house,' he said. 'D'you need it back?' My mother had completely forgotten the existence of this painting she'd painted 40 years previously, so she declined, and said he was free to keep it. Six weeks later, unasked, he sent her a cheque for £200. Because, you know, that's the sort of chap he was.

That village is full of people who moved from London, now. There's no shop, no buses, no pub. My mother sold the house, when her mother died, and they sold it again. All the trees around it have been cut down, so now you can see straight in.

Many of the people that live in villages like it now come from London. They get on the train, and go back to work there. There's an enormous amount of money kicking around – too much, maybe. The village pub near my parents is now a gastro pub, and when I texted a friend from school, to ask if he was going there for new year, he texted back to say he'd gone, but had to leave – 'too full of trustafarians, sadly'.

Of course there was always rich and poor in the town. But it wasn't split down the middle, and it didn't look away, like a place that didn't own itself. It rotated, sometimes tediously, sometimes claustrophobically, around its own axis. What I find most startling when I remember it – other than my parents complaining that too much of the town was taken up by building societies – is how it was ruled, by the rule of people in it, in their own tiny little circuses. The old guys, who ruled the running of trains. The conductress, ruling the bus. The Lord of the Manor, who ruled in name, while the old ladies ruled in practice. The town council, and the shenanigans thereof. And the pickets, with their flasks of tea, running the hours of the factory. They were arbitrary, and sometimes outdated, unreasonable or odd, but if you wanted to deal with them, you always dealt with a human. How can you arbitrarily stop a train? Wouldn't there be alarms, reports, sackings? But I guess not, because everybody knew so-and-so, and how long he'd worked there, and if you're going to deal with him, you have to deal with the rest of us, boss. Or maybe, you know, somebody just threw a rolling pin at your head.

The other thing I remember, which makes me doubt even my own memories, is the overwhelming sense of safety. It might have been an illusion, of course, but it must have been an illusion shared by many. The village shop, with the open door, and the till just there, and the shelves, just waiting to be emptied. It didn't occur to her that people might steal, because round here people just weren't like that. Other people might be bad, out there, but everyone knew, we weren't. Things were safe, and you knew where you were. The sky was empty and blue, and in the winter there was frost-flowers on the windows. The dead were in the graveyard, the Lord was in the manor, and the union had your back.

I'm not quite sure how the place came to lose itself. It happened gradually, not suddenly. The old people just died. The houses got sold. Everyone got cars, and they built a supermarket, and then another, and then a third one. The buses went. They built housing estates, on the fields. If you have a problem, now, you won't be arguing with a human about it. Nobody rules their fiefdom, their train or bus or village shop. They all have bosses, and rules, and systems, and concerns about health and safety. The same all-pervading anxiety, the insecurity, the sense of division that started somewhere else turned up, got off the train, and decided to stay there, since it'd stayed everywhere else.

I do, I think, remember when it started. It was 1979, and Mrs Thatcher got elected as the Prime Minister. I didn't notice, my parents were in the middle of the divorce from hell, and all they did was cry and shout and throw things at each other. To get away from this, my father took me up to his sister's, in the Wirral, for a week or two. My father spent most of it moaning to his sister about his marriage so my elder cousin Jane took me for a walk. In the distance, across the Dee, we could see huge industrial plants. I asked what they were, and Jane, then 13, explained to me about steelworks and unemployment and closures and how Capitalism exploited the workers. My parents never talked like this, so it was something of a revelation.

We came back to the house. The Buggles, Video Killed the Radio Star was on the TV. I wondered, possibly for the first time, whether my father might be insane, and what was going to happen to all of us. It was the end of 1979, video killed the radio star, and that was the end of that. 


  1. Very enjoyable to read this. I also felt this sense of safety when growing up in post WW2 Britain. I also remember cycling to school and the economic advantages for some working class kids to
    leave schooling and get motor bikes earlier on than others.
    Please write more on this blog, or add to it and make a book.

    Tony Goddard

  2. Gorgeously written and the stuff about the human size of everything is bang on. Some things are better now though. Eg a friend of mine brought a black friend home for tea. He, the black friend, wasn't allowed in and had his tea outside. No one thought this odd.

    1. When would that have been and where? Just wondering because I grew up in the West Midlands in the 70s and everyone would have thought it incredibly odd.

  3. Another glorious, thoughtful and evocative piece of writing.

  4. Lovely piece of writing, its the sort of thing that often goes through my mind about where I grew up and how its changed SO much. I'd like to read more like this, thank you.

  5. So true! I was born in Stroud in '63, and remember the chemist with the bow windows and Bells, the shop with the drawers, all wood and beautiful clothes, I remember getting a dressing gown there with ladybird buttons and the cat collecting box outside with the pints of milk to,put your pennies in! I could,name everyone who,lived down the road in the village, in fact, nearly everyone in the village! We would catch the bus to,town on a Saturday morning to go to,the pictures, everyone on the bus knew each other, so my mother never worried. When the Wimpey came to town, it was the biggest and most modern thing to hit Stroud, with it's burgers and come floats.

    I go back now and see the changes and it makes me sad, my Mum still lives there, meets her friends in the coffee shops, but wouldn't go in any of the 'art' shops, instead she goes to Sainsburys or Tesco out of town, there is nothing really to,buy in Stroud anymore for the locals.

  6. I had forgotten the cat collecting box! Also, there was a 'crippled kid' collecting box outside the butchers further down town, right?

  7. That's a fascinating and interesting article. I haven't been to Stroud for many a long year, rather sad to think it sounds like it's turning into another identikit weekender town. I wonder what my father, if he was still alive, would think of Stroud now. He used to live in Cheltenham, late 40s to early 60s, and he used to visit there many times.