Life in a northern town

Dear Reader, you’ll be pleased to know that the trauma in this bit of the memoir is off-screen. I wanted to share this for two reasons: one, COVID-permitting, I’ll be going back to the UK shortly and so have been thinking about my vastly contrasting previous visits (the first features here); and secondly, my dad will hopefully soon be out of hospital, where he has spent the greater part of the week. His main concern was that I go to the UK as planned, revisiting the hometown I don’t think he’ll get to see again.

(PS My gran gets her own feature later on in the memoir.)

When my parents met, Derek had not long decanted from the north of England, arriving by boat as a ten-pound Pom. Upon being unable to find a regular job, he became a regular in the army, and promptly got shipped off first to Malaya, and then to Vietnam. At the time he met my mother, he was handsome, drily funny, and escaping from the misery of having been brought up first in an orphanage in post-war Lancashire, where he was roundly ignored, then in a group home, where the house mother took a vicious dislike to him.

As well as finding Dad handsome and as gentle as her father was harsh, Gwen felt sorry for the deprivation he had endured, the hunger he’d lived with, the neglect in the orphanage which he preferred to the abuse meted out by the house mother. She might have been beaten to the point of brain injury, but at least she had parents.

Derek had parents too, though, or at least one that I knew of, growing up. He brought Gran and his sister over from Warrington. Gwen thought Gran was peculiar because once she arrived in Australia at the age of forty-four, she never made a single friend. She was as a tiny, bird-boned woman who rarely spoke at family gatherings. She kept the television on at all hours, and only left her flat when Dad and I took her shopping on Saturday morning, or she visited her daughter’s house. Everything in her flat was covered in plastic: the chairs, the settee, the spare bed, and every single item in the cupboard or fridge found themselves wrapped in several layers of plastic bag, cling wrap, or, in the case of the chairs, the protective covering they were delivered in.

Gran hailed from an Irish Catholic family from County Mayo, the county hardest hit by the Irish Famine of the 1840s, who escaped to poverty of a different kind in the Irish-thick county of Lancashire.

Gran and my aunty Jean had conversational grooves which, once set upon, played out in a Becket-like manner:

Jean: Mum’s family came from Ireland, you know.

Gran: County Mayo. We had a house.

Jean: A house with no roof.

Gran: Aye. No roof at all.

I found this sentence which was charmingly whimsical: I imagined my gingerbread house birthday cake after my cousins had been at it. It was only when I met an elderly Irishman that I discovered that this was a reference to the crimes of the English: during the famine, and the subsequent economic collapse, English landlords set fire to the thatched roofs of their tenant farmers if they were unable to pay rent.

Jean: Mum’s brothers were all handsome fellas, weren’t they, Mum?

Gran: Street angels, home devils.

Jean: But lookers.

Gran: Oh yes. Easy on the eye, they were.

My father’s lifelong hatred of idlers, bludgers and wastrels stemmed from his blame of my grandmother’s feckless brothers, but for whom he and my aunty would have grown up among family instead of the cold halls of the Padgate orphanage. One brother was a gambler, the other a drinker. Gran was fonder of one then the other: in the brief period of his life when he had initiative, Thomas headed to London, expecting its streets to be paved with gold, instead finding himself destitute in a city that hated northerners almost as much as it did foreigners. Thomas lumped up to the Catholic church, expecting to find succour from the institution that sent around collection plates to its poorest parishioners and expected them to ply the priest with tea, biscuits and brandy on his rounds. However, when the priest turned up expecting tea in Warrington after Thomas had found Catholic charity was as cold as a bucket of Thames water in winter, Gran delivered a pithy piece of her sixteen-year-old mind to him, and stopped going to church, an act which I even as a young person understood was seen as outrageous, the Kelmscott equivalent of being female and not wanting to get married. I used to look at my tiny, timid grandmother and wonder what had happened to that feisty defiance.

I had never known why my grandmother had left her husband. As a child, it took a while for the effects of the Commonwealth’s 1975 Family Law Act, which introduced fault-free divorces, to trickle down: my parents’ 1979 separation was at the beginning of a very large tide-turning. It didn’t occur to me to wonder that perhaps she had required all that feisty defiance to be a woman leaving husband in post-war England, let along in the family-celebrating north.

Derek’s anecdotes of childhood were few, mostly involving food or the lack of it, once he was in the orphanage. Once, for example, when he was sent to work on a pig farm as a teenager, he scarfed the marshmallows from the marshmallow factory deemed suitable only for the pigs and, it turned out, youths semi-starved from years of institutional care.

When I was eleven, my aunty gave me a blue envelope stuffed with a blue-paged letter, and suddenly I had a full complement of grandparents.

It transpired that Aunty Jean had on a whim written to her father care of 142 Slater St, Latchford, a place the Lawrinson family had lived for hundreds of years, aside from occasional stints in the poorhouse. To Jean’s surprise, he’d written back. Now, he wrote to me and my cousin, and we excitedly lined up at the post office to have our return letters weighed and stamped and sent to the other side of the world. When he retired from his job opening and closing the canal lochs of Warrington, he sent my father a worn pair of overalls.

Granddad wrote in strange sentences, half lowercase, half capitals, enclosing clippings of the latest news from Australia that made the British tabloids, usually concerning SHARK attacks, deadly SPIDERS, and other VENEMOUS fauna. I thought perhaps he was semi-literate, or mildly deranged. I read these missives excitedly to Derek, who only huffed in response, and giggled with my cousin over his strange spelling and exaggerated dread of the continent in which we lived.

The only photograph we had of my grandfather showed a handsome young man in an army uniform, looking off-camera. I wondered what he looked like now, and whether he would be as kind as Frank was ornery. I asked him questions about his life but he never answered them. I wondered whether he was as forgetful as he was fearful of SHARKS.

Even before finding Granddad, I had long hankered after England. My hankering grew as my feelings of displacement and criticism from my mother’s side of the family increased. As an older child I was less shy and weird, but still Different, I wondered if it was my Englishness that was the cause of this difference, and once I returned to England, my jagged edges would finally smooth themselves, and I could be at one with myself.

The England of my imagination and the England in which I arrived on 1 February 1991 bore no resemblance. I pitched up in Brixton with a backpack and five hundred pounds during its coldest winter since 1963, having secured a ‘room’ in a ‘house’ advertised at the youth hostel in which I’d first stayed, dazed with jetlag, my clothes reeking of the cigarettes others had smoked on the flight over. My idea of what the word ‘house’ referred to turned out to be wildly Antipodean: rather than a brick and tile establishment, it was a jammed-in terrace, one amongst a long row of identical terraces, which themselves were luxurious compared to the council towers nearby. The room I rented was a room only to the extent that it was space enclosed by four walls: in all other respects it was better named a laundry, complete with concrete sink and dripping tap.  A mattress with dirty linen took up most of the floor space; in vain I dabbed it with Body Shop elderberry perfume to try and disguise the odour of the last several dozen people who had slept on it. The occupants of the lower floors were white South Africans, a black Frenchman, and a student from Liverpool.

On my first trip to the supermarket, I witnessed a group of teenage boys mug an old lady for her shopping. The staff were kind to the old lady, but there was none of the attendant horror that would have ensued had this taken place in Perth. When I arrived home, my South African housemate arrived, flustered, another teenage boy having ripped her necklace off her neck on the bus. When my housemate asked the other passengers who had studiously ignored her as she wrestled with the boy, ‘Why didn’t you do anything?’, they shrugged, or said, ‘What do you want us to do?’

As well as not expecting casual robbery to be a tolerated inconvenience, I had not expected to be a racial minority in England. In Australia, I had had the privilege of ignoring race and its significance for most of my life: even though I grew up in bogan suburbia with Aboriginal people around me, I was almost completely ignorant of the history of their dispossession until I got to university at nearly 20 years old. In Brixton, I was often one of a few white faces on the bus. In the job interviews I had, I was shocked at the nonchalance with which employers said: ‘Thank God they sent you, all we’ve had are darkies applying.’ In the temporary jobs I had, scrubbing conveyer belts or serving sandwiches in canteens, white managers called black staff monkeys to their faces, and nobody – myself included – said anything.

Surely this mean, pinched attitude was not England. Dad and his mostly Liverpudlian friends were jovial and laughing, when together. I decided that the problem was I was a northerner in the south: whenever I told managers my family was from the north, I noticed an odd cooling, which I finally realised was an expression of the British class system. So I made plans to head to Liverpool, to indulge my Beatles obsession, and Warrington, to really go home. Surely this would be the England I had been homesick for?

From London I had written to my grandfather and cousins telling them I would visit one weekend, but I had no phone numbers for them and besides, I wanted the visit to be a surprise. Aunty Jean talked incessantly about the warmth of family life in Warrington, of how aunties and uncles and cousins came and went from each other’s houses. She talked of how shocked she was, when she’d come to Australia: family lived miles away from each other. Gran’s Irish family disapproved of the lack of family life in England; they’d have been even more horrified by Australia, where vast spaces were taken advantage of and placed in between brother and sister, parents and their offspring. In Warrington, things were different.

So, I arrived at 142 Slater St one Saturday in March 1991, having deposited my belongings in a hostel in Liverpool, 30 minutes away by train. A small, old man peered at me beakily.

‘What do y’want?’

‘Hi Granddad, it’s Julie. Derek’s daughter,’ I added, in case Granddad always had Australian grandchildren turning up unannounced.

‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Oh. Well. Come in.’

I shuffled into a dusty downstairs room, and stood awkwardly while my long lost grandfather moved things from a spot on the settee so I could sit.  I extracted the photographs I’d brought of Dad, Aunty Jean, my cousins, and my new baby sister from my backpack, but Granddad glanced at them without looking and beckoned me to the kitchen.

‘I haven’t got milk,’ he said. ‘But look, come here.’

I tucked the photographs away and followed him into the small kitchen. He opened the fridge, in which there was an end of cheese and some bread, and an opened tin of something.

‘I do all right,’ he said. ‘See? I just haven’t got any milk.’

I felt a heave of sadness. Gran, living alone and friendless, often made me feel a sense of loneliness on her behalf, but this was something different. I wanted to sit down in the grimy corner of the kitchen and weep.

‘Let’s go visit Stan, me nephew,’ he said. ‘There’s a phone box at the corner.’

As we were about to leave, Granddad stopped me and said, ‘Eh Julie. I didn’t know anything about that business before, you hear me?’

I wanted to ask what that business before was, but he was suddenly vehement.

‘I didn’t know anything,’ he repeated.

‘Okay, Grandad,’ I said. ‘It’s okay.’

He relaxed after that. We walked up to the corner payphone, where Stan did not answer Granddad’s call, and then we waited for a bus to go visit my cousins. My cousins lived in an estate charmingly called Sankey Green, although no greenery was evident, and we drank tea and smoked cigarettes and Granddad became voluble about topics ranging from the ownership of factories to the ridiculous cost of designer sneakers. He was full of bluster, inviting us to laugh at his anecdotes, agree with his observations. He did not once refer to my father or his daughter, nor did he ask after Gran.

In the kitchen, I asked my cousin what he did at Christmas. I thought of him living alone, carless and phoneless.

‘He’s with Stan, or with us,’ she said. ‘Don’t worry.’

But later, as I left him at the bus station, waving, as I headed for Liverpool in the cold and colourless afternoon, I was wracked by a feeling I could not understand. When I returned to the hostel, the feeling prevented me from sleeping, and drove me out into the Liverpool night in the early hours of the morning, marching furiously in the silent streets, passing closed pubs and bakeries advertising Eccles cakes, my face freezing from the streaming tears that would not stop. I wandered down to the docks, where the day before I had crossed on the Mersey ferry while Gerry and the Pacemakers sang their eponymous song. I hoped the frigid wind would ease the burn under my sternum. The weeping seemed to erupt from a grief that was sudden, terrible, and without cause. I tried to connect it to something – homesickness, existential angst, anything – but no explanation sufficed.

When a man approached me on the docks, I moved under a street lamp. If I was to be murdered near where my father’s life began, I felt it was best not to be murdered in the dark.

‘Oi, Miss,’ the man said, brandishing a torch. ‘You shouldn’t be wandering down here. It’s not safe.’

I was brought back to where I was – wandering alone through the Liverpool docks at night – and hightailed it back to the hostel, rattled but unmolested.

The unnameable feeling persisted until the bus headed south the next day; I had never thought I would be so relieved to see the grey streets of London, and then pull up in Brixton, comforted by the now familiar, chaotic chatter and crush of those washed up on England’s indifferent shore. I was even relieved, if not overjoyed, to be back on my smelly mattress in the laundry room.

I concluded, reasonably enough, that I’d experienced a fit of madness. Fits of madness were not unknown to me at that time of my life, prone as I was to extreme untrammelled emotion without understanding the swelling of unrecognised and undealt-with past events that precipitated them, so a fit was as fitting an explanation as any.

Back in Australia, I omitted the fit of madness when I answered Aunty Jean’s questions about the house, what Granddad looked like, who I’d met. Gran and Derek listened, but asked nothing. Derek’s face held the strained expression I only ever saw when Granddad was mentioned. The film I’d taken to Warrington had jammed in the camera, so I had no photographs of Granddad, or my cousins, only a single shot of the outside of 142 Slater St. Warrington would remain in imagination, and Granddad in sepia tones, young, handsome, looking away.