‘The gift of time’ – Jacqui, Trafford.
It’s a slow start this morning in Preston. I’m hungover after a night of dancing, drinking and clubbing in Preston. It was a good night, that much my memories gather, but stringing together a series of thoughts causes sheer agony. I have left behind my glasses somewhere, but where?
Luckily, I awake with two cats sleeping at the foot of my bed, and a number of cats and dogs nearby, licking my hand and cutely cuddling up for affection as I start to stir. There’s a warm and happy feel about Carl and Andrea’s place, and any worries are quickly dispelled.
The skies present a sorry forecast of drizzle and looming rain, and only a good breakfast will turn around this bleak start. I head out with Carl to the venues we ended up in last night but nothing’s handed in. The rain holds off long enough to allow us to land into the Adelphi, a cheap student bar where we lunch on cheese tarts and barbeque melts. Conversations turns on the difficulty finding work now, and the relative benefits of staying on the dole over a zero-hours, low-paid job. Often a degree of cultural or personal pride alone influences one’s motivation to work against another’s fatalistic abandonment of the notion.
Carl tells me about his job giving out drinks fliers in Cardiff, working from noon to midnight across the city centre. ‘I hated it’. He saw the town at its best and worst, though the less salubrious aspects have lingered longer in his mind. There were many drug users, more than he had expected. He’d see the same people in desperate or dire situations.
Unemployment, drug and alcohol dependency, mental health problems, traumatic upbringings and family relationships: conversations can, at times, focus too heavily on the sad plight of each of those things. But if we’re serious about supporting people, then that means spending far more on support, which means being prepared to pay more in our taxes, and to check any unproven and unfair assumptions about individual culpability. We’re all human beings. Think of those different stages of our lives, when we’ve needed a helping hand or bit of assistance, and where that’s come from. And think of what it would’ve meant not to have had that help from outside. Each person deserves a chance.
We part ways opposite the Old Dog Inn where I just about remember losing a drinking contest, and head our mutual ways. My Head out into a fierce downpour of rain. It’s a little hard to look up, but the road takes me south over the river Ribble and out of the town. I pass through Bamber Bridge, a small town that feels distinctive enough not to be merely cast off as a suburb of Preston, with a monastery, long high street, and an ex-servicemen’s club. Next, another small industrial settlement neither big enough to be a town, nor small enough to be a village: Leyland, where trucks are still today made in their thousands, though not under the name of the town which once become so famous, then infamous, as a byword for the problems of public ownership.
I head on, eyes wincing at the lashes of the rain, now passing through Euxton, Charnock Richard and Coppull. The beginning and end of this string of small settlements becomes indiscernible, just out-of-town supermarkets, car forecourts, petrol stations, pub carveries and their empty car parks. It reaches Wigan, where I decide to take a pause. The town here is much smaller than one would think, and is also a little more affluent than I had expected. But then I’d read George Orwell’s 1937 The Road to Wigan Pier, a sociological record of working class living standards in a sooty, overcrowded and at times squalid Lancashire cotton town. That work partly inspired this trip, and there’s something rich and curious about the first half of it. I’d like to know of how a modern-day work with the same agenda would compare.
‘This business of petty inconvenience and indignity, of being kept waiting about, of having to do everything at other people’s convenience, is inherent in working-class life. A thousand influences constantly press a working man down into a passive role. He does not act, he is acted upon. He feels himself the slave of mysterious authority and has a firm conviction that ‘they’ will never allow him to do this, that, and the other.’
The chimneys and workhouses by the Leeds and Liverpool canal are now mostly gone, replaced with a poundstretcher, Domino’s pizza and the like. The pier itself – a wooden jetty for unloading coal – is long gone, but so too is much of the Wigan Orwell wrote about. And to a degree, this seems a good thing.
After a fairly small suburban ring of narrow, brown brick terraces, the town centre appears with a familiar garb of high-street chains, pedestrianised zones and a small deserted mall. But there’s no obvious disuse or decline as in Barnsley or Rotherham. Instead most shops seem in business, and the town is well-kept. It’s over-served by two railway stations, suggesting the town had a larger demand for these things in the past. If it’s shrunk, it’s done so well. There are some good council buildings and the town centre is well-sized and pleasant enough for what it is.
I talk to a woman who points me to Wigan Pier, though when pushed, more clearly suggests just leaving the town to explore the more beautiful countryside. I speak to a man who has lived here for thirty-one years, and who tells me about meeting his wife in a local club, of his children, his work in the Wirral, and of the dangers of going out drinking at night. Petty violence is a problem, he reports. But I don’t get any feel for low-level aggression here. As I stand by the canal, an obscene rainstorm appears and attacks the ground with everything it can muster. Fierce gales form, fortunately in a south-easterly direction, and after taking cover in Dominos, I decide to brave it out.
I cannot see a thing, but the road signs I pass suggest that it’s Hindley, Atherton and then Tyldesley that I pedal through. Each looks a little similar, as after Wigan a conurbation has begun that doesn’t end until I reach Manchester. These are late 19th century small and cramped terraced houses, either red or brown brick, of a kind familiar to northern soap viewers though a little smaller and more shabby than how it might be imagined. They’re also surrounded by a similar neighbourhood code of deprivation: a Chinese takeaway serving English fish and chips; a bargain booze store; a tatty looking newsagent; a chain owned pub a carvery; countless shuttered-up shops, letters piling high. But this isn’t unique to the north-west. It’s boring, there’s nothing much around, and it’s hard to get a sense of its placeness.
The road starts to head towards Manchester, a scattering of high rise blocks in the distance. The road starts to peter out into a dual carriageway, most of it filled with travelling football fans in coaches and cars. Pot holes start to appear with rapid frequency alongside cycle lanes that end nowhere. One completely wrongfoots me, sending me up the grassy verge that banks onto a motorway. Do not use the cycle paths, I remind myself of a well-proven rule!
Suburbia’s left behind, and this wide and busy road now enters a confident and large city proper. But which one? First it peters through Salford, where old Victorian structures like the Working Class Movement Library and various civic buildings stand alongside the 1970s and then 2000s blocks of the university. There’s something manic about the alarming juxtapositions of architectural styles erupting out of the flattened terrain of this area already, each one blithely ignoring the other. Nothing seems synchronous or harmonious, but somehow it seems to be working. I’ll explore this more in the days I spend in Manchester, but it’s something immediately apparent upon arrival.
The road threads towards Victoria station in the centre of Manchester. The city itself is actually very small, and feels of equivalent size to Salford. The vast suburbs under its name of Greater Manchester give it far more pow than this small but modern centre would suggest. I thread via the National Football Museum in the impressive Urbis building and take a look at the small and unprepossessing cathedral nearby. There’s a small supermarket next to the garish and Disneyfied Printworks, a large and intriguing building given over to chain restaurants and bars. It even has its own unnecessary security team. One excessively consoles the waitress of a popular pseudo-Italian pizza chain who is feeling harassed by her manager.
Already as I pass the large Arndale shopping centre, and the late 20th century concrete peaks of hotel high-rises peering over Victorian civic exuberance, I see and sense this clash of eras and styles. There’s a certain swagger about it which I’m not sure what to make of. I cycle over to Trafford in the south-west, where I meet Jacqui, a friend of a friend who got in contact and kindly offered a place to stay. We quickly hit it off, and talk about our shared recent discovery of the desire to travel. Jacqui’s found that routine’s semblance of reality is increasingly wearing away. There are other possibilities, other ways of living. She’s started volunteering at a community garden centre, and as some problem drifts by our conversation she immediately launches towards an idea or a solution. It’s energising, inspiring stuff.
How long does one wait before one goes for it, takes that risk, goes for it? Age plays a part. Being in one’s late twenties or early thirties, one can already count on a sufficient bank of life experiences to already prove that one’s capable of something. But there’s also within that awareness of one’s own ageing as an adult that perhaps one has taken the path of least resistance for too long.
Going with the flow, never checking or actually challenging what one does. School prepares one for a work, a life of going with the flow. What a terrible way to go, when new experiences and new sensations might wait to turn our tiny and colour-starved attics of the mind into vast palaces and labyrinths.
Sensing I might be a little worn out, Jacqui kindly orders some curry. With some beers bought from the local multicultural shops, we stay up talking a while until eventually fatigue calls last orders.