I’m delighted to have once again contributed to the wonderful independent publication: Now Then. This is my article, taken from Issue 6 (found here). It’s my most personal article yet but it is very much an obituary of a town, not a person.
I arrive at my Auntie’s funeral an hour ahead of the rest of the family and to stave off the chill of the air I decide to walk around the town; a tiny Northern town much like any other, a place where I spent most weekends of my youth at my Grandmother’s pebble-dashed council house. My life’s knowledge of the place was really limited to my Grandmother’s street, the toy shop, and the graveyard where my Nan and I would talk to my Grandad’s gravestone whilst she proudly washed it down. We explored much further of course but these are the only places I committed to memory and could point out to you now on a map - everywhere else was an adventure of anonymity; a walk in a nameless forest, a mysterious country lane where my doll fell under the tyres of a car. My world was contained within a few hundred metres and my boundaries were marked, not by street names, but by a tree or a lamppost and so it shall remain nameless in this: its obituary.
My Nan had died a year before my Auntie and her house, which I have to pass on route from the railway station, is now occupied by a young family. It struck me, as I imagined new life in the old building, how her walls, once covered in that textured Anaglypta wallpaper which I’d take so much pleasure from pushing the crescent tip of my thumbnail into, were likely smooth and modernised and that my last ties with the town were being cremated later today - I’d never come here again. This was a new grief. A grief of brick and stone, dated shopping precincts, antiquated corner shops, and railway tracks leading away from me into a town and time intangible.
I first of all visit the library - the modernist block of ghostly-grey brick that even as a child seemed little taller than I was, and has a smell never replicated in any building I’ve been in since. It was here the most radical change of the town played out before me; a train carriage had been attached to the rear of the building serving as both an innovative extension and as a museum commemorating the town’s railway. Next I approached the precinct, a cluster of shops that I had always eyed with suspicion for in the precinct there was no toyshop, no sweet shop and no one my Nan deemed worthy of showing me off to. I thought that now, at the age of thirty, it was time to pay the place a visit. You can imagine it - a precinct like any other; fairly brutal in its 60s modernity and darker now than the planners’ untainted vision of it. The precinct is much like the library in its minute stature yet I’m surprised to notice that there’s an upper floor. Dashing up a staircase at the rear of the grounds the private mezzanine level reveals itself as a cluster of squat, little flats with net-curtained windows and all the space and intricacy of a shipping container.
I don’t have time to go any further than that, other than an intuitive visit to the corner shop where I stand at the magazine rack as if hypnotised - searching for my out of print adolescence in the pages of Mizz, Sugar and Smash Hits magazines only to be brought back to my thirties in those of Cosmopolitan and Vogue. The bell jar of nostalgia is already cracking, and that’s why I’ll never return.
Technology, or serendipity, is on my side on this one - Google’s Street View cars have neglected to drive down my Grandmother’s street; you can just glimpse the neighbours’ windows in the distance as the car drives on by, but her own house is obscured by the bloom and berries of a Rowan tree thus suspending the street of my childhood in all its pebble-dashed glory.
My latest article for the wonderful Now Then - the layout and naming convention of streets. Featuring a housing estate in Chorlton and a series of American grid-style streets in Trafford Park…
There’s a long-vacated wine shop in Chorlton, the exterior of which is flanked by two huge bay windows and the blue frames are that kind of salt-eroded, windswept pastel found only on British waterfronts and in polaroids. Traversing the suburban landscape that surrounds the wine shop the houses begin to take on the same seaside form, it’s subtle and difficult to pinpoint the exact similarities but they’re definitely there and that’s when you notice the street signs: Fairhaven, St Annes, Lytham, Cleveleys, and it’s quite serendipitous but there’s long winding road that wraps around this estate and it goes by the name of Sandy Lane - a tarmac beach. Were these houses designed to mirror the architecture of our seaside resorts or have the streets, like dogs that resemble their owners, taken on the characteristics of the towns they’re named after?
Le Corbusier famously outlined his plans for a new Paris in his manifesto The City of Tomorrow and Its Planning. The streets that had grown from the paths of least resistance, those traced by meandering pack-donkeys during medieval times, were not efficient for modern man. To Le Corbusier the city was a mechanism and neither character nor exploration were necessary components of his well-oiled machine. The streets in his vision were laid out in meticulous order, exact geometry that suited and served the way of man, and not the way of the donkey. Manchester, like much of the UK, is part man and a whole lot of donkey. But not entirely. Some of the order found within the grid layout of new transatlantic cities, their blocks and their numerical naming convention, made it to Manchester.
The water tower of the Westinghouse factory, Trafford Village. Image care of Metropolitan Vickers
In 1886 American owned Westinghouse Electrical Company built besides the Bridgewater Canal on what had been meadows up until the completion of the Manchester Ship Canal. Westinghouse pulled out all the stops to have his enormous factory built in record time along with a model village for his workers. He based his Trafford Park Village on the regimented blocks of America and provided four avenues and twelve streets of housing, small businesses and community centres. Today the streets have been altered somewhat but this grid layout still exists to some degree