…Rebuild at Leisure

My family came from an area of Manchester called Hulme.  My father moved away from Manchester before I was born but the regular visits via the early morning ‘Milk Train’ were a highlight of my young life in the early 1960’s.  To my memory (notoriously dodgy) the ‘Milk Train’ went straight through to Manchester, whilst later trains involved a fevered dash between the two train stations in Sheffield that separated the diesel trained Lincoln to Sheffield line from the Electric locomotive that wheezed itself over the Pennines to Manchester.  On rare occasions having arrived in Manchester, we would then board the steam train that still ploughed the line between there and Morecambe – but that’s for another day.

Hulme was a warren of redbrick ‘back to backs’: two up – two down terrace houses, no bathroom, a tiny back yard in which to hang the washing, and an outside privy up against the back wall.  My aunty’s house had a ‘communal’ – one privy, two seats – for shared moments of unrivalled intimacy – more often than not with a rat.  As a small child I loved it.  It had small squares of newspaper hanging from string on the back of the door – my uncle worked at the Manchester Guardian and so, occasionally, some of it was not even printed on – but no electric light, so we children were not allowed to venture there after dark.  Once the gloom of urban twilight began to hang over the belch of cheap coal smoke from the amassed chimneys, the privy became an adult-only environment.  My aunty had a bike lamp by the back door to light the way to and from, but insisted it was turned off whilst seated, so as not to flatten the batteries.  These were properties of Orwellian despair and poverty, but my memories are of a bright, cheerful place – toastie-hot in front of the fire in winter; cool with every available door and window thrown open in the summer – always smelling of cabbage and sweat, but filled with love and laughter.  At least, that’s what my six-year’s old memory tells me.  I recall quarry tiled floors, worn and shaped by years of use, and the zinc bath on the scullery wall.  We played football in the back alley and endless games of Hare and Hounds which generally resulted in me becoming helplessly lost in the maze of unfamiliar streets, but strangely serene: every woman was an ‘Aunty’, every man at work or asleep in front of the fire.  I was always delivered back to the correct household in time for tea.

In the late sixties the whole estate was bulldozed.  I remember visiting and seeing what can only be described as armageddon: a post-apocalyptic flat-land of shattered brick and blackened mortar in which only the church and the pub had been allowed to remain standing.  Somehow I felt desperately sad about it, but I am told that, at the time, nobody that lived there mourned its passing.  Everybody (rightly) looked forward to the promised land of bathrooms with hot running water and toilets in which it was possible to linger without suffering frostbite: downstairs neighbours who didn’t row too loudly and upstairs neighbours who didn’t wear stilettos in the bathroom.  Members of my family were spread around the city in preparation for the arrival of the demolition men, in high-rise plasterboard boxes with indoor facilities and central heating, and very happy they were with the situation.  They all vowed to return to Hulme as soon as they were allowed, but few of them ever did.  The community was broken and my family with it.

Unfortunately, in place of the dark, cramped and demonic demolished slum, Manchester council built a shiny new multi-storey slum with concrete in place of its soul.  The Hulme Crescents were built quickly (much too quickly it later transpired) and were a model of the coming decade’s great urban dream of truly social housing: city life as an ant’s nest, with a drug dealer as queen.  Institutionalised corruption and poor supervision meant that corners were cut during building so radically that most of them fell off; there was no ventilation in the flats and no insulation – allowing residents to suffocate and freeze at the same time; condensation left a layer of black mould across everything; rats flourished in the ducting system and large open spaces between blocks became desolate wastelands of half-bricks and dog shit.  I have no idea of where it came from.  Four-legged pets were not allowed in the flats.  Budgies however, were and virtually everybody I knew had one.  I’m sure that people went door to door selling sandpaper sheets and knocked-off Trill.  The more affluent households provided their birds with their very own plastic bathrooms, which attached to the bars of the cage and scared the budgie witless before slowly turning green and smelling like a blocked sump at an abattoir.  Everybody had a ‘budgie voice’ with which they spoke to the feathered little prisoners.  Many of the birds replied: all of them unaware of what they were saying; all of them thinking they were screaming ‘Let me out of here!’  The estate was unpopular before it was finished.  Nobody wanted to move there and by 1975 a survey of the Hulme Crescents residents showed that 96% of them wanted to leave – although I have no idea how many of them would have chosen to leave for a Hulme as it was before. 

In 1992 Hulme was demolished and rebuilt once again.

At the start of this lockdown, one of my first ‘little tasks’ was to ‘redo’ the downstairs cloakroom: a job that I hated, with eventual results that I do not like.  Yesterday my wife asked me to fit a new toilet roll dispenser, which led to a ‘conversation’ during which I mentioned the ‘communal’ and she asked me to explain what I was talking about, which I did to the accompaniment of her wrinkled nose and barely suppressed retching.  I felt that the saying ‘Modernise in haste, rebuild at leisure’, which I am pretty certain I had just invented, was oddly apposite.  I’m not suggesting that living without amenities is acceptable – God Knows, even a holiday Yurt has them – but that unwittingly making things worse is always an option if we’re not careful.  Living with a problem you know in the short term can  sometimes be preferable to the realities imposed by a rushed and ill-thought out solution (especially when profit is the main driver) – even if it means sharing a loo.  My wife (correctly) pointed out that I was an idiot, asked me if I would like to take a bucket and the newspaper into the shed and suggested I took a few minutes to think it through.  I put the dispenser up.

It fell down this morning…

25 thoughts on “…Rebuild at Leisure

  1. Before we moved to St Giles when I was 4, we lived down town in Walnut Place: cobbled street lit by gas lamps, two up two down terrace just like the Hulme ones. We had our own privy in the back yard that opened onto the alley.

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    1. Ah, got it now. I vaguely remember the area in that way. Not easy to be sad to see the back of those places, but so much of what replaced them was TERRIBLE. Places like St Giles actually were a great template. Proper sturdy houses, capable of being modernised and most of them with a garden. What could possibly go wrong? 😉

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  2. I remember trips to Nottingham in the late 50’s early 60’s to visit an ‘Aunty’ Actually, Mrs Walters, friend of my Gran. Her house was part of an old dilapidated terrace. I seem to recall that her house was entered by a set of stone stairs at the rear of a communal yard… Outside loo, potty under the bed, lino flooring, bloody freezing at night with coats on the bed to keep warm. I went there quite often during school holidays, often accompanied by my two cousins. Mrs Walters kept us in check by telling us that a large spider called Aggie Maggie lived in the cellar and all she had to do was give it a shout! Also.. The ubiquitous tin bath in front of the fire. Which was always embarrassing, even at five years old. Having to stand in the nip with everyone else in the room watching… Neighbours included. Happy days…

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  3. An interesting bit of history. Growing up in Wisconsin in the Sixties my grandparents had an outhouse (what we called an outdoor privy). If you had to go in the middle of winter… wow. You reminded me of those days, even though your story took place several thousand miles away. Thanks for sharing this.

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  4. Memory is an odd thing. As a poor nipper in Oz, our hard-up family rented half a nissen hut in a camp consisting of about 500, huts, originally tossed up for the droves of 10 pound poms migrating to ‘Straya under the post war White Australia policy- I kid you not! The place was rather wryly called by those incarcerated there, the Silver City! This was not long before that blot on the landscape was bulldozed. My best friend was a cockney kid who told me the same stories of Victorian rat-assed accomodation. To be fair, the camp, with communal showers, bogs etc was a damn small improvement. Yet my memories of the place was that it was heaven for a kid to grow up in. For my grey-faced work worn parents, however…

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  5. My grandparents had an outside loo. They also had an indoor one by the time I showed up in the world, but as a child I always thought the outside one was brilliant and I assumed that the only reason we didn’t have one at home was because it was a ‘luxury’ that we couldn’t afford. For a few years, while I was in my twenties, my parents lived in a house that also had an outside loo. My dad would sometimes go missing for hours and it generally turned out he was in there with a book having some ‘me time’. My dad is, in many ways, a man I am increasingly looking up to as I get older.

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  6. ‘Modernise in haste, rebuild at leisure’ – this should become the motto for DIY. I don’t know a lot about toilets, but I guess when civilization ends in a few years, anyone who understands the old ways, will be the wise one indeed.

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      1. There’s probably an app that does that, whenever you go to pick up that hammer, it shouts ‘Don’t!’ These are the ‘new ways’.

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