…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…