Empty Chairs

It is Christmas 1961 and I am, as ever, behind the camera.  This was the year I was given a flash unit to fit the family Kodak Brownie Cresta.  A sizeable attachment with a large reflector, it fired off one-time flash bulbs. Filled with fine magnesium wire and oxygen, a small current was sufficient to instigate the flash – all very satisfying to a boy who liked playing with fire..

You can tell I am responsible – it is taken from a low angle and the subjects tend to occupy centre stage.  I had not yet learned the rule of thirds  In the first image, dad is seated far left smoking one of the many Kensitas that would eventually take him.  He is at the beginning of his forties while mum, sat next to him, is still in her thirties.  My sister is too busy eating to take notice of younger brother’s antics but boyfriend Ricky is smiling keenly at the camera, also with cigarette in hand, possibly one of dad’s.  A too well-presented eighteen year old, I knew big sister could do better.

Cigarettes were socially acceptable at home but there was little or no drink. My teenage smoking habit went undetected until I tried Blue Book, a brand for “the discerning smoker”.  Each packet contained Turkish, Russian Egyptian and Havana blends.  An afternoon smoking these with an equally discerning friend and the house smelled like a souk.

It is the end of Christmas dinner and house-proud mother has already cleared most of the table.  The posh sideboard, table and chairs from Kendal Milne, Manchester;  the Regency striped wallpaper; the Wedgwood dinner service; the Peter Scott print; the understated decorations – all in the best possible taste.

Ricky took his time to leave – another three years before he abandoned my sister and her life took flight.  Now everyone has gone – empty clothes that drape and fall on empty chairs.

The ‘posh’ dining room

The living room – always coal fires burning

Big sister and boyfriend, Ricky – driving gloves and a too smart coat

Anything could happen …

In the summer of ’41 a year had passed since the Dunkirk evacuation and the immediate scare of invasion had subdued. In the east, the Germans were encircling Leningrad for the beginnings of a siege that would last 872 days and cost in excess of 632,000 lives.  Nothing was certain, none of the outcomes we now take for granted were known.  Anything could happen.

My father was completing his final year at university, evacuated to Cambridge from Queen Mary College, London the previous year. At some point in late 1940 or early 1941 he had applied for a position at ICI, Manchester and made the trip north for an interview.  That war time rail trip resulted in an offer of employment from Hexagon House, Blackley on 25th March subject to him obtaining a first or second class honours degree.  Dad’s commencing salary as an industrial chemist would be £275 per annum with a £24 war supplement, working for either the Explosives Group (Billingham or Ardeer) or Dyestuffs Group (Blackley or Trafford Park). The offer letter also included this standard caveat:

In view of the Company’s promise to make every possible effort to reinstate those of its employees on 3rd September, 1939 who serve with the Colours, the question of retention in the Company’s service after the war of any employees engaged since that date must be subject to the prior claim of those individuals.

Nothing was certain.

In the early summer of ’41 he would pack up his few belongings and return to his parents home in Andover to await the exam results.  A short bike ride across town to his girlfriend’s house would have helped fill the waiting hours, a welcome simplicity after the years of wartime travel to and from Cambridge.

I am bewildered by what happened next, just a few days after his girlfriend’s eighteenth birthday.  Dad was extremely capable, studious and meticulous.  Popular, good at games and fiercely loyal he was nevertheless a reserved character who never drank; there would have been no distractions.  I can only imagine the disappointment and foreboding when the news came – he had only achieved a B.Sc. pass degree.  A telegram was sent to ICI Blackley.

Agonising days later, a letter postmarked Blackley, Manchester 23rd Aug 41, landed on the doormat at Rooksbury Road, Andover:

Dear Mr Down,

We are writing to thank you for your telegram and confirmatory letter dated 20th August advising us that you only obtained a pass degree in your recent B.Sc. examination.

In normal circumstances this would disqualify you for a position with us, but we have referred to the notes which we made during the interview and have decided to make an exception in your case.  In the attached formal letter we are making you a conditional offer of a post at our Trafford Park Works, and if all is well we will expect you start with us on Monday, 1st September.

We feel sure that your work will justify the confidence we are placing in you …

The formal letter contained some further conditions: the aforementioned reinstatement priority for staff who served with the Colours, a medical examination and the following:

It is understood that our offer and your acceptance of employment are subject to your final allocation to the company by the Allocation Committee of the Military Recruiting Department of the Ministry of Labour.

In the dark days of ’41, this vaguely Orwellian government department was tasked with balancing the manpower needs of the Register of Protected Establishments with those of the armed forces; that summer both were suffering significant shortages.  On August 23rd 1941, final allocation to Imperial Chemical Industries was by no means certain.

Ultimately Dad justified the confidence placed in him.  Starting on 1st September 1941 he stayed with the company until his retirement, forty years later.  He married his Andover girlfriend in 1943, and one year later my sister arrived.  The war ended and eventually, perhaps with some reluctance on my mother’s part, I made my appearance.  In August 1941 none of this was known.  Anything could happen.

 

LPs and fag breaks

Christmas 1972 and I bought her Joni Mitchell’s Blue and she bought me Santana’s Caravanserai.  Seven days previously I had offered a cigarette and we took it from there.  What do the young do now, buy an iTunes voucher; where is the history, where is love’s audit trail.

I worked shifts at UMRCC on Oxford Road, Manchester.  The route to work was by train from Altrincham and then a short walk from Station Approach to the University’s computer centre, passing an array of guitar shops, the discreet family planning outlet next to the railway arch and the Regal Cinema rebranded as Studio 1 to 5 which, that summer, was prophetically screening Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show; all of this is gone.

Thanks to the endless trivia available on the Internet, I know this to be true.  On Tuesday 19th June 1973, I was working late shift and when The Old Grey Whistle Test was broadcast that evening, I was having a fag break in the rest lounge. I don’t know what struck me first – the music or the video, a black and white montage of formation skiers in descent which, as one online reference claims, is Nazi propaganda. I was hooked and the next day went in search of the LP.  Released on 25th May by Virgin, the record was Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells.

Fags and LPs were the passport to many things – a life without them would have been unthinkable.

Odd that this uplifting masterpiece should be the product of such a tortured young individual.

Worsley

Like Runcorn, Worsley is another place I would never think to go but for the canals.  Also, like Runcorn, it is on a branch of the Bridgewater Canal although in this instance it ultimately leads somewhere – to Leigh and a branch of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal.

Despite its proximity to Manchester’s extensive motorways and the industrial centre of Trafford Park, Worsley is significantly more prosperous than Runcorn; it is almost prettified. The approach by canal requires a high level crossing of the Manchester Ship Canal, achieved by the remarkable Barton Swing Aqueduct – a waterborne route designed to swing open for the passage of ships beneath.  I don’t know if the aqueduct is still able to swing nor if it is ever necessary – large shipping into Manchester ceased many years ago. I last passed this way in 1980 when the bridge was still manned:

… crossing the Manchester Ship Canal by water.

… the Barton Swing Aqueduct – a view of the Manchester Ship Canal and Barton Road Bridge

The canal is at Worsley’s centre, overlooked by the magnificent Packet Housethis grade 2 listed building, and the Boat Steps directly in front of it, date back to 1760 and the half-timbering was added in c.1850 by the 1st Earl of Ellesmere. You would have purchased your ticket for the ‘packet boat’ at the Packet House and boarded at the Boat Steps.

To the right of the Packet House is the entrance to the Delph, a forty six mile underground canal system  which intersected with coal mines to the north.  It was built on four different levels and connected by a water powered inclined plane and lifts.  There is a neat symmetry to this engineering marvel.  The underground waterways provided a connection from the mines to the surface, transporting coal on narrow thin-ribbed boats nicknamed starvationers.  The canals provided an effective drainage system for the waterlogged pits and the water from the pits helped feed the canal.  The bright orange of the system around Worsley provides ongoing evidence that the supply system remains in place. The Delph and its tunnels are my idea of hell – the creepy 2926 yard Harecastle Tunnel is as subterranean as I am prepared to get.  The final image shows an inspector legging a starvationer in the 1960s (I assume the water levels have risen since the tunnels were last used commercially, that or working conditions were even worse than I imagined).

The Packet House

The Boat House

Filling the water tank

… heading back to the Bridgewater mainline.

This photograph was taken during an inspection of the Underground Canal in Worsley in the 1960s – sourced from: http://www.canalarchive.org.uk/Tpages/html/T1688.html

A Passing Cloud

It was the difference between my mother’s public persona and the private reality that grated so much. We all present a variety of different faces to the world but this was night and day. We didn’t get on. She considered herself a woman of impeccable taste and this was demonstrated to the world by means of interior decor. The colour of your soft furnishings maketh the woman.

Looking back at 1950s and 1960s interiors, the dividing line between good and bad taste must have been marginal.  Her stamp of difference was derived from antiques – “Victorian cranberry glass my dear, so much nicer than the ruby”.  This superior attitude was passed down such that I assumed a parallel air of good taste but it’s all just fashion, it comes and goes.  As modern interiors tend towards the Arctic, relics from an earlier age jar.  Our home still retains an element of the museum but at least we have made the effort to rid ourselves of the ‘never used/can’t stand that/what was she thinking’.  The change in fashion is reflected in the prices generated at auction.

I keep this though – A Passing Cloud by Marcus Stone, 1891.  For years I never knew what it was, I just liked it – it’s monotones possessed an air of menace, an air of longing which resonated.  In the early 2000s we made a trip to Manchester and spent a nostalgic day wandering familiar streets much changed by fashion.  Ambling around Manchester Art Gallery she was suddenly there in front of me – in colour – the same woman but entirely different – night and day.

This is the public persona, but this is what I see:

… Marcus Stone’s A Passing Cloud re-imagined. The original hangs in the Manchester Art Gallery

Bologna

A few nights in York has been swiftly followed by four nights in Bologna; we are back after an absence of thirteen years.  I feel a great affinity with this working university city of the Italian north and last night I worked out why.

It has been raining for much of the last two days, the roads and piazzas shine.There is constant movement, a chaotic rush towards the future.  The dimly lit streets bustle, umbrellas in the dark queue in long lines for over-full buses or wander across empty squares overlooked by architectural monsters – Basilica di San Petronio’s façade  is deliberately unfinished. The buildings wear the dust of age, they are purposeful, lived-in and not prettified, The view upwards towards the twin peaks of Torre degli Asinelli and Torre Garisenda is obscured by trolley-bus wires.

Rain, the dirt of ages, dimly lit streets, continuous movement, this is Manchester in the 1950s – rough around the edges but safe, solid, secure.

Piazza Nettuno ... A rainy night ... The Towers ...

Today we did the Ducati Factory tour at Borgo Panigale – you can guess what is coming next 🙂

Visions of Johanna

My internal roadmaps contain a section dedicated to the streets of Manchester in the 1960s.  Most of these monochrome memories start from Oxford Road station with its three wooden conoid roofs, a remarkable building for its time with echoes of the Sydney Opera House.  Even a self-absorbed teenager noticed such things but when it came to railways, I had previous.  An avid trainspotter from the age of eight, what else was there to do, I knew Manchester’s stations intimately: Manchester Central, Piccadilly, Victoria and Exchange – all of them dark, filthy and rundown – hell’s Cathedrals.  This was the norm, this was all I knew – smog, steam and rain – the assumption was that this was the way everything ended, Oxford Road included, the station where most of our journeys on clackety closed compartment trains from Altrincham would finish.

Down Station Approach to the left was the Corner House Cinema specialising in ‘adult entertainment’ and to the right, along Oxford Road, was the Family Planning shop, nothing more than a hut beneath the railway bridge. I had no use for either of these services but like forbidden fruit, they intrigued.

The main attractions were the musical instrument shops that lined the south side of Oxford Street, full of guitars and drum kits well beyond our means.  At the junction with Portland Street was a sheet music shop, another frequent haunt – we were as likely to buy the sheet music as the vinyl.

St Peter’s Square is dominated by Manchester Central Library, no longer the blackened cake tin of my youth, it roughly marks the point where Oxford Street becomes Peter Street.  Less than 200 yards further on is the Free Trade Hall where, on May 17th 1966, Dylan had his confrontation with Judas – “I don’t believe you”   ……..  “You’re a liar.” 

This goes some way to explain an obsession that has not left me.  My head is full of disturbing verse, none of it attributable to Wordsworth:

Inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while
But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues
You can tell by the way she smiles

So when I create an image such as this, inevitably it is Visions of Johanna that conquer my mind:

And these visions of Johanna ...

 

“Bob Dylan – Visions of Johanna”  Director: John Hillcoat