Bob is my first cousin, the son of my father’s brother. Unlike my dad, my uncle stayed in Manchester where the family were born. and raised his kids there. I remember Uncle Doug and Aunty Ada very fondly, he was quiet and gentle and she was a bubbly, generous, warm whirlwind of a lady. I can hardly remember Bob and his two brothers, they are all much older than me and had left home before I was born, but Bob and I got in touch when our respective fathers became ill and have kept in touch ever since.
As a child from a small town in South Wales, Manchester was very exciting when we went to visit. It was huge, noisy, dirty and crowded. I loved the museums and the cathedral but in the sixties, Manchester was full of abandoned mills, pollution and dirty Victorian buildings. I was curious to see how it had changed and slightly nervous that it would remind me of my much loved and sorely missed father. I needn’t have worried, nothing looked at all familiar as the train rolled into the city. The old buildings have been cleaned up and re-purposed and the derelict mills have been replaced with shiny new buildings. I noticed that just as most new buildings in Swansea and Cardiff seem to resemble ships, the new buildings in Manchester all look like mills, presumably a nod towards its industrial heritage.
Bob and his wife Pat now live in a nice little town about ten miles from Manchester on the border of Lancashire, Yorkshire and Derbyshire. They chose their local for our lunch, a traditional pub which has survived the onslaught of cheap, supermarket beer and cable TV by offering good food at a reasonable price.
The pub is at the top of a hill and has a great view of Manchester from the doorstep. From everywhere else however, from each window and later from Bob and Pat’s house, the view was dominated by the beautiful Pennines, which are starting to look magnificent around Stalybridge. I was looking forward to my onward journey on a train romantically called the Trans Pennine Express and sure enough, it didn’t disappoint, it was spectacularly beautiful. Again there was evidence of the area’s industrial past, each valley has a mill and there is a canal running along a lot of it, but these days the mills are museums or hotels and the canals are full of pleasure boats. Thankfully there is little sign of the grinding poverty and dangerous working conditions which were the norm for my grandparents.
4th March 2015
The Waggon and Horses, Stalybridge, Greater Manchester
Bob, Pat and I were joined for lunch by their son John, and the four of us chatted happily. John now works with his dad, but I was amazed to hear that this kind, gentle man had been in the army for 25 years and had left with the rank of Sergeant Major. Admittedly my knowledge of non-commissioned army officers is based mainly on 18th and 19th century literature, so I’m willing to admit that it’s my prejudices at work but I was surprised. I’m sure sergeant majors are supposed to be hard work, and this bloke is just lovely.
The four of us obviously spent a lot of time talking about the previous generation. Our fathers were brought up during the great depression in a poor part of Manchester, to what must have been one of the poorest families. Their childhood was very hard and neither man liked to talk about it. These days they would be offered counselling to help them deal with their dreadful start in life, but for their generation, the answer was to shut up and get on with it. We shared what nuggets of information we had, Bob more than me as his father was four years older than mine and had never left their home town, but I was able to provide a few pieces of information such as my grandmother’s love of crosswords and vehement dislike of my mother.
After lunch we headed back to Bob and Pat’s house. They had looked out a pile of old photos and documents for me and gave me some fascinating information, including a copy of my grandmother’s birth certificate which shows that she was born in 1885 to an Irish immigrant couple and that her mother was illiterate. They also gave me a photo of my father’s other brother which I think looks rather like one of my kids and several of a cousin who looks a little like my daughter and was famous in the fifties and sixties for being a little girl with a strong, jazzy voice, again reminding me of my daughter.
Bob plays guitar and has several beautiful fender strats. I asked him which he’d rescue in the event of a fire, he said there wouldn’t be a problem, he’d pick up one and Pat would take the other. Pat didn’t comment on this which I thought very restrained of her, probably the secret to their fifty odd years of happy marriage. They also have a gorgeous old car, a 1954 Riley which I got to sit in and pretend to drive. I think our fathers would be very pleased to see how much Bob enjoys his life and how far we have all managed to come from their inauspicious start just a few miles away in the slums of old Manchester.