Category Archives: City Unseen

Vaccination walk – Or A Beginning Typology of Ways in which Manchester Pedestrians are Screwed

About 6 weeks ago I got a text from my GP saying I could make THE appointment and I was surprised knowing it was early but so happy, not least because my GPs were administering the vaccine themselves ten minutes walk away. Brilliant. Within hours a number of other texts arrived from another number saying cancel that appointment immediately, there is no vaccine for you.

I’d just seen the news about vaccine shortages, the hold put on the roll out.

A real fall after something of a high. Of course I knew full well the vaccine roll out hadn’t even (hasn’t even) started in some other countries. Even disappointment carries its privilege. So many here means so few there. Things beyond my control but that I hold in my heart.

I finally did get to go get my vaccination last Thursday — freedom day. Of a limited kind still I know, but still. Sadly, the closest available location was Etihad stadium, home of Man City. I cannot afford to get there to see football of course, very sad indeed. Knowing it was a stadium I also knew the whole experience would be a little bit of a fuck you to pedestrians. My theory was the newer the stadium, the more of a fuck you. I was not wrong.

This is Type 1: the screwing of pedestrians by planners and architects of all such large sprawling complexes (Universities, stadiums, business parks and etc, but stadiums are the worst), with a secondary screwing by their management who could signpost a way through for people if they chose, as well as let you know which routes were generally left open so you could be reassured you wouldn’t wander in through an opening and 15-20 minutes later find the exit you needed blocked. A niche type of screwing, but one that exists in every major city.

As a planner myself I despise this — it is a massive area to completely or partially, but always arbitrarily, close off.

I also despise the giant roads that cut through neighbourhoods and made the surest walking route to reach Gate 2 absolutely the most awful (and most polluted) to walk down, even if it is named Alan Turing way. This is Type 2: the carving of such massive thoroughfares through a city’s fabric without thought to parallel routes for pedestrians or bicyclists.

I knew I was taking a chance taking an alternative route despite google maps swearing up and down I could cut through. So wrong. I had given myself plenty of extra time and needed all of it as I ended up walking around half the giant stadium and down the major thoroughfare breathing in exhaust the whole way.

I thus encountered the third fuck you to pedestrians, or Type 3: pavements closed off for massive construction works at Gate 2. No clear advance warning or signage that allow you to avoid or navigate it, so you’re in a maze of orange barriers (in this case too narrow for social distancing and full of construction workers, none of whom were wearing facemasks) facing the attempt to somehow cross the steady stream of cars pouring in full of people to be vaccinated, the construction having made it absurdly complicated for them as well.

This is the screwing over of pedestrians (and drivers) by development (as if that weren’t already screwing people over enough in this city), the poor practice of construction companies and the complete lack of caring/regulation from the city’s planning department. This is currently ubiquitous and everywhere, even where the hoardings loudly proclaim courtesy.

And of course, I’d already encountered the fourth, possibly most overwhelming kind of fuck you to pedestrians experienced by all residents of South Manchester during the whole of this lockdown–a combination of austerity impacting local authority abilities to pay people to clean parks or pick up bins every week or maintain public pathways combined with controls, fees and temporary closures of landfills leading to the rise of fly tipping. I walked through a landscape of rubbish, empty paths down the backs of houses strewn with bin bags, abandoned household goods and the wind-blown detritus of everyday life. On one of them someone appears to be drinking themselves to death (but on Malbec, not a bad way to go I guess).

These footpaths and little pieces of wild ground all feel hidden away, uncared for, and to be honest, as a woman unsafe. But how different this could be as a place to escape traffic and enjoy some limited experience of nature. These footpaths along the railway lines could be really beautiful, full of bees and birds. Instead Type 4: walks through the urban landfill.

The vaccination process itself was pretty easy, though involved an awful lot of walking/standing once on site (I passed several older people really struggling on canes, couldn’t they have been pulled out of the queue and helped first? I don’t think anyone would have minded). The two women who gave me my jab were funny and awesome and I love the NHS more than I can say.

I walked back home heading back into the centre and then out again, along the canal. That was beautiful, though sadly yet again hitting the Type 3 fuck you from developers. With no warning I twice encountered massive scaffolding with boards to shut down the canal path–no information, quite a long way to walk back to some alternate, much more unpleasant route. A few of the boards had been removed, still leaving a scramble. It was unclear who had removed the boards or if I was heading into danger. Turns out they were at some point renovating an old building further along the path, signs warned of things falling. There was no work taking place.

Did the older couple who passed me get their bikes through this ‘opening’? I doubt it. Which meant at least a mile of backtracking for them.

But I saw goslings! And I passed one place where public spaces are cared for — a lovely sign signalling Blakemore Walk and a row of blossoming trees. The canal is beautiful and calm and the sun was shining, the development of overpriced investment boxes hasn’t yet destroyed the character of the place and the entangled histories of labour, working class life and exploitation that these old bricks evoke. This final section of walk may have made up a little for being SO SICK, I even had chills. Hurt all over. Exhausted. But still, I am now team Astra Zeneca and it was so worth it and I look forward to my second jab immensely. But maybe not the walk.

Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman (part 3)

A last few things beyond Burnley, getting more to where history, narrative, memory, theory mesh in Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman. Where she pulls off all that she promised in her opening and more. Where she cracks open the contradictions. This is rather more full of fragments I loved, most with their headings to give more a sense of the flow, than any sustained narrative. She does it so much better and you should just go read it immediately. But I still feel like sharing the fragments.

I open it a little out of order maybe, but with one of my favourite quote about the Labour Party, a biting quote, one to relish in this period when I feel that once more the betrayal stings fairly sharp and new.

I grew up in the 1950s, the place and time now located as the first scene of Labour’s failure to grasp the political consciousness of its constituency and its eschewal of socialism in favour of welfare philanthropism. But the left had failed with my mother long before the 1950s. (7-8)

Labour should read more I think.

The Weaver’s Daughter

I cry now over accounts of childhoods like this,

she writes

weeping furtively over the reports of nineteenth-century commissions of inquiry into child labour, abandoning myself to the luxuriance of grief in libraries, tears staining the pages where Mayhew’s little watercress girl tells her story. The lesson was, of course, that I must never, ever, cry for myself, for I was a lucky little girl: my tears should be for all the strong, brave women who gave me life. This story, which embodied fierce resentment against the unfairness of things, was carried through seventy years and three generations, and all of them, all the good women, dissolved into the figure of my mother, who was, as she told us, a good mother. (30)

The lesson redefined:

What was given to her, passed on to all of us, was a powerful and terrible endurance, the self-destructive defiance of those doing the best they can with what life hands out to them. (31)

But we can do better now, can’t we. Can cry and rage at the structures of assumptions surrounding class, men keeping women in their places even as they thought they were helping. Can acknowledge how many of those structures have changed, the new freedoms we have through the struggle of earlier generations. But there still remains so much stigma, though it might not be voiced so clearly as this:

I found a reference written by the local doctor for my mother who, about 1930, applied for a job as a ward-maid at the local asylum, confirming that she was clean, strong, honest and intelligent. I wept over that, of course, for a world where some people might doubt her – my – cleanliness. I didn’t care much about the honesty, and I knew I was strong; but there are people everywhere waiting for you to slip up, to show signs of dirtiness and stupidity, so that they can send you back where you belong. (34)

A Thin Man

On a father, and the shifting silhouette of men. I could not stop thinking about this paragraph when I first read it, still remember it and overlay a different vision of city streets sometimes when I am out walking.

When I look in the mirror, I see her face, but I know in fact
that I look more like him. A real Lancashire face. He was a
thin man. I knew his height, five foot ten, but he never
seemed tall; he shrank in later years to not much above my
height. The silhouette of men has changed completely since
the 1950s, and it is this above all else that has altered the
outlines of city streets; not the shape of the buildings nor the
absence of trams and the growing sleekness of cars, but the
fact that men no longer wear hats – broad-brimmed felt
hats, tipped slightly over one eye. (49)

The desire for things…

I love the respect this offers for lives of such hardship, leading to such constrained desires. Looking ahead this is surely again our future.

But here, on the other side of the Atlantic, there is no language of desire that can present what my mother wanted as anything but supremely trivial; indeed, there is no language that does not let the literal accents of class show, nor promote the tolerant yet edgy smile. (113)

And this brings us back to politcs, to the drives underlying who people listen to, and how they vote.

Women are the shadow within modern analyses of working-class Conservatism, and theories of deference have been wedded to ideas about women’s isolation from the workforce, and from those formative experiences that produce class-consciousness in men, in order to explain their position.37 Yet my mother was not ‘isolated from industrial culture’38 in her growing years; indeed, the argument here has been that it was a political and industrial culture that helped shape a sense of herself in relationship to others. The legacy of this culture may have been her later search, in the mid-twentieth century, for a public language that allowed her to want, and to express her resentment at being on the outside, without the material possessions enjoyed by those inside the gate. But within the framework of conventional political understanding, the desire for a New Look skirt cannot be seen as a political want, let alone a proper one. We have no better ways of understanding such manifestations of political culture than they did in Burnley in 1908, when they used to say dismissively that ‘a motor car or carriage would buy a woman’s vote … at any time’.39 (121)

And this most poetic distinction between her own reality and that of her mother due to the welfare state:

I think I would be a very different person now if orange juice and milk and dinners at school hadn’t told me, in a covert way, that I had a right to exist, was worth something. My inheritance from those years is the belief (maintained always with some difficulty) that I do have a right to the earth. (122)

Histories

The last section I loved centred around a story from Mayhew about a young girl selling watercress he meets and speaks to. In comparing Mayhew’s reporting of her narrative to Freud’s own storytelling, well, it says so well what the issues are with both:

Using these two accounts, we may suddenly see the nineteenth century peopled by middle-aged men who, propelled by the compulsions of scientific inquiry, demanded stories from young women and girls; and then expressed their dissatisfaction with the form of the narratives they obtained. (130)

Slam, right? But at least the form of Mayhew’s work allows something of people’s own voices to come through. We think. It feels so. In comparing these upper middle class Freudian stories with the little watercress girl’s, Steedman writes:

In the little watercress girl’s account, the baby was both a source of love and affection, a means of play and enjoyment (she spoke of the warmth of a small body in bed at night, the pleasurable weight of her baby sister on her hip, the smiles of infancy); and at the same time the baby was also a source of income and adult praise for earning that income. The baby represented economically what the watercress seller had been in her turn, when she was a baby, and what she was now to her mother: a worker, a good and helpful little girl, a source of income. In this situation her labour was not an attribute, nor a possession, but herself; that which she exchanged daily for the means of livelihood, for love, and food and protection. It was in the face of this integrity of being that Mayhew felt undone. (136)

From Mayhew:

The little watercress girl who gave me the following statement, although only eight years of age, had entirely lost all childish ways, and was, indeed, in thoughts and manner, a woman. There was something cruelly pathetic in hearing this infant, so young that her features had scarcely formed themselves, talking of the bitterest struggles of life, with the calm earnestness of one who had endured them all. I did not know how to talk with her. …

It will, honestly, bring you to tears this life. The question is how this can exist in the same world with all these other lives that have usually been at the centre.

In the narrative terms that Freud can be seen to have laid down in ‘Fragment of an Analysis’, the little watercress girl is a person in mental health, in possession of her story. But it is the story itself that does not fit: all its content and its imagery demonstrate its marginality to the central story, of the bourgeois household and the romances of the family and the fairy-tales that lie behind its closed doors: no different culture here, not a place where they have forty-three terms for the eagle and where a woman cannot be conceived of as a swan; but the arena outside the gate, the set of metaphors forged out of the necessary and contingent relationship between all the big houses and the Clerkenwell rooms in which the child grew up. The marginality of her story is what maintains the other’s centrality; there is no kind of narrative that can hold the two together (though perhaps history can): an outsider’s tale, held in oscillation by the relationships of class. (139)

and then this

She was free, and she was not free. Her father didn’t matter he didn’t represent any law: he was just a ‘father in law’. The law, the distant functioning world, was the gentleman who stopped her once in the street, not to pity her, but to ask why she was out so early, and who gave her nothing. It was the inexorable nature of the market, the old women wholesalers, some kind, some not. She was free; she was hungry, meat made her feel sick, she was so unused to it. She had integrity; and she was very poor. Her matted and dirty hair stood out wildly from her head, she shuffled along to keep the carpet slippers on her feet; her life slipped away into the darkness, as she turned into the entrance of her Clerkenwell court. (139)

You love this little girl, and she breaks your heart. Steedman reaches for something here and brushes it with her fingertips. I’m not sure quite what it is, but it feels so important and something that I too have reached for.

I know that the compulsions of narrative are almost irresistible: having found a psychology where once there was only the assumption of pathology or false consciousness to be seen, the tendency is to celebrate this psychology, to seek entry for it to a wider world of literary and cultural reference; and the enterprise of working-class autobiography was designed to make this at least a feasible project. But to do this is to miss the irreducible nature of all our lost childhoods: what has been made has been made out on the borderlands. I must make the final gesture of defiance, and refuse to let this be absorbed by the central story; must ask for a structure of political thought that will take all of this, all these secret and impossible stories, recognize what has been made out on the margins; and then, recognizing it, refuse to celebrate it; a politics that will, watching this past say ‘So what?’; and consign it to the dark. (144)

Steedman, Carolyn (1986) Landscape for a Good Woman: A Story of Two Lives. London: Virago.

Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman (part 1)

This book, this Landscape for a Good Woman by Carolyn Steedman…I loved it with a love reserved for few other books really. For its lyricism and beauty, the sharp insights about mothers and daughters, about how we are classed and gendered, about how we just might break free of this yet never break free…the pain of all of it. The complexities of all of it, and the complexities of our own inner lives too often flattened by words like working-class, woman, mother. I loved this book for an ability to share a world with her briefly and watch her theorise so beautifully from there, there, this complex, working class landscape. This place usually only the object of theory, the ‘problem’ for theory.

She manages it so beautifully, you long to try but feel pretty certain this is a high wire act not to be emulated lightly or without years of training. She opens so:

Death of a Good Woman

She died like this. I didn’t witness it. My niece told me this. She’d moved everything down into the kitchen: a single bed, the television, the calor-gas heater. She said it was to save fuel. The rest of the house was dark and shrouded. Through the window was only the fence and the kitchen wall of the house next door. Her quilt was sewn into a piece of pink flannelette. Afterwards, there were bags and bags of washing to do. … She lived alone, she died alone: a working-class life, a working-class death. (1-2)

This conflicted moment of loss is the beginning. Not the lovely quote from John Berger which follows, describing how we carry our biographies with us.

The present tense of the verb to be refers only to the present: but nevertheless with the first person singular in front of it, it absorbs the past which is inseparable from it. ‘I am’ includes all that has made me so. It is more than a statement of immediate fact: it is already biographical.
(John Berger, About Looking)

She writes of the borderlands (not the margins):

This book is about lives lived out on the borderlands, lives for which the central interpretative devices of the culture don’t quite work. It has a childhood at its centre – my childhood, a personal past- and it is about the disruption of that fifties childhood by the one my mother had lived out before me, and the stories she told about it. Now, the narrative of both these childhoods can be elaborated by the marginal and secret stories that other working-class girls and women from a recent historical past have to tell.

This book, then, is about interpretations, about the places where we rework what has already happened to give current events meaning. It is about the stories we make for ourselves, and the social specificity of our understanding of those stories. The childhood dreams recounted in this book, the fantasies, the particular and remembered events of a South London fifties childhood do not, by themselves, constitute its point. We all return to memories and dreams like this, again and again; the story we tell of our own life is reshaped around them. But the point doesn’t lie there, back in the past, back in the lost time at which they happened; the only point lies in interpretation.

And this point, which somehow I have never heard before

The past is re-used through the agency of social information, and that interpretation of it can only be made with what people know of a social world and their place within it. It matters then, whether one reshapes past time, re-uses the ordinary exigencies and crises of all childhoods whilst looking down from the curtainless windows of a terraced house like my mother did, or sees at that moment the long view stretching away from the big house in some richer and more detailed landscape. (5)

Where are you now when you remember and tell your stories? How does this change how you make sense of them? Of the world?

My mother’s longing shaped my own childhood. From a Lancashire mill town and a working-class twenties childhood she came away wanting: fine clothes, glamour, money; to be what she wasn’t. However that longing was produced in her distant childhood, what she actually wanted were real things, real entities, things she materially lacked, things that a culture and a social system withheld from her. The story she told was about this wanting, and it remained a resolutely social story. When the world didn’t deliver the goods, she held the world to blame. In this way, the story she told was a form of political analysis, that allows a political interpretation to be made of her life.

Personal interpretations of past time – the stories that people tell themselves in order to explain how they got to the place they currently inhabit – are often in deep and ambiguous conflict with the official interpretative devices of a culture. This book is organized around a conflict like this… (6)

I have been thinking about this so much. Her mother’s story not just in conflict with the materiality of her life and the promises of the society she lived in, but with the understandings of what it has meant to be working class, to be a woman, to be a mother that have been constructed over time.

She goes on to describe a number of working-class biographies — so many! I have a list of them somewhere, we share the desire to read ALL OF THEM. But my desire is clearly more diluted, I have made little headway. She finds a sameness in them, she writes

When the sons of the working class, who have made their earlier escape from this landscape of psychological simplicity, put so much effort into accepting and celebrating it, into delineating a background of uniformity and passivity, in which pain, loss, love, anxiety and desire are washed over with a patina of stolid emotional sameness, then something important, and odd, and possibly promising of startling revelation, is actually going on. This refusal of a complicated psychology to those living in conditions of material distress is a central theme of this book… (12)

She relates these to her own experience at the University of Sussex in 1965, and how that itself would have been framed by her reading of these earlier works.

…should I have met a woman like me (there must have been some: we were all children of the Robbins generation), we could not have talked of escape except within a literary framework that we had learned from the working-class novels of the early sixties (some of which, like Room at the Top, were set books on certain courses); and that framework was itself ignorant of the material stepping-stones of our escape: clothes, shoes, make-up. We could not be heroines of the conventional narratives of escape. Women are, in the sense that Hoggart and Seabrook present in their pictures of transition, without class, because the cut and fall of a skirt and good leather shoes can take you across the river and to the other side: the fairy-tales tell you that goose-girls may marry kings. (15-16)

These markers of class have shifted such that I recognise them, but it all feels more complicated now. Still, it seems that we cannot know where we are until we know where we were, first seeing it in all of its plurality.

The first task is to particularize this profoundly a-historical landscape (and so this book details a mother who was a working woman and a single parent, and a father who wasn’t a patriarch). And once the landscape is detailed and historicized in this way, the urgent need becomes to find a way of theorizing the result of such difference and particularity, not in order to find a description that can be universally applied (the point is not to say that all working-class childhoods are the same, nor that experience of them produces unique psychic structures) but so that the people in exile, the inhabitants of the long streets, may start to use the autobiographical ‘I’, and tell the stories of their life. (16)

But then, of course, you must manage the results of this storytelling. She talks about how middle class women hear her stories and say it was like that for them too

What they cannot bear, I think, is that there exists a poverty an marginality of experience to which they have no access, structures of feeling that they have not lived within (and would not want to live within: for these are the structures of deprivation). They are caught then in a terrible exclusion, and exclusion from the experience of others that measures out their own central relationship to the culture. The myths tell their story…  (17)

This is so telling, so…familiar. So awful about the ‘we’ I hear thrown around so often, ‘we’ women, ‘we’ academics that does not acknowledge these differences. Like this one she gives as an aside — understanding patriarchy without actually having experienced it the way working-class hagiographies so often demand:

A father like mine dictated each day’s existence; our lives would have been quite different had he not been there. But he didn’t matter, and his singular unimportance needs explaining. His not mattering has an effect like this: I don’t quite believe in male power; somehow the iron of patriarchy didn’t enter into my soul. I accept the idea of male power intellectually, of course…(19)

So here we are working out how to bring together history:

…the processes of working-class autobiography, of people’s history and of the working-class novel cannot show a proper and valid culture existing in its own right, underneath the official forms, waiting for revelation. Accounts of working-class life are told by tension and ambiguity, out on the borderlands. The story-my mother’s story, a hundred thousand others – cannot be absorbed into the central one: it is both its disruption and its essential counterpoint: this is a drama of class. But visions change, once any story is told; ways of seeing are altered. The point of a story is to present itself momentarily as complete, so that it can be said: it does for now, it will do; it is an account that will last a while. Its point is briefly to make an audience connive in the telling, so that they might say: yes, that’s how it was; or, that’s how it could have been. (22)

In thinking history and class she weaves a tapestry of life of course. My time in Manchester already marks much of it as familiar, my soul that seeks to know everything about a place delighted so much in thick descriptions of Burnley, of lives lived there and its day to days so distant from anything I can ever experience now. This is part of what she does here.

What historically conscious readers may do with this book
is read it as a Lancashire story, see here evidence of a political culture of 1890-1930 carried from the Northwest, to shape another childhood in another place and time. They will perhaps read it as part of an existing history, seeing here a culture shaped by working women, and their consciousness of themselves as workers. They may see the indefatigable capacity for work that has been described in many other places, the terrifying ability to get by, to cope, against all odds. Some historically conscious readers may even find here the irony that this specific social and cultural experience imparted to its women: ‘No one gives you anything,’ said my mother, as if reading the part of ‘our mam’ handed to her by the tradition of working-class autobiography. ‘If you want things, you have to go out and work for them.’ But out of that tradition I can make the dislocation that the irony actually permits, and say: ‘If no one will write my story, then I shall have to go out and write it myself.’

The point of being a Lancashire weaver’s daughter, as my mother was, is that it is classy: what my mother knew was that if you were going to be working class, then you might as well be the best that’s going, and for women, Lancashire and weaving provided that elegance, that edge of difference and distinction. I’m sure that she told the titled women whose hands she did when she became a manicurist in the 1960s where it was she came from, proud, defiant: look at me. (Beatrix Campbell has made what I think is a similar point about the classiness of being a miner, for working-class men.)32 (22-23)

I love that Lancashire weavers were the ‘best that’s going’ for women, that mining may be similar for men. But how is it that women can see that, know it, claim it.

This book is intended to specify, in historical terms, some of the processes by which we come to step into the landscape, and see ourselves. (24)

More about all of that at some point.

Steedman, Carolyn (1986) Landscape for a Good Woman: A Story of Two Lives. London: Virago.

Salford in Robert Roberts ‘The Classic Slum’

I so enjoyed The Classic Slum, wish very much I could have met Robert Roberts. Funny that I remember buying this book in North Hollywood in my favourite used bookshop, the Iliad. Over a decade ago. I was curious about just how LA compared, those far away days now of tenant organising filled with rats and roaches and chinches and slumlords and lead poisoning and amazing amazing people still in my heart. Maybe I didn’t actually want to think more about slums just then. Never got around to reading it, never expected I might work in Salford, come to know it so well. Though it is not the Salford that Roberts described of course, not the Salford of the Lowry paintings I love so much. We have left that behind.

I left all my books behind there too, in LA, left almost everything. I only occasionally miss any of it, maybe simply because I have managed to collect new shelves upon shelves piles upon piles of books. I missed this though. Had to order it again, another copy of the Classic Slum, an orange binding rather than blue this time. He writes as his place of beginning:

This is a book made much from talk, the talk first of men and women, fifty or more years ago, of ideas and views repeated in family, street, factory and shop, and borne in mind with intent! The corner shop, my first home, was a perfect spot for young intelligence to eavesdrop on life. Here, back and forth across the counters, slide the comedy, tragedy, hopes, fears and fancies of a whole community: here was market place and village well combined… Then, and for long afterwards, I mixed with people, adult in Edwardian and Georgian days, who had lived out their time in ghettos spawned by the industrial revolution. Many among them, shrewd and thoughtful, could not only recapitulate experience, they knew how to assess its value in relation to their lives. Men discussed, argued, reminisced: I listened and remembered. To them all, many long gone now, I am indeed greatful for what they taught. (9)

I love this opening so much.

Roberts was born in Salford, grew up in these streets ‘behind a general shop in an area which, sixty years before, Frederick Engels had called the ‘classic slum’, I grew up in perhaps an ideal position for viewing the english proletarian caste system in its late flower’. (13)

I keep his chapters, so much thought goes into organising thoughts, ideas, memory. Yet I realise as a reader I often don’t even notice, I will do better. This is, as always, a hodge podge of what I found most interesting in excruciating detail. Part 1.

Class Structure

We start with class, and quoting Engels himself? From several decades before Roberts’ birth.

All Salford is built in courts or narrow lanes, so narrow, that they remind me of the narrowest I have ever seen, the little lanes of Genoa. The average construction of Salford is in this respect much worse than that of Manchester, and so, too, in respect to cleanliness. If, in Manchester, the police, from time to time, every six or ten years, makes a raid upon the working-people’s districts, closes the worst dwellings, and causes the filthiest spots in these Augean stables to be cleansed, in Salford it seems to have done absolutely nothing.

This is saying a lot if you’ve read all that he says about Manchester.

I am always fascinated by understandings of boundaries, communities, where a neighbourhood ends and another begins. Especially here in the UK and Europe where a weight of history sits so much more heavily on the urban form and how people understand their place within it and how that connects to the rest of the world. Roberts writes:

Every industrial city, of course, folds within itself a clutter of loosely defined overlapping ‘villages’. Those in the Great Britain of seventy years ago were almosy self-contained communities. Our own consisted of some thirty streets and alleys locked along the north and south by two railway systems a furlough apart. About twice that distance to the east lay another slum which turned on its farther side into a land of bonded warehouses and the city proper. West of us, well beyond teh tramlines, lay the middle classes, bay-windowed and begardened. We knew them not. (16)

And ah the details, the familiar environmental justice issues raised by the presence of industry and pollution, both industrial and animal.

Over one quarter of a mile industry stood represented by a dying brickworks and an iron foundry. Several gasholders on the south side polluted the air, sometimes for days together. Little would grow; even the valiant aspidistra pined.* We possessed besides two coal yards, a corn store, a cattle wharf and perhaps as closed an urban society as any in Europe.

In our community, as in every other of its kind, each street* had the usual social rating; one side or one end of that street might be classed higher than another. Weekly rents varied from 2s 6d for the back-to-back to 4s 6d for a ‘two up and two down’. End houses often had special status. Every family, too, had a tacit ranking, and even individual members within it… (17)

The footnotes, as they so often are, are brilliant. On aspidistras

*To encourage the Adam in us our local park sold ‘garden soil’ at a penny a bucket. At home, expending twopence, we once trried a window box ‘for flowers’ in the back yard. A few blooms struggled up then collapsed. ‘So!’ said my mother, loud in her husband’s hearing, ‘you can raise a child, it seems, on coal gas, but it does for geraniums!’

And footnote 2 on land ownership — curious to me though why ownership should be relegated to a footnote, surely it is part of the crux of the matter? And to all that happened later.

*The railway company which owned most of our streets kept its houses in a moderate state of disrepair. Two workmen haunted the properties, a crabby joiner and, trailing behind him with the handcart, his mate, a tall, frail, consumptive. This pair were known to the neighbourhood unkndly as ‘Scrooge’ and ‘Marley’s Ghost’. (17)

I love the workmen. I confess, though, I really struggle to understand the depths of self-imposed hierarchy that I have seen described elsewhere — Morrison in Tales of Mean Streets writing about East London most memorably, but that is not the only place. It is such an ugly head to rear up, and it saddens my heart.

The real social divide existed between those who, in earning daily bread, dirtied hands and face and those who did not. …

These division could be marked in many public houses, where workers other than craftsman would be frozen or flatly ordered out of those rooms in which journeymen foregathered. Each part of the tavern had its status rating; indeed, ‘he’s only a tap-room man’ stood as a common slur. (19)

I might start using ‘he’s only a tap-room man’ though, I rather like the phrase when mis-applied. These distinctions of skill, wage and dress were as present among women. Carolyn Steedman writes of fashion and class with such heart-breaking eloquence, but here it is in different form.

Many women and girls in the district worked in some branch of the textile industry. Of these, we accepted weavers as ‘top’ in their class, followed by winders and drawers-in. Then came spinners. They lacked standing on several counts: first, the trade contained a strong Irish Catholic element, and wages generally were lower than in other sections. Again, because of the heat and slippery floors, women worked barefoot, dressed in little more than calico shifts. These garments, the respectable believed, induced in female spinners a certain moral carelessness. … Clogs and shawls were, of course, standard wear for all. … So clearly, in fact, did headwear denote class that, in Glasgow, separate clubs existed for ‘hat’ girls and ‘shawl’ girls. (20)

Still from short film: Mitchell and Kenyon 20: Howarth’s Egerton Mill, Orsdall Lane, Salford, 1900
produced by Mitchell and Kenyon (London, England: British Film Institute, 1900

Along with my ubiquitous people at the bottom of every hierarchy. I suppose the move to America rather than Manchester allowed us to be hat girls. Another footnote returns us to Engels on the Irish question:

Engels pointed out how, in the 1840s, the million or more britalized Irish immigrants pouring into English slums were depressing native social and economical standards. Little integration, however, seems to have followed upon the influx. Even up to the outbreak of the first world war differences in race, religion, culture and status kept English and Irish apart. The Irish poor, already of course deeply deferential to the Church, remained, in sobriety, even more than their English counterparts, respectful to the point of obsequiousness to any they considered their social superiors. (23)

In sobriety might be the key phrase? Still, this saddens me of course, surely there was some smouldering rebellion? It will not be found in these pages, nor anywhere in these streets. At least not at this time he describes. There are some fantastic descriptions of Marxists though.

The class struggle, as manual wokers in general knew it, was apolitical and had place entirely within their own society. They looked upon it not in any way as a war against the employers but as a perpetual series of engagements in the battle of life itself. … Marxist ‘ranters’ from the Hall who paid fleeting visits to our streets and insisted that we, the proletariat, stood locked in titanic struggle with some wicked master class. We were battling, they told us (from a vinegar barrel borrowed from our corner shop), to cast off our chains and win a whole world. Most people passed by; a few stood to listen, but not for long; the problems of the ‘proletariat’, they felt, had little to do with them.

Before 1914 the great majority in the lower working classes were ignorant of Socialist doctrine in any form, whether ‘Christian’ or Marxist. (28)

There is sadly no footnote about the Hall from whence these ranters emerge. But there is a tragedy of a message of hope and fury not coming through.

Meanwhile, though the millenium for a socialist few might seem just around the corner, many gave up struggling. The suicide rate among us remained pretty high. (29)

Possessions

This chapter resonated so brilliantly with so much I have been reading — climate change, sustainability, the need for us (the Western, more wealthy us who have lots of stuff now) to give up a great deal of our things, our consumption and desire to possess. But also with the more abstract relationality of things, object oriented ontology and etc. My own childhood where possessions were so few and so precious.

The social standing of every person within the community was constantly affected by material pressures, some of the slightest, and the struggle for the acquisition and display of objects seened fiercer than any known in Britain now for cars, boats or similar prestige symbols. For many of the lowest group the spectre of destitution stood close; any new possession helped to stifle fear.

To stifle fear. What a shiver. I know that is part of the appeal of buying new things for me, even with destitution left far behind.

One scrimped and saved to get a new piece of oilcloth, a rag rug, the day at Southport, a pair of framed pictures — ‘Her First Singing Lesson’ perhaps, with ‘Her First Dancing Lesson’. Pictures, in a society far from wholly literate, were especially esteemed.(32)

A list of material possessions that seem, as he says even from his time of writing, ‘pathetically modest’. My grandparents had some of these pictures.

I sit in such comfort. Nothing like this, though the damp of this old Victorian row house gives me some inkling of how terrible and cold cold cold damp and cold it might have been.

In general slum life was far from being the jolly hive of communal activity that some romantics have claimed. They forget, perhaps, or never knew of the dirt that hung over all, of the rubbish that lay for months in the back alleys, of the ‘entries’ or ginnels with open middens where starving cats and dogs roamed or died and lay for weeks unmoved. They did not know those houses that stank so badly through an open doorway that one stepped off the pavement to pass them by. That people stayed scrupulously clean in such surroundings–and many did–only proves the tenacity of the human spirit. (49)

Governors, pastors and masters

Ah, the patriarchy.

Round parents the houshold revolved, and little could be done without their approval. Espoecially was paternal consent needed. In compensation, perhaps, for the slights of the outside world, a labourer often played king at home. (50)

Another kind of hierarchy, male from top to bottom.

He notes the preference of ‘vagrants’ (when did we shift terminology from vagrant to homeless?) for prison rather than the workhouse, and unsurprisingly that the numbers of those sent to prison were in proportion to those unemployed

The Common Scene

This then, forms the common scene of 1900-1910. It is so grim, from every angle. The ‘1906 Board of Trade figures showed half the women in industrial Britain earned under 10s for a week’s work of seldom less than fifty-four hours’ (76). A world of endless work and its reward only enough for bare life. Charity stepping insultingly into the void, and so ‘The Ladies’ Health Society’ goes along visiting women together with the ‘Sanitary Society’ to sell carbolic soap and powder. Women who often wrote and described all they saw like Margaret Harkness and Maud Pember Reeves, and they are valuable records I suppose, but leave a bad taste. They would not write this way.

So our neighbours, and many like them, in this ‘thrice happy first decade’ fought on grimly, certainly not to rise, but to stave off that dreaded descent into the social and economic depths. Under the common bustle crouched fear. In children — fear of parents, teachers, the Church, the police, and authority of any sort; in adults — fear of petty chargehands, foremen, managers and employers of labour. Men harboured a dread of sickness, debt, loss of status, above all, of losing a job, which could bring all other evils fast in train. (88)

And despite all of this workers still strike. To have strikes shattered by troops recently returned from fighting in Egypt and elsewhere. For Empire. How far removed this feels from Empire and yet it is at its heart.

Food, Drink and Physic

To return back to this role of Empire, yet another brilliant footnote

Some families who dealt with us had male members (all unskilled workers) who had soldiered in the outposts of empire during the late ninteenth century and after. Their experience seemed to have gained them litle beyond a contempt for lesser breeds, a love of family discipline and passion for hot pickles. (105)

Not much of physic though, and a very different attitude towards death.

Knocks, bruises, ailments one accepted stoically enough. Death, after all, called often. Children made a common habit of visiting a house wgere someone had just passed away to ask reverently to view the body, a request that was never refused. one friend of my youth boasted of having seen thirty-seven corpses over a wide area. (124)

So much unrelenting poverty. But all on the cusp of a change.

Roberts, Robert ([1971] 1990) The Classic Slum: Salford Life in the First Quarter of the Century. London: Penguin

Michelle Obama, Machine Politics and the Changing Face of a Neighborhood

I was back in Arizona for a while, starting the end of July. My mother coming home from the library stumbled in the road just at the corner of her apartment — and in dropping the books dropped this book, Michelle Obama’s Becoming. Somehow she thinks she tread on it awkwardly and turned her foot — breaking one of her bones in her left foot, and fell, breaking one of the bones in her left wrist and twisting badly her right knee. A very frail and elderly neighbour with Parkinsons found her sitting there in the road, and brought her a chair that she somehow, and god knows how, used to get herself inside. She finally managed to finally call my brother. Poor Dan. She ended up in hospital for a week and a rehab clinic for 2 at the height of Arizona’s Covid-19 emergency. For all facebook’s evils, its helped me reach ancient highschool and work networks to find out where was safe. She read this in the rehab clinic while I was quarantining in her apartment. She kept telling me I should read it.

I came home to take care of her. After much stressed back and forth with family. Made it safely – it felt quite alright, the traveling thing, except for Manchester aiport and the two European flights between Manchester and Munich. Everything about those was apalling. I couldn’t help myself, I was furious with hordes of people acting as if nothing were happening and their holidays — multigenerational families as much as young people off to party in Ibiza — were more important than lives. Putting at risk those of us who travelled for necessity and the loved ones we cared for. I stayed 6 weeks, starting days at 5 or 6 am to acomodate meetings and interviews in the UK. As if just getting through pandemic under the apalling demands of higher education for more work, more hours, more blood to keep student fees flowing weren’t quite enough.

I read it evenings, sitting out on the little porch with the sun setting. Skies often filled with ash from California fires. Temperatures still often above 100 because this was the hottest damn summer on record. My single glass of chilled white wine a small reward and and buffer against climate change and a multitude of disasters.

I really liked it. I wanted more of course, but I liked it for what it was, for the limited things it could do and did, for the way it hopefully opened doors to a multitude of people who may just go through them to learn more, get angrier and ever more critical. But two things I liked particularly, just because they resonated so much with things I’ve been thinking about for a while. The first, the power and nature of machine politics, its necessary closeness with the everyday concerns of people of colour, immigrants, the poor. Its ability to get small, but quite important, things done. Its larger costs. Cayton and Drake’s Black Metropolis on Chicago really got me started thinking about this, as did a book I read long ago on Tammany Hall and its ability to get 200 Irish immigrants made citizens a day, but it was fascinating to come across this aside on Fraser Robinson III’s role with the Democratic party:

He’d held the post for years, in part because loyal service to the party machine was more or less expected of city employees. Even if he’d been half forced into it, though, my dad loved the job, which baffled my mother given the amount of time it demanded. He paid weekend visits to a nearby neighborhood to check in on his constituents, often with me reluctantly in tow. We’d park the car and walk along streets of modest bungalows, landing on a door-step to find a hunched-over widow or a big-bellied factory worker with a can of Michelob peering through the screen door. Often, these people were delighted by the sight of my father smiling broadly on their porch, propped up by his cane.

“Well, Fraser!” they’d say. “What a surprise. Get on in here.”

For me, this was never good news. It meant we were going inside. It meant that my whole Saturday afternoon would now get sucked up as I got parked on a musty sofa or with a 7UP at a kitchen table while my dad fielded feedback—complaints, really—that he’d then pass on to the elected alderman who controlled the ward. When somebody had problems with garbage pickup or snow plowing or was irritated by a pothole, my dad was there to listen. His purpose was to help people feel cared for by the Democrats—and to vote accordingly when elections rolled around. To my dismay, he never rushed anyone along. Time, as far as my father was concerned, was a gift you gave to other people. He clucked approvingly at pictures of cute grandkids, patiently endured gossip and long litanies of health woes, and nodded knowingly at stories about how money was tight. He hugged the old ladies as we finally left their houses, assuring them he’d do his best to be useful—to get the fixable issues fixed. (33-34)

A second aside was just on the changing nature of her Chicago neighbourhood growing up and the impact of white flight. As someone who has written about this, it feels in a way that these school photographs show it more effectively than anything I’ve ever said.

Obama, Michelle (2018) Becoming. New York: Crown.

Rochdale to Healey Dell and the Cotton Famine Road

We started in Rochdale — I like Rochdale a great deal though austerity feels like a knife here. It has cut so deep, you can see the pain of it. But this was the best walk we’ve done in a long time, up from the tram station to Healey Dell which is an extraordinarily beautiful place.

Of course to get to it, you have to pass a ruined asbestos factory left to sit here empty, enormous, poisonous.

You are warned by signs that this land is still not entirely safe, even where it seems to have returned to the wild.

But then you come to the nature reserve proper, walk along the old railway line and to the beautiful viaduct over the Spodden.

At its base sits Th’Owd Mill I’Thrutch, a fulling mill built in 1676 by the Chadwick family to process woolen cloth until the late 19th Century. Signs tell you:

Originally the cloth was soaked in a concoction of water. stale urine, soapwort, and Fullers Earth. Workers pounded it by foot; just like treading grapes. In 1863 the process became mechanised using steam power, when a boiler house and chimney were built.

There is very little left of it.

You remember once again that this period of industrialisation was not urban. It scattered along rivers like these, a network now of evocative and beautiful ruins along the river banks of the north in places like Lumsdale Valley, Cromford and New Mills. The waterfalls here are splendid things, and the boundaries in this nature preserve are confused between the natural flow of water and that channeled to service the early industrial revolution before the advent of steam. Steam changed everything, lies beneath the short and desperate lives of workers, the terrifying urbanisation of cities like Manchester.

You continue up the Spodden, then walk down a narrow stairway, ears full of water’s crashing to stand looking out upon this and the stones witness to water’s own force for moulding and shaping the world as it passes.

Even here we could not escape Covid-19, the conspiracy theories that swirl around it. COVID-19 PLANNED BY GOVERNMENT written across all the bins…as if we had a government that could plan anything at all.

From here we climbed up to Rooley Moor to meet the Cotton Famine Road. A cobbled road built across the moors by unemployed cotton workers, who sided with the abolitionist cause during the American Civil War. In solidarity with slaves, while also creating employment for themselves, they successfully campaigned for the passage of the 1863 Public Works Act.

I wanted more moors, more space, more air to breathe before going home, but it was getting late and the miles piling up. So instead of following this yellow brick road we headed back down to Healey Dell, back down into Rochdale. Home.

From Longsight to The Fairfield Moravian settlement

A long long walk through to neighbourhoods we have not seen before revealed such unexpected treasures today, above all the Fairfield Moravian settlement. We walked through Gorton (increasingly well known) and on to Openshaw, Fairfield, Droylsden. Needing to stretch our legs safely in lockdown, so tired of the streets immediately around us. We went off once again in quest of more blue plaques…quests we enjoy. Mark has posted a badly photographed plaque every day now for weeks, and I love the wander through everyday streets and architectures with a preliminary destination provided by the randomness of human birth and committee-recognised achievement.

We found such extraordinary things on this walk, though sadly as much flytipping as ever. Improved, perhaps, by the presence of creepy dolls and ancient suitcases, cheap chairs sat upright in the road.

We saw flowers growing from walls, the memories of windows and doors and crosses, a canal and some cottages down at an old wharf, geese and the astounding cuteness of goslings, a Moravian settlement of cobbled streets and timeless feel, open fields, huge brick factories in various stages of disrepair and decay, very pleasing sections of older terraced housing, some fascinating church architecture (South Manchester has such a wealth of wondrous churches and mosques with astonishing spires), an extraordinary checkerboarded market building, a variety of old pubs (closed alas all closed), birds attacking a kestrel above the ghosted outlines of a factory long demolished, the library bearing a plaque for Harry Pollitt, former General Secretary and Chairman of the British Communist Party, cats on roofs and staring at us from windows, and the birthplace of Frank Hampson who created the Dan Dare comic strip.

The Moravian settlement was most extraordinary, visited as the site of two plaques but we had no idea what else what there until we found it. A whole community (or what is left of this village and its fields that once covered 60 acres) of Georgian houses opened in 1785, built by Czech Moravians fleeing persecution. The money to build it came from Moravian church member John Lees, who sold two of his mines in Oldham (mines in Oldham!) to raise the £6,000 needed (£6000!). From the church’s website:

Fairfield is a Settlement congregation which was opened in 1785. It was planned and built by its own people, with its inn, shop, bakery, farm, laundry, fire-engine, night-watchman, inspector of weights and measures, an overseer of roads, and even its physician. There were community houses for sisters and brethren, who applied themselves to the varied work of the Settlement.

With the passing of time have come changes. The boarding schools of Fairfield have gone. That for boys, started in 1790, was discontinued in 1891; and the girls’ school, begun in 1796, has passed into the care of the local authority as Fairfield High School for Girls. The work of the Moravian Theological College was transferred to Fairfield in 1875 and continued there in the original Sisters’ House until 1958. Fairfield is no longer a self contained village; no longer does the watchman make his nightly rounds, and in the farm meadows are now streets and houses.

Despite the many changes in the life of the Settlement over the past 200 years, the Church, with its worshipping and serving congregation, remains its focus and heart.

There is a lovely piece in the Manchester Evening News about the museum there (closed sadly but not-sadly of course due to lockdown) and the woman who runs it and was baptised as a baby here. From the news article (well worth a read):

With its own council, inspector of weights and measures, bakery and laundry the Morovians built their own unique community where men and women were equal.

The plaques were for Charles Hindley, first Moravian MP, mill owner and part of the factory reform movement and Mary Moffat who attended the Fairfield Girl’s School, became a missionary to South Africa and whose daughter married David Livingstone. I have left the pictures in the flow of the walk below, simply because they stand in such incredible contrast to the world around them. We were struck by how simple this place is and yet how much better it seemed to work as a place to live, labour, visit than the whole of the area around it. How I would love to live in such a place. Obviously I am a bit obsessive about how urban space works, and some of this has rubbed off on my partner. We spoke about it as we walked the long miles home. Those thoughts and more below:

  • As I stare at my pictures, and the other pleasing examples of terraces we walked past, I am ever more certain that for me it is the height of the ceilings and the size of the windows above all that makes terraced housing most pleasing. The older they are the bigger the windows, and even the most simple two up two downs are thus rescued from what always strikes me as the meanness of so much later housing construction.
  • No asphalt or paved roadways, with nicely wide pavements raised from the roadways but not otherwise distinctive. This makes the whole of the space between buildings feel more unified and for walking or playing in, with cars allowed on sufferance. They are cobbled and obviously this makes them absurdly picturesque, but it is more the narrower cobbled space for cars and the parking set in the middle rather than along the edges that makes this work I think.
  • Likewise I think houses fronting right on the pavements, trees down the middle of the space between the terraces creates more of a sense of community and connection, a shared greenspace but easy (perhaps better said easier) to maintain. But what we could see of the gardens also showed them much loved and beautiful
  • Unified building materials but very differently sized dwellings giving visual interest, adding nooks and crannies and varied surfaces but also a sense that this community has planned for a diversity of household sizes and needs. There is clearly some level of class/status distinction here, but they feel to some extent unremarkable in the face of the quality of building, the greater sense of community expressed by the layout of the buildings and the way people clearly lived side by side.
  • the feeling of artisan rather than mass construction
  • Beautiful communal buildings
  • Well cared for and maintained (I’m guessing few absentee landlords here, and regulations maintaining the ‘historic preservation’ aspect), clean, some houses covered by greenery (my favourites of course) but many not

I found a map of the original settlement that shows the layout and the changing building uses, including the initial building of rooms for single men and women:

By F H Mellowes – Two Hundred Years of Church Service, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6869830

Scrolling down, you meet a statue to honour the early Moravians themselves, and then the village is easy to see emerging from South Manchester. But this walk took us past many streets and buildings and spaces full of character, one of my favourites so far.

Walk to the Secret Lake

When a friend mentioned walking to the secret lake I thought he was just talking about the reservoir, but there is actually a secret lake. We found it almost by accident. Walked through Nutsford Vale Park and through the bit that still feels more landfill than park to find that most of it is actually lovely. We walked through trees and fields to someone playing a slow version of Bella Ciao over and over again. It was eerie, sad when meeting asphalt paths and other people broke the spell.

This walk brought us narrow passages full of rubbish, an old motor bike rusting in a dried stream bed, factories, recycling, Nutsford Vale Park and Greenbank Park, the secret lake full of swans and water lilies and lined by hopeful fisherman.

Charles willeford on Miami’s Blues

I think few people understand the psychosis of developers and suburbs like Charles Willeford (1919-1988). He could have invented The Big Short, I’m sorry he didn’t. This does have some brilliant passages that resonate eerily with the 2008 crisis. The more things change the more they stay the same, or some other appropriate cliche.

There were thirty four-story condominium apartment buildings in the complex that made up Kendall Pines Terrace, but only six of the buildings had been completed and occupied. The other buildings were unpainted, windowless, concrete shells. Construction had been suspended for more than a year. Almost all of the apartments in the occupied buildings were empty. For the most part, their owners had purchased them at pre-construction prices during the real estate boom in 1979. But now, in fall 1982, construction prices had risen, and very few people could qualify for loans at 17 percent interest.

“There’s been some vandalism out here,” Susan said, when she parked in her numbered space in the vast and almost empty parking lot. “So they built a cyclone fence and hired a Cuban to drive around at night in a Jeep. That’s stopped it. But some-times, late at night, it’s a little scary out here.”

There was a tropical courtyard in the hollow square of Building Six—East. Broad-leaved plants had been packed in thickly around the five-globed light in the center of the patio. and cedar bark had been scattered generously around the plants. There was a pleasant tingle of cedar and night-blooming jasmine in the air.

Susan … pointed toward the dark Everglades.

“In the daytime you can see them, but not now. For the next four miles or so, those are all tomato and cucumber fields. Then you get to Krome Avenue, and beyond that it’s the East Everglades–nothing but water and alligators. It gets too drowned with water to build on the other side of Krome, and Kendall pines Terrace is the last complex in Kendall. Eventually, the rest of those fields will all be condos, because Kendall is the chicest neighborhood in Miami. But they won’t be able to build anymore in the ‘Glades unless they drain them.”

“This apartment looks expensive.”

“It is, for the girl that owns it. She put every cent she had into it, and then found out she couldn’t afford to live here. She’s just a legal secretary, so she had to rent it out, furniture and all…” (52-53

Perhaps even more interesting, thinking Miami in terms of escaping cops…

If a man had to escape from the cops, he could only drive north or south. Only two roads crossed the Ever-, glades to Naples, and both of these could be blocked. If a man drove south he would be caught, eventually, in Key West, and the cops could easily bottle up a man on the highways if he headed north, especially if he tried to take the Sunshine Parkway.

The only way to escape from anyone, in case he had to, would be to have three or four hidey-holes. One downtown, one in North Miami, and perhaps a place over in Miami Beach. There would be no other safe method to get away except by going to ground until whatever it was that he’d have done was more or less forgotten about. Then, when the search was over, he could drive or take a cab to the airport and get a ticket to anywhere he wanted to go. (67)

Willeford, Charles (1984) Miami Blues. London: Futura Publications.

The gifts of the River

I praise
The gifts of the river.
Its shiftless and glittering
Re-telling of a city,
Its clarity as it flows,
In the company of runt flowers and herons,
Around a bend at Islandbridge
And under thirteen bridges to the sea.
Its patience at twilight —
Swans nesting by it,
Neon wincing into it.

Maker of
Places, remembrances,
Narrate such fragments for me:

One body. One spirit.
One place. One name.
The city where I was born.
The river that runs through it.
The nation which eludes me.

Fractions of a life
It has taken me a lifetime
To claim.

‘Anna Liffey’, Eavan Boland

[Boland, Eavan (1994) In a Time of Violence. Manchester: Carcanet.]