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)

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

Wetheral Covid Christmas

We always go home to Arizona for Christmas, eat all the wonderful things my mother and I (but mostly my mother) bake, enjoy sun and home and Mexican food and friends and family. This year my brother Dan married the most lovely Jessica the day after Christmas. I have two nieces I have not met yet, nephews I no longer know, yet we could not see family of any kind, spend any time at all with friends or strangers. I feel so very lucky that the rules, as far as they can be understood, allowed us some time in self-catering accommodation in Cumbria, where we could actually go for lovely walks and see things and be outside. Alone, but outside. We cannot tell you anything of pubs or food. So strange. Yet I feel lucky we could afford to go, we had time from work, we could stay safe.

We ended up in Wetheral, which was beautiful. There is an extensive early description of it in The Stranger’s Grave, published anonymously in 1823 but finally attributed with some confidence to Thomas de Quincey. It seems fairly convincing he lived here briefly with his brother Richard de Quincey in 1814-5, if this is the correct de Quincy who bought Eden Croft and lived there for a few years. This very house just opposite the church:

The stranger stays at the Wheel, which must be based on what was the Fish Inn. You can see the building at the end of the road there. Closed in 1906 due to ‘ill conduct, drunkenness and bad situation concealed by the churchyard’, it was repurposed as a residence called the Ferry Hill House in 1907 (94). I read about a third of it. I rather loved the awkward framing of it as submitted manuscript, and this final paragraph of the ‘advertisement’ that tells of its sexegenarian author in particular:

…old age has at length damped his ardour for travelling, by depriving him of sufficient strength of body to endure its fatigues. But his mind is still active. If, therefore, the following specimen of his discoveries be favourably received by the public, he will not fail, provided life be spared to him, to lay others, from time to time, before it. If otherwise, his papers shall be committed to the flames and he and they shall perish together, leaving no trace behind them that they ever existed.
– London, Oct. 1823.

I think they were better off left to the flames. So long as the stranger remains mysterious it remains interesting, but I was reminded just how little I care for de Quincey once the annoying incestuous love affair between two horribly spoiled children really gets going. I stopped reading, a rare thing for me but almost 200 more pages of such nonsense seemed too great a sacrifice.

Still, there is a brilliant description of the village in the early 1800s, before the railway, the arrival of Carlisle’s industrial magnates and their large mansions, the building of Corby Castle’s grand folly down the hillside. I quote at length, unable to do much better.

THERE are few situations, even in the romantic county of Cumberland, more strikingly picturesque and beautiful than that in which the village of Wetheral stands. It is built along the side of a hill, from the summit of which a fine and extensive prospect of hill and valley, wood and water, meets the eye; but being itself somewhat beneath the ridge, he who looks forth from amidst its white-washed and unassuming cottages, finds his gaze is compressed within much narrower limits. At the base of this hill, along a channel which seems as if it had been formed by some sudden convulsion of nature, runs the river Eden; not smoothly and quietly like the rivers of the south, but chafing and roaring from pool to pool, or dashing over the broken ledges of rock, which at innumerable intervals arise to interrupt its progress. The bank upon which Wetheral hangs, is comparatively bare of foliage. Somewhat higher up the stream, indeed, the woods thicken on this side as well as on the other; but it is upon the opposite bank, overshadowed with the tall trees for which the grounds of Corby Castle are remarkable, that the eye of the spectator is irresistibly enchained.

The bank upon which Corby Castle stands, rises, like that of Wetheral, to a considerable height above the stream. Here art and nature seem to have done their · utmost to produce a scene of unrivalled beauty, and it must be confessed that they have not laboured in vain. The whole face of the hill is covered with the most luxuriant wood, through which are cut narrow winding footpaths,
intercepted ever and anon by some tall red rock, or ending in the. mouth of a cave hewn out in the side of the cliff…

Like other mountain streams, the river Eden is winding in its course. At this place the curve is such as to place the lowermost cottages of Wetheral within a perfect amphitheatre of hills; the high banks closing in both to the right and left, so rapidly as to reduce the whole compass of the prospect within the space of perhaps a mile in length, and little more than a bowshot in breadth. But to the real lover of nature, a scene like this can hardly be too confined.

We stayed at Geltsdale, from long after de Quincey’s time there. Originally called Wansdales, it was built for Christopher Ling, corn merchant and one-time mayor of Carlisle. The house was requisitioned by the RAF in WWII and briefly housed a duplicate communications centre for the delivery of aircraft from maintenance to operational units. Before the end of the war, this work was transferred elsewhere and the house became a hostel for the Women’s Land Army. There are some lovely pictures from this time, and how some lives remained intertwined with those in the village. After the war, it was briefly the County Council orphanage, then West Cumberland Farmers took over, and then private developers to return it to a private residence. We were left the local history of Wetheral and Great Corby by Perriam and Ramshaw — all page numbers here reference quotes from this. My favourite might just have been the one below:

‘The emininent architectural historian, Howard Colvin (later knighted) was on a visit to Wetheral about 1965 when he noticed amongst the rubble of the monuments cleared from the churchyard the sculptured arm of an early cross. Anglo-Saxon lettering was inscribed on the reverse of the stone. He realised the importance of the find but for some reason took it back to Oxford and did not make the find generally known. (5)

I think there are other words for taking things home with you without saying anything about it. I found a little more about the Roman history of the area but nothing much further about the Anglo-Saxon. There is a well here, St Cuthbert’s well, whose sign informs you that

According to legend, St Cuthbert’s Well was built long before Norman times when Wetheral Priory was founded. The exact date is not known, but St Cuthbert is thought to have visited Carlisle in 683 and 687.

The most extensive information comes from just after the Norman conquest, but I might add that to another post. The village, though, is lovely as is Great Corby across the viaduct, which is splendid. You can walk alongside it on a walkway that once required a toll.

With a splendid view along the Eden and down over the mill.

And a few more views from these frosty frosty days.

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

Urban island futures: Aves In the Fiction of Buckell

I enjoyed Tobias Buckell’s Hurricane Fever. I’m coming to terms with the fact that in these pandemic days of ever growing workload, it’s fine that really I can only read fiction.

This is a solid thriller. I loved the glimpses of history of a part of the world I know too little about and the snarkiness about US dominance and white supremacy. Above all, though, I enjoyed its setting in the world almost certainly extisting in our very near future brought into being by global warming. The porous rock on which Miami is built having permitted its permament flooding — you can read something like Extreme Cities by Ashley Dawson for more about this certain future. The hurricanes coming faster and stronger, the swallowing of islands, the flooding of cities. All of those impacts easier to chart, the shifts in geopolitics more difficult to predict.

I quite loved the book’s description of a possible urban future lashed to the rock of La Isla de Aves. This is what the island looks like now:

Isla De Aves photo by Veronidae (CC License) https://thedominican.net/2016/08/claim-to-bird-island.html

There is a nice description of stumbling across the empty sandbar and the startling military installation while sailing in the St Kitts & Nevis Observer, along with some of its history. There is another web page titled: ‘Isla Avis: Don’t Run Into this Island!’ What I loved from Buckell was this imagining of a future city here in such an improbable place, born of a bid for independance from Venezuela, the uniting of the Caribbean and the development of a free trade zone.

A horizontal blotch of a city on stilts, surrounded by more sturdy platforms rising out of the sea on rusted, rotund legs. Some of them oil platforms, moved to create more open space where the sand no longer existed. But later, the floating piers and homes systems had been added to Aves that were commonly found in more and more coastal cities throughout the world.

No one on Aves ever planned to try and keep the roaring seas back. It was a futile gesture. Instead they used the tp of the island peeking up from its submarine mountain range as a base to bolt everything to.

Even the sand around Aves’s pylons was a fiction. The (155) original Aves Island had long since been swallowed by rising seas. The sand had been imported to continue the fiction that Aves Island was still a thing. A physical spit of something that people could continue to threaten a war over, countersue about in courts, and generally get upset about or use.

Twenty thousand people lived out here, naked to the ocean’s power, clinging on stilts to what lay beneath. (156)

Well imagined. Even without such a future, it is rather a fascinating place — a source of guano to the US, Danes hunting eggs, its geographies and very definitions fought over by Venezuela and Dominica, potentially involving the mobilization of pregnant women to bear Venezuelan citizens solidifying this claim to Venezuelan soil. Definitely a thesis in that. This is such a twist on how this past might shape an all-too-near future.

Buckell, Tobias (2014) Hurricane Fever. Del Rey.

Hurricane Fever by Tobias S. Buckell

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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.

On Fatima, and Ideologically limited ideas of value and employment

Few things have given me such joy recently as the brilliant mockery of the latest Tory-led government campaign to push a very specific idea of job value. It centres around ‘Fatima’ and this ad (I’m including the retweet by choreographer Sir Matthew Bourne highlighted by the BBC story):

The backlash against it was so big and beautiful that government did immediately disown it. But it did just keep getting better and better. It came immediately as well.

The next day…

I do love this poem. More than I can say.

From Newsthump, a bit behind the times but not too much.

Ah, that’s some quality satire right there. From the real news? The BBC reports on ‘Fatima’:

One last one. Dated 13th November, 2020. A fairly celebratory day, even if Friday the 13th.

Almost home: Tucson Mountain Park

Taking care of mom, hardly leaving the house for shielding as much as a terrible unrelenting heat. Starting work at 6 am latest to speak to people in the UK, so can’t even go walking when the temperature might make that possible. Until today. A drive out to near where we used to live. A walk with Cat Mountain almost always in view. Not living there still feels like a hole in the heart. An impossibility. For all the talk about modern mobility and all my own mobility, this is still where I am anchored. A piece of my heart still in that adobe house. The wind still carrying me amidst the deer, coyotes, rabbits enjoying the sun, the cactus wrens and towees and gila woodpeckers and roadrunners and threshers and this host of wild things making the desert such a vibrant place of life.

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.

Invited to Stratford-upon-Avon

This happened once, last August, invited to be one of four people on a stage (not the main stage) for the Royal Shakespeare Company discussing Vienna, the city, Measure for Measure. A wonderful moment in a bad time. A happy memory.

I had not expected to like Stratford-upon-Avon so much. It really was terribly touristy, several hundred years it’s been that way. I suppose I expected just how much is gone, but not that so much should be left…almost anything vaguely of Shakespeare’s time survived if it got through those early crucial years when worship of his work had not quite stretched to full preservation of anything of even remotest connection to him. The 1800s more or less, in 1846 Dickens helped raise funds to buy his birthplace.

The house Shakespeare bought after success (New Place) is gone, but the house he was born in still stands (thanks Dickens!), as does the house he wooed Anne Hathaway in, his grammar school, the homes of his daughter and his friends, the premises of his butcher, the guild hall. Splendid buildings all of them. This is like a vernacular building wonderland.

I loved Anne Hathaway’s cottage most. I walked through town out to Shottery where it sits, across well kept fields. I walked alone, arrived late in the day. The Hathaway family and their descendants lived there until the death of Mary Baker in 1892. Her parlour has been left as it was for the most part, small decorative things, pictures in frames. The simplicity of her life without electricity, running water, indoor toilet. A small area on the upper floor of the cottage where smoke from the fire was diverted to smoke meat.

More than anywhere I’ve been I think, perhaps given the lateness of the hour and fewness of people and the fact that it still retains some remnant of a sense of being lived in, you get a sense of the smallness of it (though it had been expanded greatly since Shakespeare’s time there). A sense of the interior darkness, the crowding, the low ceilings, dim light, everything hand crafted mortise and tenon wise. A life utterly different. Hard to imagine a life lived in such housing as this, in such intimate proximity such absence of privacy. So few things, all made by those known to you.

I confess too I shivered walking the flagstones.

I loved the tales of how much Mary Baker charged for her stories, for postcards, for pieces of the settee where she claimed Shakespeare courted Anne…you can see how it has disappeared little by little. She sounds canny and fabulous.

There is a museum where the New House stood — a lovely garden and a tale of crime: Shakespeare bought New House from a man named William Underhill in 1597, only two months later Underhill was poisoned by his oldest son Fulke Underhill who was hanged in 1599 — all property was confiscated by the crown. The sale was not finalised until 1602 (by youngest brother Hercules!). Still, Shakespeare was holding malt there in 1598 (well, his wife was holding malt there in 1598). She totally kept everything on track as he moved between Stratford and London — he always came back here. I resist so much of the scaffolding of gossip and guessing built around the frame of his life, but I love the fact that this remained home. To return to the New Place as home, even while they waited for full possession of it from the court, the Globe was being built (1599), and Shakespeare’s father died (1601). A hard time.

His birthplace? Hopeless, packed full to wonder at glove making and beds, you troop through in a line. I did like the names of the famous and not-so-famous etched into the glass. His daughter’s home ‘The Cage’ was better. But so many people. I should have visited everywhere late in the day, just before closing. Coaches all gone home so they cannot vomit out their hordes that move past you in waves of people speed viewing, pictures, conversations.

Still. To be honest, I could feast on a diet of Tudor homes for days, I love everything about them.

Just as I loved being there with purpose that would make my folks proud, a slap up fish supper with cheap white wine, and the most swans I have ever seen in one place before.

I wish this travesty of ‘Independence’ day meant anything like adequate precautions were in place, or that we could travel beyond the hospital and its MRI machine. Holiday continues.

Andrea Gibbons