The town I live in was, and remains, one of my favourite places. I fell in love with the area whilst working here in the middle of the noughties. Great people, nice pubs, pretty churches and some of the most amazing scenery this side of the Lake district.
But my house is a right shit-hole.
Riddled with black mold, not one single operable internal door and with missing floorboards that the landlord has had carpeted over, creating a series of ankle-snapping, mini tiger-pit style hazards to give each nocturnal trek to our outside lavatory that "crossing a minefield" vibe, it is truly a home to be thoroughly ashamed of. On the rare occasion we allow people to visit our squalid habitat they are restricted to the living room, the only room in the property that is free from the cough-inducing fungal spores that have left me unable to climb a flight of stairs without sounding like an Asthmatic mule.
Someone once asked if they could use our toilet. The horrified "NO" both Dickfingers and I screamed in unison led to the lady in question hurriedly departing with a look of abject horror on her face.
Still, when I cast aside the bedroom curtains in the morning I am greeted with a thing of beauty. The magnificent Rivington with it's gardens, follies, lakes and streams. It's dense woodland, it's grazing animals, it's viridescent morning glory. I'm looking out on natures majesty while the neighbours look in on my moldy bedroom and me, scratching my arse.
When the sun is at just the right angle I see it's silvery rays blinking at me from the choppy waters of the huge reservoirs that lie to the left of my vista. The reservoirs supply water to those further downhill, towards the Irish sea. Towns, cities and villages many miles from here, all the way to the coast. The drinkers of the water I see glinting in the distance are people I've never known and never will. Folk that have never heard of the town I live in, that don't realise that they're occasionally sipping on a glass of delicious, Lancastrian water that, relatively recently, flowed around my dogs' ankles as they frolicked on the beach I like to take them to. I get to look out from poverty and see beauty, it's by far the best way round.
Things were very much the other way round when I was a child. A huge chunk of my formative years was spent in Salford and surrounded by dereliction, demolition and development. The terraced houses and small factories that surrounded my father's grand looking pub were derelict when he bought the place, were levelled a year or so later and were, over the remainder of our first decade living there, redeveloped into modern council housing with gardens and curvy cul-de-sacs along with a sprawling industrial estate that would eventually merge with the docks and become the Quays and, latterly, Media City.
I would cast open my curtains in the morning and be greeted by slate-less roofs, piles of rubble or cranes and heavy machinery. Dust, dirt, and destruction all around. But I was a small boy, and later a youth, who had seen nature and it's beauty in the past and to whom all this urban decay was as beautiful as it was fascinating. A very different beauty to Rivington and not a beauty many would appreciate, but great beauty nonetheless.
The houses that sprang up around our pub were lovely, the council tenants that were re-housed there considered themselves to be very lucky, until they began to move in.
Once a few dozen houses were inhabited it was discovered that the ageing water supply which had previously been enough to supply the outside lavs (Yes, they still had outside lavs in the 80s, thank god we've moved on) and Belfast kitchen sinks of the area were in no way sufficient to feed the indoor toilets, kitchen sinks, washing machines, showers and baths of these palatial new properties. At some point something subterranean gave way, the topography having been in some unforeseen and unforeseeable way affected by the mass excavations and erections taking place all around. The water turned green and it had insects in it.
The council turned up with hard hats and clipboards.
"Hmmm," Hummed one official, "that doesn't look right."
And right it was not. We were advised it was okay to bathe in, but for fuck's sake don't drink it. My father rubbed his hands and rejoiced.
The men of the area had an excuse to go to the pub and if ever an excuse was abused it was this one. In those days children weren't allowed in licensed establishments (quite bloody rightly) and so large, wooden tables were purchased and placed on the waste ground by the pub. Et voila, the family friendly beer garden had arrived in sunny Salford, sandwiched between the main road into Manchester and the semi-constructed M602. My dad was coining it in.
Then came the bowsers.
The new housing was split into several, small estates. The water board (Those two words have taken on a very different meaning in the years since United Utilities were formed) began delivering huge storage tanks on wheels, bowsers, filled with drinking water. One was delivered to each small estate and mothers and children began ferrying water home as fathers glumly ordered one for the road.
I swear there was a tear in my father's eye as he watched the happy people fill up their pails from the bowser on his new beer garden. Until then, I'd not realised how caring my old man was.
A day or two later one of the lovely, new, beer garden tables went missing. Coincidentally, at about the same time, one of the new houses over which my bedroom window looked acquired a similar table in the back garden. There followed some enquiries, accusations and denials after which punches were both thrown and landed before the matter was eventually settled out of court.
Now, the children of the family that had returned our table were what I am choosing to call "urchins". Two boys and a girl, the eldest three years the youngest's elder, with Midwich Cuckoos blond locks and surly, snotty expressions. Many a morning I would see them, as I gazed out of my bedroom window whilst performing those bone-popping, yawny stretches that teenagers do so well, harmlessly breaking into empty properties, whimsically spray-painting racist abuse onto the wall of the corner shop or playfully kicking a dead rat around.
The morning after the return of the table I drew open my curtains and gazed out. There they were, the urchins, playfully standing atop the bowser and taking it in turns to piss in it. Even the little girl. The elder of the two boys spotted me watching them perform their morning ablutions and greeted me with two fingers and a cheery "fuck off" before the three of them ran gleefully back home.
I scratched my arse and continued to watch. As they approached their own front door they realised their mistake when their mother passed them, bucket in hand, heading in the opposite direction to fetch the water she would need to give their father his morning coffee or wash the spuds for their own tea. The elder of the boys once again spotted me, his face less smiley now faced with the prospect of drinking both his own piss and the piss of his siblings. I returned his Anglo-Saxon greeting from earlier and popped the top off one of the bottles of spring water my dad had brought up from the cellar for my family to drink, rather than having to keep sending my mother out with the kettle whenever he wanted a cuppa, and mouthed the word "cheers" as I took a glug.
I'm sure the piss-cocktail did no lasting harm to any of those inhabitants of the Village of the Damned, just as I'm sure the faeces that falls from my frolicking hounds hairy arses into the reservoir do no harm to those tea drinkers and teeth brushers farther downhill.
It's not a nice thought, though, is it?
I was watching the news a few nights ago. The town in which I live gets scant mention on the television and so when I heard the delicious Lucy Meacock utter "Horwich" my ears pricked up. It's funny how the mention of somewhere or something close to you forces you to smile when that mention is on the telly. I smiled automatically, before realising the story was about how some greedy bastards are going to be allowed to frack us.
Fracking, along with it's associated protests and environmental campaigns, is seldom off the local news lately. Just a couple of weeks ago the residents of a sleepy and very lovely little village to the north of here managed to stave off the threat of fracking in their own area. They fought hard and long and, although we all know deep down that it will eventually be forced on them anyway, they can now sit back and feel rightly proud of themselves whilst enjoying their lovely, unspoilt environment.
Many of the protesters and campaigners were locals and were described as nimbys, their selfish opinions disregarded as they have a vested interest. Many others weren't locals and were described as rent-a-mobs and disregarded as it was none of their business. What chance does that give anyone?
Some of my townsfolk are already banding together, preparing to fight a fight that they've never fought before against an entity that has fought this fight over and again, that has succeeded sometimes and, more importantly, that has lost a few times too. It's the losses that make you strong, a foe with a battle scar is always more formidable.
Whatever happens, Rivington will remain as beautiful as it is now. The value of my home wont be affected since this house is worth nothing and, given the level of pride my landlord takes in his assets, won't even be standing in a year or two. I live right on top of the land they're to frack and it won't matter a jot to me one way or the other. Even should the tales of environmental disaster regarding contamination of the water supplies be correct, it wont matter to me. My water comes from the Lake District.
But still I'll fight against it. I'm no nimby, fill my back yard with as many wind turbines as you like. But rape the earth for profit using technology that even a child can see isn't environmentally friendly, pumping chemicals into the water table and flushing toxins from the rock beneath our feet in the process? Here, next to your drinking water? Fuck that, my dogs have to swim in there!
Horwich is, as has been pointed out to me on many occasions by Wiganers, just a "shitty little town". A shitty little town with an ineffectual council. (I asked them why it had been on the news before any residents had heard about the plans and why they had no information about the process. The answer, no one had told them. Right there, in a thread on my Twitter account, Bolton Council telling me that they weren't told of any discussions taking place, that they had zero knowledge of the issuing of the licences. I sometimes wonder what we pay that shower for.)
Cuadrilla will get their way, eventually. There may be some lip-service paid to our discontent. They'll promise the council some money and if the council still says "no thanks" they'll bribe someone higher up the ladder to tell the council to say yes. But it'll not matter a jot to me. My beautiful view will prevail and my Lake District water will taste every bit as refreshing.
I'm sure it won't affect you either. Unless you're one of the people behind me, to the west and down the hill. Or one of those that will get thirsty as you pass through the region and stop off for a cup of tea in a cafe. Or a Big Mac and Coke. Or purchase a soft drink from your local shop that was manufactured in that region. Or a ready meal. Or a beer. Or have loved ones that live there. Or have an ounce of decency.
There's no proof that fracking is hazardous to health, but come on... have you seen what they do? It's Jimmy Saville all over again, no one says anything even though we can all tell just by looking that something's not right.
Most people wont give a shit about my back garden being prodded and poked. Why should they? It's not as if my back garden is watering theirs, is it?
Those people, they've no need to worry. They can just rub their hands and wait for their gas bills to go down. I mean, they will, won't they? If we're all sat on top of a big lump of gassy rock, surely we're all going to be better off, and surely no big business would make profit from a process they thought might hurt others? That never happens, does it?
When I was a little boy, I spent many an afternoon dashing from bush to bush toting a plastic machine gun, my belt lashed diagonally across my chest for my grenades to hang from, dirt smeared across my cheeks like the soldiers in the films I enjoyed with my father and (due to the re-appropriation of my belt) my shorts half way down my arse. My friends and I would undertake such daring military campaigns as the liberation of Paul's sister (We'd locked her in his dad's shed to be able to rescue her) and the taking of the pile of bricks in Hilary's back garden. Bravely, with floppy plastic dagger gripped between my teeth and firearm rat-a-tat-tatting, I never flinched from my duty to vanquish the Nazi scourge or alien invasion force.
Except maybe once.
Paul and I were on a commando mission of the upmost importance. We had to get from his dad's shed to the dining room window unseen, navigating the minefield of little dog turds laid by Benji, the family's Yorkshire terrier, that littered the grass we had to crawl across, before leaping up and scaring the living shit out of Paul's sister who was sitting in the window happily playing with her presents, it being her birthday.
Paul's sister had been given a "Girl's World", a macabre looking, dismembered head with wiry, unrealistic hair and the hundred metre stare of the recently lobotomised, designed to enable the girls of the seventies to practice the art of plastering make-up on, an educational toy which would eventually lead to the rise of the popular "painted slag" look of the eighties.
Giggling, crouched beneath the window sill with our backs against the wall, we readied ourselves for the final, devastating assault. Wobbly daggers in hand and itchy fingers on triggers, we leapt into action. I roared and jumped up, sure of victory.
But I found myself to be premature.
Our noses separated by four millimetres of window pane, I came face to face with an unnervingly realistic, plastic face, now grotesquely painted and on display facing out into the garden. I very nearly soiled myself. Screaming, I fled, falling victim to several of Benji's lethal land mines in the process and leaving a trail of his excrement all the way across the road, up my garden path and trodden into the beige carpet on the staircase at home.
It was all Benji's, honestly.
Still now, aged forty-five, those freakish doll's faces fill me with dread. As do beige carpets.
My dislike of girl's toys grew even greater when, upon opening a dusty, old box in my grandmother's spare bedroom whilst staying there in the school holidays, I came face to face with my mother's childhood collection of dolls.
I gazed, eyes like saucers, into the box.
Smelling like I imagined the inside of a coffin would smell, the box contained twisted limbs, discarded bonnets and booties and a selection of the scariest visages I both had and have ever seen. Painted, porcelain faces peered back at me, the ancient glaze crackled and holes that had once contained hair peppering the scalps, I stood transfixed.
With great trepidation I reached within the box and removed what, it later transpired, had been my mother's most beloved doll, Cordelia.
Cordelia was special. When my mother had received her, Cordelia had lustrous, long locks, eyes that gently closed as you lay the doll on it's back and a small "voice box" inside her chest cavity. When you sat Cordelia up a little, lead weight would slide down a tuned string and elicit a noise that sounded like the gentle giggle of a baby.
It was now several decades since my mother had last played with Cordelia or any of her porcelain siblings and the tuned string inside her had become un-tuned. As I lifted her out of the box gravity urged the lead weight do what the lead weight was designed to do, it slid down the string and elicited a noise that sounded less like a happy infant and more like the wheezy crackle of a seasoned smoker shouting through a dirty stoma.
So close to soiling myself I was touching cloth, I ran.
Once my grandmother had finished pointing out that I was "being a poof", she brought the box downstairs and began sorting through it. All of the dolls had seen better days, all had the wild eyed look of Bette Davis' Baby Jane and one contained the remains of a mouse in what had once been it's soft, plump tummy. Watching my grandmother remove a rodent's blackened corpse from the straw filled abdominal cavity of the doll was like watching a Hellish Caesarean birth and finally cemented my hatred of all things doll related.
The dolls were, quite obviously, as knackered as they were horrific. I offered to take the box to the dustbin, an unusually helpful offer made only because I wanted those diabolical things as far from where I was going to sleep as was possible, but Grannie Annie said no.
My grandmother knew of a doll's hospital in the city centre so, the following morning and after a fitful nights sleeps, we jumped on one of the big, orange buses that, once upon a long time ago, served the newly created Greater Manchester region.
Back then you could smoke on the buses. Only on the top deck, and there was always that little entreaty stencilled on to the bulk head that had once said "Please do not smoke" but that had invariably been altered by school kids. It was the seventies, they had ashtrays on the backs of the seats and cigarette smoke was no more harmful than some of the other shit we were forced to breath in by big business anyway. We climbed the stairs to the almost deserted upper deck and I selected the seat that would be directly above the driver's seat, as always, before embarking upon my usual adventure.
From my vantage point I would imagine that, rather than the shuddering, diesel fume spluttering, 252 bus from my grandmother's home in Sale to City Centre Manchester, I was piloting a small shuttle from an orbiting spaceship above the streets of this alien world, hovering at traffic lights and banking around corners. Back then, before someone thought it would be a good idea to install an enormous and convoluted roundabout, you crossed the border from Trafford to Manchester via an overpass. An overly steep ramp took vehicles high into the air for a little while before swooping back down to ground level. The driver below me would drop his clutch and hit the revs as he took to the ramp, signalling the point in my adventure where I would have to take evasive action from the surface to air missiles launched by the evil aliens below and make haste to the stratosphere, and also that we were nearly at our stop.
I'd imagined a doll's hospital to be similar to a human hospital. Crisp, white sheets, nurses bustling about pushing wheelchairs containing teddy bears recuperating from the big surprise they got when they went down to the woods today and Action Men hobbling about on crutches.
It wasn't very similar, really.
At the very top of a winding staircase in what had appeared to be a derelict building, above a taxi office and a "private" shop (I asked my gran what that meant, she said she couldn't tell me because it was private) was a windowless landing, a dim bulb casting more shadow than light swinging from a pendant high above our heads, and a very ordinary looking door.
I followed Grannie Annie through the ordinary looking door and froze.
A small, gloomy room, the walls lined with shelves laden with spare limbs and heads for dolls. A hundred glass eyes stared at me as I stood, trembling, behind my grandmother.
What I imagine was the chief surgeon sat at his desk, a lamp fixed to his forehead and a large magnifying glass on a pivoted arm giving him the appearance of having one ordinary and one enormous, mutated eye. A shock of ginger curls cascaded from the sides of his head, retreating from his scalp and revealing a dome of shiny wrinkles with a skull cap atop. He was fucking terrifying and appeared to be performing an autopsy on Tiny Tears whilst eating a corned beef and mustard sandwich.
It turned my stomach, everyone knows it should be brown sauce with corned beef.
None of his patients looked like they were going to pull through, it didn't look good for Cordelia and her gruesome clan.
Unfortunately, Cordelia beat the odds and did pull through, sort of, and we went to collect her a couple of days later.
Mismatched plugs of hair adorned her previously balding pate. Her eyes now rolled open easily, revealing different coloured iris'. Her crackled glaze remained, but with the addition of a few dabs of paint here and there giving her the 80's painted slag look, the look that would one day be so in vogue, a decade too soon.
And she had one black leg.
He had reinstated the small bladder and pipe that had originally enabled Cordelia to relieve herself when picked up and had cleaned the voice mechanism. Whereas before she had only been capable of a slow, deep, demon like groan, young Miss Cordelia now screamed in a similar fashion to someone being burnt at the stake. When he proudly demonstrated these last two repairs, a crooked, discoloured smile on his lips and a Player's No. 7 cigarette clamped between his teeth, it wasn't only a doll that a little bit of wee came out of.
Now, just like Cordelia, I'm old myself. My eyes, though still both the same colour, have been prodded, pierced and pissed about with by doctors. My hair is missing in places it once colonised, and has colonised new places and, although in a more monotone fashion than that of the decrepit doll, it's no longer the same colour all over. My raspy voice grows ever raspier and while it remains a similar colour to my other three limbs, my left leg isn't half giving me gyp these days.
No little man with mustardy breath will be coming to save me from the ravages of time and return me to the beautiful creation I once was. I think, if I were to be in the unenviable position of Cordelia and awakening from anaesthesia to be faced with an airbrushed body, undoing all the great work those years of abuse we call living had brought, my initial reaction would be a similar agonised scream.
The years write upon our faces, the spidery writing of their tales running like crackles across our glaze. There's no beauty like the beauty found in the face of the old. A toddler's twinkling eyes and happy, natural smile is the blank canvas onto which those wise eyes and weathered faces are painted. We were all young once, and the young are getting older. So often these days we ignore the beauty of what once was in favour of other, more fleeting, beauty. The lives lived behind the faces of those around us are more fascinating than even the most convoluted mystery drama. Every one of us carries at least one story worth sharing, one event that took our breath away and that would entertain others.
Okay, sometimes the story is that of a murderer or other miscreant but still, fucking fascinating.
Our memories need sharing just as we need to share our memories. Quid pro quo. Your stories are worth telling, and it's never been easier. I'm a big fan of blogging and of blogs. Not technical blogs, not "how to" blogs, people's blogs. Those "There was this time, right..." blogs. People's lives, stories I've no right knowing, laid out for me to know. Fascinating.
What about that story you tell, usually at Christmas when that film is on, about that thing that happened that time? You know the one, the story that you've already written in your head. Why not write it down for posterity? Why not share it with the world?
If you've not already, why not sign up for a blogging service? It's free and easy, even a fool like me can do it, and I'd love to read your stories. If you are a blogger, tweet me the link with the hashtag "#therewasthistimeright" and I promise you'll be sure of at least one reader. Two, if I mither Dickfingers.
(Reading back, this is beginning to sound like a plug for a blog hosting site. Well, it's not, they're not paying me a penny. I'm just nosy and want to hear all about you. This is why I'm on my arse, you see? No business acumen. Anyway, I digress...)
If you think "no ones going to be interested in my story", just remember this...
...today, you sat and read a story about a box of broken dolls and a bus ride.
I feel I've short changed you by authoring a meandering blog without the customary, life affirming, glib point, so...
Contrary to that which our journeys on the top decks of buses in Manchester in the 1970s taught us, fleas do NOT smoke.
Dog shit is a bitch to get out of twist pile carpet, always ensure it's been Scotch Guarded. It's false economy not to. And wipe your feet.