The opening photo was taken last autumn, when the last of the summer brightness was fading. It shows the Bolton street where my mother still lives. Born in 1930, she survived the economic depression of the inter-war years, and the bombings, doodlebugs and devastation of WW2.
I was born at home, in a street of steeply sloping terraced houses not far from where that photo was taken. It was part of an entire hillside of Victorian terraces that filled the wedge between two of the arterial roads running out of Bolton to the west. The local name for the hill was ‘Spion Kop’ – a curious reference to a tragic battle during the Boer war (January 1900) in South Africa, where thousands of soldiers were seen ‘terraced’ up the hillside, defending the strategic point as they were slaughtered.
The battle was important for social reasons, too. The Boer war had seen conscription into the army for the first time – and the battle of Spion Kop showed how poor their health was. This had great political impact back in Britain and led, via an Act of Parliament driven through by Lloyd George in 1911, to the establishment of the National Insurance Act. This replaced the ‘Poor Law’ provisions with a robust mechanism aimed at the national improvement of health, employment and sickness.
My childhood – and those of my local friends, was filled with games played out in the many ‘bomb sites’ that were a feature of all industrial towns. We didn’t think of it as post-war devastation; it was simply where we were… Children have a gift of being in the moment, and, as long as their friends are from similar backgrounds, they are not self-conscious about the conditions of their lives.
Bolton was a happy place. Although industrially black and often grim, it was fighting its way back from poverty and the war’s deprivation. In tune with this, my mother was intent on filling her sons’ lives with ambition and confidence. The town was surrounded by beautiful Lancashire countryside and there was always excitement to be found on a weekend walk with a picnic ‘up there in the hills’.
My mother’s street is quiet, now. She’s never wanted to move, though she visits us often up here in Cumbria – an hour’s drive north up the M61 and M6 motorways. It’s an easy journey, but she’s always happy to be going home – her aged Pomeranian dog on her lap.
These are testing times, and Bolton is affected by the threat of the Covid-19 virus as much as any other town. In Britain (and much of the rest of western Europe) we are likely, soon, to be ‘locked down’ into our houses; allowed out only to buy food, medicines or to walk a dog… one person per dog, of course.
Supermarkets are having to introduce rationing and set times when only the elderly can shop – a result of the ‘locust effect’ of fearful panic buying that has already stripped the shelves bare.
The last time anything like this happened on the same scale was World War II. My mother, who has recently turned ninety, remembers it well. She grew up hungry, and cold, but, as she says, ‘everyone else was, too…’
Already, mother’s neighbours have approached her to ask if she needs groceries or any else of importance. Normally, we do her shopping weekly for her, but if we are ‘locked down’ in Cumbria, we won’t be able to make the journey. My brother is closer (Preston) but even he may not be able to get to her.
Despite not being related, mother’s neighbours are already constructing a safety net around her. She’s a kind woman, and popular. But, for the past decade, she has struggled with increasing vascular dementia and cannot solve anything problematic. She won’t consider going into a home, of course. Nor will she move away from her beloved Bolton… though we have offered to give her a home here, at least through the pandemic.
The cobbled street she lives in remains a beacon of kindness and caring. There is no funding for this, just the sense of sharing and community from everyone else who lives there. It’s an island of how Bolton used to be; and it makes me very proud of what’s left of my hometown and how it is behaving in the face of this horrific pandemic.
That sense of looking out for ‘everyone else’ is going to be vitally important to our survival as societies. Already, city centres are empty, restaurants and pubs closing and businesses failing. The UK Government has announced a package of what amounts to guaranteed loans to help businesses survive, but loans simply add to the long-term debt of an enterprise. They may help with short-term liquidity – cash – but they store up problems for a future which is likely to be thin on profit for a long time to come.
There is no sign of a Danish-style government intervention whereby the government will fund the wages of all current employees as long as each company operates at 70% of its current employment costs – a wage cut for all, but one that protects the jobs of millions during this dire and prolonged period.
The Covid-19 virus will be calling on Mum’s part of Bolton. We pray that she won’t catch it. If she does, it’s likely that she will leave us. But, for now, she’s warm and in the bosom of her fellow Bolton folk… in a cobbled street that feels like home.
Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.
The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.