Sunday, 20 September 2015

Where the streets have no name

Here we are then, teetering on the edge of the season of mists and mellow fruits . . . or something. The kiddies are safely ensconced in school, the summer holidays are just a memory and Downton Abbey is about to enslave our Sunday evenings for one final season.

Like many people I know, September seems to being on a rush of activities. It's the knowledge that the good weather, such as it is, is about to blow southerly and that CHRISTMAS is just around the corner. We feel the need to fill up those dark nights and chilly weekends. For me then, a splash of music, a West End play and a winter visit to Britain's most famous street. Yes, that Street. Over the past twenty five years I've made several pilgrimages to the Corrie cobbles, both old and new. Some have been as a member of tour groups and others as part of a small group. There is something thrilling yet strangely odd about shuffling around Coronation Street when there is no one else around. I half expected Rita to come bowling out of the shop or Liz to be propped up outside the Rovers having a fag break. Needless to say, I forgot that it wasn't real and began jabbering on as if the characters were. More power to the show for making me a believer.

Of course, Corrie is a world away from reality nowadays but maybe it did have more in common with the Salford backstreets when it began in 1960. Although we can't shuffle back in time to experience it ourselves, I did the next best thing last week and paid a visit to the Photographers' Gallery in London. Women and Children and Loitering Men is an exhibition of the work of Shirley Baker, Salford-born and renowned for the works she did during the 60s and 70s. Baker managed to capture the essence of the disappearing Salford. No cosy old dears with hairnets on display, rather the grim end of a way of life. At the time, Baker worried that in fifty years time, her pictures would be judged as being nostalgic or even worse, obsolete. However, it's difficult not to feel some sort of nostalgia, especially if you lived in s similar area.

The women portrayed in Baker's photographs leave the strongest impression. Sat on doorsteps chatting, each one bedecked in the aprons and 'pinnys' of that era. Even the older ladies, beyond working age, were still dressed for domestic battle. Salford is seen as an area of derelict shops, netted bay windows, waste ground and grubby kids. Rising, as the backdrop to all of this, the unloved tower blocks.

A few of Baker's photos show pubs and shops, grimly hanging on in areas where everything around them had been bulldozed. The paintwork and windows are clean, the curtains are neat and yet everything else has gone. How long would these businesses, with their hopeful, pristine exteriors, survive?

What we don't know is whether or not the inhabitants of these long-forgotten streets were happy to leave it all behind. Did they miss the outside lavs, the tin baths and the filthy back alleys? Did they pine for kitchen ranges and coal fires? Probably not but people did miss their communities and what Baker achieves is to show us the slow dismantling of such communities. The exhibition was fascinating and many of the exhibits can be seen in her book Women and Children and Loitering Men.

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