Gone forever: the Magic Cities of Labour’s heartland

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The loss of Northern strongholds to the Conservatives make more poignant the words of the novelist, playwright and newspaper columnist KEITH WATERHOUSE, recalled here by retired Fleet Street executive ROGER WOOD, a journalist much admired by his peers.

OVER PRE-CHRISTMAS DRINKS with a few pals the conversation turned to gifts: What was the best Christmas present you ever received? someone asked.

While others jumped in with memories of a first leather football, first bike, first festive sexual encounter and so on, when my  turn came I remembered a story related by that master wordsmith Keith Waterhouse.

In the early 1970s when we both worked for the Daily Mirror, his Christmas column recalled an experience from his childhood in a mining community in Leeds.  One of his street-urchin pals – Albert Skinner by name – was boasting that he had asked Father Christmas to bring him a fabulous, four-foot-long model of the liner Queen Mary, a wondrous model that held pride of place in the window of Leeds’ poshest toyshop.

Albert’s pals thought his dream didn’t stand  a chance. Skinner senior, a miner, was unemployed. At night, like many miners, he whittled bits of wood by the fire. The family was skint.

On Christmas Day the lads gathered in the street to show off their presents when Albert came leaping from his house whooping and shouting: “I’ve got it! I’ve got it!!”

In his arms he held a length of wood; roughly carved bows and stern and cotton-reel funnels were crowned with the words ‘ Queen Mary’ crudely painted along her side.

Albert’s pals were suitably impressed. Albert and his normally sullen dad shared a loving hug at the garden gate, wrote Waterhouse, whose column drew no firm conclusions but left unsaid an image of a strong community with enduring family values. But then there has never been a better chronicler of the North’s strengths and struggles than the man who wrote, among many great works, Billy Liar and Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell, as well as his newspaper columns.

Billy Liar: one of the great works of Keith Waterhouse, doyen of Mirrormen

Fifty years ago, while I worked in Leeds and Manchester, I lived near Pontefract and Castleford, later in Ramsbottom and Bury. I then made the mistake of being sucked into the London pit. If only I had realised what a life I had left behind me up North.

After telling my Christmas drinking pals about Albert and his Queen Mary I found more Waterhouse memories crowding in. I turned to Amazon and bought another copy of his 1976 book Mondays, Thursdays, a  collection of his Mirror columns (to replace a copy borrowed by a workmate and never returned!) and stumbled upon one of his finest columns, headlined ‘The Magic City’.

In it, he describes what would be needed to build a proposed new city in Essex: first, a stone-built Town Hall, then a Corn Exchange. Finally,  a covered market, its “roof raised aloft by iron pillars encrusted with dolphins”.

It never came to pass, of course. As Waterhouse admitted, “There were such places once, you know. . . Manchester, Bradford, Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool”, adding that the “unbuilt conurbation in the wastes of Essex has a nickname too: Jet City. That alone shows that the mould has been broken. There will be no more magic cities.”  

 The recent general election hinged on the future of the North and how its traditional ally, the Labour Party, had apparently turned into a lunatic elite. Some members of that elite made much of their Waterhouse-style childhoods, trying to evoke loyalties and community strengths that had been destroyed. It did not ring true: traditional Labour voters overwhelmingly chose to pass the baton to Boris Johnson’s Tories.

Money has been promised. Plans have been laid. But how do you even begin to resurrect a lost way of life?

It’s hard to imagine that the Eton Boy even knows the true value of a home-made Christmas present, let alone how to erect a Magic City.

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