Last week, I left Manchester not knowing when or if I will ever return. I worked there for a year before leaving for Canada, and my mother moved to Manchester in 1973, so for nearly forty years returning to England meant going to Manchester. With my mother’s passing, the situation has perhaps changed.
Coincidently, one of the books I found hiding on a friend’s shelf last month was Howard Spring’s Tumbledown Dick: All people and No Plot. In my teens, I read just about everything by Howard Spring that I could get my hands on. Fortunately, the local library had a large collection and I remember Saturday afternoons lying on my bed devouring Spring’s novels.
In his lifetime, Spring’s work was highly successful. Now, one occasionally sees Shabby Tiger and its sequel Rachel Rosing for sale in such places as The Lowry, but if one wants to own others of his novels, one’s best bet is the second hand book store, on-line or otherwise. I have two of his books on my shelf: Shabby Tiger and The Houses In Between. Shabby Tiger is a Manchester book as is Tumbledown Dick.
Tumbledown Dick is, I suppose, a story for children, and it is true, as Spring suggests in his title, that in terms of complication, the plot—basically the narrator’s memories of time spent in Manchester while his mother is temporarily bedridden—is a little sparse. It is more a book of character sketches. Oswald Tubbs the Music Hall musician figures large in the story as does the Lady Mayoress. Another important character is The Gentleman from the “kip” in Ardwick who is ultimately revealed as a journalist researching poverty and who didn’t actually send begging letters to clergymen. And then there are Uncle Henry, fanatical about the proper care of goldfish, and Aunt Maria who own a pet shop in Tib Street, Manchester. “. . . anyone who knows anything at all about Manchester knows that Tib Street is a difficult street for a boy to walk along. You want to stop, and look and squeeze your nose against window-panes (62).
A couple of weeks ago, I got off the tram at Market Street and wandered a little way down Tib Street. I’m not sure there was anything that drew me to “squeeze . . .[my] nose against window-panes.” And I began to think about the Manchester that Spring evokes in some of his novels, a Manchester long gone: when the canals carried cargoes not narrow- boat holiday-makers, when cotton was bought and sold at the Royal Exchange, when people worked in the mills and huddled in the sprawling terraces of Ancoats, and The Guardian was still The Manchester Guardian.
If one looks up from the street in Manchester, one still sees in the Victorian skyline the confidence of a nineteenth century city that knew itself to be the hub of an industrial empire. The nineteenth century buildings are solid, assertive, even grandiose in their neo-gothic splendour. And yet nineteenth century Manchester was a place of slums as well as affluence. Those slums have been replaced, sometimes twice. The grand houses of what was once the village of Crumpsall are bedsits and flats. Condominiums are for sale in Ancoats. Last spring as I was being driven to the station, my cabbie looked up at one of the factory conversions behind Piccadilly and said, “I used to work there. We made jeans for £7 a pair, but when the owner found he could make jeans for £4 abroad, he sold up, and I now drive this cab.” Things change. We don’t always know whether for the better or the worse.
There are cycles in a novelist’s popularity just as there are cycles in manufacturing. I rather miss Howard Spring’s books. I don’t think one would necessarily define him as a writerly writer; his narratives are straight-forward with no post-modern flourishes. He tells a good story, and his novels are peopled with lively, well-rounded characters. Without being overly preachy, there is also an element of social critique in his work. And then there is his evocation of place, whether his beloved Cornwall or the grimy, sooty streets of his Manchester.
If one looks, one can still catch a glimpse of Spring’s Manchester, just as you can sense the ghost of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Manchester, or of Mrs. Linnaeus Reid Banks’. (See The Manchester Man another book often for sale in places such as The Lowry or John Rylands Library).
The Manchester air is cleaner now, though there are times, when the wind is just right, when it is not quite raining, when one catches just the faint taste, a brief memory of coal dust, of soot, even possibly of the cotton dust that killed. And out at Media City and Salford Quays, one can catch the faint echoes of all those ships that once supplied an empire with goods and supported an imperial power. Things change.
I’ve been visiting Manchester on and off for forty years. I miss the railings in Piccadilly Gardens and Lewis’ Department Store. I don’t miss the traffic that once clogged Market Street. I miss the little shops (casualties of “the bomb”?) that sold antique prints and maps down near the Cathedral. I miss Sherratt and Hughes. I envy the tram system and the Bridgewater Hall. I hope the Library renovation is finished soon. I really like all the vibrant street markets, and I like the way that there are still “back” streets, through which one can twist and turn and feel oneself once more in Spring’s Manchester.
Spring was a Welshman who ultimately settled in Cornwall, not a native of Manchester. After Tumbeldown Dick, he went on to publish about eleven more books including fiction, plays, and autobiography, some of which have Manchester settings. (For a full list of Spring’s work, you might find the following bookseller’s link useful: http://www.abfar.org.uk/ref/?Author_notes_%26amp%3B_lists:Howard_Spring).
I can claim neither Mancunian nor Lancastrian descent, but I can assert affection. After moving to Manchester forty years ago, my mother refused to leave. She loved it, and she loved the people who had made her so welcome. It is the people who make the city. Tumbledown Dick because it is “All People and No Plot” is a miniature portrait of a vibrant city. In the last chapter of the book “New Year: Farewell, Manchester,” the narrator describes leaving Manchester and returning to his home, a market-garden in Cheshire: “There were bells and bells and bells, so slowly diminishing that we hardly noticed when they had ceased, when the New Year was really there as a plain matter of fact, and we riding through it, behind old Arthur, in a night that was cold and silent and full of stars” (294). Earlier in the chapter, the narrator promises to return to Tib Street but also says he wasn’t able to keep that promise. He doesn’t say why.
Despite my quite early-morning departure, there were no stars when I left Manchester airport nine days ago, only memories.