That Knights, Liverpool photo is a picture that could only have been taken at a particular time. When you look at it you know what model of car will be parked in the streets outside. A couple of people have commented on it privately by email. One such is my friend J, who said this:
Your mum was beautiful, how clever of you to put such lovely photos of her up. I always feel that we are Russian dolls to those we love, that when she sees you she sees that little boy, inside the handsome 80s guy, inside the erudite writer. How important for her that you’ve allowed us all to see the fabulous sixties woman inside.
J credits me with a cleverness I don’t possess, though her interpretation is a persuasive one, and I am flaky enough to accept a compliment I don’t deserve. I like the picture, but there’s more to it than that. In contrast to John Osborne and his mother-hatred and her dead and alive holes (see elsewhere) the picture reminds me of something dear and enduring; I only have to project myself a few years into that baby’s future to be in the world outside the front door of that house in Stoke-on-Trent. The floral wallpaper belongs to number 2 Roseberry Street, which was the end terrace of a block of ten or twelve small houses with bathrooms that you got to by going through the kitchen and with a passage round the back of the yards. The street ran at a right angle off a steep hill, properly St Michaels Road, but know as Pitts Hill Bank (long enough to get a go-kart or a scooter up to top speed by the time you crashed it at the bottom); at the other end, Roseberry Street became a cul-de-sac where the houses were thirties semis. Beyond the end wall of the cul-de-sac was an escarpment with a disused railway track in the gully, the industrial remnants of the coal industry: trains used to carry coal from one colliery to another, and to steelworks, before I was born. That was our adventure playground, where one boy (I didn’t know him) took a nasty fall from a high ridge and died. Across the road from number 2 was the back yard of a cobblers; we used to stick our noses through the crack in the double gates to gaze in wonder at a mountain of discarded shoes which in turn buried a car. The shop itself occupied the lower front corner of Roseberry Street where it met Pitts Hill Bank. A bell rang when you opened the door, but that didn’t mean much to Mr Rowe, the cobbler; he was used to kids doing it for fun, you had to shout if you actually required service and then he’d only emerge if he felt like it, a fat man in a vest, mopping sweat from his brow using whatever was nearest, a leather inner, a bit of chamois leather, or just the back of his hand. The interior of the shop was no tidier than the yard, boxes piled to the ceiling on every wall. Customers would hold their hands out in front of themselves in a self-protective defensive gesture, to cushion the inevitable collapse, if a pair was needed from lower down one of these columns. Mrs Rowe was a woman you seldom saw, though you would sometimes hear her calling out from the back to Mr Rowe that his tea was ready. In the flesh she was slight, cheerful and old with a pinny on. They had a teenage son called Colin who used to specialize in terrifying the young kids round the passage at the back of our terraces, jumping out in the dark wearing a mask. He later joined the Socialist Workers’ Party. Sometimes, in the holidays, we’d go through into the back of Mr Rowe’s and up the stairs where the jumble of mess became ever more dense and yet where somehow there was a fire and still the place had not caught alight and burnt down. He’d make toast on the fire using a fork. And tell stories? No. And not say much. Across the road at the higher corner of the junction was a two-storey shanty town made of corrugated iron. I think it was a carpenter’s workshop. This had a rickety external staircase, a further extension of our adventure playground. We only went in there when it was closed, though, the snaggle-toothed brothers who owned it were sinister, a pair of child catchers. I look again at the picture of my mother. She is twenty. J is not wrong, she was glamourous, in any terms, and especially for those streets. Most of the women and other mums up and down were like Mrs Rowe.