Moomintroll peered at me from behind a lamp post. He winked one of his large round eyes and stuck out his hippo hand, beckoning me over with a slow curl of his fat finger. I gripped my mam’s hand a bit tighter as we walked down the street for home. I was too young for adventures.
Home was 81 Grosvenor Street, Higher Broughton, Salford 7. It was a Victorian terraced house in the middle of a long cobbled street. The houses on both sides each had two bedrooms, a rear yard leading out to a back entry and an outside toilet. Our house had no bathroom. Sunday night saw me and my two older siblings enjoy the luxury of an individual bath. This was a plastic bin in the back parlour filled with hot water from a pan. The water was shared. My dad, an itinerant barman, had bought the house on a rent to buy scheme in the late 1960’s. It was compulsory purchased by Salford City Council in 1974 and Grosvenor Street, along with half a dozen identical streets either side, was flattened.
Broughton had been a leafy suburb dotted with the villas of businessmen, many Jewish immigrants from Germany, for a large part of the 19th Century. Their daily commerce was in the heart of Manchester’s textile warehouse district, just a few miles south across the River Irwell. The arrival of the railways, then the horse drawn trams of the Manchester and Salford Corporations in the 1770’s, led to the rapid suburbanisation of the city. Lower Broughton, nearer the river, and then the more upmarket Higher Broughton, further north, were swamped by a grid pattern of terraced streets, Grosvenor Street being built in the 1880’s.
Even at the start of the 1970’s there were still handsome detached residences in Higher Broughton particularly around Albert Park and The Cliff. Many of these had been subdivided into flats and the suburb was largely working class with the addition of a large, long-established population of Hasidic Jews. Many streets either side of Leicester Road, the main thoroughfare north towards Heaton Park, were already being knocked down. We couldn’t escape this as the windows and doors of the houses on Grosvenor Street were permanently coated in rubble dust.
We were a typical terraced street family. Mam and dad never learned to drive since a car was not required. Dad worked largely in the evenings, being picked up to work as a barman in various pubs and clubs like Mr Smiths in the city centre, the Station Hotel in Swinton and the Glazebrook Country Club. Mum looked after the kids and did a few day shifts as a cleaner at Manchester’s Grand Hotel.
My life as a child from aged four to eight was just the same as every other kid growing up nearby. There was school – the Roman Catholic primary school of St Thomas’s at the end of our street. There was church on Sunday – St. Thomas’s R.C. Church, again at the end of our street. There was the chippy at one end of the street, corner shops at both ends, freshly baked bagels from the Jewish bakers on a Sunday, mangy dogs, push bikes, tab ends and ice cream vans. Milkman, coalman, pop bottle man, the rag and bone man giving out balloons and the warmed up exotica of Frank Wong’s chinese takeaway on Great Cheetham Street East.
A little girl with spiky features climbed up to the window sill of a house. She wore red skirts, black gloves and her hair was pulled tight into an elongated onion-shaped bun on the top of her head. She stared through the window and squinted her eyes to see inside. The front door suddenly burst open and the girl jumped down. Moomintroll grabbed her and they hid around the side of the bay window. They watched a bald-headed man in a sleeveless cardigan come out of the door. He wore little round glasses and shuffled hurriedly across the cobbled street in his slippers.
‘That’, I said, ‘is Mr. Fiveparkdrivetippedplease’.
‘What a funny name’, said Moomintroll.
Every day at this time he goes to the corner shop and asks for ‘Five Park Drive Tipped, Please’. My dad says it’s what he smokes’.
We were often chased by Mr. Fiveparkdrivetippedplease for shouting his name across the street. We could play on the streets all day because there were no parked cars and very little traffic. There was a blind lady who lived on the street who was anxious about cars. We helped her across it and she gave us a few pennies to buy candy cigarettes. They said her husband died throwing himself out of the top window. Salford in the early 1970’s was a Lowry townscape inhabited by Shelagh Delaney characters.
Cartoon fun came in the form of comics and trips to the local pictures to watch the latest Disney film. The Rialto Cinema, Broughton’s cream-tiled palace of entertainment was five minutes walk away at the corner of Bury New Road. At home, there was black and white telly after school. No one had a colour TV yet.
Perhaps I could go on a little adventure, I thought. ‘I could show you the place where we first met’.
‘Is it far?’ said Moomintroll.
‘No, I don’t think so’, I replied. ‘But we will have to go with my mam’.
And so we set off down Leicester Road where the electric trams had once run to Kersal Bar. There was my mam and me and behind, Moomintroll pushed Little My, the girl with the elongated onion-shaped hair bun, in an old pram. Little My looked through a telescope as we walked by the row of shops. She pointed her telescope lying by the side of the road.
‘Eye spy with my little eye something black and furry’’ said Little My.
‘It’s a dead cat’, I said. ‘My sister says pets haven’t got used to the cars yet’.
We carried on walking past the Girls School to reach the gates of Mandley Park. Following the path past the bowling green we reached the far side of the park. Little My raised her telescope up to view the top of a building made of large grey stones.
‘What is it?’ asked Moomintroll.
‘A palace’ replied Little My.
‘That’, I said, ‘is the library’.
Less than ten minutes walk from our house, Leicester Road branch library was a former Edwardian Reading Room, opened in 1905, in a converted Victorian villa known as The Elms. The grounds of the Elms also became the Salford Corporation’s recreation ground of Mandley Park, a green lung for the people of Higher Broughton. It was here during the early 1970’s where my mam would bring three children, to read and borrow books.
On the ground floor, beyond the adult library and the reference room where men slept underneath newspapers, there was a children’s library. It had huge sash windows overlooking the municipal bowling green. It was here, between the ages of two and eight, that I was introduced to characters and worlds that lay beyond the Salford slum. Worlds filled with fairy stories, Victorian urchins, talking insects, ghosts and wizards, vampires and mummies, Disney’s animated characters, gangs of kids outwitting bank robbers and, best of all, the strange residents of Moominvalley.
We started with the simple fairy stories, Goldilocks and the Three Bears being my favourite. I went home and wrote my own version of the tale, with words and drawings, on old strips of wallpaper folded over to form a book. Bears were everywhere. There was the book of the Brothers Grimm’ fairy tale, Snow-White and Rose-Red’ about a bear put under a magical spell. Then there were two versions of Winnie the Pooh in print. A.A. Milne’s original and the more familiar Disney version.
I progressed to books about boarding schools, ghost schools, wizard schools and pirate schools. Then the adventure novels of polite, plummy voiced gangs on holiday in Cornwall foiling smugglers. The shelves were filled with stories by Helen Cresswell, Eva Ibbotson, Roald Dahl and Alan Garner. There were Richard Scarry’s ‘Busytown’ animals wearing clothes and driving strange vehicles, the adventures of Heidi in the Swiss Alps and the cartoon capers of TV characters like Quick Draw McGraw, Yogi Bear and Scooby-Doo.
But best of all were the books by the Finnish author, Tove Jansson, with the drawings of the white hippo-like family that lived far far away from Higher Broughton in a land of pine forests, high mountains, lakes, sweet smelling meadows and frozen sea. Moominpapa with the top hat and fishing rod, Moominmamma with her magical handbag and their curious son, Moomintroll, always ready for the next adventure. These books were narrated aloud to me until I could read them myself.
The escapades of the Moomins and their eccentric friends – Little My, Snork Maiden, Snufkin and Too-Ticky – were in a different league. In Higher Broughton we could play cowboys and indians on the rubble of flattened houses but we could never go fishing for pearls, get attacked by eagles, trolls and sea-serpents, sledge down mountains on a silver tray, discover magical hats and jewels and go off on long sea voyages to live in a lighthouse. The inhabitants of Moominvalley seemed to be continuously battling forces of nature never encountered in urban Lancashire. Great floods, erupting volcanoes, tidal waves and tornadoes. Not forgetting the long, severe eternally dark winters. No matter what adventures they had, Moomintroll and his friends always returned to the security of home.
The library was the gateway to magical adventures but the very real magic was the institution of the free public library itself. Salford had been a pioneer and the Municipal Borough opened the first free public lending library in the country by Peel Park in 1850. We never bought books as a family in the early 1970’s but we didn’t need to. We could walk to Leicester Road branch library which was open every day apart from Sunday and never closed for lunch. It provided escapism in its purest form – words and pictures available to all. Escapism for children was essential in a confined world that hardly stretched more than a mile and had grown-ups telling you what to do around every corner.
There were authority figures everywhere. Parents, gossiping women in the street, policemen, school teachers, the rent man, the Catholic priest. The most menacing creature was Sister Geraldine, the headmistress of St. Thomas’s R.C. Primary School. She wouldn’t have been out of place living in a cave in the Lonely Mountains above Moominvalley. Even the mischievous rule-breaking Little My would have shivered when the little nun paced the school corridors with her quivering ruler. This was her ultimate weapon against naughty children twice her size.
Apart from a bus ride to Manchester city centre every now and again the daily world of a Higher Broughton child in the early ’seventies consisted of school, church, shops, park and picture house all within a ten minute walk from the house. The library was part of this confined existence but it opened up a universe of opportunities to escape from the dust coating of the slum clearance programme and Sister Geraldine. It was a portal to other worlds, times, peoples, creatures, environments and climates beyond the one mile radius of our condemned house. There was sweet-smelling air in the meadows and pine forests of Moominvalley and perhaps one day I could actually go there.
‘Higher Broughton is a curious place’ said Moomintroll. He had joined Little My in a game of bowls with some old men in flat caps.
‘My mam says my dad is coming home tonight’, I said.
‘Where has he been?’ inquired Moomintroll.
Away at sea, working as a ship’s cook’.
‘I love a long sea voyage’ said Moomintroll. He looked sad. He was thinking of his own pappa and mamma at home in the valley. ‘Which way is the river?’ he asked.
I spoke to my mam. We walked down Northumberland Street followed by Moomnitroll pushing Little My in the pram. We crossed the old tram lines and reached the posh houses along the Cliff. Here a steep wooded bank led down to the dark waters of the River Irwell.
Years later I discovered that my dad had not actually been on a long sea voyage. He had spent nine days cooking for the crew on a ‘shit’ boat called ‘Salford City’ which picked up treated sewage in Weaste and took it down the Ship Canal to dump it in the Irish Sea near Llandudno Point. Leicester Road Branch Library has now closed but the elegant Victorian building still survives. A plaque on the stone gate post at the road entrance reads ‘Old Library House’. The building is currently used as a hostel for homeless young people.
Moomintroll and Little My raised a makeshift flag using a string vest. I watched them float down the Irwell in the upturned pram. Little My skipped happily around the sides of the pram singing a tune,
Five park drive tipped please
Five park drive tipped please’