Sunday, 5 January 2020

More mill days memories - and friendship

Vera (on the left) and me on Blackpool Beach
In the past, I’ve blogged about my time working in the mill during the 1950s. Now I’d like to introduce you to one of my dearest friends, Vera, whom I met when we were both working together in the mill (having asked her permission first). We’d be about 15 or 16 then. Her long fair hair, bubbly personality and ready smiles and laughter made her popular with everyone and as I was still of a shy nature, she sort of took me in hand.
              Horwich, along with other Lancashire towns, had its own Wakes Weeks, when the Locomotive Works and the mills closed down for two weeks in the summer, usually the second week in July. Each year, Harry Stocker’s Temperance Bar on Winter Hey Lane, organised about three coaches to go to Butlin’s Holiday Camp at Pwhelli. In 1956, the year I was 17, I went along with Vera Yates and two of her friends.
              I’d never stayed away from my parents before so it was a big shock for me and felt thoroughly miserable for most of the week. The trouble was, I was completely out of my depth, and couldn’t handle some of the things that were supposedly going on. Rumour had it, for instance, that some lads had already been thrown out of the camp for placing a French letter (a condom) on a light bulb. The camp was then made up of those flimsy looking wooden chalets and every night we had to lock our chalet windows. Even that didn’t stop gangs of boys going round the girls’ chalets and banging on the doors. I often quaked in fear at night even though there was what was called a Chalet Patrol which went round checking the chalets to see if anything was amiss.
              Mid-way through the week, my companions, particularly Vera, sat me down and gave me a good talking to, the essence of which was that even if I wasn’t enjoying myself, I shouldn’t spoil their fun by being miserable. After that, I made more of an effort to join in and ended up actually enjoying it. One of the worst things had been having to share such a small chalet with three other girls but towards the end of the week, I began to see the funny side of it, especially when all of us were trying to get ready at the same time and having to share one tiny mirror. Those girls taught me a valuable lesson on that holiday that the more you put into life, the more you get out of it.
              Vera became my best friend after that holiday. We went all over the place together, Bolton Palais de Dance, the Tudor Ballroom in Chorley, the Empress Ballroom in Wigan or more locally, Rivington Hall Barn, a 14th century tithe barn and organised every Saturday night. Being out in the country, there were special buses to and from the Crown pub. It was very popular with us locals, but people from further afield came too, so there was usually a good mix of the known and unknown
              In 1957, Vera and I went on holiday again. We stayed in a boarding house in Blackpool and had a wonderful time, dancing in the Tower Ballroom or the Winter Gardens, trooping along the Golden Mile or visiting the Pleasure Beach, especially the Fun House with its laughing clown machine outside that you couldn’t help laughing along with. The beach at Blackpool, then, was so crowded that you were lucky if you could manage to find a spare few inches of sand yet, one sunny day, we actually managed it and still have the photograph to prove it (see above). I remember that we used to meet up with some Scottish lads in a café on Central Drive that later became the setting for the B&B café in my book Bitter Sweet Fellowship.
Although there was good money to be made in the mill, I never made a fortune out of my time there because I did not apply myself diligently enough and spent too much time day-dreaming. Several times I tried to get out, such as the time Vera and I wanted to join the WRAC (Women’s Royal Army Corps). In the end I had to go alone to Manchester for the interview because Vera’s Dad, who was very strict, said she couldn’t go. I was actually a bit relieved when I was turned down on account of my ears, which were deformed as a result of scarlet fever when I was two.
Vera and me at Horwich Heritage
              After I left the mill and subsequently moved around a lot, we lost touch for many years. It was only after my parents moved back to Horwich and Mum started chatting to Vera on the bus one day that we got in touch again. There was much to catch up on! We’d both married (and I divorced!) had children, by then grown up but whereas I had moved around a lot, Vera had stayed in Horwich. We’ve never looked back since then and when we do go back to Horwich, every couple of years or so, the highlight of our visit is always the time we spend with Vera. We’ve been known to chat for hours and never run out of things to say.
              A few years ago, I was invited to speak to Horwich Heritage, a civic society that preserves the industrial history of Horwich, about my first book A Suitable Young Man, set in Horwich. It was entirely appropriate that Vera, herself a member of the society, was by my side supporting me. Thank you, Vera, for 65 years of treasured friendship. Yes, 65 years!